Music Reviews | 2022

Iona Lane | Hallival | Album Review | Hudson Records | 01.04.22

With one or two EP releases and dozens of gigs behind her, the Leeds-based singer songwriter Iona Lane takes bold strides forward with the release of her debut album Hallival, named for one of the mountains on the Isle of Rum.  Atmospheric from the start, Hallival indicates clearly a confidence in songsmithery, an album that places the singer alongside her contemporaries, rather than beneath them, a confidence that also places such material as “Western Tidal Swell”, “Humankind” and the title song, firmly within the new folk canon.  “Mary Anning” looks at one of our criminally overlooked heroines in the world of Paleontology, a scientist based in Lyme Regis in the nineteenth century, recently depicted by Kate Winslet in the Francis Lee film Ammonite.  Iona makes no secret of her admiration of the women around her, both contemporary and historical, and Hallival features a handful of such creative forces, with appearances by Jenny Sturgeon, who provides backing vocals on “Humankind”, and both Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton on both fiddle and harp respectively on the evocative “Schiehallion”.  An inquiring mind is at work with each lyric.  With Andy Bell at the helm, Iona and her band make a bold statement here, with an album they can be proud of.

Kevin Buckley | Big Spring | Album Review | Avonmore Records | 08.04.22

Ordinarily, we would probably expect the tunes on this album to have sprung from the deep musical wells of County Clare, yet Kevin Buckley is a St Louis native, albeit steeped in the roots of places some four thousand miles away.  After two fine opening instrumental pieces though, “Sweeney’s Wheel” and “Ryder’s Block”, Buckley leans on influences closer to home, with the old time sensibilities of “The Blackest Crow” and later, “Never Tire of the Road”, each undoubtedly with Tim O’Brien not too far from his mind.  Possibly the most engaging of the songs is “Miss Bailey”, a noted song from the repertoire of The Kingston Trio, given a sort of Welch/Rawlings treatment.  Throughout the songs and tunes, there’s a certain ‘swing’ to be detected, especially on the bouncy “Marcelle et Marcel” and “City of Savannah”, together with classical elements, notably on “La Rubia”, which can only add to the folk fusion aspect of the album and which keeps it all interesting to listen to.  Kevin Buckley’s talents are extended to that of producer, arranger and singer songwriter, with his fiddle not far away at any time, though despite having released a handful of indie albums under the guise of Grace Basement, this is the first time that instrument has taken centre stage, making the most of his early training in traditional Irish music especially for his debut solo release.

Chris Brain | Bound to Rise | Album Review | Big Sun Records | 15.04.22

It’s difficult not to make the Nick Drake connection once we hear Chris Brain’s delicate finger-picked guitar, a notion confirmed by an equally delicate and breathy voice to go with it.  Chris fesses up to the obvious influence, though he makes the sound his own, a sound firmly planted in the ground, a little like a fruit tree.  Leeds-based, the singer, songwriter and guitar player has nothing of the plummy Drake mannerisms, nor does any of this come over as doomed melancholy, the songs are strangely uplifting, with a meditative, immediate delivery, enhanced by the live setting of each performance, recorded straight to analog tape.  With almost subliminal contributions from Simeon Walker and Mary Jane Walker on piano and violin respectively, the songs are treated to sparse arrangements, leaving Tom Orell’s production clean and uncluttered by further fancy embellishments.  Reluctant to use a thinly-worn cliche, but in this case it’s pretty apt – if you like Nick Drake, you’ll definitely appreciate this.

Cosmic American Derelicts | The Twain Shall Meet | Album Review | Soundkeeper Recordings | 22.04.22

The Cosmic American Derelicts have been around for almost a quarter of a century, have five albums under their belt and have toured extensively throughout both the UK and the US.  The Twain Shall Meet, the band’s fifth album, once again traverses the country roads and back lanes in search of three chords and the truth.  With a healthy dose of Honky-Tonkin’ rock and roll, some prominent Dobro licks and a well-worn husky voice, the band, led by George Kapitanellis, keep it pretty low key for the most part, certainly on such songs as “Oh No”, “Woods and Water” and “Waylon”, though the bluegrass-inflected “Speeding Train” keeps the band on their toes.  “New Half Step” could easily be a line dance anthem, a Saturday night number if ever there was one.  Produced by Barry Diament, whose credentials include Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Bob Marley and Stevie Nicks, The Twain Shall Meet captures a band enjoying the after hours.

Molly Tuttle and the Golden Highway | Crooked Tree | Album Review | Nonesuch | 29.04.22

The rise of Molly Tuttle has been meteoric to say the least, a startling talent, whose shows bring a sparkle to a music that keeps on re-inventing itself.  Crooked Tree is Molly’s third studio album, her first for Nonesuch Records, and is once again packed to the rafters with sore-fingered picking on both guitar and banjo, with a confident voice to go with it.  The thirteen songs here feature one or two choice duets, with Molly collaborating with Dan Tyminski, Margo Price, Billy Strings and Gillian Welch.  Good company indeed.   Old Crow Medicine Show also make an appearance with the California-born singer and musician on “Big Backyard”, a joyous and uplifting back porch song, with panoramic views of the desert just beyond the gate.   Sierra Hull joins Molly on “Over the Line” a pacey bluegrass workout, with some delicious guitar and mandolin runs.   Named for the remaining trees after a felling spree in the forest, based on a quote by Tom Waits, “Crooked Tree”, co-written by Melody Walker, provides the album with its heart song.

Mama’s Broke | Narrow Line | Album Review | Free Dirt | 06.05.22

The second album by Lisa Maria and Amy Lou Keeler, otherwise Mama’s Broke, follows their impressive debut Count the Wicked released five years earlier.  The duo’s haunting songs remain the focal point of their musical endeavours, songs that both enchant and beguile, while remaining completely accessible at the same time.  Narrow Line features eleven such songs, each featuring close harmonies and highly intuitive musicianship.  Though the two musicians met on the road, you would swear they were sisters, not only by their close sibling harmonies, but in their physical similarities.  With gentle acoustic accompaniment, guitar and alternate fiddle and mandolin, the two musicians weave their melodies with relative ease.  Nothing appears forced, in fact the performances seem to flow organically, even on their a cappella verses on “October’s Lament” and “The Ones That I Love”.  Canada continues to produce music of an exceptional nature and the women that make up Mama’s Broke can consider themselves part of a rich tradition.

Katie Spencer | The Edge of the Land | Album Review | Lightship | 13.05.22

Somehow, it seems like half a lifetime since the release of Katie Spencer’s debut LP Weather Beaten, though it’s actually only a matter of three years, much of the ensuing months affected by enforced downtime, which perhaps makes it feel longer.  This second album has therefore come with a great deal of anticipation and we can immediately hear the extra attention to detail, the refinement of craft and the artistic control in the performances, which effectively transforms this young singer, songwriter and guitar player into a bone fide artist.   The Edge of the Land, evokes the terrain of Katie’s East Yorkshire home, as does its predecessor, with nature once again playing a key role in her music, offering solace in uncertain times.  Like witnessing one of Katie’s live performances, these songs comfort the listener with soothing acoustic sounds and graceful, meditative vocals, leaving no jagged edges, no intrusive cowbells or awkward and unnecessary tangents.  Katie found her voice some time ago and now it’s time for us to enjoy it.  The album opener “Take Your Time” has echoes of Happy/Sad period Tim Buckley, which demonstrates a confident command over jazz-tinged acoustic arrangements, while the opening few bars of “Roads” references Katie’s understanding of traditional folk tunes, something echoed later on the album with a pretty faithful reading of the Anne Briggs song “Go Your Way”.  You feel this is Katie’s time, and not too soon.

Corner House | How Beautiful It’s Been | Album Review | Self Release | 20.05.22

With a line-up that consists of Orkney-born fiddler Louise Bichan, mandolinist Ethan Setiawan, cellist Casey Murray and guitarist Ethan Hawkins, the Boston, Massachusetts-based quartet take their influences to new and interesting places, with an engaging album that seamlessly pulls together several musical strands, from both the band’s Irish and Scottish roots, to their broad Appalachian and bluegrass influences.  The songs and tunes here are certainly roots music at their core, yet the album is almost effortlessly infused with a distinctively contemporary feel.  The band is joined in places by Jordan Perlson on drums, Viktor Krauss (Alison’s bro) on double bass and minimoog, Maeve Gilchrist on clarsach and Eli Crews on nose flute.  After the release of the band’s first single “Mags’ 21st”, which came with a certain sense of familiarity, although sounding refreshingly new at the same time,  the vibrant instrumental effectively opened the doors to what was to follow shortly afterwards, an album of musical exploration and ingenuity that you will want to play again and again.

Bryony Griffith and Alice Jones | A Year Too Late and a Month Too Soon | Album Review | Splid Records | 27.05.22

A Year Too Late and a Month Too Soon has Yorkshire written all over it, with a collection of songs that don’t necessarily originate from God’s own county, but are directly associated with it in the form presented here.  The two Yorkshire-born singers collaborate for the first time on this project, Bryony from Skelmanthorpe near Huddersfield in West Yorkshire and Alice from Ribbonden near Halifax in the Calderdale area of the county, both very much steeped in their own local traditions.  Their two voices compliment one another in the same manner that June Tabor and Maddy Prior’s voices worked together on the Silly Sisters albums a few decades ago.  Predominantly traditional, with informed arrangements by the two musicians, the songs are brought to life by a duo passionate about this broad repertoire.  Alice makes no apologies for her infatuation with Frank Kidson (or specifically Frank Kidson’s mind), a song collector examined in a previous collaboration with Pete Coe, the double CD collection The Search for Five Finger Frank, which featured a collection of twenty-seven songs and tunes.  Here Frank is remembered once again with a further handful of songs, along with songs collected by Mary and Nigel Hudleston, Frank and Grace Hinchcliffe and Bert Dobson among others, and notably the repertoire of John Greaves.   Both musicians are in fine voice throughout, notably on the haunting “What is that Blood on Thy Shirt Sleeve” and the sprightly opener “Wanton Lasses Pity Her”.  Hopefully, this will not be a one off.

Jocelyn Pettit | Wind Rose | Album Review | Self Release | 03.06.22

The third album by this Canadian singer, fiddle player and step dancer begins with two strong instrumentals, both of which demonstrate an equally strong sense of arrangement and musical intuition.  The melody to the opening title tune is a stirring reminder that a good tune is just as important as a good song.  If it’s songs we crave, then we can’t go wrong with Dougie Maclean’s “Ready for the Storm”, which comes out to play once again, continuing where Kathy Mattea’s memorable reading of the song left off back in the 1990s, stirring up transatlantic memories of Scottish retreats and stormy highland coastlines.  Pettit’s roots are indeed Scottish, but also Irish, French and Malaysian, which gives the musician plenty of scope in terms of musical ideas.  Recorded over two continents, with the help of a select few hand-picked musicians in both Duncan, British Columbia and Glasgow, Scotland.  The distance between the two locations hints at the main theme of Wind Rose, that of home and travel, with each heartfelt melody faithfully rendered.  One one side of the Atlantic there’s Adam Dobres on guitar, Erik Musseau on whistle, Siew Wan Khoo on piano and Lauri Lyster and Joel Pettit on percussion, while over in the old country Pettit is joined by Martin O’Neill on bodhran, Ali Hutton on guitar, Chris Gray on piano and whistle and Ellen Gira on cello.  It’s quite possible that these songs and melodies will take you to all the places in between.  Gorgeous.

Pharis and Jason Romero | Tell ‘Em You Were Gold | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings | 10.06.22

When Pharis and Jason walk into their cluttered space in the video promo for this album’s lead song “Souvenir”, which itself contains the album’s title within its lyric, you get the distinct feeling that this is very much the duo’s comfort zone.  Jason is a builder of fine banjos and a workshop is very much home to him, a place where presumably many of these songs are born.  The sixteen songs and tunes sound relatively simple, but that’s the nature of good folk music, to make us feel it is flowing with little effort, when in reality, a lot of effort goes into making music sound this good.  For their seventh album, the duo take to their barn in Horsefly, British Columbia in order to record these songs in just six days and much of it sounds as live as possible, with little further embellishment, aside from the fuller band sound on such songs as “Sour Queen” and “Been All Around This World”, where the fiddles, pedal steel, mandolin and upright bass come out to play, courtesy of Grace Forrest, Trent Freeman, Marc Jenkins, John Reischman and Patrick Metzger respectively.  Pharis and Jason continue to make earthy American music, which feels like it grows right out of the ground beneath their feet.

Peter Rowan | Call You From My Mountain | Album Review | Rebel Records | 17.06.22

For over sixty years Peter Rowan has been a key player in the world of American roots music, a career that has seen the singer take on everything from Bluegrass, Newgrass and Country Rock to Jazz, Hawaiian, Tejano and in some instances, Reggae.  These various styles have been enthusiastically explored, either as a solo artist, as part of his family band The Rowans or with other collaborations, notably with Tony Rice, Flaco Jiménez, Jerry Douglas and as a member of the rock band Seatrain back in the early 1970s.  Throughout the years though, it’s been Rowan’s highly distinctive voice that has remained at the helm of each venture, a voice that is very much among those in Americana’s A list.  On the eve of his 80th birthday, Rowan sounds as good as ever, in fact not very far removed from his heyday over forty years ago, those ‘hey, hey, heys’ on the opener, Woody Guthrie’s “New York Town”, being very much reminiscent of earlier times.  Calling You From My Mountain began life as an extension of the Hank Williams character Luke the Drifter, but other aspects of the singer’s vivid curiosity came along to change this direction, bringing in Tibetan musical influences, inspired by Rowan’s friendship with Yungchen Lhamo.  The ever vibrant Molly Tuttle appears on the title song “From My Mountain (Calling You)”, as does Lindsay Lou, which has been released as a single.  Billy Strings, Shawn Camp and Mark Howard also add spice to Rowan’s already spicey multi-generational band, which features Chris Henry on mandolin, Max Wareham on banjo, Julian Pinelli on fiddle and Eric Thorin on acoustic bass.  Calling You From My Mountain stands alongside Rowan’s best remembered albums, Medicine Trail, Dust Bowl Children, Walls of Time and his 1978 eponymous debut.

Damien O’Kane and Ron Block | Banjophonics | Album Review | Pure Records | 24.06.22

There’s an old joke about the man who leaves his banjo on the back shelf of his car, only to return an hour later to find the windscreen smashed and another banjo left there beside it.  Two banjos together might be thought of as a ludicrous proposal, but in the hands of both Damien O’Kane and Ron Block, the instrument becomes alive with sparkle and spirit.  Banjophonics is clearly a demonstration of musical ingenuity and dexterity, with the added ingredient of fun, all rolled into one.   O’Kane’s Irish roots melt seamlessly into Block’s bluegrass chops, with brilliantly crafted arrangements throughout.  The six minute opener “Taxi Driver/Close Enough” covers a lot of ground in terms of musical twists and turns.  A reference to his own father, who would ‘taxi’ his six kids around from here to there, well into adulthood, “Taxi Driver” is a faithful nod to the man who Damien refers to as a ‘legend’, while the second tune in the set, “Close Enough”, shows the duo’s Jazz credentials in a more swing-oriented style of playing.   Family is key to some of the tunes on Banjophonics, notably “Daisy’s Dance”, written as a symbiotic gesture to one of Damien’s kids, after Ron received a piece of art from Daisy.  The younger sibling features in the title of “Happy Little Phoebe/Manny Mountain”, the set of tunes that follows, once again keeping things all in the family.  “The Fiddler’s Gun” sees the arrival of Sierra Hull adding her trademark mandolin playing into an already rich and vibrant mix.  Though predominantly instrumental, Banjophonics does feature a couple of songs, Ron’s own “Endless Wanderer” and Damien’s reading of Barry Kerr’s “Woman of No Place”, a song written about the legendary Irish singer Margaret Barry, the title alluding to her life as a traveller, with a guest vocal by Kate Rusby. If banjos are your thing, look no further. 

The Black Feathers | Angel Dust and Cyanide | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.07.22

It doesn’t seem all that long ago since the release of this duo’s debut album Soaked to the Bone, yet six years have managed to drift by in the meantime.  Songwriters Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler take their music to new heights here, certainly when it comes to the inspired choice of covering and breathing new life into the old Portishead staple “Glory Box”, the lead single release from Angel Dust and Cyanide.  The duo’s unmistakable harmonies can be detected immediately as “Lighthouse on Fire” serves as a perfectly placed opener, with both voices finding their dovetail with seemingly little effort.  Those voices continue to gel throughout the album, most notably on “Chemical Romance” and the lively “Golden Hour”, each complemented by some fine string arrangements.  It’s not just the close harmonies that make these songs work so well, in some cases it’s the vocal duets, most noticeable on the gorgeous “Strangers in the Dark”, another album highlight.  Phillip Henry’s familiar Dobro playing lifts “Hurricane” to an even higher status in the playlist, promoting the song to perhaps the highlight.  There’s plenty of soul here, not least on the title song, which once again emphasises the power and empathy in these two remarkable voices.

Vieux Farka Touré | Les Racines | Album Review | World Circuit | 08.07.22

Les Racines, or The Roots, appears to get straight to the heart of the matter, a fitting title for the latest album by the Niafunké, Mali-born singer and guitar player Vieux Farka Touré.  The son of the legendary Malian musician singer Ali Farka Touré,  Vieux continues to expand the family tradition, bringing a sense of urgency to the Desert Blues riffs we’ve become familiar with, which are all in place here, creating trance-like grooves that makes each of the songs so infectious. Originally a drummer and calabash player, Vieux soon followed in dad’s footsteps, picking up the guitar to further explore the work already started and to specifically take it further.  With the baton very much handed down, Vieux continues to create this distinctive style of playing, though subtly branching out in various uncharted areas, while exploring the political and cultural climate of his homeland in the lyrics of his songs.  For this album, Vieux returns to his deep roots, while tackling the pandemic and taking to his home studio, Studio Ali Farka Touré, named in honour of his late father. Vieux spars with one or two invited guests, including Amadou Bagayoko, who adds further spice to the highly infectious “Gabou Ni Tie”, a perfect opener for a not too far from perfect album.

Noori and his Dorpa Band | Beja Power: Electric Soul & Brass From Sudan’s Red Sea Coast | Album Review | Ostinato Records | 15.07.22

The familiar guitar solo at the beginning of “Saagama” provides easy access to this new and completely instrumental album by Noori and his Dorpa Band, effectively inviting us in.  With some infectious grooves from Sudan’s Red Sea Coast, Beja Power is a showcase for Noori’s instrument of choice, the Dorpa, a Heath Robinson concoction of electric guitar and East African tambour, which in itself creates an immediately recognisable sound, fusing regular guitar riffs with flurries of ancient lyre arpeggios, together with added splashes of brass and percussion.  The steady trance-like grooves on each of the six pieces, casually borrows from jazz, with a preponderance of almost subliminal breathy saxophone flurries.  “Jabana”, offers a moment of restraint, serving as a gentle meditation midway through the album, during which it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine wafting leaves in the afternoon sun.  Named for the Beja people, an ethnic group that inhabits Sudan, Egypt, and Eritrea, the album title is a demonstration of strength in troubled times.  Tensions have been commonplace since the military coup of 1989, which resulted in the closure of many of Sudan’s music halls and the criminalisation of music in general.  The ‘power’ aspect of the title could also describe the bold rhythms created by the band itself, and if Noori is happy to go simply by his forename, then why not the rest of the band; Naji on tenor saxophone, Gaido on bass, Tariq on rhythm guitar, Fox on congas and Danash on tabla.

The Wilderness Yet | What Holds the World Together | Album Review | Self Release | 22.07.22

There’s something decidedly assured about The Wilderness Yet, both in the trio’s instrumental prowess and in their confident vocal delivery.   The a cappella performances are rich in range, with a clear bottom end that suitably complements the top and mid range, notably on “Old Brock” and “The Banks of the Bann”.  Rosie Hodgson, Rowan Piggott and Philippe Barnes are a tight team, whose performances are equally confident on record as they are in a live setting.  These dozen songs and tunes further demonstrate the trio’s flair for arrangement, with some fine fiddle and guitar interplay, a perfect ground for Rosie’s earthy voice to flourish.  “T Stands for Thomas”, “Wild Northeaster” and “Love Holds Our World Together” and are each treated to strong melodic arrangements, a showcase for all three musicians.  Interestingly, “The Last Shanachie” features the voice of Rowan’s great-great-grandfather, who was a traditional Irish storyteller, taken from a wax cylinder recording, adding a moment of rich authenticity to the music that his future descendant continues to explore today.  With Joe Danks providing some percussion, The Wilderness Yet continue to hold their own in well populated field.

Bush Gothic | Beyond the Pale | Album Review | Fydle Records | 29.07.22

Jenny M Thomas, Dan Witton and Chris Lewis make up this artsy trio from Melbourne, who immerse themselves in traditional folk song, adding extraordinary arrangements to fresh ideas.  Having previously worked together in the band Circus Oz, the three musicians gel musically, almost as a jazz trio, and for Beyond the Pale, the trio’s third album, their collective talents are further honed.  There’s so much originality involved here, with inventive arrangements and fine performances throughout, reminiscent in places of those of The Unthanks, one of the UK’s most progressive folk outfits.  No surprise then that the band have made an appearance at one of the Unthanks’ Home Gatherings a few years ago.  Bush Gothic take a fresh look at some of the songs from the Australian tradition, treating them to major work overs, not least “Streets of Forbes”, which here is almost unrecognisable from more familiar versions.  The bass part alone on “Andy’s Gone with Cattle” leaves the listener searching for a musical precedent, unless we delve deeper into the world of jazz.  Despite the album having been around since 2019, it really seems to have come along not a minute too soon.

The Movers | Vol 1 1970-1976 | Album Review | Analog Africa | 12.08.22

On paper, this compilation initially sounded like it might very well linger on the ‘leave till later’ pile; the thought of ‘rolling organ grooves and elastic rhythms of American soul’ didn’t immediately fill me with anticipation.  However, once loaded into the disc machine, it stayed there, providing a soundtrack to these otherwise dreary politically-driven, poverty stricken, Love Island-obsessed days (and nights) and a few days later, it’s still there.  The organ-driven grooves are precisely what the doctor ordered and despite the fourteen songs coming in at just under forty minutes in total, there’s enough here to brighten anyone’s day.  The Movers formed in South Africa in the late 1960s, going on to make the sort of infectious rhythms that would in one moment fill a dance floor, then the next, have listeners clambering for the most comfortable futon in the house.  Laid back comes close to describing the opener “Give Five or More”, its organ and guitar interplay immediately at work, moving swiftly into the subtle grooves of “Tau Special”, an album favourite, with mandolin-like guitar flurries and infectious organ riffs.  It’s actually far too short for its own good.  Voices appear for the first time on “Soweto Inn” led by Sophie Thapedi, which perfectly complements the township grooves and provides this collection with an obvious single.  Sadly, despite the band being hugely successful during the time of these recordings, the majority of the band is no longer with us, the musicians having passed away in obscurity.  The music that the band has left behind is just as vibrant now as it was during the time of three day weeks, black outs and strike action and though the economic and social problems are virtually the same now as they were back then, it’s good to know that this sort of music is much more available and accessible these days, providing a tonic for us all.

Fara | Energy Islands | Album Review | Fara Music | 19.08.22

With a slight change in line-up, Jennifer Austin having moved on to other projects and the recruitment of the Highland pianist Rory Matheson, Fara makes giant strides forward with this new album Energy Islands.  Matheson’s presence is immediately felt, with some assured keyboard work, notably throughout “Broom Power”, named for a community hydro system near Loch Broom, Ullapool.  Matheson joins an already formidable team in the form of founder member and Orkney frontwomen, Jeana Leslie, fiddle player and arranger Catriona Price and fiddle player and ‘stomper’ Kristan Harvey.  With three fiddle players and a pianist, assumptions can be formed around the sound we might expect, but you may be surprised.   The songs benefit enormously from Matheson’s contribution, especially “Fair Winds” and “Merry Dancers”, with the fiddles taking not only second place, but third and fourth.  The fiddle of course comes into its own on the instrumental pieces such as “The Hampshire”, “Excess Electric” and the inventive opener “Solar”.  The song titles hide little of the themes covered, with each related to power in its various forms and varieties, the tide, the wind and the sun, yet significantly Orkney’s role in its ground-breaking endeavours in creating renewable energy.  That power is echoed in the vibrant music these four musicians continue to make.

Jackie Oates | Gracious Wings | Album Review | Needle Pin Records | 26.08.22

There’s never a single moment of disappointment involved with anything Jackie Oates releases, each project not only well received initially, but they invariably go on to pop up time and again on the player well after review attention.  This is Jackie’s eighth solo album in sixteen years and once again contains both traditional and contemporary material, as well as one or two self-penned songs, with little separating the three, stylistically speaking.  Tom Waits’ “Time” (or in this case “Time Time Time”) sits alongside the traditional fare in just the same manner as the Sugarcubes’ “Birthday” sat alongside “Young Leonard” on Hyperboreans or “Alexander Beetle” to “Bi Bi Og Blaka” on her Lullabies album.  Jackie’s duet with Megan Henwood on “La Llorona” just might be this album’s show stopper, two voices seemingly made for one another.  Down the country from Cheshire to Staffordshire to Devon was Jackie’s physical trajectory during her growing up, while upwards has always been her musical direction, with plenty of collaborations along the way.  Best served solo in my opinion, this album goes some way to prove this notion.  With Richard Evans at the helm, the album features further contributions from John Spiers, Mike Cosgrave, Jon Wilks, and John Parker, and is handsomely packaged with the delicate artwork courtesy of Jo Elizabeth May. A must for Jackie fans and music lovers alike.

SykesMartin | Unquenching Fire | Album Review | Self Release | 02.09.22

There is genuine excitement surrounding this duo’s imminent tour, a collaboration between two of our finest female singers and musicians, Miranda Sykes and Hannah Martin.  Both Miranda and Hannah are no strangers to the British folk circuit, known for their many collaborative endeavours, notably Miranda as the long time singer and bassist with Show of Hands and Hannah being one half of the explorative folk duo Edgelarks, with Phillip Henry, who also produces this album, among other projects, notably as part of Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band.  Miranda and Hannah’s highly individual voices are known throughout folkdom, yet Unquenching Fire places an emphasis squarely on the unique blend that these two voices make together, with remarkable results.  Some of the songs are familiar, taken from our rich traditional musical heritage, songs like “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies”, “Dark Eyed Sailor” and “Sweet Lemany”, each of which are treated to carefully considered arrangements, utilising the various instruments at the duo’s disposal.  Miranda’s double bass and Hannah’s fiddle and banjo make their presence known from the start, but never overshadow these two distinctive voices, which dominate these songs.  Strong voices are always much stronger when they are given sensitive material to work with, a certain fragility emerges that is neither weak nor brittle, but firm, confident and utterly convincing.  Each voice takes its turn to shine, with the other providing rich harmonies or part singing to achieve a unified whole.  The Anne Briggs song “Go Your Way” is treated to an inviting arrangement, losing little of the original’s ethereal quality, emphasised by both Briggs and Bert Jansch from a different era.  The song lives on, as do the others on this enchanting and beautiful album.

Siobhan Miller | Bloom | Album Review | Songprint Recordings | 09.09.22

One of the joys of being involved in the folk music scene is watching a career bloom, from humble beginnings, through various collaborative successes, to what might be considered a mature talent.  Siobhan Miller is such a talent, whose immediately recognisable voice dominates everything she touches, from those early days partnering up with fellow Scot Jeana Leslie, her involvement with the first incarnation of the four-piece Salt House to her burgeoning and now fully formed solo career, which shows no signs of going in any other direction than up.  Bloom is Siobhan’s fifth solo album, following her debut Flight of Time (2014), Strata (2017), Mercury (2018) and her most recent All is Not Forgotten released during lockdown, and features appearances by some of the notable musicians Siobhan has previously worked with on earlier projects.  These include Kris Drever, Ian Carr, Aaron Jones and Louis Abbott, not to mention close collaborator, producer, bassist and husband, Euan Burton, who makes this album sound as good as it does.  The songs are familiar, each treated to fine arrangements, notably the opener “Queen of Argyle”, “Cold Blows the Rainy Night” and the timeless “I’m a Rover”.   Ewan MacColl’s “Moving On Song”, renamed here “Go, Move, Shift”, is delivered as forcefully as ever, it’s message as clear in 2022 as it was in 1960, when the song first appeared as part of the Radio Ballads series.  The surprise song on Bloom is perhaps “Open All Night”, from the pen of Rab Noakes, with some fine bar room piano courtesy of Tom Gibbs.  Concluding with “Wild Mountain Thyme”, which never wanes, never falters and never ages, Siobhan invites us to join the chorus, along with Kris Drever, Eddi Reader and others.  Gorgeous.     

Rob Heron and The Tea Pad Orchestra | The Party’s Over | Album Review | Teapad Recordings | 16.09.22

Anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra in action on stage will know that their set has ‘party’ written all over it.  You can imagine the band performing at weddings, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs and not wanting your money back.  The Party’s Over is the band’s fifth album and once again gets the party going from the first note.  Their music is possibly hard to explain but easy to understand; Western Swing, Rock n Roll, R&B (the original one), a Cajun accordion, a slapped bass, a bit of New Orleans sax, a few harmonica flurries and some confident yodeling, it’s all there, together with the appropriate popper buttoned shirts.  Nowhere is there any indication of Rob’s North Eastern roots, a musician who has managed to inhabit the very soul of this multi genre gumbo, nor his British accomplices, Tom Cronin on mandolin, harmonica and guitar, Colin Nicholson on keyboards, Ted Harbot on bass and Paul Archibald on drums.  “The Horse That You Rode On” is straight out of Rawhide or at least Blazing Saddles, complete with mariachi trumpet and horse whip.  It’s a movie soundtrack for people raised on The Searchers, best served with popcorn.  For the fireside, “Trouble Is” shows Rob’s sensitive side, with a fine ballad, joined by Ruth Lyon of fellow North East-based Holy Moly & The Crackers.

Ellie Gowers | Dwelling by the Weir | Album Review | Self Release | 23.09.22

A rather impressive debut by the Warwickshire-based singer songwriter Ellie Gowers, whose delicate, almost ethereal voice draws the listener in from the very beginning.  For the title song alone we hear echoes of Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell, yet there’s a sense that Ellie Gowers owns her own place in the current folk and acoustic scene.  Her voice might be delicate, yet it’s strong and confident at the same time, a perfect vehicle for these songs.  “Woman of the Waterways” immediately lifts the spirits with its lilting chorus and sparkling arrangement, a song that deserves to be treated to several plays on repeat, and probably will be.  “A Letter to the Dead Husband of Mary Ball” demonstrates a darker side to Ellie’s repertoire, a song that invites us around the campfire in the twilight hours for a good old true life story of murder and retribution. Good storytelling, and in this case, full of tension and with a definitive closing line.   Ellie’s five minute or so “Poor Old Horse” canters along superbly, never plodding nor galloping but pitched perfectly to keep us with it until the end.   “Ribbon Weaver” would not be out of place on Ladies of the Canyon, a gorgeous performance by an artist on the rise.  This one comes highly recommended.  

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley | Gyedu-Blay Ambolley and Hi-life Jazz | Album Review | Agogo Records | 30.09.22

‘This is African Jazz, the mother of all music’, claims Gyedu-Blay Ambolley as a prelude to his reading of the old Miles Davis number “All Blues”, the penultimate track on his 35th album Gyedu-Blay Ambolley and Hi-life Jazz.  Paying tribute to some of the jazz giants who went before, notably Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter, Ambolley does it with some panache, certainly on this track, with its chant-like vocal.  John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” is delivered with a vocal that falls somewhere between Fela Kuti and Isaac Hayes, or perhaps even Barry White, reminding us that ‘love is always supreme’, with a ‘yeah’ thrown in for additional reassurance.  Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” loses none of the mood and tension that made Miles Davis’s definitive statement so rich and memorable.  The same might be said of “Round Midnite”, Ambolley’s reading of Monk’s staple late night smoocher.  Ambolley and his nine-piece outfit takes Hi-Life and Simigwa stylings to new heights, with some engaging rhythms and reassuring words of wisdom, ‘time to wake up from our slumber’ Ambolley suggests towards the end of “Yekor Ye a Yeaba’, the second single from the album, ‘time to take your place and lead the world into sanity’, a message to ponder, with your hips very definitely moving to the beat.  

Chris While and Julie Matthews | Women of the World | Album Review | Fatcat | 07.10.22

The two sunlit faces in shades photographed for the inner sleeve of this album, show signs of some determination.  Not so much The Blues Brothers, but rather The Soul Sisters, Chris While and Julie Matthews are once again resolute in their commitment to the empowerment of women worldwide, having championed their sisters through their music for the best part of three decades, making them clearly the longest reining female duo in the UK.  Their latest collection of songs comes even closer to that sincere commitment, with songs that seem to do magical things; they press home vivid stories, sometimes poignant, other times heart wrenching, but never insignificant or whimsical, while at the same time, deliver these stories in both gorgeous solo voices and with rich sibling (almost) harmonies.  The themes are strong, from Chris’s response to hearing Sara Wahedi on a radio magazine show, talking about how she helps to educate Afghan girls in the skills of modern technology, which gives the album its title, to Julie’s moving notes on a special tattoo somewhat closer to home.  There’s a possibility, nay, a certainty, that if you allow yourself into these eleven original songs, there will be tears, though tears with a mixture of hope and celebration.  Michael McGoldrick, Miranda Sykes, Tom Chapman and Johnny Heyes add their embellishments in all the right places, with further contributions from Kellie While, Marion Fleetwood and Neil Fairclough on the lockdown meditation “Embrace”.   

Citron Citron | Chagrin Bleu | Album Review | Bongo Joe | 14.10.22

Swiss siblings Zoé and Augustin Sjollema, otherwise known as Citron Citron, apparently named after their late kitty, with a further nod towards the duo’s distinctive hairstyles, which resemble the two halves of a lemon, express themselves in an almost otherworldly manner, at times reminiscent of early 1970s Pink Floyd, at other times mid-1990s Portishead, with a further nod in the direction of the Twin Peaks soundtrack, David Lynch’s influential TV series.  Recorded at their home studio in Geneva, Chagrin Bleu is explorative throughout, with plenty of tape machine effects and the obligatory theremin.  Such memorable melodies as “Le Feu Marche Avec Toi” and “Tu M’a Réveillé.e Dans Mon Sommeil” keeps the album this side of accessibility, a healthy mixture of chanson and Tomita-like sonic explorations.  “Perdu” offers a moment of simplicity, with a folk melody that sounds almost familiar, which could’ve been recorded in the mid-1960s, while “Rapace” brings us immediately back to contemporary territory, sonic graffiti with a slow Peter Gabriel-like punch.  The duo have only been playing music together since 2017, after a stint together in Zoé’s band Burning Spiaggia, an outfit specialising in ambient, improvised and experimental music, which could possibly have been the springboard from which Citron Citron was launched.  Kudos to Bongo Joe for this one.

Janice Burns and Jon Doran | No More the Green Hills | Album Review | Self Release | 21.10.22

Glasgow-born Janice Burns and Gloucestershire-born Jon Doran, now both based in Newcastle after initially meeting up during their respective folk degree courses, release their debut full-length album No More the Green Hills, which features eleven rather tasty readings of traditional songs from the British Isles and Ireland.  Recorded in the Scottish Highlands with producer Andy Bell at the helm, No More the Green Hills is one of those albums that effortlessly draws you the listener in, possibly due to the duo’s well-crafted arrangements but more likely their smouldering harmonies.  Nothing here appears forced, with each of the songs delivered as suitably paced, often gentle and always confident performances.  “She Moved Through the Fair” is a much rehearsed, much performed and much recorded song, yet in the hands of this duo, the song feels new, refreshed and revitalised, which doesn’t mean it’s been treated to loop pedals and a dub bass with one or two rap passages; it just means that it manages to move and inspire the listener in an almost ethereal and beautifully mellow way.  Familiar melodies are maintained, such as “The Geenmore Hare” and “The Corncrake”, with some fine interaction between the stringed instruments, reminiscent of Brady and Irvine, Lunny and Ó Domhnaill and the like.   The vocals are pretty much made for one another with no one treading on anyone else’s proverbial toes. Remarkable.

Tau and the Drones of Praise | Misneach | Album Review | Glitterbeat | 28.10.22

The word Misneach translates from the old Irish as courage or spirit, some of which is apparent in these eight bold performances.  Tau and the Drones of Praise present their third album as if preaching from the mount, nowhere more so than on the opening song “It is Right to Give Drones of Praise”, almost literally spelling out the band’s   raison d’être.  Possibly picking up where the Third Ear Band left off, the drones and chants are primitive, yet borrow from contemporary sounds, like a sort of Celtic Massive Attack, the streets of Ireland and Germany replacing those of Bristol.  This cross over from the current and the ancient is no more perfectly indicated than in the video promo that accompanies “Ceol ón Chré”, which features a band of minstrels, the rocky hillsides of Ireland, a barn owl and a family saloon.  With Seán Mulrooney once again at the helm and Robbie Moore at the console, a psychedelic tapestry unfolds, from basic drones and repetitive beats to full soundscapes involving a multitude of voices and instrumentalists, including those of guests, Clannad’s Pól Brennan and the Irish troubadour Damien Dempsey.  Stone circles and primitive landscapes spring to mind, during some of the band’s most ritualistic motifs, notably on “Na Heiliminti”.  It’s the Incredible String Band for the now.   There’s almost a Kate Bush “Army Dreamers” vibe attached to the more accessible “Eriu”, a possible single release from the album perhaps?  The same could possibly be said of the final song on the album “Hope”, which is the closest to a conventional pop song here.  Somehow though, once the album concludes, there’s a pressing desire to take the journey again, to give “It is Right to Give Drones and Praise” another spin, for confirmation if nothing else.  

Lady Maisery | Tender | Album Review | Self Release | 04.11.22

This is the fourth album by the South Yorkshire-based trio, a trio that comprises Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans, each of whom enjoy their continuing reputation as individual artists in their own right, as solo performers as well as in collaboration with others.  Yet, it’s with their combined voices and musical dexterity that a particular magic emerges and Tender once again takes the three of them on a musical journey that allows them the freedom to ponder the big issues.  The bulk of the songs spring from the pens of each of these three songwriters, but also with a nod towards some of their contemporaries, notably Bjork and Tracy Chapman, with a further homage to the late Lal Waterson as they deliver a fine a cappella reading of the timeless “Child Among the Weeds”.  Collaboration is also the key here, particularly between Lady Maisery and their producer Adam Pietrykovski, who appears to bring the best of these three voices to the fore.  Once again Bjork transfers from the contemporary pop world to the folk world with eloquence, much in the same manner as Jackie Oates tackled “Birthday” on her third album Hyperboreans back in 2009.  There really ought to be a Bjork tribute album by contemporary folkies, after all, they grew up with the music of this diminutive genius.   Tracy Chapman’s “3000 Miles” tackles one of our most pressing issues, seventeen years on from when it was first composed, and in the hands of Lady Maisery, the song builds sonically from a gently strummed banjo to an almost overpowering steam hammer of a conclusion; frustration demonstrated in angry chords.  Dementia is addressed in “Echoes”, Hannah’s highly personal song about her ailing grandmother, this recording enhanced by the ‘breathing’ quality of her accordion.  Once again Lady Maisery nail it with tenderness, hopefulness and determination.   

Cera Impala | Wildest Dreams | Album Review | New Teeth Records | 11.11.22

It has to be said, Cera Impala has one of those – oh go on I’ll say it – ‘whiskey-honeyed’ voices, a better description being currently unavailable, without reaching for the thesaurus.  Needless to say, it’s a voice that goes with either whiskey or honey, or indeed a fine shiraz for that matter.  The Arizona-born, now Edinburgh-based singer, releases her fourth album Wildest Dreams, which appears to deliver on its promise, with eleven dreamy songs, each arriving like new friends, while Cera offers something to tantalise our musical taste buds.  The album has something for most tastes, whether they lean towards folk and jazz, pop and indie or indeed bluesy bar room ballads.  “Winning Ticket” reveals Cera’s unique vocal prowess, with one or two deliciously sustained notes, followed by the equally dreamlike “Soil & Spade”, a delicate violin-led meditation with unexpected melody twists, that makes for repeat plays.  “Mighty Infinite” leads us from a simple ukulele ditty to a fine New Orleans bar performance, the lights of Bourbon Street twinkling along the Mississippi at dusk.  Even the almost throwaway instrumental interlude “Molly’s Theme”, finds a home midway through the running order.  Cera is not alone here, with Ben Seal handling percussion duties as well as tinkering on various keyboards, while Dirk Ronneburg plays fiddle, together with Jello Sanderson on both cello and bass.  “Nothing” opens with the lyric ‘Let’s do the easiest thing we can do and that’s nothing’, which suits me down to the ground, although listening to this album might come close second.

The Trials of Cato | Gog Magog |  Album Review |Self Release | 18.11.22

Three good musicians, two fine albums and one small line-up change appears to be the countdown to success for the current Trials of Cato.  With the addition of singer and mandolin wiz Polly Bolton, the band’s sound has changed slightly, yet nothing of the vibrancy of the original trio has been lost in the process, in fact the band sounds as cohesive as ever both on record and on stage.  Polly takes centre stage as she has done with her previous couple of bands, Stillhouse and The Magpies, flanked by original members Robin Jones and Tomos Williams, yet lately, there appears to be something slightly otherworldly about Polly’s vocal delivery, which she seems to have developed over the last couple of years or so, a voice perfectly placed with the band’s current material.  The songs on Gog Magog provide a rich canvas for this particular phrasing, notably on the haunting “Ring of Roses”, a play on the old nursery rhyme and the opener “Paper Planes”.  Though the writing credits are sketchy (or absent) on both the sleeve and the lyrics booklet, it’s a fair guess that it’s a collaborative effort, with one certain reworking of the traditional “Bedlam Boys”, complete with Steeleye sample, an inspired reading.  Traversing a range of influences from the Welsh valleys to the Balkans, the trio create a selection of songs and tunes to remember.  

Gudrun Walther and Jürgen Treyz | Plus One | Album Review | Galileo Music Communication | 25.11.22

With fiddler/singer Gudrun Walther and guitarist Jürgen Treyz at the core of this project, the duo are joined by a handful of select musicians from around Europe.  Five guests from five countries, each bring along their own specific styles and influences to the mix, which provides both musical dexterity and variety.  There’s Scandinavian polskas, Irish reels and English folk tunes, together with a smidgen of Alpine yodelling.  From Austria, Albin Paulus brings to the mix some fine bagpipe playing, while from Denmark comes Kirstine Pedersen, providing some classical-influenced cello flurries.  From this side of the North Sea, Andy Cutting’s familiar diatonic accordion keeps things English, while the Celtic contingent is represented by Aaron Jones on bouzouki and Nuala Kennedy on flute from Scotland and Ireland respectively.  Known for their work with Cara, Walther and Treyz take command of this project with some relish, with a fine repertoire of songs and tunes, “Aragon Mill” being a highlight. 

Sona Jobarteh | Badinyaa Kumoo | Album Review | Self Release | 02.12.22

Sona Jobarteh’s West African Griot roots are evident in her sense of musicianship, a tradition that stretches over several centuries in the Gambia, though her place is unusual in that she is the first professional female kora player in a world dominated by male musicians.  Surrounding herself with notable guests on this album does nothing but strengthen her reputation as a fine and intuitive performer, which includes the unmistakable voice of Youssou N’Dour, who shares the vocal on “Kambengwo”, one of the album highlights.  The arrangements are exciting throughout, with punchy rhythms and skittering kora runs, both as a soloist and in the case of “Ballaka Sissoko”, a duet with the famed male kora maestro, where centuries of tradition pour through their combined fingertips.  This is highly evocative music, deserving of wider attention. Jobarteh returns to her unofficial ‘hit’ “Gambia” once again, a song originally released in 2015 to celebrate Gambian independence.  Uplifting and optimistic, the song radiates warmth and connectivity throughout its five minute length.  Other guests on the album include Musa Filly Jobarteh, Ravid Kahalani, Jock Webb, Kirk Whalum and Zihirina Maïga.

Okra Playground | Itku | Album Review | Nordic Notes | 09.12.22

Big sounds from this Helsinki-based electro-folk band, a band that’s been around for around twelve years now, a collective of extraordinary musicians whose aim is to present the best aspects of Finnish traditional music with a modern edge.  Strong, almost tribal voices, spring out from the outset, backed by the sort of instrumentation that stretches from the far reaches of history to the present day, a bowed harp jouhikko here, an electric bass there and the odd synth in between.  At times, the songs are ethereal and enchanting, “Kylmä Lintu Kyyneleeni” for instance, with its hypnotic groove and gently plucked kantele strings, which conjure the spirit of the collective’s Finnish roots.  The tension and release on “Juoksen Karkuun Aurinkoa”  has the power to lift the spirits, while the soothing closer “Hypnoosi” is almost like a meeting between Tonto’s Expanding Head Band and Enya. 

Holy Taymar | The Making of Me | Album Review | Self Release | 16.12.22

The York-based singer songwriter Holly Taymar has been writing and performing songs for some time now, each song delivered with a convincing confidence and determination.  Holly’s voice can be relied upon to raise the spirits, a seemingly effortless pursuit, whether she is tackling her own songs or any number of covers the singer is known for.  The Making of Me is Holly’s first release in eight years, a collection of just eight self-penned songs, for which the singer accompanies herself on both guitar and ukulele, with a little help from her friends, notably husband Chris Bilton on guitar, Daniel Gonzalez on cello and Dan Webster in the final mastering stages.  Returning to music after becoming a mum, Holly finds time to concentrate on her song writing with renewed energy, from the short and sweet title song through the sprawling epic “Song for the Ninety-One”.   Opening with “From These Endless Numbered Days”, Holly meditates on her own situation, with both hope and optimism.  “Corellia” is a playful song for a friend’s child, built around a message that could not be more clear; a love song to last.  More seasonal, “January” takes a tender look at the chilly month, while “A Christmas Tree” is an almost whimsical memory of the festive season, with a homage to a reliable, if artificial friend.  We continue to appreciate a little Holly at this time of year.      

Davis Causey and Jay Smith | Pickin’ on Christmas | Album Review | Strolling Bones | 23.12.22

An album made up of seasonal instrumentals by guitarist friends Davis Causey and Jay Smith, Randall Bramblett on sax and Jeff Reilly on bass.  With a sixty-year career behind him, Causey, an Athens, Georgia-bred musician had enjoyed a long career playing with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson.  Recorded in 1998 for a limited friends only release, Pickin’ on Christmas, features eight seasonal instrumentals, including such old favourites as “White Christmas”, “We Three Kings” and “Silent Night”, each treated to cool jazz arrangements.  Shortly after the recording of the limited edition CD, Jay Smith passed away inadvertently adding to the legacy of the recordings.  Now given a wider release, Pickin’ on Christmas returns as a tribute to Smith; ‘He was one of the nicest and most talented musicians I’ve had the privilege of playing with’ says Causey, referring to his old friend as his brother. 

Emily Portman and Rob Harbron | Time Was Away | Album Review | Furrow Records | 30.12.22

Another enchanting studio album by Emily Portman, on this occasion joined by long-time collaborator Rob Harbron (Leveret, Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings, The Full English).  Haunting in places, due in no small part to Portman’s ethereal and plaintive vocal, the songs draw from the tradition with new reworkings of such familiar fare as “The Game of Cards” (The Game of All Fours) and “Long a Growing” (The Trees They Do Grow High).  With acclaimed producer Andy Bell at the helm, Time Was Away features eight English folk songs and a couple of poems set to music, the temporal difference between the relatively recent and the ancient narrowed sufficiently to make these performances appear timeless.   Portman and Harbron treat these songs to such delicate arrangements that even a relatively long ballad such as “Rosanna” seems to finish too soon.  Storytelling at its best.