Archive: Recordings 2016

Ric Sanders Trio – Standin’ on the Corner | Album Review | Dotted Line | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.01.16

This album sounds for all intents and purposes like one made from a sense of fun; three blokes of a certain age recalling all those Ry Cooder LPs they devoured as kids.  Fronted by Vo Fletcher, who handles the lion’s share of vocal duties, demonstrates his guitar pickin’ credentials on such archive delights as the title cut, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Standin’ on the Corner”, Fred Neil’s “Green Green Rocky Road”, and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins”.  The guitarist also borrows Duane Allman’s eternally pretty instrumental “Little Martha”, coupling it to the traditional “Poor Boy”, which also features Ric Sanders’ bluesy violin.  Of the trio, it sounds as though Ric is having the most fun as most listeners will no doubt expect, with his venturesome trademark bowing technique.  It’s all stompingly good fun, especially the trio’s bashing out of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”, included here as a bonus track, but the recording does whiff of the customary ‘faithful to the gig’ souvenir almost exclusively to accompany the trio on their tour.  I’m not sure this album is going to make any significant mark on the vast body of recorded British folk music, but as a toe-tapping stab at nostalgic Americana, the boys done good. 

The Rheingans Sisters – Already Home | Album Review | Rootbeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.01.16

Personally, for some inexplicable reason, I’m more impressed with an album cover if the artist is seen in his or her working environment, rather than getting all dolled up to the nines for the often unflattering if intentionally flattering glamour shot.  Rowan and Anna Rheingans are right there in the workshop where you can almost feel the wood, smell the lacquer, sense the very nuts and bolts of dad’s man cave, where all the instruments are actually built; there’s a sense of, you make ‘em dad and we’ll play ‘em.  Already Home is the Rheingans Sisters’ second stab of doing precisely that, a collection of a dozen songs and tunes that explore the sounds of Scandinavia and France.  There’s something so inherently earthy in the playing, a sense of rawness that we feel will never find its way to being sweet; real music from real hands making sense of the surroundings in which the music was made.  It’s not all traditional tune doodling though with Rowan showing her credentials as a songwriter with such delights as “Mackerel”. 

Krista Detor – Barely | Album Review | Tightrope Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.01.16

The name Krista Detor became more familiar over here in the UK after her involvement with Shrewsbury Festival’s Darwin Project, which saw Krista rub shoulders with UK folk stalwarts Chris Wood, Karine Polwart, Jez Lowe, Stu Hanna, Emily Smith and Rachael McShane, together with fellow American Mark Erelli.  Krista’s seventh album to date sees the Indiana-born singer-songwriter treating ten new songs to some sparse arrangements, which in turn bring the lyrical beauty of the songs to the fore.  In places, the songs demonstrate a remarkable sense of melody at work, such as on “Box of Clouds”, with some delicious, almost Beatles-like harmonies.  Collaborating throughout with partner David Weber, Krista further exercises her flair for collaboration with the first of two bonus songs under the heading of The Irish Sessions, featuring a duet with Mary Dillon on “The Coming Winter” before closing the album with the seasonal “Sweet Comes the Sound”, dedicated to the Tobar Mhuire Retreat Centre in Co Down, which features a rather gorgeous and almost Joni Mitchell-esque Silent Night coda.

The Unthanks – Memory Box | Album Review | RabbleRouser | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.01.16

Northern Sky shares a similar time span as The Unthanks, or at least all the bands led by Rachel Unthank in all their ever changing glory.  Ten years ago Rachel Unthank and the Winterset released their debut full-length album Cruel Sister, which coincided with Northern Sky’s very first live review.  It’s easy to feel therefore, that we’ve been on a similar journey over these last ten years, during which Northern Sky has popped in and out of the band’s sphere every now and again, eager to jot down a few words of both encouragement and appreciation.  In timely fashion, all of this has been rewarded with the arrival of a beautiful box of treasures, handmade and lovingly presented as the Memory Box.  There’s an initial desire to keep the red string that holds the box together intact for as long as possible, to be stored away under the floorboards, hidden away to be found by future generations.  Then again, there’s an even more pressing desire to get the thing opened to see what’s inside.  Ten years ago, the original four-piece band known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, could be seen in the upstairs room of pubs, while people around the globe were still blissfully unaware of what was gradually about to happen to English folk song in subsequent years.  “What a strange name Unthank is” would be most people’s initial reaction.  Under sad circumstances, the original band fell apart on the eve of their hard-earned breakthrough, just as they received a nomination for the Mercury Prize for their second album The Bairns.  Friendships faltered, bitter tastes were tasted and hearts beat a little faster for a while until the storms calmed.  Yet there was a cast iron determination to continue and a new band was soon shaped in order to further explore these strange little folk songs and virtually forgotten contemporary gems.  After five critically acclaimed albums and three adventurous side projects, the Diversions releases, The Unthanks have become almost household names with their treatment of both contemporary and traditional material, together with one or two self-penned songs along the way.  The band’s repertoire rarely contains anything that you might consider ‘jolly’, yet their material, which ranges from the melancholy to the mournful, foreboding to funereal, still manages to fill the heart with joy.  How could anyone not take a deep breath and point one’s chest to the sky upon hearing the chorus of “Fareweel Regality” or the climax to the band’s undisputed ten-minute masterpiece “Mount the Air”?  The Memory Box delivers the same sort of joyous message with its carefully hand-crafted contents, it’s previously unheard music and its visual treats.  So what’s in our Pandora’s Box then, once the red bow has been untied?  The contents are removed with the same delicate handling as the contents were placed a few days before.  There’s a signed card with a serial number stamped on the inside, reminding the recipient of the uniqueness of their box.  There’s a couple of postcards designed by Natalie Rae Reid, together with a little packet of photographs of the band.  There’s a couple of A4 prints of original artwork by Natalie and Becky Unthank, together with three books; a songbook, a recipe book (Adrian McNally likes cooking probably as much – if not more – as music, football and life itself), and finally a songbook with a difference.  The ‘Unsung Book’ is a blank notebook, enclosed to encourage us recipients to write our own songs down.  The Memory Box also contains three discs; firstly a 70 minute CD of rarities, exclusive live tracks, demos and outtakes, the disc being the only item in the limited edition box that can be obtained separately.  There’s a 90 minute DVD, which includes a concert filmed at Newcastle City Hall during the band’s Mount The Air tour, together with some archive films of the band such as some footage from the Abbey Road studios, featuring Stef Connor during the Rachel Unthank & The Winterset days.  There’s a couple of beautifully filmed promos filmed at the desolate Horncliffe Mansion to accompany the band’s Shipyards project as well as one or two of the band’s own animated single videos.  Finally, a bit of vinyl, the next big thing I hear, which includes two seasonal songs, Chrissie Hynde’s “2000 Miles” and George Unthank’s “Tar Barrel in Dale”.  So plenty to get one’s teeth into, especially at this time of year when bound gifts are common place under the tree.  The fragility of this band’s music could not more perfectly be presented than in this utterly charming box of memories, memories to cherish for some time to come, while the band continue on their journey to bring to their expanding audience more enchanting music, more exciting projects and more live appearances throughout the world.

Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party – Old Adam | Album Review | Soundpost Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.01.16

The advance EP of the same name pretty much prepared us for what was to follow with this the third solo album by Yorkshire-born and based singer Fay Hield.  Together with The Hurricane Party (Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron, Roger Wiilson, Ben Nicholls, Toby Kearney), Fay traverses a wealth of traditional songs, each treated to a fine arrangement but with the focus very much on the singer’s distinctive voice.  Although the title suggests a theological theme, Fay is quick to confess that the nearest she gets to God is through her swearing.  The title song however does indeed paint a wry picture of the first man, who ‘never paid his tailor’s bill because he wore no clothes’, set to a tune by hubby Jon Boden.  Jon Boden guests on the album as does Martin Simpson, notably on “The Hornet and the Beetle”, a song heard on the Full English live shows, which stylistically ventures into Martin Carthy territory.  There’s playground songs here, such as “Green Gravel”, well-trodden ground in both “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” and “Jack Orion” and even Tom Waits ground, with a perfectly reasonable take on “The Briar and the Rose”.

Ciaran Algar – The Final Waltz | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.01.16

I’m not really sure when the ideal time is for one member of a popular duo to go it alone, albeit just for the one solo side project.  Perhaps in the case of Ciaran Algar, now is definitely a good time.  Ciaran’s star, shared with Greg Russell, is still very much on the rise and with a couple of fine album releases, together with a handful of adventurous side projects already ventured, the tall fiddle-playing one respectfully goes it alone (well almost) with a fine debut album.  With deep rooted Irish credentials, the musician has an exhaustive musical background, which all feeds into The Final Waltz, his latest release on Fellside Records.  It’s certainly not all traditional though, the set also includes a handful of self-penned songs, a couple of which are handed over to Sam Kelly to sing, adding to the album a confident voice that in turn breathes new life into Ciaran’s well-crafted songs.  By and large though, the album is pretty much instrumental, which includes some of Ciaran’s own favourite tunes, arranged and performed with the assistance of a handful of friends, each tune featuring Ciaran’s own personal contemporary touch.

Various Artists – Songs of Separation | Album Review | Navigator | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.01.16

The first thing the ten musicians involved in this project did was to separate the girls from the boys.  This all-female project sees ten prominent figures on the British folk scene unite in a feast of song, each of the dozen selections addressing the theme of ‘separation’ in one form or another.  From the very start we become aware of the calibre of musicianship, with Karine Polwart taking the lead on Echo Mocks the Corncrake, with its beautifully evocative World Music sound, evoking a sort of Transatlantic Sessions feel, albeit more a case of trans-Tweed, rather than Atlantic, as both English and Scots musicians fuse the songs and music of their respective homelands to provide a rare mixture of sounds.  Working from a promo with no details of who is playing on what, it’s been fun picking out the voices, instruments and textures, such as Eliza Carthy’s assured voice on “Cleaning the Stones”, sounding more like her mum every day. Then the absolutely gorgeous voice of Hannah Read on “It Was a’for Our Rightful King”, which is an absolute show stealer.  “The Unst Boat Song”, previously showcased in many an Unthanks gig, the voices come together in a masterful celebration of sound.  Recorded on the Isle of Eigg in the summer of 2015, the week long rehearsal and recording sessions bore fruit that will be showcased this month at Celtic Connections.

Jon Hart – Reborn | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.01.16

Upon first hearing Jon Hart’s new album, two specific names sprang to mind, John Gomm and Newton Faulkner.  After a couple of songs in, I unfolded the accompanying press release to find that both of those names are mentioned. It’s not just my ears then.  The fourteen songs and instrumental compositions place Jon’s guitar technique in the same ball park as those two mentioned for sure, although the overall album definitely has the Isle of Wight-born now Surrey-based musician’s stamp all over it.  The highly percussive guitar style employed throughout the album and particularly on the opener “Sticks and Stones” demonstrates Jon’s control over his instrument, while “Windchime” points very much towards a flair for syncopation.  The more atmospheric Waves, which serves here as a prelude to the live recording of “Father”, abandons syncopation altogether in favour of pure atmospherics.  In other places, “Have It” for instance, we see Jon venture into beat box territory, with some vocal techniques mixing well with his idiosyncratic guitar playing.  Reborn is pretty much a solo affair, although Chris Woods makes a guest appearance, sparring with Jon on the instrumental “Red Room”.

Low Lily – Low Lily | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.01.16

Until recently known as Annalivia, this quite extraordinary trio of singers and musicians – Liz Simmons on guitar, Flynn Cohen on guitar and mandolin and Lissa Schneckenburger on fiddle – play Bluegrass precisely as it really should be played.  Dipping into a broad repertoire that incorporates English, Irish and old time Appalachia, the trio’s tightly arranged sound is clear, clean and uncluttered, topped by some fine harmony vocals from all three members.  Their self-titled EP also features further contributions from Corey DiMario on double bass and some fine unintrusive trombone playing courtesy of Fred Simmons, which underpins Lissa’s original song “The Girl’s Not Mine”.  This song clearly demonstrates the fact that the band doesn’t leave it exclusively up to traditional material and shows that the trio’s original songs are right up there with the rest.  Of the traditional songs, the opener is a fine interpretation of the brooding “House Carpenter”, chock full of tension and apprehension, while the trio show off their confident chops as instrumentalists on “Northern Spy” and “Cherokee Shuffle-Lucky”, all of which makes for good listening.  This reviewer eagerly awaits a possible full-length album at some stage in the future.

Jane Kramer – Carnival of Hopes | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.01.16

It takes no time at all to settle into this, the second album by singer-songwriter Jane Kramer.  From the count in at the beginning of “Half Way Gone”, a tasty slice of Western Swing packed with the sweeping fiddle runs courtesy of Nicky Sanders, the North Carolina songstress delivers ten original songs, while pointing out that her own carnival of hopes is “busted and hideous and rusty and somehow still brave and sparkly”, an image illustrated by the cover artwork, particularly the abandoned fairground ride.  The confessional “Good Woman” stands out as a fine example of the honesty of Jane Kramer’s song writing, delivered with an assured confidence, leaving the listener in no doubt as to her sincerity.  The more playful “Why’d I Do That Blues” sees the singer perfectly at home with a jazz-tinged New Orleans-styled brass section, while the equally uplifting “My Dusty Wings” ventures into Bluegrass territory, which in turn demonstrates Kramer’s versatility.  Well produced, highly melodic and beautifully accessible, Carnival Of Hopes should open a few doors for Jane Kramer in the coming months.

Nathaniel Talbot – Swamp Rose and Honeysuckle Vine | Album Review | Fluff and Gravy | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.01.16

Nathaniel Talbot’s biography sounds almost as charming as the music he makes.  The singer songwriter runs a farm on Whidbey Island, in Washington State’s Puget Sound, where he works sixty hours a week to provide the Pacific Northwest with its organic vegetables.  When he’s not elbow deep in the earth, however, this fine wordsmith, singer and guitarist ploughs a very different field indeed, exposing his musical roots and harvesting songs for albums such as Swamp Rose And Honeysuckle Vine, his latest release on Portland, Oregon’s Fluff and Gravy Records.  While we can easily make a comparison to James Taylor upon hearing Talbot’s high, honeyed voice and gently arresting finger-picking, it soon becomes evident that a different kind of craftsman is at work here.  The poetry of such songs as “Able Man” and “Swamp Rose” and “Honeysuckle Vine” has all the earthy power of Seamus Heaney, AE Housman and Robert Frost.  The instrumentals scattered amongst these lyrically impressive songs also expose the touch of an artisan, “Winter’s Edge” and “When the Wind is Right” are almost painterly, with guitar, fiddle and dobro providing brushstrokes that often succeed in telling stories better than any lyric could.   With this, his fourth release, Nathaniel Talbot delivers a fresh basket of nourishment from what seems to be a fine crop of original songs and instrumentals indeed.  The album provides an invigorating glimpse of the contemporary North American folk landscape with its wide and sprawling sound and tangling briers of sweet melody.

Gretchen Peters – The Essential | Album Review | Proper | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.01.16

I often wonder for which audience ‘Best Hits’ compilations are aimed at.  Those already identified as bone fide fans usually have all the back catalogue already at their disposal and if they would so desire such a musical career compacted into just two discs, their individual tastes would dictate which songs should be included and in precisely which order.  The other purpose I imagine would be for the collection to serve as an introduction to the artist.  Well The Essential Gretchen Peters does just that and more.  A generous 27 songs are included in this delightful retrospective, which features material from the full range of her highly prolific songwriting career, from early songs such as “The Secret of Life” and “The Aviators Song” to bang-up-to-date recent songs such as “When All You Got is a Hammer” and “Blackbirds”, the title song from her current studio album.  What sets this collection apart from Gretchen’s previous ‘Best Of’ album Circus Girl is the material covered on the second disc, which continues with collectable material for Gretchen Peters completists, such as demos, b sides, outtakes, radio edits and collaborative recordings with the likes of Matraca Berg, Suzy Bogguss and Ben Glover.  At this point we can consider a further purpose for the release and quite possibly the real purpose of this collection; the fact that it will make a fine souvenir for those lucky enough to catch the Nashville songstress on her forthcoming UK tour.

Boreas – Ahoy Hoy | Album Review | Isle Music Scotland | Review by Phil Carter | 27.01.16

Sea-themed albums have been in abundance over recent years, and therefore the temptation was to regard this album as just another redressing of a well trodden musical route.  How wrong that would be, as this debut studio album from the Scottish and Norwegian collaboration is a uniquely blended sound-scape of cultural influences that explores the musical traditions of both countries.  The album gathers momentum and grows in intensity from the sparser opening compositions “Sidvoss” and “Silley” that conjour up a musical image of the land awakening as dawn breaks and the sun rises and the populous stir in their beds prior to embarking on their daily toils of on or around the sea.  Alongside the band’s own compositions, there is a beautiful interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s “North Sea Holes (Come All Ye Gallant Fishermen)”, a song that was originally featured on the Radio Balladsalbum Singing The Fishing.   On the track, stunning vocal harmonies from Lori Watson and Rachel Newton overlay the musical seascape to produce one of the finer moments on the album. The instrumental combination of Hardanger fiddle (Brett Pernille Froholm), Scottish Harp (Rachel Newton), Chromatic Accordion (Irene Tillung) and Scottish fiddle (Lori Watson) creates a magical chemistry that is very apparent on this track, and it is no surprise that the band have chosen to release this track as the single from the album.  The generally reserved mood of the album is uplifted by the track “Happy Set”, comprising of a medley of four tunes.  “Braw Sailin” is a song collected from Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ and has received previous attention from Kris Drever and Old Blind Dogs respectively.  The musician’s approach to the cultural originality of their homelands of Norway and Scotland is ably demonstrated during the last three tracks on the album, climaxing with the beautiful “Lullaby”.  Ahoy Hoy is a beautifully produced album borne out of a remarkable collaboration between musicians from two countries and that mixes traditional and contemporary influences that both identifies the differences and also the similarities between the two cultures

Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby – In America | Album Review | Cabritunes | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.02.16

Virginia-born singer-songwriter Cathryn Craig and ex-Strawbs guitarist Brian Willoughby release their latest album comprising a dozen self-penned songs, including some of the duo’s most personal to date.  The title song itself is evocative of that notable period of uncertainty, as Irish immigrants set sail for the promised land, mirrored in the effective cover artwork.  With some of Cathryn’s most sensitive singing to date, together with Brian’s fluid guitar accompaniment, the songs are treated to some delicate musical arrangements, underpinned by some graceful cello, accordion and whistle flurries, further evoking the period.  If the twelve songs written for the project were not enough, then the duo also include a handful of bonus songs at the end, two of which salute artists both Cathryn and Brian have worked with over the years including The Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and Mary Hopkin “Those Were the Days”.  Once again, the duo’s own personal greatest hit “Alice’s Song” appears as a bonus, a song that exemplifies the duo’s credentials for writing great songs.

Yorkston Thorne Khan – Everything Sacred | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.02.16

Scottish singer-songwriter James Yorkston teams up with Indian sangari player and singer Yusuf Khan for a stylish blend of seemingly devotional music, “Knochentanz” for instance, which at just over thirteen minutes takes up around a quarter of the album, and “Sufi Song”, featuring the sort of Qawwali vocal performance, a style notably explored by such singers as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  Khan’s Bol singing can also be found during the duo’s take on Ivor Cutler’s “Little Black Buzzer”, which also features an additional voice courtesy of Irish singer Lisa O’Neill.  Jon Thorne completes the trio on double bass, whose bold playing is on equal terms with Yorkston’s guitar and Khan’s sangari. In fact this is one of the things we notice from the outset, that those instruments are pretty much sparring equally throughout the eight-song album.  The last piece, “Blues Jumped the Goose”, may just approach the sort of sound we would have expected had Pentangle ever teamed up with the Incredible String Band.

Gavin Sutherland – A Curious Noise | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.02.16

A few months ago, a copy of Iain Sutherland’s solo album Back To The Sea dropped onto my doormat and took me somewhat by surprise.  The Sutherland Brothers had pretty much disappeared off my radar a couple of decades earlier and apart from “Arms of Mary” popping up occasionally on mainstream radio and the all too rare dip into the dusty LPs, effectively rekindling my teenage days of listening to Reach For The Sky and Slipstream, not to mention the earlier Lifeboat and Dream Kid albums, I rarely gave the brothers another thought to be honest.  I didn’t even twig that in was the ‘Iain Sutherland’ until I heard his voice on the opening track.  After that initial surprise of hearing that distinctive voice once again, the thought crossed my mind, what of his kid brother?  It was indeed a pleasant surprise then when Gavin Sutherland’s new solo album also dropped onto the doormat in exactly the same place and from exactly the same source.  As the album found itself on the player, I had to note that the voice wasn’t quite as immediately recognisable as his brother’s and I dare say I probably wouldn’t have recognised it had I not known who it was.  If Iain maintains a singer-songwriter existence as he steadily approaches three score and ten, his younger brother has emerged as a sort of JJ Cale figure, growling his own particular brand of swampy backwoods country rock and roll, with a little help from John Wright on drums and Carl Damiano on keyboards.  Produced in ‘glorious mono’ by Gavin himself, the songs have that very laid-back feel synonymous with the aforementioned JJ Cale, particularly on “Fourteen Angels” and “Intoxicating Rhythm”.  It’s not all retro-country rock though, the album also features such sensitive material as “Endless Sky”, which leaves us on a note of reflection.

Jed Grimes – North Face | Album Review | Blue Guitar Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.02.16

This six song mini-album by North East folk stalwart Jed Grimes sees the Ashington-born singer and musician teaming up once again with fellow Hedgehog Pie bandmate Mick Doonan, whose Uillean pipes, whistles and flutes can be heard throughout. The six traditional songs and tunes have each been arranged by the twice BBC Folk Award nominated musician, including such familiar fare as “The Snow it Melts the Soonest”, “Pride of Kildare” and “Rake and Rambling Boy”, with a couple of instrumentals, including the seasonal Shetland waltz “Christmas Day in Da Morn”.  The eight-minute “Spalpeen Aroon/An Phisloach” concluding piece evokes the sense of isolation and rugged charm of the Northern coastline as a storm brews in the cover photograph.  For those of us who recall with fondness the ever-changing line-up of Hedgehog Pie in the 1970s, the sound of the songs on this album will no doubt stir pleasing memories. 

Diana Jones – Live In Concert | Album Review | Proper | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.03.16

With four solo studio albums under her belt, the Nashville and New York City-based singer-songwriter returns to deliver the obligatory live album.  One of Appalachia’s most distinctive and original voices, Diana Jones steps up on stage to showcase a selection of the her most requested songs, including “Better Times Will Come”, “My Beloved”, “Pony” and “Henry Russell’s Last Words”.  With Diana’s voice very much to the fore, the familiar songs come fast and furious, at times prompting this reviewer to think to himself ‘oh yes, she wrote that one too’.  The recordings are taken from various sources, including her first European performance at the Blue Highways Festival in the Netherlands in 2007, featuring Beau Stapleton on mandolin on “Willow Tree”, which opens the set.  Amongst the familiar songs Diana pops in three previously unheard songs “Happiness”, “Prayer For My Brother” and the album closer “My Last Call”.  The album will no doubt serve the singer well when she returns to the UK for a few dates in April.

The Rails – Australia | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.03.16

Opening with a pretty faithful version of “The Trees They Do Grow High”, apparently learned from a Martin Carthy LP found in a an Oxfam shop in Holmfirth, the tradition apparently continues.  The Rails, namely Kami Thompson and husband James Walbourne, have been seen out and about both as an acoustic duo and with a full band, the latter pretty much in respect of touring their debut album Fair Warning.  On this seven-track EP, the duo return to a sparse, bare-bones format, which focuses on the duo’s delicious harmonies.  Throughout the seven songs, it’s clear that the two musicians sing with each other regularly.  With unflattering mug shots gracing the cover of Australia, the EP, which comes in at 25 minutes, is clearly a fine companion to their debut album and reveals a duo that in all fairness should break into the big time any time soon.  The traditional songs including “I Wish, I Wish”, a song regularly performed by The Unthanks, the Music Hall inflected “Willow Tree”, recently a live staple for Eliza Carthy, along with the title song, complemented further with the appearance of the duo’s take on Edwyn Collins’ “Low Expectations”, together with a brilliantly evocative original courtesy of Walbourne, “The Cally”, which delves deep into his own London background.

Gem Andrews – Vancouver | Album Review | Market Square | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.03.16

I have to say that any song that includes a mention of Townes Van Zandt almost always attracts my attention. Gem Andrews opens with a song called “Calling”, which does exactly that and just to be on the safe side namechecks Johnny and June Cash, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young.  Okay, so I’m definitely listening now.  Gem Andrews first came to my attention with her 2012 debut Scatter, for which the Liverpool-born singer-songwriter wore many of her influences not only on her sleeve and indeed in her opening song, but also in the stuff she surrounded herself with at the time in her room.  On Vancouver, the cover is much more restrained, yet the songs are not.  The material is pretty much stripped bare to its essentials, with sparse guitar accompaniment and a smattering of fiddle courtesy of Bernard Wright, and some piano by Nicky Rushton, who also wrote a couple of the songs, the lilting “Mother Dear” and the Country-inflected “Ten Thousand More”.  Mostly self-penned, Gem does include one or two non-originals, at one point venturing into almost sacrosanct territory with her reading of Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel”; well if Linda Ronstadt can do it..

Reg Meuross – December | Album Review | Proper | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.03.16

It’s hard to believe that this is the tenth solo album release by Reg Meuross; time flies like an arrow – fruit flies like a banana, so they say!  Where does the time go exactly?  This reviewer came in at album number five, Dragonfly, back in 2008 and since then, there has followed a steady stream of well-crafted albums brimming with equally well-crafted songs.  I imagine Reg scratches his head from time to time, pondering on why his music hasn’t broken through to the mainstream, despite firmly holding a feverishly loyal following in clubs and festivals up and down the country.  My guess is that if Reg had been releasing these albums in the late 1960s while frequenting the ‘all-nighters’ at Les Cousins, he would be held in the same high regard as your Al Stewarts, Paul Simons and Jackson C Franks.  Opening with “When You Needed Me”, a Leonard Cohen-styled love song, Reg’s instantly recognisable voice effortlessly draws the listener in.  The single chosen as the first to be released from the album, “Hands of a Woman”, once again demonstrates this writer’s sensitivity when it comes to matters of the heart.  There’s no clutter, just the voice, accompanied by a 1944 Martin (another thing that wouldn’t be out of place along Greek Street in ‘65) and an occasional harmonica.  Ten quality self-penned songs from a very busy and prolific pen.

Show of Hands – The Long Way Home | Album Review | Hands on Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.03.16

The Anglo Saxon voice that introduces the opening song, “Breme Fell at Hastings”, evokes the sound of one of the defining periods in our history; the fate of a freeborn farmer killed at the famous battle as told by Michael Wood in the TV series The Great British Story.  England and Englishness is most prominent in Knightley’s songs and indeed in the songs written by Show of Hands’ contemporaries such as Topsham’s Chris Hoban, who offers a couple here, including the anthemic “Hallow’s Eve” and the haunting “The Old Lych Way”.  If “Roots” stirred the Anglo Saxon soul a few years ago, “Walk With Me (When the Sun Goes Down)” offers a reflection on what has gone before with Knightley seemingly content to let sleeping dogs lie as he walks into the sunset over Sidmouth.  It’s not all Steve Knightley though, as the voice of his long-standing musical collaborator Phil Beer pops up here and there, notably on “Virginia”, a traditional song covering the subject of convict transportation, complete with a new tune provided by Beer.  Jackie Oates makes a couple of appearances, notably on “Mesopotamia”, which sees Knightley at his best, with a beautiful song that revisits the well-trodden staple subject of folk song, the female drummer, but with a subtle nod to the current conflict in Syria.  There’s also a slice of English blues included with “Sweet Bella”, as Knightley croons some ‘genuine Westcountry frontier gibberish’, according to Beer who on this song returns to the sort of mandolin playing I feel he enjoys best, with Phillip Henry doing his Sonny Terry bit on harp.  One of the most infectious songs on the album is “Keep Hauling”, Andrew Cadie’s uplifting shanty, which goes down just as well in the car on the M62 as it does on any sailing vessel.

Hamish Napier – The River | Album Review | Strathspey Records | Review by Phil Carter | 22.03.16

Hamish Napier was born and raised on the banks of the River Spey in the village of Grantown-on-Spey in the Scottish Highlands. Hamish and his family had always had a natural affinity for the mile long stretch of the river that flowed past his childhood home, where one of his brothers fished it, and other canoed it, his Uncle Sandy photographed it and his mother painted it.  So no surprise then that Hamish decided to write an album of music based on the river.  The work was commissioned to be recorded and performed by the Celtic Connections ‘New Voices’ project, and was performed at this year’s festival in January to huge acclaim.  Hamish himself was one of the busiest men in Glasgow over the festival period, performing on no less than nine separate occasions ranging from shows with The Gathering Stream, Ceol Mor and brother Findlay’s group The VIP’s.  The River is a musical portrait of the natural and human life that has evolved in and around the Spey over the years.  There is a wide variety of musical styles in evidence on the album which gives an overall feel of creative energy and vitality, with sounds ranging from funky/electro-jazz as on the track “Floating” to Scottish jigs on “Spey Cast” to the panoramic swarming sound of wind instruments on “The Mayfly”.  The River is a beautifully composed album and will bear repeat listening without danger of becoming over-familiar or uninteresting due to the enjoyable complexity of its musical structure.  The quality of musicianship is top-drawer throughout the album, with Hamish assembling an accomplished band of players that includes Sarah Hayes on alto flute and James Lindsay of Breabach on double bass with the stand out track on the album for me being the dark melodies of “The Drowning of the Silver Brothers”.

Breabach – Astar | Album Review | Breabach Records | Review by Phil Carter | 24.03.16

Astar is Braebach’s fifth release since their arrival on the Scottish folk scene at Celtic Connections back in 2005.  They’ve travelled a long way since then, in more ways than one and the inspiration for the music on the album has come from the people, places, venues and festivals they have encountered on their extensive travels around the globe.  These very experiences have brought about a new multi-dimensional sound to their music, borne out of the influences of the different cultures they have been subjected to.  Musicians from Quebec, Norway, Australia and New Zealand have been invited to contribute to the album under the guidance of producer Greg Lawson.  I’ve lost count of the number of festivals I’ve attended where both Breabach and Le Vent du Nord have been appearing on the same bill, and it is a joy to at last hear them in direct collaboration, albeit just for the one track “Les Pieds Joyeux”.  In spite of the culturally eclectic feel to Astar, the trademark Beabach sound shines through and the band once again prove their pedigree and justified recognition as being amongst some of the finest and most gifted musicians currently operating within the field of Scottish music today.  Look out for Breabach at various locations on the summer festival calendar, where they have just been announced on the bill at the renowned Cambridge Folk Festival.

Dallahan – Matter of Time | Album Review | Dallahan Music | Review by Phil Carter | 25.03.16

Dallahan are one of the most exciting happenings on the current Scottish music scene.  Their combined blend of traditional musicianship originating from their respective homelands of Scotland, Ireland and Hungary results in a musical tapestry that is both dynamic and refreshingly original.  Their 2014 debut album When The Day Is On The Turn was highly praised by the public and music press alike, and on the back of the album the band has sent the last eighteen months touring heavily as well as spending time in the studio preparing the follow up Matter Of Time, to be released in April 2016.  Matter Of Time is evidence of the band developing and expanding upon their core musical influences, becoming more ambitious and complex in their compositional skills. Stand out tracks are the set of tunes named “Harbour Of Polperro” which alongside the excellent Dutch Courage features the wonderful Ullieann pipes and whistle playing of Jarleth Henderson.  Away from their own compositions, the band’s interpretation of the traditional classic “Stretched On Your Grave” produces another stand-out moment on the album, indicating further evidence of Dallahan’s growing confidence and creative abilities.

Birds Of Chicago, Real Midnight

Birds of Chicago – Real Midnight | Album Review | Five Head Entertainment | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.03.16

For those who thought it couldn’t get much better than Canada’s Po’Girl and Chicago’s JT and the Clouds, another think probably came their way when in 2012 Allison Russell and JT Nero joined forces to form Birds of Chicago, an outfit so strong, so determined and so beautifully formed, that their music flowed effortlessly from the speakers like a stream of golden nectar and with Real Midnight, it continues to do so.  For proof of their unique musical bond we need look no further than “Remember Wild Horses”, which sees both JT and Allison sharing voices in the way that only they can.  Once you have that in your head, then everything else seems to come at you like gifts at Christmas, a lottery win or old friends visiting for the weekend.  The duo’s meet up with mutual friend Rhiannon Giddens, who is currently getting plenty of exposure over in the UK, and rightly so, not only through her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops but with her own astonishing debut solo album, appears on the album to lend her own inimitable voice to one of the album highlights, “The Good Fight”.  Both “Sparrow” and “Barley” have been part of the Birds of Chicago live repertoire for a while now, each appearing on the band’s live release Live From Space and here the two songs fit perfectly with the other eleven songs.  Produced by Joe Henry, the album showcases two artists at the peak of their creativity, creating beautiful secular gospel music and song at its very best.

Nordic Fiddlers Bloc – Deliverance | Album Review | NFB Records | Review by Phil Carter | 28.03.16

Second album from the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc which sees the fiddle trio from Norway, Sweden and the Shetland Islands secure their reputation for delivering a gripping and unique blend of fiddle music.  Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (NFB) are Olav Luksengård Mjelva (Norway), Anders Hall (Sweden) and Kevin Henderson (Shetland Islands), with each of them regarded as leading exponents of their respective traditions.  Deliverance is a beautifully constructed collection of traditional fiddle music mixed in alongside the group’s own compositions with a firm focus on the rich traditional fiddle music from where they each belong.  The group have developed a sound that has been described as “unique”, “meaningful”,”intense” and “invigorating”.  The album includes much evidence of NFB’s clever use of harmonies, rhythm, riffs & bass lines that together produces a sound that belies the source of the sound produced from just three fiddles.  The foundation of the music is the chemistry that occurs when the three come together and seldom can three fiddlers have sounded so well matched as the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc.  Local interest in the group comes in the form of Shetland fiddler Kevin Henderson, long time member of The Boys of the Lough and more recently a member of the dynamic Session A9.  The compositions on Deliverance are sufficiently varied in style to make the album an interesting and extremely enjoyable experience, and the focus never drifts throughout the album’s ten tracks.  The  album is beautifully produced, crystal clear, well balanced with artwork that makes it one of the nicest album covers of the year.  Kevin Henderson’s composition “Talons Trip to Thompson Island” opens the album, which is a wonderful tune composed in the summer of 2013 after Kevin’s week of residency as a teacher at the Boston Harbor Fiddle School.  Other stand out tacks are “The Hen Hunt”, “Hjaltaren”, “Deiverance (Befrielsen)” and the exquisite “Halls Lilla Vals (Halls Little Waltz)” which is a stunning piece of music.

Paul McKenna Band – Paths That Wind | Album Review | PMB Records | Review by Phil Carter | 01.04.16

Since being awarded the title of ‘Best Up and Coming Artist of 2009’ at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, the Pau McKenna Band have gone from strength to strength captivating live audiences throughout the USA, Canada and Europe. Paths That Wind is the band’s fourth studio album, produced by John McCusker and released to celebrate their tenth year together, the album is a pleasing collection of songs influenced by the band’s experiences of being on the road and their time spent living in America.  The band have also included versions of songs by Alister Hulett, Peggy Seeger and Jim Reid which balanced with their own compositions span out the album so well.  Stand out tracks amongst the band’s own compositions are “Long Days”, “Tipping Point” and “The Dream”.  I remember seeing Paul and the band playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival back in 2011 for the first time in their own right following a previous appearance a couple of years before  as part of the Brian McNeill sessions.   The youthful exhuberance of the Paul McKenna Band playing Scottish music with such a passion was a real joy to see, and even back in the early days demonstrated a maturity beyond their years.  Their music, while steeped in the tradition is an exciting sound  created through outstanding vocals, driving guitar and bouzouki, intense fiddle playing, a warm pairing of flute and whistles and dynamic bodhrán and percussion.  This is indeed a very good album, with a carefully crafted signature sound that allows the Paul Mckenna Band to stand proud of the crowd.

Corinne West – Starlight Highway | Album Review | Make Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.04.16

The gentle sound of a mandolin opens this latest collection of songs written by Californian singer-songwriter Corinne West, whose recorded output reaches four solo records with an additional album, her last, made in collaboration with Kelly Joe Phelps.  For the most part, the songs included here were written back in 2011 after her last album and have been simmering, while waiting around for the right time to be recorded and released.  With Corinne taking a year out in the Austrian Alps to re-charge, re-think and concentrate on the creative process, it appears that now is indeed the time to get back in the studio.  Surrounding herself with informed musicians, including Kelly Joe Phelps once again, Ricky Fataar, Henry Salvia and Michael Marshall, Corinne has focussed on providing a gentle, restful, almost soothing approach to her music.  No storms or tempests here to rattle one’s sails, it’s pretty much a tranquil millpond to delight your ears, with the possible exception of the title song, which hits the road in full throttle.

Dan Wilde – Rhythm on the City Wall | Album Review | Wilde Sound | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.04.16

Dan Wilde’s third solo album Rhythm On The City Wall was recorded in the relatively unlikely setting of Russia, having recently lived there for six months.  With not a balalaika in sight, the Cambridge-based singer-songwriter once again accompanies himself on acoustic guitar on eleven melodic songs, opening with the delightfully observed Pieces, from which the album title comes, where everything in our everyday lives are simply pieces in the bigger puzzle.  If Dan Wilde has a theme to his songwriting it’s just this, the everyday, from the mundane to the complex, each song delivered with sensitivity and care.  If “Windy Head” offers a fleeting glimpse into Dan Wilde’s contemporary life, then Hammersmith Palais is reminiscent of the type of songs written by Ray Davies two or three decades earlier, which in their turn offered a nostalgic nod to bygone days; the very best of songs.  Released on Polly Paulusma’s new label, the appropriately named Wild Records, Rhythm On The City Wall is another example of just how good this unfairly overlooked young singer-songwriter is.

Afro Celt Sound System – The Source | Album Review | ECC Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.04.16

The first time I had the pleasure of seeing the Afro Celt Sound System was back in 1997 at the Cambridge Folk Festival, where after a pretty laid back blues set by John Primer, we were barked at by an over-enthusiastic reveller; imagine a cross between Bez from the Happy Mondays and the drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and there’s your man.  “Stand up” he barked repeatedly at the unsuspecting crowd that had gathered in front of the main stage, which continued for several minutes during the interval, before advising us of the fact that ‘these guys really rock!’  We continued sitting in defiance, settled in for the evening as we patiently awaited the arrival of Jackson Browne, who wasn’t due on stage until ten past ten.  Once the Afro Celt Sound System hit the stage moments later though, we were up like a shot.  He was right of course, this band really did rock and they continue to rock almost twenty years on.  Since their formation a couple of years before I first saw them, the band have subsequently undergone many changes and now find themselves in that awkward position that other bands have found themselves in over the years, of existing in two different versions of the band, with all the mucky fighting over the ownership of the name.  The Source is by the band currently fronted by original founder member Simon Emmerson and features a line-up that includes N’Faly Kouyaté on kora and balafon, Johnny Kalsi Dhol drum and Davy Spillane on uillean pipes, amongst others.  After a three-minute overture, “Calling the Horses”, the epic proportions of the firmly established ACSS sound returns with the astonishing “Beware Soul Brother”, which once again mixes and melds a seamless fusion of African and Gaelic rhythms, featuring the voice of Armagh-born singer Rioghnach Connolly.  As always, it’s all about collaboration and each of the musicians involved have their specific moments throughout the 13-track album.  If the African/Gaelic fusion is explored in the opening song, the Dhol Drums of India dominate “The Magnificent Seven”, in a veritable festival of sound as the chant, which translates as ‘courage’, breaks through the vibrant Celtic whistles throughout the song.  Their first album in ten years, released to celebrate their 20th anniversary year, The Source seems to have come along at precisely the right time, with some high profile festival dates already planned together with a major UK tour in November.  You never know, it might even be me barking ‘stand up’ at the Cambridge crowd this summer.    

Rachel Ries – Cardinal | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.04.16

The four songs on this EP were inspired by the churches and cathedrals, cobbled stones, baguettes and secret keys of the medieval city of Rouen, while the South Dakota-born singer-songwriter was on retreat there last year.  Included in the deluxe version of this EP is a hand-crafted linoleum print, each created from an original image inspired by “Homing”, one of the songs on the EP.  Accompanying herself on both electric guitar and piano, the songs were later recorded back in the states, but retained the atmosphere of the tiny apartment above the ancient chapel Rouen, where just around the corner a cross marks the spot where Joan of Arc met her fate.  Thoughtful, contemplative and rich in atmosphere, “Homing” considers the notion of finding home, while “Good Enough” ponders the crazy pursuit of making it through the music business, with all its highs and lows, ups and downs.  Intelligent songs from a creative heart.

Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston – The Watchmaker’s Wife | Album Review | Hands on Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.04.16

Having previously released two strong and tastefully-produced full-length albums, there’s almost an expectation that Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston will continue to produce nothing but quality music and The Watchmaker’s Wife is proof of that.  Once again the unlikely pairing of double bass and mandolin (for the most part) creates a rich sonic soundscape, very much acoustic with shades of bluegrass mixed with a distinctly British folk music sensibility.  As always, the album is once again beautifully packaged, entirely fitting with the eleven songs included within.  Opening with the title song, co-written with Squeeze songsmith Chris Difford, the duo set out the benchmark for the other songs to follow. Whether the duo tackle traditional arrangements on such songs as “Bonny Light Horseman” and “Good Natured Man”, contemporary covers such as Boo Hewerdine’s “SAD” and Tony Furtado’s “Waste of the Moon”, their own compositions such as Rex Preston’s impressive “Rosie” or those all important instrumental workouts such as “Swedish” and “(Insert Name)’s Waltz”, the duo successfully build a complete album with absolutely nothing missing, despite maintaining their own basic sound throughout with no additional frills.  No mean feat.

Winter Wilson – Ashes and Dust | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.04.16

Kip Winter and Dave Wilson are the kind of musicians who you bump into at a festival, where they often break out their instruments, usually accordion and guitar, and give you a song.  There’s no hiding in backstage area dressing rooms basking in the ethereal glow of stardom, fiercely protecting their privacy and, in effect, separating themselves from their audience, yet they are just as good as any of those who the above so often describes.  Dave Wilson’s songs are intelligent, melodic, often thought-provoking and most importantly highly listenable.  Colour those lyrics and melodies with Kip Winter’s convincing voice and the duo’s rich harmonies and you’re always on to a winner.  Ashes And Dust, the title lifted from one of the key songs “I’d Rather Be Ashes Than Dust”, a line borrowed in turn from the author Jack London, is the duo’s latest release and contains just over a dozen original songs.  “Weary Traveller” opens the set with a fine vocal performance from Dave, augmented by some fine finger-style guitar picking, urging the listener to take the weight off.  If the opening song stylistically recalls the Kicking Mule records of the 1970s, “Doreen and Joe” is pure Winter Wilson, a simple tale of a couple’s longing for a child, beautifully rendered and with a happy ending to boot.  Isn’t it encouraging to have a happy ending in this day and age?  Dave Wilson makes the art of songwriting look easy; by his own admission, To Hell With Monday Morning was written in the time it takes Kip to get ready to go out.  Mind you, we’re not sure exactly how long it actually takes Kip to get ready!  Produced by Dave Wilson, with Alistair Russell helping with the mixing and mastering, Ashes And Dust is one of those albums you will listen to over and again.   

The Night Watch – The Night Watch | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.04.16

The Night Watch EP is one of those nice surprises that comes along every now and then.  Featuring the now familiar voice of Kate Locksley, the informed guitar playing of Dave Wood (who also throws in a bit of bouzouki) and rounded off with the dextrous fiddle playing of Kevin Lees, the trio take their first tentative steps with this six-track EP, made up chiefly of familiar traditional songs such as “Ratcliffe Highway”, “All Amongst the Barley” and “Newry Town”.  If the names of these musicians sound vaguely familiar then you would have no doubt come across them in such outfits as The Teacups and Wychwood (Kate), Folksestra and Last Orders (Kevin) and CrossCurrent, Malinky and Tom McConville (Dave); a good pedigree in each case for sure. If the above mentioned songs are treated to vibrant arrangements and fine performances, then the instrumental selections, such as “Cape Breton Jig” and “Baltimore Beginners”, further highlight the trio’s chops as fine players all round.  It has to be said though that it’s Kate’s voice that transforms this little EP into something very special; definitely a voice to be heard, and often.

James Brothers – James Brothers | Album Review | Drover Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.04.16

Widely known for their high profile musical and marital partnerships with two of the British folk scene’s leading female artists Nancy Kerr and Emily Smith, the James Brothers combine their musical chops and flair for arrangement with some brooding Sam Peckinpah-era cowboy scowls, hats and stubbly chins.  Neither brothers nor cowboys, James Fagan and Jamie MacClennan ride the antipodean prairies with a repertoire of contemporary songs and tunes from their own respective neck of the woods, including Tim Finn’s Split Enz-era “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”, Trevor Lucas’ Fotheringay-period “Ballad of Ned Kelly” and closing with Michael O’Rourke’s “The Poison Train”, a song that goes back some way in the Fagan canon.  Standing beside these contemporary songs are one or two traditional adaptations including Shearing’s “Coming Round”, “Leatherman” and “The Voyage of the Buffalo”.  Sharing out the songs democratically, both James and Jamie compliment each other’s music in a manner not too far removed from actual siblings.

Silver Darlings – Watermark | Single Review | Anklebreka | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.04.16

With the Sheffield-based band Silver Darlings signing to the Anklebreka label, the band celebrate their first release on this label with the single Watermark, a contemporary rocker recounting the on/off and on again relationship between frontman/songwriter Andy Whitehouse and his partner.  A personal song then, spanning a 30 year time period, which exemplifies the band’s own dictum of being ‘downbeat romantics and hopeless optimists.’  I don’t suppose its an everyday occurance, to experience the end of a relationship, then write a song about it, only to play that song to your former partner when you actually both get back together again years later.  But there you go, a happy ending. Joining Andy are Lindsay Callaway on bass, Richard Masters on lead guitar, Simon Joy on violin, Harry Corps on keyboards and James Howe on drums.

Locust Honey String Band – Never Let Me Cross Your Mind | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.04.16

Chloe Edmonstone and Meredith Watson, otherwise known as Locust Honey, continue to explore their Old-Time, Bluegrass and Pre-War Blues roots with this their latest release with the slightly expanded Locust Honey String Band, featuring Dubl Handi’s Hilary Hawke on banjo.  With earthy harmonies and informed accompaniment on both fiddle and guitar, the band seem equally at home with the traditional, the contemporary and their own original compositions, although they each blend in perfectly well together.  While the original opening song, “When The Whiskey’s Gone”, is probably familiar to those who caught the Richard Gere film Time Out of Mind, the band’s cover of George Jones’ “Just One More”, evokes the intended feel of world-weariness, yet with a slightly more lilting feel than plain melancholy.  Instrumentally, the Locust Honey String Band are on fire, which indicates what a great live band they couldn’t fail to be.  “McMiche’s Breakdown”, “Logan County Blues” and “Boogerman” will have your toes tapping for sure.

Jim Causley – Forgotten Kingdom | Album Review | Hands On Music | Review by Phil Carter | 16.04.16

Five times BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominee Jim Causley is a singer/musician who is passionate about traditional song, and particularly that of his native West County.  Jim Causley’s brand new, and fifth solo album Forgotten Kingdom, marks a ten year period since his debut release Fruits Of The Earth back in 2005.  Interestingly, it is also Causley’s first album that comprises of entirely self-written material.  The first three albums were made up of traditional songs, and the fourth Cyprus Well consisted of poems from his late relative Charles Causley set to music by Jim.  Despite Causley’s profession of love for his native West County, this is the first album he has recorded on home soil.   He has also assembled some of the finest Devonian musicians to work with him on the album, including James Dumbleton, Nick Wyke and Beckie Driscoll, Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin, Show of Hands, Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston, Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman and Jackie Oates……….that’s some backing band!  Causley’s native West County is a major influence on the writing of the songs for the album, including one of the highlight tracks “Pride of the Moor” which celebrates the tin mining industry of Dartmoor.  The music on the album is far ranging in style, and encompasses anything from the mediaval to bluegrass and 1930’s music hall to string quartet accompaniment. Jim Causley has also been regarded as a consummate musician, and his traditional vocal style and accomplished accordion playing are widely acknowledged to be the benchmark for the genre.   Forgotten Kingdom certainly demonstrates Jim’s virtuosity throughout all of the fifteen wonderful compositions contained on the album, and probably does so better than on any of the previous four albums, good as they all are.  This is an album that sees Jim Causley opening up on his talents and skills not just as a musician, but for the first time as a gifted composer of words and music.  Forgotten Kingdom is destined to become a folk classic, and I offer this comment without any fear of exaggeration.  It is quite simply a wonderful celebration of the joy of playing your own music alongside good friends who all share the same affinity for their native influences.  To produce such a fine collection of self-penned songs and music at the first outing is quite remarkable, in spite of the collective view that Causley has for a long time been a fully paid up member of the younger folk establishment.  Maybe I’ll leave the last words to Causley himself, ‘I realised’ says Jim, ‘that as a (largely) traditional singer I have been singing other people’s words for a very long time and decided it was about time I started singing some of my own!’

John McCusker – Hello Goodbye | Album Review | Under One Sky Records | Review by Phil Carter | 17.04.16

John McCusker celebrates twenty five years as a professional musician with the release of his first solo album in thirteen years, Hello, Goodbye.  The album is the first to be released on McCusker’s own record label Under One Sky Records, as well as being the first album to be recorded at his brand new state of the art studio built at his home in the Scottish Borders.  The album was conceived and written while McCusker was touring the globe as a member of Mark Konpfler’s band, an association he has held since 2008, and some of the song titles, such as “It’s a Girl, Molly’s Waltz/Heidi’s Waltz” and “Tune for Nana” suggest he may well have been yearning for his home and family while out on the road.  Needless to say, McCusker has gathered together a stellar line up of musicians to work with him on Hello, Goodbye, including fellow Knopfler band member Michael McGoldrick, long standing friends Andy Cutting and Ian Carr, Phil Cunningham and Heidi Talbot.  Hello, Goodbye provides evidence of a real cross-section of musical styles that McCusker has embraced throughout his twenty five year involvement in Scottish folk music, and brilliantly illustrates the creative boundaries he has used to chart his journey along the way.  The album has certainly been worth waiting for, and is a fine reminder of McCusker’s unique and beautifully sensitive playing style that has become his trademark since his more raucous apprenticeship days with the Battlefield Band.  It’s an album to savour, and for me one that will not wander far from the CD player over the coming months.

Aziza Brahim – Abbar el Hamada | Album Review | Glitter Beat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.04.16

It might be a strange thought, but while listening to Barcelona-based Aziza Brahim’s new record Abbar El Hamada, I was put in mind of the late Sandy Denny for some reason.  Had Sandy Denny performed her songs in Hassinya Arabic or Spanish, she might have sounded rather like this.  To my knowledge though Sandy’s native tongue was English, in which she exclusively sang, apart from that one time she performed on Top of the Pops singing a Bobby Dylan song in French.  The songs on Aziza’s new record are both eloquently arranged and soulfully performed, with a distinct Western Saharan feel, which we have all become accustomed to.  The strength of Aziza’s voice is echoed in the fine playing of the musicians in her band, Spanish multi-instrumentalist Guillem Aguilar, Malian guitarist Kalilou Sangare, Aziza’s sister Badra Abdallahe on backing vocals, Ignasi Cussó also on guitar, Aleix Tobias and Sengane Ngon on percussion.  Throughout the ten selections, Aziza’s voice is on blistering form, especially on the soulfully bluesy numbers such as “Mani”, which features some fine guitar playing courtesy of guest guitarist Samba Toure.

Kitty Macfarlane – Tide and Time | EP Review | TCR Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.04.16

Refreshingly satisfying debut EP from Somerset-based songstress Kitty Macfarlane, who not only presents a handful of superb self-penned songs but also includes a rather agreeable cover of Tim Buckley’s timeless “Song to the Siren” before signing off.  Complete with a reverb-heavy Jeff Buckley-type guitar accompaniment, just how Jeff liked it, the sound really isn’t that far from Jeff’s own memorable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.  The other four selections however, are very much Kitty’s own, which range from the early tentative steps into songwriting with “Bus Song”, written at the tender age of 16, to the highly accomplished “Wrecking Days”, which is the sort of song you tend not to forget in a hurry.  Kitty claims that ‘Tide and Time is the product of hours spent daydreaming while gathering shellfish on French beaches at low tide’, which is further evoked in the title song, while Blake’s poetry inspires one of the EP’s prettiest songs “Lamb”.  It may be that there’s something in the water down there in the West Country at the moment, not least with Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain’s fruitful Changing Room projects and with this EP released on their own TCR label, we might just be on the verge of launching a potentially huge talent, a talent that really should be heard.

Pilgrims’ Way – Red Diesel | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.04.16

With the slightly extended line-up, now featuring multi-instrumentalist Jon Loomes, whose instruments read like a Viv Stanshall roll-call, Pilgrims’ Way return with their first album since 2011’s Wayside Courtesies.  Yes, it’s rather hard to believe that five years have passed by since the release of their impressive debut, but that time has allowed the band to really get to grips with their musical empathy and the ten songs here demonstrate a band that has definitely got it together.  For a starter, there’s a nod to Robin and Barry Dransfield with a vibrant reading of “Rout of the Blues”, as well as some further cap doffing towards The Incredible String Band, with a rather magical “Magic Christmas Tree”, otherwise originally known as “Chinese White”, which was released as a seasonal single in the interim.  If Red Diesel offers any surprises at all, it just might be their take on Paul Simon’s Graceland opener “Boy in the Bubble”, which is here devoid of all the jubilant accordion frenzy of Forere Motloheloa, but instead presented as a beautiful ballad, superbly sung by Lucy Wright.  Actually, all four band members are on spiffing form throughout this album, which comes quite apparent in some of the traditional material covered, which includes “The Light Dragoon” and “Howden Town”.  For those who have experienced the side-splitting poetical capers of Les Barker, Pilgrims’ Way approach barker’s more tender side with a gorgeous performance of “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose”, which just might be the song you return to again and again.

Saint Sister – Madrid | EP Review | Trout Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.04.16

The video promo for Blood Moon, directed and produced by Myrid Carten and Aphra Lee Hill and featuring Meabh Parr and Emma White, serves as a good introduction to the ethereal music of Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty, otherwise known as Saint Sister.  The evocative video, which shows two young girls engaging in a sort of Heavenly Creatures-like blood bonding escapade on some remote landscape, perfectly fits the almost otherworldly song it accompanies.  Once settled into the so called ‘atmosfolk’ soundscape, the EP closes with the haunting “Versions of Hate”, which could quite easily be the Irish equivalent of The Unthanks at their most evocative.

***

Nikki Talley – Out From The Harbor | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.04.16

While the Adeles, Swifts, Winehouses and Gouldings of the world have stretched the boundaries for emerging female vocalists over the past decade while keeping the flames of Carole King, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield brightly burning in the mainstream consciousness, it has to be said that some of the most exquisite vocalists of the generation belong to the Americana scene.  For those of us who have been lucky enough to find them, the voices of Sarah Jarosz, Anais Mitchell, Rachel Ries, Diana Jones and Aoife O’Donovan represent an era of truly exceptional singing and storytelling which often goes beyond the sometimes superficial, mass-produced music of your everyday arena artist.   Nikki Talley is another name that can be easily added to this tantalising list.  Having clocked up two hundred thousand miles as a touring singer songwriter and releasing two positively spellbinding albums – 2010’s Beautiful Charmer and a live album in 2012 – Nikki released her third album, Out From The Harbor in 2015, once again delivering a collection of evocative acoustic-based country songs, but this time coming down from the mountains to explore river and sea for what is a somewhat watery album.  In other hands, “Go Out on the Water” could well be a shimmering Nashville hit, sounding its delicious melody from every car radio, but Nikki keeps the song grounded with a sparse arrangement of gently strummed acoustic guitar and understated pedal steel, with all the grace and elegance of Emmylou. And when Nikki feels the need to fill out her heartfelt songs with full band backing, such as “Caroline” and “Travelin’ On” the results hark back to the mid-90s albums of Shawn Colvin or Tracy Chapman, where the songs are cleanly presented, entirely nourishing and never overcooked.  Then there’s “Gracie Blue”, a maritime folk song in the tradition of Anne Briggs; something Talley pulls off with astonishing panache and impressive adaptability.  What rings throughout this album is a sense of respect for the songs at hand; a sense which gives the whole record a varnished quality, as if it were something to keep and treasure forever.

Bellowhead – Live The Farewell Tour | Album Review | Navigator | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.16

As the bereft Bellowhead brigade settle into the prospect of a world without their beloved eleven-piece band, Navigator releases a suitable souvenir in celebration of the band’s twelve year reign as one of the best live acts on the British folk scene.  Recorded live at various venues during the band’s farewell tour of 2015, the 29 songs represent some of their most memorable material, including “New York Girls”, “Roll the Woodpile Down” and “Roll Alabama”, spread over a two-disc set, each selection a clear demonstration of the band’s indisputable flair for arranging traditional songs and tunes.  It’s no mean feat to successfully bring the band’s vibrant live sound into your living room but in the hands of Andy Bell, that task is pretty much accomplished.  The music’s all there, that’s for sure, all that’s left to imagine is the lights, the sweat and the over-busy mosh pit.  For those who prefer Bellowhead as a visual spectacle, look no further than the third disc in this set, where the band can be seen live at the Leicester De Montford Hall, which is also put together by Andy Bell.  As always, the band is fronted by the ever-awkward Jon Boden, his wide-eyed gaze and jerky movements very much present; a front man who always appears like a deer caught in the headlights, rather than the clichéd over-confident diva that usually swaggers centre stage in other bands.  Surrounded by ten equally important musicians, Boden appears to rejoice in the band’s success as a leading live extravaganza and appears to want to make this one count. Instead of the entire band being featured on the cover of this set, we see a single demon fiddler (Sam Sweeney) in mid-flight, silhouetted in the ethereal glow of the stage lights.  This packaging is befitting a swansong release, with celebratory live shots, a set list taped to a monitor and one or two motionless instruments poised on their respective stands, either ready for action or completely spent after the final encore.  The encore in this case is the welcomed return to Richard Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”, a song the band performed at their very first gig, which is featured here in a cappella form, save for John Spiers’ concertina.  A fitting conclusion not only to this particular concert, but also to a dozen memorable years on the road.  But before we all get teary-eyed, it’s worth remembering some of the other ‘hell freezes over’ acts in our musical heritage, The Beatles, The Eagles, Pink Floyd and heaven forbid let’s not forget Frank Sinatra; the odds are on for a comeback at some stage, so don’t over-stock your hankies just yet.

Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar – The Silent Majority | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.16

There was a time when a duo would burst onto the scene and shortly afterwards one half of the team would rise to the top, in either popularity or talent, resulting in a subsequent solo career, leaving the other one slightly left behind.  Not so with Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, who both continue to thrive as equals in both popularity and talent, mischief and wit, good looks and smart suits and the list goes on.  The Ant and Dec of the folk world. It has to be said, each one does their job extremely well; Greg’s convincing and honest voice and Ciaran’s deft musicianship seem to be made for each other.  One tends to look forward to each album release with relish.  Once again Greg and Ciaran’s song choices are spot on here, with the title song treated as a veritable opus, complete with musical prologue, Findlay Napier and Nick Turner’s almost anthemic George, an engaging coming of age tale, featuring an unlikely Glaswegian bruiser who swaps his fists for dancing shoes and notably the duo’s reading of the traditional “Limbo”, a song that suits interpretation, whether in the hands of Tony Rose, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Ruth Notman or Ant and Dec, erm, I mean Greg and Ciaran.  There’s lots of other good stuff on The Silent Majority, including some fine instrumental fireworks on “Swipe Right”, featuring Ali Levack on pipes, some additional musical support courtesy of Laurence Blackadder on double bass, Tom Wright on percussion and Hannah Martin on vocals, not to mention the continued excellence of Paul Adams and all at Fellside.  A fine album that comes highly recommended.

Gerry McNeice – Lifetime Passing By | Album Review | Wee Dog Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.04.16

The latest release from West Yorkshire-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gerry McNeice has been some time in the making.  The basic tracks were pretty much recorded in just one day back in the Spring of 2012, the session spawning one traditional adaptation and ten original songs, all of which have found themselves hanging around, waiting patiently for their maker and his guest musicians to apply the right combination of spit and polish in the studio to make them presentable for human consumption.  Gerry is a busy man after all, probably better known to musicians from all around the world, those who rely upon his expertise behind the sound desk at concerts, gigs and festivals up and down the country.  Helping Gerry and the band out are a bunch of useful pals, including Charlotte and Laura Carrivick, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, Henry Priestman and Tim Yates together with a few others, each of whom contributed something special to the recordings.  As a title, Lifetime Passing By may seem to allude to a desire to enjoy things while we can, and the songs here reflect a tangible feel-good attitude to life.  “Crazy World” could only be written by someone who rejoices in life and the everyday, but with sorrow worn on the sleeve at the stupidity that often surrounds us all.  Gerry, a known Country Music enthusiast, creates an authentic take on the Nashville sound on “Read All About It” with some informed pedal steel courtesy of  David Hartley, while Gerry’s other passion for British Folk Rock is played out with vigour in the opening and closing songs “Hay Harvest Season” and the traditional “Prickle Eye Bush”.  An enjoyable album from someone who clearly enjoys making music.  

M.A.K.U. Soundsystem – Mezcla | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.04.16

There’s something immediately attention-gabbing in the initial drum motif on Agua, the opening song from this, the eight-piece New York City-based M.A.K.U. Soundsystem’s latest album release.  It might not immediately entice you to get on your feet necessarily, but it’ll certainly grab your attention. Midway through the song, singer Liliana Conde boldly announces the band’s statement of intent, loudly and clearly ‘with so many wars going off around the world trying to separate us, trying to divide us, we want to come together and sing in unison’.  It’s a good start, we immediately get the feeling that we are all in this together and there’s a sense that we don’t want to mess with Liliana.  The band’s traditional mapalé and bullerengue rhythms drive the album along, while blending their Afro-Colombian beats with established American styles, such as jazz and hip-hop.  The chanting delivery of “Thank You Thank You” continues the highly-charged fusion of styles, which is at once infectious, challenging any notion of remaining in our seats a second longer.  The idea of blending musical styles is indicated right there in the album’s Spanish title Mezcla, which translates to ‘Mixture’ of ‘Mix’.  Once the senses are attuned to these rhythms, which doesn’t take long at all, there’s a desire to go along with it and be a part of it, though I imagine the material on this album would be best served live.

Kelly Oliver – Bedlam | Album Review | Folkstock Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.04.16

The image of the young Hertfordshire-based singer-songwriter Kelly Oliver, together with her much publicised name, came to me well before her music did.  With the subsequent drip-feeding of songs through social media and compilations, her voice soon became as familiar as the multitude of positive reviews that seemed to follow the young singer around.  Once the songs broke through the publicity frenzy, I found a distinctive voice with apparent Irish inflections, not surprising once I discovered that her paternal grandmother was in fact Irish and therefore steeped in the Irish culture.  Bedlam is in fact Kelly Oliver’s second album release following her 2014 debut This Land, and features ten self-penned original songs.  With no less than three producers working with the singer on this album, Nigel Stonier, Stu Hanna and Lauren Deakin-Davies, there appears to be a concerted effort to get it right, which indeed seems to have been achieved.  Songs such as the Country-inflected “Same World”, the sprightly Rio and the bold title song “Bedlam”, which showcases Oliver’s credentials as a first-rate storyteller, are each instantly accessible, with Miles To Tralee marking the singer as a bone fide contender on the folkie awards platform.  With contributions from Lukas Drinkwater, Ciaran Algar, Debbie Hanna and Thea Gilmore, the album deserves all the plaudits it has so far received.

Katy Rose Bennett – Songs of the River Rea | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.04.16

Listening to a new Katy Rose Bennett record is almost like catching up on a friend’s private journal.  I remember waxing lyrical about Katy’s last album Indelible Ink back in 2009, an album released under her then moniker KTB, an acronym used also for her two previous records.  Now recording and performing under her real name, we find a songwriter who has subsequently taken one or two rites of passage; a marriage, becoming a parent for the first time and maturing further as an artist.  There’s something in Katy’s voice that evokes melancholy yet is never morose nor overly sad.  In fact there’s a sort of joy in the way she writes and how the songs are delivered, whether she sings of a new born child in “Driving Home”, the fact that she still sobs upon hearing of fatalities in TV soaps or landmark movies in “Fried Green Tomatoes” or whether addressing her own relationships in the beautifully tender “Counting Kettles”.  Katy’s stories are always thoroughly convincing and at times they tug at the heartstrings, such as the tender “Jack & Ivy”, where ‘nobody cares for nobody anymore’, a double negative that strangely avoids raised eyebrows.  Katy successfully keeps us fully engaged throughout the eleven songs by utilising several musical styles, such as the bright and breezy South African-influenced guitar sound in “One Day”, reminiscent of “Graceland”, the sparse piano-led “One More Time” and the mariachi-styled trumpet and full band drive of the final song “My Friend”.  After listening to Songs Of The River Rea, I really do feel suitably caught up.

Moulettes – Preternatural | Album Review | Craft Pop Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.04.16

Slightly overdone conceptual album that showcases Moulettes’ experimental pop credentials to the hilt.  The Brighton-based outfit have skirted around the highly orchestrated boundary-pushing tenets of Prog, the music that Punk allegedly stomped upon a few decades ago, both in their live performances and on their three previous albums.  Building on these foundations, the collective has taken the natural world as a theme for Preternatural, a sort of soundtrack for the films of David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau; I almost expected a Roger Dean sleeve design.  The titles almost speak for themselves, “Pufferfish Love”, “Bird of Paradise” and “Coral”.  Cellist and lead vocalist Hannah Miller notes that “Underwater Painter” is actually a homage to Prince, this revealed before the musician’s untimely recent death.  The song evokes the ‘mysterious deep’ in all its vibrant colours; the lyric ‘limited palette, infinite themes’ could also describe Moulette’s working tools, but with this album, as with all the others, the five musicians make the most of what they’ve got.  It’s difficult to listen to this album in one sitting without feeling you’ve been punched around the ears.  A busy, complex, adventuresome yet not entirely fulfilling album.

Mike Reinstein – The Long March Home | Album Review | Irregular Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.04.16

The theme of war tends to weave its way through the dozen self-penned songs on Mike Reinstein’s latest album The Long March Home.  This singer-songwriter’s own personal family history is revealed in “Gefehlt Mir Mein Heym”, a phrase translated from the yiddish for ‘I Love My Home’, which tells of the flight from persecution that his own grandparents suffered during the Second World War, which was prompted by the recent harrowing events in Europe.  In a similar vein to John Prine’s “Sam Stone”, the song “America Says” investigates the aftermath of war.  Despite its lilting feel, the song specifically focuses on how a veteran might face and deal with the emotional turmoil of his experience, questioning the role of the hero.  Then more graphically, “Warface” tells it pretty much as it is; an angry song told in black and white addressing the complications arising from conflict.  “A Calling”, further investigates the trauma of war, this time post-Bosnia, superbly enhanced by Tim Wade’s haunting trombone that perfectly underpins Reinstein’s empathetic vocal.  These are powerful songs covering powerful themes.  Throughout the dozen songs though, whether they concern the subject of war or while delivering a tender ballad such as “It’s Not Enough”, or a love song “A Watchman for Your Heart”, Mike Reinstein’s voice remains convincing throughout, an honest voice not dissimilar to that of Boo Hewerdine.

Paul Mosley and The Red Meat Orchestra – The Butcher | Album Review | Folkwiit Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.04.16

“Where is my love? where is my love?” questions protagonist Dolores at the beginning of this impressive twenty-strong song cycle, written by Paul Mosely and performed by a gathering of twelve musicians with nine additional voices each playing their part in bringing Mosley’s story to life.  Best described as a folk opera, in much the same vein as Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, The Butcher centres around a ghost story of sorts, addressing along the way complex issues of light and dark, love and loss, while occupying the vast spaces of ocean and desert during an unspecified time frame.  Cinematic in scale, the album is bold in execution, with one or two strong melodic songs such as the Nick Drake-influenced “The World is Flat” and the delicate “Wolves”, featuring the voice of Josienne Clarke.  Although complicated in its narrative – basically the story of a good man turned bad – The Butcher’s appeal is in the ensemble performance, with some fine playing and singing by its cast. 

Claire Hastings – Between River and Railway | Album Review | Luckenbooth Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.04.16

With this debut album, the winner of the 2015 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award, embarks on what could potentially be a fruitful recording career.  The album is made up of a fine blend of traditional material, mature arrangements of contemporary songs and most notably a handful of impressive self-penned originals.  If the cover photography and artwork appears bleak and desolate, in some ways not unlike the iconic cover shot of another Claire from a different time, that of Claire Hamill’s debut in 1972, the songs contained within are otherwise sprightly and full of light.  The opening song “The House at Rosehill”, is an autobiographical homage to the place Claire calls home in Dumfries, a farmhouse that has been home to four-generations.  With the ukulele as Claire’s instrument of choice, the songs rarely come over as jolly sing-along-songs, with the possible exception of “I Missed the Boat”, which appears to have emerged from a challenge to write a song using only thirty words.  The whistled middle section further exemplifies the lightness of touch permeating through this record.  Robert Burns is touched upon with the inclusion of a lesser known work, “The Posie”, which here is treated to an alternative melody from the original, to pleasing effect.  Roddy McMillan’s “Let Romensky Go” allows Claire’s voice to stretch out further with this engaging crime ballad, filled with rich vernacular and dramatic fervour.  Claire recently showcased some of the songs from this album at the Shepley Spring Festival in the UK with accompanist Innes White alongside.  As with the songs on this album, Claire Hastings has the ability to dominate the stage, however large or small, in the case of Shepley both, and immediately grab your attention.

Molly Evans – Molly Evans | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.04.16

This eponymous four-song EP comes from a young singer in envious fresh-faced youth, equipped with a voice that’s possibly not quite fully developed but a voice that demonstrates great potential.  Those looking for pitch-perfect vocal pyrotechnics may be slightly disappointed, yet those with a taste for earthy vocal honesty might be equally delighted.  “Lord Randall” begins unaccompanied, then fills out with Jack Rutter’s gentle guitar accompaniment, giving it an almost lilting freshness, while “Pretty Polly” is imbued with a slight sense of the melancholy.  Standing out like a beacon is the final song, “Ballad of the Raven King/Uskglass”, with its dramatic hurdy-gurdy drone and empathetic guitar/fiddle accompaniment.  Molly’s debut recordings succeed in their intention, to showcase a new talent on the block and definitely one to watch.  

Rebecca Pronsky – Known Objects | Album Review | Acme Hall Studios | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.05.15

Brooklyn’s Rebecca Pronsky, along with producer, guitarist and touring partner Rich Bennett, originally planned for Known Objects to be a fairly stripped-down affair with just guitars and voice.  The songs could easily have stood up for themselves as pared-down arrangements, but the temptation to invite along a few friends eventually got the better of the duo.  The ten songs included here, nine originals and one cover, The Blue Nile’s “Heatwave”, each showcase Pronsky’s rich and determined vibrato with evident ease, although one suspects a great deal of TLC was applied in the studio to each of the songs.  “Bag of Bones” appears to take a closer look at Pronsky’s own self-confidence in its lyrical content, yet performance-wise, the song is bristling with confidence. A.E. takes a fresh look at the story of Amelia Earhart, based upon more recent published revelations, a story that always excites interest.  Once again, Rebecca writes songs that are at once engaging, occasionally personal and set against mature arrangements and in the case of Known Objects, embellished with some fine harmony parts provided by Lucy Wainwright Roche, Greta Gertler, Emily Hurst and Deidre Struck.

Maz O’Connor – The Longing Kind | Album Review | Restless Head | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.06.15

When Bella Hardy surprised us all with last year’s highly personal With The Dawn album, we were re-introduced to the sort of soul-bearing songs that kept Joni Mitchell and Carole King in the best sellers lists for so long.  Yes, traditional adaptations are all fine and it’s always quite novel to hear what young twenty-first century female singers make of pre-Thomas Hardy countryside ballads and Napoleonic Wars memoirs in song, yet there will always be a need-to-know angle between an artist and their listener and as long as each self-penned soul-searching excursion is done well, there will always be an audience for them.  For The Longing Kind Maz O’Connor has put aside the traditional songs that she has become known for and has instead concentrated on exclusively original material with the thirteen songs featured here.  “Jane Grey”, which puts into song the same sort of emotional response that Paul Delaroche’s painting of the same subject attracted in the mid-nineteenth century.  Beautifully sung with an equally beautiful melody, the song stands out as a perfect example of where Maz O’Connor is these days.  Produced by Jim Moray and released on her own Restless Head label, the album succeeds to impress, especially on such delights as “Greenwood Side”, which admittedly sounds very much traditional (ravens, maids etc.), but also on the more personal songs, “Crook of his Arm”, the tender “Emma” and the title song of course.  With a cover shot suggesting a Barrow-in-Furness girl lost in the modern day London metropolis, The Longing Kind ranks alongside some of the better albums of the year so far.

The Appleseed Collective – Tour Tapes | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.06.16

One suspects that with this five-track live EP we are treated to just a brief glimpse of what the Ann Arbor-based quartet are capable of. Since the band’s formation six years ago, the Appleseed Collective has released a couple of albums Baby To Beast (2012) and Young Love (2014) yet we feel the band’s strength is in its live show.  Their credentials are impressive from the start, guitarist Andrew Brown coming from musical stock, his father being a Motown session musician, violinist and mandolin player Brandon Smith, an ‘improvisatory magician’ raised on old time fiddle music, percussionist Vince Russo steeped in funk, jazz and good ol’ rock n’ roll and finally classically-trained bassist Eric Dawe, no stranger to choral singing and Indian classical music.  Together, the quartet have an ability to harmonise vocally, while combining their eclectic influences.  Recorded on their home turf at Live at the Ark in the winter of 2014, the atmosphere occasionally comes close to Nighthawks-period Kerouac-esque Tom Waits, especially on “Vicious”, with its spoken intro that could just as well have been “Eggs and Sausage” or “Emotional Weather Report”, but without Waits’ inimitable humour.  There’s a tendency to believe that the Appleseed Collective are at pains to utilise all the correct Bluegrass elements but at the same time attempt to sound nothing like a bluegrass band, which they do extremely well. 

Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra – Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.06.16

There seems to have been something of a chaotic build up to this collaboration between West African artists such as Afro-Beat pioneer Tony Allen and various Caribbean musicians.  The project was initiated by Corinne Micaelli, director of the French Institute in Haiti, who invited Allen to the island to stage a special performance in collaboration with choice Haitian musicians.  Erol Josué, a noted singer, dancer, voodoo priest and director of the Haitian National Bureau of Ethnology, was drafted in to help out with the recruitment of musicians and soon local percussionists and singers were on board for the project.  It took just five days to compose and rehearse the music that was intended to be performed in the main square of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince and which was intended to be broadcast live throughout the country, with a recording planned for possible subsequent release.  Unfortunately fate intervened and after an incident at the concert, the recording failed to materialise and the musicians, some of whom had to leave the island the next day, faced the prospect of the event becoming but a memory.  Fate intervened once again though, as Mark Mulholland discovered that the multi-track rehearsal tapes were worthy of releasing once vocal tracks were added, courtesy of Erol Josué, Sanba Zao amongst others. Infectious from the start, the ‘voudou’ rhythms and chants, offered the listener a rare peek into the musical unification of two cultures separated by an ocean, notably on such songs as the eerily psychedelic “Chay La Lou”.  Opening with the effect-laded electronica of “Salilento”, the orchestra embarked on a mission to be as experimental as their name suggests, with some very pleasing results.  Sometimes it really is worth recording rehearsals, just in case.

Rydvall/Mjelva – Vårdroppar | Album Review | Helia/Grappa | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.06.16

Known in their native Sweden and Norway respectively, Nyckelharpa player Erik Rydvall and Hardanger fiddler Olav Luksengard Mjelva Roros make a startling sound on their instruments, which at times has the feel of Classical music, albeit with a distinctive archaic folk sensibility.  The fifteen tunes here showcase the duo’s empathetic musicianship, whether playing original compositions or arrangements of older traditional tunes.  Without having seen these two musicians in action, there’s a sense in the music itself that Rydvall and Mjelva play close up and personal, something that may be hinted at in the cover design, which shows their respective instruments lying next to one another, each clearly exhibiting their individual and highly decorative traditional motifs.  Recorded in Eel Church in Hallingdal, each selection has the knack of conjuring up pictures in one’s mind of Scandinavian rivers, mountains and lakes, a world away from the hustle-bustle of city life.  I think this might be called escapism.

Space Echo – The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed | Album Review | Analog Africa | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.06.16

When a cargo ship containing various modern electronic musical instruments manufactured by the likes of Rhodes, Moog, Farfisa, Hammond and Korg, basically a Viv Stanshall role-call, inexplicably turned up in a field near the village of Cachaco on the island of Cape Verde, the villagers were quick to come up with some of the most outlandish explanations of how the ship actually came to be there, with cosmic connections being a popular theory.  Those who were on the scene in 1968 were perhaps unaware of the significance that the event would have on the music of the island for years to come.  The hundreds of boxes found on the vessel were distributed around schools under the orders of the anti-colonial leader Amilcar Cabral and into the hands of imaginative children, who already had rhythm in their bones, the instruments went.  Paulino Vieira was one of the children who by the end of the 1970s would become a leading force in music arrangement, and in turn the architect of what is now known as the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde.  The fifteen tracks included on this compilation, predominantly from the 1980s, showcase the vibrant urgency of the dancefloor grooves of the time, providing a shot in the arm to the then popular Mornas and Coladeras styles as well as the then outlawed (for being too wild) Funaná, originally based around the accordion.  Whatever the myths and folk legends are that surround the emergence of electro-synth dance music on the island, the fact remains that it has an uncanny way of getting you on your feet.

Brooks Williams – My Turn Now | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.06.16

Armed with his now familiar National Estralita resonator guitar, the Stateboro-born blues singer/guitarist returns with a selection of self-penned originals as well as one or two familiar traditional covers from the popular blues songbook “Hesitation Blues”, “Sitting on Top of the World” together with a couple of well-chosen covers, Kris Kristofferson’s Country infused “Nobody Wins” and Mose Allison’s Your Mind” is on Vacation, the latter treated to some foot-stomping R&B in the original sense of the term.  Recorded in both Cambridge (UK), where Williams now lives, and Connecticut (USA), the eleven selections demonstrate once again Williams’ clear understanding of his own chosen musical genre.  Sally Barker’s contribution fits perfectly on such songs as the Latin-influenced “Jokers Wild”, the funky Little Feat-styled “Nine Days Wonder” and the curious “Year Began”, a song that re-tells the story of stuntman Evil Knievel’s fateful jump over the fountains of Caesar’s Palace in 1967, not to mention her fine duet with Williams on “Nobody Wins”.  Where Brooks Williams succeeds best though is with his small combo/fat sound numbers such as the title song “My Turn Now”, featuring the fine rhythm section of Chris Pepper, who also co-produces, on drums and Richard Gates on bass.

Bonfire Radicals – The Albino Peacock | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.06.16

With some highly inventive excursions into Folk and World Music, the six-piece Birmingham-based collective create a powerhouse blend of styles from around the world.  Reminiscent of Moulettes, the band is fronted by three female instrumentalists Katie Stevens on clarinet, Michelle Holloway on recorders and Sarah Farmer on violin, with the rhythm expertly handled by the male contingent, Andy Bole on guitar and bouzouki, Trevor Lines on bass and Liam Halloran on drums.  Recorded over the winter of 2015/16 The Albino Peacock’s nine tracks weave intricate woodwind runs, duets and solo breaks through highly original and creative arrangements.  The seven original compositions sit well alongside the traditional re-workings of such songs as the atmospheric I Wish.  In places crossing the boundaries of Classical and Jazz, the variations of other styles is almost incalculable, with informed nods towards World Beat, the progressive Canterbury Sound, early Medieval music and an Eastern European influence, such as Klezmer.  Like Coco Lovers, Bonfire Radicals embrace a diverse range influences from around the world but maintain a distinctly English feel throughout. 

RANT – Reverie | Album Review | Make Believe Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.06.16

Joining forces once again for this their second album, RANT’s Bethany Reid, Jenna Reid, Sarah-Jane Summers and Lauren MacColl combine their individual fiddle styles over thirteen songs and tunes in a celebration of musical dexterity and collaborative empathy.  Nominated quite rightly for the BBC Folk Awards in 2014, the quartet have continued to work together, playing both major festivals and high profile concerts, while continuing to work on their own individual projects and various collaborations.  Despite having little difficulty sitting through an entire classical symphony or a box set of Miles Davis instrumentals, purely instrumental folk albums rarely hold my attention, therefore the strategically placed guest vocal appearances here are a welcome addition to the set.  Adding their highly individual and inimitable voices are Julie Fowlis on the sprightly Gaelic song Thug thu chonnlach as an t-sabhal “You Took the Straw from the Barn”, and Ewan McLennan on the delicate “Mary’s Dream”.  Reverie features some highly confident playing from four remarkable musicians whose own compositions sit alongside traditional and contemporary tunes on equal terms.

Rachel Newton – Here’s My Heart Come Take It | Album Review | Shadowside Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.06.16

Juggling a busy schedule working as one sixth of The Shee, one quarter of the Furrow Collective and one third of the Emily Portman Trio, Rachel Newton once again affords herself time out to record and release another solo record, which once again proves beyond any doubt that the singer and musician is indeed a solo force to be reckoned with.  Her third album to date, the follow up to last year’s impressive Changeling, Here’s My Heart Come Take It, explores the tensions and textures of her own specific sound with an additional emphasis on experimentation.  Co-produced by Rachel with Mattie Foulds, who also provides his distinctive percussive skills, the album sees Rachel expand upon her reputation as a highly skilled harpist, while developing further her sparse piano and keyboard work on such songs as “Chadh Mo Dhonnchadh Dhan Bheinn” and “Proud Maisrie”.  Singing in both English and Gaelic, the songs are often brooding, slightly melancholic but never maudlin.  With some symbiotic and evocative photography courtesy of Somhairle MacDonald, this album stands as a haunting statement of restraint, where the spaces in between often provide the most engaging moments.

Oliver Swain’s Big Machine – Never More Together | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.06.16

Cutting his musical teeth with such bands as Outlaw Social, The Duhks and The Bills, the Victoria BC-based bassist and banjo player creates his own individual musical soundscape with eight new original songs on this follow up to his 2011 solo debut In A Big Machine.  Taking that title along with most of the musicians who appeared on the debut, Swain and Co expand further upon this musical adventure, exploring their acoustic roots with a keen eye on the detail.  At times whimsical, such as the surprising Maggie, Molly and Raul, which could be an outtake from the White Album, the songs weave an adventurous path, all of which keeps the listener attentive.  If “No Strange Thing”, the only co-write on the album (with Ridley Bent) and featuring a vocal duet with Emily Braden, shows a soulful side of Swain’s character, then “Take Me Up”, the album’s closer, alludes more to an ambient Classical yearning.  If the music on Never More Together should require a visual aid, then the fold-out poster illustrating the complex workings of the mind might just do the trick.

Doug Eunson and Sarah Matthews – Song and Laughter | Album Review | Coth Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.06.16

If all the incarnations of Cupola (Cupola, Cupola:Ward and DanceCupola) more than adequately showcase the musical chops of Doug Eunson and Sarah Matthews, then Song And Laughter aims to get back to brass tacks, once again highlighting the duo’s credentials as singers of folk songs and tellers of stories.  The dozen songs and tunes here are collected from several sources, from John Tams’ lilting “Lily Gilders” to “The Dutch in the Medway”, which once again shows that through his poems, Kipling continues to make exceedingly good songs.  Then there’s Leon Rosselson’s homage to Aesop with the fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, which continues to delight.  There’s an hour of engaging songs on this latest release by the Derbyshire-based duo, including one or two original compositions by Sarah Matthews, including the uplifting instrumental “Songbirds in June” and “High Flyers”, written as the sleeve notes indicate, in praise of Rolls Royce in Derby, whose 100 years of aero engineering excellence has indeed taken us high.

Ray Hearne – Umpteen | Album Review | No Masters | Review by Phil Carter | 07.06.16

Third album in fifteen years from the South Yorkshire songsmith, and it’s a delightful and beautifully crafted piece of work.  Ray Hearne could never be labelled prolific and Umpteen happens to be only his third album in fifteen years, but commercial gains have never featured heavily in Ray’s ethos.  Instead the emphasis has always been on the quality of his craft and in creating a single body of work that will only be free to see the light of day when the process of honing and polishing has been completed.  As an artisan songwriter in the truest sense, the melodic accompaniment to the song is probably secondary to Ray’s love of words, and so the tunes are simple and often borrowed from the traditional canon leaving the words of the songs to flourish unfettered and to breathe freely.   As an example, the opening song on the album “Moonpenny Hill” has been a work in progress for over twenty years, stored in Ray’s subconscious song library, visited occasionally before being placed back on the metaphorical shelf.  This song in particular has lain dormant for the time-span of the two previous albums, as the first release Broadstreet Ballads appeared back in 2001, and The Wrong Sunshine in 2010.  However, the endearing quality of Ray’s songs is his ability to tell the story, and stories are not susceptible to the ravages of time and so the songs appear as fresh as the day they were first conceived.  The basic raw material for Ray’s writing is his fascination for observing everyday life, which by the use of carefully constructed wordplay he then distils into vignettes of rich imagery.  Take the song “The Hall of Fish”, which Ray explains in the sleeve notes came about as the result of a holiday to Brittany in 2003.  There the family would sit with lollies and wine opposite Las Halles aux Poisson.  Later Ray learnt that 15,000 people had died in that summer’s heatwave.  Then there is the song “The Kid Who Killed the Milkman” which relates the harrowing events of a barbaric act of murder that occurred in Sheffield as recently as 2003.  It is a dark and poignant song made more so by the accompanying melody “Slieve Gallen Brae”.  Each of the fourteen songs on the album has its own story to tell which Ray embellishes with its own unique structure and style.  That’s what makes this and Ray’s previous two albums so special, in that due to the deep well of subject matter he draws from, there is no danger of the songs morphing into a single common entity.  On this occasion I will refrain from the usual practice of highlighting particular tracks on the album, as is would be unfair to detract the potential listener’s attention away from any of the fourteen songs contained on Umpteen.  It should be mentioned that Ray has engaged the services of some fine musicians and singers to support him on the album, including Jude Abbott (who also did the cover design), Belinda O’Hooley, Greg Russell, Ciaran Algar, Ciaran Boyle and daughters Emily and Rebecca Hearne with the album engineered and produced by fellow No Masters colleague and ex-Chumbawamba member Neil Ferguson.  I would encourage anyone who may be new to Ray Hearne’s work, or indeed anyone who is already familiar with his music to give this album a listen.  It is a master class of social observation songwriting and as with all good folk music will be as relevant in thirty, forty or seventy years time as it is today. 

Ninebarrow – Releasing the Leaves | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Phil Carter | 08.06.16

Dorset based duo Ninebarrow bounced onto the national folk scene in 2014 with their highly acclaimed debut album While The Blackthorn Burns which demonstrated their refreshingly new and innovative take on the folk tradition.  Their second album Releasing The Leaves sees Jon Whitley and James LaBouchardiere further developing their exquisite pitch-perfect harmonies and instrumental arrangements employing a plethora of musical instruments including reed organ, ukulele, tenor and octave mandola and enhanced by the duo’s beautiful string arrangements, delivered by Lee Cuff on cello and Joe Limburn on double bass.  This is an album of various shades, from stripped back simplicity to spellbinding complexity, dark corners to refreshing optimism.  The eleven tracks embrace all that the duo is about, including their love of landscape, history and British folklore.  On the strength of their first two releases, Ninebarrow are certain to become a recognised force in English folk music.  Watch this space.

Fraser Anderson – Under The Cover Of Lightness | Album Review | Membran | Review by Phil Carter | 09.06.16

I’ve followed the creative progress of Scottish songwriter and singer Fraser Anderson since back in 2004, when he relocated his family to rural France and eventually released his cottage industry produced debut album And The Girl With The Strawberry.  He wrote the songs on the album while working in kitchens and on building sites, scraping together a meagre existence while holding tightly onto his dream of seeing his songs played out on a bigger stage.  Fast forwards to the present day, and in spite of Anderson releasing two more albums since the debut recording, he has largely flown under the radar in the UK, despite receiving glowing recognition from Bob Harris for his second album Coming Up For Air, which he described as ‘truly beautiful’ and invited Fraser to record two sessions for his BBC radio 2 show.  Anderson moved back to the UK on 2014, basing himself in Bristol, and following a successful crowdfunding campaign, he set to work on this newly released Under The Cover Of Lightness. The new album is a more mature, sensitive and yet far more complex and courageous work than his previous three releases.  The songs benefit from a much more layered style of production, losing the abject sparsity of his previous work, and which move confidently betwixt theme and mood with gorgeous female harmonies and gentle orchestrations floating the ear between Damien Rice and Portishead.  Standout tracks include the closing song on the album Rising Sons, the smooth jazz feel of “Simple Guidance” and the beautifully plaintive “The Wind And The Rain” backed with understated cello, fiddle and double bass and seasoned with some exquisite flute and Hammond organ work.  Under The Cover Of Lightness should be the springboard that affords Fraser Anderson a much wider audience base.  A beautifully crafted album of songs that hundreds of people have already pulled together to help the world discover this unassuming and long understated songwriter.

ALA.NI – You and I | Album Review | No Format! | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 15.06.16

After ALA.NI’s brief performance on Later with Jools Holland last year, anticipation for the London-born vocalist’s debut album has had time to grow into something hardly bearable.  No wonder, when this stunning young artist’s voice sits comfortably amongst those of Billie Holiday, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Allison Russell, while retaining its own gentle flavour.  You And I does more than enough to satisfy those for whom the wait has seemed like an epoch. Indeed, there are moments when one feels a little spoiled.  Take, for instance, the understated magic of “Suddenly”, a track that would have been enough of a treat, even without the delicious choir of harmonies that, like many of the songs here, preserves the track in its own exquisite amber.  Similarly, “Roses & Wine” has all the spare and simple beauty of a thirties Billie Holiday cut but blossoms into something that would fit nicely on any Kate and Anna McGarrigle release.  And it’s within this territory, perhaps, where the album will find its most loyal followers.  There’ll be many a music mag licking and sticking the “Jazz” decals on You And I, but this powerfully sweet record succeeds in transcending labels, focusing instead on the delicate delivery of, above anything else, the love song.

Evie Ladin – Jump The Fire | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Phil Carter | 16.06.16

About a year ago, Oakland California-based musician Evie Ladin Band holed up in a damp, dark cabin in the woods with no phone, no internet, with only a woodstove and her instruments for company.  She wrote, wrote and then wrote some more and emerged with the bones of her third release, ready to garnish with the necessary embellishments courtesy of her trio, the Evie Ladin Band. It’s been five years since Ladin released her debut solo album, and since then, the trio has become a tight unit with Ladin on lead vocals, clawhammer banjo and percussive dance helped by Keith Terry on vocals, double bass and percussion, and Erik Pearson on vocals, guitar and banjo.  This latest release Jump The Fire is a true reckoning of the trio’s ongoing collaboration.  The album is a beautifully paced collection of Ladin’s original Appalachian styled folk songs in addition to a handful of inventive, but not over-elaborate interpretations of traditional songs.  Two tracks that perfectly illustrate the scope of styles present on the album are “Coo Coo” a song based on the traditional English folk song “The Cuckoo” and the wonderfully laid back self-penned “Only You”.  This is old time music at its authentic best, and this latest release should ensure that the Evie Ladin Band cement their reputation for high quality musicianship and for their willingness to take a refreshingly innovative approach to maintaining the Appalachian music tradition.

The Bramble Napskins – Kettle is King | EP Review | Paper Plane | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.06.16

There was an excitable din coming from the Wold Top marquee at this year’s Beverley Folk Festival as The Bramble Napskins brought the Sunday afternoon Moonbeams concert to a close.  The seven-piece York-based band led by Evie Rapson, whose voice seems almost too powerful for the rest of the musicians, created just the sort of energy that would have new fans queuing up after their show, eager to take a bit of them home with them, while club organisers hung around to see if they could book them for their respective venues.  Kettle Is King is the band’s debut EP, which features five songs that effectively showcase the band’s World-influenced sound.  The copy reviewed here was the very last one on site, the others all having been immediately snapped up.  There’s an able-bodied rhythm section of drums, bass and guitar, with the all-important accordion, flute and tenor sax combination taking us on a musical adventure. But it’s Evie’s extraordinarily strong voice that makes the band what it is, a voice that can pivot effortlessly between the soulfully sweet title song “Kettle is King” and hard folk stomping “Dance” with seemingly little sweat.  If there was any doubting the quality of Evie’s voice in the first four songs, then look no further than the gorgeous plaintive finale “Little Boy Traveller”, which signals the arrival of a new voice to take notice of.  Co-produced by Paper Plane label mate Dan Webster, the five songs included here make up much more than a stop gap while we await their planned debut album, which should be available soon.

Alexis Taylor – Piano | Album Review | Moshi Moshi Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 24.06.16

Back in 2008, an album hit the charts that seemed to reinvent electronic pop for the new millennium.  Hot Chip’s Made In The Dark, the London-based band’s fourth record since forming in 2000, was received with glowing appraisals from general listeners and critics alike, attracting ears from lovers of a wide range of genres, not just those chart-consuming, iPod-toting kids of the new century.   The secret of the album’s success?  Well, while the innovative electronic sounds, infectious rhythms and slick musicianship made for an impressive production, it was, most likely, Alexis Taylor’s gift for melody that put this album on so many shelves that year. Indeed, behind the hypnotic glare of electronica, listeners could easily detect the influence of such melodists as McCartney, Nillson and Bowie, made all the more enjoyable thanks to Taylor’s honeyed voice.   Fortunately, Taylor has had the good sense to place the spotlight firmly on melody for his latest solo outing, Piano, by recording a melancholic selection of covers and originals.  And, to help intensify the emphasis, the album contains nothing but piano and vocals (as well as a bit of acoustic guitar on the final track).  A highly personal album, and one that invites the listener to a private recital by this fine musician, Piano contains minimalistic versions of songs made famous by Crystal Gayle “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” and Elvis Presley “Crying in the Chapel” as well as a new version of the Hot Chip song “So Much Further to Go” which references Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  The result is a deeply introverted performance that makes hymns of pop songs and an exquisite, sweet gospel singer of Taylor.  It’s an emotional outpouring, reportedly inspired by the recent death of a friend, and an album that proves, again, that heavy production and layers of instrumentation are superfluous when it comes to the power of a damn good melody.

The Danberrys – Give and Receive | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.06.16

The new offering by The Danberrys is one of those Americana albums that brings instant gratification; great songs, great arrangements, great musicianship, great performances. The ten songs are immediately accessible and cover a deep well of influence from the worlds of rock and blues to bluegrass and country.  The East Nashville-based duo at the core of the band are Ben Deberry and Dorothy Daniel, whose relationship goes back to high school where the two met as teenagers.  Now married for ten years, the duo’s musical bond is just as close, evident in every note on this album.  Drawing from Dorothy’s grounding in soul and blues together with Ben’s love of bluegrass, rock and country, the magical sparks that began to fly on the duo’s previous releases, the Company Store EP (2011), their self-titled debut full-length release in 2013 and now on Give And Receive, are in no hurry to burn out or fade.  Produced by Ethan Ballinger, the album’s notable songs include the bluesy, gospel-tinged “Don’t Drink the Water”, which sees the duo emote deliciously throughout, Dorothy’s assured performance on her own “Lady Belle” and the all-out bluegrass romp of “Long Song”, complete with possibly the longest count-off in the history of bluegrass.

The Changing Room – Picking Up the Pieces | Album Review | TCR Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.07.16

The Changing Room, Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain’s Looe-based folk collective, continue to create a fine blend of easy-on-the-ear folk music of a Cornish flavour with the release of this their second full-length album. There’s a healthy stylistic mix of contemporary modern folk song with the occasional hint at something slightly older – I can’t help thinking Bal Maiden’s “Waltz” wouldn’t be lost on a Fivepenny Piece LP from the early 1970s – the eleven songs, however simplistic in places, measure up to anything that’s currently being explored in British folk music today.  The Cornish songs Gwrello Glaw “Let It Rain” and “Delyow Sevi” are convincing, despite being delivered by a couple of singers from Norfolk and Yorkshire respectively.  Where the album works best though is in the steady build of Caradon Hill and the driving rhythm of “The Cinder Track”, both songs exemplifying Kelly and Brittain’s credentials as choice collaborators, both as writers and performers.  With the collective already featuring such fine musicians as banjo player Jamie Francis and percussionist Evan Carson, both of whom complete the Sam Kelly Trio, together with harpist Morrigan Palmer Brown, The Changing Room’s latest release also features notable contributions from John McCusker, Belinda O’Hooley and Kevin McGuire, each of whom add their own distinctive touches.

Tuulikki Bartosik – Storied Sounds | Album Review | RootBeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.07.16

This delightfully evocative instrumental album has been described as s love letter to the Estonian landscapes of Tuulikki Bartosik’s childhood, yet the tunes included here could also easily fit into the role of accompanying a Thomas Hardy film adaptation.  There’s little doubting Bartosik’s credentials as a highly imaginative and expressive accordion player, yet in the case of Storied Sounds, it’s the inventiveness of the musical arrangements, together with the use of atmospheric field recordings that brings these thirteen pieces of music alive; a meeting of music and nature so beautifully captured and encapsulated in just under an hour.  These compositions were actually imagined and written over a long period of time yet they seem to effortlessly dovetail together as a whole as if they were written, arranged and recorded in the same week.  Joining Tuulikki Bartosik on this particular venture are Timo Alakotila on piano, Villu Talsi on mandolin and Dylan Fowler on guitar, all of whom contribute something extra special to these recordings.

Kaela Rowan – The Fruited Thorn | Album Review | Shoogie Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.07.16

Kaela Rowan is a hidden treasure, a singer whose second album is packed with little surprises, not least the two collaborative songs with Rajasthani singer Dayam Khan Manganiyar, Eilean Fhianain and Griogal Chridhe. Based solidly within the realms of Kaela Rowan’s own Scottish Highlands roots, the traditional ballads included here, sung in both English and Gaelic, come alive before us through imaginative arrangements, courtesy of chief collaborators James Mackintosh and Ewan MacPherson.  If these songs were learned as a young session singer, then it’s not difficult to relate to some of the sources; maybe Dick Gaughan for “Now Westlin Winds”, possibly Andy Irvine for “As I Roved Out”, conceivably Paul Brady for “Mary and the Gallant Soldier” and as for “Lord Gregory”, name your own source.  If Mackintosh’s delicious percussion drives the album along, then it’s with some of the contributions courtesy of John McCusker, Patsy Reid, Griogair Labhruidh and Jarlath Henderson and others that embellish the songs further.  It has to be said though, that it’s with the voice of Kaela Rowan that much of our attention is paid, and rightly so.

Bitori – Legend of Funaná | Album Review | Analog Africa | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.07.16

The history of popular music has taught us that one sure fire way to ensure the success of a record is to ban it.  This has happened on countless occasions over the last few decades, especially in the case of those records containing daring lyrics of a sexual or political nature.  Imagine then an entire musical genre being banned.  As a forbidden music, Funaná appears quite harmless in comparison to, let’s say, Frankie’s Relax, but to the Portuguese rulers of the pre-independence Cape Verde Islands, the distinctive gaita diatonic accordion music later popularised by Victor Tavares, otherwise known as Bitori, was at the very least frowned upon as peasant music and at worst perceived as a threat to colonial rule and therefore being caught playing it had serious consequences.  Originally released in 1998, over twenty years after Cape Verdean independence, Bitori Nha Bibinha, the album’s original title, made a major splash with Cape Verdeans and was considered the best Funaná album ever to have been produced.  With the rhythm section of Grace Evora on drums and Danilo Tavares on bass, together with the voice of Chando Graciosa, the now re-issued and re-titled Bitori – Legend Of Funaná – The Forbidden Music Of The Cape Verdi Islands, finds a much more accepted reception as a vibrant and colourful dance music, free from its troubled past and a music to enjoy and celebrate.

Nancy Kerr – Instar | Album Review | Little Dish Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.07.16

There are one or two things we can always rely on when it comes to Nancy Kerr.  First there’s the confident and assured voice which never seems to falter, a ‘folk’ voice whose owner takes care to ensure there’s never a wasted syllable or note. We can also rely on Nancy Kerr to be surrounded by choice musicians as she is in the case of her new release Instar.  Then there’s the honesty of her lyrics and indeed her lyricism, songs of which we have come to expect nothing short of quality.  So, there are one or two expectations before the needle even hits the groove (or whatever the terminology is for compact discs).  What I didn’t expect from Instar was to be listening to the album almost constantly throughout the month of July, a month that culminated in the singer and her band of sweet visitors, launching the album with a performance on the main stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  With Rowan Rheingans (a musician who popped up all over the place during the festival, not only with this band but also with Lady Maisery and the Songs of Separation project), husband and long-time musical collaborator James Fagan on guitar and bouzouki, Tim Yates on double bass (replaced by Rick Foot at the launch), Tom Wright on a variety of instruments not least drums and who also produces, Greg Russell on electric guitar and CJ Hillman guesting on pedal-steel, the Sweet Visitor Band creates a panoramic soundscape for these songs to rest.  Rowan Rheingans’ bansitar (a banjo that sounds like a sitar), provides some of the album’s most evocative sounds, notably on the songs “Kingdom” and “Seven Notes Adieu My Love”.   Throughout the album, made up of thirteen self-penned songs, covering such subjects as gender identity, human rights, women’s freedom, austerity, tolerence and a whole host of other topics, we sense that the musicians involved instinctively suspected that they were making something rather special. I think their suspicions were correct.

Alice Jones – Poor Strange Girl | Album Review | Slid Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.07.16

There appears to have been quite a lot of ground covered before the arrival of this debut solo album by singer, multi-instrumentalist and dancer Alice Jones.  The Ripponden-based artist has managed to substantially soak up the folk traditions of both Britain and America, having been raised in a folk music household and has subsequently managed to blend them all together in a rich melting pot of traditional song and dance tunes.  In places reminiscent of Rachel and Becky Unthank’s early recordings, especially on such songs as “The Cruel Mother”, “Woody Knows Nothing” and the beautiful “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still”, Alice maintains her own distinctive Yorkshire vernacular throughout, which gives the songs their powerful earthiness. At times the album feels like two very different albums in one, with the delicate songs providing one half while the whistle-led instrumentals provide us with the other.  With the ever reliable Tom Kitching on fiddle and Hugh Bradley on double bass, Alice takes command of the rest, all of which reveals a fine debut and potentially gives us a new voice to watch out for in the future. 

Khmer Rouge Survivors – They Will Kill You, If You Cry | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.07.16

Anyone who recalls the dreadful Killing Fields of Cambodia, whether in news bulletins between 1975 and 1979, or via the brilliant Oscar-winning Roland Joffe directed film of the same name, or indeed anyone who quivers uncontrollably in their seats each time they see a red gingham table cloth, the word fear might automatically spring to mind.  We may recall the brutality of the short-lived Khmer Rouge regime, the insanity of Pol Pot’s vision of a religion, money and education-free Cambodia, but what of the survivors?  More to the point, what of the music created by these survivors.  For the third instalment of the powerful Hidden Musics series, producer Ian Brennan continues to pursue the traditional music of South East Asia with a collection of songs under the chilling title ‘They will kill you, if you cry.’  The pained vocal performances included on these fourteen songs are matched measure for measure by the scarred faces of the musicians, revealed in the moving photographs included in the sleeve artwork. It’s difficult to listen to these songs without imagining some of the pain that these musicians endured.  However many female blues singers we may have heard, from Bessie Smith to Janis Joplin, Memphis Minnie to Nina Simone, the pained Smot vocal style of Keut Ran could not be mistaken for anything other than profound sorrow.  Despite the album’s darker tones, there are one or two moments of light, Thorn Seyma’s “Bong Euy Sdaap Pkor” for instance, which comes across as a lilting campfire song.

Sera – Little Girl | Album Review | Folkal Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.07.16

After casually inspecting the sleeve and accompanying lyric booklet of the latest release by singer-songwriter Sera, I was unnecessarily worried, not by the image of the blurred figure in the quivvering Blair Witch Project woods, but by the cowboy boots, shown in more detail on the back cover.  By default I feared the prospect of yet another British singer obsessed with the latest season in the Nashville boxset, but thankfully, after hearing the songs, I was pleasantly surprised. I was first of all surprised by the standard of those songs and in turn impressed by Sera’s confident and assured voice, then furthermore grateful that the cowboy boots were likely worn for comfort rather than as a Tinseltown fashion statement.  Sera’s North Wales background can be detected in such songs as “When Will I Be Home”, which hints at the singer’s Caernarfon roots.  Those roots are further emphasised on “Mond Am Eiluiad”, sung in her native tongue and a million miles from her Tennessee pretentions.  Highly melodic in places, Sera’s songs work best when adopting almost Beatle-esque middle-eights, such as on the immediately accessible “Carry Me”, one of the strongest songs on the album.  Sera has released several albums and EPs so far in her career, sung in both Welsh and English and despite Little Girl’s overall Americana feel, there is an indigenous spirit here that cannot be mistaken.  Assisted in no small part by multi-instrumentalist/producer Eddie Al-Shakarchi, the dozen songs and additional bonus track clearly indicate an artist’s coming of age.

Hannah James – Jigdoll | Album Review | RootBeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.07.16

If the perceived adolescent voice of Kate Rusby reflects the back lanes of suburban Barnsley, then the hums, yodels and vocal doodles on Hannah James’ debut solo album conjures the dark dark woods of an M Night Shyamalan film, or wicker figures perched upon cliff tops with the beetle in the desk that goes round and round.  Based on a stage show of the same name, Hannah explores her own musical past in words, music and dance, all three of which are inextricably linked and each of which she is neither stranger not novice.  There’s an ethereal undercurrent permeating these lullabies, jigs, marches and broadsides, each delicately written, borrowed or deconstructed and reconstructed to suit Hannah’s sensibilities.  Yet it’s all shaped in an adventurous journey celebrating movement through sound, even the dance steps, essentially a visual feast, can be enjoyed as a sonic experience.  For the visuals, we leave it in the more than capable hands of Elly Lucas, whose photography shows us the Hannah James we all know and love and with not a single drop of splashed paint in sight.  The photograph on the back of the accompanying booklet shows Hannah clog dancing barefoot, which is audible on “Barefoot Waltz”, a whispered dance if you will, one of the treats that makes this a beautiful little album.   

The Lowest Pair – Uncertainty As It Is Uneven/Fern Girl and Ice Man | Album Review | Team Love Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.07.16

One of the most distinctive vocal collaborations in recent years came courtesy of Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer on their Child Ballads album and tour.  There’s something similar going on here with the latest couple of releases by Kendle Winter and Palmer T Lee, otherwise known as the Lowest Pair, so similar in fact that at times you feel the two duos are one and the same.  On this occasion the Olympia, Washington-based duo have released two albums simultaneously, almost as a double album but separated as fine companion pieces.  The banjo-wielding duo traverse the moody backwoods of America with a bunch of memorable and atmospheric earthy songs, at times with a nod towards such contemporaries as Ryan Adams for instance on “Strangers”.  If the songs on Uncertain As It Is Uneven have a tendency to be light and breezy, those on the second disc Fern Girl And Ice Man demonstrate a more pensive, thoughtful mood with such songs as the sombre “Tagged Ear” and the curious “Totes”, each delivered with something of a beguiling air.  If the mood is at times imbued with a quiet melancholy nature, then there are moments when the duo demonstrate an urgency to deliver, on such songs as “Sweet Breath” and “Mason’s Trowel”, both of which highlight the duo’s chops as first rate pickers.   

Richie and Rosie – Tractor Beam | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.07.16

If there’s a slight difference between Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton’s album shot and that of the accompanying press release for the duo’s debut album Tractor Beam, then the fact that the album is now three years old might explain one or two things.  The album was recorded in Trumansburg, NY and released in 2013 but is now being re-issued in the UK ahead of the duo’s much anticipated visit to these shores next year.  With just a fiddle and a banjo, together with two voices, the dozen songs range from self-penned material such as “Ribbons and Bows”, “Take It or Leave” and the title song “Tractor Beam”, a handful of traditional songs including “Say Darling Say” and “Trouble in Mind”, plus one or two instrumental delights such as “Shirt Tail Boogie” and “Lost Goose”.  The duo also manage to squeeze in one of Townes Van Zandt’s best loved love songs, “If I Needed You”, bringing a taste of their own brand of old Americana to new ears.  As a bonus, a live recording of the traditional “Ruben’s Train” and “Hangman’s Reel” are included featuring Willie Watson on guitar, showcasing the duo’s credentials as seasoned performers.

The Stray Birds – Magic Fire | Album Review | YepROC Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.07.16

One of the memorable moments of the 2015 Cambridge Folk Festival was when all three members of Lancaster County trio, the Stray Birds huddled around one single microphone on the main stage; to the right, Charlie Muench leaning against his upright bass, in the centre, guitar picker and occasional fiddle player Oliver Craven, face almost completely obscured by the circular frame of the diaphragm condenser microphone and finally to the left, singer and fiddle player Maya De Vitry, whose determined voice is of the sort you imagine would come out of the mouth of Gillian Welch’s wayward kid sister.  The songs on Magic Fire, the band’s third album to date, are bookended by two outstanding tracks in “Shining in the Distance”, which opens the album, raising the bar from the start, along with the powerful closer “When I Die”, complete with its tour de force three-part harmony intro. In between there are surprises for those familiar with the Stray Birds’ back catalogue.  At times on Magic Fire, the trio reflect mainstream Country of the stadium variety, such as “Third Day in a Row”, a Nashville jukebox cut if ever there was one, albeit with a definite sense that the music is very much at the forefront, leaving behind the spotless white suits and matching Stetsons, along with the meticulously trimmed goatees and substantial bouffant wigs.  The Stray Birds are about the soulful heart of Americana and Saturday night dancing, they’re about “Mississippi Pearl”s and Sabrina pulling grapes from the vine.  They’re the Stray Birds and they’re here. With excellent production courtesy of Larry Campbell, whose work with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Levon Helm doesn’t go unnoticed, Magic Fire is probably one of the finest albums of the year.

Broom Bezzums – No Smaller Than The World | Album Review | Steeplejack Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.07.16

A rather accomplished fifth album by Germany-based British folk duo Andrew Cadie and Mark Bloomer, otherwise known as Broom Bezzums.  Though I say duo, there’s a major contribution here by Newcastle-based singer-songwriter Katie Doherty, credited as a member of the band on the inner sleeve but confusingly remaining out of the spotlight on the cover, tucked away on the reverse instead; kinda reminds me of another notable duo.  Flicking through the accompanying booklet, we see all three musicians in the centre spread visually echoing what we hear on such songs as Jez Lowe’s “Bare Knuckle”.  Along with the original compositions, such as Bloomer’s “Cold Wind Blow” and Cadie’s “Fishing in Troubled Waters”, the duo appear to be equally at home with traditional material such as a convincing arrangement of “High Germany”.  Doherty, with the world in her hands on the back cover, contributes one of her own songs, the optimistic “Passing Through”, complete with vocal echoes of Nancy Kerr.  Billy Bragg’s memorable re-working of an old Woody ‘Gaffrey’ lyric in “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key”, receives more impressive treatment during the closing five minutes of this well worth a listen hour of music and song. 

Ben Bedford – The Pilot and the Flying Machine | Album Review | Waterbug Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.07.16

The fourth album release by Springfield, Illinois-based singer-songwriter Ben Bedford, takes us on a journey of sorts. Its title song, which comes in two parts, is echoed in the Icarus-like cover illustration by local Springfield artist Michael A Dunbar, whose sculptures have inspired the songs.  The notion of flight runs through the songs, from the twin title songs to the evocative “The Voyage of John and Emma”, recounting the journey that his own ancestors took when they left England for the Promised Land a few generations ago.  “High and Low”, alludes to the vast open skies above, while Orrery, a skittering dialog between guitar, fiddle and viola, conjures up the essence of flight in its lush arrangement.  The songs are in fact treated to rich string orchestrations throughout, with an emphasis on Bedford’s crisp guitar playing.  One to savour. 

Kieran Towers and Charlotte Carrivick – Wolves a’ Howlin’ | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.08.16

Charlotte Carrivick changes musical partners for this cheerful instrumental collaborative album with fiddle player Kieran Towers, which features fourteen tunes either self-composed or borrowed from others.  Having cut her musical teeth with sister Laura in the popular Carrivick Sisters and more recently enjoying some success as a member of Cardboard Fox, again with sister Laura, the multi-instrumentalist weaves in and out between Kieran’s assured fiddle playing, while alternating between banjo, mandolin and guitar.  Almost entirely instrumental, the tunes really do speak for themselves throughout, from the frantic Foghorn Stringband romp of “Best Timber”, to the foot-tapping closing title song, the only trace of a vocal endeavour on the album, albeit via whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ with the two musicians doing their best impressions of howling wolves.  An album best served by the campfire, with something boiling and bubbling along in the pot.

Ben Wendel – What We Bring | Album Review | Motema Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 2.08.16

Anyone experiencing the music of Ben Wendel for the first time via this new release from the Canadian-born saxophonist might wonder where he’s been all their life.  In fact, it may be less arduous to query where he hasn’t been. Since the late 90s, Wendel has been busy honing his sound via a wealth of appearances on other people’s recordings.  He’s played with distinguished pianists Tigran Hamasyan and Dan Tepfer and bassist Todd Sickafoose as well as such mainstream acts as Good Charlotte and Jason Mraz.  He’s also served tenures with the Dakah Hip-Hop Orchestra and Daedelus.  But it was his time with American fusion outfit Kneebody that moulded the Ben Wendel we know today.  Even the greenest of jazzer will note the exquisite quality in Ben’s playing on What We Bring, his third outing as leader, especially during the more effervescent moments of “Amian”, “Spring” and “Solar”; tracks which also showcase the talents of Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and the incredibly inventive Henry Cole on drums.  While it’s enjoyable to look for clues to the inspirations behind these eight superb tracks, with each one being dedicated to past jazz masters such as Coltrane and Jamal, the overarching attraction of this album lies within Wendel’s own striking artistry.

Madeleine Peyroux – Secular Hymns | Album Review | Impulse! | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.08.16

It’s been twenty years since Madeleine Peyroux’s first release made us all wonder if Billie Holiday had been returned to us.  Once we’d gotten over the shock of it and realised that Madeleine was, regardless of similarities, very much a talent in her own right, we were thankfully assured that the 21st Century wouldn’t be leaving fine, heartfelt vocal jazz behind.  Madeleine Peyroux continues to water the roots of jazz and blues with her steady string of albums, not least on Secular Hymns, her latest collection of songs that call upon a ‘spiritual humanism’ at work in Peyroux’s deliciously soulful sound and selection skills.  While the album was recorded live in a church and the songs have a hymn-like quality to them, there’s no religion here.  These are songs of real life, of inner light, love and loss.  If you’re still looking for similarities, you might find more Bessie than Billie on this latest album, especially on songs such as Willie Dixon’s “If The Sea Was Whiskey” and the traditional “Trampin”.   There’s even a little Townes Van Zandt “The Highway Kind” and Tom Waits “Tango Till They’re Sore” here, proving once again that Madeleine Peyroux, even at her most intimately introspective, is an artist whose ears and heart are always wide open.

Seth Lakeman – Ballads of the Broken Few | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.08.16

It’s hard to believe that Seth Lakeman is around to his eighth studio album now; it seems like only five minutes since the release of his Mercury-nominated debut Kitty Jay, which hit our ears with convincing force back in 2004.  A dozen years have indeed passed, enough time for Seth to develop and grow into one of the most prominent and popular figures on the British folk scene and with this latest collection of songs, we see evidence of a musician in control of that reputation.  Once again recording in a unique location, this time the Great Hall of a Jacobean Manor House, the Devon-based singer, songwriter and musician delivers songs that on this occasion feature lush vocal harmonies courtesy of siblings Emillie and Beth Key along with their cousin Meghann Loney, otherwise collectively known as Wildwood Kin.  Predominantly self-penned originals, the album features some of Seth’s most soulful songs to date, along with an unexpected take on Laurelyn Dossett’s doleful “Anna Lee”, memorably recorded for Levon Helm’s celebrated Dirt Farmer album.  There’s one or two typical trademark Lakeman stompers present, such as “Innocent Child”, which might otherwise have been subliminally absorbed had it not been for the Wildwoods’ stunning contribution, “Elsewhere”, Seth continues to explore traditional ballads collected from Cecil Sharp’s archive over in Camden, a good stride from Devon, but well worth the effort.

Noura Mint Seymali – Arbina | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.09.16

A couple of years ago, Noura Mint Seymali’s first international release Tzenni came along, a good ten years after the singer’s initial fusion experiments with husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly, whose distinctive electric guitar lines that imitate the traditional tidinit (Moorish lute), perfectly complemented Seymali’s vocal flights both then and now.  Prompted by the trance-like groove of “Eguetmar”, the opening track from that 2014 album, which first came to Northern Sky’s attention via the August/September Songlines covermount CD of that year, a love affair ensued with both the voice and the music of this adventurous Moorish griot singer and musician from Mauritania.  This follow up album is once again filled with strong and vibrant vocal performances, with Seymali accompanying herself on the ardine, the traditional Mauritanian kora-like stringed instrument made specifically for women.  If the opening few bars of the title track sound a little like Ian Dury’s “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”, then they could not be further from the lyrical intention of Noura Mint Seymali’s devotional music, with Arbina itself being a word for ‘God’.  Yet creating a contemporary feel for these otherwise traditional Mauritian melodies is quite intentional, with Chighaly’s guitar weaving effortlessly between Seymali’s ardine flurries, helped along in no small part by the empathetic rhythm section of Ousmane Touré on bass and Matthew Tinari on drums.

The Bills – Trail of Tales | Album Review | Borealis Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.09.16

Fresh from the west coast of Canada comes another tantalising taste of The Bills, a quintet of gifted musicians who have been quietly carving their own niche in their beautiful country’s roots music scene over the last decade and a half.   Trail Of Tales is the band’s fifth release since 2000’s The Bill Hilly Band and, once again, we’re treated to a generous helping of effervescent folk strummers such as “Trail of Tales” and “Hittin’ The Do” as well as serene, jazz and classical inspired whistle-alongs such as “Pebble Beach”, “Mando Coloured Glass” and the brilliant “Happy Be”.  And whether its tranquil instrumentals, driving stompers or rousing gospel harmonies that you’re after, this new record will delight you throughout.  For the first time in the band’s career, this new album features contributions of self-penned songs from all five members, which helps establish the album as The Bills’ most textured to date. It’s also the closest the band has come to releasing an album that would satisfy the mainstream, with such pop-infused songs as the infectious “Jungle Doctor” and the Beatle-esque “Lullaby for Elephants”.  For established Bills fans, however, there’s plenty to be thankful for, not least the welcome feeling that this is a band that’s still churning out the good stuff after all these years.

Cera Impala – Tumbleweed | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.09.16

The last thing likely to cross your path as you listen to Cera Impala’s new record is tumbleweed.  With an almost sultry vocal delivery, the dozen or so songs on her latest album release, find the singer in good form, her breathy, soulful and honey-rich voice at the forefront throughout and with not a single guitar in earshot.  Driven along by some tastfully rendered fiddle courtesy of Dirk Ronneburg and pretty grounded double bass runs from Joel Sanderson, Cera’s banjo and uke accompaniment allows just enough space for the one or two guest appearances, notably Mary Macmaster’s electric harp on the brooding “Flicker n’ Shine”.  With songs that are often cinematic, such as the title song “Tumbleweed” and “Ponderosa”, and at times the slightly whimsical “Roll a Joint” and “Magic”, Cera and her band are also fully equipped to delve into Portishead territory with the contemporary feel of the album closer, “Home”.

Federico Bonifazi – You’ll See | Album Review | Steeplechase | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 20.09.16

There’s a generosity at play on You’ll See, not simply in the way that young Italian pianist Federico Bonifazi allows his fellow musicians to steal much of the limelight, but also in the unadorned, somewhat raw disclosure of every sound on this wonderfully intimate record.  Consider Eric Alexander’s tenor sax, for example, which remains unrestrained, bone-dry and sans vibrato throughout.  There are moments when Eric leads the way while Bonifazi’s piano sits considerately underneath, albeit comfortably close to the mic.  Percussive and warm on every track is John Webber who provides a masterclass in engaging basslines while Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving member of the sextet that made Kind of Blue, offers one his finest performances in what is, remarkably, his eighty-eighth year.  There’s nothing overly fancy here, just eight utterly enjoyable straight-ahead recordings from a quietly confident quartet with a shared generosity of spirit.

Joey Alexander – Countdown | Album Review | Motema Music | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.09.16

If you were to jump randomly into Countdown, the latest release from Bali-born pianist Joey Alexander, you’d have a pretty good chance of hearing a line of improvised piano charged with enough invention and emotion to melt steel.  And once the molten metal is happily bubbling away, prepare to have your mind blown by the fact that this staggeringly dexterous musician is just thirteen years of age.  That’s right; this dynamic, passionate music – surely the work of a seasoned old jazz musician – is coming from the heart and fingers of someone who isn’t even old enough to remember the Concorde.  But forget Alexander’s age for a second (an easy task, given that Countdown, this young artist’s second release, is such a mature work) and bask in the sonic delights of a tight, conversational trio, led but not dictated by a pianist who never uses his technical gifts to enthral his listener without consulting the emotional sentiment of the composition in hand.  Unlike countless other dazzling wunderkinds, there’s thoughtful expression in Alexander’s playing that lends Countdown its colourful palette and allows the delightfully inquisitive rhythms of drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and tangy basslines of Dan Chmielinski or Larry Grenadier, depending on tracks, to shine through with ebullient freedom.   From the steady acceleration of the Latin-infused “City Lights”, via the warm gospel of “Sunday Waltz”, a buoyant take on Monk’s “Criss Cross”, a meditative reading of “Maiden Voyage” (by Joey’s champion and friend Herbie Hancock and featuring a lovely soprano sax from Chris Potter) to the devastating solo beauty of “Chaplin’s Smile” and compelling rendition of Wynton Marsalis’s “For Wee Folks”, Countdown is a prismatic album that demands to be played and played.

Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage – Before the Sun | Album Review | Sungrazing Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.10.16

As Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage embark on their first tour together as a duo, rather than Ben just backing up Hannah on guitar and dobro, the first thing you might notice is the closeness of their performances on stage. Standing almost attached at the hip, a single microphone positioned midway between their instruments and their voices, it’s impossible to imagine a more intimate performance outside the realms of Kris and Rita back in the early 1970s.  Some of this is evident in the songs on their debut duo album, an album so delicately capturing each gentle note and vocal nuance, that it’s difficult to imagine listening to one without the other.  With their contrasting voices, Hannah and Ben adapt traditional material with convincing effectiveness, especially on such as “Lady Margaret” and “Come All Ye Fair” and “Tender Maids”, but also on their two original co-writes, The Fall “Hang” and “What’s Tonight My Love?”  Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” is such a great dialogue ballad that it seems impossible to fail with the quality of those lyrics. Hannah and Ben make it a theatrical event, with each becoming protagonists as the gentle drama unfolds.  David Travis-Smith’s production keeps the instruments crisp and clear, as the two voices organically meander and mingle, dropping in and out of focus where appropriate.  This is a late evening album that should ideally be accompanied by good wine and subdued light.   

Ian Hunter and the Rant Band – Fingers Crossed | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.10.16

In 1970 there were four curly-locked blondes who each gave the rock world a good old kicking; one was called Plant, another was Daltrey, the third was David Bowie and the fourth was Ian Hunter, the only one of the three who we had little clue as to what he actually looked like.  The ever-present Orbison shades obscured the identity of the Mott the Hoople singer, whose confidence was legendary.  ‘There’s only two rock n roll bands in the world, the Rolling Stones and us’ he quipped from the stage of the Doncaster Top Rank back in the day. Bowie rescued the struggling band in 1972 by giving Mott the Hoople their first big hit and Hunter reflects on his old pal in the wake of his passing with “Dandy”, a song that could easily have been the B-side to “All the Young Dudes”.  This is retro-glam at its best. Ian Hunter’s current role in music may be as a sort of cult figure, but he can still write good pop songs and this is a good example. Fingers Crossed finds Hunter in fine voice throughout, a sort of Dylanesque snarl, which comes in useful for the rock anthems, such as the opener “That’s When the Trouble Starts” and the evocative “Ghosts”, a song recalling the legendary figures that haunt Sun Studios in Memphis, while the title song finds Hunter in folk balladry mode, recounting sixteenth century press gang oppression.  There is a distinct sense of history evident here, even though one song carries the title “You Can’t Live in the Past”, with Bow Street Runners recalling London’s crime-fighting history.  Despite the cover shot, there’s little sign of Ian Hunter putting his feet up quite yet. 

Heidi Talbot – Here We Go 1,2,3 | Album Review | Navigator Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.10.16

Delicately produced by husband and musical partner John McCusker, Heidi Talbot’s fifth album release is possibly the Co Kildare-born singer’s most personal album to date.  Having written, or at least played some part in the writing of the bulk of the album, there’s a sense that Heidi may have been in a reflective mood at the time of writing and recording; reflective in terms of recalling absent friends, while at the same time showing gratitude for those still around her.  There’s a sense of family, certainly on “Song for Rose (Will You Remember Me?)”, a song for Heidi’s late mum, which is delivered as a lullaby, the coda of which includes the voice of the subject’s granddaughter.  The theme of motherhood is echoed in Natalie Merchant’s beguiling “Motherland”, which is treated to a faithful reading here.  If the title song is brimming with optimism, then even the potentially saddest songs on this collection appear to be uplifting at the same time; this is testament to Talbot’s optimistic nature.  The optimism may be the result of the many changes in Heidi’s life, having had a second daughter, a new studio built, a new label and having formed a new band for this project.  Guests include Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbott, Duke Special, Boo Hewerdine and the man very much of the moment, Adam Holmes.

Frank Carline – Promise and Betrayal | Album Review | Resofone | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.16

Doncaster singer-songwriter and local blues legend Frank Carline releases his fifth solo album, which sees the musician in thoughtful and contemplative mood. Promise And Betrayal, is an ultra stripped-down affair; a collection of songs, sketches, moods and reflections, each bound by a common thread.  Bookended by two short pieces with the same title, “The Man on the Corner”, the dozen songs and instrumental pieces, adhere to a theme pertaining to certain aspects of the human condition and in particular what our expectations are when it comes to difficult relationships.  Frank takes a step back to consider the other protagonists in a particular story or circumstance.  On the blues standard for instance “It Hurts Me Too”, Frank ponders how the story would unfold from the stance of the other protagonists in the story, other than the main narrator; these are the thoughts that kept Frank awake during the nine months of sporadic recording which has now resulted in this album.  Some of the ideas derive from reading Joan Le Mesurier’s account of her love triangle with actor/husband John and comedian Tony Hancock, whose catchphrase ‘Stone Me’ is used twice here.  If we look deeper into the lyrics we find something much more thoughtful than your usual down-trodden blues, with Frank searching through his own artistic sensibilities for answers.  In stark contrast to some of the more blues-driven songs on the album, “No Use To Say Goodbye” sees Frank in a much more reflective place, a moment of tender contemplation.  The album has a homemade feel in the sense that it sounds up-close and personal, as if the songs are being delivered just for the one listener.  Produced by John Crisp with Frank playing all the instruments including guitar, slide guitar, harmonica and various percussion, Promise And Betrayal takes us on a contemplative journey through the roots music Frank knows best.

Jim Black Trio – The Constant | Album Review | Intakt Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.10.16

From the opening bars of “High”, in which a tranquil nasally bass lays the foundations for this suite of ten new compositions, a perpetual melody and theme starts to take shape.  It’s a melody passed amongst these adventurous, textured compositions with great reverence, but with a fragility that points a spotlight on the dexterity of this progressive trio.  Seattle-born Jim Black is a well-known and well-respected drummer and bandleader who has, over the last two decades, cut an impressive niche for himself.  His style is energetic, unpredictable and forward-thinking; three adjectives which could easily be applied to The Constant, which sees Black playing with acclaimed Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder and outstanding New York bassist Thomas Morgan.  Together, these inventive players whip up a storm of a record thanks to the gut-churning depths of Stemeseder’s piano on “Chinchilla”, the organic, searching basslines from Morgan on “Song E” and the inventiveness of Black’s percussion, which goes from tinkering to tempest in the blink of an ear.

Kate Rusby – Life in a Paper Boat | Album Review | Pure Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.10.16

One of the things that you can almost always guarantee when it comes to a new Kate Rusby album, is that it will be well produced.  There’s none of the ‘recorded live from the floor in ten hours’ rhetoric about Kate’s albums, nor is there any room for the old chestnut ‘it’s close enough for folk’.  Kate’s albums are beautiful creations and this tradition continues with Kate’s thirteenth solo album to date. Reliability is a useful term when describing Kate’s music; rarely, if ever, are we left disappointed after a concert or festival appearance or indeed with the arrival of a new album by the singer.  Kate’s voice is as reliable as her Barnsley accent, as dependable as her curly highlights and as remarkable as the musicians with whom she often surrounds herself.  The old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ seems to be the creed of the Rusby industry.  There may be one or two adventurous musical passages here and there, courtesy of producer/husband Damien O’Kane, who has taken time to explore more ethereal textures in some of the arrangements, but Kate continues to do what she does best, that is, deliver both self-penned songs and traditional adaptations with equal command, from her own tender “Hunter Moon” and the poignant title song, “Life in a Paper Boat”, based on thoughts of forced migration, to the tension-filled arrangement of “Benjamin Bowmaneer”, the sprightly reading of “The Ardent Shepherdess” and the sublime closer “Night Lament”.  The album bristles with sonic and lyrical delight and features one or two special guest appearances, notably on “Only Desire What You Have”, which finds Union Station stalwarts Ron Block on fine form on banjo and Dan Tyminski swapping the vocals he usually shares with Alison Krauss with little noticeable difference.  If that wasn’t enough, there’s also Michael McGoldrick conducting his usual magic on whistles.  Recently, and perhaps most notably at the Underneath the Stars festival and the Cambridge Folk Festival, Kate and her band concluded the shows by dressing as super heros, complete with blue capes and masks, performing “Big Brave Bill”, an uplifting song about a Yorkshire Tea-drinking miner from God’s own country.  Listed as a bonus track, “Big Brave Bill” concludes this selection of songs, complete with fine brass arrangement recalling the fine summer days by the bandstand in the parks of Barnsley.  Take Kate’s advice and get kettle on and enjoy this lovely album.

Martin Green – Flit | Album Review | Reveal Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.10.16

Once again Martin Green flexes his experimental chops with the follow up to 2014’s Crow’s Bones, an album that left this reviewer reaching for the blades. Flit is equally downbeat, dark and brooding, but also highly experimental, atmospheric and possibly more engaging than it’s predecessor.  Once again Becky Unthank offers her beautifully natural voice to the project, a commodity that never surprises but always satisfies.  Joining Becky this time around is Adam Holmes, whose highly distinctive voice matches Becky’s in terms of bleakness and ethereal ghostly darkness.  The songs are linked by themes of human movement, migration and uncertainty in the world, inspired by first-hand stories, some personal, others more general.  With music composed by Green, the songwriting credentials of a handful of artists such as Karine Polwart, Anaïs Mitchell, Sandy Wright and Aidan Moffat are called upon for collaboration purposes.  The result is quite startling, with one or two true gems amongst them, including Mitchell’s “Roll Away”, Karine Polwart’s “Strange Sky” and “The Suitcase”, complete with Moffat’s compelling spoken intro.  The plight of those enduring migration problems in the world today is deftly explored in Polwart’s “Laws of Motion”, possibly the most poignant song on the album and the one song whose lyrics were chosen to appear in the accompanying booklet.  Produced by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Martin Green, Flit demonstrates further Martin Green’s visionary musicianship, something explored in detail as accordionist extraordinaire with regular folk trio LAU. 

Mark Harrison – Turpentine | Album Review | Highway Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.10.16

A clue to how British blues singer Mark Harrison came up with the title of his fifth album release might be found in the opening song “Black Dog Moan”, but also the idea might pertain to “Hardware Store”, a lilting country blues, which aptly addresses this reviewer’s own particular fear of everything DIY.  If we can for a moment rid ourselves of the prevailing smell of turps, we also discover a further ten songs and just the one instrumental, each of which somewhere along the folk end of the blues spectrum, with a nod to such notable influences as Charley Patton and Blind Willie McTell on both National steel and twelve-string guitars respectively.  The general feel of the album is of a jingle-jangle guitar picking nature with occasional electric guitar runs thrown in.  There’s a lightness of touch rarely heard on blues records these days, which makes the album feel relaxed and even dare I say, cheerful.  The Cajun feel to the concluding track “Shake the House”, shows a further side of Harrison’s repertoire and allows for a bit of a band workout.  Produced by Tim Bazel, Turpentine also features Charles Benfield on double bass, Ed Hopwood on drums, percussion and harmonica and multi instrumentalist Paul Tkachenko handling the rest.

Luke Jackson – Tall Tales and Rumours | Album Review | First Take Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.10.16

At just 22, singer-songwriter Luke Jackson has become a remarkable presence on the UK acoustic music scene, surpassing most of his contemporaries with his continued quality songwriting, while maintaining a very distinct sound all his own.  There’s a maturity in Luke’s songwriting that places his songs pretty high up the bar.  With Tall Tales And Rumours, his fourth release to date, Luke reflects on his own personal situation, that of a travelling musician, which at one point sees the singer in a late night Kansas City hotel miles from his Canterbury home, experiencing homesickness in a moment of tender reflection.  Luke’s songs have an engaging narrative, such as “Leather and Chrome”, which sees a father’s unaccomplished dreams being passed on to a son to fulfil.  Luke’s sensitive antennae continues to be alerted with such themes as Alzheimer’s in the opening a cappella song “The Man That Never Was”, a raw study of the effects of the disease upon country singer Glen Campbell, as witnessed in the recent film I’ll Be Me.  Unafraid to traverse the various styles and genres that have influenced his music, Luke rounds off the album with a Muscle Shoals-like soul-filled performance of “The Road”, which could point the young performer in an entirely new direction for future projects.  Joining Luke once again is his trusty rhythm section of empathetic musician/friends Andy Sharps and Connor Downs on bass and percussion respectively, whose spit and polish shines further light on an already impressive talent.

Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater – Findings | Album Review | Story Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.10.16

It’s little wonder that we are hearing rather a lot of Ange Hardy these days, one of the most focused, hard-working and prolific artists to have emerged in the last few years; it almost appears like she has been hidden away from us, almost imprisoned, only to suddenly and unexpectedly burst out with the energy and determination of someone discovering freedom for the very first time.  This focus continues to grow and develop with the latest album and first collaborative project with Lukas Drinkwater, a busy musician in his own right, stepping into the spotlight for the first time as a songwriter and joint front-person.  With a keen eye on presentation, Ange and Lukas wrap their songs in beauty, with a monochrome sleeve and lyrics booklet.  The songs are self-composed in the main, some elaborations of existing traditional material and one or two familiar songs such as “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “The Berkshire Tragedy”.  “By the Tides” is a moving comment on our current migration situation in the Med, with a sense of family at the core, an eloquent comment on our troubled times.  Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater refuse to herald in their songwriting credentials with overblown fanfare, but with restraint and humility.  In other words, this is what’s happening, please deal with it. Both Nancy Kerr and Kathryn Roberts join Ange on “True are the Mothers”, three mums in unison, which is truly beautiful in its execution.  This really is a fantastic record.

Orkesta Mendoza – Vamos a Guarchar | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.16

For their second album release and first on Glitterbeat Records, Tuscon, Arizona’s Orkestra Mendoza provide a wide open vista of cross-genre styles such as cumbia, mambo, ranchera and mariachi through the musical sponge that is band leader Sergio Mendoza.  If the highly percussive rhythms and sultry arrangements echo the music of a bygone era, the excitable keyboard runs often create an almost 1960s sci-fi feel.  Imagine an end of series knees-up on the original Star Trek set; “Redoble” is probably what you would expect Kirk and Spock to dance to while deploying various Vulcan hand gestures.  Joking aside, Orkesta Mendoza provides a rich and varied soundscape synonymous with Mexican border region influences.  On the eve of what could possibly be a disastrous period for American/Mexican relations, should one particular politician get his way, this music has possibly never been more relevant, more welcomed or more embraced.  The dreamy Misterio, featuring Salvador Duran’s evocative vocal performance, is this particular region’s equivalent of what the Buena Vista Social Club were delighting the world with a couple of decades ago.

Georgia Ruth – Fossil Scale | Album Review | Navigator | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.11.16

Following on from Georgia Ruth’s acclaimed debut album Week Of Pines (2013), Fossil Scale comes with a very distinct contemporary feel, utilising synths, layered recorders, guitars and keyboards.  The emphasis on ambience and atmosphere doesn’t go unnoticed, with each of the songs suitably arranged to make each one stand out.  Previously known for her harp playing, the instrument is put pretty much aside in favour of piano and guitar, while at the heart of the record is still Ruth’s voice, which at times becomes an empathetic instrument in its own right, both in English and Welsh language delivery.  For the most part written in the small North Wales town of Caernarfon, where the singer spent much of her time prior to relocating to Cardiff, the album was eventually recorded in both Cardiff and London.  With both Welsh and English influences clearly present, Ruth also reaches for other world influences, incorporating additional sarangi textures courtesy of Suhail Yusuf Khan, on both the album’s opener “The Doldrums” and closer “China”.

The Peter Edwards Trio – A Matter of Instinct | Album Review | Edwards Music Productions | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.11.16

Trinity Laban Conservatoire graduate and BBC-championed musician and composer Peter Edwards has earned a great deal of respect from critics over the past few years, especially after the release of his trio’s 2014 LP Safe And Sound.  But it’s with A Matter Of Instinct that this Tyner-esque pianist comes of age with a collection that includes quick footed sambas, some deliciously angular funk and fizzing soul.  Edwards is joined by Max Luthert, whose bass remains considerate throughout, and artful drummer Moses Boyd, who manages to keep his fellow musicians tightly bound from the get go. But it is, without any doubt, the delicate finger-walks of the trio’s pianist – bathed in the exquisite production of the legendary Tony Platt – that urges the listener to lean in.   Amongst the sprawling beauty of “Loved Ones” and “Down But Not Out”, as well as the title track which sees Edwards turn to the gorgeous Fender Rhodes electric piano, lies the album’s show-stealer “The Runaround”; a moment of quirky elegance which showcases Peter’s ability to make a rest seem even more interesting and alive than some of the notes themselves.  It’s a triumph of an album from a constantly engaging piano trio.

The Way Down Wanderers – The Way Down Wanderers | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.11.16

The initial play-through of The Way Down Wanderers’ new album release brought to mind what you might expect to hear if Jake Bugg were ever to join forces with Mumford and Sons.  There’s a sort of joyous free spirit feel to the dozen original songs on this the band’s self-titled debut album; songs that can lift your spirits if you want them lifting. I can only imagine that the band are hot property as a live outfit; young, charismatic and with enough street cred to leave their contemporaries in the shade, but there again, I haven’t seen them yet.  Chicago-based, the Wanderers have not been at it long, with just two years and a couple of EPs under their belt, but there’s every possibility that Austin Thompson, Collin Krause, John Williams, John Merikoski and Travis Kowalsky may become festival favourites in 2017.  This album will almost certainly not hinder their potential rising star.

Southern Tenant Folk Union – Join Forces | Album Review | Johnny Rock Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 08.11.16

There’s an immediate warmth about STFU’s 7th album that draws the listener in, allowing you to draw warmth from the glow of their humanity in the face of the bleak world outside.  While the musical eclecticism is there, mixing Celtic, Americana, bluegrass and folk influences into a soul nourishing whole, the lyrical content is focussed, with political commentary reflecting the album’s title throughout.  Join Forces reflects the anger, despair and sheer disbelief the band feels at the current state of the world – albeit apparently written and recorded pre-Brexit and Trump – and the wish for people to come together to oppose the growing forces of negativity – so titles like “What Would You Give For A Leader With Soul?” and “Our Revolution Will One Day Come” are probably even more prescient than they realised at the time of recording.  Despite the concern expressed in the lyrics, this is an album with an overall positive feel – yes, the vocals of Rory Butler can have elements of wistfulness and melancholy but there is a generally positive feel to the songs and moments of sheer beauty when the voices of band members combine.  Musically there is some notable wizardry, with the banjo of Pat McGarvey and the violin of Katherine Stewart particularly deserving of mention but the dexterity is always used to serve rather than dominate the songs and is all the more enjoyable for that.   As a newcomer to the band, there’s enough here that relates to musical favourites that influences can be spotted and enjoyed, while kindling a desire to investigate their back catalogue and the opportunity to see them live. Nice!

Red Tail Ring – Fall Away Blues | Album Review | Earthwork Music | Review by Kev Boyd | 20.11.16

Originating out of the fabulously-named Kalamazoo, Michigan, Red Tail Ring are the acoustic duo of Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp who play a mix of original songs, reworkings of contemporary pieces, and traditional ballads on guitar, fiddle and banjo.  Fall Away Blues is their fourth album and is full of their characteristic close harmonies, tasteful arrangements and sparse instrumentation.  There’s an integrity to their playing that is evident in the unpretentious approach of their arrangements and that works equally well with traditional material and their own compositions.  The deep-felt sentiments of something like “Gibson Town” – their powerful account of a tragic 2016 mass shooting in their home town – benefit from being presented in this unassuming fashion as much as the traditional “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” or the Sacred Harp reworking “Wondrous Love”.  The three traditional songs and one tune blend effortlessly with the self-written pieces and it doesn’t hurt that the playing throughout the album – whether on guitar and fiddle or twin banjos – is precise and unobtrusive and the vocals are heartfelt yet understated.  Perhaps the standout original song is the title track, played on guitar and fiddle with Laurel’s lead and Michael’s harmony vocals perfectly signposting the song’s sense of resignation coupled with a determination to overcome adversity.  It would be a pity if Red Tail Ring were grouped into that redundant category of ‘Americana’ as their repertoire and overall approach is much too distinctive for such an oversimplified term.  Here is a duo writing sincerely-felt original material that plays off a deep understanding of old time American traditions. They may look to the past for their musical inspiration – and when they do they pay it due respect – but they have a contemporary touch that breathes new life into old traditions and both re-invents and re-energises them.

Steve Tilston and Jez Lowe – The Janus Game | Album Review | Tantobie Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.11.16

It’s a collaboration that you desperately want to see work; the coming together of two distinctly individual performers.  Despite being well established solo performers, both have enjoyed a string of collaborations in their respective careers, Steve Tilston with John Renbourn’s Ship of Fools, WAZ and most memorably in partnership with the late Maggie Boyle, while Jez Lowe has enjoyed some success with hurdy-gurdy player Jake Walton as well as being the leader of his own band the Bad Pennies.  Both are possessed of instantly identifiable personal styles in terms of their song writing credentials, their immediately recognisable voices and their equally distinctive instrumental chops.  These days of multi-collaborative work, forged by a plethora of young musicians who by learning their craft through such as the folk music degree courses, are organically entrenched in it, but this doesn’t always apply to highly individual performers who have been at it for years; there’s a sense that they have to work at it a lot harder.  All the material on The Janus Game is written jointly by the two songwriters, with each sharing the vocal duties democratically.  The songs range from the powerful to the whimsical, exemplified by “Lucky Sami”, a song addressing the current refugee crisis and “The Wagga Moon”, a thoughtful reflection on the faded steel industry, while “The Strings That Wizz Once Strummed” and “Mrs Einstein” are jolly nods towards the influence of guitar mentor Wizz Jones and the long suffering spouse of our favourite physicist.   The album title derives from the opening song, which looks at the dualism of truth and deception, the past and the future, utilising the image of the two-faced god from Roman mythology, hinted at in the double portrait on the cover.  As a collaborative experiment the album works surprisingly well, but at the risk of essentially sounding like two individual mini albums wrapped into one, but maybe that’s just because I can’t shake off the notion that these are two highly individual solo talents.

Gilmore and Roberts – In Our History Live | Album Review | Grr | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.11.16

One of the most hard working duos on the British acoustic music scene, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts have been plying their trade for ten years now in back street pubs, upstairs function rooms and miniature house concerts as well as some of this country’s biggest stages, not to mention similar stages around the world.  During their ten years together, the duo have provided us with a catalogue of memorable self-penned songs, some of them included here, songs like “Fleetwood Fair”, “The Stealing Arm” and the scorching opener “Doctor James”.  Throughout this live album, which was recorded at various venues during the duo’s spring 2016 tour, we get to hear over a dozen examples of what makes this duo so popular, each song performed with confidence and skill, but also we get a sense of the duo’s engaging personalities, Katriona welcoming us from the start as if we the listeners were actually at the concert as well as some determined cajoling in order to get their audience singing.  All the songs included in the set have been previously released on one of the duo’s four studio albums, such as Katriona’s eternally pretty “Travelling in Time”, Jamie’s alluring “Selfish Man” – complete with its lighter-waving (or is that mobile phone waving these days?) – communal conclusion, with the addition of “Billy Green”, the duo’s contribution to the Songs For The Voiceless project. Also included is a more recent instrumental addition to the duo’s live set, Elzick’s Farewell, which is featured here for the first time.  At times the duo’s arrangements verge on full-blown folk rock, especially when utilising the stomp box, on “All I’ve Known” for instance.  For the duo’s fifth album release, the obligatory live album couldn’t have come at a better time in their career and this one does everything it says on the tin.

Sweet Liberties – Sweet Liberties | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.11.16

The thing that makes Sweet Liberties immediately engaging – and this is before we get to the subject matter – is the contrasting voices of Nancy Kerr, Maz O’Connor, Sam Carter and Martyn Joseph, who effectively take us on a journey through song. The first four songs introduce these already familiar voices in turn, each rich in texture and utterly absorbing in their respective storytelling qualities.  Nancy Kerr’s reputation as one of our finest singers has been well documented in recent years and acknowledged further by such as the BBC Folk Awards.  Three of Nancy’s four contributions here can also be found on her superb Instar album, “Kingdom”, “Seven Notes” and “Written on My Skin”, while the fourth provides the album with an uplifting and lilting Music Hall styled song, “Lila”.  Maz O’Connor has likewise received plaudits for her contribution to the current folk scene and in particular through her mature songwriting, which is represented here with three highly accomplished songs “Rich Man’s Hill”, “This Old House” and “Broken Things”.  Nancy and Maz are joined by two formidable male counterparts, Martyn Joseph and Sam Carter, both of whom make their own distinctive mark on such themes of slavery and worker’s rights. The point of this collection of songs though, as commissioned by Folk by the Oak and the English Folk Dance and Song Society, is the celebration of 800 years of the pursuit of democracy.  A timely project then in these troubled times.  Adding flavour to the dish is Patsy Reid and Nick Cooke on fiddle and melodeon respectively with additional drums and bass courtesy of producer Tom Wright. 

The Gentle Good – Ruins/Adfeilion | Album Review | Bubblewrap Collective | Review by Marc Higgins | 27.11.16

This is a classic album in the making, a perfectly sequenced set of heart felt songs and tunes, think Bryter Later, Tim Buckley’s Blue Afternoon or John Martyn’s One World.  It is mood music, evoking dripping water off leaves, ancient forests glimpsed through old windows.  Like its title suggests, it is both traditional and timeless, looking back and looking forwards.  A ruin that feels like it has always been here and always will, crackling with a sense of the past, dismissing the transient obsessions of the now and setting its eyes firmly on the future.  Gwen Lliw’r Lili, a stately slow piece on harmonium opens the album.  As 19th century Welsh traditional piece it establishes context and an atmosphere.  “Pen Draw’r Byd (The Far Side of The World )”, a twisted love song, follows, with intricate classic finger picking guitar and lots of nods to John Renbourn or Jackson C Frank.  Mention is due here to the sheer quality of the recording at Stiwdio Felin fach, across the whole album the instruments always sound rich and real.  “Pen Draw’r Byd”’s welsh vocal builds into a duet with singer harpist Georgia Ruth.  Voices and strings blend into the same swirling electro folk inhabited by the excellent Mishaped Pearls or kora / guitar band Stranded Horse.  “Rivers of Gold” is a sensitively delivered ballad, very much in the tradition of Dylan, Bert Jansch or Ralph McTell with a harmonica break straight out of Midnight Cowboy.  On “Y Gwyfyn” guitars and spare drums are given space to breathe while the strings build rather than dominate.  This approach typifies the restraint of the album, with the Mavron Strings’ tasteful and pastoral arrangements evoking Robert Kirby’s work for Nick Drake.  Opening with ambience and a plantif saloon piano the title track overflows with a brooding atmosphere.  If this was a film we would be tracking through an empty house from an Andrew Wyeth painting, curtains blowing, while a solitary figure dances lost in the moment.  This is filmatic music with piano motifs tied to the rising pace of the falling rain we can hear, till it merges into an entirely unexpected, but perfectly phrased jazz, arrangement.  A splash of Oliver Nelson meeting Michael Nyman, and we are in a Philip Glass / Godfrey Reggio travelogue flying over an expansive landscape.  “Suffer the Small Birds” (a deliberate Shakespeare misquote) evokes the exotic phasing of Pentangle, jazzy percussion, flying fingers, virtuosic guitar and hypnotic vocals.  Again paired vocals with Georgia Ruth are perfect.  Gareth warns us to keep a close eye on the details and inside sweetly perfect music he makes a sharp political point.  Politics and a call for humanity are central to Bound for Lampedusa, Bonello’s despairing response to the African refugee crisis.  His despair is wound into a lullaby, a beguiling guitar part, a whispered crooning vocal and perfect strings.  The trumpet when it comes, is strangely reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s we have all the time in the world, It is that timeless.  “Un I Sain” is that winding guitar piece that you can’t help but stop and listen to, again there are musical nods aplenty to the playing and phasing of Renbourn, Gordon Giltrap and Al Stewart.  “Fisherman” is a reflective lament on transience and another beautiful duet with Georgia Ruth.  Gareth Bonello’s vocal phasing is relaxed and well-worn like Leonard Cohen at his melancholic best.  We end as we came in with layers of harmonium and vocal that swirl in “Merch Y Morfa”.  A snatch of curlew across the water evokes a terrific sense of place, lingering as the track fades away leaving you wanting more.  This is an album you will play again and again.  Musical bookending it with the harmonium invites you to leave it looping like a pastoral earworm.

Will Varley – Kingsdown Sundown | Album Review | Xtra Mile Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.11.16

In a sense, listening to Will Varley’s new album Kingsdown Sundown is a little like first hearing some of Bob Dylan’s earliest recordings; one man, one guitar, a gruff voice and a clear message in each of the songs.  Devoid of any pointless over-produced clutter, the songs are direct and pretty much in your face, especially such songs as the opener “To Build a Wall”, which immediately states its clear message, that there are indeed many ways to build a wall if we are daft enough to build them.  The Deal-based singer-songwriter possesses the same sort of authoritative voice that we once heard in the early 1960s folk protest boom, especially on such songs as the bleak “Something is Breaking” and the overtly political statement “We Want Our Planet Back”.  Recorded underneath a pub by the sea in Deal, Kent, quite a distance in terms of time and space from Greenwich Village, yet the sentiment is still there loud and clear.  There will always be room for protest in folk music, especially in times like these.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry – Shine a Light | Album Review | Cooking Vinyl)| Review by Marc Higgins | 28.11.16

There is so much that is evocative and intriguing about this collection, from the cover with its graphic based on a Union Pacfic Streamline train and Futura styled 1920s lettering, to the title, a quote from “The Midnight Special” and a line rich with suggestions of discovery and insight.  That the collection is tagged ‘field recordings from the great American railroad’ places us in direct contact with folk song collectors and those mid twentieth Century Folkways Recordings, selflessly discovering and documenting.  The sepia photo of Bragg and Henry reads like a 30s Walker Evans snap, Bragg is an English bloke in a flat cap and Joe Henry has a touch of swagger, thumbs in his belt and hat pushed back like a 19th Century gunslinger.  That they pose fan like under a station info sign just emphasises that this is a musical travelogue.  A Journey by two journeymen travelling through a landscape made from the past revisiting the songs that tell its story.  Sadly the excellent sleeve notes, that attempt to illuminate the songs by explaining where each was recorded and giving rich context on the tracks, don’t document the genesis of this project.  That, we are left to surmise.  Among the indigenous Australians a songline is an established track across the land that a knowledgeable traveller is able to navigate it successfully by recounting the words of the song.  Like those historic blue plaques recording historic events in specific locations we attach significance to locations.  Who hasn’t been fascinated by Paul Simon recounting that he wrote “Homeward Bound” on Widnes Station platform.  So the idea that you can gain insight by performing in a historically appropriate and sympathetic place is an excellent one.  The songs and the performances have an extra resonance or dimension because of where and how they are performed.  That the recordings are ‘warts and all’ and made in the field, laid down in moments between trains is fascinating.  Lots of artists and albums have been enriched by sound effects, some sonically sculpted to create a condensed psychedelic experience like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon or the ambience of a lakeside shore on John Martyn’s Small Hours.  Here the ambience gives a sense of place, a gritty realism, to the recordings.  The slamming of freight doors perfectly placed in the middle of “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” creates a rich atmosphere and with its endless echo illustrates the size of the space they are recording in.  Station announcements aren’t scripted or edited like concrete poetry, they are grainy textures behind the main action.  It is to the credit of Bragg and Henry, and we wouldn’t expect anything less, that despite the familiarity of the material that they avoid a hokey, encore delivery.  Singing to the trains and the landscape they deliver the songs with integrity and sincerity.  Stand out tracks are the opener “Rock Island Line”, after the obligatory distant train whistle Henry and Bragg divide the vocals, picking out different lines and coming together on the chorus.  Listen to that spooky guitar and Bragg’s otherworldly vocal on “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”.  “Lonesome Whistle” is actually recorded in a sleeper on the train, the size of the space adding an intimacy to the recording with its Tex-Mex guitar and rumbling duet vocals.  Any imperfections in the recording, like old denim jeans or patina, just adds to the charm.  While you would think, with respect, that Joe Henry would be more suited to songs about the American Railroad, Billy Bragg gets inside the lyric of “Waiting for a Train” and manages an excellent yelp ad yodel that wouldn’t shame Jimmie Rodgers.  “In the Pines” is an example of where the two vocals blend with Joe Henry’s higher register and Bragg’s lower, becoming one voice, ringing out every bit of emotion as they vocalise between verses.  It is testament to the strength of both performers that we can still be grabbed by their interpretations of a well-established song like John Hartford’s “Gentle on my Mind”.  Here and on “Hobo’s Lullaby” Henry’s excellent vocal and a lovely guitar part leads, while Bragg’s vocal rumbles a bass part, in a way that is captivating.  Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” shares the same spirit as those earlier rail riders being a 1960’s lament about air flight.  Even if you have heard these tracks before, and I think that you have is part of the point, the performers and the performance make you listen again and I think that is definitely the point, of the album and the folk tradition.  This album presents limitless possibilities for future marriages of song and significant locations. A tour is already underway.  But knowing the fertile inventive minds of both Bragg and Henry I suspect they won’t be as easily pinned down and if there is another meeting it will be as left field as this one.

Coope Boyes Simpson – Coda | Album Review |  No Masters | Review by Ian Taylor | 28.11.16

For the last twenty-three years, Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson have produced album after album chock full of socially conscious songs, steeped deeply in the folk tradition and delivered with face-slapping a capella harmonies.  Coda, their tenth album continues that sequence; fifteen songs, a mixture of traditional, self-penned and covers, conveyed with rich, honeyed three-part harmony.  Topical subject matter includes the Iraq War, the fishing industry, Palestine, mass migration and the environment, all sensitively handled, passionately sung and compassionately argued lyrically, such that it would surely be impossible to disagree with any sentiment.  Fine interpretations of Michael Marra’s surreal gem, Frida Kahlo’s “Visit To The Taybridge Bar”, and Boo Hewerdine’s “The Man That I Am”, written for the Ballads of Child Migration project that both acts were involved in, complement the self-penned material perfectly, as do versions of traditional songs “Napoleon’s Dream” and “Flandyke Shore”.  But the album’s highlight has to be its closing track, “Anthem For A Planet’s Children”, Jim Boyes’s lyrics to Hans Leo Hassler’s hymnal tune are self-evident truisms to those of us with a social conscience of any kind.  That they have to be re-stated in these turbulent political times has to be the saddest indictment of modern society. This sentiment is rendered all the more poignant in the knowledge that, as its title suggests, Coda will be Coope, Boyes and Simpson’s final studio album.  Their 2017 tour and festival appearances will be their last together. The trio have made a vital contribution to the British folk canon and their legacy will be one of humanity, compassion, and fine, fine music.  It will be sad to see them go, but I suppose, at least, there are some Young’Uns waiting in the wings to take on the a capella kings’ mantle.

London Klezmer Quartet – To the Tavern | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 28.11.16

For newcomers to the term, Klezmer refers to a form of music associated with Eastern European Jews but while eminent musicologists may debate and indeed argue over the exact roots of the genre, the more sensible amongst us will just listen and enjoy.  Having first played this album in a car full of musicians, the review quickly took on a life of its own.  While acting as an introduction to Klezmer to several of the passengers, it met with immediate and universal approval, which is not necessarily the case with all vehicular located listening choices.  The comments received echoed and confirmed everything that may already have been written or said about the five people who make up the quartet (check out their website maths fans).  From the virtuosity of the individual members to the quality of the arrangements, the vibrancy of the performances, the whole album was a shared delight and went on a quickly requested repeat.   The latter point is worth exploring, in that the album lasted much of the journey from a meeting point in Warrington to downtown Oswestry, comprising 17 tracks (albeit containing a welcome reprise of first track, Dobridden, at the end), reflecting the Klezmer experience in all its moods – from sorrow to exuberance, despair to joy, with room for playfulness and humour.   Highlights are almost too many to mention but the perfect timing of “The Summertime Waltz” was much admired and Susi Evans drew particular praise for her clarinet contribution to “The Inn Keeper’s Wife” and her foot tapping part in “Clackety-Clack Bulgar” as both brought expressions of delight from the back seat.  The LKQ are 8 years young, have a deservedly worldwide presence and this, their 4th release, is ostensibly a concept album, telling the story of a klezmer band’s 24 hours in a small town, although we will have to take their word for it.  Where songs feature vocals, Indra Buraczewska delivers with both depth and beauty but the lyrics are impenetrable to those of us with a restricted linguistic range – not that this detracts from the overall experience.  There is even a jazz tinged intro that just hints at the arrival of Tom Waits but his non-appearance is quickly overlooked as the music flows ever onward.  A more lyrical companion described the album as containing ‘music the texture of twilight’ and while that meaning may be equally obscure, it does sum it up perfectly.  Take some friends for a drive with the London Klezmer Quartet, if they don’t thank you, find new friends.

Methera – Vortex | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.11.16

The commingling of classical and traditional folk music has given us some fine work over the years but never so pleasingly rendered as Methera’s Vortex.  The release of this stunningly presented nine-track instrumental album marks ten years of the four-piece string ensemble and, as the hand-painted text inside the package suggests, we’re once again treated to “a halo of music” complete with delectable “curlicues of sound”.  Indeed, it’s hard to resist plundering a well of poetic adjectives when trying to describe Methera’s third release.  The quartet consists of cellist Lucy Deakin, viola player Miranda Rutter along with fiddlers John Dipper and Emma Reid.  Each player delivers a wide understanding of the traditional music of Britain, Sweden and other lands, which plunges what is essentially a classical string quartet deep into an earthy, root-entangled sound.  Think Haydn with dirty fingernails.  The album presents a tapestry of scenes from a range of traditions including the folk tune “Rising Sun” from John Offord’s great English collection, a set of Celtic jigs including the Shetland tune “Da Shaalds O’Foula” and the “Irish Old Favourite” as well as self-penned pieces such as Lucy Deakin’s enchanting “The Fox” and Emma Reid’s life-affirming “Lilly”, each tune further illuminated by informative liner notes.  Produced with tender care by musician, composer and producer Robert Harbron and reflecting the “inward-facing circle” which has become Methera’s trademark performance setup, Vortex is an album that insists on pulling us into its rich spiral of sound and sentiment.

Sara Watkins – Young in All the Wrong Ways | Album Review | New West Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 28.11.16

Sara Watkins first came to my attention as vocalist and fiddle player with the feel good American Bluegrass band Nickle Creek, With Nickle Creek on indefinite hiatus Sara Watkins has pursued an always interesting solo career.  Three releases in and Young In All The Wrong Ways shows how far Sara has travelled from her beginnings.  The opening title track starts gentle with her excellent voice close to the mike, but a guitar riff straight off Hozier’s 2014 Hozier album and a drum sound Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham would be proud of quickly offers great light and shade.   “The Love That Got Away” is a great classic ballad, again showing Sara’s depth as a vocalist with a sparse arrangement that gives her room to shine.  “One Last Time” is more firmly looking back to her Bluegrass beginnings.  “Move Me” is a great track, one of the album’s big hitters, with a vocal like a raucous Sheryl Crow or Lucinda Williams and a great Southern Soul groove you can imagine will sound amazing live.  Great guitar too, raw like Liege And Leif era Richard Thompson.  Would be great to hear this band stretch out like this more often.  “Like New Year’s Day” is as sparse and textured as a Blue Nile anthem.  It opens with a pulsing keyboard and a heartbeat drum that creates intimacy and draws you in, creating a foil for one of the albums shine out vocals.  Again this is confessional Lucinda Williams territory, perfectly evoking the early morning reverie the lyric describes.  The intimate wee small hours vibe continues with “Without A Word”.  String bass, brushed drums, period Hammond organ and distant strings create an atmosphere that perfectly contains the vocal.  Puts me in mind of Van Morrison on 1970’s Into The Mystic, like the rest of the album everything is so balanced and perfectly poised.  “Tenderhearted” the album closer has a vocal stretching towards Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball, the voice is that pure and demanding of attention with the best left till last.  It’s a short album, textured but paired back, rich but distilled with lots of flavours in the mix.  At the end it leaves you, as the best do, wanting more.

The Revellers – Skeletons | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 29.11.16

If the name of the band isn’t sufficient to hint at a major influence, the fact that their publicity material features a ringing endorsement from Mark Chadwick will serve to confirm where the band is coming from.  That said, they are not slavish copyists, they do bring enough of themselves to the party to make the results an interesting listen.  Fusing rock and folk, with a large dose of the former and instrumentation from the latter, the results are a coherent high energy fusion of elements of heavy metal, punk and tradition that belies the fact that all seven members enjoy both joint and individual writing credits.   Based in the Shetlands, they have attracted a devoted following that has translated into considerable attendances at their gigs, which one can easily imagine create a powerful shared experience, the like of which bands such as Ferocious Dog, The Leylines and the more punk folk oriented Headsticks are currently offering on the mainland.  There are quieter, more reflective moments, though we have to wait until track seven “Gallows Hill”, although the finale does see a return to the higher octane end of the spectrum.  If I have a criticism, it is that occasionally there are so many musical ideas fighting for space that the major thread of a song can get a little lost, straying a little into what could be considered prog folk, with the songs extended to accommodate this, though at the same time, their inventiveness has to be applauded and the contributions of fiddle and banjo are worthy of particular mention – with the violin element being somewhat reminiscent of metal-folk pioneers Skyclad and the banjo of Lewie Peterson adds an extra dimension.  If you like your folk-rock to be of the decidedly rock-folk persuasion and perhaps have come to folk from a background in noisier genres and fancy a mandolin driven pogo or even a little headbanging with a celtic feel – this could well be the band and album for you.

Martha Fields – Southern White Lies | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 30.11.16

Martha Fields is a Texan, currently resident in France, with deep Appalachian roots and an impressive grasp of the central tropes of American roots music. Southern White Lies is her second album but you’ll need to search under her former pseudonym of Texas Martha to find her first. With this name change came a distinctive revision in musical policy, so while her earlier release explored the classic sounds of Texan Honky-tonk, Southern White Lies reaches back to her ancestral and musical roots in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.  The songs deal with some deeply personal issues and dark emotions but there’s also room for the occasional burst of good humour.  Fields has gathered together a terrific band of acoustic musicians to realise this new material. The core ensemble of violin, bass fiddle, dobro and occasional mandolin reveal exceptional musicianship throughout a combination of old time bluegrass, country, and blues styles and Martha’s rough-hewn, careworn vocals sit powerfully atop the sweet string band sounds.  The combination should perhaps jar but on the rare times it does it’s by design and to the benefit of the material.   At the core of this collection are three original songs that trace the American working class experience through the album’s two significant geographical locations – Appalachia and Texas.  The title track rails against pandering politicians and the creeping capitalism represented by the paradigm of ‘big box’ stores obliterating the ‘mom and pops’.  “Do As You Are Told” is the moving story of one Letha May Fields, born one of ten siblings in the 1920s and whose refusal to adhere to the prevailing patriarchy led to an untimely and undignified end.  “American Hologram” is a powerful indictment of the redneck culture’s tendency to go against its own self-interests at the bidding of conservative ‘blue dog democrats’.  There’s a justified sense of righteous indignation evident both in the lyrics of these core tracks and in Fields’ delivery.  As with any great album, where there’s light there must also be shade. Janis Joplin’s “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do?” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “California Blues”, amongst other notable examples, offer some relative respite from the intensity of the core tracks.  The Methodist hymn “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” is the perfect vehicle for Martha and band to demonstrate their mastery of the classic high lonesome style.  The album’s only negative quality is in its running order which tends to sandwich the faster songs in the middle with the slower tracks at the beginning and end.  It’s a pity because there’s a five-star album desperately struggling to escape this awkward programming.  That said, taken as a collection of individual, exceptionally realised songs, or better still experienced on shuffle mode where the slower tracks have a decent chance to breathe between the more up-tempo numbers, Southern White Lies is an engrossing and thought provoking album of fine American roots music.

Merry Hell – Bloodlines | Album Review |  Self Release | Review by Mary Andrews | 01.12.16

Merry Hell have a solid track-record of releasing undeniably anthemic songs and Bloodlines continues the trend of catchy hooks, positive messages, and foot-tapping sing-along choruses. From the opening notes of the album it’s obvious you’re listening to Merry Hell.  Bloodlines is without doubt the most well produced and polished Merry Hell album so far.  With wailing electric guitar and stomping drums they feel ever closer to the Celtic punk of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty McColl; it’s a sound you’d definitely associate more with a good pub than a folk club – but these are well thought through arrangements and productions, smooth and warm, you can hear the love that has gone into the making of these songs.  Elements of this album definitely feel softer and more reflective than their previous works.  This isn’t just pub fodder; it’s well produced, well written, and beautifully presented.  The packaging and artwork is beautiful too.  Seven different lyric writing groups (John Kettle, Virginia Kettle, Bob Kettle, Bob Kettle & Lee Goulding, Bob Kettle & John Kettle, Neil McCartney, Lee Goulding & Virginia Kettle & Bob Kettle) contributed to the 13 track album and it hangs together exceptionally well.  Virginia’s songs are the ones that resonate the strongest with me, but it’s clear that the sound of the band draws strongly from the input of all the members.  It’s an effective way of adding variety to the mix.   The message from Merry Hell is one of hope, of unity, of standing together.  2016 has been a year of racial division and political disharmony and Bloodlines seeks to shine some light into that situation.  We need each other now is more than just a catchy hook and an opening song, it’s the message at the core of the album.  With all that said I can’t help but acknowledge that Merry Hell generally feel like they write songs for their live performance first, and the home listening experience second.  The hooks and repetitiveness are writing modes that excite large crowds into dancing and singing along rather than necessarily translating perfectly to the home listening experience.  It’s not that they don’t work; but there’s still room for that final level of refinement that could elevate Merry Hell to the chart topping heights of The Beautiful South and Chumbawamba.  I’d happily say this is the best Merry Hell album yet, it’s addressed some of the production qualms I had with The Ghost In Our House; but I’m still looking forward to the next one.  More than that though I’m looking forward to finally seeing Merry Hell performing live, if this album is anything to go by it’ll be a brilliant night!

Emily Smith – Songs For Christmas | Album Review | White Fall Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.12.16

Since winning BBC Radio Scotland’s Traditional Musician of the Year in 2002 Emily has produced a series of delightful albums that blend traditional and contemporary material in a beguiling way.  She appeared in season four of The Transatlantic Sessions, BBCs excellent series of collaborations between folk and country musicians from both sides of the North Atlantic.  Listening to this fine album, it is those TV shows, with American country and acoustic meeting Celtic and UK folk, that come most strongly to mind.  From beginning to end Songs For Christmas evokes those sets of musicians performing in an isolated house surrounded by the fiercely beautiful Caledonian landscape.  Emily Smith’s vocal is very much the star of the album and like The Transatlantic Sessions, it manages to be very Scottish and have that Appalachian crystalline beauty. The album opens with “Find Hope”, Emily’s own composition, which sets the scene and introduces the theme of hope of Christmas.  There is a lightness of touch on the playing and arrangement and a spryness that recalls Alison Krauss.  “Christ Has My Hairt, Ay” continues the intimate feeling with lovely band passages that alternate with the voice coming to the fore for the verses.  Show of Hands’ 2006 sharp anthem “Roots”, decries our lack of a shared language of song, as family singsongs round a piano and more recently the folk revival of the 60s retreat behind us.  While it is hard to disagree with the sentiment, Christmas songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” are a strong example of a feel-good music that is in the marrow of many of us.  Maybe if we could invest the same spirit that floods into Christmas and spills over into the whole of December into other festivals, then we would have many more shared songs and a reason to sing them.  Emily’s version is a thing of beauty; great guitar, understated percussion and spectral vocals between the verses strip away memories of Carol singers and make it something new.  With a tune that recalls The Albion Band’s “Poor Old Horse”, “Heard From Heaven Today”, slows the tempo down and builds an evocative atmosphere as does John Doyle’s wonderful benediction “Merry Christmas To All And Goodnight”.  Showing the long relationship between Folk and the festive album or at least seasonal songs, “The Blessings Of Mary” is oft recorded.  Maddy Prior and June Tabor featured it on the first Silly Sisters album, Coope Boyes Simpson and others recorded it on their Voices At The Door album, Oxford’s “Magpie Lane” on their festive album Knock At The Knocker Ring At The Bell, The Albion Christmas Band recorded it twice on their Snow On Snow and Tradition albums.  Kate Rusby, certainly no stranger to the possibilities of festive folk, recorded it on her Christmas album While Mortals Sleep and the Live At Christmas DVD.  Here Emily Smith takes it at a brisk pace with a delivery that contrasts the sombre lyric, again the band plays with passion and energy.  “Silent Night” is a lullaby, a soothing tempo, honey vocals as warm and seductive as a hot toddy with a jazz violin that is very Hot Club Of Paris.  The final trio of songs are reflective, thinking about those absent and looking back on time spent.  “Santa Will Find You” carries the jazzy chords on behind a vocal washes over you, part Nancy Griffith and part Diana Krall.  “The Parting Glass” strips everything away but Emily’s evocative vocal wrapped in atmospherics and an emotional violin.  A beautiful contemplative end to an album of Winter beauty.  Roaring down through the Blue Ridge in summertime Virginia with the top down, the Americana elements might perfectly match the scenery and the mood, but listening to it in December, curtains drawn against the dark and the stove glowing it matches the mood perfectly.  There is a fine tradition of music recorded for and about the Christmas season both inside and outside the Folk tradition.  70’s anthems from Wizzard and Slade, feel good singalongs like “Fairytale of New York”, Lindisfarne’s “Winter Song”, Jethro Tull’s “Christmas Song” and Jona Lewie’s “Stop The Cavalry” that evoke the melancholic side of the time of plenty that exists for some.  Alongside all of those this is a fine fireside late night companion, an excuse for a glass which by turn, up lifts you, makes you think, makes you smile and finally leaves you with a warm glow. ​

Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton – Symbiosis | Album Review | Great White Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.12.16

There is simply no other word which better describes the new album by Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton than the one they chose for its title.  Symbiosis presents nine tunes which perfectly demonstrate the magic that happens when two musicians find a deep connection through their music.  And although these seasoned performers have each forged a reliable reputation individually, playing with the likes of Salsa Celtica, Dougie Maclean and Capercaillie over the years, its hard to imagine wrenching the two apart, especially after hearing such tracks as “Smiler” and “Fourth”.  Take the latter, where the melody lines flow rapidly and resolutely in unison through each musician’s whistle before suddenly diverging into equally fascinating and exciting harmonies; this, like most of the tracks on Symbiosis, is the kind of Scottish traditional music which demands the hearts and souls of two interdependent players.  It’s no surprise to discover, after hearing such a suite as Loch, consisting of Ainslie’s exquisite “Love of the Loch” and Tom Gibbs’ foot-tapping “Gibbo’s Number 1”, that this Scottish duo have been making music together since the age of twelve.  Ross and Ali have chosen for their heartfelt debut an impressive line up of musicians.  While the two old friends dazzle on pipes, whistles, guitar, cittern, banjo and harmonium, the Treacherous Orchestra’s Duncan Lyall earths the electricity of the album with his dependable bass while renowned percussionists Martin O’Neill and Gus Sicard provide some slick bodhran and snare.

Session Americana with Jefferson Hamer – Great Shakes | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.12.16

Session Americana are a Boston based band who have been playing together since 2003, Jefferson Hamer, because of his album with Anais Mitchell is slightly better known in the UK, but don’t be put off by a low profile, there is much here to reward the listener.  A languid, west coast early 70s vibe permeates this album.  The playing, the warm atmosphere with its suggestion of valves and well-worn vintage guitars, harmonised vocals time stamped by people like The Eagles, The Grateful Dead, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, create a definite sense of time and place.  Don’t be wrong footed by the sensible, affable looking bunch on the cover, there is more going on than that candid shot would first suggest; something a little more woozy, weatherworn and dark would be required, for it to ‘do what it says on the tin.’  Opener “One Skinner” occupies the same ‘end of the party – one more till bed’ space as Ryan Adams and Neil Young at their most delightfully dilated.  “Helena” has some beautiful vocal harmonies, with a wonderful harmonica break and a guitar part at the end that could be ‘old shakey’ himself.  “Bumbershoot” is a little more contemporary with an interesting time signature against a great gnarly organ part and those layered vocals that Crowded House did so well.  Apparently a Bumbershoot is a 19th American term for an umbrella.  “Big Mill In Bogalusa” has that great ‘whisky vocal’ that Dr John and Tom Waits inhabit so completely.  Deep South imagery abounds, again there is some nifty guitar and wonderfully dirty harmonica.  If your musical reference points include Robbie Robertson circa “Crazy River” then you’ll hit repeat on this track and turn it up for the massed voices at the end.  “What Are Those Things” is more acoustic Americana, the guitar riff nods to Johnny Cash’s “Man Comes Around”, heartfelt vocals recall Dylan and Tom Petty.  “Tired Blue Shirt” is something else. The ambience and bass intro could be Massive Attack doing Country and becomes one of those atmospheric loops you could listen to forever.  The vocal when it cuts in is filtered and layered like the nu-country electronica of Jim White and the observational lyrics of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.  This song just oozes melancholic regret.  “Great Western Rail” is all about the vocals and the pictures they draw.  Poignantly given its timing, over a wonderfully late drumbeat the spirit of Leon Russell inhabits this track.  “Mississippi Mud”, as the title suggests is a fine piece of Southern Soul, an ode to the vagaries of a mighty river.  The track gets into a great classic 70s groove with layers of percussion and a snaking guitar.  The tempo change and Grateful Dead guitar solo at the end suggests a band who can really stretch out live.  “One Good Rain” has vocal harmonies the Eagles would have been proud of.  Tight playing and metaphor laden lyrics build the atmosphere of an anthem.  The album closes with “Barefoot Sailors” again the writing is wry with the weary reflection of a drinking song.  Beautiful vocals paint vivid timeless pictures over an undercurrent of melancholia and regret. Having created such a pervasive atmosphere, the track just rolls on. If this isn’t a folk song it soon will with a thousand acoustic cap wearing troubadours strumming it for small change.  They should send a copy to James Taylor, he’d snap it up.  While aware of a rich musical past, this is no tribute or pastiche. Its rich palette is evocative and embracing and suggests that real greatness in terms of profile and sales is very close.​

James Edge and the Mindstep – Machines He Made | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.12.16

The vinyl LP version of the second album release by James Edge and the Mindstep is presented as a two-disc set, handsomely packaged in a sturdy white gatefold sleeve, illustrated with four intriguing square Rothko-esque crimson panels designed by James Newman Gray.  Just holding the sleeve while the needle drops onto the grooves of the first disc seems to be an integral part of the experience.  The music on the four sides, a total of eleven titles, suggests that the running time might be a little over the single vinyl format limit, but I suspect it has more to do with ensuring that the grooves are set at their best quality.  Yes, one has to get up three times during the play through, but it’s well worth the effort in this, the ‘lazy’ epoch.  After the relatively short opener Jacob, which gently eases us into the suite of songs, the epic Ammonites gets right down to business with a dazzling arrangement that perfectly epitomises the improvisational spirit of the album.  Reminiscent of some of John Martyn and Danny Thompson’s groundbreaking work in the mid-1970s, the trio of James Edge on guitar, Andy Waterworth on double bass and Avvon Chambers on drums successfully dovetail their loose, yet passionate playing, together with a tightly interwoven string arrangement, which reveals something of the richness of anything you wish to cite from Five Leaves Left.  If “Ammonites” revels in its sonic beauty, then “On a Red Horse” opens the flood gates for some passion, grace and fire, with a deliriously strong performance that Radiohead might be pleased with.  With all his musicality and integrity, James Edge is also a writer of fine melodies and songs like “Four Two Four”, “In the Hills” and “A Room” showcase James’s credentials in this department amply.  In either format, vinyl, CD or digital download, this is quite unexpectedly a brilliant album by an artist worth watching out for.  

Hickory Signals – Noise of the Waters | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.12.16

For their second EP, the Brighton-based duo Laura Ward and Adam Ronchetti, otherwise known as Hickory Signals, present six songs ranging from traditional through to contemporary originals by way of a reconditioned James Joyce poem, from which the title derives.  Prominent throughout is the voice of Laura Ward, whose confident delivery gives each of the songs a powerful punch. Her reading of the traditional “Unquiet Grave”, together with its sparse string arrangement and almost dispassionate strummed guitar accompaniment seems to bring to the song the haunting quality the lyrics richly deserve.  Irish Ways tends to enfold within it a similar atmosphere but with an acoustic musical arrangement that almost echoes Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days” in full flow strangely enough; it’s good to hear traditional songs being explored in this way, intentionally or otherwise.  Of the duo’s self-penned team efforts here, it’s the Eastern-influenced “Here I Am” that skitters along tastefully and brings to the EP a lightness of touch, which is in stark contrast to the opening title song “Noise of the Waters” and which showcases the duo’s obvious flair for musical arrangement.

Michael Chapman – 50 | Album Review | Paradise of Bachelors | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.12.16

Michael Chapman is a survivor, a Fully Qualified Survivor, his legendary second album, released in 1970, would have us believe.  An Art College Photography lecturer, who’d paid his way through University by playing jazz guitar, Chapman found himself in rainy Cornwall in 1966.  Broke, with only petrol money for the trip home, he paid his way into a Folk Club by playing for half an hour.  This led to a summer residency and a phone call explaining that Mr Chapman would not be returning to teach in September. The rest is, as they say, history.  Spotted by Ralph McTell, he was eventually signed to the very hip Harvest label, EMI’s late 60s attempt to grow its hair.  Rainmaker a mix of virtuoso guitar and melancholic folk blues was followed by the fore mentioned Survivor, John Peel’s album of the year and the recording debut of Hull gardener Mick Ronson, brought to David Bowie’s attention by the album’s producer Gus Dudgeon.  It also contained “Postcards of Scarborough” the song that was, in terms of radio play and exposure, his hit.  The fact that it is a favourite of Shelia, Peel’s wife is obviously mere coincidence.  Two more albums for Harvest led to a more electric 70s period with Decca, playing with Rick Kemp, Keef Hartley, Rod Clements, Camel, Dave Mattacks, BJ Cole the list is endless.  Through the 80s, 90s and 21st Century a constant flow of albums and projects followed, Playing Guitar The Easy Way an instructional guitar album, Heartbeat an album length instrumental piece, the Americana albums, exercises in travelogue.  Of course the gigs continued continuously after that Cornish debut. Indeed in July 2016 Michael celebrated his 50th annual appearance at Botallack, where sheltering from the wet he jumped off the 9 to 5.   To call 50, on the American Paradise of Bachelors label, a comeback, would be to suggest that he ever went away.  There was no period of running a vintage guitar shop, driving trucks or managing a pub.  If anything it was us that went away, while Michael carried on being Michael.  Whether that is a sign of vision and someone following an ever shifting muse, or typical Yorkshire bloody mindedness is a matter of opinion.  He would laugh, take a mouthful of heavy red wine and dismiss it as being difficult.  It is to Michael’s credit that he has stayed true to himself, while someone else is in the producer’s chair and while this is very much an ensemble album, that singlemindedness and character runs through every note of this excellent album.   50 notes the number of years he has been on the road, the length of his ‘marriage’ to Andru, muse and fellow conspirator.  It was also intended to mark the number of albums he’d recorded, till it was pointed out to Chapman that if you include studio, live, library albums of incidental music and archival compilations, then his 50th new album was in 2010.  However its titled, 50 is a milestone, marking a period of resurgence of interest in Michael Chapman.  Championed by long time fans like Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and name checked by a whole host of new American musicians including William Tyler, Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose this is very much his time.  In the last two years Chapman has released an instrumental album Fish another high water point, a shared release of songs with “Hiss Golden Messenger”, an album of improvised instrumentals inspired by his heroes and has an album with Israeli Ehud Banai (another lifelong Chapman fan) lined up for spring 2017.  In the UK it has been a slower burn with his material recorded by Show of Hands while Supergrass, Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and Ben Watt are among the people who have name checked Chapman in print.  50 is Michael Chapman finally making an American album, earlier albums have been released in America to great acclaim, Savage Amusement in 1975 was produced by US musician and songwriter Don Nix, with some overdubs at Ardent in Memphis.  But after 48 years this is recorded at Black Dirt Studio in New York State with Steve Gunn, Nathan Bowles (Pelt, The Black Twig Pickers), Jason Meagher (The No Neck Blues Band), and James Elkington ( American by location if not birth)  who has played with Jeff Tweedy among others, gathered around him.  Chapman’s most American of releases also represents a surrender of control with Steve Gunn producing and players chosen to do what they do best and not just to be session players, this is very much a group piece.  “Spanish Incident (Ramon and Durango)” a road song and a recollection of time wasted, opens the album.  An up-tempo insistent riff is carried by Chapman’s guitar, banjo and a jangling piano. A strong opener this is a rare gem, Chapman that you can dance to.  The lyric is part anecdote with a strong sense of place, religious imagery and even a nod to Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”.  While a number of the tracks are revisits of older material, standards if you like, that Michael ever the jazzer, like an acoustic wielding Miles Davis, reinterprets with different players, “Sometimes You Just Drive” is a new song.  By any measure it is a corker, with imagery inspired by the floods in Carlisle.  But like a classic blues the writing is deeper and wider.  The title suggests a resignation that many things are out of our control, that life just isn’t fair and that battered by time, by circumstance and adversity we are all lucky to be here.  Bridget St John, collaborator, friend and touring partner since Deal Gone Down in 1974, delivers a perfect vocal on this track, part gospel call and response, part sonic foil, it adds to the other worldliness.  Water and bad weather are vividly suggested by the guitars that fade in and out behind Chapman’s acoustic.  “The Mallard” is an ode to one of Michael’s other obsessions, trains.  Written in York Station, lifelong obsessions are woven together, with imagery that includes steam, love and 1940s music as Texan Jazz Trombonist and singer Jack Teagarden gets a name check.  Earlier versions of this track, first recorded in 1995, were exercises in space with the riff and bass notes acting like an earworm.  Here it is all about the ensemble, that characteristic Chapman riff is still there but given the number of excellent players on the album it is all about the guitar.  Three or even four, players and parts weave around the vocalists, layering and texturing like a string big band, but never smothering.  The last couple of minutes and we are off into 70s Floydian territory.  A guitar riff that is part ‘buskers stomping foot’ opens “Memphis In Winter”.  A life and death mid-winter drive into and through the southern city, inspired this bitter anthem.  Written even before hurricane Katrina, the dark lyric shatters the myth of prosperity for all in the American dream.  Reality is compared to the myth of Hollywood, as a film prop plane is held up and found wanting.  We are battered by the pace, the imagery and some of the angriest electric guitar on the album.  With an acoustic riff that recalls “Postcards of Scarborough” and dirty 70s boogie guitar “The Prospector” is another layered song.  Written about a visitor setting up the mine off the Chapman’s Farm drive, it details a succession of drunken visitors to the kitchen table.  Maddy Prior who recorded the song in 2011 talked about Chapman’s ability to mix micro and macro when writing and called it anthemic.  It starts as a wobbly acoustic ditty but the chorus of huge sounding electric guitars give the piece an intensity and you find yourself repeating the track and turning it right up.  Interestingly despite a span of 36 years the imagery just flows and echoes between “The Prospector”, “Sometimes You Drive” and “Memphis In Winter”.  “Falling From Grace”, a song about a falling out and a period of separation, dates from the 1980s.  Here it is reworked with different chords, but is still a classic Chapman song of regret, with him identifying and inhabiting his role of the outsider looking in.  It was captivating thirty years ago and remains so now.  The tune is split between Michael’s guitar and a keyboard motif as the instruments shimmer around him.  “Money Trouble” is a new song, another insistent banjo part and an amalgam of classic Chapman tunes with the quick fire truisms and life lessons peppered throughout.   “That Time Of The Night” was famously covered by Lucinda Williams in 2012, a fact that Michael, a huge fan, is fiercely proud of.   The pedal steel, languid tempo perfectly and hesitant piano suit Chapman’s delivery of this bottle half empty song perfectly.  Against the textures and layers elsewhere there is space and light here on another album highlight.  In the early 60s, earning summer money, while at Art College, Chapman worked on the Mexborough estates of North Yorkshire as a woodsman.  Slack time was spent writing classics like “In The Valley” and “Among The Trees”.  This period also explains a lot of the rural imagery in early songs by someone raised in Hunslett Leeds, an area not known for its wooded vistas.  A little later in the 70s Ehud Banai in Israeli retreated to the isolation of Rosh Pina and armed only with a cassette of Chapman’s Rainmaker focused on refining his guitar playing.  When they met, playing and touring together decades later, Michael was taken to Rosh Pina, Ehud’s In The Valley and this gently looping moody instrumental is his reponse to the scale of the biblical landscape.  “Navigation” the album closer on CD and digital versions of the album is another Chapman classic.  A swirling woozy ambience washes over a lyric that uses bad weather and adversity as a spring broad to ponder life. Space and a wobbly iconic Chapman guitar define the song as the album slow fades to a close. Footnote quiet nights are not usually what you get in the company of Mr Chapman and the reference is ironic.  Paraphrasing JWM Turner this album could have been called Wind, Weather Wine, Love and Regret.  For long time Chapman fans it is a bringing together of everything that he does so well, all the things that represent the best of Michael.  For more recent arrivals, this album represents so many of the reasons why he has been so vital for the last fifty years and will leave them scrambling for the huge back catalogue.

Johnny Coppin – All on a Winter’s Night | Album Review |  Red Sky Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 10.12.16

Blessed with a voice as crisp and clear as a frosty morning and with sufficient depth to give it the warmth of a welcome glass of mulled wine, Johnny Coppin delivers a set of seasonal songs to accompany your festivities.  Based on the content of his concerts of the same name and currently on tour, both the event and the album features a selection of songs that reflect his self-professed love of the midwinter period and the music associated with it – as evidenced by his three previous Christmas related offerings.  The album combines self-penned songs, such as the title track along with classics of the winter time, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “In The Bleak Midwinter”, a song and arrangement for which Johnny is perfectly suited.  In addition, and as befits a connoisseur of the songwriter’s art, there are carefully chosen more modern inclusions, with Blowzabella’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, Nigel Eaton’s “Halsway Carol” a shining example of this.  The musical delivery is also rounded out with contributions from musicians including old Decameron band mates Dik Cadbury and Geoff March.  For those coming new to Johnny, and while comparisons are odious, an excellent, if somewhat unexpected point of reference would be a quintessentially English John Denver, though drawing vocal purity more from the air of the rolling Cotswolds than a Rocky Mountain High.  Trivia fans might note that both artists were formerly students of architecture!  The overall feel of the album is one of time well spent in good and relaxed company as the nights draw in and one would expect that to be the case when the songs are presented live at his shows.  There is much to reflect the spiritual origins of the Christmas period and for those who might quibble about that in terms of the inevitably Christian focus, there are also nods towards other traditions with recognition of the solstice.  In terms of feel, there is the engaging aspect one would expect from Johnny, inviting the listener to draw nearer and enjoy but there are also elements to both raise and rouse the spirits, with “Welcome In Another Year” drawing an increased pressure on the accelerator pedal during the car located first listening of the CD.  As either a reminder of a live event or an accompaniment to a convivial evening with gentle-folk, this is a sure-footed and enjoyable performance all round.  As a quick aside, for those who may have had their interest in Johnny piqued and are looking for a less seasonally related collection, with this year and 2017 seeing the 80th anniversaries of the start of The Spanish Civil War and some of the major atrocities, Johnny’s collaboration with Laurie Lee is worth investigating.  The poems, songs and music take us through the work of the “Gloucestershire Boy”, whose descriptions of Spain before and during that turbulent period in “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” and “A Moment of War” are as powerful, poignant and evocative as those of his Slad Valley childhood.

David Simard – The Heavy Wait | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.12.16

From the offset this is a very intense album.  David Simard’s delivery is considered and authoritative, there is space and emotion in everything he does here.  The album is called The Heavy Wait, a phrase which apparently became a mantra from the first session onwards.  It could also refer to that stretching of time and space around every note on the record.  The title and the space since Simard’s last record and his delivery suggests that every line, each note has been refined, and carefully considered.  Paired back, distilled down to an intense essential essence. The Heavy Wait opens on “Cat’s Cradle” with a skeletal picked and strummed electric guitar laying down a sparse tune.  Lap Steel and percussion join in, but all this is ambience and mood lighting for the real star which is David Simard’s voice.  Clarinet and bowed bass create a jazz torch song over which the vocals are compelling.  The lyric talks about denial and rejecting pleasures as if the singer is involved in a process similar to the song.  The space and the considered delivery recalls melancholic 60s vocalists like Scott Walker.  That cracked bass rumble recalls the 50 styled delivery of Richard Hawley, or on tracks like “Good Clean Water”, classic singers like Roger Miller, Leonard Cohen or even Lonnie Donegan.  Cohen for his rumbling note rather than just as a lazy knee jerk reference because he is a Canadian.  David Simard’s voice swoops and yelps, creating songs that are intimate and timeless drawing you in, as you hang on every syllable.  The retro vibe is there on the faster tempo “The Guitar Player”, brushed drums spit out a frantic pattern with a chiming fifties styled guitar and a vocalise / guitar solo that nods to “Ghost Riders In The Sky”.  Again the vocal, like a male Imelda May whoops and rumbles through the song.  The Line slows it down again, sparse funeral drums and a beautifully crooned vocal, drawled in an affecting way that is atmospheric and emotional.  “I’m Bad” has a tempo and delivery that brings to mind the stretched tight qualities of Hank Williams’ classic road song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.  The lyric is pure melancholic drifter troubadour, you can imagine him sprawled on a motel double bed, cowboy boots on, strumming on a guitar, staring out of a huge picture window between faded curtains.  The arrangement is perfectly stripped back so the occasional strums of Simard’s electric fill the room.  This intense self-depreciating song is one of the highlights of a strong album.  “La Dee Da” continues that dark vibes, the tempo stretches time and the rumbling vocal with its yodel refrain draws you in. Simard’s delivery lends some sharp lyrics even more depth and pathos because of his impeccable timing.  ‘She’s a modern girl with a vintage feel’ seems to typify the mood and the attraction of the whole album.   “Superior” is another smouldering Folk Jazz piece, a beautiful ascending bass line, hesitant icy piano that is pure Bill Evans and a lap steel whose echoing call suggests the endless frozen landscape.  The vocal soars and falls, painting bleak pictures as much with its sound as with the words Simard forms.  “Said Too Much” is a lullaby. a song about a song, beautifully crooned over possibly some of the most perfect playing on the album, it stops abruptly, setting up the dramatic next track.  “Take Me In” opens with some wonderful primitive guitar, the mic right in the amp speaker to pick up every buzz and last piece of ambience.  The doubled tracked vocals with David and Brie Nelson, hesitant and charged are sublime, part Chris Isaak part Mark Hollis one time Talk Talk singer at his stripped back best. “Rorschach” the final track unconsciously channels Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” with its lyrical lady reference in the first line.  The lyrics are surreally descriptive, observational and rich.  Just as you wonder how much further Simard can push that guitar playing he puts it down and leaves it alone.  On “Rorschach” the sound separates this track from the rest of the album, the voice carries the tune over piano accents and a bass heavy rhythm.  Without the guitars the tempo and atmosphere suggests Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue.  Layered echoing brass that is more Specials “Ghost Town” than folk blues just leaves the albums inventive side till last, suggesting that Simard has a lot more yet to reveal.  Richly rewarding, with multiple layers of sound rather than orchestras of musicians, so you can hear the space, this is an album that bears repeated visits.  Play it loud, play it often and take the time to listen.

Jasmine Rodgers – Blood Red Sun | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.12.16

When I first met up with singer-songwriter Steve Rodgers a few years ago to chat to him about his songs, his music and his dad, I discovered there was a younger sibling in the family, who according to Steve, ran around stadiums with him, while dad Paul Rodgers of such notable bands as Free and Bad Company, busied himself with sound checks.  Little did I know then that Jasmine Rodgers, like her brother and father before her, was quite a singer and musician.  If Jasmine’s rock sensibilities come from her dad, then her sense of poetry and her distinctive looks probably come from her Japanese mother.  Following Steve into the six-piece rock band Boa, Jasmine was prepared to jump into that world while also absorbing contemporary music such as New Kingdom, PJ Harvey and Fugazi, together with such diverse genres as dance music and the ethereal voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  The eleven songs on her debut solo album Blood Red Sun indicate that little time has been wasted and Jasmine emerges as a fine solo performer, with a confident voice that traverses a broad musical palette.  Songs such as “Icicles” and “Sense”, both released as a double-sided single are perfect examples of what to expect from this fine singer and performer.  Good things to come for sure. 

Home Service – A New Ground | Album Review | Dotted Line | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.12.16

It’s been an astonishing twenty years since their last – and it has to be said – their finest album Alright Jack back in 1986, and now Home Service are back with a brand new studio album.  Instrumentally the band are still very much on form, with some ingenious arrangements, utilising the band’s familiar brass section alongside John Kirkpatrick’s accordion and Graeme Taylor’s expressive guitar work.  Vocally, a long way from the band’s heyday it has to be said with John Tams, whose soulful voice, full of grace and humility, became the heart of the band. John Kirkpatrick steps into those shoes and provides a rather pedestrian performance by comparison, but that’s hardly his fault, it’s just the way he sings.  Having said that, Kirkpatrick’s voice does suit what we think of as Folk Rock down to the ground and in this case, a new ground indeed.  If I’ve been over-critical about John Kirkpatrick (how dare I, he’s an English folk icon), then I find very little to fault in either the musicianship, the arrangements or the actual lyrical content of these songs.  The new and original songs mix well with the old and traditional, such as the well-trodden “Arthur McBride”, with an emphasis on the interweaving of brass instrumentation and bold electric guitar.  There are one or two moments of musical eccentricity, such as Kirkpatrick’s “Dirt, Dust, Lorries and Noise”, which in other hands would be a disaster, but here is just spot on, together with more sensitive fare, such as Derek Pearce’s “Melting”, which sees the band on their finest musical form with a rather confident Kirkpatrick vocal and a belting Taylor solo.

The Western Flyers – Wild Blue Yonder | Album Review | Versa Tone Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.12.16

Almost forty-two years have passed since the great Bob Wills shuffled off this mortal coil, but his departure didn’t, in fact, signal the end of western swing, the genre of music of which Mr Wills was the undisputed king. In fact, the heart of that toe-tapping, soul-cleansing style still beats healthily through the music of such revivalists as the Hot Club of Cowtown, Lyle Lovett, The Quebe Sisters Band and The Western Flyers, a trio whose meticulous rhythms and driving old-time strut have been lovingly preserved on Wild Blue Yonder.  This constantly zestful collection of thirteen swinging tracks was recorded using early Neumann, Telefunken and RCA ribbon microphones along with period tube pre-amps to give the whole thing a truly authentic, old-time feel. Joey McKenzie’s chugging guitar sounds eighty-years old, and all the better for it, while Katie Glassman’s fiddle and Gavin Kelso’s upright bass flit and weave between the speakers like a pair of Texas Coral Snakes.  The repertoire is authentic, too, with such well-known numbers as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tennessee Waltz” receiving the Western Flyer treatment.  And while the slick musicianship shines on this richly entertaining collection of songs from the thirties and forties, it is perhaps Katie Glassman’s voice that makes Wild Blue Yonder protrude from the shelf.  Her sweet yet weathered vocal on “Never No More” is nothing short of a treat, as is Joey McKenzie’s on “I’ll See You In My Dreams” which concludes the album in style.

Louise Bichan – Out Of My Own Light | Album Review | Swanbister | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.12.16

Out Of My Own Light is a demonstration of the rude health of contemporary Folk and Acoustic music.  It is a calling card from a set of stunning musicians and an indication of names to watch closely in the future. Louise Bichan’s amazing album is also a nightmare for anyone who ia thematically inclined when it comes to their music, once you have finally taken it out of the CD player where do you put it, is it Celtic, Nu Folk, Neo Folk, Ambient, Jazz, Electronica, Classical Music, Chamber Music, Soundtrack Music. Short answer it is all of those and more.  In 1950 Margaret Tait aged 25 left her native Orkney, travelling to and across Canada.  Margaret’s Uncle had emigrated to Canada at the turn of the Century, marrying and bringing up a family.  In the years after World War Two Margaret Tait found herself restless, at a crossroads in her life and used travel far away from home as a chance to reflect. In 2013 Louise Bichan, embarked on a sentimental and musical journey retracing her grandmother’s footsteps on the same trip.  The result, premiered at Orkney Folk Festival in 2015 is this album, a suite of beautifully wrought pieces drawn from both women’s travels, family recollections and Bichans careful study of her grandmother’s diaries.  This plays out like a modern BBC Radio Ballad, a sense of time and place and a sense of pride run right through it.  Sketching with sound in a way that is truly cinematic, slow notes drawn out of a fiddle open the album, suggesting the large open landscape of Quoyburray and Tankerness on Orkney.  Listening with the CD cover close by, the sound and images mesh, creating a terrific travelogue.  The huge bass sound 30 seconds in, is an early hint that this is music that won’t be easily pinned down. Quoyburray sets the scene.  “For Myrtle” starts to introduce the characters in this set of personal stories and recollections.  “For Myrtle” opens with a stately vocal, poignant and solemn like a church reading as Louise Bichan reveals her strong connections to family and place and shows the deep connection between the two.  Skittish piano, electronics and bowed cello swirl with the widescreen beauty of ECM recordings.  Close your eyes and the pictures flood in.  Wind, weather are monumentally proportioned around us, until Signy Jakobsdottir’s beautiful percussion suggests footfall and we are moving through the landscape.  Sydney the Pilot and Ian introduce other players in Bichan’s musical expositions around her Grandmothers tale, with the music revealing characters and something of Margaret Tait’s dilemma in the choosing.   “Out Of My Own Light” is a wonderful phrase that reveals the sharp mind of Margaret Tait, her restlessness and how constrained she felt.  The quote “I’ll never get out of my own light while I continue here” draws a picture of someone who felt limited, unable to see or think clearly. It’s an evocative image that demonstrates how a person and their situation can become intertwined, so problem and solution are knotted together.  Being there she casts a shadow which obscures possibilities and prevents her from seeing a clear way forwards.  The title piece of the album is stately chamber music, evoking travel and turmoil with savage beauty.  A crackly voice from the past breaks the track, a literal sample of Margaret’s radio appearance in Canada.  Tension builds through the track and I like to think within the narrative that the huge electronic swell after the radio voice marks a moment of revelation.  “The Ascania” is a playful interlude named for the ship that transported Margaret Tait on her travels.  CBC Winnipeg mixes the excitement of Tait’s and Bichan’s Canadian journeys, meeting old family and then after a Philip Glass like motif the Canadian Radio broadcast again this time correctly placed in the narrative.  Like “For Myrtle” this is a musically rich track, layering upbeat folk against more reflective passages. Hearing Bichan and her band play around and with her grandmother from 1950 is very moving.  It is fitting that Margaret Tait who is woven so completely through this album appears physically as a message from the past in her own story.  “Margaret’s Walk to the Pier” is another cinematic piece, emotive fiddle plays over bird song and ambience building to a simply wonderful piano conclusion.  Jennifer Austin’s piano is one of the stars of this whole album.  The lighter touch in “Flying Farmer” reveals without too many spoilers who the girl plumed for in the end.  “Swanbister” with its rolling piano and dance tune rhythm, titled for their marital home on Orkney, brims over with a feeling of future potential and happiness.  It is not coincidental that Louise Bichan’s label is named after Swanbister.  The album closes with Margaret Tait’s CBC recording in full.   There is a sense that Louise Bichan is only just scratching the surface, that there is so much more could be said about the remarkable Margaret Tait and her family, if this isn’t a BBC documentary very soon then there is something very wrong.  We have heard the music we want to see the places. Expect much more from Louise Bichan, Jennifer Austin, Signy Jakobsdottir, Su-a Lee, Duncan Lyall and Mie Vass.

Becky Langan – Parallel Paths | EP Review |  Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.12.16

Sky Arts Guitar Star ran for its second season in 2016. While structurally similar to shows like The Voice and X Factor, Guitar Star was built around the often virtuosic prowess of its contestants, in a way that TV reality shows frankly often aren’t.  The guitar was very much the star. For me the overall stars of the 2016 shows, although not the ultimate winners were the acoustic players Haythem Mohamed and Becky Langan.  Becky is a 24 year-old guitar player from Rochdale in Lancashire.  Parallel Paths is her first self-released EP of guitar work.  From the opening track Aurora Becky uses the whole of the guitar with a percussive rhythm of taps and beats on the body of the acoustic running behind the melody carrying us through the track.  “A Lucid Dream” opens with some left hand work that is very evocative of Michael Hedges’ Wyndham Hill albums.  There is a terrific sense of space, particularly behind the huge low notes as if Langan is playing the whole room.  Becky never overplays or gets too busy, her sense of timing is excellent and the beat pulses through.  On the slower paced “Breeze” the density of the playing builds after a sparse atmospheric start to a middle where the notes fly and collide before falling away again.  On “The Puzzle” it is Langan’s physicality with the guitar that is the star as over a pulsing rhythm she beats a huge bass note out of the body of the guitar while both left and right hands hit the strings to create a web of high notes and accents.  “Fight Or Flight” opens with some John Fahey like runs over the strings before a flamenco like percussive playing takes over with finger taps snapping like castanets.  A slow burning EP from a talented and hypnotic player who deserves to be as all over peoples’ collections as she is all over her guitar.