Music Reviews | 2021

Various Artists | Home is Where the Art Is (15 Years of Reveal Records) | Album Review | Reveal | 01.01.21

A rather generous overview of Reveal Records, which features no less than 38 tracks (57 on the digital version), culled from the numerous albums released on the label since 2006 as well as a good few previously unreleased live tracks and radio edits.   Over those fifteen years, the label has grown in stature and has built up a strong and impressive roster of artists, which includes within its ranks Eddi Reader, Lau (both the group itself and each of its individual musicians as soloists), Boo Hewerdine, Blue Rose Code and notably, Joan Wasser, otherwise Joan As Policewoman, who kicks this collection off with a live take of “Valid Jagger”.  The Connecticut-raised musician was instrumental in getting the label off to its start back in 2006 in partnership with the independent record shop owner Tom Rose and on this collection, brings along some high profile pals to give the project even more creedence, as if it needed it, with duets with both Rufus Wainwright on “To America” and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons fame) on “I Defy”.  In a way, Home is Where the Heart is can be seen as being reminiscent of all those iconic sampler albums of the early 1970s, where the majors would showcase their artists in the hope that listeners would go out and buy some, if not all, of the albums represented. Here, Reveal Records treat us to more than just the one representative song, indeed rather more a fair selection of each of the artists’ output over the years, including Lau’s “Himba” and “Ghosts”, Eddi Reader’s “Vagabond” and “Wild Mountainside” and Drever, McCusker, Woomble’s “The Poorest Company”.  If the label does at this point seem to towards the Scots alt-folk side of the fence, the label also champions other artists from around the world including the indie rock of Gramercy Arms and the songwriting of Benjamin Lazar Davis (both New York based), the electronic vibes of Berlin-based Grip Tight and the full blown orchestral work of the Derbyshire-born Richard J. Birkin.  With other notable inclusions of Martin Green with Adam Holmes and Becky Unthank, The Little Unsaid and  Nels Andrews, Home is Where the Heart is stands as a fine introduction to Reveal Records as well as a perfectly well structured overview of the label’s triumphs thus far.

Judy Fairbairns | Edge of the Wild | Album Review | Wild Biscuit | | 02.01.21

Having already brought to life the feel and atmosphere of the Inner Hebridean islands of Scotland in her stories as a published author, Judy Fairbairns now reflects on her place in the world, namely the Isle of Mull, in song.  Delicate in places, Judy has the knack of bringing the listener into her world, from the freedom of being an ‘island wife’, captured in the sleeve photography, to the simple domesticity of writing lists, baking cakes and making the occasional call. There’s a rich tapestry of influences built into the fabric of Judy’s songs, not so much in her musical influences, but certainly in the forces of nature that surround her, in the weather and the seasons, in the gentle landscapes around her and presumably what lies within her inner spirit. The songs are like melodic meditations that are simply constructed, such as the delicate “Who Are You” and the haunting “Girl on a Train”, yet are in places pleasantly unafraid of incorporating modern technology ala Portishead on “We Made the Rain” for instance. Tender and meditative, Edge of the World soothes.

Merry Hell | Emergency Lullabies | Album Review | Self Release | 03.01.21

Several boxes are ticked here, in the crowd pleasing stakes that is, something we’ve come to expect from one of the UKs most vibrant live acts.  There’s really no disputing that Merry Hell are a great live band, their full-on stage presence does seem to give some of our younger bands a good run for their money, yet the last few months have effectively stopped the band in their tracks on the live front. Their sixth album to date, Emergency Lullabies, comes at a time when we most need cheering up, while at the same time it addresses some of our most concerning issues, something Merry Hell do so well.  The dithering rhetoric of Brexit is touched upon in “Three Little Lions”, which in a way could be seen as a companion piece to the similarly titled football anthem of yore, where instead of football coming home, we’re all coming home, as the jokes and sneers continue through the debate.  Merry Hell deliver quality records that always include songwriting of a highly conscientious  nature, whether it be on the subject of conservation “Sister Atlas”, with a Swedish schoolgirl heroine as a focus and the title song “Emergency Lullaby (Wasting Time)”, which is a reminder of the relatively little time we have left (if we’re not careful, which we are clearly not) to “Beyond the Call”, our debt to the NHS, a sure, dead cert winner with future live audiences, echoed again in “We Are Different, We Are One”, which would both have made for great doorstep choruses a few months ago. Both songs can also be found on a new EP released by the band along with a new song, “When We Meet Again” (not on this album), featuring The Social Isolation Choir, a 300 voice collective who contribute their voices via email.  Among all the thought provoking anthems, comes a throwback to our lamented Music Hall days, where humour is resurrected from its forced exile, with the joyful “Violet”, the kind of song Virginia Kettle ought to reserve for her fallback career, as the new Gracie Fields.

Catfish Keith | Blues at Midnight | Album Review | Fish Tail | 04.01.21

A good catchy moniker has always served some of our blues men (and women) well, whether the name derives from a physical disability (Blind Boy Fuller, Peg Leg Howell), a town or city from whence they came (Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell), a description of their actual physique (Arthur Big Boy Crudup, Slim Harpo),  or in one notable case, an entire Indian mausoleum (Taj Mahal). In the case of this particular blues man from Indiana, it appears to be a preferred delicacy.  Catfish Keith has been around the block a few times and has laboured his acoustic Country Blues around the world, releasing no fewer than nineteen album along the way. His trademark gruff vocal and assured finger picked guitar playing style are both prominent throughout Blues at Midnight, with little assistance from anyone else, other than a little violin on “Move to Louisiana” courtesy of Randy Sablen and a fine harmonica solo on “Oh, Mr Catfish”, delivered by Peter Mudcat Ruth. Eliciting the assistance of no fewer than thirteen different guitars on these recordings, ranging from a 1927 Gibson Nick Lucas Special to a more recent 2018 National Reso-Phonic Exploding Palm Baritone Tricone, which I’m in no doubt shines like, well the Mississippi Delta I suppose, the songs offer certain sonic differences.  Catfish Keith’s long career has been captured here in just thirteen songs, written throughout those forty years and still sounding relevant and punchy today. Blues at Midnight should serve established fans and new listeners alike, until such a time we are able to see him tour again.

Ross and Ryan Couper | An Den Dey Made Tae | Album Review | Couper Records | 05.01.21

People talk of sibling harmonies quite a lot, that special familial connection which makes for such enduring musical partnerships from the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers to the Dransfields and the McGarrigles. This empathy and musical dove-tailing can also be found in instrumental music, where two players instinctively know what each other is striving for and this fine debut by Shetland’s Ross and Ryan Couper is proof of that. Named for a popular local saying, where stopping for a brew is a frequent occurrence, An Den Dey Made Tae is a fine example of high quality instrumental music and I dare say plenty of the old Island Botanicals was consumed during the making of this album. A good fine blend of traditional, contemporary and original reels, waltzes, hornpipes and other tunes make up this pot, with an unexpected Billy Joel cover, “And So It Goes”, via an arrangement courtesy of virtuoso guitar player Tommy Emanuel.  The brothers are from a family of musicians and their sister Mariann Allan takes to the piano stool for the final set of tunes, under the title “Da Foula Reel”. Uplifting for the most part, An Den Dey Made Tae will probably see you putting the kettle on at some point.

Rupert Wates | Lamentations | Album Review | Bite Records | 06.01.21

The twelve new songs that make up Lamentations, the tenth album release from the British-born, now New York-based singer songwriter Rupert Wates, whose fragile voice and delicate finger-picked guitar have something of the Nick Drake about them, looks at the cycle of life, from birth to death, dedicating the opening song “The Carnival Waltz” to his own newborn son Gabriel.  Recorded in just one evening, much in keeping with a live recording, Lamentations has an intimate feel throughout, full of warmth and sensitivity, with just that little extra spark of something else, something difficult to describe but easy to understand once you hear it.  In places reminiscent of such performers as Antony Hegarty, Steve Tilston and Tom Baxter, the songs have a dream-like quality that makes repeated plays essential, certainly “California One”, “In Time of Breaking” and the title song “Lamentations”.  Though the cover shot and accompanying photos celebrate the beauty of motherhood, the Old Guitarist Picasso pastiche that fronts the accompanying booklet, expresses precisely what you hear in these songs. 

Various Artists | Sounds Like Knockengorroch | Album Review | Birnam | 07.01.21

In lieu of last May’s popular Knockengorroch Festival, artists gathered for an interactive live stream in an attempt to capture something of the atmosphere of what is usually experienced up there in the Carsphairn hills in south west Scotland.  The organisers of the long running event, determined that the show must go on, have now released a double CD compilation featuring some of the music that would no doubt have been heard over the weekend.  The two discs also feature tracks that were especially recorded after the virtual event as well as some pre-release items from artists who are included in this year’s line-up scheduled for May.  The one thing we immediately sense when listening to these tracks is the musical diversity, from the ever vibrant Afro Celt Sound System, whose “Lockdown Gorroch Reel” is obviously written in honour of the festival. Contemporary electronica underpins the “Good Karma” of Samson Sounds & Dandelion, while songs from the tradition are represented by Kaela Rowan’s gorgeous reading of “As I Roved Out”.  The Poozies turn to their wonky Caledonian Reggae roots for their perfectly off-beat “Fresh Blood”, the promo video of which could easily be a sketch from The League of Gentlemen, while Twelfth Day’s Catriona Price and Esther Swift take to the dance floor with their colourful “Keep Me”.  Eilidh Ross and Ross Martin go all Country with their lilting “Stoned Again”, the whole thing ending with what else but bagpipes, with Awry’s psychegaelic “An t-Orceastrian”, something we can all imagine going down a treat at this little festival.  Hopefully it won’’t be long before the festival is up and running again.

Dave Thomas | One More Mile | Album Review | Blonde on Blonde Direct | 08.01.21

By the time we reach track five “I Want the Blues”, there’s a strong sense that we’ve begun to accept that this new album by Dave Thomas is pretty much entrenched in the urban blues of Chicago, albeit from the docklands of Newport in South Wales.  The soul-drenched opener “It’s My Own Fault”, complete with full brass section, tear-stained organ and Lucille-styled guitar runs, probably misleads us as to what to expect later in the album.  Yes, those first five songs are as blues as you might wish to get, yet further listening invites a completely different stylistic approach in the acoustic “You Danced in My Kitchen”, as different as, let’s say, Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” is to “All Your Love”, the iconic Otis Rush tune that opens that classic Bluesbreakers album circa ‘66.  “There’s a Train” continues in the same vein, songs that showcase Dave’s sensitive side.  Two thirds of the way in, it feels like we’ve discovered Dave Thomas’s true calling, that of a rock God, completing the album with three riff-laden rockers from an entirely different era, sounding for all intents and purposes like John Cale backed by Paul Kossoff and Duane Allman.  Plenty for everyone then.

Mossy Christian | Come Nobles and Heroes | Album Review | One Row Records | 09.01.21

When the first few notes of the opening tunes “Market Rasen Feast” and “Louth Quickstep” rang out of the speakers, I thought I’d inadvertently put on something from the folk revival era, if not the original source singers and musicians from the turn of the century, and that’s not the last one either.  Mossy Christian foregoes the modern era, of samples, awkward time signatures, bits of electronica, tuned percussion and other assorted devices that apparently make folk music hip these days and chooses instead to go straight for the less hip tenets of traditional folk music and song.  Accompanying himself on fiddle, Anglo concertina and one row melodeon, Mossy makes an authentic noise, which you can imagine accompanying vintage flickering sepia footage of men in plus fours skipping around ladies in long frocks in a random Surrey garden.  For his debut album, the Lincolnshire-born singer and musician focuses on the music from his own neck of the woods, leaning towards the singers and musicians who have influenced him, Harry Cox for instance with “The Thresher’s Maid”, or Bob Roberts in “Homeward Bound” or indeed Jack Holden with “The Young Sailor”.  I didn’t initially think I was going to take to this album but surprised myself by listening to it all the way through and thoroughly enjoying it in the process.  In fact, I think I’ll give it another go right now.    

Stan the Band | Love | Album Review | Big Bright Beautiful Records | 10.01.21

First appearing on the thriving North East music scene around twenty years ago, Stan the Band, (formerly The Stanhope Street Creatures, for about five minutes), has maintained a knack of writing instantly memorable rockers, infused with a soulful and bluesy edge, not unlike some of the stalwarts of the bustling pub rock scene of the early 1970s, just prior to the arrival of Punk.  Formed by drummer Dave Pipkin, the four piece band is led by the hard hitting vocals of Colin Burrows, with guitarist Dave Kennedy and bass player Rob Tickell making up the team.  Opening with the slow burning “Stay”, the band soon finds its groove and makes good use of its traditional basic rock band format, where each of the players provide just the right ingredients, with just a little additional keyboards courtesy of Dom Pipkin. The inner sleeve shows a photograph of the band in action on a big outdoor stage, where I’m sure the band works its magic best, though I suspect a small intimate space is equally fulfilling.  Sandwiched between a song about little soldiers and one about the Devil, the band want to talk about love, with four songs in a row on the subject.  “Looking for Love”, “Right Kind of Love” and the title song, simply entitled “Love”, investigates our strongest emotions without any obvious sentimentality, while “Right by Your Side” and “Got a Life” looks at the role of the radio in our carnal adventures, with songs that pour out of the speakers like fire on the airwaves.  I like Stan the Band; it’s good, clean, unpretentious rock and roll, and it should be heard. 

Peach and Quiet | Just Beyond the Shine |  Album Review | Self Release | 11.01.21

Staples of the Vancouver Island music scene, Jonny Miller and Heather Read, otherwise Peach and Quiet, create a certain warmth with their songs, each one treated to inviting arrangements and gentle harmonies.  The duo’s debut album was created in trying times, yet their hopes for a brighter future shines through in these songs, embedded in their desire for social change and a better world. “Will You” asks all the right questions at the right time, while “There’s a Very Good Chance” anticipates lasting love, in a most tender manner.  The songs range in style from the straight country style of “California Way” to the Byrds-like opener “Empty to Fill”, with the occasional venture in to the bluesy back waters of “Shoreline After a Storm”.  Having both been raised on a healthy musical diet, Jonny’s father being a Reggae DJ in the US and his mother a radio engineer, who often invited musicians home, while Heather honed her craft singing in her dad’s band in the legion halls of Ontario, their shared parental influence certainly seems to have paid off handsomely in these nine memorable songs.  Kudos also to the sleeve designer Wrycraft, for the clever use of the mouth watering fruit in question. 

Boo Sutcliffe | Blink | Album Review | Self Release | 12.01.21

Fuelled by a renewed and reinvigorated interest in songwriting, the Huddersfield-based singer songwriter describes himself as a ‘recovering drummer’ and now takes centre stage to deliver his own self-penned songs, drawing from innumerable influences.  Brought up on a diet of pop records from the collections of his two brothers, together with older standards from his mum’s LPs, Boo mixes all this up into a new and personal whole, the result sounding not unlike a hybrid of Neil Diamond and Willie Nelson with the Goo Goo Dolls behind them.  Unafraid to share the spotlight, Boo invites singer Ruth Bostock to join him for “Running Man”, while also bringing in further assistance from bassists Corey Clough-Howard, Paul Heckingbottom and Paul Melleney, with guitarist Roger Kinder and harmonica player Jason Kerry helping to make “Promises” such an infectious pop tune.  If the opener “Meet Me In…” employs the lush string arrangements of Andy Wright, then the closing title track brings it all around full circle, this time with a steadily building chorus of voices, effectively book ending a bunch of songs that offer but a glimpse at this promising talent.

TRADarrr | Strange News | Album Review | Hedge of Sound | 13.01.21

At a time when it becomes increasingly difficult to categorise the various directions folk music has taken over the past few years, which is certainly no bad thing, it still comes as a pleasant surprise to hear an album that delivers on its promise and presents precisely what it says on the tin.  Indeed, each selection on this third album by TRADarrr has ‘Trad.arr’ to its credit, that is, a traditional folk song reworked and arranged around a rock band’s instrumental arsenal and then delivered with almost tangible excitement and with an additional thrust of urgency.  “The Rose of Allendale” was sung so many times in the folk clubs of the 70s and 80s, that I inadvertently cultivated an aversion to it, that is until Marion Fleetwood came along with this fresh approach.  Instead of abandoning the album at this point, I instinctively knew to continue listening and stay with it right through to the end.  There’s plenty to go at, with equally fine performances by Gemma Shirley, notably her tasty arrangement of “The Blacksmith”, which utilises her classically trained voice and complements Marion’s throughout the album.  PJ Wright offers some fine lead guitar playing, an essential ingredient in what we’ve come to know as Folk Rock, which is right up there with, and to the standard of, a Richard Thompson or a Jerry Donoghue.  No Folk Rock outfit can survive without a good rhythm section and with Mark Stevens, who also produces, on bass and Brendan O’Neill on drums, the band can consider itself grounded, especially on “Shore to Shore”, a song that could easily be mistaken for a recently written contemporary pop song, until further inspection that is. Gregg Cave, Guy Fletcher and Mike Stevens should also be mentioned for their invaluable contribution, which I’ve somehow foolishly missed from the above, but better late than never.

Mairi McGillivray | In My Mind | EP Review | Self Release | 17.01.21

Sadly, young musicians around the world who are making their first forays into recording are continually having to face obstacles in their path during the current crisis, which affects such things as live appearances, studio restrictions and crucially, album and EP launches.  One can only sympathise and offer a socially distanced congratulatory heads up while popping a few bob their way in exchange for a sample of their hard labour.  This debut EP by Scots Gaelic singer Mairi McGillivray is a case in point.  Hailing from the island of Islay, just off the west coast of Scotland, this fine singer releases four rather splendid songs, a couple delivered in Gaelic “Tha Fadachd Orm Fhìn” and “Tàladh na Beinne Guirmeand”, and the other two in English, “Kelvin’s Purling Stream” and “Sea of Men”, each of which give us a glimpse into Mairi’s potential as a new major talent on the traditional music scene.  Graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland last year with a First Class Honours in Traditional Music, Mairi’s hopes and anticipations for the launch of her career in music haven’t been completely derailed, just slowed down slightly and this EP will hopefully bridge the gap between her graduation and her rightful place in front of audiences in concert halls and on festival stages up and down the country, which I’m certain her music is destined for.  This is not the kind of EP you play just the once and repeated plays has its own rewards.  Helping Mairi out are Seán Gray on guitar, Isla Callister on fiddle, Graham Rorie on mandolin, Charlie Stewart ion double bass and Paul McKenna contributing backing vocals, all of which makes it a very special debut.

Lucero | When You Found Me | Album Review | Thirty Tigers | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.01.21

Formed in the late 1990s, Lucero has held tight to a solid rock base over the years and has released ten studio albums, gone through one or two personnel changes and has maintained no small measure of Punk attitude along the way.  For their latest album When You Found Me, the Memphis-based band has borrowed from the sounds Ben Nichols heard during his formative years, not so much a retro record or indeed a pastiche of what has gone before, rather a simple nod towards it.  Also consisting of Rick Steff, Brian Venable, John C. Stubblefield and Roy Berry, Lucero is made up of musicians who appear to know what they’re doing, drawing from their country roots, yet offering a punchy rock backdrop to some of the songs, including the opener “Have You Lost Your Way”, which sounds not unlike Steve Earle singing over a Black Sabbath backing track.  Rick Steff’s pursuit of collecting vintage synthesizers is put to good use in some of the tracks, which adds to the overall sound, while avoiding the urge to create over-cluttered or overpowering arrangements.  Now a father himself, Nichols continues to address family issues, such as in the case of “Coffin Nails”, which addresses four generations of his own family, going back to the Great War.  Released in a time of extraordinary unrest, the album also includes “A City on Fire”, an obvious inclusion that appears to be filled with the pessimism we’re all currently feeling, rescued temporarily by the closing title song that offers a glimmer of optimism.  Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis with producer Matt Ross-Spang once again at the helm, When You Found Me was made under all the usual lockdown rules, the band maintaining distance and wearing masks during the sessions.

The Sad Song Co | Saudade | Album Review | Self Release | 26.01.21

The latest offering from The Sad Song Co (Nigel Powell), comes with the enigmatic title Saudade, which translates from the Portuguese for a deep emotional state of longing or missing, which some of us might just be feeling at present.  Having spent a period of time as part of Frank Turner’s touring band Sleeping Souls, recent circumstances have re-opened doors for Nigel to concentrate on his own dramatic music, some of which is revealed here in eleven new songs.  Utilising all the tools in the toolbox, the musical palette is varied, with rich sonic textures throughout, that range from minimalist Terry Riley-like arpeggios of “These Tears Won’t Cry Themselves” to the power chords of “Hold”, the short but sweet Debussy-like impressionism of “Makarska Sunset 25th May 2018” to the pulsating rhythms of “Feeding”, each of which provides perfectly pitched backdrops for Powell’s confident vocals and punchy lyricism, well with the exception of “Makarska”, which is an instrumental interlude.  Highly melodic in places, Saudade provides for a good listening experience, with a surprise around every corner.

Ron Jappy | Vincular | Album Review | Bow Fiddle Records | 27.01.21

Findochty’s Ron Jappy describes this album as having been drawn together from the viewpoint as an accompanist, his most important role in music, or so he believes.  The variety of styles brought together here confirms this notion and the ten songs and tunes included probably offer something for everybody, those already in tune with Celtic music and those completely new to it.  Whether self-penned, traditional or contemporary, each of the selections represent the various styles and genres that have influenced this much sought after musician and arranger over the years.  The opening set “Trouble”, incorporates three jigs, the first composed by Jamie Smith, the second by himself and a third by Graham Mackenzie, yet all sounding pretty much unified as the set builds.  A fine opening set, yet not indicative of what follows further along into the album.  The gorgeous “A Place Called Home” for instance, a song co-written with and featuring a fine vocal courtesy of Ainsley Hamill, couldn’t be further from the strident pipes-laden opener, nor could the impressive “Mairead Nan Cuiread”, delivered in Gaelic, which tells the story of angry young girl responding to false accusations.  The slow airs have all the grace associated with music from north of the border, notably “Northburn Creek” and “A Day to Remember”, a waltz written as a wedding gift to friends.  If someone wrote a tune so beautiful for me, I would be more than chuffed (in fact, in my case any tune would actually do!).  Plenty to go at then with this fine debut, which features an array of fine musicians who’ve helped to shape this musician’s musical vision.  

Luke Jackson | Of the Time | EP Review | First Take Records | 28.01.21

It really doesn’t seem all that long ago since the young Canterbury singer songwriter Luke Jackson emerged on the British acoustic music scene with his debut album More Than Boys, yet almost ten years have flown by, during which Luke has honed his craft to a standard that some of his peers might envy.  Since that initial Martyn Joseph produced debut, Luke has released a further four albums, one of which is a live album and the most recent, Journals, an award winning album.  For this EP, Luke returns with a generous seven songs, which in itself could almost be considered an album and certainly a mini-album and is packed with no filler originals, each delivered in his highly distinctive voice and crisp guitar accompaniment. “I Am Not Okay With This” is one of those songs with a title that appears to say it all, as the writer deals with how ‘nature changed her script’, but adds an optimistic tone with the notion that ‘maybe we could learn from this’, which is perhaps our only real saviour.  Perhaps the highlight of this EP is “Retrain”, which reflects on the present government’s suggestion that musicians who have laboured over their art should just look for something else to do, referencing Bob Dylan’s anthemic “Blowing in the Wind” to drive the point home.  I’m having difficulty thinking how different my world would’ve been had Mr Zimmerman been given similar advice back in 1962.  Luke addresses serious issues with the grace of a poet and the tenderness of a dreamer, nowhere more evident than in the beautiful “Blinding”, which closes this rather exceptional EP.

Giulia Millanta | Tomorrow’s a Bird |  Album Review | Ugly Cat Music | 29.01.21

If you were to scan the name Giulia Millanta on the internet, there’s a good chance you will soon come across some good tunes and a demonstration of how to make a delicious Pasta del Contadino (with sausage and tomatoes and not forgetting a glass of dry white wine).  Now based in Austin, Texas, the Florence-born singer songwriter joins forces with Gabriel Rhodes for an album of ten original songs, with a little help from a cast of musicians that includes David Pulkingham, Brian Standefer and Joey Shuffield.  Songs and cookery are not Giulia’s only attributes, with other ventures that include being a traveller, writer, nomad, dreamer and occasionally, a comedian.  Her songs are delivered in a sharp and confident voice, which I imagine would be equally at home in the field of Country and Americana as it would in the field of Post Punk.  Tomorrow’s a Bird is Giulia’s seventh solo album to date and comes at a time when we are all busy reflecting, re-evaluating and taking stock and this certainly comes across in these songs.  Take them, listen to them and trust what’s on the box.

Ian M Bailey | Shots of Sun | EP Review | Green Tea Productions | 30.01.21

Just after basking in the delights of the Lost Doves debut album Set Your Sights Towards the Sun , Ian M Bailey’s collaboration with Charlotte Newman back in September, Ian is back with another collaborative effort, this time with the Cosmic Rough Riders songwriter Daniel Wylie.  Just four tracks, but four tracks that cover some ground, each co-written and treated to a highly melodic and sumptuous arrangement and each exploring various influences, from REM to CSN and The Jayhawks to the Byrds.  “Slow Down River” certainly has that distinctive Roger McGuinn feel, not just in its immediately recognisable 12-string Rickenbacker sound but also in Ian’s semi-fragile vocal, which threatens to break at the end of each verse.  Recorded in Ian’s Small Space Studios in Preston, the vibe is very much five thousand miles to the west of the Lancashire town as the crow flies, with the feel of a foot on the pedal and a warm breeze on the freeway.

Steve Tilston | Such Times | Album Review | Riverboat Records | 31.01.21

It’s almost fifty years ago to the day since Steve Tilston released his debut album, An Acoustic Confusion, back in 1971 on the Village Thing label, which effectively saw the young musician join the ranks of guitar totin’ troubadours like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Wizz Jones and Ralph McTell.  With half a century’s worth of material under his belt, songs that just seem to keep coming, Steve has maintained a high standard along the way, occasionally popping one or two traditional songs into his repertoire as well as the odd Elvis cover.  His latest album does nothing whatsoever to hinder or harm Steve’s enduring reputation, in fact a good few of the songs on Such Times are right up there with the best of them.  Look no further than “Satellite’s Decree” to start with, a humdinger of a song, which this reviewer first heard almost exactly a year ago during one of Steve’s last gigs before the virus came along to spoil the party.  “Daylight Rising” is a fitting opener, a moment of optimism in the face of adversity, with a hopeful end to the long nights and ill winds in sight. For “A Million Miles Away”, Steve reaches once again for the banjo, an actual banjo that is, and not the generic term for any stringed instrument that his father once referred to, while “Waters of March” adopts the Latin rhythms of Brazil with a lilting take on the early 1970s Antônio Carlos Jobim composition. Steve reaches back on at least a couple of occasions by revisiting his own “Living with the Blues” for good reason, and “Dust From My Heels”, one of Steve’s most joyous songs, though perhaps now tinged with sadness, in that those towns once visited are now temporarily out of reach. With a cover shot that so accurately depicts such times as these, a visiting performer arriving on time, with guitar in hand, poised to deliver, but with the absence of an integral ingredient.  Such times indeed.

KB Bailey | Little Thunderstorms |  Album Review | Self Release | 05.02.21

Something special can often happen once a sideman moves centre stage and Little Thunderstorms is evidence of KB Bayley’s credentials as a fine solo performer in his own right, whose gentle songs come at a time when little thunderstorms are the least of our worries.  As we continue to weather our own storms of varying strengths, the UK-based singer songwriter delivers nine originals, together with a Jeffrey Foucault song and an instrumental version of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger”, utilising the dobro, lap steel, acoustic and cigar box guitar, along with an upright piano.  Though credited as a solo album, Claudia Stark’s contributions come over more as duets than mere backing vocals.  “Cold Rain” for example, which effectively invites us in with its two soothing voices, perfectly exemplifies this notion.  Elsewhere, the noted songwriter Ben Glover (Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier, Kim Richey) joins KB on “Blood Red Lullaby”, providing another empathetic voice for its chorus.   Despite Tom Waits being a huge influence, there’s little evidence of this in KB’s smooth delivery, although “Night Dogs” could easily be an outtake from Nighthawks at the Diner, with its late night lounge jazz feel.  Closing with Jeffrey Faucault’s ode to the songwriter, the short but sweet “Cheap Suit”, which completes a rather enchanting album and once again, a lockdown album with a credible feel of close collaboration, something musicians are getting pretty good at these days.

Tamil Rogeon | Son of NYX | Album Review |  Soul Bank Music | 06.02.21

Robert Wyatt once said “When I reach my lowest I can always pull myself out by thinking, ‘Well, there’s always Jazz …you can’t knock it’ ”  I tend to agree that at a time when we all seem to be reaching for something to cling on to, a good jazz album can sometimes do the trick.  Tamil Rogeon’s latest album has the ability to smooth out the creases in our daily lives with six lengthy pieces, threaded together by the Melbourne-based musician’s expressive viola playing.  Unlike other instruments such as the piano, the sax and the trumpet, the viola is a relatively rare lead instrument in jazz.  Stéphane Grappelli may have made the violin swing in the post war period and Jean Luc Ponty would certainly have taken his bow to some of Frank Zappa’s complex arrangements by the late 1960s, but the larger, lower, deeper member of the violin family is probably due for a long awaited curtain call.   The six pieces on Son of NYX not only showcase the instrument itself, but is also a showcase for a musical conversation between the other instruments invited along for the ride.  Gathering the cream of Melbourne’s jazz fraternity, keyboard players Sam Keevers and Daniel Mougermann, Danny Fisher on drums, Sam Anning on double bass and Javier Fredes on percussion, Rogeon allows room for some empathetic musicianship throughout.  Added to this are the almost subliminal vocal textures, provided of Allysha Joy, Jace XL, Ladi Tiaryn Griggs and Rita Satch.

Iain Matthews and the Salmon Smokers | Fake Tan | Album Review | Talking Elephant Records | 11.02.21

Of the twenty plus songs considered for this album, the former Fairport Convention singer, together with the four-piece Norwegian band The Salmon Smokers, have narrowed the selection down to just eleven songs, ranging from a handful of familiar songs from Iain’s solo back catalogue, a couple of covers, including a Matthews Southern Comfort classic, a brand new song and one or two familiar to us from his live appearances over the years.  Taking no less than three songs from Matthews’ debut solo album, 1971’s If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes, including Richard Farina’s “Reno Nevada”, together with “Southern Wind” and the title song, we instinctively know that we’re in trustworthy territory from the start.  Okay, Sandy’s voice is absent from “Thro’ My Eyes”, but you kind of hear it anyway, transmitted through the ether.  Revisiting Joni’s “Woodstock” seems to have echoes of the Matthews Southern Comfort hit version, with that distinctive opening riff very much re-established, as opposed to the recent MSC voodoo vocal version, which is also worth checking out.  The band’s musicianship is in evidence throughout each song, which no doubt pleases Matthews as much as it does the audience.  Bob Dylan’s mid-Sixties “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry”, is treated to a blues noir arrangement, with weeping guitar motifs that seem to traverse the city’s underbelly, while the funky “Something Mighty”, puts a sprightly spring into Matthews’ step, with some tasty dobro courtesy of Freddy Holm.  “I Threw My Hat In”, a brand new song,  demonstrates that Matthews still has something to say, as he allows us a peek into life on the road.  With the combined efforts of Freddy Holm, Eivind Kløverød, Finn Tore Tokle and Omar Østli, Iain Matthews is still very much a contender and not quite ready to rest on his laurels.  

Broon | Cosmic Ceilidh | Album Review | Self Release | 12.02.21

Much instrumental wizardry from Arisaig multi-instrumentalist Steve Brown, otherwise Broon, who I assume has gone under this moniker since his pre-teens, but I’m just guessing here.  Having been involved in music since the early 1990s, it beggars belief that this is Steve’s debut solo album, having played in a variety of rock bands over the years.  Not solo in the sense of a purely solo Mike Oldfield album, in that Steve invites onboard John Whyte on trombone, Pete Harbidge on cornet and Eoin de Paor on fiddle, whistle, flute and bass, but the rest of it is all his, as he picks up the mandolin, several guitars, the accordion, piano and bass, along with some customary programmed drum loops.  Cosmic Ceilidh appears to be a suitable title for this album, which is made up of fifteen instrumentals, one or two of which are themed, notably Hope Parts I, II and III, or “Soar”, “Skye Cottage” and “Seeds Beneath the Snow”, each linked by a thematic guitar motif.  The range is broad and we find everything from the sensitive classical guitar solo “A Timeless Love” to the full tilt “Arisaig Boogie”, a scrappy little number which apparently divides tastes.  As a long time supporter of the Canadian band Rush, it must have been thrilling for Broon to have the late Neil Peart on three of the tracks, notably “The Devil Came Down to Glenuig”.   A potpourri of styles and genres, Cosmic Ceilidh’s chief focus is on the expressive mandolin playing by someone who obviously loves the versatile junior member of the stringed instrument family.  We’re advised to file the album under World Music, Celtic Fusion and Prog Croft, which makes perfect sense, though you might consider not filing it away at all, but instead have it close to your player for when the mood arises.

Rick Shea | Love and Desperation | Album Review | Tres Pescadores Records | 13.02.21

This is the twelfth album to date by Southern Californian’s Rick Shea, whose twangy electric guitar spars effortlessly with Phil Parlapiano’s swirling Cajun-flavoured accordion, a sound that immediately shifts from Shea’s Southern California roots to the Bayous of Louisiana, the opener in particular, “Blues Stop Knockin’ on My Door”.  The dozen songs included here are predominantly originals and effectively take us on a journey through the southern back roads and honky tonks, with a healthy mixture of slow tempo blues to up-tempo juke joint stompers. From the tender “A Tenderhearted Love” to the Flaco Jiminez-like accordion flurries of “Juanita Why Are You So Mean”, which I should imagine goes well with the tequila.  “Love and Desperation” is straight out of Townes Van Zandt territory, in both its feel and its title and once again demonstrates Shea’s musical range.

Chuck Johnson | The Cinder Grove | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 14.02.21

When we think of the pedal steel guitar, we probably first think of how the instrument enhances country songs with moments of both joy and sorrow as the notes giggle and weep to form easily identifiable and often clichéd patterns.  I’m thinking of course of The Byrds version of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, The Flying Burrito Bros’ “Christine’s Tune” or perhaps Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children”, each of which is certainly enhanced by the pedal steel’s iconic sound.  For The Cinder Grove though, Chuck Johnson looks deep into the fabric of the instrument in search of it’s expansive tonal range, much in the same way as Fred Frith investigated the guitar’s possibilities in the early 1970s.  Adopting a minimalist approach, not unlike the work that Brian Eno made for airports, the world of the pedal steel is slowed down, its inviting arpeggios and melodic flurries reduced to sustained notes that evoke both the melting ice caps of Antarctica or the sand drifts of the Mojave Desert, there’s a stillness in the compositions that is both highly meditative and relaxing at the same time.  This is music that you can listen to in a state of eyes closed repose or with a good book.

Various Artists | Between Islands | Album Review | An Lanntair | 01.03.21

Initially intended as a series of collaborative events for both Shetland Folk Festival and Heb Celt in Lewis, featuring singers and musicians from Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides, the Between Islands project joined countless other events scuppered by the COVID-19 disaster.  Rather than shelving the project altogether, the artists involved pooled their respective talents for this generous thirty-track double CD, which features such artists as Kris Drever, Saltfishforty, Willie Campbell, Julie Fowlis, Kathleen Macinnes and others.  The CD is divided into three different sections, the first being a series of lockdown studio takes, beginning with three collaborations from each of the islands under the premise of ‘Island Tracks’, “Out on the Islands” performed by Western Isles musicians and led by Ado Matheson, “Summer Sun” by Shetland musicians and representing the Orkney’s, Kris Drever’s “I’ll Always Leave the Light On”.  This section is followed by five songs under the heading Project One, recorded by Willie Campbell, Kris Drever and Arthur Nicolson, and finally a second disc, Project Two, consisting of fifteen live recordings that feature Maggie Adamson, Louise Bichan and Jane Hepburn Macmillan among others.  The focus throughout the album is on collaboration and here we see Julie Fowlis paired with Arthur Nicholson, Kris Drever with Linda Macleod and Saltfishforty with Jane Macmillan.  There’s plenty of variety throughout, with songs performed in both English and Gaelic and some fine sets of dance tunes and slow airs.  It all comes across in the end as a celebration of the quality of music from this musically fertile part of the world and provides those taking part as well as those who planned to attend any of the events with something special to help heal the wounds.

Kat Danser | One Eye Open | Album Review | Black Hen Music | 01.03.21

Just the mention of both New Orleans and Cuba in the same sentence brings on involuntary bodily movements, which start at the shoulders and soon find their way down to the feet.  Kat Danser pitches things just right from the start on her new album One Eye Open, with a brassy intro that invites us to the dance, while at the same time effectively setting out her stall; that she is ‘a lover, an all nighter, the fuel in a butane lighter’, which comes over loud and clear in her confident vocal delivery.  Backing up this confidence are a bunch of musicians who appear to relish in the party atmosphere, albeit from an unfortunate distance, the album having been produced in lockdown.  The late night blues vibe of “Lonely and the Dragon”, sounds for all it’s social distanced perseverance, a tightly knit band effort, with ghostly organ and guitar interplay, both electric and acoustic, courtesy of Kevin McKendree and Steve Dawson respectively, with an empathetic horn section and the informed rhythm section of Gary Craig and Jeremy Holmes, who hold things together perfectly.  Kat takes giant strides between genres, notably midway through the album, where she jumps from the gospel tones of Rhiannon Giddens on “Get Right Church” to the sheer post punk Patti Smithness of “One Eye Closed”, which not only sound like they belong to completely different albums, but could also be delivered by two completely different singers.  If “One Eye Closed” might be a little out of Kat’s comfort zone, then her take on Gus Cannon’s “Bring It With You When You Come”,  places her right there in the middle of it and wrapped in a blanket to boot, a performance that doesn’t only echo the popular songs of the 1920s, but also plays to the same homage bracket as Ry Cooder’s mid 1970s Jazz album.  We need albums like One Eye Open, especially numbers like “Frenchman Street Shake” and “MI Corazon”, if only to remind us that life is good, despite the frequency of seismic interruptions.

John Blek | Digressions 2 Grounded | Album Review | We Are Rats Recordings | 01.03.21

One of the few refreshing aspects of the state we currently find ourselves in, is the manner in which some of our artists address their own predicament, when the most valued element of their craft is in fact missing, the people that is, who occupy the seats in front of them.  John Blek is currently at home, isolated and I suppose, grounded.  When children are grounded for their minor infringements, they have the choice to either sulk or lick their proverbial wounds and become highly creative.  For Digressions #2 – Grounded, the Cork singer songwriter is very much engaged in the latter, much the same as he was last year, with the release of the first in this series.  Here we have ten new songs, delivered with his familiar gently picked acoustic guitar accompaniment and occasional banjo, with one or two complimentary electronic instruments, something new to John’s body of work.  There’s a sense that these embellishments are John’s companions in these lonely times, which both enhance the sound and provide new and exciting textures to the norm, despite the additional help from multi-instrumentalist Brian Casey, and both Davie Ryan and Peter O’Sullivan providing some of the beats.  Even the instrumental piece “Walk On” benefits from its ‘Penguin Cafe’ treatment, while the spoken word “My Father’s Son” is a kind of update on Kipling’s ultra famous poem If.  John promises further additions to the Digressions series, which will include live recordings and conceptual pieces, each in further pursuit of new musical goals.  A positive note of optimism then, in these increasingly troubled times.

Janet Simpson | Safe Distance | Album Review | Cornelius Chapel | 01.03.21

The name Janet Simpson probably doesn’t jump out at us quite as readily as, let’s say, Lucinda Williams or indeed Rosanne Cash, though this is probably more due to the fact that this singer songwriter seldom releases solo material under her own name, but is rather more familiar to us through such projects as Delicate Cutters, Teen Getaway, Wooden Wand, the World War IV and Timber, the duo she formed with fellow Birmingham, Alabama musician Will Stewart.  It’s over twenty years since Janet Simpson’s debut album and Safe Distance perhaps comes along at the right time.  Opening with “Nashville Girls”, which asserts from the start that Janet is no ordinary country tinseltown girl, but something else entirely.  We could start with such songs as “Awe and Wonder”, “Ain’t Nobody looking” and “Black Turns Blue”, each of which demonstrate her sensitivity as much as “Nashville Girls” shows us her playfulness.  “Reno” then turns our attention to Janet’s ballsy assertiveness, with a stomping performance, each guitar chord a steadily beating heart, each chorus a road back to the bottle.  The jaunty title song is a vibrant statement in waltz time, again one that demonstrates Janet’s assured command over her material, much the same as with the radio friendly “I’m Wrong”, a possible single perhaps?  Concluding with the thoughtful questioning of “Wrecked”, which leaves us perhaps wanting more of the same.

Luke Concannon | Ecstatic Bird in the Burning | Album Review | The Movement | 01.03.21

The main focus here is on the former Nizlopi front man’s confident voice, which comes over with some determination on each of the ten songs.  There’s an immediate desire to join in on the call and response of the opening number “Absolument”, which seems to invite your involvement.  It’s guaranteed to nudge your groove and get your shoulders moving, even if your on the top deck of the number 32.  Ed Sheeran is a fan we’re told midway through “Doing Nothing”, which actually shows in the megastar’s subsequent output.  Concannon had his own moment in the spotlight with the Marmite release “JCB Song”, a good fifteen years ago now, in which we of a certain age were reminded of Bruce Lee movies and the A Team from our youth.  Ecstatic Bird in the Burning is Concannon’s second solo album, following his debut eight years ago Give It All (2013).  Written on Anais Mitchell’s farm, the songs are both honest and personal, with some tender moments such as “Feel You in My Arms”, which features some spine tingling harmonies courtesy of Stephanie Hollenberg and Hannah Meloy.  There’s also a moment of stripped down splendour, with an a cappella “Denial”, a possible throwback to his Irish roots.  Closing with a brief political blow out, completely removed from the rest of the album’s tender love letter, Concannon goes all Billy Bragg on us, providing his future gigs with something the audience will delight in joining in with.

Eamon O’Leary | The Silver Sun | Album Review | Reveal | 01.03.21

Originally from Dublin, this New York-based singer songwriter appears to create a similar beguiling vibe to that of his contemporaries Sam Amadon and Bonnie Prince Billy, with an almost uniformly relaxed, almost whispered vocal and gently picked guitar throughout.  Once the pump organ intro to the opening song “The Living Stream” begins, played by co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Lazar Davis, it takes little time to dissolve into an almost ethereal feather light feel, especially on “Bernadette”, a song from which the album draws its title, which as O’Leary states, could quite easily have been ‘Signal Fires’, although, there’s also a case for ‘A Tremble in the Night’, which could have likewise been a contender.  Lyrically, it doesn’t stop there, with a wealth of key lines peppered throughout the nine songs, each enhanced further by Elsie Leavy’s empathetic, almost ghost-like complimentary voice.  Recorded in Brooklyn, The Silver Sun is a Sunday morning record, served best by an open window, with the flickering sun filtering through the trees.

Mari Joyce | Dear Moon | Album Review | Self Release | 01.03.21

Dear Moon is a rather fine debut from the Norwich-based singer songwriter Mari Joyce, whose ethereal voice and restrained delivery make for rewarding results.  Written in a wooden hut by the river Yare in Norfolk, the eleven songs are rich in both texture and atmosphere, each one treated to uncluttered accompaniment, courtesy of Alex Hobbs on cello, Alex Patterson on violin, Iestyn Griffith on percussion with singer Johanna Herron providing an essential additional vocal, which seems to melt in with Mari’s.  Enclosed in a sleeve designed by Alex Patterson’s fellow conspirator Christina Alden, who also designed Alden, Patterson and Dashwood’s three albums, Dear Moon features songs that are upon first hearing, fine examples of how to write, arrange and deliver songs that simply entrance, certainly “Blue Moon Brother”, “Home” and the title song, but the rest too.  No difficulty in recommending.

John Renbourn Group | A Maid in Bremen | Album Review | MiG Music | 01.03.21

It’s always a delight to discover newly unearthed recordings from practically anything involving any of the five prongs that make up the Pentangle family, whether that’s rare Bert Jansch concerts, the odd Danny Thompson collaboration, anything associated with John Renbourn’s guitar playing and chiefly, anything featuring the highly distinctive voice of Jacqui McShee, perhaps the main feature of this new release.  Recorded on St Valentine’s Day in 1978, the John Renbourn Group were sounding very much the successor of the Pentangle, albeit with a move towards eastern influences, especially in the songs that focus on her voice.  The recording, lifted from a radio broadcast of a live performance in Roemer, Bremen, does include one or two scrappy performances, notably “To Glastonbury”, which sounds either under rehearsed or far too ambitious, and indeed the band’s crack at the blues, with both “Turn Your Money Green” and “Kokomo Blues”, sounding a little weak and failing really to ignite, even with the relentless flute warbling and the clearly out of place tabla.  The tabla is very much more suited to the experimental side of Renbourn’s playing, notably the sprawling instrumental “Sidi Brahim”, which has its moments.  Where the set really excels though, is in the traditional fare, such as “I Am a Maid That’s Deep in Love”, “The Maid on the Shore” and especially “Cruel Sister”, for which Jacqui invites the audience to join in each refrain, which fortunately they don’t, or if they do, it’s thankfully inaudible.  Concluding with one of the most beautiful melodies in all of folk music, if not music in general, “Will of Winsbury” sees Jacqui at her best, backed by some delicate guitar playing and this time, a slightly more restrained flute.

Peter James Millson | Selected Works | Album Review | Reveal | 01.03.21

Essentially a ‘best of’ collection that effectively covers the story so far as the title succinctly suggests.  Selected from three of the Bridport-based singer songwriter’s previous albums, though curiously nothing from his debut Sweet the Love That Meets Return, the songs serve as a suitable primer for those not yet familiar his work or indeed those earlier records, five from The Red Café (2016), a couple from Mobile (2017) and three from his most recent album Low-Key (2019).  Lyrically sound, the songs are both suitably crafted and accomplished, each of which gives us a sense of the scope of Millson’s achievements thus far.  Two new songs are also included in the collection, the optimistic feelgood folk pop of “In The Real World” and the utterly gorgeous “Here”, ‘If you took away the seasons and gave me only winter, there would still be summer in my heart’, a moment of reflection, where time appears to stand still.  Selected Works, if nothing else, prepares us for what’s in store, a songwriter with more to say I have no doubt.

Adjiri Odametey | Ekonklo | Album Review | Africmelo | 01.03.21

The soothing and often meditative sound of Adjiri Odametey’s voice alone renders this album irresistible, together with the multi-instrumentalist’s musical arrangements of seemingly simple, yet compelling songs.  Born and raised in Accra, Ghana and having ties with such groups as the Pan African Orchestra and the Ghana Dance Ballet, this musician brings a taste of his Ghanaian roots to the fore, with a crisp and clean guitar sound, which compliments his velvet vocal delivery on such songs as “Akootse”, “Kaafu” and “Oyaa”.  By way of embellishing these arrangements further, Adjiri further employs the use of the more traditional African instruments, including the Mbira, the Kalimba and the Kora, each of which has the effect of sprinkling rich textures over the songs throughout, giving Ekonklo an ever deepening warmth.  The rhythmic patterns that permeate “Religion” appear to enhance the song’s message, while at the same time conveying a powerful trance-like quality that is both dreamlike and enchanting, the longest track on the album but oddly enough, appearing like the shortest.  Emmanuel Okai plays bass guitar and Kwesi Asare provides drums, while Nii Odai Mensah adds percussion.  On a couple of tracks, Sosu Kante steps in with some Balaphone and Ngoni touches.  Lovely.

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne | Rakes and Misfits | Album Review | Grimdon Records | 15.03.21

Rakes & Misfits comes four years after Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s debut solo album Outway Songster and finds the young singer once again accompanied by a growing collection of concertinas and melodeons, but not necessarily all at the same time.  As one third of the folk trio Granny’s Attic, Cohen has further developed his appreciation of English traditional folk song and folk tunes, who includes several such songs here, notably “The Jolly Highwayman” and “Strawberry Lane”, a derivative of the “Elfin Knight” ballad.  The entire album has been recorded live from the floor as it were, with no overdubs, giving it an overall live feel throughout.  It really does sound as if he’s in the room there with you.  One of Cohen’s new adventures is in his own developing song writing credentials, evident in such songs as “Tom King” and “Countryman in Birmingham”, both of which are delivered in a style that fits in perfectly with the rest of the material on the album, an album of songs that look at some of the characters who don’t necessarily toe the line or conform to the norms of their day.

Adam Beattie | Somewhere Round the Bend | Album Review | Self Release | 15.03.21

Known for his recent work with PicaPica, the Scots singer songwriter takes centre stage with his new album Somewhere Round the Bend, as both producer and multi-instrumentalist, while taking care of most of the parts himself with the help of a select few.  When PicaPica released their debut album on Rough Trade Records, all eyes and ears appeared to be on the two lead singers Josienne Clarke and Samantha Whates, but what of the seated figure to the side?  A dark horse among us.  Discovering Adam Beattie’s music has been a revelation, an artist clearly in command of his own art, which he approaches with a gentle cracked vocal and a clear understanding of melody and song structure.  Taking his early jazz, blues, country and traditional folk influences as a starting point, Adam gives his stories an almost cinematic treatment, in some cases reminiscent of Sergio Leone or Wim Wenders movies, the landscapes becoming more vivid upon each listen.  “Stripped to the Bone” for instance, which uses as a backdrop to the refugee crisis, the Temple of Zeus, a powerful and dominating visual force.  There again, Adam can take a simple almost burlesque musical theme for the short burst of “Grottammare” as a prelude for the tender “Sickle Red Moon”, for which Adam borrows his Chet Baker influence to good effect.  Delving further into the songs on this album requires a spoiler alert, just like the movies.  Perhaps it would be better to just check this one out and enjoy the journey. 

Magpie Arc | EP3 | Collective Perspective | 15.03.21

The third in a series of three EPs that serve as an introduction to The Magpie Arc, a five-piece Sheffield/Edinburgh band made up of Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Adam Holmes, Tom A Wright and Alex Hunter.  Once again an EP that comes with its surprises, notably a fine reworking of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta”, with Adam taking the lead, accompanied by Nancy’s Cajun-style fiddle and Martin’s searing electric guitar.  It’s Folk Rock with a refreshing new angle, revealing to us once again a band that really needs to be seen live at our (and their) earliest convenience.  The most refreshing thing about The Magpie Arc is that it sets out as a new band and not as a project, something that has become a little bit twee now, much in the same way as the ‘concept album’ became the nail in the coffin for the Prog era.  Back to basics, back to proper ‘worked in’ music and back to developing a style without all the pretense of a funded ‘project’.  The four-track EP also features a new Nancy Kerr song “Greenswell”, reminiscent in style of Fairport’s Liege and Lief era, notably “The Deserter”, together with a new reading of Dick Gaughan’s “What You Do With What You’ve Got”, with Martin reminding us once again of his late father-in-law Roy Bailey’s fine repertoire.

Ninebarrow | A Pocket Full of Acorns | Album Review | Winding Track | 15.03.21

I really shouldn’t be surprised at the quality of this album, having heard all the duo’s back catalogue and having caught one or two of their festival sets over the last few years, but in a strange way I am.  This is a superb record, which is a demonstration of two musicians at their very best.  The fourth album by Dorset’s Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere, otherwise known as Ninebarrow, is released in exceptional times, yet the quality of the arrangements and the delivery is exceptional.  “Under the Fence”, a derivative of the traditional “Cold Haily Windy Night” is both dramatic and atmospheric as it draws our attention to not only the duo’s dove-tailed voices and instrumental prowess, but also to their hand picked collaborators, Evan Carson on percussion, Lee Mackenzie on cello and John Parker on double bass.  If “Come January” had been released in 1970, it would probably have been considered for Simon and Garfunkel’s final studio album, to sit comfortably alongside Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “The Boxer”, if that’s not being over complimentary.  Jon and Jay have a similar vocal communication, which is never taken for granted.  The assurance of the voices on the opening song is followed by a more fragile vocal that introduces “Nestledown”, which is both affecting and tender, evoking the fragility of the Dartford Warbler, which the song is a tribute to.  The well known “John Barleycorn” is treated to a fine unaccompanied intro, which with the assistance of Jon’s reed organ, maintains a hymnal quality throughout.  To top it all, Jon and Jay include a restrained shanty towards the end, “Farewell Shanty”, which will no doubt please those relishing in the sudden enthusiasm for such things, followed by “Sailor’s All”, which brings this remarkable album to a fine conclusion.  

SomeRiseSomeFall | No Simple Highway | Album Review | Fitzz | 15.03.21

Led by project director Michael Fitzgerald, the SomeRiseSomeFall project sets out to assist organisations to help those facing mental health and other challenges.  What better way than to involve music and songs of a sensitive nature, to find, rework and re-imagine some of the finest songs around, with the help of an impressive collective of young Irish musicians.  No Simple Highway features some surprising results, as these singers breath new life into songs that might otherwise have escaped our notice, Anna Mitchell’s beautiful reading of both Country Joe McDonald’s mid-60s “Thought Dream” and Roy Wood’s mid-70s “The Rain Came Down On Everything” for example, assured performances both.  John Blek chooses a more faithful route for Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game”, which sounds like it could’ve been performed at an all-nighter at Les Cousins in 1965.  Other songs given the SomeRiseSomeFall treatment include Joanna Newsom’s “Swansea” interpreted by Kevin Herron, albeit via a Bombay Bicycle Club arrangement,  The Milk Carton Kids’ sublime “Years Gone By”, delivered by Dylan Howe and a fine interpretation of the old Grateful Dead number “Stella Blue” by Marlene Enright, as you imagine her perform in a smoky Belgian bar, leaning against an upright piano, illuminated by a single light from above.  These songs are guaranteed to take you somewhere else, and probably somewhere special.

Daphne’s Flight | On Arrival | Album Review | Fat Cat | 15.03.21

It was at the 1995 Cambridge Folk Festival when Daphne first took flight, with five extraordinary women joining forces to pool their equally extraordinary voices and their songwriting chops, all of which would be captured shortly afterwards on their self-titled debut album.  Those five women, Chris While, Julie Matthews, Melanie Harrold, Christine Collister and Helen Watson would spend the subsequent twenty-odd years working on their own solo, duo and band careers, coming together once again in 2017 for their follow up album Knows Time, Knows Change and a mandatory live album the year after.  Now we see the arrival of a third studio album, which features ten original songs from the pens of these five women.  There’s the highly inventive “Turn the Microphones Off”, a scream in the dark for these times, with the ever perceptive Helen Watson delivering a message that really should be heeded.  Christine Collister flexes her muscular soul-drenched vocal cords all over her own smouldering “You Got Me Going”, which evokes a mixture of Sister Rosetta and Aretha all rolled into one.  Julie Matthews, no stranger to a good melody and fine poetry, brings us “Be Amelia”, which tips a hat in gratitude to those extraordinary women from our past, while long time musical partner Chris While brings Charlie Dore into the frame, for the co-written “Saturday With Mr Rameer”, which includes one of those spine-tingling melodies that stays with us.  Melanie Harrold draws the sisterhood together in “This Woman Today”, an anthem that could be taken to church, where rafters would be raised with ease.  All the right ingredients are here, songs with a point to them, injected with humour and soul and delivered in voices that mean business.  With the fearless Dave Bowie Jr adding double bass to an otherwise exclusively female pool of talent, On Arrival has certainly arrived, and not a moment too soon.

Katie Spencer | Hurt in Your Heart | EP Review | Self Release | 15.03.21

Over the past few years, Katie Spencer has found that healthy collaboration with others has been the key to her meteoric advancement as a singer and musician in her own right, the singer songwriter having been seen working with both Danny Thompson and the late Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Rory Gallagher drummer Ted McKenna, while taking those influences seriously.  For her new EP, Katie pays tribute to the late John Martyn with three mid-period songs and this time with the help of two of the musicians who have worked with Martyn during his long and successful career, Alan Thomson on fretless bass and Spencer Cozens on piano and synth.  The Hurt in Your Heart EP captures the spirit of John Martyn, not so much the late Sixties folk singer, or the playful joker, nor indeed the hard drinking tough guy, but the essence of the soulful performer he could often be.   With a couple of songs from Martyn’s late Seventies One World period, “Couldn’t Love You More” and “Small Hours”, together with the title song from his slightly later Grace and Danger album, Katie captures the feel of Martyn’s most sublime work perfectly.

Harbottle and Jonas | The Beacon | Album Review | Brook View Records | 01.04.21

The fifth album release by the Devon based duo Harbottle and Jonas seems to have been a long time coming, with a steady drip feed of single releases leading up to its release.  The anticipation has been almost breath-taking.  It’s not only the four single releases that have made this album so eagerly awaited, it’s also the duo’s four previous albums, all of which have contributed to a steadily built body of work, the results of which have been mightily impressive so far.  Dave Harbottle and Freya Jonas know what they’re doing musically and The Beacon is testament to that, even after just one run through, it’s immediately evident.  Joined by Annie Baylis, whose presence is certainly felt, with some fine violin, viola and vocal contributions, the arrangements seem even more complete than before, though to be honest there’s no song more complete than the brilliant “Hall Sands” from the duo’s last album.  The heart of this latest album is the titular beacon, the song inspired by the Ugorough Beacon, an important local landmark close to where the musicians live.  The suggestion of nature is pronounced here, notably in the wing of a butterfly on “Every Creature is a Book” to the swallows and berries on “I Make a Nest”, together with the red breasted creature commanding our attention on “Whenever You See a Robin”, a delightful song that recalls the anecdotal stories of the late Simon Cauty, a father with a tale to tell.  Freya takes a moment to express her inner conflict of the simple everyday act of swimming in a cold river, baring her soul temporarily during “Anam Cara”, both in its poetry and in the following tunes written by Annie.  Real life people are represented with tender reflection, not only the late Simon Cauty but also Freya’s own grandfather in her song “F.C. Jonas”, a beautiful tribute to a much loved family member.  There’s obviously a lot of thought gone into the making of The Beacon, which not only offers hope to these three musicians, but to all of us I should imagine.

Tommy Coyle | Incomplete Control | Album Review | Fat Cat | 01.04.21

Thirteen original melodic songs make up this second offering from Yorkshire-born singer/songwriter Tommy Coyle, though a couple of songs included here may very well have made the journey from the first album Voodoo Sessions, notably “Ahmed”, which continues to resonate, especially in these much more socially aware times.  A well-travelled musician, Tommy has found his way back to his old stomping ground, having tasted the air in several locations from London to the other side of the world, where he’s spent a good deal of time reflecting on some of the big issues, such as addiction, depression and death as well as parenthood, each treated here with equal empathy.  The full band sound he employs on such songs as “Monday Morning”, “Self Development Blues” and “No” points directly towards Tommy’s indie rock roots, the latter which features the voices of label mates Chris While and Julie Matthews, while “Before You Give Yourself a Heart Attack” reveals a much more rootsy sensibility, a track that features the noted Kentucky banjo player Steve Cooley, who helps sign the album off with a fine touch of Bluegrass.

DeFrance | Second Wind | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.21

Fans of the famous Hypgnosis art department will probably recognise something familiar about the cover of DeFrance’s second album release, Second Wind, which bears a resemblance to Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, in that both album sleeves depict a farmyard animal enjoying the contrasting blue skies and green meadows of a bright clear day.  Admittedly the lamb appears to be enjoying itself considerably more than the Friesian, it has to be said.  This is where the similarity ends though, unless we are willing to find a correlation between such song titles as “Funky Dung” and “Fat Old Sun” with “Runaway Heart” and “Fireball”, though each of the latter slightly easier to comprehend.  Instead of early Seventies weirdness though, the Arkansas four-piece deliver a much healthier dose of bluesy rock in a succession of songs with hardly a moment of breathing space between the tracks.  This is an album to enjoy from start to finish, with no ballads to break the inertia, therefore an album to keep the party going.  With both Drew DeFrance and Andrew Pope looking after the guitars and Connor Roach and Daniel Stratton Curry taking care of bass and drums respectively, the classic rock band line-up demonstrates a hint of Tom Petty here, a bit of The Byrds there, some classic era Stones thrown in, especially the band’s use of horns, together with a healthy dose of the ever-vibrant Southern Rock we expect from a southern rock band and with not one psychedelic breakfast to be seen.

Steve Jinski | Hope Street | EP Review | Lucky Smile | 01.04.21

Hope Street is probably the only thoroughfare we should contemplate, especially in times like these.  There is optimism in its title, for which the singer/songwriter Steve Jinski offers hopefulness in five new original songs, each of which has been written in the midst of chaos, yet each imbued with a beam of light at the end of the tunnel, something to hold on to so to speak.  “Something Good Will Happen” spells out this message, a message that would in a perfect world be conveyed by our media, instead of the wall to wall doom we’re fed each waking hour.  The eastern flavoured “The Earth and the Clear Blue Sky” is probably the stand out song here, its infectious pulsating rhythms once again pointing us in the direction of good things.  If the sparse piano-led “Building the House”, takes a reflective tone midway through, it prepares us for the uplifting gospel sound of “To the Saint of Lost Causes”, which employs the assistance of an empathetic choir, reminiscent of something like Van Morrison’s “The Eternal Kansas City” for instance, providing us with something to lift the spirits, which most of us need after all.

Paul Hutchinson | Petrichor | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.21

We might not immediately recognise the word ‘petrichor’, yet we’re all only too familiar with what the term stands for, that is the scent produced when rain falls upon dry soil.  The word also forms the title of the latest album by accordion wizard Paul Hutchinson (Belshazzar’s Feast), as does the delicate opening tune, a piece in 5/4 time, written at the start of lockdown.  Lockdown is another new word, which all of us now sadly recognise all too well.  For the eleven pieces, Paul invites an array of musicians from around the world to help out, musicians from Sweden, Belgium, Australia and the US as well as one or two from the UK.  It’s difficult to avoid getting completely lost in such pieces as “The Oregon Trail”, with its sweeping clarinet flurries, courtesy of Karen Wimhurst, and the almost sombre “Promised Land”, which was inspired by the sight of armed guards and barbed wire fences at the port of Calais, a reminder of the inhumane migration restrictions so close to home, a theme echoed in the closing piece, “Minicab Road”, cleverly named for the Brexit Secretary in anagram form.  On a lighter note, the fleeting pleasantries of springtime are captured in the utterly sweet “Cuckoo’s Lamb”.  A lovely album.

David Leask | Voyageur in Song | EP Review | Self Release | 01.04.21

The central focus of this mini-album by Scots singer/songwriter David Leask, is his relationship with the unique guitar he uses throughout, the so-called Six String Nation guitar, which has been given the nickname Voyageur.  Crafted from a variety of fragments from historical items, including a bit of Wayne Grezky’s hockey sticks, a chip off John Ware’s cabin and another off Nova Scotia’s Pier 21, not to mention a piece from Nancy Greene’s Olympic ski, the guitar is rather up there as far as home-made axes go.  Very much a symbol of Canada itself, the guitar brings to the album a sense of time and place, which in effect makes us pay more attention to the six songs, each of which take us on a journey through the fragments of wood that form the very fabric of this special musical instrument.  The opener, “Against the Grain”, makes the first reference to the instrument within its lyric, a song that centres around the Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii, which is used for the top of the instrument.  The handle of the shucking knife mentioned in “The Legend of Joe Labobe” forms another part of the guitar, a song which tells the story of the Mi’kmaq fisherman, an ordinary man, who takes his chances.   The manner in which David interweaves each song through its component parts keeps our attention throughout and adds to the lyricism in the suite of songs, notably the story of the liberty-seeking Christian pacifists who flee Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, which is beautifully linked to a simple piece of wood from a Saskatchewan grain elevator.  This is by no means the Voyageur’s first outing, its creator Jowi Taylor pointing out that countless musicians have already used the instrument for many a performance, but these particular songs seem to provide a purposeful voice for its many cultural fragments.  It’s a good idea and it’s been realised with noble intentions.

Michael Feuerstack | Harmonize the Moon | Album Review | Forward Music Group | 01.04.21

The fifth album release under his own name, having previously recorded under the pseudonym of Snailhouse for several others, finds the Montreal-based indie rock singer/songwriter in a mellow mood once again.  Feuerstack claims this album to be the product of some ‘beautiful alone time’, the lockdown offering a period of reflection, for which he visits some of the material originally planned for future projects.  Our attention is immediately drawn to the delicious sleeve design, courtesy of Paul Henderson, whose artwork echoes the heyday of album art, when the actual sleeve aesthetic was just as important, and in some cases, even more important (to some) than the music itself.  This suggests care and attention to detail, something that resonates in the songs we find within.  It doesn’t surprise me that Feuerstack is extremely proud of this record, the songs have a personal quality, almost as if they’re being performed just for you.  With almost random snippets of studio noise between the tracks, Harmonize the Moon includes some instantly memorable songs such as “Time to Burn” and “I Used to be a Singer”.

Jake Ian | Everything Has Holes | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.21

There’s something evidently neglected in the cover shot of Jake Ian’s new release “Everything Has Holes”, a dilapidated truck stop amidst the overgrown weeds, making it difficult to reach the clearly out of use and tilted public telephone box.  Perhaps a sign of our times, the now deserted outer limits of a once thriving nearby town, a dusty landscape that provides a suitable backdrop for this Edmonton singer/songwriter to tackle in ten new songs.  Stripped down to the basics, there’s a lonesome feel to the material, each song delivered in an almost cracked and submissive voice, notably the last line of the title song, in which Ian confesses that all his faith is gone.  With a furrowed brow, Ian purrs out his lyrics to a gently strummed, sometimes finger-picked guitar accompaniment, with occasional harmonica blows, essentially the almost whispered thoughts pondered upon during these difficult times.  Does everything have holes and if so, could they be similar to Leonard Cohen’s famous cracks, somewhere for the light to get in?  

David Olney and Anana Kaye | Whispers and Sighs | Album Review | Schoolkids Records | 01.04.21

Unfortunately, this is to be David Olney’s final album, a collaboration between the noted Rhode Island-born singer/songwriter and Anana Kaye, the chosen band name for Georgia natives Anana Kaye and Iraki Gabriel; Georgia the country that is, not the southern American State.  Produced by Brett Ryan Stewart of Wirebird Productions, Whispers and Sighs, sees Olney on tremendous form, especially on “Lie To Me Angel”, with its closing Billy Graham-like evangelical coda, fire and brimstone and all that.  In places, Kaye’s sultry vocal is possibly more sultry than necessary in daylight hours, notably “Thank You Note”, with its accompanying gypsy violin, courtesy of Derek Pell.  The tender moments are all the more tender in view of Olney’s passing in January 2020, especially “My Favourite Goodbye” and “Behind Your Smile”, both of which remind us of his extraordinary sensitivity.  

Son of the Velvet Rat | Solitary Company | Album Review | Fluff and Gravy | 01.04.21

Joshua Tree’s Son of the Velvet Rat, the duo consisting of Austrian husband and wife team, Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder, return with ten songs, each of which are treated to a full-bodied, full-blooded and full band sound.  Dominated by Altiebler’s gravel voice, which is at times so mannered as to become almost a caricature of itself, notably on the title song, where the affectation becomes a little unsteady, reminiscent of the sort of inflection Donovan adopted for “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, the delivery occasionally suffers from being a little too forced to take seriously.  “Stardust” though, is given an almost cinematic Ennio Morricone treatment, so convincing that we almost expect Lee Van Cleef to peer around a cactus at any given moment.  For “When the Lights Go Down”, the almost theatrical ever changing vocal inflection turns to a depth that Leonard Cohen would’ve been proud of, almost spoken as many of Lenny’s later recordings were.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be making facile comparisons, but one can’t help but notice a similarity in chord structure between “The Only Child” and the well-trodden “Hey Joe”, which is difficult not to hear once the Hendrix worm enters the ear.  I’m not overly convinced really.

3hattrio | Lost Sessions | Album Review | Okehdokee | Lucky Smile | 01.04.21

With a title that could easily have been something along the lines of The Lost But Miraculously Retrieved Sessions, the Utah Desert band 3hattrio deliver some of their most experimental work to date, with ten selections that explore the outer reaches of Americana.  Having almost lost the audio files when a piano fell on the hard drive, causing what was thought to be irretrievable damage, by some quirk of fate (and a little TLC), the files were restored to their former glory and Lost Sessions began its little journey as a miracle child.  In places, the songs venture into minimalist trance-like territory, such as “No In-Between” and “Disquieting”, with only the very occasional drift back into what might be considered standard song form, “In Or Out” and “Miss Tilly”  for instance.  Much of the album is sparse and daringly explorational, but this is its strength, especially some of its more eerily dreamlike moments. 

Brigitte DeMeyer | Seeker | Album Review | BDM Music | 01.04.21

Dividing herself between her native Califiornia and her adopted home of Nashville, singer/songwriter Brigitte DeMeyer takes a virtual detour South to flex her vocal cords with a delicious album of sultry blues and barroom ballads.  Seeker features lots of rattling bottleneck guitars, some gospel-tinged piano and one or two bluesy and steamy organ runs, together with an informed understanding of where good songs should go.  “Louisiana” is a good enough place to go as any, especially with music of this flavour, much of which suggests that vocally, Brigitte might be right at the top of her game at the moment, with each line delivered with honesty and believability.  Occasionally playful, notably the thoroughly absorbing “Cat Man Do”, Brigitte appears to be enjoying every minute, especially while being assisted in no small measure by co-writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, who puts the groove right there in the grooves.  A fabulous album.        

Oka Vanga | Oka Vanga | Album Review | Crazy Bird | 01.04.21

Angie Meyer and Will Cox return with their third album, exploring their folk/Americana roots in seven original songs, together with a fine arrangement of a well-known traditional song (“The Cuckoo”) and a couple of delightful sets of tunes.  “Beneath the Apple Tree” is a good opener, which introduces us once again to Angie’s very distinctive voice, a voice that takes command of any song it touches.  The arrangements are full-bodied, with no unnecessary excursions or meandering, remaining focused throughout.  “Bows of Yew” and “Whiskey for Sorrow” are both a showcase in informed phrasing, each line delivered with assurance and idiosyncratic flair, with Will doing precisely what a good musician should do, that is to add spice and texture to each song without getting in the way.  Helping the duo along are such guests as Patsy Reid on violin, viola and cello and John Parker on double bass.  Perhaps Oka Vanga’s best yet.    

Various Artists | Edo Explosion Vol I | Album Review | Analog Africa | 01.04.21

If there’s a better name for a band than Sir Victor Uwaifo and his Titibitis, I would like to know it.  Edo Funk Explosion Vol. 1  is a sprinkling of sunshine in an otherwise bleak time, which brings three legends of the Benin City sound together, a dozen tracks gathered together on one vibrant compilation.  Vol. 1 suggests that there might be more to come, which would be something we could all look forward to, but for now, we hear Osayomore Joseph and the Creative Seven offering up some enthusiastic Edo rhythms on the opener “Africa is My Root”, while Akaba Man, the so-called philosopher king of Edo Funk, reaches for an explosion on the dance floor, full of determined energy, with some fine under-pronounced brass lifting the rhythms midway through “Ta Gha Hunismwen”.  Democratically shared between each of the outfits, who share a third of the disc, in terms of tracks, the four that feature the aforementioned Sir Victor are as quirky as they are hypnotic, with “Aibalegbe” dying to burst into “La Bamba” at any given moment.

The Trials of Cato | Bedlam Boys | Single Review | Self Release | 01.04.21

When The Trials of Cato first burst upon the UK folk scene two or three years ago, they hit a nerve with their own specific brand of acoustic roots music, which garnered enthusiastic comparisons to Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols, in attitude rather than style it has to be said.  Their musical clout should in no way be diminished by the arrival of mandolin ace Polly Bolton (Stillhouse, The Magpies) into their ranks, who replaces the outgoing Will Anderson.  Ahead of this current line-up’s forthcoming album due for release later in the year, comes the first single, an expressive, yet almost laid back take on the usually rampant “Bedlam Boys”, a 17th century tale that has its origins in the poem Tom o’ Bedlam, and a song that has been recorded and performed widely, notably by Steeleye Span back in 1971 for the band’s Please to See the King album, an almost medieval take on the song subliminally sampled as an introduction here, a homage perhaps to their forebears.  Polly immediately puts her stamp on things with her slick mandolin playing, which appears to infiltrate itself seamlessly into the sound that Tomos Williams and Robin Jones have successfully made over the last few years.  I can only imagine good things ahead for this superb trio. 

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner | From Poets to Wives | Album Review | Talking Elephant | 15.04.21

There’s something of the proverbial elder statesman about Peter Knight, in terms of his place in music, which cannot be overstated.  It’s not just in the quality of his playing, which now comes across in more defined terms than previously, due in no small part to his highly inventive work with Gigspanner, but also, in the dignified manner in which he carries himself as a major league musician whose work stretches well beyond traditional folk music.  There’s a focus on the sheer inventiveness of Peter’s playing, in the adventurous arrangements he shares with his collaborators and in his musical leadership.  The latter end of this abysmal war we find ourselves in is probably a fitting time to release a compilation of some of the trio’s finest work to date, a fine primer then for those new to the band’s work as well as a timely reminder to those fortunate enough to have been around since the band released their debut album back in 2009.  Named for the span of time between the band’s debut Lipreading the Poet (2009) and their most recent album (as a trio) The Wife of Urban Law (2017), the compilation From Poets to Wives begins with the epic eight-minute epic version of the traditional “She Moved Through the Fair”, which is a perfect place to start, an instrumental that emphasises Gigspanner’s skilful credentials as fine arrangers, with a steady build that grows into an almost euphoric climax, as Peter’s fiddle skitters like a bird throughout, held together with the glue that is Roger Flack’s guitar and Vincent Salzfaas’ informed percussion work.  It’s almost Vaughn Williams’ Lark Ascending in its sheer virtuosity.  “Si Bheag Si Mhor” and “The Blackbird” likewise focus on the art of arrangement, with fine performances from each of the musicians involved, the latter which features percussionist Sacha Trochet, the band’s newest member at the time.  To emphasise the point that Peter Knight’s Gigspanner is not just a great studio band, but also a remarkable live band to boot, “The Butterfly” demonstrates this well as one of the trio’s notable live takes, a piece that originally featured on the band’s first live album Doors at Eight back in 2010.  Once we’ve absorbed the instrumentals, then it’s up to the songs to complete the picture, all of which are equally accessible and each featuring Peter’s unfussy, almost laid back vocal on such songs as “Bold Riley”, “Bows of London” and the well-trodden, yet in this case ingeniously revitalised “Hard Times of Old England”.  From Poets to Wives is by no means the whole story, but it covers some of the best parts of the story so far.  If it’s reasonable to assume that every good record collection requires at least one Gigspanner album, then it might as well be this one.

Honey and the Bear | Journey Through the Roke | Album Review | Self Release | 15.04.21

Named for the East Anglian word for the mist that rises from the marshlands and meadows of Suffolk, Lucy and Jon Hart, otherwise Honey and the Bear, take a close look at their own environment with a dozen beautifully crafted songs.  Following their acclaimed debut Made in the Aker, their latest album once again showcases the duo’s command over melody and arrangement, with a strong focus on close harmony singing and informed song craft.  With inspiration drawn from the newly discovered joys of the great outdoors, one of the positive results of our current situation, the duo began to craft these songs keeping a keen eye on the county they call home, together with its rich history and its engaging stories, interweaving at the same time the natural world around them.  The stories have gravitas, especially those that address real life events, such as the 1953 floods that devastated the eastern coastline, which took the life of at least one local Suffolk resident Frank Upcraft during his attempts to help his community.  “3 Miles Out” relates to the distance from the shore of Southwold, from where Upcraft’s boat The Ivy was eventually dredged over a quarter of a century later.  “Buried in Ivy” takes a look at another pressing issue, that of preserving the environment, with a clear message to those seemingly unconcerned about future generations, the duo going one step further in dedicating a song to David Attenborough and his endeavours to get this message across over the years.  “Life on Earth” is a note of appreciation in a time of widespread ignorance.  Perhaps it’s time for the roke to be lifted from our eyes while we still have a chance.

Boo Hewerdine | Selected Works | Album Review | Reveal | 15.04.21

Selected and sequenced by label owner Tom Rose, Selected Works delves deep into the more recent back catalogue of one our most respected songsmiths, arriving at a generous twenty-song compilation that includes some of Boo Hewerdine’s best loved later work.  Both metaphorically and geographically, Boo Hewerdine has made a steady journey to the top, moving from London to Cambridge and then more recently to Glasgow, where he appears to move ever more closer to the top of the world, a place that he must occasionally feel is very much now in reach, judging by the quality of his songs.  If we consider “Birds are Leaving” to be easily as good as many a Beatles song and “American TV”, to be something that wouldn’t seem out of place on, let’s say, the Summer Days (and Summer Nights) album, as it captures the heyday of the Beach Boys sound, albeit in a sort of pastiche manner, then it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine Boo taking his material in any direction.  If we know anything about Boo at all, then it’s his penchant for collaboration and here we find one or two fine examples of joined-up working, notably with both Kris Drever and Brooks Williams on the gentle “Bluebirds” and “Why Does the Nightingale Sing” respectively.  Possibly Boo’s best known collaborator is the singer Eddi Reader, and though not present here personally, the songs Eddi sings are represented, notably “Follow My Tears” and “It’s a Beautiful Night”.  One female singer who does make an appearance here is Rosalie Deighton, who helps out on “Write”, just one of Boo’s instantly accessible and memorable songs, of which this collection contains a multitude.   

Samba Touré | Binga | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 15.04.21

From the first few notes of “Tamala” we can almost pinpoint precisely where we are both musically and geographically, as the spirit of Ali Farka Touré lives on through the infectious rhythms of Samba Touré.  Having grown up in Dabi, a small village in the Tombouctou region of Mali, we instinctively know that this music is deeply rooted, evident in the conversational hand percussion and trance-like guitar motifs that dominate the songs.  It’s desert blues in its rawest form.  Samba’s connection with his former mentor Ali Farka Touré runs deeper than that of a mere follower or fan, or indeed student, Samba’s mother having been one of the first women to sing with the late musician.  Listening to Binga brings strong reminiscences of first hearing Ali Farka Touré’s music back in the 1990s, with the same sonic references ingrained in the chords, which carry optimism in the face of adversity.  In light of cancelled shows due to the current crisis, Samba manages to remain optimistic, which is demonstrated in the uplifting “Sambalama-A”, a song of positive energy, which strives to beat a positive path through all the difficulties.  The  socio-political crisis in Mali has probably strengthened the country’s leading artists and musicians resolve in order to get through many a crisis, which comes over in the quality of music from this particular region.  Songs like “Fondo” ask pertinent questions of why young people desert their families and land in search of a better life only to find the grass is seldom greener on the other side, a notion told in an almost mournful soliloquy.  The mixture of optimism and pessimism is almost tangible.  Samba is joined by Djimé Sissoko on ngoni, Souleymane Kane on calabash, Richard Shanks on harmonica and Philippe Sanmiguel on various percussion, while Djeneba Diakité provides the backing vocal on the album opener “Tamala”.  Superb.

Grainne Brady | Newcomer | Album Review | Self Release | 15.04.21

The delicate sound of the tide’s ebb and flow, together with the distant call of a gull provides a fitting opening for Newcomer, the second album by the Co Cavan fiddle player and composer Gráinne Brady, as Jack Houston reads from Patrick MacGill’s The Rat Pit, the story of Norah Ryan, which forms the backbone for this significant project.  Following her impressive debut album of 2019, The Road Across the Hills, which is also based around the writing of MacGill, Newcomer features spoken word, cinematic instrumentals and one or two songs, each of which bring to the album a sense of narrative, a sense of place and time and a sense of the natural world around us.  Recorded in Glasgow with producer Mike Vass at the helm, Newcomer features an array of empathetic musicians, each of whom provide exemplary performances, adding touches of French horn, cello and flute in strategic places, to perfectly complement the guitar, accordion, piano, violin, viola and percussion.  If the narrative of the spoken word and the lyrical nature of the songs help tell the story, the instrumental passages serve equally as mood setters, especially on such contrasting pieces as “In the Lane” and “Abyss”.  If this album serves any purpose at all, other than providing a demonstration of fine musical collaboration, it has every possibility of taking the listener to somewhere restful, calming and hopefully warm.

Jason McNiff | Dust of Yesterday | Album Review | Self Release | 15.04.21

The seventh album by Bradford-born singer/songwriter and fingerstyle guitar player Jason McNiff takes us on a journey through the past from his Yorkshire beginnings to the darkened corridors along the capital’s Tin Pan Alley.  Now resident in Hastings after a spell in London, where he would frequent the twilight clubs from which he picked up much of his craft, notably through the informed fingers of Bert Jansch, sitting at the guitarist’s feet during his residency at the famed 12 Bar Club just off Soho, the musician reflects on past peregrinations, the troubadour life and the midnight gigs along Denmark Street.  There’s something of the old Les Cousins about this album, with Al Stewart, Jackson C Frank and Wizz Jones waiting in the smoky wings and possibly the spirit of Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” hovering over the reflective “A Load Along”.  Produced by Roger Askew and recorded at his studio in Eastbourne, each of the songs are delivered with an almost fragile voice, an assured guitar accompaniment and one or two tasty electric guitar licks reminiscent of the playing of Philip Donnelly.  Dust of Yesterday is also treated to some unfussy cello and violin accompaniment courtesy of Beth Porter and Basia Bartz respectively.  A taste of Bohemia with a pinch of nostalgia.

Crimi | Luci E Guai | Album Review | Airfono | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.04.21

Luci E Guai sees the healthy cross fertilization of styles from Algerian raï, New Orleans funk and Sicilian folk song, together with more than just a nod towards Afrobeat, to agreeable effect on this, the debut album by the four-piece French group Crimi.  Julien Lesuisse takes his twenty-odd year musical experience as a noted sax player to weave together some of the most delicious rhythms on this exhilarating eight track album, enhanced by some fine guitar and vocal sparring, the two ‘voices’ seemingly made for one another, especially on the stirring “La Vicaria”.  Lesuisse introduces his distinctively conversational sax playing on “Conca d’Oro”, as a prelude to a highly emotive vocal performance, which has an almost  pleading quality.  “Quetzalcoati” offers a moment of hushed reflection before “Ciatu di lu Margiu” lifts the spirits in an explosion of sound, with a groove that would have both David Byrne and Tom Verlaine sitting up and taking note.  The line-up is completed by Cyril Moulas on guitar, Mathieu Felix on bass and Bruno Duval on drums.  This is a very good album and well worth investigating further.

Mike Clerk | The Space Between My Ears | Album Review | Wardlaw Music | 15.04.21

The Space Between My Ears is the debut solo album by the former frontman of The Lost Generation, in which Mike Clerk aims to ‘mend the after effects of historical over indulgence’.  After a period of inactivity, Clerk returns to music having scored a publishing deal with Wardlaw Music, whose impressive roster continues to draw attention.  Going solo is by no means going quiet, nor an opportunity to become withdrawn or contemplative.  There’s no rustic soul searching here, although the acoustic guitar is employed to good effect on both “Come Down With Me” and “You When You”.  Instead, for the most part, Clerk ups the volume and thrashes out ten bold songs with a true alt.rock sensibility.  ‘Who’s My Enemy? is a question tentatively asked during “Do Something New”, a song from which the album’s title derives and an invitation for those who might not necessarily be quite onboard with the idea of a solo Mike Clerk yet.  The songwriting is robust throughout, with seasoned guitar licks mixed with short bursts of electronica and a determined drum beat.  The album should serve existing followers and newcomers alike.

Ben De La Cour | Shadow Land | Album Review |  Flour Sack Cape | 15.04.21

After setting the volume to a reasonably generous level in order to fill the room with the gritty sound of Ben De La Cour’s new album, my immediate thought midway through the opening song, “God’s Own Son’ was Ennio Morricone and his memorable cinematic western scores, largely due to the heavily reverb’d ghost whistle and the threatening sound of a rattlesnake.  Once I eyed the accompanying press release, it occurred to me all over again that great minds tend to think alike, with the comparison already made.  Shadow Land is a bold album, created by a songwriter who means business.  The initial introduction to an outlaw in the first song seems to set the level for the gritty stories to follow in its wake.  “High Heels Down the Holler” takes us from the open space of the prairie to a lively downtown Friday night, with its sleazy, almost sneering fiddle signifying a Devil at play, probably before he makes the trip down to Georgia.  Ben De La Cour used to be a boxer before he hung up his gloves and sharpened his fingernails, to become a guitar slinger, yet maintaining a menacing furrowed brow, ready for the fight.  The fights with the bottle are reflected upon in “The Last Chance Farm”, for which Ben gets up close to the microphone to address his first day in rehab, as if whispering into just the one ear.  Sensitivity is rarely expressed in such convincing terms.  Perhaps the album’s show stopper is “Swan Dive”, a song that addresses suicide with both passion and conviction. 

Ray Cooper | Land of Heroes | Album Review | Westpark Music | 15.04.21

Opening with the mandolin-led instrumental, “The Burning Pile”, inspired by the grizzly events of a 17th century witch trial in Ray Cooper’s adopted home of Sweden, which in a way serves as an overture to the songs that follow, the former Oysterband multi-instrumentalist looks at who our heroes might be today in the age of growing concern.  Known as the cellist who by ditching the chair while also adding a harness to his instrument, made it entirely feasible for Woody Allen’s character in Take the Money and Run to indeed play in a marching band.  There’s more to Ray Cooper though, who delivers these songs in a voice no dissimilar to that of Steve Knightly, especially in the spoken passages, bringing with it an almost preachy aspect.  Locking himself away in his log cabin over summer, coming out only for the occasional swim in the nearby lake, Cooper has woven together these songs of consciousness, looking at such concerns as journalist whistle-blowers, the angel nurses and the occasional beast.  ‘Welcome to the Middle Ages’ the singer announces at the beginning of “The Beast”, in a voice as confident as a circus ringmaster,  considering how history repeats.  Cooper finds heroes closer to home, notably in “Circles” where he fondly recalls a promoter friend, who went above and beyond the call of duty when booking gigs for the musician in Europe.  Our friends and family members can be considered heroes, it doesn’t always have to be those in uniform or those on the posters upon our walls.  Thought provoking in places.

Roberto Cassani | Ansema We Stand | Album Review | Self Release | 15.04.21

With a title that almost predictably translates from the Lombardy dialect of Rivoltano as ‘together’, the new album by Roberto Cassani is a potpourri of musical traditions, each selection delivered in Cassani’s native tongue, which by all accounts is a first, therefore quite unique.  Known chiefly as a double bassist, Cassini crosses borders to bring together the spirit of his native homeland of northern Italy with the sounds and nuances of his adopted Perthshire home.  As an occasional comic performer, some of the fun element is added to his musical palette, certainly on “La Santissima” and “Eviva”, where you can imagine precisely what would’ve happened had Francis Ford Coppola invited a bunch of Scots for the wedding scene in Godfather One, yet the heart of the album comes with such sublime numbers as “L’Arcobalena” and “L’Ada”, both of which are really quite gorgeous.  Helping out on the album is a handful of notable Scots musicians including Anna Massie, John Somerville, Steve Fivey, Ross Ainslie, Hamish Napier and Greg Lawson.

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers | Vol 2 | Album Review | Stony Plain | 15.04.21

For the second installment of these blues sessions recorded back in 2007 but not released until now, we see the late Jim Dickinson once again surrounded by his two sons Luther and Cody Dickinson, together with noted bluesmen Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart and the ex Squirrel Nut Zippers’ frontman Jimbo Mathus, each musician keen to wear their blues sensibilities on their respective sleeves.  As with the first ten songs that were released on Vol 1 last year, there’s a live feel to the sessions, which took place at Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch, with each of the musicians forming a circle as they jammed in earnest.  The liner notes use culinary metaphors a-plenty and you do indeed get the feeling that something was definitely cooking during these sessions.  Charlie Musselwhite takes the lead on the opening number, his harmonica written all over his own blues workout “Blues for Yesterday”, before Alvin Youngblood Hart puts in an excitable reading of Doug Sahm’s mid-1960s 12-bar “She’s About a Mover”.  Jimbo Mathus takes the lead on one of the session highlights, “Searchlight (Soon in the Morning)”, with some fine harmonica playing courtesy of Musselwhite, who spars effortlessly with Dickinson’s piano.  Jim himself takes the piano to the church with the pleading “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atom Bomb on Me”, offering one of the most mournful performances of the entire session.  There’s some between song banter, which indicates that these musicians were having fun at the same time.  Wrapped in almost identical sleeves, differentiated only by the ink stamped branding Vol 1 and Vol 2,  the two discs could easily be released as a double album.

Jason Ringenberg | Rhinestones | Album Review | Courageous Chicken Music | 15.04.21

Spurred into action by the COVID-19 situation, Jason Ringenberg popped on the Stetson and presumably the cowboy boots and got himself rhinestoned.  Among the originals, such as “The Freedom Rides Weren’t Free” and the autobiographical “My Highway Songs”, Ringenberg has selected one or two familiar covers, including the Carter Family’s “The Storms Are on the Ocean”, with a guest appearance by Kristi Rose and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Time Warp”, a sort of rockabilly horror show line dancing masterpiece, together with a nod towards Hank Williams with the bluesy “You Win Again”.  The famed Lakota war leader gets a mention in “I Rode with Crazy Horse”, an almost manic ballad, which tells of the legendary warrior from the perspective of an unnamed cousin who allegedly rode with him in the 19th century.  The general ethos for all this can be found in the chorus on “Stoned on of  Rhinestones”, ‘I’m stoned on rhinestones with a telecaster in my hand, I’m gonna find a satisfied mind pickin’ in a hillbilly band’.  Have your rhinestones ready for the party.

The Ciderhouse Rebellion | The Whitby Rose | Single Review | Self Release | 15.04.21

Under the guise of The Ciderhouse Rebellion, Adam Summerhayes and Murray Grainger explore the intricacies of their respective instruments once again with a brooding instrumental entitled “The Whitby Rose”, named for a boat built by the fishing company that Adam’s grandfather partly owned.  Some of the construction of the boat was filmed by Adam’s grandfather and this piece of music developed with that footage in mind.  The two-part arrangement allows for plenty of improvisation, during which the fiddle and accordion converse, the first part a relatively slow air followed by a slightly more dramatic second part, which brings with it all the tension and mystery of the rugged coastline.  Certainly worth further investigation.

Andrew Howie | Sycamore | Single Review | Self Release | 15.04.21

“Sycamore” is the initial single release from Andrew Howie’s forthcoming album Pale White Branches, a highly melodic song which features the album’s title within its lyric.  Written from the perspective of someone dealing with the ongoing struggle of a partner, while maintaining a hopeful and optimistic message throughout, “Sycamore” is a mature pop song written and performed in the mould of Emitt Rhodes, with a message that seems to say that all’s not lost, citing the sycamore as the relationship’s overriding bonding factor.  There’s a warmth to the melody, with tender lyrics as Lucy Cathcart Frödén provides backing vocals to Andrew Howie’s confident lead.  The single is produced by Iain Hutchison. 

Suthering | Gather | Single Review | Bessie Records  | 15.04.21

The wheatsheaf illustration that adorns the cover of the new single by Suthering, the newly adopted name for the established Devon-based folk duo Julu Irvine and Heg Brignall, illustrates the notion of gathering admirably, as the duo look at the changing seasons.  The interweaving voices, augmented by a gentle piano accompaniment and soothing cello marks an exciting phase in this duo’s journey, with a new name taken from an eye-catching word in Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks who quotes John Clare’s poem The Autumn Wind: ‘The Autumn’s wind on suthering wings’.  This is nothing short of a fantastic single and I see good things ahead for Suthering.


Suzie Ungerleider | Baby Blues | Single Review | Self Release | 15.04.21

Formerly Oh Susannah, the American/Canadian singer/songwriter Suzie Ungerleider now embarks on the next phase of her career, reverting to her birth name, having ditched the moniker in true Chicks and Lady A fashion.  The Northampton, Massachusetts-born, now Vancouver-based singer aims to name her forthcoming album My Name is Suzie Ungerleider as if to emphasise the point further and releases “Baby Blues” in advance of its planned release in August.  Putting all the political correctness aside, we are left with the same singer, the same song writer, who continues to create the same superb music, in this case a slow ballad with a strong confident vocal and lush strings, reflecting on childhood trauma from the vantage point of maturity. 

Mike Vass | Threes | Single Review | Self Release | 15.04.21

During the opening few bars of the new single by Nairn-born composer, musician and producer Mike Vass, a discordant Thelonious Monk note is dropped in, just to give us something to think about.  This is just another in a long line of rewarding surprises that this highly creative musician has brought to the table over the last few years, notably the song based album Save His Calm, which came unexpectedly after a series of purely instrumental albums, Decemberwell, In the Wake of Neil Gunn and Notes from the Boat.  With “Threes”, Mike returns to instrumental tunes based on traditional Scots dance music, which can be enjoyed equally from the dance floor as from the futon.

Christina Alden and Alex Patterson | Hunter | Album Review | Self Release | 01.05.21

The debut album by Christina Alden and Alex Patterson, a fine duo from the heart of Norwich, is probably even better than I initially expected it to be.  I fully expected it to be good, but perhaps not quite this good.  The unique sound that Christina and Alex make, created in the seclusion of their own locked down folk cellar in the centre of Norwich and in the midst of a world pandemic, is encouraging, especially in view of the fact that despite the world being in a state of chronic uncertainty, there’s optimism in these voices and in their empathetic playing.  The songs keep the natural world close at heart, with appearances by the Grey Wolf and the Brown Bear sharing their place in the opening title song, then the Arctic Fox plays its part in “The Fox Song”, while the Greenland Shark makes its presence known in the song of the same name.  Known for her love of books, Christina once again draws inspiration from modern literature in her song “Brooklyn”, inspired by the book of the same name by Colm Tóibín, a song that tenderly addresses the subject of migration.  Each of these songs are delivered by two musicians whose musical empathy cannot be underestimated, as witnessed by anyone who has been fortunate to see the duo live or indeed as the slightly expanded Alden, Patterson and Dashwood, which features the addition of the fine dobro player Noel Dashwood.  The sensitivity of Alex’s fiddle playing and the delicacy of his harmonies over Christina’s assured lead is probably what separates this duo from the crowd.  It all seems so naturally underplayed, yet it’s all so very intricate in the performance.  The songs are crafted around the duo’s fiddle and guitar arrangements, with the occasional banjo, cello and shruti box, plus some additional double bass in places courtesy of Calum McKemmie.  Many already know Christina and Alex from the aforementioned trio and possibly through their support performances on a recent Show of Hands tour, where their music would have been widely heard and appreciated.  As with the trio’s three albums, Call Me Home (2016), By the Night (2018) and Waterbound (2020), Hunter is treated to some of Christina’s original homemade artwork, which is part and parcel of their artistic endeavour, once again presenting everything they touch with a personal artisan feel.  Listening to the songs and tunes on Hunter is almost like an invitation to join them in their folk cellar, its acoustics being immediately felt.  The duo state in the album’s liner notes that Hunter comes from a desire to produce something positive out of a difficult and uncertain time: “Before the pandemic hit we had a full year of concerts booked throughout the UK and Europe, and like many other artists we saw those all fall away within a matter of weeks. This came as a big shock and was initially very hard to come to terms with; losing our work and our sense of identity.  We wanted to channel our energy into something positive and so decided to record our debut duo album. We used our new-found time and space to be creative; to write, compose and develop new music.  Hunter is a superb album that immediately takes its place in a growing canon of beautifully realised songs and tunes that keeps the British acoustic music scene alive, even through difficult and unprecedented times.

Amy Speace with The Orphan Brigade | There Used to be Horses Here | Album Review | Proper | 01.05.21

There Used to be Horses Here is a highly personal album of songs that span an eventful twelve-month period in Amy’s life, a year that saw both the first birthday of her son and the loss of her father, each event encompassing a whole range of emotions.  The award-winning singer-songwriter tackles such subjects with utter conviction, wearing her heart pretty much on her sleeve throughout, notably on the gorgeous title song.  Dad is lovingly remembered here as well as on the delicate “Fathers Day” and again on the heart-breaking “Grief is a Lonely Land”, which I imagine would have been difficult for this daughter to get through.  It’s perhaps with “Hallelujah Train” though, the first single from the album, that we see Amy in full-throttle, reaching for a veritable tidal wave of passion, which at times veers very much into the territory of Mavis Staples; a heartfelt Gospel holler of both pain and resolve.  The Nick Drake chords on the opening “Down the Trail” sets up the mood perfectly, while the album closer, Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” wraps things up accordingly, leaving us with an album of tenderness, warmth and rare beauty. 

Banter | Three | Album Review | Mrs Casey Records | 01.05.21

The third outing for this trio is succinctly described by its title Three, which follows in the footsteps of both Yes (2017) and Dare (2019), once again arriving with just a one word, single syllable, yet fully explanatory title.  Simon Care takes care of melodeon duties once again, with Nina Zella on keyboards and vocals, easily comparable to Christine McVie, together with Tim Walker on drums, percussion and brass, completing the trio’s line-up, while adding a few dance calls as and when required.  Established now as one of the UKs most beloved dance bands, having no apparent difficulty in filling festival dance floors (in better times) with even the most two left-footed among us, the trio have crafted some truly great songs together, each equipped with both sensitivity and informed musical prowess.  They ain’t just a ceilidh band that’s for sure.  The trio has already garnered the attention of Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, both of who are probably still scratching their heads at just how this fully formed sound can possibly be created by just three musicians, bearing in mind their own respective efforts in forming much larger outfits over the years.  Banter has also elicited the support of such musicians as John Spiers and Phil Beer, both of whom appear as guests here on “The Labourer” and “Unquiet Grave” respectively.  “The Hitchin May Day Song” is a veritable showcase of musical arrangement, a piano-led song that threatens to break out into a Floral Dance virus at any given moment and with the help of Tim’s brass, does precisely that midway through, yet sparing us the presence of any worrying Wogan samples.  There’s much invention in “Moll in the Wad”, for which the trio effortlessly stretch out with a more improvisational approach, bringing jazz elements to the fore, before returning to “Home Sweet Home”, another completely valid modern folk song.  I see this album selling like hot cakes once the festival season is allowed to return.

COB | Spirit of Love | Album Review | Bread and Wine | 01.05.21

The spirit of 1971’s underground alternative folk scene is captured here with the re-issue of the Ralph McTell produced debut album by COB or Clive’s Original Band, a name coined by McTell’s then manager Jo Lustig to hopefully cash in on a similar moniker to that of Clive Palmer’s former outfit, the Incredible String Band, which wasn’t doing bad for itself at the time.  As with the ISB’s original line-up, three seemed to be a good enough number, with Clive joined by Mick Bennett and John Bidwell, each who play a variety of instruments, both common and exotic, notably John’s then recently invented Dulcitar, a sort of Heath Robinson mash-up of the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer and the Indian Sitar.  The ten tracks, re-issued for the first time on vinyl since the 1971 original, include the haunting “Music of the Ages”, the vocal strong “Wade in the Water” and the revisited instrumental “Banjo Land”, complete with the joyous seaside sample left fully intact.  File alongside your Incredibles and Vashti Bunyans.    

Chris Flegg | Twenty’s Plenty | Album Review | Self Release | 01.05.21

The sparse doodle on the cover illustrates perfectly what we might expect from the latest album by the St Albans-based guitarist Chris Flegg, a fine selection of guitar tunes, presumably while seated.  The title goes on to allude to the quantity of tunes involved, suggesting that the number is also quite sufficient.  The twenty pieces are broad in scope, ranging from ragtime tunes ala Stefan Grossman and John James, to some jazz oriented material, superbly rendered with an informed approach to playing.  Though solo throughout, such pieces as “Special July Delivery” tend to have you wishing that Stephane Grappelli will come along at any given moment, just to add some spice.  Nevertheless, there’s a cheerfulness woven into these guitar tunes, each one played superbly well, with little in the way of tedium or further wanting.  It’s not background music by any means, but there again, there’s nothing here to get up and dance to.  What is here, is something both soothing and reflective, perfect for the device of your choice while relaxing in the garden when summer finally breaks through the miasma of COVID-19. 

Nigel G Lowndes | Hello Mystery | Album Review | Self Release | 01.05.21

The starting point for this Bristol-based singer-songwriter’s debut album is perhaps “Mystery”, a break up song of sorts from which the album gets its title.  The seed was planted after a handful of songwriting workshops with such writers as Boo Hewerdine and Darden Smith, whereupon Nigel G Lowndes began to identify himself as a bone-fide singer-songwriter, equipped with his own distinctive style albeit with a slightly leftfield angle.  There’s a certain oddball leaning, which manifests itself in such songs as “Boring”, which is almost reminiscent of the very British post punk and new wave bands of the late nineteen-seventies, early nineteen-eighties such as Squeeze and Orange Juice, an upbeat pop song that shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than that.  Songs like “Furry Little Vampires” and “Cup of Tea” keep us engaged and perhaps encourage one or two smiles, while the country waltz time of “White Roses” and the almost Ray Davies-like “Always Leaving London” capture a storyteller who tells everyday stories with little fanfare.

Teenage Fanclub | Endless Arcade | Album Review | Self Release | 01.05.21

The almost sprawling seven-minute opener on this, the tenth album from Belshill’s best, is an engaging mixture of Byrds-like folk pop and Steely Dan guitar riffing circa “Reeling in the Years”, both fine ingredients for any potential radio play.  “Home” begins enthusiastically but doesn’t quite know when to quit, marked by its abrupt conclusion.  Endless Arcade was recorded in Hamburg prior to the lockdown and marks the first album release to feature the experimental folk-pop artist and former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci musician Euros Childs throughout.  With both Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley maintaining their roles at the helm of Teenage Fanclub, sharing the writing credits, Endless Arcade is packed with melodic songs such as “Warm Embrace”, which could be mistaken for an early Who b-side, complete with Moon-like drums and choppy guitar throughout.  By the fourth song, “Everything is Falling Apart”, pop history has already been referenced albeit briefly and almost subliminally, with such phrases as ‘bad moon rising’, ‘I want to hold your hand’ and ‘walk don’t run’, which in a way adds to the overt pop sensibility of this material.  The outstanding “The Sun Won’t Shine on Me”, with its “I Got You Babe” chord structure is both warm and uplifting in feel, despite its woeful lyric.  There’s really no getting past the influence of the 1960s west coast bands such as the Beach Boys and the Byrds, yet there’s a contemporary feel that continues to permeate the music that Teenage Fanclub makes, which is probably one of the reasons Kurt Cobain sang the band’s praises widely before he joined his lucrative club.  If anything, the album is crying out for something slower, more reflective and less jolly jangly if only for balance, although having said that, “The Future” and the album closer “Silent Song” come close.

M G Boulter | Clifftown | Album Review | Hudson Records | 01.05.21

Wrapped in a sleeve that echoes the loneliness of a deserted, yet once vibrant seaside resort, the songs on Clifftown reflect life in such a town, where old ladies feed fruit machines while the smell of fish along the seafront palisades draw lines from acute observation.  It’s almost like looking through M G Boulter’s notebook after a day roaming the back streets of Southend-on-Sea, reflections of ordinary life, where some stay stacking shelves to the sound of Elvis over the tannoy, while others manage to escape on silver birds across the sky.  There’s monster movies, magnificent aquarium fishes and herons on the gables, a feast of mind adventures from the corner table of a promenade cafe.  Boulter’s voice is reminiscent of Paul Simon, or perhaps something between Simon and Gary Stewart, whose band provides the only possible way of hearing Graceland in its entirety on stage these days, a clear vocal, where every word is heard and every syllable fully understood.  “The Author of All Things, She Speaks” has something of Graceland about it, which is not a bad thing, while “Fan of the Band” does nothing to even slightly stray from this notion.  Despite these comparisons, Boulter is certainly his own man and his voice is very much his, possibly his strongest asset next to his credentials as a fine songsmith, a voice that delivers songs in a convincingly tender manner on both the up-tempo material and the quieter moments, notably the poetic “Simon of Sudbury”.  Produced by Andy Bell and featuring guest appearances by Sam Sweeney, Lucy Farrell and Pete Flood among others, Clifftown is something of a masterpiece of brooding lyricism.

Greg Hancock | Architecture and Archaeology | Album Review | Self Release | 01.05.21

Architecture and Archaeology is added to Greg Hancock’s two previous album releases A303 (2017) and The State of My Hair (2019), which now makes up a trilogy of albums of songs based on recollections, memories and reflections from the past, spanning childhood through to the present day.  With musical influences that stretch back to first hearing the guitar playing of Jimmy Page, through the guitar-toting troubadours of the mid to late 1960s, namely Bert Jansch and John Martyn, together with an added appreciation of mid-period Joni Mitchell, Greg’s songs are well-crafted, mature and highly personal.   Opening with “Changing”, which features David Harbottle and Freya Jonas on backing vocals, the album’s warmth is immediately felt, with its easy on the ear percussive Martyn-styled slapped guitar throughout.  The album continues with the ecologically aware “Elephants”, a humdinger of a song that captures the innocence of youth, complete with a sigh of relief that at least ‘not all the elephants have gone’ as predicted they would have by now.  If childhood memories are strong, then adult reflections on immediate family matters are equally powerful, such as “Not Quite Ready”, which is possibly Greg Hancock’s “Randall Knife”, a meditation on his difficult relationship with his father, especially towards the end, which is in turn beautifully rendered with honesty and conviction.  “What You’re Looking For” takes a wry look at our shopping excesses, with possibly tongue in cheek frankness.  Greg pops into the set an instrumental guitar piece “This Day (Like All Days)”, which has echoes of the sensitivity of perhaps a Nick Drake for instance, before concluding with the lilting Harvest Moon-like “Peaches and Cream”.  A thoughtful album that squares up to the human condition.

Bob Bradshaw | The Ghost Light | Album Review | Fluke | 01.05.21

Despite the impossibility of live gigs both at the moment as well as over the last year, the down time has been filled quite successfully in places, or at least fruitfully, with a wealth of remarkable albums recorded in quarantine.  Songs and stories are produced from life’s experiences and a rampant destructive world virus might very well count among the most likely topics for songs these days.  However, Bob is keen to point out that The Ghost Light is by no means a pandemic record, but instead an album made up of universal songs that bind us together as a society.  The Cork-born singer-songwriter takes as a starting point the songs we once heard on the radio, a mid-tempo soft rock anthem that recalls a more liberated time, when tunes could be heard from an open top car with the breeze flowing through our hair, along with the music.  With twangy guitars and the occasional pedal steel accompaniment, Bradshaw’s country sensibilities are on show, while the mixture of resonator guitar and Hammond B-3 points towards an equally prominent blues affiliation.  “Gone” exemplifies this best, with its Randy Newman-like vocal over a distinctly swampy Muscle Shoals backdrop.  “Sideways” on the other hand, veers off along a more tango focused side road, featuring some fine bandoneon playing courtesy of the Argentinean musician Francisco Martinez Herrera.  Named for the theatreland superstition of leaving a single bulb burning when the hall goes dark, to apparently appease the spirits, The Ghost Light is perhaps filling that particular gap, until the spot light is switched back on again, which shouldn’t be too far away now.

Low Island | If You Could Have It All Again | Album Review | Emotional Interference | 01.05.21

Having worked together on theatre music, the multi-instrumentalist Carlos Posada and bassist Jacob Lively widened their horizons by adding Jamie Kay and Felix Higginbottom to create music of a more cinematic nature, inviting comparisons with both Caribou and Radiohead.  Based in Oxford, Low Island are a band with a new focus after a series of false starts and missteps, creating their debut album completely on their own terms working together with an almost cottage industry aesthetic.  If You Could Have It All Again is an eleven track excursion into emotional investigation, some of it semi-explained in the coda of the final song “What the Hell (Are You Gonna Do Now?)”.  Half an hour earlier, the album begins with Posada’s rich Art Garfunkel falsetto over a repetitive Laurie Anderson-like “O Superman” staccato as “Hey Man,” (with compulsory comma), sets a precedent for the rest of the album to follow.  There’s a healthy mixture of dance rhythms and low key balladry, backed by a wealth of electronic textures and pulsating beats, all of which makes a compelling whole.

Seafoam Green | House on the Hill | Single Review | Self Release | 01.05.21

Bridging the ever narrowing ocean between Dublin and Atlanta, the Irish songwriting duo of Dave O’Grady and Muireann McDermott Long, otherwise Seafoam Green, take to southern rock like ducks to water, revitalising the sound of those bands of the early 1970s, who still appear to have their rock licks and soulful delivery fully intact.  Lifted from the band’s forthcoming album Martin’s Garden, Seafoam Green’s second studio album, “House on the Hill”, is stuffed with no-nonsense slide guitar riffs ala Duane Allman, together with funky Garth Hudson-like clavinet motifs, a sort of amalgam of early Little Feat, Delaney and Bonnie and The Band all rolled into one.  If their first outing involved the Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson, then the Tedeshi Trucks Band’s Tyler Greenwell is probably an equally inspired choice of collaborator for their eagerly anticipated second album.  “House on the Hill” makes the anticipation all the more tangible.

Seán Gray | The Great Stariski | Single Review | Frame Records  | 01.05.21

There’s not the slightest attempt to mask Seán Gray’srich Scots accent as he tells the story of Johnny Stariski, a sort of Barnum character of Polish descent working in the Barony coalfields, whose penchant for dangerous ‘magic tricks’ high above the coal face became legendary, an example of which is illustrated in the sleeve artwork.  The former Paul McKenna Band musician and noted session man collaborates with Scots poet Rab Wilson, adapting his poem The Great Stariski with both sensitivity and warmth, the musician and poet both sharing a passion for Ayrshire’s mining history.  Rab actually worked alongside Johnny in the mid-late 70s and early 80s and much of that first hand account can be detected in the lines.  Opening (and closing) to the sounds of the the working colliery’s bell and winding wheel, “The Great Stariski” brings to mind the industry’s noble past, it’s people and it’s occasional colourful characters, Johnny Stariski being one of them.  Admiral Fallow’s Joe Rattray and Blue Rose Code drummer Stuart Brown join the multi-instrumentalist on this highly evocative single. 

Michael Lane | Good Times |  Single Review | Greywood Records | 01.05.21

In these difficult times, it’s possibly the more upbeat, bright and breezy, open top car radio songs that seem to resonate, especially when the light appears to be getting slightly brighter at the end of the long tunnel. The German-American singer-songwriter, music producer and ex-serviceman Michael Lane delivers a song with a positive feel and an equally positive hum-a-long vocal riff that permeates throughout, yet a message of caution is embedded in the lyric, that true happiness is no so easily come by.  With a growing number of accolades already secured, such as having had two top 50 songs in the German charts, four albums behind him, one or two international tours done and dusted and having one of his songs chosen as the official song for one of Europe’s biggest international ski jump events, “Good Times” can be added to his growing list of achievements.

Eoin Glackin | How Quick the World Can Change | Single Review | Good Deeds Music | 01.05.21

Eoin Glackin is a Dublin-born singer-songwriter, who points out in this short and snappy song, something we all probably aware of already, especially on the anniversary of the start of this war, that the world can indeed change from one familiar thing to something almost entirely alien very quickly.  With an engaging and pulsating metronomic bass throughout, together with a veritable showcase of cheerful banjo and slide guitar sparring, the rhythm is maintained for the duration of this brightly performed song of hope.  If Eoin’s intention is to lead us towards the notion that things can get better if we work at it, then it’s up to the rest of us to see that it does and with an enthusiastic tap of the foot.

M Ross Perkins | Bird of the World | Single Review | Karma Chief Records | 01.05.21

“Bird of the World” immediately brings to mind the jangly mid-sixties Rickenbacker folk/pop of Roger McGuinn and his pals, this version courtesy of the Dayton, Ohio singer-songwriter Michael Ross Perkins, whose sense of melody and harmony is demonstrated throughout this highly uplifting song.  Originally released as single in the mid-nineties by Bill Fox, the song has an even more punchy feel in the hands of the former Goodbye front man, who updates the original’s lo-fi recording with a fully bloomed West Coast sound, complete with strong melodic guitar riffing in the vein of Lennon and McCartney’s “And Your Bird Can Sing”, which really wouldn’t seem all that out of place on any of the early Byrds albums if not quite on the second side of Revolver

Eli West | Tapered Point of Stone | Album Review | Self Release | 15.05.21

Eli West is perhaps best known for his work as part of a successful duo with Cahalen Morrison, whose fine dove-tailed musical empathy has impressed many an audience over the past few years and for good reason.  Here though, West goes it alone, albeit with a little help from an array of choice musicians, which includes Andrew Marlin and Clint Mullican on mandolin and bass respectively, both known for their work in Mandolin Orange, together with Christian Sedlemeyer (Jerry Douglas) on fiddle.  There’s also some cross continent pollination with Julie Fowlis lending her emotive voice to the show-stopping “I Know Your Wandering Heart”.  Recorded in 2020, just before the pandemic gate-crashed the party, Tapered Point of Stone is made up of thirteen songs and tunes, which opens with “Ginny’s Little Longhorn”, a fine uplifting instrumental and a showcase of musical dexterity.  As with much of this sort of bluegrass-related playing, there’s something joyful about the songs and tunes, with each of the musicians seemingly enjoying the collaborative experience.  Despite the impending darkness of the imminent lockdown just over a year ago, Eli West had his own personal darkness to deal with after losing his father, never a pleasant thing to have to go through, even in better times.  The songs and tunes on this album, have however helped the musician find a way through the grief, some of which is addressed in the title song “Tapered Point of Stone”.  Thoughts of his father and the family environment in which he grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which is the home to the Roosevelt elk, certainly comes over in the song – ‘The horns protrude in anger and beg to take my crown, meanwhile the fleece of grief slips off quite like a gown’.  There’s some fine interplay between the fiddle, banjo and mandolin throughout the album, especially on the instrumentals, which include “Cwtch”, “Twin Bridges” and “Johnny Wombat” amongst them, with West’s comforting vocal adding that all important flavour, especially on “Brick in the Road”, “The Hearth” and the gospel-tinged closer “Three Links of Chain”.  We hope it’s not too long before Eli can get out on the road with this superb set of songs and tunes.  

Maria Muldaur | Let’s Get Happy Together | Album Review | Stony Plain | 15.05.21

Throughout an impressive career in American roots music, Maria Muldaur has released over forty albums, almost continuously traversing a wide variety of styles, each one rooted in the very fabric of American music and culture.  The sound that the New Orleans-based street band Tuba Skinny makes seems to be very much where Maria finds her comfort zone, as her familiar voice decorates a music whose instrumentation alone paints a vivid picture of what this album is all about, namely Shaye Cohn on cornet, Todd Burdick on tuba, Barnabus Jones on trombone, Jason Lawrence on banjo, Craig Flory on clarinet, Greg Sherman and Max Bien-Kahn on guitars and Robin Rapuzzi on washboard.  Added to the instruments and the musicians that play them is the album’s title, Let’s Get Happy Together, which further exemplifies the fun to be had on this album, even before we press play.  Recorded at the Marigny Studios in New Orleans, the dozen songs and tunes lift the spirits from the start with a song originally performed by the Goofus Five back in the 1920s.  The joyful sound of “I Like You Best of All” introduces us to the band, with plenty of New Orleans-styled syncopated jazz interaction.  Paying tribute to such figures as Lil Hardin Armstrong, Irving Berlin,  the Boswell Sisters, Dorothy Lamour, Annette Henshaw and Sweet Pea Spivey, Maria pulls together some inspirational tunes that are created to stroke our emotions and stir our souls.  If Maria’s voice has a slight wobble in places, which comes with most who are still singing after fifty years in the business, then it’s that natural waver that makes this album sound so delightful. 

Gnoss | The Light of the Moon | Album Review | Blackfly Records | 15.05.21

There’s a subtle confidence in the combined playing of this young Glasgow-based quartet that can be immediately felt on The Light of the Moon, the band’s second album release.  Formed in 2015 by Orcadians Aidan Moodie (guitar/vocal) and Graham Rorie (fiddle/mandolin/electric tenor guitar), who would later add to their line-up Connor Sinclair (whistles/flute/backing vocals) and Craig Baxter (bodhran/percussion), Gnoss take advantage of their combined musical chops to deliver a dozen original songs and tunes with the help and assistance of Skerryvore’s Scott Wood, who co-produced the album at his Oak Ridge Studios.  Predominantly instrumental, the album includes four new songs, each written by Moodie, whose slick vocal delivery seems to give the album its heart.  If the songs leap out as fine examples of contemporary song writing, then the instrumental tracks showcase the band’s ability to read into each other’s minds, to bring a solidly unified sound to each of the selections, which provides each musician the opportunity to shine, which they invariably do, with one or two of the numbers underpinned by Breabach’s James Lindsay on double bass.  You don’t have to wait around much for something special to come along on this album.

Comorian | We Are An Island, But We’re Not Alone | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 15.05.21

It’s more than just encouraging to find that here in the twenty-twenties, the spirit of John and Alan Lomax, Sam Charters, Charles Parker et al lives on, in this case in the bold endeavours of producer Ian Brennan, who takes six flights to the middle of nowhere in search of new voices and new music.  You have to take your magnifying glass out to find the Comoro Islands, which are situated just off the south-eastern coast of Africa with Mozambique to the west and Madagascar to the southeast.  The ten songs included here were recorded live with no overdubs for the Hidden Musics series by Brennan and feature Soubi, who plays the ndzendze and gambussi, Mmadi, who also plays the ndzendze and who both share lead vocals, together with D Alimze on Guma drum, who also adds background vocals.  The music is raw, often enchanting and almost certainly steeped in the traditions of the islands.     

Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola | The Smoky Smirr O’ Rain | Album Review | Eighth Nerve Audio | 15.05.21

Each new album released by the Norway-based Scottish/Finnish duo of Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola, always seems to bring enchantment, mood and inventiveness, without any need for words or verbal stories.  The stories are told through the music alone.  The Smoky Smirr O Rain is the duo’s third album to date and features eleven selections that investigate a variety of sonic textures through Sarah’s extraordinary fiddle playing and Juhani’s inspired guitar and piano performances.  Midway through the album, “Borrowed Days” brings much drama to the set, with an impressive conversation between the landscape and the birds that fly above, eerily capturing the essence of nature through the duo’s instruments alone.  There’s ancient heroic ballads, jigs and reels, polskas and some fine and moody airs and melodies to savour throughout the set.  Drawing from both traditional and contemporary music from the Highlands to the Fjords, Sarah and Juhani are once again impressive to the nth degree with their innovative textures and outstanding musical flair.

Annie Keating | Bristol County Tides | Album Review | Self Release | 15.05.21

There’s been plenty of soul searching over the past twelve months or so, brought on by circumstances beyond our control, yet some of those among us with a creative bent have managed to get through it with some determination.  Singer-songwriter Annie Keating has taken this opportunity to write, record and deliver an album in lockdown, retreating to Bristol County, Massachusetts, where fifteen songs emerged with renewed energy and creativity.  “Half Mast” provides a glimpse into how lockdown feels; like a hurricane, a world falling apart, yet endured with human resilience and resolve.  Midway through, “Hank’s Saloon” offers a inebriated knees-up among the more sensitive material, a song to let one’s hair down to.  Describing the making of Bristol County Tides as ‘the greatest studio experience ever’, Annie dedicates the album to her mother for her continued support and also includes a song especially for her. “Doris” provides the album with its heart, a fine tribute to an 83 year-old, who still drives with one foot on the brake and one on the gas and who sips Johnny Walker Red, but probably not at the same time.  The album is quite punchy in places, which demonstrates the tightness of the band, certainly on such songs as “Lucky 13” and “Kindred Spirit”.  Working alongside such musicians as Teddy Kumpel (Joe Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones), Richard Hammond (Joan Osbourne, Patti Austin), Steve Williams (Sade, David Byrne) and Todd Caldwell (CSN, James Taylor), Annie has managed to follow John Prine’s adage, to stay vulnerable and in doing so, has created possibly a career best. 

Staran | Staran | Album Review | Self Release | 15.05.21

For the eponymous debut album by the newly formed Staran, Rura’s John Lowrie has brought together some of the finest of Scotland’s musicians currently working in both traditional and contemporary music.  Each of the musicians involved have already established themselves on the national music circuit and their names will be familiar to many; Innes White, James Lindsay, Jack Smedley and notably Gaelic singer Kim Carnie, whose vocal performances on such songs as “Dà Làimh sa Phìob” and “Horò gun Togainn air Hùgan Fhathast Thu” are nothing short of exemplary.  Instrumentally, the band tackle each selection with an assured confidence on both the sensitive and tender piano-led material, such as “Einbeck” and the first half of “Balcarres” as well as the more vibrant musical interplay of the more uptempo “Casino” and the lilting “Back to Glasgow”, each a show piece of inventive arrangement. The term ‘Staran’, roughly translates from the Gaelic to either path, trail or stepping stones, its theme reflecting time and place, especially now.  Closing the set, “Settle, Honey” features a fine vocal from Kim, this time delivered in English, bringing a soulful, almost gospel feel to the album, a fine closer, which should have audiences reaching for their smartphone torches once this war is over.

Paul Handyside | Loveless Town | Album Review | Malady Music | 15.05.21

The former Hurrah! and Bronze singer-songwriter returns with another fine solo album, his fourth to date, following on from 2007’s Future’s Dream, 2013’s Wayward Son and the most recent, 2016’s Tide, Timber and Grain, each certainly worth a mention here.  Loveless Town consists of eleven self-penned originals, once again delivered in Handyside’s familiar country troubadour style, a little bit Willie Nelson, a little bit Buddy Holly, with a voice as strong as a determined Neil Diamond.  With some fine dobro accompaniment in places, courtesy of Rob Tickell, who has also produced, engineered and mixed the album, the songs lean in a country infused direction, following the country ballad tradition.  With further assistance from David Porthouse, who looks after the double bass, melodeon, banjo and percussion, the songs are treated to fine arrangements throughout, that range from the pacey “Not in My Name” to the soulful and anthemic “Only You”.  Reminding us of his Northumbrian roots, Handyside reflects on the 1862 colliery disaster in the moving “Hartley Pit Catastrophe”, his local dialect seeping in through the Americana cracks.

Craig Cardiff | All This Time Running | Album Review | True North Records | 15.05.21

The distinctive voice of the Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff permeates the eleven songs and additional six bonus tracks on All This Time Running, his first album of new material in six years and one the musician claims to be the most well-rounded of his career so far.  Leading with the album’s title song, “All This Time Running” is a fine opener that serves to peel off the lid of this collection of songs and a song that also serves to bring this musician full circle and back to his Canadian roots.  The songs are for the main part optimistic, with some positive major key melodies and joyful harmonies such as “Emm & May”, “Yellowknife” and the brass enhanced “Moon”.  Of the bonus material, Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”, the only cover on the album, stands proud as a fine example of musical interpretation, although Kate Bush is conspicuous by her absence.  Would it have been too much for either of his fellow Ottowans Lynn Miles or Alanis Morrisette to deputise?  Joking aside, this is a fine interpretation with a good arrangement, complete with an uplifting build.  Good songs, well performed. 

Scott Matthews | New Skin | Album Review | Shedio Records | 15.05.21

New Skin, the new album by the Ivor Novello Award-winning songwriter Scott Matthews is a study in mood, comprising ten original songs that tug at your sensory organs.  In places, Matthews’ voice is reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright in tone, notably his similar use of the extended syllable and its theatrical delivery, “Wait in the Car” and “Morning” for example, yet in other places, a more introspective performer you couldn’t imagine.  New Skin was created out of the inability to tour due to the inconvenience of lockdown, Matthews going on to allow his creative juices to flow in a more ambient and solitary setting, using the acoustic and electro tools at his disposal.  Though completely original, it’s not all totally new, in fact the dreamy “My Selfless Moon” was written right back at the start of his career around fifteen years ago, possibly waiting for an opportunity for a suitable airing.  Yes there are shades of Drake (Nick, not the Canadian rapper), Simon (Paul, not Carly) and Buckley (Jeff, not the family Beagle in the Royal Tenenbaums), but mostly it’s Scott Matthews in both body and soul.  This is really an album that needs time for its beauty to seep under your skin, new or otherwise.

Cave States | Julie Says | EP Review | Self Release | 15.05.21

This three-track EP by Cave States, the St Louis, Missouri-based indie band, leads with “Julie Says”, Danny Kathriner’s contemporary song of failed friendships (names changed to protect.. etc.).  Semi-autobiographical at its core, the song tells of a breakdown in a relationship, a tale of two peas in a pod, where presumably the pod is too small for the both of them.   The band, formed by Kathriner, Chris Grabau and Todd Schnitzer, flexes its musical muscles here, with a much fuller sound than in the band’s previous, more minimalistic work, notably in the infectious drum and hand clap syncopation, with just the slightest sprinkling of an acoustic guitar among the piano and scattered sampling and electronica.  Also included on the EP is the richly orchestrated “Time for Telling” and the country-inflected “Gone Are The New Days”, all three songs recorded and mixed at Todd Schnitzer’s Popscreen Studios. 

Twelfth Day | Fact of Life | Single Review | Orange Feather Records | 15.05.21

The two classically trained musicians that make up Twelfth Day, violinist Catriona Price and harpist Esther Swift, have now been fascinating audiences with their special music for over a decade, both through their initial EP and their subsequent three full-length albums, as well as through their many live appearances.  The ethereal sound that this duo so effortlessly make, through their breathy voices and delicate playing, continues to create a stirring effect with their latest single “Fact of Life”, which compels us to listen with a discerning ear.  Lyrically, the song takes a look at our own generational past as exemplified by the cover illustration by Tom Swift, where age and time is captured in a haunting melody, which appears to hover in the ether.  A magical record.  

Justin Bernasconi | Blank Page | Single Review | Self Release | 15.05.21

Most writers, poets, songsmiths and dare I say, music reviewers, occasionally suffer from what is commonly referred to as ‘writer’s block’ and many writers have written about just that when stuck for something/anything to say.  Songwriter Tom Robinson once said at a writer’s workshop at the Cambridge Folk Festival, which this songwriter could very well have attended, that if you wake in the morning and can’t think of anything to write, then take a pencil and a piece of paper and write ‘I can’t think of anything to write’.  It’s a start and it will lead to something more creative.  The Cambridgeshire-born, now Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Justin Bernasconi, writes about the dreaded blank page in this new single, which starts ‘here I go again..’, as if he’s been there several times before.  With Justin Olson’s drums fuelling the momentum, peppered with Anita Hillman’s cello and Ben Franz on double bass, together with Bernasconi’s assured finger-picked guitar, “Blank Page” maintains a tangible tension through to the end.  The single also includes a bonus ‘b side’, “Flags Staked Upon This Hill”, a song that addresses the breakdown of a relationship.

Chris Cleverley | The Arrows and the Armour |  Single Review | Opiate Records | 15.05.21

Chris Cleverley claims that this song is an anti-love song, a song that looks deeper into the modern psyche, with a clear awareness of our everyday anxieties and concerns.  Addressed to some unidentified ‘Gods’ (plural), this epistolary song pleads for a less severe arrow next time, something that might cause less distress, in a way addressing mental health issues, something Chris is deeply involved with.  As the second single release from his acclaimed album We Sat Back and Watched it Unfold, the song seems to have further resonance these days, in the thick of a world pandemic, and endeavours to look at a broader picture when it comes to matters of the heart.  Produced by Sam Kelly and featuring such contemporary folk luminaries as Jamie Francis, Evan Carson, Lukas Drinkwater and notably Katie Stevens, whose whistle solo brings a Celtic flavour to the song, “The Arrows and the Armour” has an uplifting feel and bounces with soaring energy throughout, culminating in a fine vocal coda, courtesy of Chris, together with Kim Lowings and Kathy Pilkinton.

Mister Peculiar | Things I’ll Never Learn | Single Review | Self Release  | 15.05.21

With a decade of music making now behind him, this singer, songwriter and guitar player known as Mister Peculiar releases a new single, which joins a small body of work that already includes two full-length albums and a couple of EPs.  Very much used to working with a series of bands and enjoying a number of collaborations with others, Mister Peculiar then began working as a solo artist, which continues with this latest single “Things I’ll Never Learn”, which is the first single from his yet to be released third album, a gentle acoustic driven performance delivered in a gentle growl reminiscent of Steve Earle or Shane MacGowan, a reflection on life, on the past, and possibly on the future, but with a bottle of wine nearby.  Joining Mister Peculiar, who also plays a tasty acoustic guitar solo midway through, is Felix Matozza on bass, Vincenzo Matozza on percussion and Laura Tibaldi providing some empathetic backing vocals. 

Jack Badcock | Penny Sweets | Single Review | Self Release | 15.05.21

“Penny Sweets” is the third single release from Jack Badcock’s five-track EP The Driftwood Project and reflects on the songwriter’s earlier days, reminiscences of traveling around the world to such places as Viet Nam, when living for the moment was paramount.  The Dallahan founder finds his sensitive side here and delivers the song in a style reminiscent of the sleepy gentleness of a Nick Drake song, with a crisp and clear finger-picked guitar style, its ethereal quality enhanced by sweeping strings and the occasional confident falsetto.  Hannah Rarity offers some haunting breathy harmonies, while the string quartet, made up of Seonaid Aitken and Benedict Morris on first and second violin respectively, together with Patsy Reid on viola and Su-a Lee on cello, wraps its respective musical chops around the arrangement like a warm duvet.  Recorded by Pablo Lafuente at Gran’s House Studio, “Penny Sweets” stands as a delicate and gentle song that works as a stand alone track or indeed played on repeat.

Gary Stewart | Lost Now Found | Album Review | Self Release | 01.06.21

Many among today’s festival goers would agree that Gary Stewart’s seven-piece homage to Paul Simon’s outstanding Graceland album, which the band has lit up many a stage with up and down the country over the last few years, is perhaps the most memorable set of the festival, due in no small part to its vibrant feel and painstaking attention to detail.  This Perthshire-born multi-instrumentalist has made no secret of his admiration for the work of Paul Simon, nor has he hidden his appreciation of other such songwriters as James Taylor, Carole King and Joni Mitchell, in fact having worked the folk club and concert hall circuit of the UK, especially around his adoptive Yorkshire homes of Leeds and now York, Gary has himself blossomed as a singer-songwriter in his own right.  The occupation that perhaps takes prominence on his impressive CV is that of a drummer, a seat he proudly takes in the popular band Hope+Social, his familiar blue blazer presumably making frequent trips to the dry cleaners.  As a soloist Gary has already released two acclaimed albums, together with a couple of EPs.  His latest, Lost, Now Found, is an album made up of ten new originals, its creation coming as much a surprise to Gary as to us.  A self-confessed procrastinator, Gary approached the first lockdown with a TV remote firmly in his hand, ready and prepared for the long haul, yet the spark of one song (“Leopard”) kept nagging at him, along with an unexpected drive to learn a new skill, that of a home producer, all of which kickstarted a journey that has now reached its fruition on the eve of Gary’s landmark birthday.  Opening with the immediately accessible “Tailspin”, enhanced by Sam Lawrence and James Hamilton’s respective woodwind and brass, the album unfurls at pace, with the “Graceland” inflected “Hot to Trot” following hot on its tail.  The song sees Gary reunite with long-time buddy Rosie Doonan (Peter Gabriel/Birdy/John Metcalfe/Mighty Doonans) who adds flavour to the song as she does with the later “Tu Eres Mi Media Naranja” and the beautifully delicate title song.  The voices of Gary and Rosie have always worked well together, siblings in both voice and spirit if not specifically in genes.  With some strong vocal performances and arrangements throughout, notably on “Front Lines”, a song that tips a hat of gratitude to the NHS for getting us through this awful mess and which also features some almost subliminal whistle accompaniment courtesy of Ross Ainslie, the album also includes a generous layering of percussive embellishments, including the xylophone, glockenspiel, finger cymbals and obligatory thigh taps (what’s good enough for Buddy Holly is good enough for me).  Lost, Now Found also features some fine artwork courtesy of Ruth Varela, and serves as a remarkable achievement in speedy turnaround, procrastination evasion, home recording technique and fine musicianship.  Happy 40th Gary.    

Bill and the Belles | Happy Again | Album Review | Ditty Boom Records | 01.06.21

Produced by Teddy Thompson, Happy Again is perhaps an appropriate title for an album specifically written about divorce, once the messy thing is over and done with at any rate, though in this case, the title is quickly followed by the notion that the singer will actually never be happy again.  Despite this, Bill and the Belles approach the eleven songs with their usual cheerfulness, maintaining a good time feel throughout, with hands firmly on instruments and tongues firmly in cheeks.  In one or two cases, the deadpan humour comes over more enthusiastically than expected, “Corn Shuckin’ Song” and “Get Up And Give It One More Try” for example, in fact, come to think of it, the title song is no Joy Division number either, in fact the jolly old singalong chorus betrays its message through to the end.  Kris Trelsen claims to be all right though in “Make it Look Easy”, while “Taking Back My Yesterday” looks at things in an optimistic light, delivered in a spirited Western Swing manner.   Joining Kris (guitar), are Kalia Yeagle on fiddle, Andrew Small on bass and Helena Hunt on banjo and ukulele, who between them tackle each arrangement with an informed maturity, each song embellished with tight harmonies that perhaps recall the days of the Boswell Sisters and the Mills Brothers.  As far as breakup albums go, Happy Again glistens spectacularly rather than shrouds proceedings in a multitude of grey clouds, which is encouraging.  “Sobbin’ the Blues” is presented as a talking blues in the manner of vintage Loudon Wainwright III, while the Music Hall closer “Good Friends Are Hard To Find” offers a nod towards enduring friendship, something crucial in these times, if at times, difficult to find.

Jim Keller | By No Means | Album Review | Self Release | 01.06.21

Jim Keller is probably best known as the co-founder of the San Francisco-based band Tommy Tutone, whose early 1980s hit “867-5309/Jenny” resulted in a spate of nuisance calls, prompting the Ohio resident to permanently disconnect his phone.  I’m sure it could’ve been infinitely more problematic had a daughter called Jenny resided there, but alas.  By No Means is the fourth solo album by Keller, who has also worked extensively with the American composer Phillip Glass, both running his publishing company and taking on the role of manager.  The opener “Easy Rider” has all the low key swamp rock possibilities of a JJ Cale standard, while “Maria Come Home” is almost a vocal amalgam of Leonard Cohen and Tom Russell, a pleading soft growl set to a simple, yet soulful gospel organ sound.  “Don’t Get Me Started” almost updates all the familiar John Lee Hooker boogies, though in this case, set to an ever clunky clanky Mitchell Froom beat with one or two contemporary references, social media for example. As would be expected with anything Mitchell Froom touches, the production is second to none, enhanced further by the contributions of David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) and a rhythm section made up of Bob Glaub and Michael Urbano on bass and drums respectively.

Matt Backer | Backernalia | Album Review | Right Recordings | 01.06.21

There’s fifteen songs on Matt Backer’s fifth album Backernalia, each of which is a showcase for the musician’s stylish approach to guitar playing, one minute blistering, the next minute sneering and then again moments later, completely seductive, bringing to the album a substantial range that keeps us interested to the end.  The scalding bluesy opener “TMI” (Too Much Information), combines unfussy acoustic slide manoeuvres with red hot Hendrix licks, with Beatles/ELO styled harmonies thrown in, a little bit of everything in one then.  There are soulful moments, not least the immediately accessible “Hooked on Love”, which features a duet with the sultry Italian soul diva Francesca De Bonis, who lifts the song to soaring heights, and as a consequence, provides the album with possibly its finest moment.  Then there’s the obligatory blowouts, notably the loud ‘n’ proud “The Last Guitarist”, with its Who-like mixture of jew’s harp, harmonica and power chords almost reminiscent of the ‘oo’s “Join Together” from way back when.  Known for his work with such notable outfits as ABC, Julian Lennon and Marcella Detroit among others, Backer takes giant steps as a solo artist, only occasionally reaching out to old pals, Martin Fry for instance, who co-writes the backstreet blues number “The Devil Washed His Hands of Me”, which allows Backer to venture deep into the darkness, while “Unrequited Love Song” introduces Backer’s tender side, a song handled with sensitivity, another example of the range of Backer’s overall musical diversity. 

Seafoam Green | Martin’s Garden | Album Review | Self Release | 01.06.21

Dave O’Grady and Muireann McDermott Long’s Dublin roots are pretty much packed away and well hidden on Martin’s Garden, the duo’s second album release, preferring to straddle the borders between bluesy gospel soul and gutsy southern rock for an album that is every bit the essence of Americana, with only a mere suggestion of their Celtic roots in the folksy “Working Man” and once again in their haunting reading of Dominic Behan’s “Auld Triangle”.  Without standing on ceremony, Dave and Muireann get down to the nitty gritty on the opening couple of songs, the hard-hitting “For Something To Say” and the equally punchy “House On The Hill”, the latter of which could easily deputise as the theme song to The Sopranos, and both reminiscent of the sort of music once explored by the likes of Delaney and Bonnie, The Band and yes go on then, perhaps even Alabama 3.  There’s so much soul embedded in both “Mine All Mine” and the torch ballad “Maggie”, which gives us a glimpse at just how soulful Muireann’s voice can actually get, yet what keeps this set interesting and engaging thoughout, is the ease in which the two voices drop in and out, certainly on a song like “Whiskey”, a duet in the best sense of the term.  “Winter’s Getting Warmer” is a riff-laden rocker, suitably loose for the band to settle into, with some sweeping Garth Hudson styled organ motifs towards the end.  New music with an older sensibility, just how I like it.

BLK JKS | Abantu/Before Humans | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 01.06.21

It has been said that this Johannesburg quartet just want to jam, and so this is precisely what they do on their new album release Abantu/Before Humans.  If the cover shot is reminiscent of the closing scenes of Apocalypse Now, a head emerging from the swamps of Cambodia, or in this case the darkened waters of South Africa, then the music is the essence of what could be described as Apocalyptic Afropunk, a rich blend of funky stylings, stirring grooves and trance-like rhythms, with uncompromising attitude, notably the expletively drenched “Yoyo The Mandela Effect Black Aurora Cusp Druids Ascending”.  BLK JKS (pronounced black jacks), consisting of Mpumeleo Mcata, Tshepang Ramoba, Molefi Makananise and Tebogo Seitei, keep the energy level high throughout the nine songs, mostly seamlessly linked to appear as one complete 45 minute piece, with one or two stand outs, significantly the rather engaging “Maiga Mali Mansa Musa”, which features a guest appearance by Vieux Farka Touré, and which could be played on repeat as far as I’m concerned.

Water Tower | Fly Around | Album Review | Dutch Records | 01.06.21

For the debut album by the Los Angeles-based Water Tower, formerly the Water Tower Bucket Boys, the band take a heady mixture of alt-country with a touch of bluegrass, sprinkle on top a pinch of punk attitude, and create their very own delicious take on the thing we now seem to have accepted as Americana.  Produced by Germs’ drummer Don Bolles, Fly Around sees the fruition of a long period of creativity, which has led to this release, with Kenny Feinstein joining forces with Peter Daggatt, Pat Norris and Harry Sellick, who between them create a distinctive sound, with heavily strummed guitars, skittering mandolins, scraping fiddles and a steady beat.  From the initial count in on “Fromage”, an almost over-enthusiastically lively number, complete with some urgent guitar/mandolin interplay, the album dips in and out of its roots, while maintaining a contemporary feel throughout.  The album’s lead track, the traditional “Fly Around”, is perhaps more old timey flavoured, and features a guest vocal appearance by the Old Crow Medicine Show’s Willie Watson; not difficult to imagine dancing around the barn to.  “Bobcats” borrows from The Band’s later-period feel, a song that Helm, Hudson and Danko etc would have swapped around their instruments for inorder to find its authenticity.  “Come Down Easy” has a driving bluesy feel, with sawing fiddle runs and a determined marching beat throughout, while “Town” injects some highly synthetic sounds reminding us of its place in the present, which is further explored in the experimental “Mile High Club”, coming over much more Tonto’s Expanding Head Band than Bill Monroe.  Closing with “Anthem”, Water Tower invites Black Flag’s Ron Reyes along to inject some punk attitude, which I can only imagine as a sweaty show closer once they finally open the doors again.

Ciaran Cooney | Red | EP Review | Self Release | 01.06.21

With a crisp and clear guitar sound and an equally clear vocal style, at times reminiscent of a young Paul Brady and then Daoirí Farrell after him, Ciarán Cooney continues to delve deep into the songs of his native Ireland and joins the tradition of interpreters that clearly influence his style.  His reading of “Lakes of Pontchartrain” immediately brings to mind Brady’s version on Welcome Here Kind Stranger, yet there’s something youthful and refreshing about this new interpretation that is at once engaging and I suppose, ready for a new airing.  Elsewhere, the now Glasgow-based musician excels in both interpretation and delivery, especially on “Ireland’s Green Shore”, which steadily builds to its graceful conclusion, with some fine whistle playing courtesy of Ali Levack.  Benedict Morris also contributes strings, with Anthony Davis on piano and bass and Ryan Cavanaugh on 5-string banjo, all of who lend an empathetic ear.

Hector Shaw | Gravity | EP Review | Tob Records | 01.06.21

I don’t necessarily want to begin with Hector Shaw’s lineage, but sometimes it feels necessary to indicate where such a talent stems.  Hector is the son of noted Scots musicians Donald Shaw and Karen Matheson, both of the celebrated Celtic band Capercaillie and with such parentage, it comes as little surprise that Hector has an exceptional musical bent and these five songs are confirmation of that.  Citing the songs on Gravity as  ‘a collage of coming-of-age experience and epiphanies’, the 21 year-old singer-songwriter flexes his often insightful musical muscle throughout these five songs, three of which have already appeared as single releases, “Gravity” itself, together with “Paying the Price” and “Masochist”, a drip feed of the sort of material Hector is capable of.  If the song writing of both John Martyn and Laura Marling permeates his work, then there’s also a little of the Jeff Buckley ingrained in there in places, especially the ease in which Hector drifts into his ethereal falsetto.  Produced by Sorren Maclean, who also plays guitar, Hannah Fisher appears on backing vocals, Andrew Samson (Dunt) on drums, Donald Shaw on piano, Fenwick Lawson on trombone and Gordon Dickson on sax.  One certainly to watch out for.

Joshua Burnell | Shelagh’s Song | Single Review | Self Release | 01.06.21

There’s something rather touching about young performers who pay tribute to those who have gone before, often troubled souls who died too young or equally troubled souls who survived but abandoned their muse before the going got too tough, or simply those who started out with good intentions, only to get a little lost along the way, not to mention those who drifted off into various cults and drug induced paranoia.  The rediscovery of forgotten artists decades later would have probably come as a pleasant surprise to the likes of Nick Drake, had he been around to appreciate it, or on the other hand Vashti Bunyan, who is still around and probably does appreciate it, then I’m sure that Shelagh McDonald, missing in action for so long and even at one point presumed dead, feels rather humbled at such a song as this, written and performed by the young York-based Kurt Cobain lookalike Joshua Burnell.  Warm and tender, “Shelagh’s Song” is both tender and nostalgic but devoid of sentimentality.  It’s almost a love song from one artist to another, an artist who obviously continues to inform and inspire, while telling Shelagh’s story in a most accessible manner.  One to play over and over.

HAV | The Alabama | Single Review | Polpols Records | 01.06.21

Working in collaboration with the acclaimed Scots singer Iona Fyfe, the trio known as HAV (Danish for ‘Sea’), release their new single “The Alabama”, which tells of a seafaring disaster out of Buckie in Moray, Scotland, a local port to both Iona and the song’s author Alex Ross.  Ross, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, is joined by fellow multi-instrumentalist and producer Jonathan Bidgood and bass player Ian ‘Dodge’ Paterson, who collectively make up a trio of musicians who first met over twenty years ago.  The ethereal quality of Iona’s voice and the haunting arrangement work together in harmony, the song itself narrated by the loved one left behind after the tragedy.  The single is from the outfit’s forthcoming album Haar, which also features contributions from both Iona Fyfe and the critically acclaimed singer Bridie Jackson.  Something to look forward to then.

The Breath | Something on Your Mind/Remembering Mountains | Single Review | Real World | 01.06.21

One of the finest vocal discoveries of recent years is that of Ríoghnach Connolly, whose rich timbre could not be more suited to the purpose of embellishing the rawness of Karen Dalton’s broken syllables on “Something on Your Mind”, the opening song from Dalton’s 1971 LP In My Own Time.  In celebration of the album’s fiftieth year, The Breath (Connolly and guitarist Stuart McCallum) release this song as a single, coupled with a second, less familiar Karen Dalton song, “Remembering Mountains”, a song that wasn’t discovered until 2012 after the publication of  a collection of Dalton’s own personal songs and poems.  If Dalton’s legacy is that of a troubled soul, then like her contemporary Nick Drake, the jewels of her output, which was largely ignored during her lifetime, are now to be celebrated by a more discerning generation of song lovers.   To a gently strummed guitar, slightly less harshly delivered than the original Richard Thompson-like electric, Ríoghnach handles the song with tenderness and with warmth and empathy.  “Remembering Mountains” is set to music especially written and arranged by The Breath, introducing us to a beautiful meditation on the natural world around us, words and music created half a century apart and joined seamlessly in time.    

Cameron Barnes | Old Friend | Single Review | Self Release | 01.06.21

A song with a familiar title, a title that once again conjures up the best part of nostalgia, the greatest sense of comradeship and the most immediately recognised notion of life friendships.  Paul Simon said old friends were like bookends, Guy Clark said that they shine like diamonds, and here, the Methil-born singer-songwriter and Red Hot Chilli Pipers’ piper Cameron Barnes reflects on a childhood friendship with an unnamed neighbour, whose friendship is now needed more than ever, a reflection on the fact that early bonds should last a lifetime and that those old friends should be available, especially when the going gets tough.  Produced by Scott Wood (Skerryvore), who also plays whistles, Barnes is joined by a stella cast of musicians including Charlotte Printer on bass, Jamie McGrory on drums, Mhairi Marwick on strings, Marco Cafolla on keys, Jamie Adamson on guitar and Naomi Stirrat backing vocals, with Philippe Bronchtein’s steel guitar added remotely from across the pond.  This will definitely make you think of your own old friends.

The Willow Trio | Oystercatchers | Single Review | Self Release | 01.06.21

The Glasgow-based clarsach trio, which is made up of Sam MacAdam, Sophie Rocks and Romy Wymer, releases the first single from their debut EP Oystercatchers, which immediately demonstrates the connectivity of these three fine musicians.  With both classical as well as a traditional music backgrounds, these award winning musicians have no problem delivering performances of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, while keeping a keen eye on Scottish folklore and tradition at the same time.  “Oystercatchers” is a sublime piece of music, with many textures flowing through the strings of their respective harps.  Gentle, calming and meditative, yet at the same time a demonstration of pure musical strength, the EP’s lead track is a fine example of dovetailed musical collaboration.  I look forward to hearing the full EP and whatever the future holds for the Willow Trio.

Rachel Baiman | Cycles | Album Review | Signature Sounds Recordings | 15.06.21

It may well have been two events that marked the beginning of Rachel Baiman’s latest album release Cycles, the birth of a nephew and the loss of a grandmother.  Birth and death are two highly personal moments in anyone’s life, something most of us are all too familiar with, both of which effectively incorporate polarised emotions, yet in some way, similarly powerful emotions at the same time.  Born in Chicago, Rachel has been in Nashville since her late teens and has steadily built up a reputation for herself as a fine singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and collaborator.  Following her 2017 debut solo release Shame, Rachel once again treads boldly with her own songwriting, delivering these songs with a strong and determined focus, notably the opening title song.  Recorded in Australia, Cycles features ten songs, predominantly originals written either by Rachel herself or co-written with such collaborators as Olivia Hally, Maya de Vitty and Jenee Flennor.  The album also features a pretty faithful take on the Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott song “Rust Belt Fields”, one of the album’s highlights.  Known also for her work with 10 String Symphony, the progressive acoustic duo with fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer, Rachel has steadily developed into a fine solo artist in her own right and demonstrates strength and determination in order to get her message across, with such songs as “Wyoming Wildflowers”, “Hope It Hurts”, “No Good Time for Dying” and another album highlight, “Jokes on Me”.  With these songs alone, there’s a sense that we have another major talent on the block. 

The Fool’s Moon | The Fool’s Moon | Album Review | Self Release | 15.06.21

After just a couple of runs through this debut album by the Lowestoft-based four-piece, The Fool’s Moon feels almost like being transported back in time, to an era when it wasn’t at all unusual to have all the elements of good healthy rock and roll music wrapped up in a couple of guitars, a bass and a set of drums, together with an ear for a good riff.  The band lays its credentials on the table as Robert Baker and Sam Easter share guitar duties, with Calum McKemmie on double bass and Arthur Le Baleur on drums.  Recorded in analogue and with little in the way of further embellishment, The Fool’s Moon demonstrates the simplicity of a good tight band, with plenty of funky guitar interplay and neither of the guitars getting in the way of one another.  There’s the country-inflected “Only Human”, which roughly sets out the four essential things in life, eating, sleeping, drinking and human contact, delivered in a Tom Waits-like growl.  Reminiscent of Tim Buckley’s “Strange Feeling”, “Heart to Break” likewise borrows from the chord structure first created by Miles Davis on “All Blues”, while “River Daughter” echoes the feel of a pastoral “Lady Eleanor”, bringing into the picture some understated folk rock elements.  If The Fool’s Moon set out to create a feel of the bands of the early 1970s, then they hit the spot squarely.

Afton Wolfe | Kings For Sale | Album Review | Grandiflora Records | 15.06.21

The title of Afton Wolfe’s new album Kings for Sale is taken from the lyric of “Dirty Girl”, one of the grittiest songs included here, delivered in a voice that falls somewhere between a Saturday Night Tom Waits and a Sunday morning Tom Russell, together with sneering slide guitar and bluesy harp; this is just one aspect of Wolfe’s schtick.  Following the success of Wolfe’s debut EP Petronius’ Last Meal (2020), Kings for Sale encompasses a rich blend of styles, gathered from Wolfe’s own stomping grounds of the Mississippi and Louisiana, with a humbled tip of the cap to the major musical influences of this very locale; jazz, country music, the blues and good old rock and roll.  “Paper Plane” sets the tone from the start as the songs weave from one situation to another, each song packed with evocative lyrics and engaging stories, such as the wonderful “Mrs Ernst’s Piano”, a song that addresses racism in a most candid and honest manner.  Produced by Oz Fritz, Kings for Sale invites onboard a host of noted musicians from both Tennessee and Mississippi, each of whom add additional character to an already characterful album.

Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry | Purple Kittens | Album Review | Self Release | 15.06.21

Known primarily as the song writing force behind Katrina and the Waves, notably the pop band’s biggest hits “Walking on Sunshine” and “Love Shine a Light”, Kimberley Rew continues to create catchy melodies and engaging lyrics in this new collection of songs with fellow songwriter, bassist, musical partner and wife, Lee Cave-Berry, who has also been bitten with the song writing bug; look no further than the decidedly sultry “I Can Be Any Woman” for proof of that.  Lee’s whimsical “Unsatisfactory Cats” offers a moment of comic relief midway through, while Kimberley steps into Robyn Hitchcock’s shoes for “Kingdom of Love”, a rather faithful Soft Boys cover, complete with Hitchcock’s familiar idiosyncratic vocal inflections.  And why not? as Barry Norman impersonators would say.  There’s plenty of rocking little numbers to place the duo more in the rock camp than the straight pop camp, “Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream”, “Daytime Night Time” and “Black Ribbon” most prominently.  Strangely, chief among the rock-based material is “Penny the Ragman”, a song about a Morris side’s wardrobe manager, a nod to the duo’s folk roots.  As with much of Kimberley and Lee’s output, this is fun rock, something to stick on when you need a good cheering up, now for instance.      

Lunatraktors | The Missing Star | Album Review | Broken Folk| 15.06.21

Carli Jefferson and Clair Le Couteur aka Lunatraktors return with their second full-length album, which further investigates both traditional and contemporary song through their highly engaging vocal/percussion performances.  If the duo’s debut This is Broken Folk surprised us all upon its initial release, then The Missing Star once again thrills with ingenuity and creativity, building their dramatic vocal textures around some highly inventive rhythms.  The traditional “Rigs of the Times” is updated to include references to Brexit, COVID, Social Media and the ills of the present day, showing gratitude to the NHS, our heroes in these difficult times.  A bold statement to kick start an impressive second album.  Leonard Cohen’s mid-1970s “Lover Lover Lover” is revived here, taking advantage of Clair’s multi-octave vocal prowess, to include a basso profundo worthy of Lenny himself. Geoffrey Richardson (Caravan/Penguin Café Orchestra) offers some dramatic strings, which compliments Carli’s superb percussion, which may be an indication of where Lunatraktors’ music might go in the future.  “Mirie It Is (Anemois)” is reminiscent of some of the wonderful music created by the Third Ear Band some five decades earlier, equally loaded with tension and hypnotic trance-like motifs, yet far too short on this occasion.  The ancient song slips seamlessly into the dramatic title song, which is theatrical in its delivery, a timely protest song that kind of begs for the same cast of children employed in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” video, either that or a bunch of Benedictine Monks.  “16,000 Miles” was one of the songs previously released on Lunatraktors’ recent EP Bonefires, which once again takes the listener by surprise with its ingenious vocal arrangement.  There’s plenty of embellishment on The Missing Star,  including piano, reed instruments, whistles, birdsong and bells, each strategically placed for maximum effect.  Unique, fascinating and highly rewarding.

The John Williams Syndicate | Out of Darkness | Album Review | Wulfrun Records | 15.06.21

Having spent the best part of his working life in the back rooms of the music industry, either writing songs and producing records for others, or plugging those records as the head of A&R, John Williams has always had one foot firmly rooted in the business in one way or another, his name associated with such notable bands and artists as Jethro Tull, Robert Plant, Bob Marley, The Housemartins, The Proclaimers and Blancmange.  Perhaps I should point out that this particular John Williams has nothing to do with the American composer who scored such movies as ET, Jaws and The Empire Strikes Back, nor is he the Australian classical guitarist responsible for the theme for the Deer Hunter, but rather a British musician with a taste for a catchy song.  Citing both Ray and Dave Davies, Pete Townshend and Nick Drake as early influences, the latter being paid tribute to in the 32 page lyric booklet, in a heartfelt parody of the Bryter Layter cover shot, complete with Guild guitar and shoes, Williams claims to have focused his energy on A&R and record production throughout his career, though the first two lockdown periods have provided an ideal opportunity to record this own long-awaited album.  Out of Darkness is an eclectic mixture of styles, so diverse in some cases that they sound like they come from entirely different albums.  Take for instance “New Flag”, featuring a duet with Sixties icon Petula Clark and then the Latin grooves of “Spanish Song”, featuring a rather sultry exchange between Isabella Coulstock and Slicko DiCaprio, different worlds, same continent.  Collaboration is key to much of this ten-song album, which begins with a new song co-written with former Fairport Convention/Southern Comfort/Plainsong singer-songwriter Iain Matthews, “Loud and Clear”, a gentle soft rock opener with some fine keyboard/guitar interplay courtesy of both John and Charlie Williams respectively. Other notable songs include “Luminescent” featuring the voice of the German synthpop queen Claudia Brücken and the late-Beatles-like “Close to You”, with some of the most tantalizing George Harrison-like guitar playing on the album.  Claudia Brücken appears once again on the album closer, the smouldering “Don’t Give Up on Me”, complete with some tasty acoustic guitar courtesy of Ben Walker.

Rod Stradling | Treacle and Bread | Album Review | Ghosts From the Basement | 15.06.21

There’s something immediately joyous about the sound of Rod Stradling’s melodeon(s), and Treacle & Bread is a veritable feast of joy.  Picture this, a bright sunny afternoon, blue skies above, the Nag’s Head’s open and there’s the sound of bells approaching, together with the steady march of feet.  The village people are out and the village green is about to be preserved, it’s time for the dance and who better to get the afternoon off to a good start but Rod Stradling, our ‘melodeon guru’.  Rod’s not keen on this particular moniker, though he is responsible for many young musicians turning to the instrument, which has become an almost essential ingredient in English country dance music, of which Rod has been a mainstay over the last, let’s see now, getting on for six decades.  Here, the thirty-odd tunes, compressed into twenty-one tracks, serve as an example of Rod’s range of stepdances, hornpipes, polkas, bourrées and the like, with the occasional nursery rhyme.  Treacle & Bread provides plenty of inviting acoustic performances together with one or two fine electric accompaniment moments, which doesn’t necessarily mean that this is any way associated with Folk Rock, nor should we be quick with the ‘Judas’ heckles.  Either solo or in the company of the bands he’s either formed or played a major role in, such as Oak, The Old Swan Band, The English Country Blues Band, Tiger Moth, Edward II & the Red Hot Polkas, The English Country Dance Band and Phoenix, Rod can be heard here at his best, with some of the most vibrant tunes stored away in his prolific repertoire.  For those thinking about venturing out along this path, Treacle & Bread is a good place to start in order to continue spreading the joy.

Jonathan Edwards | Right Where I Am | Album Review | Self Release | 15.06.21

I must confess, I haven’t really kept up with the recording career of Jonathan Edwards over the past few years, having but a limited number of LPs upon the shelf, notably his 1971 debut and the later Sailboat, yet I was pleasantly surprised to see this latest offering, fifty years on from that fine debut.  I imagine the song that immediately springs to mind at the mention of his name is the deceivingly joyous political song “Sunshine (Go Away Today)”, which was released as a single from the Minnesota-born singer-songwriter’s debut solo LP all those years ago.  Fifty years on and Edwards celebrates his five decade recording career with an album that includes the song “50 Years”, a thank you note to those who have supported him over the years.  In fine voice, which despite showing signs of maturity is still spot on for the messages he wishes to convey, certainly on the rather gorgeous “Scars of Love”, a soulful meditation on the essence of relationships, Edwards maintains a positive attitude throughout, most notably on the aforementioned “50 Years” and “There Comes a Time”, both of which seem to be filled with optimism.  One song probably steps over the line between positive mature song writing and whimsy, as “Stingray Shuffle” brings out the Bermuda shorts and flowery shirts for a rather grim encounter.  Perhaps a belated cautionary tale for Mr Irwin?

Dal:um | Similar and Different | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 15.06.21

Experimental at its core, Similar and Different showcases the outstanding musicianship of two young Seoul-based musicians, Ha Suyean and Hwang Hyeyoung, who play the gayageum and the geomungo respectively, two of the most popular of Korean traditional instruments.  It’s easy to lose yourself in these almost otherworldly trance-like compositions, which are both melodic and minimalistic at the same time, in the case of the opening few moments of “Dasreum”, nothing more than a few seemingly random yet evocative sounds, which appear to explore the textures of both instruments, where the physical body of each becomes just as important as the strings attached.  There’s certainly a dialogue between the two instruments, each speaking fluently, at times in a call and response manner, each instrument testing one another through their sonic responses.  It’s almost like eavesdropping on a private conversation.  Performing since childhood, Suyean and Hyeyoung have taken their music beyond their respective instruments’ melodic and harmonic capabilities to create something ethereal, exciting and ultimately inspiring.

Nick March | Swing Your Partner | EP Review | Self Release | 15.06.21

With a clear finger-picked acoustic guitar sound throughout, together with a voice reminiscent of a young Nick Drake (there again, Nick Drake will always be young), Nick March presents his debut four-track EP Swing Your Partner.  Borrowing one or two songs from the tradition, notably from the collection of the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, then treating them to new and slick arrangements, Nick creates an almost eerie atmosphere, certainly on “Dig a Hole (Little Lulie)”, based on the earlier folk song “Darlin’ Cory”.  Nick’s use of falsetto is at times reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, notably the late singer’s reading of Benjamin Britten’s haunting “Corpus Christi Carol”, echoed once again here on “Eliza Jane”, which sweeps along at a rapid pace, though once again maintains an almost otherworldly atmosphere throughout, a song that also contains the EP’s title within its lyric.  The single original composition on the EP comes in the form of “The Kingfisher”, a delicate meditation that emphasises Nick’s additional credentials as a potentially fine composer. 

Ally Forsyth | The Longest Night | EP Review | Self Release | 15.06.21

For The Longest Night, his debut four song EP, Ally Forsyth tackles all the instruments himself, with multi-layered vocals, a showcase for what this young musician is capable of.  An alumni of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music, Ally is no stranger to music and has worked both in the studio and on stage with other notable musicians.  Two of the songs here are self-penned, the title song and the instrumental “Stewarton Road”, though the EP also includes a cover of Nickel Creek’s “The Rest of My Life”, from the pens of Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins, and also the Bon Ivor song “AUATC”.  Recorded, mixed and mastered by Skerryvore’s Scott Wood at his Oak Ridge Studios, The Longest Night shows much promise.

Lady Nade | You’re My Number One | Single Review | Self Release | 15.06.21

The Bristol-born singer songwriter Lady Nade lifts “You’re My Number One” from her latest album Willing, a song that reminds us of Paul McCartney’s Beatlemania classic “Can’t Buy Me Love”, the notion that money isn’t by any means everything to us.  The ‘everyday’ notion of the million things one has to do, the bills that need to be paid and the dreaded day job, matched against the longing to see one’s loved one, to snuggle up when the day is through, is captured rather well, inviting a universal feeling of empathy.  The gentle, almost meditative flow of the song marks it neither a Saturday night record, nor a Sunday morning one, but rather, a Wednesday afternoon song, perfect with a cup of coffee and the last chapter of that book you always wanted to read.  Lovely is an appropriate description. 

Celtic Social Club | For Real | Single Review | Kitchen Disco Records | 15.06.21

There’s an immediate Celtic Soul sensibility to the new single by the Breton/Irish combo the Celtic Social Club, with more than a little of the “Come on Eileen” about it in terms of its immediacy.  Taken from the band’s forthcoming album Dancing or Dying, their fourth to date, the Celtic Social Club seem poised to burst out of this imposed lockdown period with what could be an unexpected summer hit.  The songs’ uplifting notion of rising up, shrugging off the cobwebs and starting afresh permeates “For Real” for all of its three minutes.  The Belfast-born singer Dan Donnelly takes the lead as the band’s founder Manu Masko marks his territory from the opening drum’s wake up call, maintaining a stomping beat throughout as Ronan Le Bars (whistle), Pierre Stephan (fiddle), Goulven Hamel (guitar) and Richard Puaud (bass) stand shoulder to shoulder for the ride.

Padraig Jack | Minnie | Single Review | Beautiful World Music | 15.06.21

Padraig Jack, an Inis Mór native, just ten miles off Ireland’s western coast, released his debut album last year and now releases the single “Minnie”, one of the album’s notable songs.   With a Ph.D in computer engineering, Padraig has a grounding in music, a chip off the old block so to speak, his father being the songwriter Barry Ronan.  “Minnie” is a tender love story with a difference, a single mum with a zest for life, getting on with things after a failed loveless marriage, told from the viewpoint of a potential life partner, who just can’t commit.  Both Padraig and Barry have now both signed up to a publishing deal with Beautiful World Music, a relatively new entity on the scene, with over 40 years’ experience in the music industry.  Bringing together David Jaymes Associates, Spirit Music & Media, Independent Records, Good Deed Music and Beautiful World Agency to form a brand new, artist friendly, publishing company, “Minnie” is a sign of good things to come.

Manzanita y Su Conjuto | Shambar | Single Review | Alalog Africa | 15.06.21

Manzanita’s guitar playing on “Shambar” could only come from Peru, not so much ‘shredding’ but rather ‘dancing’ the strings with their infectious ascending and descending patterns, set against some spirited brass and nifty keyboard work.  It’s traditional Peruvian music originating from Manzanita’s native province of Trujillo, resplendent in the flavours of its very locale.  Analog Africa are about to release a limited edition vinyl release of Trujillo, Perú 1971 – 1974 by Manzanita y Su Conjunto, which will include fourteen mostly instrumental compositions of electrifying Peruvian cumbia and guaracha and if “Shambar” is anything to go by, it should be an enjoyable addition to anyone’s collection, certainly a fine reminder of Manzanita’s irresistible guitar playing, a tribute to the musician who died in Lima, back in 2007.  

Lady Nade | Willing | Album Review | Self Release | 01.07.21

It seems that every once in a while a voice comes along to stop us in our tracks, a voice that manages to convey just the right emotion for each of the songs; one moment deep and soulful, the next breathy and wistful. The third album by the Bristol-based Lady Nade features eleven songs that speak of friendship, love and loneliness, each song accompanied by a delicious acoustic arrangement and with each of the musicians involved contributing their bits from afar due to the lockdown, yet fully engaged as if in the same room.  It doesn’t take long before you feel that you might have known Lady Nade all of your life, a voice you can trust and with a delivery that makes you crave more once the album reaches the end.  From the opening title song, Lady Nade tells us that she is on our side, willing to comfort us, willing to listen, with no strings attached.  It’s a positive start to a positive album in less than positive times.  There’s been much heartbreak though, and “Complicated” comes over as a heartfelt letter to a lost family member, beautifully hand delivered, to a gently strummed guitar accompaniment.  There’s no question that someone is very much missed, however complicated these feelings are.  “You’re My Number One” is an almost dreamy love song, which takes us through an ordinary day with the anticipation of being reunited at the end of it, all of which makes a choice single from the album.  “One Sided” has a more contemporary feel, with some fine double-tracked vocals and a complex arrangement, one of the most inventive songs on the album.  Human relationships take centre stage in much of Lady Nade’s writing, none more so than “Call Yourself a Friend”, an eavesdrop on the end of a relationship, or perhaps two. In many ways Willing is reminiscent of Adele’s debut album, where the heart stays very much on the sleeve throughout the journey.

Lillebjørn Nilsen Andy Irvine | Live in Telemark | Album Review | Helio | 01.07.21

The meeting on stage between the Norwegian folk singer and musician Lillebjørn Nilsen and his Irish counterpart Andy Irvine was apparently seventeen years in the planning.  Having first met in the mid-1970s, the two musicians made a vow to get together at some point in order to play and that moment came on 13 November, 1994 at the Telemark Festival in Norway, which has been captured here in a fifteen song set.  Irvine confessed to being nervous before the show and at times this is still evident, notably on “Stewball and the Monaghan Grey Mare”, formerly “The Plains of Kildare” the opening song on Irvine’s collaboration LP with Paul Brady first released in 1976. In this live recording, the singer seems to be chasing his words in a couple of places, though the playing is of a high standard throughout the concert, with material taken from both their respective solo repertoires.  Nilsen’s unaccompanied “Vidvinkel-Stev” or “The Photographers” is apparently hilarious, though as it is delivered in Norwegian, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on.  “Fort Gjort a Glemme” or “East to Forget” is likewise hilarious, in that a ragtime tune delivered in anything other than a southern states accent, is almost redundant – but that might be a somewhat elitist opinion.  There are one or two excellent moments though, particularly Irvine’s reading of “My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland” and his own tragic, yet evocative coal mining ballad “Prince Among Men”.

Duncan Lyall | Milestone | Album Review | Red Deer Records | 01.07.21

Known for his almost subliminal presence on stages up and down the country (and further afield) as a member of Kate Rusby’s band and also through his work with the festival-storming powerhouse that is Treacherous Orchestra, Duncan Lyall puts aside his trusty double bass and reaches for the Moog synthesiser in order to create some highly inventive soundscapes, borrowing from the tradition, whilst eliciting the assistance of some of the bright young things around him, not least Lori Watson, whose ethereal voice helps bring some of these pieces alive.  Describing his overall sound as ‘cinematic-folk-electric-a-rock-funk’ (prefixed by an all important hashtag), Lyall embraces a plethora of sounds and styles to create seven lengthy pieces, each of which aims to reflect key moments in the musician’s life so far.  That’s his job, while ours is to listen attentively and to keep up with him.  Commissioned by the Celtic Connections festival in 2019, Milestone provides a rather accomplished end result, a fine follow up to his debut solo album Infinite Reflections, which was released a good eight years ago.  “Twa Corbies” was originally intended for Lori Watson’s own album but was nabbed for this one instead, after it was considered too different in feel from the other songs on her album.  The song finds a welcome home here, dove-tailing seamlessly between the breath-taking arrangements of “Barnacarry Bay”, a veritable opus of musical ingenuity and “Roli”, a piano-led piece written especially for Lyall’s musically savvy rabbit, which features some fine interaction between the musicians involved, notably the fiddle and electric guitar.  The album ends with “Titan”, a piece inspired by Lyall’s teenage Glastonbury experiences, possibly during late night sets by the Orbital, but I’m only guessing here.

John Hinshelwood | Called Back | Album Review | Littleroots Records | 01.07.21

This sixth solo album by Scottish singer-songwriter John Hinshewood sees the musician tackle, in both songs and instrumentals, the poetical works of Emily Dickinson.  Pretty much a collaboration between Hinshelwood and Dickinson, albeit a century and a half apart, the words are treated to gentle musical accompaniment, aided and assisted by a gathering of informed musicians.  There’s something of The Eagles about “The Sun”, the first song on the album, which is probably due to the lap steel guitar and the gentle breezy acoustic feel, topped by Cathryn Craig’s harmony over the top of Hinshelwood’s convincing “Best of Our Love” Don Henley. There’s never a sense of forced fitting here and each of the poems make a surprising transformation into song with little use for a shoehorn, in fact in places, it’s easy to forget we’re listening to poetry from an entirely different era, notably “Hunger”, which is as contemporary to the West Coast music scene of the 1970s as it probably was to the East Coast literary scene of the 1870s.  Throughout the album Hinshelwood is joined by his regular band with contributions from the likes of Laura-Beth Salter (The Shee) on mandolin, Australian fiddle player Jeri Foreman and BBC Young Musician of the Year David Bowden, together with one or two vocal contributions courtesy of Cathryn Craig, Barbara Nesbitt and Mairi Orr.

Murray McLauchlan | Hourglass | Album Review | True North Records | 01.07.21

Perhaps not quite as well known over here as some of his contemporaries, the Canadian folk singer Murray McLauchlan has in fact collected no less than eleven Juno awards, together with the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, and a place in the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame; so, no slouch and that’s for sure.  With over twenty-five albums under his belt and a prolific back catalogue of songs, McLauchlan’s latest release Hourglass features a further ten originals to add to his achievements.  Bang up to date with its subject matter, with a tender nod towards George Floyd in “I Live on a White Cloud” and a wry observation on  our current obsession with COVID in “Pandemic Blues”, the songs appear to be rather more personal and political than previously.  With a small gathering of musicians, Al Cross on drums, Victor Bateman on bass, Burke Carroll on steel guitar and Vezi Tayyeb on keyboards, Hourglass was recorded midway through the pandemic, and comes with a clear message, as inscribed on the sleeve ‘I wish that love would win wherever hate is found’, a line from the album closer “Wishes”.  Well, Amen to that.

Various Artists | Party for Joey | Album Review | True North Records | 01.07.21

Subtitled ‘A Sweet Relief Tribute To Joey Spampinato’, Party for Joey is a celebration of the music of the singer, songwriter, musician and co-founder of NRBQ, the vintage rock band that first burst onto the scene way back in 1969.  Responding to a call of help after Spampinato fell ill with cancer, a bunch of notable musicians offered up their services and embarked on the recording of a bunch of Spampinato songs especially for their old pal, which has resulted in this fourteen track album.  Bonnie Raitt is on top form on “Green Lights” both vocally and through her distinctive slide guitar playing, while none other than Keith Richards joins Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite and others on the funky “Like a Locomotive”, which chugs along deliciously for all of its four and a bit minutes.  Almost midway through this veritable feast of joyous rock and roll, Zooey Deschantel delivers “How Can I Make You Love Him”, which could easily have rubbed shoulders with the early 1960s hits of The Teddy Bears and the like.  Perhaps the most unexpected contribution on the album is Penn and Teller’s reading of “Plenty of Somethin’”, which features Penn on both upright bass and Tom Waits-like vocal.  With other contributions from Peter Case, Steve Forbert, Los Lobos and the Minus 5, Party for Joey is a party to remember.

Pilgrim | No Offense, Nevermind, Sorry | Album Review | Horton Records | 01.07.21

The new album by the Tulsa-based band Pilgrim is immediately accessible, largely due to its lilting opener “Darkness of the Bar”, a fine acoustic song of mild desperation, where the light of the song’s heroine Marie is continually obscured by the darkness, a metaphor perhaps for these times.  Where is the light?  Where is the tunnel’s end?  Beau Robertson, whose side line is wrestling (apparently), owns each of the eleven songs, with“Kate” being the only non-original, all of which are delivered with honesty and conviction throughout.  Self-taught, despite his mother being a piano teacher, Robertson began his journey after picking up his first guitar at the age of fourteen, an unexpected heirloom, which he took to heart.  Some of that has now manifested itself on this fine release.  Recorded at Leon Russell’s former Paradise Studio at Grand Lake in Tia Juana, Oklahoma, Roberson surrounds himself with a trustworthy bunch of musicians, John Fullbright on keyboards, Paddy Ryan on drums, Aaron Boehler on bass, Stephen Lee on guitar and Jesse Aycock on some pretty fabulous steel guitar, notably the quirky fettles on the opening song.

haar cover

HAV – Haar | Album Review | Polpols Records | 01.07.21

Having been slightly spoiled by the initial single release of “The Alabama”, reviewed in Issue #6 of the Northern Sky Review, which features the voice of Iona Fyfe, one of the rising stars of the Scottish folk music fraternity, the eagerly anticipated debut full-length album by HAV doesn’t disappoint.  Experimental at its core, Haar features just six extended compositions, each rich in atmosphere and each unrushed in order to capture the essence of each voice, each instrument and each sampled sound.  HAV (Danish for ‘Sea’), is made up of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alex Ross, fellow multi-instrumentalist and producer Jonathan Bidgood and bass player Ian ‘Dodge’ Paterson, who between them create an almost otherworldly sound, rich in texture and depth.  The vocal on “Saint-Valeri” sounds not unlike the ghost of Gerry Rafferty, with some haunting backwards effects adding to the ambient soundscape.  The album is enhanced further by one or two guests, including the aforementioned Iona Fyfe and Dr Laura Lindsay, who reads the Eeva Kilpi poem “Rakkaus on Lepo (Love is Rest)”. Musically explorative, intriguing and rewarding; there’s every possibility that you didn’t know you wanted to go to the places that this album can take you.  Vocalist Bridie Jackson appears on the concluding track, duetting on the extraordinary “A Garten Mother’s Lullaby”, which sounds a little like a duet between June Tabor and Iarla Ó Lionáird in another lifetime.  Gorgeous.

Ross King | Gentle Home | EP Review | Self Release | 01.07.21

Recorded at home on an old Yamaha eight-track recorder, the four songs appear to channel the spirit of Elliott Smith, whose almost whispered ethereal voice seems to permeate all eighteen minutes of this EP.  Almost dreamlike in places, notably on the lead song “Shape of Our Love”, which is accompanied by a finger-style guitar sound reminiscent of mid-period Bert Jansch, around the time of Bert’s short-lived acoustic band Conundrum, though updated to include electronic effects rather than the flute and fiddle playing of the late Martin Jenkins.  King is in no hurry to demonstrate a broad range of repertoire here, but is content to present four similar sounding songs, each of which reveal his distinctive style rather than his eclecticism.  There’s little doubt that the listener will come away completely aware of where Ross King is coming from in terms of feel.  Relaxing, comforting and almost meditative, Gentle Home is an indication of a burgeoning talent who ought to be heard.

Talisk | Aura | Single Review | Self Release | 01.07.21

With two critically acclaimed albums already under their belt, the Scottish power trio Talisk return with a brand new single release that appears to sparkle with raw energy.  The combined talents and sheer musical dexterity of concertina wizard Mohsen Amini, fiddle player Hayley Keenan and guitarist Graeme Armstrong, combine to soar through this six-minute instrumental, which encompasses both light and shade, the upbeat and the downbeat, the raucous and the soothing, to create a piece of breath-taking brilliance that has the ability to lift us out of the dreaded lockdown miasma we find ourselves in with a firm foot down on the pedal and hopefully into a bright new future.  Well at least that’s how it feels.  With a string of dates now planned, including several festivals, Talisk are poised to sprinkle some of their own very special aura upon those music hungry audiences out there, if all goes well that is.

Holly Lerski | Carmel/Mighty Big Sur | Single Review | Laundry Label | 01.07.21

In collaboration with Bonnie Raitt’s bassist James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, the Norwich-based singer/songwriter Holly Lerski releases this new double A sided single, both songs set in the endless sunshine of California’s coastline, its beaches and its mountains.  On “Mighty Big Sur” Holly plainly confesses that she actually belongs there, a daughter of the iconic California coastal region.  Originally conceived while on tour with Crosby Stills Nash, Hutch’s tune is transformed by Holly’s engaging lyrics into an anthem to the picturesque coastal and mountainous area of the Golden State, somewhere between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon.  There’s a longing in Holly’s tone, which is almost tangible.  Likewise, the flipside of this is “Carmel”, which offers a love song to the Monterey area, whilst sharing a message bordering on homesickness.  The two songs appear to be inseparable and should perhaps be played on rotation and preferably on repeat.

E.W. Harris | Bad Ghost | Single Review | Hanging Dilettante Records | 01.07.21

The high falsetto vocal on “Bad Ghost”, in which Harris addresses the symbiotic spirits within, is perfect for this song, as are the Laurie Anderson voice effects, which would normally jar to be honest.  The contemporary feel and steady build, that effectively creates tension throughout the song, gives the single some considerable punch, something the Brooklyn-based musician seems perfectly at home with.  Underestimating the potential popularity of the song, the physical release sold out almost immediately, with the highly melodic song becoming something of a memorable curiosity, although I dare say, few will be able to sing along in quite the same key, or indeed in this chosen octave.  I look forward to hearing more from this burgeoning contemporary artist.

Chris Cleverley | Live From the Glass Isle | Album Review | Self Release | 15.07.21

It really can’t be overstated just how difficult it has been over the last fifteen months or so for singers and musicians around the globe, whose lives (and livelihoods) have been deeply affected, when standing in front of audiences was almost always something they took for granted.  With this valuable aspect of their daily lives removed, it’s been a case of either heading right back to the drawing board, diverting their attention elsewhere, or simply using their own canny sense of creativity.  There’s no audience to speak of on this recording, but it feels live nevertheless, with Chris Cleverley performing a few songs in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor (well almost), whereupon the singer/songwriter takes full advantage of the location’s ethereal atmosphere, during the Lughnasadh pagan festival season, immediately feeding off the vibe to great effect.  Recorded in just one day, Chris strips everything down to its bare essentials, making the most of the acoustics around him, his Fylde as crisp, clear and warm as it can possibly get, matched measure for measure by each of his assured vocal performances.  Close your eyes and you could be right there with him.  Selecting songs from his two previous albums, Apparitions (2015) and predominantly We Sat Back and Watched it Unfold (2019), Chris reworks such songs as “The Low Light Low”, “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Arrows and the Armour”, though perhaps in a manner they were originally written, without further embellishment.  Despite the sparse acoustic arrangements, such songs as “The Arrows and the Armour” and “Madame Moonshine” lose none of the power nor indeed the atmosphere of the originals.  Towards the end, the songs appear to change slightly with the noticeable difference in vocal style on Minnie Birch’s “Glitter”, which I initially mistook for a track from the next CD I had lined up, then to conclude, a definite new voice as Chris hands over the reins to fellow singer/songwriter Dan Whitehouse for the album closer “Rachael”.  Hearing songs of this quality once again makes the anticipation for actual live appearances all the more eager.

Derya Yıldırım and Grup Şimşek | Dost 1 | Album Review | Bongo Joe Records | 15.07.21

The second album release by the Anatolian outfit Derya Yıldırım and Grup Şimşek continues to explore the band’s idiosyncratic take on pop psychedelia from their Berlin base.  Once again it’s easy to fall under the spell of the alluring voice of Derya Yildirim, especially once the bağlama comes into play, the traditional Turkish lute, which not only compliments her voice but adds spice to an already hot mix, notably on the sultry “Haydar Haydar”, an Anatolian Alevi poem, which is both soulful and meditative at the same time.  The suitably titled opener “The Trip” has all the psychedelic instrumentation necessary to get a good show off to a good start, an instrumental that becomes a showcase for Antonin Voyant’s wah wah guitar performance, which sounds almost Hot Rats in places, together with Graham Mushnik’s sci-fi organ.  It’s perhaps with “Hastane Önü”, where we find some of the most emotional outpouring, an autobiographical poem written by Yildirim’s aunt, honouring the thoughts of a young woman struck down by illness.  The original material slots in remarkably well with the old Anatolian classics, each of which offers a vibrant take on a very particular music from a very particular location.  Planned as the first in a two part series, Dost 1 comprises just six tracks, yet this just about guarantees that there are  no throw away moments whatsoever throughout the album.  Deserves repeat plays.

Jez Hellard and the Djukella Orchestra | The Fruitful Fells | Album Review | Djukella Records | 15.07.21

In some ways reminiscent of Pete Morton and with a similar sense of urgency in his delivery, Jez Hellard once again traverses the annals of social commentary and turns our attention to fourteen meaningful songs, the writing credits democratically shared out between his own pen and thirteen other notable writers – okay, Robin Williamson gets two, but that’s because the former Incredible String Band member and genius of this parish is just too damn good.  Joking aside, the songs here are chosen for their poignancy, their beauty and their stature in the folk canon.  For The Fruitful Fells, Jez once again calls upon his faithful Djukella Orchestra, notably Nye Parsons who plays on every track, to assist him as he revisits this fine crop of contemporary songs and in most cases, makes a good job of it.  A Djukella ‘derrangement’ is often one to savour, look no further than their New Orleans jazz treatment of Sally Ironmonger and Brian Carter’s scathing “Foodbanks and Ferraris”.  There’s the notion that Jez knows exactly what he’s singing about and therefore makes each syllable count, whether it’s channelling the poetical works of Kipling and Burns, the folk sensibilities of MacColl and Kahn or the political savvy of Robb Johnson and Nathan Ball.  Hellard’s own sole contribution as a writer is an astute observation on Orwell’s prophetic notion of surveillance capitalism, which might make us think twice before we eagerly publish our next selfie on social media.  The album also includes one or two personal favourites, which makes the listening even more enjoyable, with a fine reading of “Now Westlin’ Winds”, which in turn makes no attempt to hide the Dick Gaughan influence, the timeless “For Mr Thomas”, devoid of Williamson’s celestial wine glasses and Richard Farina’s contemplative “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood”.  Throw in a criminally ignored Richard Thompson song, and one that concerns a certain Donny lass no less, then wrap it in a handsomely packaged and informative sleeve and accompanying booklet, and an album of considerable value emerges as if by magic. 

Joe Danks | Seaspeak | Album Review | Self Release | 15.07.21

The Nottingham-born singer, musician and Morris dancer, now based in Derbyshire, finds himself at the heart of the English seafaring community as he sets up shop at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for a year-long residency, which has now resulted in a fine debut album of songs relating to the sea.  The cover design gives us some clues as to what to expect, with an assortment of seemingly unrelated objects that includes a life jacket, a carpenter’s saw, a couple of crossed pegs and an elephant, each representing a story that can be found in the museum and its Caird Library a short walk from the banks of the Thames.  Having spent some time as part of the Anglo/Irish folk band Ranagri, Danks now teams up with fellow Ranagri musician, the harpist Jean Kelly, together with fellow Derbyshire fiddle player Sarah Matthews and hurdy gurdy and accordion wizard Danny Peddler, to help bring these stories to life.  Each of the songs, schottisches and hornpipes comes with a taste of salt and the spirit of the high seas, influenced both by their surroundings and the stories found in each of the objects exhibited.  The four musicians create a full sound as can be heard on the powerfully emotive “Jumbo”, based on a Leon Rosselson song about an elephant, followed by Sarah’s tune dedicated to the elephant’s keeper.  In contrast, Joe takes full advantage of his surroundings by delivering an unaccompanied “Southward”, from the stairwell at the 17th century Queen’s House, which serves as a fine interlude midway through.  Joe’s assured voice is reminiscent of Jim Moray, both in its timbre and strength, ideal for delivering these songs.  Taking inspiration from an old banjo in the museum’s collection, the traditional “John Peel” is reworked in “Hussey’s John Peel”, the banjo having once belonged to one Leonard Hussey, the meteorologist who accompanied Shackleton on numerous voyages.  The one stand out exhibit at the museum has to be Turner’s dramatic painting The Battle of Trafalgar, the inspiration behind the recording of “Man of War” for this project, the song itself borrowed from the repertoire of the Melrose Quartet.  As a collection, the songs and tunes on Seaspeak provide an insight into the importance of the historical artefacts in the National Maritime Museum, but also the value of the songs that can emerge from such projects.

Joseph Spence | Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings | 15.07.21

Many will be familiar with the name Joseph Spence, possibly from the early albums by Ry Cooder, notably his treatment of “Great Dream from Heaven” on his second album Into the Purple Valley, or “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer” from the next one, Boomer’s Story or indeed no less than three songs that appear on Jazz, all borrowed from Spence.  Initially, the source material on the earlier Spence albums could be considered something of an acquired taste, but once the guitar style grabs hold, Joseph Spence is crucial listening, despite the strained vocal.  Here we find one or two familiar songs from the celebrated Bahamian guitarist’s repertoire, including “Out on the Rolling Sea”, “Down By the Riverside” and “That Glad Reunion Day”, recorded in the mid-1960s by the recording engineer, documentarian and producer Peter Siegel in both New York City and the Bahamas.  Some of the songs here feature members of Spence’s relatives, such as Edith, Raymond and Geneva Pinder.  Being a major influence, not only on Cooder’s career, but also on the work of other notable musicians including Richard Thompson, Taj Mahal and even the Grateful Dead, Joseph Spence continues to dazzle with his highly original guitar style and unique rhythms.

JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind and Rain | Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man | Album Review | Free Dirt Records | 15.07.21

With a cover shot reminiscent of a combined 16th century Caravaggio self portrait and still life, the collaborative debut album by JP Harris and noted Old Crow Medicine Show fiddle player Chance McCoy, delves deep into the mountain music of the Appalachians, with ten traditional songs that offer a nod of respect to those who have gone before, including the likes of the Carter and Watson families, among others.  There’s at least two songs that reference the noble trade of carpentry, which possibly has something to do with Harris’ fall back trade, whose handy work can be seen and felt by many in some of the recording studios in the vicinity.  Mixing two trades has a certain charm and some of it comes over on this album, the fiddle and banjo forming the backdrop to such memorable songs as “Barbry Ellen”, “The House Carpenter” and “Mole in the Ground”, a song once performed by Doc and Merle Watson and with similar whimsy.  These timeless songs, each recorded in a West Virginia barn, are treated to the care and attention they thoroughly deserve, with not one synthesiser in sight.

Kathryn Locke with Chodompa Music | LA | Album Review | Self Release | 15.07.21

At the forefront of this album is the bold sound of Kathryn Locke’s cello, which dominates throughout, devoid of the usual classical training associated with the instrument, but rather, depending heavily on feel and natural bonding.  The music is raw and uncompromising, each of the musicians involved having a certain freedom to express themselves around each arrangement.  Sarah Allen’s flute, Jo Freya’s sax and clarinet, Jo May’s percussion and Geoff Coombs’ mandola each of whom know their instruments inside out and each of which slot into the  dovetail-like arrangements perfectly, while Kathryn directs with a fine ear for melody and mood.  Highly textured, the ten selections, each composed by Locke, provide daring drama one moment and pastoral interludes the next, with an overriding sense of spirituality ingrained in the fabric of the whole, as illustrated in the inner sleeve, which features a photograph of His Holiness 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dore, one of the highest lamas of Tibet, whose voice is featured on “When the Heart Roars”.

Manzanita y Su Conjunto | Trujillo, Perú 1971 – 1974 | Album Review | Analog Africa | 15.07.21

There’s something immediately uplifting about Manzanita’s guitar playing, certainly on the opener “Shambar’’, which was recently released as a single from this fine retrospective album.  Analog Africa have now released a limited edition vinyl release of Trujillo, Perú 1971 – 1974, which features fourteen mostly instrumental compositions that showcases the wealth of electrifying Peruvian cumbia and guaracha songs and tunes, which in turn makes dancing difficult to avoid.  Try keeping still during “Un Sabado Por La Noche” or indeed “L Caihuita”.  Berardo Hernández, better known as Manzanita, emerged in the late 1960s as a leading figure on the Peruvian music scene, with his electric criollo style, seemingly parting the waters to make way for this energising and infectious music among the Spanish, African and indigenous population.  After his unfortunate passing in 2007, there’s a sense that now might be the right time to revisit some of his remarkable and delightfully vibrant music.  This is indeed a good place to start.

Mark Germino | Midnight Carnival | Album Review | Red Parlor Records | 15.07.21

Originally from North Carolina, the Nashville-based singer songwriter and one time poet Mark Germino (or Germs) returns with a dozen or so new songs on Midnight Carnival, an album produced by Michael Webb, Kenny Vaughan and Brandon Bell, each of who bring to the project their combined musical credentials, having between them worked with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Zac Brown and Poco, in fact Poco’s founder member Rusty Young appears here playing pedal steel on “Carolina in the Morning”.  Germino’s cracked voice suits these songs and gives them a sense of informed maturity, you don’t ever doubt that these stories have been experienced and these shoes have been lived in.  The notion of Rembrandt being God’s favourite painter, rather than Michelangelo or Raphael, as revealed in “Blessed Are the Ones”, is testament to the poetry that lingers in Germino’s lyrics.   The talking lyric on “The Greatest Song Ever Written” is as engaging as the songs delivered by Sam Baker, while “Finest American Waltz” stands out as a notable highlight, mainly due to its notable references and the allure of 1971.

Steve Dawson | At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree | Album Review | Pravda Records | 15.07.21

After some time away from writing and performing, the San Diego-born singer/songwriter returns suitably refreshed with a dozen new songs, plus a couple of bonus tracks.  Disillusioned after a series of family losses, the Dolly Varden and Funeral Bonsai Wedding songwriter took some time out, returning after attending one of Richard Thompson’s summer songwriting camps, with guest Patty Griffin, re-energised and sufficiently influenced to pour out his thoughts on dozens of songs, some of which have made it onto this new album, his first to be released on Pravda Records.  Having moved around quite a bit, spending his teens in Idaho, a few years at Berklee School of Music in Boston and then settling in Chicago, where this album was recorded, Dawson’s world view is laid out for all to hear in these few songs, each easily accessible with Dawson’s youthful Jackson Browne-like voice and similar performing style, notably on such songs as “Forgiveness is Nothing Like I Thought it Would Be”, “The Spaces In Between” and “She Knew”.  Despite a rough and rocky ride, Steve Dawson arrives on time, in good order and more than suitably refreshed.

Hebden Red Sox | Freedom | Single Review | H4H Music | 15.07.21

Trish Clemit and Jessika Martin, otherwise Hebden Red Sox, release their debut single “Freedom”, a positive statement from which to draw encouragement in these claustrophobic uncertain times, a celebration of our imminent liberation from a year and a half of misery and uncertainty.  The calls for freedom during the opening few bars of the song are reminiscent of calling for children, to tell them that tea’s ready, or calls for a feisty pooch who’s slipped from view, effectively a timely beckoning for the freedom most of us have craved for the last few months.  The stomping folk rock backdrop, helped along in no small measure by Gigspanner’s Peter Knight, Ranagri’s Eliza Marshall and Cud’s Steve Goodwin.  The single also includes a second song, also co-written by Heath Common and John Hardie, “Days of Hope”, which also brings with it a message of hopefulness and optimism.        

Gabriel Moreno | Angel of Joy | Single Review | Poetry Mondays Records | 15.07.21

Lifted from his forthcoming album The Year of the Rat, “Angel of Joy” takes a moment to reflect on our recent plight, an optimistic look at what might be just around the corner, a plea for the light at the end of the tunnel and hopefully, to be carried back to the heat of the night.  Written and recorded in London, and delivered in a sort of spoken manner reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, the subject of “Angel of Joy” is clearly not a religious angel, but as Moreno points out, rather ‘an urban apparition who reminds us of the good times we hope will be back soon’.  The feel of the song is reminiscent of those created by the bedsit dreamers of the late 1960s and like Cohen before him, the Gibraltarian is both a published poet and a singer, who accompanies himself here on a nylon string guitar, which adds to the gentleness from which the song greatly benefits.

Josienne Clarke | A Small Unknowable Thing | Album Review | Corduroy Punk | 01.08.21

A few years ago I was tasked once again with the job of introducing several acts at the Wath Festival, the long running music event tucked away in the Dearne Valley.  One of the eagerly awaited acts to appear over the weekend was a popular duo that I’d been following for some time, which included a young singer whose voice prompted me to announce during the introduction, that it did in fact belong to my current favourite British singer.  “I didn’t know that”, declared the singer in question later in the bar.  Josienne Clarke’s name, without her knowledge or indeed her permission, had been added to a short list of names that already included a Dusty and a Sandy, each British, each female and each very much at the top of their game when they were added to the list and very much at the top of my list of personal favourites.  Several years on and I have no reason to make any counter claims, which is perhaps confirmed by the quality of the performances on Josienne’s latest solo album A Small Unknowable Thing, which has just been released on her own Corduroy Punk label.  From the outset, Josienne states that she’s searching for a tune that she hasn’t sung before, which suggests that there’s still a restless spirit at work and one that aims high, striving for independence and recognition in the face of her own personal struggles.  It feels that many of Josienne’s previous difficulties might finally have been resolved, though some of the songs included here appear to focus on some overdue catharsis and skin-shedding, notably the scathing “Deep Cut” and “The Collector”, from which the album derives its beguiling title.  If Josienne’s wings had previously been pinned, then by the shedding of her label, her former musical partner and now her producer, we see an artist finally emerge in her own right and a performer with something valid to say.  There’s independence written both in and in between each line on this album, more so perhaps than on her previous solo album In All Weather.  “Super Recogniser” provides more than just a glimpse of Josienne’s confidence as an explorative vocalist, as she alternates between straight and scat singing, with one or two lines going off at unexpected tangents.  Her highly distinctive and unique voice stays pretty much at the centre of each song, while the guitars, both acoustic and electric, are in good hands, which should really come as no surprise, certainly to those of us who have witnessed her playing over the years.  Occasionally, Josienne’s voice is suitably up in the mix, notably on “Never Lie”, “Chains” and the beautiful “Out Loud”, where we can feel her presence up close and personal, as we assume the role of her confidants.  The musical range is broad as the material alternates between such gentle fare as “A Letter on a Page”, a love song, to the almost manic, yet rather fantastic “Sit Out”, where Josienne’s saxophone is firmly set to ‘assault’ mode, as if she has temporarily taken her place in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band circa 1969.  Alec Bowman-Clarke’s delicate artwork and photography only adds to the mystery, with each butterfly placement and each waft of a silk scarf effectively providing an effortless juxtaposition between the ethereal world and Josienne’s very real world of determination, to survive as an artist, further exemplified by the album closer, the delicate “Unbound”, which brings a sense of optimism and perhaps a light at the end of the tunnel?  This is Josienne’s finest work to date.

Adeline | Adeline | Album Review | Self Release | 01.08.21

Accompanied by a sepia shot of the five-piece band in the midst of a blizzard, dressed in full Arctic gear, not unlike a scene from The Thing, Adeline takes to the frozen north for a bit of sore-fingered jamming.  The fifteen instrumentals that make up the debut album by this collective demonstrates in no small measure their individual musical chops, each member drawn from some of the top outfits currently working the Old Time circuit.  John Showman, Chris Coole, Adrian Gross, Sam Allison and Mark Kilianski took to the frozen Ontario Kawartha Highlands, the land of the Anishinabewaki and Mississauga people, to spend just three days music making, while keeping themselves as warm as they possibly could in a seventy year-old cabin along the shores of Beaver Lake, where temperatures outside reached minus 18 degrees.  The five musicians, comprising of two from The Lonesome Ace Stringband (Showman/Coole), one from The Slocan Ramblers (Gross), one from Sheesham and Lotus & Son (Allison) and one from Golden Shoals (Kilianski), had never actually worked together previously, Sam and Mark having never before met.  The results are both enthusiastically tight and dynamic, and at the same time demonstrate a certain hunger for returning to the game after a few months out of action due to lock down.  As with much of this music of an Old Time nature, the feeling of joy is never far away, despite the potential threat of frostbite.

Balimaya Project | Wolo So | Album Review | Jazz Re:Freshed | 01.08.21

After five years in the making, the sixteen-piece outfit Balimaya Project are now ready to release their debut album Wolo So, which roughly translates to ‘born at home’.  Led by the British-born composer, arranger and percussionist Yahael Camara Onono, the project focuses on the traditional music and folklore of the Mandé peoples of West Africa, but from a London jazz scene perspective.  Onono is keen to categorise this music as Mandé Jazz, with a specific focus on this particular cultural base.  The seven pieces included are predominantly instrumental, where the drums are heard loudly and often, with sprinklings of strings via the kora and several brass motifs emphasising the size of the outfit and bringing to the music a huge and bold sound.  The Paris-based Malian singer Mariam Tounkara Koné offers her vocal services to the rhythm-laden “Soninka/Patronba”, which brings a welcome embellishment to an otherwise male musical environment.  There’s a sense of ‘brotherhood’ that runs throughout the project, each of the musicians depending on one another throughout.

Carbonhobo | Memoirs From the Crooked Road | Album Review | Merry Hell Music | 01.08.21

Neil McCartney, the fiddle player with the Wigan-based roots band Merry Hell, delivers his debut solo album under the guise of Carbonhobo, released on his current band’s own label.  The songs on Memoirs From the Crooked Road reflect the comings and goings and various peregrinations of a well-travelled troubadour, a singer-songwriter of experience, covering no less than five continents over a three decade period, equipped with an eye for detail and a good sense of melody, which just might run in his blood.  In places, the songs are reminiscent of early Seventies bedsit musings, notably “Warm in the Bed”, which is a little like Brian Protheroe’s memorable “Pinball” in feel.  In other places, the atmosphere has a more Celtic feel, certainly the Bothy Band inspired “The Maids of Mitchelstown”, which could have been recorded on the banks of the Liffey.  Under the moniker of Carbonhobo, McCartney plays everything but the piano, a role he hands over to his son Ben, though there are some key guest appearances here, notably Jeff Higgins on saxophone providing the late night jazz feel on “John Coltrane on Bleeker Street”.  From County Mayo to Montreux, New York City to Wigan, McCartney creates an enviable travelogue of places visited and a life lived, with the sound of the shores never too far away, as clearly heard on the glistening “Seagull” that concludes this fine album. 

Maartin Allcock | OX15 | Album Review | Talking Elephant Records | 01.08.21

Originally released just before the turn of the last century, Maartin Allcock’s solo album OX15 is named for the Oxfordshire postcode area in which it was made, a location said to be the ‘Folk Rock Belt’ according to the sleeve notes, mainly due to the genre’s leading musicians that reside there.  The twelve songs and tunes cover a broad range of styles, which includes the familiar folk rock territory exemplified in the output of Fairport Convention, the band he left three years earlier to join Jethro Tull, after a good eleven years as one of the band’s cleverest multi-instrumentalists.  Tull’s animated frontman Ian Anderson appears here on Allcock’s first ever song, “Whenever We See the Dark”, which features some of the musician’s trademark flute lipping.  Known for his highly complex time signatures and intricate arrangements, the instrumentals sound just as inventive as they did when they were first recorded over twenty years ago.  Seemingly more comfortable with the instrumentals, Allcock enlists his wife Gill to perform Allan Taylor’s “Chimes at Midnight”, while Najma Akhtar provides an authentic voice for the jointly written “A Dream”, some of which is performed in Urdu.  With a faithful nod to both the Allman Brothers Band and indeed Top Gear, the show for motorphiles rather than Peel’s late night broadcasts of the late 1960s, the highly cheerful instrumental “Jessica” makes an enjoyable mid-album appearance, coupled with the traditional “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, featuring both Chris Leslie and Chris Haigh duelling on their respective fiddles, replacing Dickey Betts’ iconic guitar riff almost note for note.  A fine reissue in memory of a fine and much missed musician.

Aidan O’Rourke | Iorram | Album Review | Reveal Records | 01.08.21

Lau’s fiddle player extraordinaire Aidan O’Rourke releases his first soundtrack album, which is chock full of atmosphere as would be expected.  There’s no jigging around the barn in any of these twelve selections, but rather a collection of warm, ethereal and almost contemplative sonic explorations augmented by archive Gaelic voices of the people from as early as the 1940s.  With the title translating to ‘Boat Song’, there’s a sense of the sea placed within each of the compositions, the project itself pertaining to the fishing communities of the Outer Hebrides.  O’Rourke’s fiddle is at the heart of each of the tunes, with further contributions from Lizabett Russo on vocals, Brighde Chaimbeul on Scottish small pipes, Graeme Stephen on guitar, Adam Kinner on saxophone, Thas Gibbs on harmonium and Lucy Railton on cello.  Released in the wake of O’Rourke’s exhaustive 365 tune-a-day-for-a-year project, which spread over the course of 2019-2020, Iorram is an enchanting album of spoken word and delicate, hypnotic and soothing instrumental music.

Yonder Boys | Acid Folk | Album Review | Blue Whale Records | 01.08.21

The core trio of musicians that makes up the Berlin-based Yonder Boys are the Australian banjo player David Stewart Ingleton, American guitarist Jason Serious and Chilean multi-instrumentalist Tomas Peralta, whose debut album Acid Folk falls somewhere very close to what it says on the tin.  With a cover illustration that brings almost as much distress as sitting through Bambi once again, Acid Folk tears through ten songs, some original, one or two not so, including a haunting version of the traditional “House Carpenter”.  The Beach Boys influenced “The Great American Pussy Grab” carries an explicit language warning on the press release, but is such a hoot for any radio play these days.  The fun continues with “Look at What You Done”, while the harmonica-led “High on the Mountain” provides some inviting toe-tapping moments.  There’s a good portion of attitude, plenty of tight and playful three-part harmonies and an overriding sense of fun throughout this album, just the tonic for these uncertain and doubtful times.

What Aleph Said | Aeona | Album Review | Fluttery Records | 01.08.21

Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the four-piece What Aleph Said is a rock outfit whose new album is made up of five lengthy instrumental tracks, each of which attempts to explore a healthy mix of post-rock and stoner-rock, infused with a nod towards their progressive rock influences, yet thankfully avoiding any Hobbit influenced lyrics.  Completely instrumental, the album opens with the title cut, a steadily building rock opus, which reaches the beginning of its climax a good seven minutes in, suitably setting the tone for what follows.  “Nostalgic” has one or two Wishbone Ash moments, with some fine guitar interplay and once again builds to a crescendo of sound after the bass takes over the reins, which would in turn be very much at home accompanying a James Bond action sequence perfectly; there’s just something in its conclusion that echoes “Phoenix”.  There’s also a touch of the Middle East in some of the arrangements, notably “Introspection”, which once again demonstrates the band’s musical range.

The Willow Trio | Oystercatchers | EP Review | Self Release | 01.08.21

After the initial release of the lead track “oystercatchers”, the Glasgow-based clarsach trio present their first five-track EP of the same name, which sees Sam MacAdam, Sophie Rocks and Romy Wymer, spread their musical wings for what sounds like a promising musical adventure.  Taking their combined grounding in both classical and traditional musical forms, the trio deliver on their promise to keep this music both sublime and delicate, while expanding their own musical sensibilities.  There are a lot of strings at work here, yet nothing sounds untidy or cluttered, in fact everything is very much in its place, with each note counting and complimenting one another. “What Care I for the Minster” almost breaks into dance mode, though maintains its composure throughout, each harp calling to one another like birds in the trees. The music that the Willow Trio plays is almost celestial in its delivery, like light dancing through stained glass.

Jackson Browne | My Cleveland Heart | Single Review | Inside Recordings | 01.08.21

Drawing inspiration from a driving trip around Northeast Ohio with a pal, possibly back in 2019, notably at the point when his road mate pointed out the place in Cleveland where they actually make artificial hearts, prompting the noted singer-songwriter to respond ‘Oh, I could use one of those’.  This latest single, co-written by Val McCallum and lifted from Browne’s latest album Downhill From Everywhere, features all the necessary ingredients for a Jackson Browne staple, highly melodic, with a notable lap steel guitar accompaniment, courtesy Greg Leisz, which recalls the golden days of the Jackson Browne/David Lindley heyday. Accompanying this release is an entertaining video promo, featuring an appearance by Phoebe Bridgers, who is seen apparently feasting on Browne’s discarded heart as he looks on from the operating theatre bed, rejuvenated with a brand new mechanical heart.  The video, directed by Alissa Torvinen Kouame, adds to the appeal of this single, which once again confirms Browne’s credentials as a first rate songwriter.

Twelfth Day | What’s Real | Single Review | Orange Feather Records | 01.08.21

The two musicians that form Twelfth Day, Catriona Price and Esther Swift, look no different than in the days when they first began to work together a good ten years ago, just as they were first starting out.  With a handful of albums and EPs already released, the duo continue to take their music further, in terms of both their experimental musicianship and their conscientious song writing.  “What’s Real” follows “Fact of Life”, both songs from the duo’s current album release Face to Face, and once again this single features a bold arrangement that is on the one hand joyful and breezy, yet imbued with tension and release, as the violin and harp work together in complete musical empathy. The accompanying video promo, directed by James Ewen, reflects the duo’s connection with nature, its optimism and its puzzles, with a message of hope for those who might be experiencing the hardships of a dismissive society.

Joe Troop | Borrowed Time | Album Review | Free Dirt Records | 15.08.21

There are just two letters of difference between the surname of ‘Troop’ and that of Joe’s chief adversary, yet the two men are world’s apart in terms of ideology and personality.  Joe Troop has spent a good deal of the last couple of years campaigning for a better world, fearlessly pushing his ideological goals to the fore, yet the musician has found time in all this mayhem to create an absolute belter of a solo album, with the help and assistance of one or two key players on the acoustic roots scene.  Borrowed Time has so much going for it, certainly in its diversity, one minute steeped in banjo-led bluegrass, the next immersed in Spanish verse, with a vocal that hovers somewhere between Tim O’Brien and Stevie Wonder. The multi-instrumentalist is in exploration mode throughout, which brings to the album plenty of tangents and diversions, therefore plenty of musical scope.  Co-produced by Jason Richmond, the album features Béla Fleck, Abigail Washburn, Tim O’Brien, and Charlie Hunter, each of whom add some of their own musical personality to the project.  With origins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the openly gay musician grew up playing bluegrass music in the South, where he managed to hone both his craft and his activism into something adventurous and fulfilling, standing up for what he believes in all the way.  This determination comes over in the songs on this album, especially “The Rise of Dreama Caldwell”, a paean to a the brave North Carolina Black woman, who after COVID struck her hometown, began organizing community support for those most in need and in the wake of the dreadful George Floyd killing, organized protests in support of Black lives and police accountability.  Having experienced life in both Argentina and Spain, Troop pivots between English and Spanish with some considerable ease, adopting the rhythms of the bombo legüero in the album opener “Horizon” and then again on the dramatic “Prisionero”, which features the Argentinean percussionist Lionel Sanders, then also the flamenco rhythms of “Sevilla”, each of which brings additional warmth to the album.  “Hermano Migrante”, another (of many) album highlights and certainly one that features one of the record’s finest vocal moments, is a moving ode to migrants and migration, which includes an appearance by the accordionist Rolando Revilla, a member of Baldemar Velazquez’s Aguila Negra band.  Migration is further addressed, albeit in English this time, with “Mercy for Migrants”, a heartfelt duet with Abigail Washburn, which is accompanied by a moving video promo.  As we wait for the world to catch up with Joe Troop, there’s really no hurry to put this wonderful album back on the shelf just yet.

David Crosby | For Free | Album Review | Three Blind Mice/BMG | 15.08.21

Half a century has passed since David Crosby released his first solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name back in 1971 and plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since then.  There’s enough drama in those years to fill a HBO box set, with episodes that would no doubt include a plethora of political rants, several drug and weapons offences, a notable jail sentence, one or two health issues and plenty of squabbles with former band mates, some minor, some major, some terminal, yet even after all these turbulent years, Croz still has a credible voice even on the eve of preparing to blow out eighty candles.  Love him or loathe him, David Crosby is a legendary figure in popular music, whose relationship with music has always been of paramount importance, from his early days with Les Baxter’s Balladeers, then as a founder member of the The Byrds and the so-called supergroup Crosby Stills and Nash (and Young), through to the later CPR (Crosby, Pevar & Raymond).  For Free sees Crosby in collaboration with his own son James Raymond as well as such notable artists as Michael McDonald, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and the multi-Grammy Award-winning Sarah Jarosz.  In a way, this album could be considered a collaboration album, notably in regard to the working partnership with James Raymond, who not only produced the album but also collaborated on the song writing, significantly the album’s closer “I Won’t Stay for Long”.  Jarosz joins Crosby on the title cut, a duet version of a Joni Mitchell song that Crosby would perform alongside his erstwhile buddies Stills and Nash, notably on the trio’s 1983 album Allies, where the song appeared under the slightly longer title “He Played Real Good For Free”.   Crosby has made no secret of his admiration for Steely Dan and Fagen offers “Rodriguez for a Night”, a suitably jazz-infused number that wouldn’t really be out of place on The Nightfly.  Wrapped in a sleeve designed by Joan Baez, For Free is a timely demonstration that even at eighty, there’s no stopping the Croz.

Suzie Ungerleider | My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider | Album Review | MVKA | 15.08.21

Many will know Suzie Ungerleider as ‘Oh Susanna’, a name the singer has been trading under since the late 1990s, releasing several albums and EPs during those years, which includes her fine debut  Johnstown (1999), Sleepy Little Sailor (2001) and more recently A Girl in Teen City (2017).  Beginning a new chapter in her career, the American-born, Canadian-raised singer songwriter reverts to her own birth name in light of the unsavoury connotations of her former pseudonym, borrowed from the old 1848 Stephen Foster song, which contains racist imagery that Suzie wants to avoid, and rightly so, but also with newfound courage to stand tall in her own skin and announce to the world with an assured confidence that her name is indeed Suzie Ungerleider.  With all these personal and political considerations now addressed, Suzie gets down to business and brings us another bunch of quality songs, three of which have already been drip fed to us via single releases in anticipation of the album’s August release.  “Baby Blues”, “Mount Royal” and “Pumpkins” demonstrated that a new name would have zero effect on the quality of the songwriting we have become accustomed to over the last twenty-odd years.  If there has been any change in Suzie’s outlook, it is probably the fact that Suzie is older, wiser and now possessed of motherly instincts, notably addressed in “Summerbaby”, a song that looks at her daughter’s premature birth and survival against the odds.  Produced by Jim Bryson, My Name is Suzie Ungerleider is a fine addition to an already impressive body of work.

Andrew Howie | Pale White Branches | Album Review | Autoclave Records | 15.08.21

The first full band album by the Stirling-based singer-songwriter Andrew Howie since Each Dirty Letter (2010), an album released under the Calamateur moniker, which Howie used between 2000-2013.  Pale White Branches is confidently produced, with plenty of bass and plenty of spirit.  The eleven songs, some of which are co-writes with such collaborators as Hannah Graham, Alan Kerr and Colleen Souness, are all solidly performed by a band that seems to know what it’s doing.  Echoing Northern Sky’s recent single review, “Sycamore” stands out as a highly melodic song that features the album’s title within its lyric, written from the perspective of someone dealing with the ongoing struggle of a partner, while maintaining a hopeful and optimistic message throughout.  This kind of warmth is further explored in such songs as “Drip Feed”, “California” and “Echoes”, while “A Follower, A Fighter” and “Open Arms”, demonstrate Howie’s rock credentials.  A record to come back to, especially when spirits are in need of a lift.

Bard Edrington V | Two Days in Terlingua | Album Review | Self Release | 15.08.21

It wouldn’t really be far off the mark to refer to Bard Edrington V as the outdoor type, in fact it would be a pretty much spot on description.  Having spent the last thirteen years tending to his landscaping business, which he runs with his wife Zoe, the great outdoors is very much in his blood.  Born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee, Edrington takes as the starting point of his musical education the clawhammer style banjo playing of the legendary Doc Watson, together with the fingerpicking of the equally legendary Mississippi John Hurt, some of that influence already demonstrated in his work with his regular outfit The Hoth Brothers.  For his second solo album, Edrington keeps it in the family, a family line clearly indicated with the Roman numeral tagged onto his name, with ten original songs and a couple of poems from the hand of his great grandmother Mable.  The songs were recorded in a hundred year-old church in Terlingua, Texas at the northern tip of the Chihuahua desert, at the beginning of the looming pandemic, with a little help from Alex McMahon on lead and pedal steel guitars, Bill Palmer on bass, Jim Palmer on drums, Karina Wilson on fiddle and Zoe Wilcox on vocals.  The album is for all intents and purposes a live album having been recorded in just three takes in the sequence they appear here and with no further overdubs.  “Ramblin’ Kind” is a fine opener, its flat picked guitar ringing clear as the band falls immediately into place, as Edrington delivers the song in a voice that falls somewhere between Townes Van Zandt and Waylon Jennings, more than suitable for a tale of an ageing man on the run.  If the opener is reminiscent of the Texas troubadour, then “Property Lines” hits the Van Zandt nail on the head, a bluesy nod to the hard times, working the gold mines with some expressive gypsy fiddle adding to the mood.  The hard times are further reflected upon in the gentle and melancholic “Black Coal Lung”, while “Dog Tags 1942”, reflects on grandmother Mabel’s poignant war poem of the same name.   Nowhere on the album do we get a greater sense of the church in which the sessions were recorded, the opening few bars of “Strange Balloon” offering a taste of the ambient sounds beneath the band’s feet, its timber and stained glass holding everything tightly together.   

Grace Morrison | Daughter | Album Review |  Self Release | 15.08.21

‘Morrison’ is a familiar name in several genres of popular music, from the world of Rock & Roll (Jim/Van/Sterling), Jazz (James), Pop (another James), Soul (Junie), R&B (Mark), Scots Celtic (Fred) and Indie (Barb/Carla), therefore it stands to reason that there should be at least one Morrison in Country Music.  I’m sure there are more, but here we are concerned exclusively with just the one, a young Cape Cod-born singer-songwriter called Grace, whose early musical influences would no doubt have been augmented by the Atlantic Ocean lapping at the nearby Massachusetts shores.  Now relocated to Rochester, Morrison has carved out a career in music, which the singer likes to say falls somewhere between Lisa Loeb and Lori McKenna.  Originally planned as a five-track EP, the lockdown and all the free time that goes with it, especially in light of her now scuppered tour plans, Daughter has been allowed to expand into a full-blown twelve-track album, her third to be produced by Jon Evans.  Opening with the title song, co-written by McKenna and having the same sort of feel as Steve Earle’s “I Ain’t Satisfied”, (not exactly the same, but somewhere in the ballpark), the album gets off to a flying start.  Morrison is keen to point out that the album is not specifically a lockdown album, but the songs do tend to be thematically linked.  The country feel to the songs is exemplified further by the use of the steel guitar.

Naragonia | The Guesthouse Sessions | Album Review | Trad Records | 15.08.21

Pascale Rubens and Toon Van Mierlo, otherwise known as Naragonia, are two multi-instrumentalists from Belgium, who for this project have gathered together a number of guests to help bring a few new melodies to life.  Working together as a unit for almost twenty years, Naragonia have a great sense of arrangement, using their basic tools of the trade, which includes diatonic accordions, violin, bagpipes, bombarde, flutes and soprano saxophone to great effect.  During lockdown, the duo came up with the idea of organising a series of ‘musical meetings’ with various guest musicians that would include Guy Swinnen, Philippe Laloy, Jo Zanders, Charlotte, Mathijs Van Mierlo, Simon Leleux, Maarten Decombel and Tristan Driessens, presumably in the duo’s guest house, hence the title The Guesthouse Sessions.  There’s a certain universality to the songs and tunes here, which appears to cover quite a lot of musical ground, from such improvisational tunes as “De Poort Van De 4 Vuren” and “Gooik” to songs of the calbre of “Songlines” and “The Swallow”.

Steve Ashley | Family Album Revisited | Album Review | Talking Elephant | 15.08.21

Employing the services of one of British Folk Rock’s premier bands, Steve Ashley once gathered together the current line-up of Fairport Convention with a handful of others to create what was effectively presented as a family album, complete with its curious group photo for the cover, reminiscent of the Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter sleeve, which was released a decade earlier.  Recorded in 1979, the album hung around for a couple of years before being released on the Woodworm label in 1982 and contains mostly Ashley originals.  There are moments of beauty in some of the songs, notably “Once in a While”, subtitled ‘the Grandmother’s song’, which is offset by moments of bizarre fun, such as the a cappella “Pancake Day” and the seriously worrying “Lost and Found”, which sounds like Vyvyan from The Young Ones after too many lemonades.  “Feeling Lazy”, a song later covered by the Arizona Smoke Review, remains one of the album’s highlights almost forty years on.  There’s a couple of changes to the original record, hence the addition of ‘Revisited’ to its title, which includes an outtake from the original sessions of “Somewhere in a Song” and a brand new song to close the album, “For Bruce”, a tribute to Bruce Rowland, remembered not only for his work with Fairport, but also for his work with Grease Band and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance.  Nice to see the album back with us.

Heisk | Heisk | Album Review | Self Release | 15.08.21

From the start the six members of this brand new traditional Scottish band are keen to point out that Heisk is a celebration of female empowerment, being made up of all female musicians and having been created, produced and released exclusively by women.  The ten instrumental tracks that makes up this debut self-titled album are unsurprisingly bold, full of energy and impeccably played; unsurprisingly in that anyone who doubts that an all-female band is capable of creating such music ought to open their eyes and ears a little more often.  Born in Glasgow, Heisk is made up of musicians from all over Scotland, with Becca Skeoch on electro harp, Catriona Hawksworth on keyboards, Lauren Macdonald on drums, Megan MacDonald on accordion, Rosie Munro on fiddle and Sally Simpson on fiddle.  Having worked together for some time, the band feels that now is the right time to record and release their first album, which will presumably be followed by a few festival appearances once this tiresome war is over, where such potential festival favourites could include “Kayak”, “Disco” and “Angus”.

Kelly Bayfield | Vapour Trails | Single Review | Peacock Butterfly Records | 15.08.21

This is the first single from the forthcoming debut album by Suffolk’s Kelly Bayfield, produced by David Edward Booth and due for release in November, which just may provide us with a glimpse of what to expect.  Paul Sartin’s oboe gives the song its ethereal feel, underpinned by Beth Porter’s almost subliminal cello, whilst Kelly’s almost pleading voice asks some of the leading questions about our downward spiral as a species and our seemingly unconcerned attitude towards the survival of this planet and our insatiable appetite for power.  Good questions posed to a retro-folk melody which could just as easily have been recorded in the early 1970s, giving us perhaps a little more time to sort our mess out before it’s too late.

Dan Webster | She Smiles | Album Review | Paper Plane Records | 15.08.21

The York-based singer-songwriter Dan Webster looks for hope in these otherwise hopeless times with an uplifting, optimistic and joyful single, albeit with a slight tinge of darkness hovering beneath.  Dan is very much part of a tight-knit northern acoustic music community, who works both as a musician in his own right as well as a producer, who offers his broad expertise to other musicians in the area.  For “She Smiles” Dan calls upon some of those friends and contemporaries, such as the noted mandolin player Polly Bolton (The Magpies, Trials of Cata), whose backing vocals only adds further joy, as well as Rachel Brown, whose cello intertwines neatly with Emily Lawler’s fiddle (who also sings), while Mark Waters and Liam Hardy provide a fine rhythm section on both bass and drums respectively.  This is a fine feelgood single with a rich acoustic feel throughout.

Martha Wainwright | Love Will Be Reborn | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl | 01.09.21

There’s nothing quite like the subject of love to get one’s creative juices flowing, yet strangely enough, the subject of divorce, the other end of the emotional pole, equally engages the pen in terms of art, poetry and songwriting.  Martha Wainwright’s latest album, her fifth studio album to date, is released in the wake of her divorce and some of the soul searching that presumably comes with a decree nisi, is evident here, albeit with no apparent requirement for a parental advisory warning sticker.  For the artist who wrote “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” sixteen years ago for her 2005 eponymous breakthrough album, a note to an otherwise absent father of course, which remains Martha’s most played song on Spotify (and by no small margin) – it appears that Martha has mellowed somewhat.  The songs on Love Will Be Reborn are slightly more graceful, much less confrontational, but still delivered with a passion Martha is very much capable of.  It’s in her blood of course.  Martha’s highly expressive and distinctive voice is there from the start with the almost operatic “Middle of the Lake”, not so much gently easing the listener in, but pulling us in with some considerable force.  “Getting Older”, another dramatic confessional, allows Martha to take a good look at herself as she reaches another pivotal moment in her life, a songwriter at another crossroads perhaps?  This leads us to the title song “Love Will Be Reborn”, which suggests some measure of optimism and provides us with possibly the very heart of the album.  There’s plenty of new and original material to get our teeth into here, certainly the song that serves as an introduction to the album through its pre-release video promo, the joyous “Hole in My Heart”, a song to go out and dance in the street to – which the singer does with some relish.  “I got naked right away when I saw you / My love was like the rain when I saw you,” are possibly not quite as iconic lyrics as “Callin’ out around the world / Are you ready for a brand new beat”, but they immediately work in the context of this mid-album pop song.  There’s a tendency to stick with the woman in the abandoned house to the very end, a room once filled with life but now reduced to its threadbare tatters.  We can empathise with the longing of “Justice”, the pain of “Sometimes” and the despair of “Rainbow”, but ultimately the joy and optimism of what might just be around the corner for the singer.  Closing with a couple of firsts, “Falaise de Malaise” sees the Canadian/American singer seated at the piano, which she claims she can’t actually play, and secondly, the fact that the song is performed in Franglais, a mixture of English and French, all of which might point to another direction in what has turned out to be thoroughly engaging career.  Highly recommended.

Dakota Jones | Black Light | Album Review | Lord Please Records | 01.09.21

Tristan Carter-Jones has a very definite presence as she fronts this New York-based band, whose distinctively soulful sound drives these original songs along with some determination.  Blending blues and soul into a sultry mix, Dakota Jones provides the perfect vehicle for Carter-Jones’ deep rooted voice, reminiscent of, let’s say Heather Small circa ’91, but with additional New York sass.  The groove on both “Bloody Murder” and the title track for instance, demonstrates the empathetic nature of voice and musical arrangement, dove-tailed perfectly to provide the album with at least a couple of highlights.  If the poignant “Medicine” had been performed by Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse or indeed Kurt Cobain, we might perhaps still have them with us, the feel of desperation embedded in both the lyrics and the anguished arrangement would in a perfect world see help on its way.  “Lord Please” continues the theme of despair, with a convincing plea for help, delivered in pure Gospel tones as the band take it to church.  “Noise” is pure Muscle Shoals, soulful, cool, springing from the sacred water, with a horn section and organ worthy of a mid-1960s Aretha.  With the band’s song “Have Mercy” recently featured in the Netflix film Always Be My Maybe and now this impressive album, Dakota Jones just might be going places.

Brooks Williams and Aaron Catlow | Ghost Owl | Album Review | Red Guitar Blue Music | 01.09.21

Originally conceived as incidental music to accompany a couple of films by wildlife conservationist filmmaker and photographer Simon Hurwitz, this project developed into a full-length instrumental album of beautiful original compositions, with the ever-present image of the Ghost Owl in mind.   For anyone familiar with the Georgia-born singer/guitarist’s blues-based repertoire, Ghost Owl will probably come as a surprise, in that the focus here is placed entirely on his extraordinary guitar playing, enhanced by the empathetic violin playing of Aaron Catlow (Sheelanagig/Hawes & Catlow).  The compositions are rich in texture throughout and devoid of a single wasted note.  Having worked together on Brooks’ album Work My Claim, the two musicians have developed a musical understanding, which clearly comes across on all ten selections here, each borrowed from the traditional music of the British Isles, Old Time American tunes and with the odd Indian Raga thrown in.  The image of a barn owl in full flight during the title tune itself  is easy to imagine, the sweeps of the violin and ascending guitar runs perfectly in tune with one another throughout.   You will enjoy the flight.

Elaine Palmer | The Land In Between | Album Review | Butterfly Effect | 01.09.21

It’s quite easy to melt into the sound of Elaine Palmer’s confident voice, as the singer delivers each song with tenderness and warmth, especially such songs as “The Mill House” and “Once a Mother”.  Evoking the spirit of the wild and windy moors of her birth, the songs on The Land In Between often inhabit a country feel, emphasised by some tasty pedal steel in places and haunting fiddle in others.  “Heading Back West” is the sort of highway song best served from the radio of an open top car heading in that specific direction.  Elaine has ties to Arizona and therefore a road trip of this sort is easy to imagine, further emphasised with strategically placed twang.  The atmospheric closer “Your Rising Sun” showcases Elaine’s expressive vocal credentials, similar in a way to those of Martha Wainwright.  A short album coming in at around thirty minutes, but not a minute wasted as far as I can tell.

The Frank Burkitt Band | Silvereye | Album Review | Self Release | 01.09.21

Frank Burkitt says “If one person out there can get any sort of healing or common ground from any of these songs then I will be deeply honoured and touched”.  This listener ticks both boxes immediately, which is probably good news for both Frank and myself.  This album takes no getting into, with immediately nourishing melodies right from the start.  “I Know Nothing At All” drifts along like a simmering stew, delicate, soulful and welcoming.  It’s not an obvious album opener, but rather a song that beckons you through the door, to maybe kick off your shoes and most importantly, relax a little; why rush around?  “World King” is reminiscent of Laura Veirs for some reason, possibly from around her Carbon Glacier period.  Perhaps it has a similar melody or feel, but it’s there, which is not a bad thing.  The title song “Silvereye”, named for a small bird native to New Zealand, places further emphasis on Frank and partner Kara Filby’s harmonious vocals, while the bluesy “Mr Lonesome” continues to deliver much of the same; voices evidently made for one another.  Reminiscent of James Taylor in places, Frank has a remarkable knack of providing the most suitable arrangement for each of the songs, while keeping to a soothing feel throughout.  There’s no alarming tangents, no adrenaline-fuelled rushes of energy to speak of, yet the album avoids becoming tedious at every chord change, with brass and flute coming in at just the right moments.  This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing here to make you sit up and think, “Why I Hate You” is clear in its intent, an honest meditation on the man presumably in charge, while the aforementioned “World King” says everything we need to know about the former Pres and possibly provides a suggestion of what went wrong.  This is the kind of album you might pop right back to the beginning once the final track fades to a close.  Once you’ve relaxed into Silvereye, why go and spoil it all by getting up to do something less enjoyable?  With James Geluk on double bass, Louis Thompson-Munn on keyboards and Becka Wolfe on fiddle, Silvereye is a fabulous creation.

I See Hawks in LA | On Our Way | Album Review | Western Seeds Record Company | 01.09.21

One of Southern California’s leading alt country bands, I See Hawks in LA return with their tenth album to date, On Our Way, which is also the band’s first post-pandemic album.  Detailing a band’s lockdown practices and procedures is becoming almost obligatory in light of recent events, yet each circumstance is slightly different.  In the case of this band, Rob Waller and Paul Lacques would keep to a strict weekly songwriting schedule, adopting to Facetime one another at 4pm prompt every Friday afternoon, which seems to have done the trick.  With further assistance from band mates Victoria Jacobs and Paul Marshall, On Our Way has been developed under extraordinary circumstances, yet the results are probably better than expected.  Rather than focusing on the current crisis, the band turned to history for inspiration, honing in on such figures as Geronimo and Muhammad Ali, not to mention the odd Kentucky Jesus, who ‘knocked the Devil to the floor’ at one point.  Stylistically the band keep pretty much to their alt country, Americana and folk rock roots, with some occasional driving rhythms, gutsy blues and renegade lyricism to keep their fans happy.  The album also contains a song with a setting a few thousand miles from home, with “Kensington Market” adopting a pop sensibility that wouldn’t be too far out of place on some vintage ‘Swinging Sixties’ radio show.  I See Hawks in LA can be diverse when the mood takes them evidently.  On the subject of the old wireless, “Radio Keeps Me on the Ground (Slight Return)”, is a fine homage to those who have managed to keep us entertained during an unprecedented lockdown period.  Radio shows and online podcasts have certainly kept a good few of us on the ground over the last eighteen months.  The sprawling eight minutes of “How You Gonna Know” completes the album, where the band engage in some funky Doors-like experimental rhythms to keep us on our toes.

The Lucky Ones | The Lucky Ones | Album Review | Self Released | 01.09.21

Hailing from the northern reaches of Canada, the Yukon-based bluegrass band The Lucky Ones take the music they grew up with and give it a little shake up for contemporary audiences, without losing any of the music’s original feel.  This is bluegrass that you can imagine being played in the taverns and barns during the gold rush.  “Fool’s Gold”, is probably a good place to start, the beckoning of extra hands to rush to the gold mines, with a promise that it will ‘turn your lives around’.  With the Klondike never far from view, the band, which developed from the Klondike Sons in fact, keep things rooted in their own traditions, with a blazing fiddle courtesy of Kieran Poile, a few choice mandolin runs from Ryan West and obligatory banjo picking from Aaron P Burnie, each stepping forward to the mic at strategic places, notably on “Snowflakes in the Sun” and “When the Farm Got Sold”, a mike otherwise pretty much dominated by the frontline of JD McCallen and Ian Smith.  Recorded at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Dawson City on the same weekend that the band played a Sunday gospel set especially for the congregation, this eponymous debut serves as a fine start to a promising run.

Rod Picott | Wood, Steel, Dust and Dreams | Album Review | Welding Rod Records | 01.09.21

If John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III and Steve Forbert were thought to be Bob Dylan’s ‘kick-ass kid brothers’, then Rod Picott might very well be considered a younger sibling of Bruce Springsteen.  There’s something very blue collar in Picott’s writing and something very Springsteen in his delivery – the acoustic Springsteen that is, although I’m sure Picott is fully capable of the full band effect.  For this double album retrospective, Picott has sifted through the back catalogue of songs he co-wrote with his long-time brother from another mother Slaid Cleaves, resulting in a collection of twenty-five songs presented here.  Armed with an acoustic guitar, sometimes accompanied by Will Kimbrough’s guitar or some additional acoustic slide courtesy of Matt Mauch, Picott delivers each song with confidence and determination, leaving us in no doubt that he believes every word he sings.  Cleaves makes a brief appearance, adding backing vocals to “Bring It On”, a Cleaves song that Picott claims to have ‘changed the tyres on’ and maybe even ‘hung a pine tree air freshener to the rear view mirror’.  I know what he means.   A little like the finessing Glenn Frey did on Jackson Browne’s “Take It Easy” perhaps?  Picott is only too willing to wear his influences on his sleeve, claiming that though books and films help, it’s mostly his own life that provides the well to draw from, while such a song as the excellent “Rust Belt Fields”, is merely a ‘rollicking sort of Steve Earle imitation’.  Despite this, Picott is all over this project, an unwavering stylist, whose voice is immediately recognisable in a large crowd.  Concluding with “The Ballad of the Magic Rats”, Picott’s only solely written song on the album,  provides a glimpse into the early lives of a bunch of teenage boys poised to conquer the world, the two protagonists who went on to write the songs on this very album.  If the songs of Rod Picott, or indeed Slaid Cleaves are new to you, then this is a great place to start.

The Landworkers’ Alliance | Stand Up Now | Album Review | Many a Thousand Records | 01.09.21

The Landworkers’ Alliance are a union of farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers, whose mission it is to improve the livelihoods of their members through better food and land-use.  Working in partnership with one or two established names on the contemporary folk scene, including Ewan McClennan, Nick Hart, Sid Goldsmith and Jimmy Aldridge, the Alliance has put together an album of songs with a strong connection with the land.  The title Stand Up Now has obligatory activist connotations as is the standard with many contemporary folk projects, though you don’t feel you are being beaten over the head unnecessarily, though Leon Rossleson’s bold “The World Turned Upside Down” is always powerful, whether in the hands of Rossleson himself, Dick Gaughan or indeed in this case Goldsmith and Aldridge.  The songs are in some cases familiar, such as “Rufford Park Poachers”, “Green Brooms” and “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood”, some of which were gathered in a similar fashion as the iconic Radio Ballads, with much of the material recorded out in ‘the field’.  Many of these voices will be new to you, but there’s a sense that these recordings will not be their last.  If the Alliance strives for the dignity of producers to earn a decent living, access local, healthy and affordable food, fuel and fibre, then songs such as these will always have a place in these noble endeavours.

Madi Diaz | History of a Feeling | Album Review | Anti | 01.09.21

Although I had an immediate desire to play “Think of Me” on Northern Sky’s accompanying radio show, common sense got the better of me, much the same as it did before deciding against playing Martha Wainwright’s fabulous “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” sixteen years ago and John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” a good few years before that.  When Kenneth Tynan first introduced the colourful word on our TV sets back in the mid-1960s the shock value was unprecedented, yet here we are over half a century later still worrying ourselves senseless over a four-letter word.  Singer-songwriter Madi Diaz has good reason to include the word liberally throughout her new solo album History of a Feeling as she appears to have been through the emotional wringer and back.  Splitting with a former partner is a tough thing to go through at the best of times, but having one transition in the process opens up a whole different can of worms and Diaz addresses those emotions head on.  I like Madi Diaz.  I admire her song writing, her poetry, her confident voice and her fine melodies.  Most of all I admire her honesty and this comes over in spades with such songs as “Think of Me”, “Resentment”, “Man in Me”, “Crying in Public” as well as the poignant title song.  Through all the heartache and emotional soul searching, there’s also a sense of optimism, if at times almost subliminal, notably on the album’s concluding piano-led song “Do It Now”.  This is such a powerful album, loaded with sensitivity, yet delivered in clear and unambiguous language.

Bella Gaffney | Black Water | Single Review | Eboracum Records | 01.09.21

If a songwriter is going to write a song that celebrates the River Wharf in the Yorkshire Dales, it might as well be the Bradford-born  singer-songwriter Bella Gaffney, who seems to have found a vital connection between the river and her family during these difficult past few months; a lifeline of sorts.  Produced by Dan Webster, “Black Water” is a gentle acoustic song, featuring a prominent banjo and guitar accompaniment, with some equally gentle fiddle runs courtesy of fellow Magpie Emily Lawler.  Having come to terms with a new approach to music making over the past few months, Bella has been busy on her album, due for release next year, which will include contributions from musicians from either side of the globe, including Sam Kelly from the UK and Hussy Hicks from Australia.  The album is funded by Arts Council England and also the York-based charity Doing it for Liam.

Mànran | Crow Flies | Single Review |  Self Release | 01.09.21

“Crow Flies” is the first new material from the Scottish band Mànran since the arrival within their ranks of the fine singer Kim Carnie and guitarist Aidan Moodie, who both leave an indelible mark on this single.  Taken from the band’s new album ÙRAR, their fourth to date, which is pronounced oo-rar and meaning ‘fresh’ or ‘flourishing’, “Crow Flies” has a driving rhythm throughout, lifted by Carnie’s gentle lead vocal and Moodie’s backing vocal.  Ewen Henderson contributes fiddle, while Gary Innes, Ross Saunders, Ryan Murphy and Mark Scobbie appear on accordion, bass, whistles and drums respectively.  If the song celebrates the coming together of people, it comes at precisely the right time, when we all need a lift and a sprinkling of optimism.

Audrey Spillman | Neon Dream | Album Review | Self Release | 15.09.21

Neon Dream is the second full length solo album by the Nashville-based singer-songwriter Audrey Spillman, the title of which appears in a lyric less than a minute into the lead song “Austin Motel”, a song that recalls an important and special time in the singer’s burgeoning relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Neilson Hubbard.  In a way, this location might very well bring to mind Spillman’s role in the film Wheeler, which also features fellow singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, in which the title character (played by Stephen Dorff), leaves the farm for the bright lights of Nashville on a make or break mission to make a name for himself in Music City.  If country music is at the heart of Neon Dream, then it doesn’t really deter Stillman from taking the occasional dusty side road detour into jazz, turning in a sultry reading of the old Gershwin standard “Summertime”, with steady horn and guitar interplay, which helps wipe down the sweat from the heat.  Spillman acknowledges that the sound she strives for is pretty much based on the music she has always been drawn to, with her voice serving as its main ingredient.  Songs like “Beyond the Blue” and “Red Balloon” are fine examples of how this artist uses her distinctive voice and makes each syllable count.  Produced by Hubbard, the album stands almost as a diary of Spillman’s last five years, with some key rites of passage covered, such as getting married and starting a family, though balanced with grief and loss at the same time.  “Breakthrough” might provide Spillman with an opportunity to vent Adele-style, yet it’s with the ballads that Audrey Spillman really excels.  “Little Light of Mine” is both sweet and tender, yet manages to keep just on the right side of sentimentality, while “Go On and Fly” closes on an optimistic note, albeit together with a touch of sadness, the song being performed by request at her late stepmother’s funeral, a difficult thing to do one imagines.  The album version here features a fine harmony vocal by Garrison Starr.  It will be interesting to see where Audrey Spillman’s muse will take her next.

Ada Lea | One Hand on the Steering Wheel the Other Sewing a Garden | Album Review | Saddle Creek/Next Door Records | 15.09.21

The second album release by the Montreal-based singer-songwriter Alexandra Levy, otherwise known professionally as Ada Lea, features eleven songs with a folk/pop angle, often using one word titles; “Damn”, “Hurt”, “Violence” and “Oranges” are such examples.  It’s strange then that the album title is so garrulous.  One Hand on the Steering Wheel the Other Sewing a Garden might be a mouthful, but the songs strike a less portentous balance, with one or two surprising moments, “Saltspring” for example, which is a fabulous acoustic number in the vein of a Laura Veirs or the criminally underrated UK singer Katy Bennett (KTB).  Apparently inspired by personal experience, of daydreams and reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the songs appear to relate to the seasons, some of which evoke the snowy Montreal wintertime, some inspired by springtime and others related to the heat of the summer and the golden glow of autumn.  Much of the album was developed during a period spent in Banff, Alberta as an artist in residence, which was then uprooted and replanted in Los Angeles, with engineer Marshal Vore at the helm.  A lovely album.

Ana Egge | Between Us | Album Review | Story Sound Records | 15.09.21

It’s hard to believe that Ana Egge has been making records for twenty-four years now and for her twelfth, the Canadian/American singer-songwriter teams up with Irish singer-songwriter Mick Flannery for eleven quality songs, some of which are inspired by dreams, while others concern troubled relationships and grief.  Engaging in a few regular two-hour FaceTime sessions, the two musicians worked through their ideas during the lockdown period, creating some fine songs in the process.  Produced by Lorenzo Wolff, whose work on the Judee Sill tribute album Down Where the Valleys Are Low so fascinated the singer, Between Us shimmers with such highly personal songs as “Lie, Lie, Lie”, “Sorry” and the heartbreaking “We Lay Roses”, a eulogy for her late nephew.  With a conscious endeavour to work with a more diverse gathering of musicians, Ana calls upon the help of such musicians as Corey Fonville on drums, Michael Isvara Montgomery on bass, Jonny Lam on guitars, Jon Cowherd on keyboards and Anh Phung on flute, none of whom the singer had previously worked.  Ana’s seven year-old daughter also gets in on the act, creating the sound effects on the funky “Want Your Attention”. 

The Bean Pickers Union | Greatest Picks | Album Review | Self Release | 15.09.21

The Bean Pickers Union has been active now for a good fifteen years, a loose collective under the watchful eye of multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Chuck Melchin.  A fitting time then for an eighteen-track retrospective (fourteen songs from the back catalogue, together with an additional four bonus tracks), collected from recordings made at several locations during that time period, including Cambridge Massachusetts, Gaysville Vermont and Chester Connecticut.  There are twenty-two musicians involved in the making of these tracks, and each have put their own stamp on proceedings over the years, yet the album has a continuity that makes it all fit together well.   Opening with the bluesy “16 Pounds of Mary”, with its shimmering bottleneck guitar intro, the album pivots between various styles, from the gentle acoustic leanings of songs such as “Strange” and “Sometimes I Just Sits”, to such country rock-laden groovers as “Glory”, “I’m So Sorry” and among the bonus tracks, “Bulletproof Man”.  The past is referenced in the bluesy porch song “Reaper”, which opens with the static crackles of an ageing shellac disc, bringing some authenticity to the song and a reminder of what is essentially ageless music.

Justin Bernasconi | Sleeping Like a Maniac | Album Review | Mountain King Music | 15.09.21

Following in the footsteps of Justin Bernasconi’s two previous albums, Winter Pack (2014) and Wonderland (2017), the UK-born, now Melbourne-based singer, songwriter and guitar player returns with Sleeping Like a Maniac, which consists of a dozen songs steeped in the tenets of Americana, yet are further inspired by a recent visit to Bernasconi’s European homeland, where he and his partner Cat Canteri, who plays drums throughout the album, breathed in the cultural delights and deep history of the continent before returning to Australia to begin this project.  Bernasconi takes his guitar playing and indeed his guitars seriously enough to include the make and model of each instrument used in the sleeve notes, which includes the intriguing Martin HD-28, complete with that all important seventh string, which he uses on three of the songs.  The guitarist’s steady finger-picking is demonstrated from the off, with the hovering “Blank Page”, before things are brought down to earth with the almost spoken first few bars of “Lady in the Field”, which once again points to the guitarist’s informed chops.  The influences are pretty much worn on his sleeve as Bernasconi pours Delta Blues, British folk, Bluegrass and contemporary song-smithery into the pot. 

Kondi Band | We Famous | Album Review | Strut Records | 15.09.21

The three-piece Kondi Band consists of the blind thumb piano genius Sorie Kondi, the LA-based producer Chief Boima and London’s Will LV, who between them traverse a rich musical landscape that encompasses dancefloor anthems, Afropop rhythms and disco beats, with just a little help from their friends.  “It’s God’s World (So Don’t Do Bad)” for instance, not only features Sorie’s easily recognisable vocals, but also an almost commanding bassline courtesy of Sweatson Klank, that fits dovetail-like with the pulsating beats and the ever-present waterfall cadences of Sorie’s thumb piano.   Fellow Sierra Leone singer Mariama Jalloh brings to life “She Doesn’t Love You” with a fine contribution, delivered in English, while duetting with Kondi who shows no shortage of finesse.  We Famous was recorded over four years during breaks from touring, and demonstrates some consistent musicianship and group unity.

Monsieur Doumani | Pissourin | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 15.09.21

There’s a lot going on here, with some immediately engaging rhythms, as the Cypriot trio launch into the opening “Tiritichtas”, a lively workout that fuses traditional elements with contemporary beats.  Meaning ‘total darkness’ in Turkish, Pissourin appears to maintain the spirit of darkness through the night, while contradicting itself with one or two moments where the light shines through.  With Demetris Yiasemides on trombone, Andys Skordis on guitars, percussion and loops and Antonis Antoniou on tzouras, synthesizers, electronics and stomp box, each of the three musicians also provide their voices over the course of these nine single word titles.  The opening song appears to cover some ground, beginning with some pulsating beats, then almost psychedelic Cypriot melodies and by the end, sounding almost Quebecois in their energy-driven foot-stomping chorus.  There’s a sense of different worlds colliding in these arrangements, something the trio has striven for since their formation a decade ago.  We need look no further than “Alavrostishiótis” to find the album’s disparate elements.

RB Morris | Going Back to the Sky | Album Review | Singular Records | 15.09.21

Lucinda Williams apparently refers to RB Morris as the greatest unknown songwriter in the country, and with good reason too.  Morris writes quality songs that evoke the open road, traversing the landscape like a speck of dust.  “Red Sky” name checks several locations before we’ve actually settled into our seats, providing us with a road map upon which to navigate.  This is the same red sky of the sailor’s delightful proverb, yet we feel pretty much landlocked with the Dustbowl never too far from view.  Morris actually refers to this album as his Dustbowl record, reminiscent of the dusty roads once traversed by Woody Guthrie some seventy years earlier, with songs providing the key to the highway.  There’s roadweariness, nostalgia, memorable characters and poetic storytelling wrapped around these songs like a warm blanket, with “One Copper Penny”, “Six Black Horses and a 72 Oz Steak” and “Missouri River Hat Blowing Incident”, providing some great moments.

Tim Grimm | Gone | Album Review | Cavalier Records | 15.09.21

If there’s one short word that directly stirs the emotional turmoil of the last eighteen months with little in the way of frills, then such a word might be Gone.  There’s a tendency to shy away from the true impact of the nightmare we have all experienced during these last few months, but we all accept that many things have now indeed gone, whether they be family members, friends, colleagues, neighbours or some of our musical heroes.  In the case of this singer-songwriter, John Prine is notably absent, and referenced in the title cut.  Michael Smith, Eric Taylor and David Olney are also now absent, each of who served as major inspirational figures for this songwriter and each mentioned in the poignant “Dreaming of King Lear”.  It’s not just the human loss that qualifies as gone though, but also the experiences we might have had, all the gigs we could have played or indeed all the gigs we could have attended, as well as the loss of faith perhaps?  “Cadillac Hearse” could easily have been written by Guy Clark, a song so close to the earth you can taste the dust, hear the rooster crow and smell the beans a-cookin’ on the stove.  Tim Grimm had no plans to record anything during this time, but felt compelled to write something meaningful and significant and these eight songs serve as a chronicle of these times, mostly self-penned, with the exception of Eric Taylor’s haunting “Joseph Cross”, which features a harmony vocal by Taylor’s widow Susan Lindfors Taylor.     

Rachel Garlin | The State That We Are In | EP Review | Self Release | 15.09.21

This five track EP has a surprising conclusion, with the singer performing an acoustic version of “Layla”, in much the same manner as its writer on his Unplugged album almost three decades earlier.  I dare say that if this had been the first such take on the rock classic, we would be sitting more to attention.  With this in mind, it’s easy to allow this song to slip to the back of the EP without any further thought.  More interesting are the other songs, certainly the superb opener “The State That We Are In”, a topical song delivered with a conservationist’s passion, which has an immediately accessible feel, a tight arrangement and a fine vocal performance from this California-based artist.  “Seashells” also jumps out as a highly melodic song with an instantly memorable refrain, something for the radio perhaps?  It’s such an uplifting sound, despite the thunderclouds and the pebbles in the shoes.  Oh, wait a minute, I see at the foot of the press release that Layla is the name of Rachel’s wife.  Ah, I get it now.  I’m now thinking that Layla might actually appreciate the full seven-minute rock opus, complete with wailing slide guitars and Jim Gordon’s gorgeous piano coda.  Well, it’s worth thinking about.  I look forward to hearing more from this artist.

Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan | Heaven’s Hound  | Single Review | Hudson Records | 15.09.21

As the release date for the eagerly awaited Still As Your Sleeping album draws ever closer, the Scots singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, together with her friend, neighbour and now musical collaborator Dave Milligan, release a second single.  “Heaven’s Hound” is a gentle song written by fellow Scot Michael Marra, a song that appeared on the songwriter’s final EP Houseroom, a collaboration itself with The Hazey Janes, a combo that included Michael’s children Alice and Matthew.  Almost a seasonal carol in its feel, the song wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack to putting up the tree in December, yet the story itself is more universal, a story inspired by the Mississippi travels of Marra’s long-time friends from Kintore.  The performance from both Polwart and Milligan is nothing short of beautiful, a fine homage to the late songwriter.  

The Screaming Orphans | Mary From Dungloe | Single Review | Self Release | 15.09.21

There’s something instantly punchy about the Screaming Orphans’ new single “Mary From Dungloe”, like some of the best Celtic stompers that close festivals up and down the land.  This follows the release of “Every Woman Gardens”, both taken from the all-sister band’s current album Sunshine and Moss. Recorded in their childhood home in Bundoran, County Donegal, while utilising basic equipment during the lockdown, the songs are deliberately positive and uplifting, songs recalled from their earliest of memories, including “My Grandfather’s Clock”, “Eileen Oge” and this single, each delivered in the siblings’ rich Irish vernacular.  Engineered, mixed and mastered by PJ Cardinal in New York, this single and the album are guaranteed to raise a smile in these difficult times.

Bob Dylan | Shadow Kingdom | Film Review | 15.09.21

For an artist whose tour never ends, the lockdown period must have been an extremely difficult time.  Bob Dylan made positive inroads with his fans a few months ago with the release of the quite remarkable Rough and Rowdy Ways, preceded by the surprisingly well-received seventeen-minute “Murder Most Foul”, which was premiered online prior to the album release.  Now, for those who have been eagerly awaiting something new from Dylan during this recent lockdown period, an intimate stripped-down gig might come as a pleasant surprise, especially in view of the fact that Shadow Kingdom, a fifty-minute performance, filmed in atmospheric black and white, reminiscent of that memorable footage of Big Bill Broonzy performing in some darkened off the beaten track Belgium bar in the 1950s, contains multitudes of older, and more importantly, actually recognisable numbers.  In places, the film is also reminiscent of something David Lynch might shoot for an update of the Twin Peaks yarn or even perhaps Eraserhead, complete with arty chequered monochrome flooring.  Hopefully, this doesn’t bring back any unnecessarily disturbing moments.  Each of the song titles are displayed in bold white screen-filling caps before each performance, with Dylan either strumming a small acoustic guitar, or standing centre stage using a microphone stand as his solitary prop.  With no between song patter, as might be expected from the elusive mystery man, Dylan growls through a set made up of early songs as the film’s subtitle suggests, beginning with “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, a song from the basement.  The question of whether the band is actually playing live or miming is answered almost immediately; there’s a harmonica, but it ain’t me babe, as Dylan might say.  The fact that this is more an arty film with pre-recorded songs doesn’t spoil the fun, it’s Dylan in lockdown and that’s better than nothing at all.  Another tell-tale sign of the times is the fact that all of Dylan’s bandmates are suitably masked up, whereas the mask-free Dylan himself disguises himself only in the subdued light.  Directed by the Israeli-American filmmaker Alma Har’el and produced by Har’el along with Christopher Leggett and Raphael Marmor, the performance features some old favourites, each performed well and without having to listen hard in order to identify each song.  “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” is abbreviated simply to “Baby Blue” for which its author and the band attempt to disguise further by washing away much of its original melody, which is the second most important thing about the song really.  No matter, we have that song tucked away on Bringing It All Back Home, which can always come out to play on any rainy day.  Joining Dylan for this feast of fun are Alex Burke, Buck Meek, Shahzad Ismaily, Janie Cowan and Joshua Crumbly, together with one or two well placed female company, just like the Broonzy film that came before it.

Granny’s Attic | The Brickfields | Album Review | Grimdon Records | 01.10.21

The fourth album by Granny’s Attic sees the folk trio return to exclusively instrumental music after one or two songs filtered into their set for their previous couple of albums.  Seemingly more at home with just their instruments, Lewis Wood (violin), Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne (concertina/melodeon) and George Sansome (guitar), have pooled the tunes they’ve been writing and working on separately through the lockdown period in Hampshire, North Wales and Yorkshire, eventually coming together to record these tunes in Northumberland.  Supported by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, the trio has been able to record The Brickfields, named for the fields used for extracting clay for brickmaking, over three days in April 2021, the results being a fine collection of both self-penned and traditional tunes.  Tunes can be very personal and of the fourteen performed here, either arranged as individual pieces or joined up as a set, we find homages to friends in “Will Grimdon’s No 2”, “Watt’s Reel” and “Considerare Birders”, pubs in “Highfield’s Lament” and railway tunnels in “Devil’s Arch”.  Produced with Ian Stephenson and with no additional overdubs, The Brickfields is presented in precisely the way you would hear the trio play live, which might be something you could be doing for real soon.

Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan | Still As Your Sleeping | Album Review | Hudson Records | 01.10.21

This fine collaboration between the popular Scottish folk singer, songwriter and storyteller Karine Polwart and renowned Scots pianist and composer Dave Milligan, who are practically neighbours from Pathhead, Midlothian, sees the duo combine one or two self-penned songs with a bunch of songs written by some of their contemporaries, both past and present.  Recorded in Pencaitland during the summer of 2021, the ten selections include fine interpretations of Michael Marra’s “Heaven’s Hound”, recently released as a single, Alasdair Roberts’ highly melodic “The Old Men of the Shells”, itself adapted from the melody of “The Verdant Braes of Screen” and an utterly gorgeous reading of “Talk to Me of Mendocino”, which breathes new life into the exquisite Kate McGarrigle song.  “The Path That Winds Before Us” is offered as a gift to some of Karine’s neighbours, who between them ventured above and beyond the call of duty during the lockdown period in Pathhead, a song both beautiful and tender, with the Polwart seal all over it.  Beginning and concluding with familiar songs from north of the border, “Craigie Hill”, so notably signed, sealed and delivered by Dick Gaughan back in the early 1980s and the obligatory Burns staple “Ae Fond Kiss”, both executed with plenty of TLC.  Keeping it in the family, so to speak, neighbour Jenni Douglas creates some symbiotic artwork, which is clearly evocative of the music within.  Karine never lets her audience down and Still As Your Sleeping stands once again as a beacon of quality, richly enhanced by the playing of Dave Milligan.

Mel Biggs | From Darkness Comes Light | Album Review | Talking Cat Records | 01.10.21

This is the debut album by the Derbyshire-based diatonic accordion player Mel Biggs, who is also one third of the folk trio Moirai, alongside Jo Freya and Sarah Matthews.  Known also for her teaching work, Mel takes her first tentative steps as a solo recording artist with a dozen sensitively performed instrumentals, which not only brings the diatonic accordion to the fore, but also takes as their inspiration, the natural world around us, the sleepy mornings and dawn choruses, as the seasons go by.  The sleeve notes give us a glimpse into Mel’s world, where the notion of flying is a tangible sensation, that cats are the best and where the darkness of depression can be broken when the light shines through, hence the album’s title.  The compositions borrow from the Morris tradition in places, Northern European folk dance music in others, but also from the airs that float between the seasons and personal situations.  The multi-tracked voices on “High Places” are the only voices we hear on the album, the remainder being totally instrumental, with contributions from Kat Biggs on piano accordion, Jon Loomes on both guitar and cittern, Bridget Slater on fiddle and David Squirrell on mandolin and mandola.  For “Katy’s Theme”, we see Mel addressing her own situation, a musical manifestation of her own self determination, Katy being the name of her own alter ego.  I think Mel Biggs succeeds admirably; a fine debut.

Nathan Bell | Red, White and American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here | Album Review |  Need to Know Music | 01.10.21

Nathan Bell, the Tennessee singer-songwriter and son of the late poet Marvin Bell, returns here with an album of songs written between 2011 and 2019.  Having learned to play by listening to the likes of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee and also Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bell pays tribute here to the Texan bluesman with “Retread Cadillac (Lightnin’)”, just one of thirteen expertly crafted songs that make up Red, White and and American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here).  Recorded in 2019 in Capitola, California at Skunkworks Studios, the album’s release has been unfortunately delayed by two years due to the events of 2020, but appears now with a seemingly fresh approach, an eagerness to get these stories out at what might possibly be the right time.  Death looms large, but not in a morbid or morose capacity, but in a matter-of-fact way, which we can all possibly relate to.  “When You’re Dead” takes a snapshot at the comparisons between the living and the dead, the notion that when dead, we can sit at any table, ignore warning labels and two-step anywhere, but more depressingly, that we might just be more popular when we’ve shuffled off.  It’s a solemn, yet somehow accurate depiction of mortality.  Perhaps the album show-stopper is the superb “American Blues” which lays out our shortcomings for all to see, from suicidal protests on our TV screens to why black lives really do matter and the corruption of religion.  Told in a spoken blues manner rather than what might be considered ‘rap’, Bell maintains our attention throughout via an honest non-preachy delivery.  Peppered with some fine vocal performances by three distinctive female singers, Patty Griffin, Regina McCrary and Aubrie Sellers, Red, White and American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here) just might be the one album we should take notice of at the moment.

Orquestra Afro Brasileira | 80 Anos | Album Review | Day Dreamer | 01.10.21

With a title relating to the fact that eighty years have now passed since the formation of Orquestra Afro-Brasileira, an ensemble lead by percussionist and trombonist Abigail Moura, who died in poverty in 1970, the group remains one of the most influential in the history of Afro-Brazilian music.  During the group’s three decade existence, the Orquestra released only two albums, first Obaluayê (1957) followed eleven years later by their eponymous second, the debut having been reissued recently by Day Dreamer.  Now Carlos Negreiros, the last remaining member of the original group, has been tracked down by producer Mario Caldato Jr. (Beastie Boys, Marcelo D2, Seu Jorge) to record the first new album of material since 1968.  With five tracks recorded at Estúdio Maravilha 8 in Rio De Janeiro, then a further five tracks put down at Estúdio CIA dos Técnicos in Copacabana, the ten tracks capture the spirit of the original band, by re-visiting the vibrant rhythms of a not too distant past, celebrating a music once steeped in Yoruba spirituality and Candomblé chants, with a fair dose of the big band jazz traditions of America.  With Negreiros on Atabaque, the Afro-Brazilian hand drum, and all vocals, the musician is joined by fifteen musicians, who provide a strong percussion and brass sound throughout.  Opening with a short percussion overture, the album soon gathers momentum with “Agô”, a dramatic piece that could almost serve as a mysterious James Bond movie theme.  Negreiros’ distinctive voice comes into play in earnest on “Saudação ao Rei Nagô”, almost operatic in its delivery, theatrical, full of drama and highly effective in the context of a strong band leader.  Perhaps it’s with the seven-minute concluding meditation that we begin to understand the soul of Negreiros, with the highly dramatic “Lembarenganga”, where the singer delivers a performance that could essentially be considered a blend of Paul Robeson and Freddie Mercury.

Laurel Premo | Golden Loam | Album Review | Self Release | 01.10.21

Best known perhaps for her work in the duo Red Tail Ring, the Michigan multi-instrumentalist Laurel Premo goes it alone with a ten-track, mostly instrumental album, which focuses on the textures and nuances of the electric and lap steel guitar.  Though leaning towards the experimental area of solo guitar playing, the pieces do in fact borrow from the tradition, with echoes of folk songs and tunes ingrained in each of the arrangements.  Laurel’s voice is used sparsely, though when it does eventually come in, notably on “High Hop”, it comes in with an assured confidence, reminding us of her place in roots music.  In other hands, these pieces could be construed as relaxed noodling, yet there’s something rich and highly textured about each composition that keeps us interested throughout.  Perhaps it’s the ghostly call of the past that weaves its way through and between the strings. “I Am a Pilgrim” once again returns to song, with Laurel’s warm and comforting voice filling in all the right spaces at the right time.  With one or two contributions from the Michigan-based percussive dancer Nic Gareiss on both “High Hop” and “”Poor Little Mary Sitting in the Corner” and Québec bones player Eric Breton adding his presence to “Jericho”, Laurel’s third solo album continues to linger on the player well into the night, when the sound of chirping crickets could be the only improvement to its midnight atmosphere, that is if such a thing was available in South Yorkshire, but alas!

Catherine Graindorge | Eldorado | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 01.10.21

If you were to hear this playing over the sound system in your local record emporium, as you casually flicked through the well-stocked LP browsers, you would probably be tempted to ask the assistant what it was, if only out of mild curiosity.  Ambient, meditative, dreamlike in places, haunting in others, Eldorado creates an almost challenging sonic atmosphere, which is also strangely accessible at the same time.  The Belgian violinist, violist and composer, follows her own idiosyncratic muse with these nine compositions, which appears to explore the varied textures of each instrument, while maintaining an air of mystery throughout.  Produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey, Rokia Traoré), who also plays various instruments on the album, notably the guitar on the album closer “Eno”, Eldorado is the second solo album by Graindorge and the first on tak:til, an imprint of the Glitterbeat label, which specializes in contemporary instrumental music.  During a world pandemic with all its locked-down implications, it seems only right for us to search for our own particular Eldorado, essentially our own personal cities of gold, and at the beginning of this ongoing war, Graindorge found such a place in the gardens of nursing homes, where she performed with her daughters by her side, which is further emphasised in “Lockdown”,  the first single release from this album, which has subsequently garnered the attention of BBC Radio 6, whose Mary Anne Hobbs chose the piece for her ‘Hit Reset’ feature at the end of August.  This album might just take you to a very special place if you allow it to.

Purbayan Chatterjee | Unbounded | Album Review | Sufiscore | 01.10.21

There are occasions when we describe some exploratory fusion music as ‘East meets West’ in a rather tentative context, though Unbounded is possibly as close to the real deal as it gets.  The Indian sitarist, composer and producer Purbayan Chatterjee, the son of Hindustani Classical musician Partha Chatterjee, is at the helm of this exciting project, which sees a collaboration between some of the world’s most gifted players, including Bela Fleck, Antonio Sanchez and Ustad Zakir Hussain.  Released through Sufiscore, the popular YouTube channel, which attracts millions of viewers throughout the world, with a keen focus on the Asian and South Asian markets, Unbounded maintains momentum throughout, with some tasteful performances, both instrumental and vocal.  Possibly the most exciting aspect of this album is the improvisational nature of the compositions, the blending of the sitar and tabla with the banjo, clarinet and other instruments more associated with the West, opens many musical doors with rewarding results.  Instrumental for a good portion of the album, there are one or two gorgeous vocal performances, notably those of Thana Alexa, Gayatri Asokan and on the album closer “Naya. Shuruaat (New Beginnings)”, Wali Fateh Ali Khan.

Mr Alec Bowman_Clarke | Deleted Scenes | Single Review | Self Release | 01.10.21

This new single by Mr Alec Bowman_Clarke employs an abrupt end, with the effect of a record player losing its power, a little like Alice Cooper’s album version of “School’s Out” for those with deep enough memories.  In the case of “Deleted Scenes”, the sound effect is so real that it causes immediate alarm bells each time I hear it, sending me running to the freezer to save stuff before the inevitable thaw.  Well almost!  “Deleted Scenes” is the first single from Mr Alec’s new A Place Like Home EP and features Josienne Clarke on harmony vocals, a voice that enhances any recording in my opinion.  Mr Alec’s relaxed, easy going and slightly rasping vocal is one you can trust, and you tend to believe what he has to say, who eloquently sums up the song here – “Deleted Scenes” is about the search for meaning and a place in this lying, decaying late-stage capitalist nightmare of a reality we are fortunate enough to inhabit.”  The song stands as a healthy shot of realism to my ears, just remember not to panic at the end.

Jack Francis | Helena | Single Review | Self Release | 01.10.21

Southampton singer-songwriter Jack Francis delivers an instantly engaging pop song with “Helena”, which incorporates all the right ingredients for a radio friendly hit, jangly guitars, swirling Hammond, rhythmic bass and drums interplay, together with a memorable chorus and at least one moment of communal singing, a staple for both radio play and jukebox coinage, not to mention open top cars on a clear day.  Jack Francis claims that the song was written after a dream about Bruce Springsteen singing from a pick-up truck outside his house, who upon waking, wrote down the song in around five minutes, it being one of those McCartney ‘ham and eggs’ moments.  As a foot-tapper, the song encourages further investigation.

Kate Reid | Yes It Is | Single Review | Self Release | 01.10.21

Anyone with even a nominal interest in Beatles B sides will know that “Yes It Is” is the flip side to “Ticket To Ride”, released in April 1965, which went on to become the Fabs’ seventh consecutive number one single in the UK.  The Lennon/McCartney song is revisited here by the Scottish singer-songwriter Kate Reid, who treats the song to an emotive performance, her voice reminiscent of the wonderful Bridget St John circa 1969, while maintaining the original’s commercial properties.  Recorded at North Park Studios and mastered by David McNee, “Yes It Is”, is likewise backed with another remarkable song, Tim Buckley’s ethereal “Song To The Siren”, a composition co-written by Larry Beckett, learned from the Buckley original we’re led to believe, Kate having been a fan of Jeff Buckley, who chose the ‘newborn child’ option, rather than the puzzling ‘oyster’ reference, as did Liz Fraser in her notable reading of the song under the guise of This Mortal Coil a few years ago.  It’s nice to see that Buckley is still picking up fans almost half a century on.  A double A side in the truest sense.

Ian M Bailey | Songs to Dream Along to | Album Review | Kool Kat Musik | 15.10.21

There’s something immediately familiar in the sound that Ian M Bailey creates, something very much embedded in the past, back to the time when the twelve-string Rickenbacker was King.  There should be no need to return to the sound of The Byrds or The Association, we should never have left it behind in the first place and there’s a distinct feeling here that Ian never did hang up his Rickenbacker for long.  In collaboration with Cosmic Rough Riders’ songsmith Daniel Wylie, the two songwriters wear their influences very much on their sleeves, not just The Byrds and R.E.M. but also Crosby Stills and Nash and The Jayhawks, each leaving either a strong or almost subliminal impression somewhere in these songs.  Highly melodic, the bulk of the material appears to reflect the songs that can be found on the scattering of records seen on the back of the inner sleeve, with Hendrix and The Who sharing the same carpet space as Don McLean and Buddy Holly, a reminder of the sort of music we listened to before the music allegedly died.  It’s almost impossible to listen to “The Sound of Her Voice” without thinking immediately of Lennon and McCartney, especially the dreamy harmonies midway through, together with the eastern-flavoured coda, which could easily be mistaken for an outtake from Sgt. Pepper.  “Slow Down River” likewise is reminiscent of the Traveling Wilburys, a strong pop song that doesn’t seem too far from “Eight Miles High” in feel.  Other musical observations might include the instrumental “Midday at Hope Lodge”, which is for all intents and purposes Traffic, getting it together in the country once again.  Recorded at Small Space Studios, which is located at Ian’s Preston home, the eleven songs capture the spirit of a bygone musical age, yet also manage to keep it all very much in the here and now.  A fabulous, evocative and well observed album.  

Cara | Grounded | Album Review | Self Release | 15.10.21

Cara was formed almost twenty years ago and in that time has built a strong following and a reputation for being one of the finest traditional folk outfits on the Irish music scene in Germany.  The four musicians that make up the German-Scottish collaboration create a sound based on their own particular traditional roots and manage to forge a mixture of traditional songs and tunes, together with original compositions and the almost obligatory Dylan cover, in this case, “”Lay Down Your Weary Tune”.  The dozen songs and tunes that make up Grounded, the band’s sixth studio album to date, are richly observed with fine arrangements, providing space for individual solos, such as the fine guitar passage midway through “The Grounded Traveller” courtesy of Jürgen Treyz, which sets it apart from other fiddle tunes of this nature.  With Gudrun Walther on fiddle, viola and accordion, Kim Edgar on piano, Hendrik Morgenbrodt on uilleann pipes, flute and whistles and the aforementioned Jürgen Treyz on various guitars, banjo and bass, Cara make an impressive sound throughout, both on the songs as well as the tunes.

John Wort Hannam | Long Haul | Album Review | Black Hen Music | 15.10.21

The eighth album by Alberta-born John Wort Hannam sees the singer/songwriter flirting with humour in at least a couple of places.  Known for his more serious material, songs like the fabulous “Beautiful Mess”, a country duet with an equally fabulous Shaela Miller comes as a pleasant surprise, especially the very notion of throwing in the ‘god-damn cat’ with the Lou Reed record as a parting gesture.  Likewise “Meat Draw” finds Hannam in a cheerful disposition as he takes a look at the finer aspects of small town life.  On a slightly more serious note, Hannam takes a cathartic look at his own life in “What I Know Now”, a deeply moving meditation on regret, with such insightful lines as ‘I wish I told my father but I was not of age, How to treat my mother but I was not brave’.  Such honesty shines through clearly on this and other songs on this excellent album.

Danny George Wilson | Another Place | Album Review | Loose | 15.10.21

The opening song on Another Place hits home like Phil Spector’s wall of sound, as “Lost Future” creates a slightly uneasy feel, possibly due to the dominant sound of what could be likened to running one’s finger tip along the rim of a wine glass, or several actually.  Danny and the Champions of the World frontman Danny George Wilson, delivers this solo album in collaboration with the Sussex-based producer Hamish Benjamin, the ten predominantly original songs offering something slightly different from the norm, each selection inventive and richly textured, while bolstered by Wilson’s distinctive vocal prowess.  There’s a soulfulness in his voice, which is enhanced by the occasional organ flurry, such as on “Sincerely Hoping” and “I Would Be In Love (Anyway)”, which features a fine duet with Emma Swift (Blonde On The Tracks).  The opening line to “Can You Feel Me” borrows from Carly Simon’s most famous and much sampled hit “You’re So Vain” in an almost subliminal way, before taking its own direction, a song with an almost Neil Young sensibility.  Likewise “Right Place”, which has more of a “Harvest Moon” feel to it as Wilson reaches for those almost unachievable higher register moments.  “Heaven for Hiding”, the new single from the album, motors along to a rhythmic pulse, which is easy to hitch a ride with.  Studio embellishments like this are used often, which provides each of the songs with a contemporary edge, notably “I Wanna Tell You”, with the deepest of bass notes to rattle the windows.  It all sounds highly experimental, but in each case the melodies work closely alongside the technical wizardry to great effect.  

Long for the Coast | Revolution Starts at Home | Album Review | Self Release | 15.10.21

The Totnes-based duo Jamie and Sophie Gould, otherwise Long for the Coast, return with their second full-length album, Revolution Starts at Home, which once again captures the duo’s warm and soothing harmonies.  Jamie pretty much takes the lead throughout, with each song embellished by some almost subliminal, yet sublime harmonies, courtesy of Sophie.  The politically charged title reflects the duo’s social stance, an ongoing endeavour to help change the world by starting with themselves; the conscientious ‘if we can change, then so will the world’ ideology.  The songs and their arrangements in particular, carry no immediate Clash-like call to the cause, just a gentle nudge in the right direction.  Delicate in places, the arrangements resonate with strings in all the right places, notably on such songs as “In Our Own Time” and “Hold on Brother”, two of the most soothing songs on the album, while the acoustic guitar takes a vital role on such songs as “Orcombe Bay” and the sublime “Sophie”, presumably a song from one to the other.  “Haight Ashbury” is a colourful homage to the so-called Summer of Love, with nods to both the Grateful Dead and the city they once called home.  Produced by Stian Vedøy, Revolution Starts at Home features one or two guest musicians including Simon Walker on bass, cello and backing vocals, Jacob Spencer on drums and Abi Vedøy on backing vocals with multi-instrumentalist Vedøy adding piano, synths, lap steel, samples and backing vocals where necessary.  Long for the Coast make a special sound that needs to be heard more widely.

Mànran | ÙRAR | Album Review | Mànran Records | 15.10.21

ÙRAR is Mànran’s fourth album to date and the first to feature newcomers, the singer Kim Carnie and guitarist Aidan Moodie, both who appear to have slotted into the renowned Scots band’s ranks with some ease.  Pronounced ‘oo-rar’, meaning ‘fresh’ or ‘flourishing’, the eleven tracks are made up of songs delivered in both English and Gaelic, together with intoxicating instrumentals and sweep along at pace, providing much scope in terms of driving rhythms and delicate songs, suitably lifted by Kim’s gentle lead vocal and Aidan’s subtle backing vocals.  The songs, including “Crow Flies”, “San Cristóbal”, “Griogal Crìdhe” and the pounding “Black Tower” signify a strong vocal presence, while the powerful instrumental arrangements of “Crossroads” and “The Loop” effectively showcase the band’s deep understanding of their traditional roots.  Having a good eleven years behind them now, the band which also consists of Ewen Henderson on vocals, fiddle and pipes, Gary Innes on accordion, Ross Saunders on bass guitar, Ryan Murphy on uilleann pipes, flute and whistles and Mark Scobbie on drums, sparkles as a unit with an almost continuous flow of uplifting melodies and intricate arrangements, poised for action, especially for the festivals to come, which they are always guaranteed to go down well at with this sort of repertoire.

Sarah McQuaid | The St Buryan Sessions | Album Review | Shovel and a Spade  | 15.10.21

The St Buryan Sessions is the new post-lockdown album and accompanying film by the American singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sarah McQuaid, whose deep and highly emotive voice, a cross between John Peel protégé Bridget St John and gospel legend Odetta, fills all the relevant spaces.  Presented as a live album, albeit with the absence of an audience, the atmosphere is immediately felt in the natural reverb from the venue itself, Sarah’s own local medieval church in West Cornwall.  Despite there being no audience, there’s a sense of an audience sitting in the pews, stirred by the natural vibrations within the old church walls, not just those who might have otherwise been present now under different circumstances, but also those parishioners who might have taken those seats over the centuries; quite a large audience in that case.  Choosing some of the songs that have served Sarah well over the years, older songs such as “Charlie’s Gone Home” and “The Sun Goes on Rising” to more recent songs “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous”, “The Silence Above Us” and “The Tug of the Moon”, the singer approaches each performance with humility and reverence for her surroundings.  Anyone familiar with Sarah’s live appearances will be aware of the importance of the single drum, which serves as the perfect accompaniment to an otherwise a cappella song “One Sparrow Down”, on this occasion sounding even more powerful in this atmospheric setting.  Sarah takes on the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves”, with impressive results and also pays homage to her friend and one time mentor, the late Michael Chapman with a version of Chapman’s “Rabbit Hills”, seated at the local choir’s grand piano.  Soulful, stirring and emotive, a fine album.

Absolutely Free | Aftertouch | Album Review | Boiled Records | 15.10.21

‘Aftertouch’ is apparently a term used for the MIDI data sent when pressure is applied to a keyboard after the key has been struck and while it is being held down or sustained, which immediately goes over my head.  The Toronto-based trio Absolutely Free rose from the ashes of the experimental rock band DD/MM/YYYY back in 2012 and comprises Matt King, Michael Claxton and Moshe Fisher-Rozenberg, who between them create huge multi-layered cinematic soundscapes, which are occasionally reminiscent of Pink Floyd, notably the impressive “Remaining Light”, which initially borrows from African rhythms before wending its way into Wish You Were Here territory.  “Are They Signs” is reminiscent of some of Tomita and Tonto’s Expanding Headband experimentation, with an almost Tears for Fears dance sensibility.  Produced by Jorge Elbrecht, Aftertouch is packed with musical ideas that stretch beyond the band’s neo-psychedelic, Krautrock and African influences into a more pop/rock oriented arena.

Andy Comley | Oh Me Oh My | Single Review | Self Release | 15.10.21

The Winchester-born singer/songwriter Andy Comley has a similar desire to that of the now disgraced R Kelly, that he wishes he could fly and repeatedly tells us about it in this instantly memorable pop song.  There’s a pleading quality to Andy’s voice throughout “Oh Me Oh My”, which the singer describes as a ‘love/hate’ song.  Playing all the instruments himself, including all the guitars, keyboards, drums and bass, Andy gives us a brief glimpse into his world and delivers it with some expertise.  Describing his music as ‘an emotional response to the moment’, while the words are ‘an emotional response to the music’, Andy has a clear vision of what he sets out to achieve. “Oh Me Oh My” joins several other singles released by the songwriter, “All That I Am”, “You” and “The Night Brings the Dawn” among them.

Emma Gale – Enjoy Life While You Can | Single Review | Example Records | 15.10.21

Dorset’s Emma Gale instils a sense of optimism in her latest single release, a song of hope in these difficult times, with a message that we might all heed as we scrape around in our search for a way out of our current situation.  “Enjoy Life While You Can” is a positive mantra delivered in a bright and breezy manner, written in collaboration with John Paul Mason and Chris Pepper, who also provides backing vocals and most of the instruments on the single.  As a finalist in the Talent is Timeless songwriting competition, Emma took advantage of the opportunity to record a video of the song at the famed Abbey Road Studios, while the song itself was recorded closer to home in Weymouth and at Saltwell Studio in Huntingdon.  Released ahead of her forthcoming Boo Hewerdine-produced debut album, Emma says of the single ‘the message is that we should all live our lives to the fullest especially after what we have all been through over the last eighteen months’.  Well, we can’t really argue with that.

Fergus McNeill | Bloodrush | Single Review | Jam Records | 15.10.21

Glasgow’s Fergus McNeill recently became the national winner of the first Talent is Timeless songwriting competition, an event set up by fellow songwriter Saskia Griffiths-Moore, an age-positive movement that concentrates on promoting the music of older artists.  “Bloodrush” satisfied the eighteen judges to the extent of considering it the best of the bunch, a bunch that stretched into several hundred entries.   Recorded at the Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, the single features a small band that includes Louis Abbott on percussion, Donna Maciocia on keyboards, James Mackay on guitar and Jill O’Sullivan on violin.  Saskia also provides backing vocals on a song that considers love, relationships and the blood that runs through our veins.  Gentle, tender and honest, a deserved winner no doubt.

Mishra | Reclaim | Album Review | Shedbuilt Records | 01.11.21

Named for the notion of nature reclaiming abandoned spaces, bringing life once again to previously barren areas, echoed by our current endeavour to lift ourselves out of the doldrums of 2020 and into a new kind of normal, the second album release by Mishra aims to help us make the transition.  Kate Griffin and Ford Collier have taken giant steps into a musical genre formerly known as World Music, forging rich connections between British and American folk traditions and Indian classical music, inviting into their sphere the renowned tabla and santoor player John Ball, whose percussive contribution can be heard throughout the album.  With a line-up completed by double bassist Joss Mann-Hazell and singer and clarinet player Alex Lyon, the collective weave an almost mystical path through the eleven songs and tunes, that encompasses original songs, traditional folk song and in the case of “Rolling English Road” a poem by G.K. Chesterton.  Wrapped in a sleeve designed by Kate, Reclaim provides new listeners to international sounds with something completely accessible and to those familiar with global rhythms, something equally fulfilling. 

Dan Walsh | Live at the Floodgate | Album Review | Self Release | 01.11.21

The first time this reviewer heard Dan Walsh, it was at a live setting in front of an audience, therefore it’s familiar ground from the start.  Recorded at The Floodgate in his spiritual home of Stafford just prior to you know what, the banjo-wielding troubadour presents a live set consisting of both songs and tunes, some familiar, some not so, with one or two surprises along the way.  Performing completely solo, Dan chooses material rooted in British, Irish and American folk traditions, tunes which demonstrate his dexterity on the clawhammer-style five-string banjo and songs that he sings with some conviction.  For one or two songs Dan swaps his banjo for the guitar, which he plays with similar command, exploring the jazz chords of “At Least Pretend”, a little known Saw Doctors song, together with Dan’s own poignant “The Song Always Stays”, a song that looks at the effect that music has on those living with Dementia as well as a pretty faithful run through of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”, with slaps a-plenty, a funky bass player in the closet perhaps?  Concluding with the old Lester Flatt favourite “Sleep With One Eye Open”, Dan encourages some communal refrains from the Stafford audience. 

Eric Devries | Song and Dance Man | Album Review | MiG Music | 01.11.21

The term ‘Song and Dance Man’ may very well be remembered as an off-the-cuff and certainly tongue-in-cheek description of how Bob Dylan saw himself back in the mid 1960s, a phrase later used as the title to Michael Gray’s fascinating book on the art of Dylan’s songs back in the early 1970s.  Eric Devries claims the title for his fourth solo album to date and also for the lead song “Ballad of the Song and Dance Man”, which appears to hold a candle to those who have gone before, notably Van Morrison, who is more than just hinted at in the Hard Nose the Highway reference.  The Amsterdam-based singer-songwriter and former member of Matthews Southern Comfort maintains a distinct country feel throughout the dozen largely acoustic original songs, helped by a handful of musicians, including the multi-instrumentalist Janos Koolen (who also produced the album), bassist Lucas Beukers and violinist Joost van Es.  Sophie Janna (The Lasses), who also contributes some fine harmony vocals.        

Joe Tilston | Tightrope | Album Review | Self Release | 01.11.21

With a voice reminiscent of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder in his youthful heyday, Joe Tilston returns with a fine second solo album, the belated follow up to 2013’s Embers, hanging up his bass guitar temporarily to deliver ten original songs, each a showcase for his confident and mature voice.  Dedicated to ‘Maggie’, presumably his late mother Maggie Boyle, herself a prominent voice on the British folk music scene until her untimely passing in 2014, who recorded and performed regularly in the folk clubs and at festivals with his dad Steve and notably with the singing trio Grace Notes, Tightrope moves sideways from his parents’ musical influence to a more contemporary indie sensibility with a full band sound, plenty of acoustic guitar, a strong rhythm section courtesy of Joe Dinsdale and Sean Howe on bass and drums respectively, and some fine contributions by Luke Antonik-Yates on electric guitar and violin, Andy Hawkins on piano, double bass and vocals, with some trumpet passages by Simon Dobson.   Tia Kalmaru also provides backing vocals, flute and bass and duets on the tender “To Continue Press Start”, one of the album highlights.  This is one of those instances where parental influences are present, but subliminally sourced for an album of songs that is clearly all his own.  A fine album from a new voice to take notice of.

Matthews Baartmans Conspiracy | Distant Chatter | Album Review | Talking Elephant Records | 01.11.21

Iain Matthews and BJ Baartmans, two of the most prominent musicians in the more recent incarnations of the band Matthews Southern Comfort release their first duo album, which features ten new original songs.  Having first met in 2003, the two songwriters have developed a viable musical relationship, with a keen ear for a good song, and have managed to select ten songs from the seventeen written over a period of eighteen months.  Very much a collaborative effort, with many of the songs co-written and just a couple of Matthews only compositions, Distant Chatter maintains a rootsy feel throughout, with one or two bluesy moments, notably “Fourteen Months” and “Writing Off the Blues”, with its feel similar to Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come”.  Politically charged, the theme of “Are You a Racist” is bang on the money when it comes to holding up a light to the rampant bigotry we face in society, yet the song somehow fails in the anthem stakes, possibly due to its jolly sing-a-long arrangement.  In other places, such as the opener “Sleepwalking”, the two songwriters venture into almost crooner territory, saved by some fine slide guitar moments.  With Matthews on guitar and Baartmans taking care of the rest, Distant Chatter is a pleasant listen but there’s nothing earth-shattering to speak of really.

Reg Meuross, Harbottle and Jonas | Songs of Love and Death | Album Review | Hatsongs | 01.11.21

Reg Meuross is known for his prolific back catalogue of original songs that cover a whole variety of subjects, from such historical episodes as the setting out of the Pilgrim Fathers, the struggles of Lillian ‘Big Lil’ Bilocca and the occasional beloved Highwayman, to a variety of other notable figures from our past, such as Emily Dickinson, Johnny Ray and Edward Hopper, not to mention some strange juxtapositions, for instance the pairing of Elvis with Phil Oches and Tony Benn with Emily Davison.  Yet, this songwriter has rarely ventured into the world of traditional song.  Songs of Love and Death very much covers this area with ten well-known songs, so well-know in fact, that it’s almost a traditional song greatest hits album, with such staples as “She Moved Through the Fair”, “As I Roved Out”, “Barbary Allen and “Anachie Gordon”, each treated to fine arrangements, not least through the partnership with Freya Jonas and David Harbottle.  In these hands the songs are safe, not that songs of this calibre can be exposed to much damage in the first place.  There’s also a couple of Lords included, both “Lord Randall” and “Lord Franklin”, both treated to faithful readings, an indication that although new to recording such songs, Reg is no stranger to them, having been involved on the folk scene for at least three decades.  To be honest, with Harbottle and Jonas onboard, Songs of Love and Death could hardly fail to impress.

Abby Posner | Kisbee Ring | Album Review | Self Release | 01.11.21

A versatile musician who can turn her hand to almost any instrument, the Colorado-born now Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and musician Abby Posner releases her new solo album Kisbee Ring, which features ten original songs.  Some may recall Abby making a couple of appearances in the TV show GLEE, playing banjo and guitar and was also seen in ads for the exhaustive Country Music series by the influential documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.  Kismee Ring, which is also the title of the opening song, focuses on Abby’s songwriting and melodic flair, having already taken her adoptive home town by storm with her popular project Abby and The Myth, with several releases already under her belt.  Standout song “Blind Spot”, which won the Carl Gage Give Me Shelter in Place Songwriting Award in 2020, demonstrates Abby’s social awareness with a memorable message in the wake of the George Floyd killing and an equally memorable melody, together with some intuitive playing.  Abby says of the album ‘My intention was to create a warm vintage sound with a Beatles inspired melodic walk down and hints of Nick Drake, I wanted it to feel like the listener was getting an auditory hug’.  Auditory hugs accepted.​

Ewan Macfarlane | Always Everlong | Album Review | Self Release | 01.11.21

There’s a sense of immediacy in the delivery of the songs that form Ewan Macfarlane’s debut solo album.  The former frontman of Glasgow band Apollo 440 and more recently at the helm of The Grim Northern Social, Macfarlane took to uploading a different tune every day via YouTube during the mid-lockdown period, a challenge that revealed some interesting results.  Going on to develop some of these ideas in the studio, Always Everlong reveals a strong album of driving rock rhythms and sensitive balladry, in collaboration with childhood friend Davie Rollo, who also contributes guitar and vocals.  Further contributions from fellow Grim Northern Social musician, keyboard player Andy Cowan, Dougie Hannah on drums, Kirsty McAfferty on keyboards and vocals and Andy McAfferty on bass, keep things moving along at a driving pace, with Macfarlane’s daughters Jenijo and Ellijai providing backing vocals and keeping it all pretty much in the family.  If “Underneath Your Spell” and “Education Sucks” are confident rockers with a Springsteen flavour, then “Your Blood and You’re Mine” and the album closer “The End is Just the Beginning” shows a more sensitive side of Macfarlane’s songwriting, the latter evoking the spirit of some of Elvis Costello’s later work.

Story Song Scientists | Quantum Lyrics | EP Review | Dharma Records | 01.11.21

The second helping from Megan Henwood and Findlay Napier’s collaborative project The Story Song Scientists, Quantum Lyrics takes another quirky look at our times, with our protagonists resplendent in their pristine lab coats and ready to investigate such subjects as climate change, blood donation, artificial intelligence, the manufacture of explosives and cloud appreciation, aspects of our lives that perhaps should be addressed before it’s too late.  The songs are handled with intelligence and humour, each linked with soundbites from archive news bulletins, poetry and found sounds, all prefixed with a ‘specimen’ number, which allows the subject matter to flow almost seamlessly throughout the five song EP.  Taken out of context of the overall experiment, each of the songs appear to stand alone as relevant social commentary songs in their own right, delivered with much TLC by two highly inventive writers and accomplished performers.

Boo Hewerdine | Singularities | EP Review | Reveal | 01.11.21

Following the acclaimed Selected Works, noted singer/songwriter Boo Hewerdine returns with a brand new EP (or mini album), comprising six original songs written in collaboration with others, a couple each with Vlado Nosal, Brian Johnson and Jenny Sturgeon.  Opening with the Beatles-influenced “British Summer Time”, complete with very British radio pips, Singularities gets off to a remarkably melodic start.  Meeting at least once a week with Queer Jane singer Vlado Nosal, Hewerdine developed a close working relationship with the Slovakian musician, claiming there was little the accomplished songwriter could show the younger musician; “British Summer Time” and “Hotel Art” are testament to this notion.  Similarly, Hewerdine has forged a compatible writing partnership with Brian Johnson, the two regularly getting together to talk about songs, then coming up with the notion of writing songs about the street photographer Vivian Maier.  “The Night is Young” is a late night barroom crooner, complete with a sultry sax accompaniment, while the piano-led “Frozen Light and Time”, reflects Maier’s lens in atmospheric monochrome.  After meeting Jenny Sturgeon at one of his songwriting workshops at Moniack Mhor, the Aberdeenshire-born singer, now based in Shetland, quickly rose to be one of Hewerdine’s favourite singers, whose voice dominates the gentle closer “No Words”, with Hewerdine taking command of the penultimate song, the pulsating “Lines”, which explores the paths we traverse both physically and emotionally through life, with some ethereal vocal inflections adding to the atmosphere.

Andrew Cantwell | Happiness is Not a Destination | Single Review | Self Release | 01.11.21

Produced by Merry Hell guitarist John Kettle, “Happiness is Not a Destination” is an anthem for our times, an optimistic message delivered at a point in time when we probably most need it.  The two street urchins on the sleeve show one aspect of happiness, though it’s possible that the boy with the ‘chopper’ is slightly happier than the other boy who has to make do with the bog standard bike, a position I found myself in when the things were first introduced back in the late 1960s.  I never did get my chopper.  The monochrome image is perhaps echoed in the accompanying film promo, which goes on to show many expressions of happiness for the duration of the song, while we as a society battle with all the complications levelled at us.  Andrew Cantwell has a straightforward no-nonsense approach to making music, with suitably jangly guitars and an instantly memorable melody.  Happiness may not be a destination, but it’s probably worth the adventure.

Natalie Jane Hill | Solely | Album Review | Dear Life Records | 15.11.21

This album opens with the song “Euphoria”, which itself opens with a confident finger-picked guitar, underpinned by some moody bow strokes, reminiscent of some of those that embellish one or two of Nick Drake’s finest songs, yet it’s Natalie Jane Hill’s immediately alluring voice that brings all the necessary magic to Solely, the Texan singer/songwriter’s second solo studio album.  Following on from last year’s Azalea, Natalie draws us in once again with ten original songs of self discovery, reflection and the natural world around us.  Recorded over a six month period in the midst of a world pandemic, with producer Jason Chronis, who also contributes some vibraphone, autoharp, bass and percussion, the ten songs seem to reflect the melancholy of these uncertain times, yet curiously at the same time bring comfort rather than despair.  With a voice occasionally reminiscent of that of Diana Jones, certainly on such songs as “Plants and Flowers” and “Listen to Me Tomorrow”, Natalie’s voice is in an otherwise sphere of its own, instantly identifiable and ultimately poised to perfection for delivering the kind of songs she writes.  For an album of songs that would work just as well completely solo, the additional musical embellishments courtesy of Mat Davidson on Pedal Steel, Fiddle, Wurlitzer and Casio, Bob Hoffnar on Pedal Steel, Tony Rogers and Sadie Wolfe on Cello, Jared Van Fleet on Piano and Matt Simon on Percussion, do seem to bring an extra sparkle to an already beautifully realised album.

Kate Green | A Dark Carnival | Album Review | Self Release | 15.11.21

A Dark Carnival comes as a pleasant surprise, perhaps not initially from the opening song, “Lady Diamond”, a steadily building folk rock anthem, which is not a million miles away from Fairport Convention’s reading of “A Sailor’s Life” all those years ago, but certainly from Kate Green’s pretty fabulous version of the old blues standard “When the Levee Breaks” which follows, like some ghostly visitation by the late Jo-Ann Kelly.  Some try to create the feeling of the blues with mixed results and some just own it;  Kate owns it.  Following on from her full-length debut Unkindness of Ravens, which was released a good few years ago, the question has to be, why so long?   Born in Scotland and based in South Yorkshire, Kate Green has been a familiar face on the local folk club scene for a good while and such songs as “Banks and Braes”, “Bows of London” and “Cuckoo Song” are probably second nature to her, but there’s so much more to Kate than initially meets the eye, or in this case, the ear.  Kate seems to have little problem with Latin rhythms on “Renegade’s of (Love and Rage)”, her own tribute to those engaged in the unpleasant duty of saving the planet, to the lilting Tex Mex feel of “Mi Amigo”, another fine original, which tells of a wartime air disaster involving an American B17 Flying Fortress and its final resting place in a Sheffield park, delivered in a similar manner as Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees”, another disastrous plane incident under much different circumstances.  A Lal Waterson cover is rarely a wasted opportunity and Kate’s reading of “Fine Horseman” is one of the album’s finest moments; a bold acoustic guitar and a voice that means business, with little room for improvement, save for a few bowed moments courtesy of long time collaborator Patrick Walker.  Produced by Jed Grimes, A Dark Carnival comes highly recommended and will no doubt stick around on the player for a while.     

Damien McGeehan | Kin | Album Review | Self Release | 15.11.21

Damien McGeehan makes music that demands your attention from the start.  The instrumental music that he writes, adapts or arranges, is never throw away or predictable and often there are one or  two musical curveballs thrown in just to spice up proceedings, notably on the opener here, the deliriously complex “An Chéad Chathlán”, all six minutes of it.  Kin is Damien’s latest offering and comes after much uncertainty, where gathering musician friends together has been difficult.  Despite this, the creative juices have kept on flowing throughout and circumstances have allowed for the eleven songs and tunes to be recorded and released.  Predominantly instrumental, Kin also features one or two songs, notably Richard Thompson’s “Strange Affair”, a song that has already traversed the tonsils of some of the finest singers we have, from Linda Thompson to June Tabor and from Dolores Keane to Will Oldham, and Shauna Mullin (Damien’s wife and favourite singer) takes a little from them all and goes on to throw in a little Mary Coughlan sassiness for good measure to come up with a truly lovely version of the celebrated song.  If you were thinking an album of fiddle tunes for Saturday night’s ceilidh, then you might as well think again.  Kin is an album to play not so much to get the party going, but to play on your iPod at Starbucks, just to make your Frappuccino taste that little bit better or while you walk along a sandy beach, just to make the sea breeze more refreshing.  Check it out at your earliest.

Blue Mantra Rhymes | Hour of Solitude | Album Review | Slow Music Movement | 15.11.21

Highly meditative, Hour of Solitude sounds like the perfect title for this release by Blue Mantra Rhymes, a pseudonym of sorts for the British guitarist Ed Cooke.  There’s something of a solitary feel to each of the ten pieces, which you could imagine forming the soundtrack to a walk through the gardens of Doi Inthanon.  After moving to Thailand sixteen years ago, Cooke has developed his own idiosyncratic musical stylings that appear to encompasses some of Bangkok’s more ethereal sounds based on local traditions yet keeping an ear firmly to the ground and encompassing other influences along the way.  The ten pieces are certainly based on simple initial melodies that encompass the feelings, sounds and contemplative meditations, each of which help to create an atmospheric whole.  There are simple harmonica tunes, but then they are turned into something rather more otherworldly than initially suggested.  Voices are used throughout to add to the soothing feel of the album as a whole.  Perhaps the most obvious fusion of both European and Asian musical styles is the transition between the harmonica and breathy flute on “We Rest Upon Her Shoulders” as it segues into the haunting “Passing Through Blues”.  Hour of Solitude takes the listener on a journey through an emotional landscape, rich in atmosphere and a perfect antidote to today’s endless bickering, especially the haunting rhythms midway through “Bird Light”, echoed once again at the beginning of “Farewell to the Wetlands”.

Over the Moon | Chinook Waltz | Album Review | Borealis Records | 15.11.21

It’s always good to be reminded that swing is still alive and well in today’s music, emphasised perfectly in some of the songs on Chinook Waltz, the new album by Canadian duo Suzanne Levesque and Craig Bignell, otherwise Over the Moon and named for the ranch where the couple reside.  Look no further than “They Can’t Blackout the Moon” for those unmistakable western swing rhythms, despite the song originating as far away as England at the outset of WWII.  Those rhythms never fail to raise a smile and to further prolong the cheerful mood, there’s “I’m Not Cool”, which I’m thinking of using as my own personal theme tune, possibly replacing the cowboy hat and boots lyric to cloth cap and hobnails.  There’s little surprise that these sounds filter almost effortlessly out of these two musicians, themselves being ranch dwellers in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, whose music reflects the golden age of 1940s western swing, mixed with the old-time music of the Appalachians.  The album also contains one or two familiar songs, such as a gorgeous reading of “Darcy Farrow” and the old Everly Brothers classic “Kentucky”, dedicated to the duo’s friend, the late Mel Wilson.  If the music itself doesn’t immediately take you to the foothills of the mighty Rockies, then the crickets and crackle of the campfire at the opening of the title cut just might.     

Gordie Tentrees | Mean Old World | Album Review | Self Release | 15.11.21

With seven albums already under his belt, Gordie Tentrees continues to spread a note of hope and optimism with his eighth album Mean Old World, an engaging collection of punchy, honest and often humorous songs, in a Loudon Wainwright III sort of way.  Having spent his early years as a foster child, then involving himself in the sporting world, spending time in the boxing ring, Gordie turned his hand to teaching, which led to writing and then subsequently found a powerful means of communication through his songs.  We see a hint of Gordie’s former occupation in the illustrated booklet next to the lyrics for “Ring Speed”, a pulsating song filled with the same sort of excitement found in a ringside seat.  “Lefties” is a Thelma and Louise road trip, a jaunty travelogue that reads a little like the random notes in a well-thumbed dusty journal squashed into the glove compartment.  Gordie is not your usual songwriter, he draws from a wealth of ideas, some of which come across in a uniquely unexpected manner, “Train is Gone” for instance, which looks at mortality in a tender if quirky manner.  Bluesy in places, notably “Twice as Nice”, Mean Old World allows us a glimpse into the world from a slightly different angle.  

The Brkn Record | The Architecture of Oppression Part 1 | Album Review | Mr Bongo | 15.11.21

The juxtaposition of a police helmet sitting atop a blood-soaked Clockwork Orange droog character forms the sleeve design of this challenging LP, a potpourri of protest that appears to hold little back.  On the reverse of the gatefold sleeve, the blood continues to pour from the hallowed halls of Westminster, sending a clear message to the law makers of this country.  Inside there are one or two facts and figures that go towards the a call for action and now seems to be the right time.  In song, rap and spoken word, The Architecture of Oppression Part 1 attempts to tell the story of what is perceived to be the structural racism found in this country,  notably pointed out by Brother Andrew Mohammed in “The Investigator”, who lays out the facts for all to consider.  The ambitious project sees Jake Ferguson take on the role of bandleader and orchestrator for the first time, with plenty of ideas in which to relay these messages.  Lee Jasper steps forward to offer suggestions on where our law makers are going wrong and how we should address the problems in “A Police Service, Not a Police Force”, while Yolanda Lear asks further questions in “Hackney Ain’t Innocent”, a notion we seem to have no problem accepting in Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, yet seemingly ignore on our own doorstep.  There are one or two more soulful sounds on the album, Jermain Jackman’s performance of “His Mother’s Eyes” and Ugochi Nwaogwugwu’s moving delivery on “On the Daily”, both offering a moment of reflection in an otherwise full on protest.  The pulsating rhythms that underpin Zara McFarlane’s vocal delivery on “Lifeline”, reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”, hold our attention towards the album’s conclusion, with the additional “Reparations” featuring Great Okuson and Sarah Solomon on the CD release.  Thought-provoking and eye-opening at the same time, a record to perhaps hold up as a mirror in these times.   

Hannah James and Toby Kuhn | Sleeping Spirals | Album Review | Jigdoll Records | 15.11.21

This enchanting debut album sees the British accordion player Hannah James team up with French cellist Toby Kuhn in a celebration of the great outdoors.  Sleeping Spirals takes us on a ramble over the stone river bridges and through the bare trees of the countryside, absorbing the sights and sounds of the natural world through the strings and buttons, not to mentioin the keys and bows, of their respective instruments.  Hannah’s voice is warm and expressive, with an occasional vibrato that works in perfect tandem with the songs, both traditional and originals alike.  With some of songs recorded in Belgium just prior to lockdown and the rest later in the year in both Slovenia and the UK, Sleeping Spirals dovetails each of the twelve selections together, songs and instrumentals both, while maintaining a consistent sound throughout.   The two traditional songs “In the Gloaming”, which opens the album and the haunting “Three Ravens”, one of the first songs the duo played together, are treated to rich and sensitive arrangements, as are each the originals, some of which showcase Hannah’s flair as a lyricist.  The plucked cello strings and gentle accordion flurries on “Jealousy” explore the textures of each of these instruments, which really do appear to be made for each another.  Lavishly packaged, with a twenty-page lyric booklet, Sleeping Spirals is a superb journey into the woods, with some otherworldly stories from various sources, at what many would consider the best time of the year, as the leaves continue to fall.        

White Star Bulb Company | Home | Album Review | Self Release | 15.11.21

There’s a fabulous seven minute song that closes the fourth album by the Californian alt rock band Incubus, Morning View, an ethereal and otherworldly song with Chinese elements that would fit perfectly here.  There are similarities between Ecki’s breathy voice and that of Brandon Boyd, especially on “I’m Sorry But I Want You” in particular.  Under the guise of White Star Bulb Company, Ecki delivers his first album since 2017’s Engineers and with these songs, pretty much concentrates on the theme of home, of leaving it and then returning years later, with an emphasis on Suffolk. Anyone familiar with such locations as Bungay and Geldeston as well as the postcard pretty coastal town of Southwold, will understand the magnetic pull of the county, which many would like to call home.  The songs here cover a twenty year period, some revisited from an earlier period in Ecki’s life, with some of the sounds recorded in various locations around the county, in the garage that his dad built in the Fifties for instance and the distant sound of church bells that ring between “Listen” and the first song Ecki ever wrote, “Lost”, White Star Bulb Company’s latest single release, which also features Danny Thompson’s instantly identifiable double bass.      

Martyn Joseph | 1960 | Album Review | Pipe Records | 15.11.21

Martyn Joseph’s twenty-third album is perhaps his most personal to date, the date in question this time around is the year of his birth 1960, an appropriate title for an album that looks back over a songwriter’s life.  “Born Too Late”, the idea of the song suggested by Art Garfunkel, who Joseph toured with in the Nineties, suggests that 1960 was just a little out of step for an artist who would be influenced by some of the Laurel Canyon set, namely Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills Nash and Young, but there again, being born slightly earlier wouldn’t perhaps guarantee an entre.  Cardiff is a long way from California, yet the spirit of the music knows no bounds when it comes to distance and Joseph captures the spirit well.  Janis Ian plays the piano and adds harmonies to “House”, a delicate song about home, which feels like an observation long after the occupants have left, yet the memory is of a once full and vibrant dwelling.  Then there’s “Shadow Boxing”, a gorgeous love letter to Joseph’s father, whose encouragement for his son to ‘toughen up’ would often fall upon deaf ears, ears that were meant for music and song, not so much red gloves and the Queensbury rules.  ‘He’d kiss me if he knew me but his mind resides elsewhere’ is one of those lyrics that Martyn Joseph manages to write, which you don’t stop thinking about until well into the next song.  Tucked away as a bonus tagged onto the end of the final song “The Light is Ours” is a homage to two of Joseph’s musical heroes, Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, with a stripped down to basics reading of “Wichita Lineman”, proving that the song stands on its own merit without the lavish arrangement.  Fabulous songs and a fabulous album.

Khasi Cymru Collective | Sai Thain Ki Sur | Album Review | Naxos World | 15.11.21

Often in cross pollinated musical fusion between two very different nations, there’s a historical umbilical cord that stretches over centuries, and the musical relationship between Wales and India isn’t as unusual as you might first think.  The men and women who left Wales between 1841 and 1969, to establish and maintain the first Welsh Overseas Mission in North East India are remembered in this lavish musical exploration that features Gareth Bonello, also known as The Gentle Good, and musicians from the Khasi community.  Sai Thain Ki Sur is a unique collaboration that brings together the indigenous musical styles of such noted musicians as Rani Maring, Risingbor Kurkalang and Meban Lyngdoh, interspersed with the sound of birdsong, rainfall and other location sounds that add to the spirit and atmosphere of the piece.  The juxtaposion between the Khasi campfire feel of “Ka Sit Tula” and Bonello’s Welsh language “Cwyn yr Afon” narrows the geographical and ethnic distance tenfold, reminding us once again that music is a universal force for good.  The multi-lingual “Kam Pher” brings together our respective languages and provides a timely meeting place midway through, performed in a style that wouldn’t be out of place on an Amazing Blondel album.  Reading through the extensive sleeve notes, the album offers much more than a musical experience, but also an absorbing glimpse into the circumstances in which this music has developed over the last century.   

Amy Thatcher | Let What’s In, Out | EP Review | Self Release | 15.11.21

Motherhood and the art of music making are very much entwined in Amy Thatcher’s life right now, having recently given birth to twins on tour with The Shee.  Let What’s In, Out, Amy’s new four track EP, is released in celebration of that connection, a way of letting us know how she feels about being a mum in the best way possible, through her music.  Anyone familiar with Amy will know that it all comes down to just two hands and two feet, her accordion playing being an important part of The Shee, as well as playing an equally important role as part of Kathryn Tickell’s band The Darkening and also as a major ingredient in the Monster Ceilidh Band, while her feet occasionally slip into clogs for some impressive dance steps.  The atmospheric “Look at You Now” is dedicated to Amy’s twins, born eleven weeks early in Berlin, while Amy was on tour with the all female folk ensemble The Shee (presumably leaving the clogs aside at this stage in her pregnancy).  It’s like a gentle pair of heartbeats embedded in a tune, complete with a hummed coda, a lullaby perhaps for the newly arrived Gwen and Jay.  A more familiar sound follows in “Nee Musette, Pet”, a Geordie take on a flirtatious French accordion tune, which instantly evokes the Parisienne walkways of ‘49, the Champs-Élysées, Saint Michelle and old Beaujolais wine, as Gary Moore once put it in his song.  “The Unheard” is a thought provoking piece, slower and slightly more contemplative, a tune for those who keep their heads down in today’s messy media frenzy of facebooking, twittering, snapchatting and whateverelseing, with birdsong to remind us that a better world is out there somewhere.  Concluding with “Finn’s Reel”, named for a friend’s son, the tune is a reminder that Amy’s feet are made for dancing.  

Mr Alec Bowman_Clarke | A Place Like Home | EP Review | Corduroy Punk Records | 15.11.21

It is quite possible that I made far too much of Lucas Drinkwater’s studio trickery upon the release of the lead single from this EP by singer/songwriter Mr Alec Bowman_Clarke.  The five-track EP A Place Like Home opens with the song in question “Deleted Scenes”, which serves as a fine opener, those studio embellishments adding very much to the charm of the song, which is quickly followed by “The Ghost of Mistakes”, once again featuring partner Josienne Clarke on both clarinet and harmony vocals.  It’s becoming increasingly familiar to hear these two contrasting voices joined together, it certainly suits the material.  ‘That’s a terrible way to set me up.. that’s shocking’ says Mr Alec in a studio outtake that doesn’t quite let us in on the joke, but serves to open the third song on the EP, “Speaking of Guns”, which has a great opening line ‘Never say the word gun in the opening line, if you don’t plan to fire it by the end’, a toe-to-toe confrontation with the painful business of writing songs.  “A Red Light in the Darkroom” relates to Mr Alec’s other calling in life, that of a professional photographer, a reminder of the memories, reflections, confessionals, the light and shade of life and the ghosts we encounter along the way, that which also features Josienne’s other calling, that of a saxophone player, who provides a short but sweet blow before the final verse.  Closing with the title song “A Place Like Home”, Mr Alec ponders his position in the grand scheme of things, an optimistic meditation on home and a desire to find it.