Northern Sky Archive 2017

Robyn Stapleton – Songs of Robert Burns | Album Review | Laverock Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.01.17

Robyn Stapleton was BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician in 2014, releasing her debut album in 2015.  Brought up in South West Scotland, Robyn traces her introduction to singing, to the poetry of Robert Burns.  Her sleeve note introductions to each track explain her personal connections to the chosen songs and gives some insightful context.  Unsurprisingly given her reputation, listening to The Songs of Robert Burns the first thing that strikes you is the purity of her voice.  It has a beautiful crystal quality rather than an earthy folky burr.  Robyn’s voice against the drum and fiddle of “Comin’ through the Rye” or the piano of “Westlin Winds” is very much the star here.  It gently but firmly demands your attention, as you are drawn in to every nuance and swoop on “Ae Fond Kiss” or “Westlin Winds” with the accompaniment swelling to fill between the verses.  Having said that, “I’m Oer Young” contains a fine set of tunes and the playing is snappy and engaging with an infectious rhythm building through the track.  “The Slave’s Lament” is wonderfully moody with Patsy Reid’s mournful viola and Stapleton’s rising and falling voice building a hypnotic atmosphere.  One of the many things that are excellent about this album is the recording and production, there is tasteful restraint throughout, with singer song and musicians all given room to breathe.  Special mention for the unaccompanied singing on “John Anderson My Jo” which is atmospheric and captivating.  The space on “The Slave’s Lament” and the understated guitar accents on “Ca’ the Yowes” are masterpieces of minimalism, burnishing but never detracting from Stapleton’s commanding voice.  Throughout The Songs of Robert Burns the arrangements and the performances are less folksy and more considered, this is a contemplative album rather than a rollicking good time, as typified by the stately “Auld Lang Syne” a piano and voice piece that closes the album.  A quietly intense, personal and emotional journey, an intimate celebration of Robert Burns and an exercise in quiet intensity from all involved.

Alistair Anderson and Northlands – Alistair Anderson and Northlands | Album Review | White | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.01.17

Many will know musician Alistair Anderson as a stalwart of the international folk scene.  Over the last five decades, the concertina player and Northumbrian piper has toured his blend of traditional and contemporary Northumbrian music across the world, originally as part of The High Level Ranters but, most often, as a solo artist and frequent collaborator as both performer and composer.  Others will know Alistair as the founder of the Folkworks organisation which has helped to revolutionise folk music with its popular series of annual summer schools at the Sage, Gateshead.  It was at the Folkworks Youth Summer School during the 1990s that Anderson first encountered the young musicians who join him on this stunning new record which presents a picturesque ramble through traditional 18th century tunes, several North Country jigs and reels and a few new compositions, too.  Sophy Ball provides the slick fiddle, which is never more nimble and enthusiastic than on Risty Gulley or more deeply melancholy than on “The Snow it Melts the Soonest” which features a heartfelt vocal by flautist and singer Sarah Hayes.  And whilst Hayes – best known as a member of Glaswegian band Admiral Fallow – provides equally sincere lyrics on “I Drew My Ship Into the Harbour”, partly inspired by the version by Shirley Collins, and on Jez Lowe’s thundering “Taking on Men”, she also brings to this record a tastefully warm-toned flute which flourishes from track to track.  The backbone of this fine album, however, is Ian Stephenson’s acoustic guitar which shimmers crisply throughout, along with his double bass and piano which help flesh out the sound; and it’s a sound that has been carefully mixed by Ian, who produced the album, to ensure that each instrument is clearly defined.  And whilst Alistair Anderson dazzles with some of the most gorgeous sounding concertina playing and piping you’re ever likely to hear, he never places himself anywhere other than firmly within the unit.  Alistair Anderson & Northlands is an album and, indeed, an ensemble that insists upon unity, deep connection and riveting interplay.

The Carrivick Sisters – 10 Years Live | Album Review | Self Release| Review by Liam Wilkinson | 03.01.17

“We’ve been playing publicly and releasing CDs for ten years, so this is a celebration of all that!” begins Laura Carrivick in her introduction to this live recording, made at the stunning Convent, Stroud back in October 2016.  It’s difficult to accept that these highly talented young twins from Devon have been delivering fine performances and albums of American-tinged folk music for a decade, especially given that the sisters sound as fresh and enchantingly unspoiled as they did back when they were busking on the streets of the South West.  Indeed, even after taking the British bluegrass scene by storm as part of the award winning combo Cardboard Fox, it’s the retention of their natural, uncluttered delivery that gives this duo an authenticity that keeps us coming back for more.  Thankfully, Laura and Charlotte have had the good sense to mark their ten year anniversary as a professional folk duo by laying down a selection of choice covers and originals that keep the performance rattling along very nicely indeed.  From the album’s opening track, a delightful cover of Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”, it’s clear that the girls are going to keep us engaged and, with Joni Mitchell’s “River” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” soon cropping up, our hopes are more than satisfied. There are, of course, some exceptional original tunes in the mix such as Charlotte’s “Crate 223”, performed for the first time here, and Laura’s nimble “Piggy Bank”.  Featuring some slick guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and fiddle, as well as those sweet sibling harmonies, this celebration of ten years’ hard work provides both a celebration for us established fans and a charming introduction for those who are just discovering The Carrivick Sisters.

Police Dog Hogan – Wild by the Side of the Road | Album Review | Major Tom Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.01.17

Formed in 2009, Police Dog Hogan are a hard-gigging, riveting band, full of personality and presence.  With a string of festival appearances and a Bob Harris session under their collective belts, they are deservedly going places.  Hopefully this excellent CD will take them a stage closer.  It may be that Police Dog Hogan are victims of their own surreal name, it’s wonderful back story and their Banjo player Tim Dowling’s self-deprecating recanting of their rise in his Saturday Guardian column.  It may be that they are having to work hard to be taken seriously.  But Police Dog Hogan are better than the caricature Dowling presents and a more serious proposition than their tale of the over-zealous PD Hogan would make it seem.  There are many moments on this album where they reach for and firmly grasp the crowns of Show Of Hands and Bellowhead.  Steely Dan were named after a fictional psychotic sex toy and that ultimately didn’t do them any harm, so what’s in a name.  “Tyburn Jig”, the opening track, is a wonderful old school folk rock, tale of a hanging, song.  It roars along and is literally a jig that will have audiences swirling at gigs.  The ballad flows organically into a lovely violin bass duet at its end.  “Dixie” is an observational song that you’d write from the bar with a glass in one hand, wry and dark, a lyric that would sound perfect on Mark Knopfler’s lips.  Devon Brigade is a more intimate arrangement and a wonderfully evocative postcard from someone at the front in WW1.  Beautiful guitar parts run through this track.  By keeping it small scale, as a Devonshire teenage farm hand writing home, it all seems so achingly real.  James Studholme’s vocals are brilliant, his ‘been there bought the T Shirt’, lived in quality, gives gravitas and sincerity.  “In the Country” is an upbeat rouser of a track, with nifty piano and some interesting vocal harmonies that you know will just come alive on stage. All You Know about Love is another ‘elbows on the bar’ song, but the melancholic lyric is lifted by some engaging and beautiful playing.  “Let My Spirit Rise”, possibly one of the album highlights, brilliantly evokes the music and oblique lyrics of Paul Simon and the mood of Gershwin’s “Summertime”.  There is a wonderfully spiritual quality to the rich lyrics and their delivery that drips Southern Soul.  This track could have been laid down at Muscle Shoals, Alabama rather than somewhere in southern England. Someone should play this to Van Morrison.  “The One on the Left” is a wry reflective country song.  “Our Lady of the Snows” builds a beautifully melancholic atmosphere all swooping violins and cello a simple ballad lyric and a great chorus, another album highlight.  Police Dog Hogan are a huge eight-piece band, which gives them a wide palette of musical possibilities, this is a good thing.  The fact that they let the song dictate the arrangements and can also exercise restraint is also a good thing and a real strength. After the brooding restraint of “Our Lady of the Snows”, as intense as the moment before a storm, comes the full on hoedown of “East Nashville Back Porch Fix” (I’m sure there is a band joke in there somewhere).  A wonderful rollicking ‘story of a band’ song, like Fairport Convention’s “Angel Delight”.  With some superb Duane Eddy guitar licks.  Ready and willing indeed.  Final track “Fare You Well” lays a slower reflective groove down, personal lyrics of Cornwall over a rolling beat with a great Celtic vibe and a superb anthemic closer, like an encore of an old classic with an instrumental coda to catch you out.  Seek out this album, there is much here to reward repeated listening, folk rock, country rock, acoustic brooding ballads on a bedrock of interesting and sparky musicianship.  If the album isn’t enough hen check out the band on their live dates they are as musically rich and lively on stage as they are on record.

Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum – The Space Between | Album Review | Edition Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.01.17

When two of the finest British jazz guitarists come together to record at one of this country’s most inspiring studio environments, it’s not surprising that the resulting album is a veritable masterpiece.  The Space Between is the second collaboration from Manchester guitarists Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum and, like 2014’s Beholden, we’re once again gifted with an album that surpasses the simplicity of its making to enthral its listener with some of the finest soundscapes committed to disc.  It helps, of course, that this is not just a recording of two incredibly artful guitarists – Walker on electric and McCallum on acoustic – but one that experiments with subtle yet stimulating electronic sounds without ever sacrificing the grounding beauty of melody and theme.  Whether in the renderings of Stuart McCallum’s own compositions such as the spacious “Moment Us”, or the melancholic Bacharach classic “Alfie”, The Space Between presents a perpetual dream-like imagining that exists somewhere between reality and reverie.  From track to track there is a liquidity that, when running over the rhythmic stones of “And Finally” and “Sky Dancer” and reaching the tranquil deltas of “As the Trees Waltz” and the standard “My Ideal”, never abandons its mesmeric course.  The pleasant flow of the album is, perhaps, helped by the fact that it was brought to life in the Wood Room at Wiltshire’s Real World Studios, a warm and inviting space that offers a mellow environment where both musician and instrument can, evidently, push their boundaries to astonishing extents.  Whilst it was always going to be a superlative second offering from Walker and McCallum, the surprises that are delivered with each spin of this nine-track disc give The Space Between something of an evergreen quality, not least the overwhelming surprise that this album is markedly better than anticipated.  And you really can’t ask for more than that.

Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola – Widdershins | Album Review | Dell Daisy Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 08.01.17

You get the distinct feeling, with Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola’s latest outing Widdershins that you’re in earshot of a fascinatingly impassioned conversation.  And there’s no need to eavesdrop; on the contrary, the tête-à-tête is going on right under your nose, brazen as can be, without ever concealing itself behind closed fingers and breathy whispers.  Sarah-Jane’s fiddle, a sprightly, female voice, leaps and dives over the surface of Juhani’s deep and sagacious acoustic guitar, the two often intertwining for moments of delicate respect and glistening, limpid kinship.  And both voices are articulated with tongues of solid silver; Juhani moves crisply from chord to chord, note to note whilst Sarah-Jane manages to retain all the seductive expression of heartfelt Scottish and Norwegian folk music whilst reaching the speckless agility of a world class symphony violinist.  Sarah-Jane Summers is, of course, a member of Scottish quartet Rant and the founder of Norwegian-Scottish outfit Fribo as well as a well-respected music teacher, whilst Juhani Silvola is one of Norway’s foremost musicians, composers and producers.  Just like it says on the tin, Widdershins is an album that goes against the grain, constantly pressing against the boundaries to reach moments of genuinely fearless ambition.  So whilst “Silver Spring Wheel” may well be a jaunty little tune on anyone else’s album, on Widdershins it becomes a mesmeric, flickering dance that, towards its final bars, melts into a barely audible flutter of plucks.  Similarly, on “Vaajakosken Maija”, a delightfully tranquil tune rolls towards a truly haunting conclusion, courtesy of Sarah-Jane’s mournful, weeping fiddle.  The album culminates in a fiery exchange with “Spike on a Bike”, a tune that puts so much demand on both guitarist and fiddler that you’re left with little else to do than to hold your breath.  With its exhilarating pounding of both fingerboard and fretboard, this album closes on its knees, begging to be played again and, quite possibly, again.

Aurelio – Darandi | Album Review | Real World Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.01.17

During his thirty-year career in music, Honduras-born musician Aurelio Martinez has become known as the master of Garifuna music, specifically the style known as paranda, which is imbued with infectious and inviting dance rhythms.  His fourth album to date, Darandi, once again features a plethora of raw melodies together with lyrics covering everyday topics, each injected with the brightest of dance grooves, which are not too dissimilar to the music of his Cuban and Colombian neighbours.  The tradition this music draws from is both rich and varied, with a balance of African or Caribbean roots; which means when you hear those grooves, the sun automatically begins to shine.  The songs are probably more familiar than you at first think as most of them have been recorded previously.  Here though, the songs are given a distinctive live feel, due in no small part to the fact that they were recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, where the songs were recorded live from the floor, with the singer noting afterwards “We got into a zone where we felt like we were in our own community, playing Garifuna music for our people.  It was a special feeling”.  Joining Aurelio for the sessions are Guayo Cedeño on lead guitar, Emilio Alvarez on bass with both Onan Castillo and Joel Martinez on Garifuna drums and vocals.  Enjoy the songs either once again or for the first time in the way they are supposed to be heard.

David Youngs – In Between Silence | Album Review | Asana | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.01.17

David Youngs is a melodic, quirky and an always interesting guitar player, if me telling you that isn’t enough, then it should be abundantly clear by the end of this his latest album.  From the first notes of “Where Memories Go” the opener, a combination of his technique and his ability to weave in the unexpected holds your attention.  “Where Memories Go” is a brave nine minutes long, but there is no plodding, or sense that it overstays its welcome.  For the first few minutes, a percussive attack, that recalls Michael Hedges, is melded with wonderful melodies that evoke the pastoral acoustic early Pat Metheny.  Little touches of effects and sparkle fade in and out.  The final section builds around a wonderful folk finger-picked motif that is cinematic in the way it creates an atmosphere and a sense of space.  “And So it Goes” is wonderful twister with some very rhythmic percussive playing that is compelling, but restrained without any of the histrionics that can creep in.  What marks David Youngs out, is the way that he can musically change gear in the middle of a piece, as he does with the middle section of “And So it Goes”, so maintaining your wonderment right up until the last resonating string fades away.  “Mutster” is an older piece with a wonderful folky feel that brings to mind the dancing fingers of John Renbourn.  But again some very dubby studio flourishes with reverb keep you guessing up until the end.  “To Catch a Star” is an exercise in balance, with the ying of some very trippy percussive playing balanced by yang passages all about space and the picking of the strings.  “Chevrons Apart”, taken at a slower more contemplative pace, is a piece about distance and the space between people.  Just when you thought it was all about the darting fingers, Youngs, builds an emotional tension by slowing the tempo right down.  “Pieces of Me” is a wonderfully simple melody with some wonderfully flourishes thrown in just before a demon passage of phasing that sounds disturbingly like a cassette getting wrapped round the inside of your player – a little retro torment for those of us old enough to remember the hell of the tape.  “Mono No Aware” continues this contemplative eye of the storm with a drifting languid melody.  “Troisieme” is a track composed using a dropped tuning introduced by Michael Hedges and as a kind of homage, some of flourishes are dropped in at the start, before the track builds into a frenzy of picking that breaks, with some tape devilment as a gear change.  “Pearls”, a title that I like to think nods to David Youngs’ ability to reveal his playing in layers, evokes the rambling French Chateau where it was written, the notes and spaces suggesting long corridors and wooden floors.  The final track “Katy”, Again book ends the album as confidently and comprehensively as “Where Memories Go”.  This final piece is all about space, allowing you to lose yourself in the space between the low bass notes and the chiming melody picked over the top.  Enthralling and shifting, just when you think you’ve got him figured out, a percussive thump on the guitar body or a temp shift calls a change in this six stringed, ‘acoustic guitar barn dance’ of a player.  An album and a guitarist that you can fall into, so time just slips away.

Victoria Klewin and the True Tones – Dance Me to Heaven | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 13.01.17

Forgive the brazen cliche but Victoria Klewin could sing the phonebook and make it sound gorgeous.  And when she’s finished with that, she could make a start on the charity bags that also come through the door, along with the adverts for double glazing and new driveways.  Thankfully, the Bristol-based vocalist has got her own compositions to play with and, on Drive Me to Heaven, Klewin lovingly drenches each song with a voice so superbly fluid that it’s easy to miss what’s going on behind her.  Listen more closely, however, and you’ll hear the fiery chords of a molten Hammond organ, a tastefully chunky piano, a mischievous bass, sweetly nimble guitar, some white-hot percussion and sassy brass.  And as the band’s sound moves gracefully from stirring soul to smoky jazz, from rousing gospel to saucy funk, it becomes clear that voice and band are, in fact, tightly pinned together thanks to impressive musicianship and Klewin’s vocal agility.  Here is a vocalist with a rare reverence for her material, whose prowess as a singer is not marred by a need to be overly acrobatic.  Instead, energetic numbers such as “Can’t Help Myself” and “For the Good of Myself” are shimmeringly slick whilst the slower, more sensual songs such as “Not All That Glitters” and “Dance Me to Heaven” sit confidently within the tight control of this impressively masterful outfit.

Country Lips – Till the Daylight Comes | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.01.17

The recent resurgence in good old fashioned honky-tonk has delivered its fair share of pleasingly twangy albums over the last few years. Sam Outlaw’s Ry Cooder-produced album Angelino saw a breath of fresh western wind blow through the country scene last year, as did Canadian cowboy Daniel Romano’s last few releases, each of them nodding respectfully in the direction of Gram Parsons.  With Till the Daylight Comes, the eight-piece Seattle band Country Lips slide a taste of genuine boot-stomping Americana along the bar, with songs of gritty love, imprisonment and hard drinking bubbling at the rim.  But far from being predictable, Till the Daylight Comes swings nimbly from accordion-driven drinking songs such as “Reason I’m Drinking and Bar Time” to the lovelorn Parsons-inspired “Only Here Long Enough to Leave” and the beautifully melodic waltz “One Farewell”, each as authentic in their sound as they are inventive with their lyrics.  The result is an album that keeps both boot and mind engaged throughout.  You get the distinct feeling, with this album, that the ghosts of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings are seated just a few stools down the bar, beaming behind their bourbons at the thought that outlaw country is still alive and well.

The Blue Aeroplanes – Welcome Stranger | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 18.01.17

The Blue Aeroplanes are a curious beast.  A kind of Heinz 57 dog of a band. Whatever type of canine you like there is a bit of that in there somewhere and what emerges is something highly individual and much greater than the sum of the parts.  Not that the band don’t have an impressive pedigree, stretching back over 30 years and name checked as influences by the likes of REM and Radiohead.  Their first album in approaching 10 years manages to be a favourite movie kind of a disc.  There is much to be enjoyed but subsequent listens yield new pleasures on each occasion.  There is an overriding feel that on the face of it makes little sense, combining the muscularity of Primal Scream in their pomp with the whimsy and charm of the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Jonathan Richman.  Chief pilot Gerard Langley delivers lyrics that combine a sense of the profound with the suspicion that they may mean something completely different, in a semi-sung semi-spoken mould that marries the unlikely couple of John Otway and Mark E Smith.  In addition to the above you can find traces of just about anyone you have ever enjoyed from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Johnny Thunders and Elvis himself is name checked if not exactly referenced and this is followed a couple of songs later by perhaps the most traditionally structured song on the album where Langley gives way to the female vocals of Bec Jevons in a tune harking back to the likes of Elastica and other classic early 90s female lead combos.  In turn this is followed by the quieter more reflective side of the band which becomes more apparent in “Here is the Heart of all Wild Things” a song that would not disgrace Captain Beefheart’s twisted pop classic Bluejeans and Moonbeams.  On this form let us hope that the Aeroplanes do not leave it the best part of another decade before giving us a new set but in the meantime, for those coming new to the Bristol outfit, there is an extensive back catalogue to be investigated and enjoyed.

Iona Lane – Solace | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.01.17

A surprisingly powerful second EP from Lancaster-born singer-songwriter Iona Lane, whose slightly fragile voice is reminiscent of that of a young Suzanne Vega, or maybe even a Laura Veirs.  That said, it’s that very delivery that helps give these four songs their power.  The steady orchestrated build on Amsterdam, a reflection of the singer’s brief visit to the Netherlands a couple of years ago, is very much integral to keeping our interest until the end of the song – a tipped hat to Joel Shooter for those delicate off beats on that one and to Bess Shooter for the ethereal flute part.  If Iona’s voice did at first remind me of the young Vega, then “Sometimes” is every inch as pop friendly as “Marlene on the Wall” and I see no reason why it shouldn’t receive the same sort of airplay.  “Fly” or “Fall” sees a slightly more mellow side in Iona’s approach, with some delicate intonation, backed by an empathetic band arrangement.  The final song on the EP, “I’ll Run Without You”, is even more sparsely arranged, and invites us all to join in, to relieve the boredom of singing alone.  I see only good things ahead for Iona, and I look forward to hearing more and maybe even singing along, despite my own comparatively wobbly singing voice.

Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith – Night Hours | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Mary Andrews | 21.01.17

When you start playing Night Hours you’re greeted with a 22 second recording of the nocturnal sounds of Bristol – punctuated by the low bass-heavy heartbeat which continues into the title track.  It’s the first glimpse of the boldness that flows through this album.  With Jimmy Aldridge on vocals, banjo and fiddle and Sid Goldsmith on vocals, guitar, double bass and concertina (with additional support from James Gavin, Tommie Black-Roff and Dominic Henderson) there’s a refreshing variety of sounds throughout the 11 songs yet they hang together with ease.  There may be nothing particularly ground breaking about their delivery of “Willie O’the Winsbury” – but it’s still right up there with the best of the recorded versions I’ve heard.  Importantly it’s the contrast of the traditional with the modern that lends Night Hours much of its strength.  Amongst the traditional songs on the album Shallow Brown is sung with great power and emotion and “Mary and the Soldier” showcases Sid’s traditional vocal styling at its strongest.  “Along the Castlereagh” is another revelation, beautifully performed and delivered.  This album showcases the diversity of the folk tradition in a way that opens folk music up to far wider audiences.  Don’t think you like folk music?  Listen to this!  There’s something for everyone.  The true and undeniable strength of this album lies in the insightful original songs.  “Night Hours” tells the story of the night workers that keep cities running – “I’m here when your thoughts are not” – while “Moved On” explores the plight of the residents of Newham that were essentially priced out of their own homes – “I’m not worth the land that I live on, but I’ve lived here for all of my life” – both stories and songs are poignant and wonderful.  The production and arrangement of the title track in particular is something that the duo should be extremely proud of.  When they perform it live it is still a powerful piece of well delivered song writing, but the subtle embellishments and the care that has gone into crafting the production of the album version elevate the song to a whole new level.  There’s a common theme that seems to run through the lyrics and stories of men finding their place in a land owned by landlords.  Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith are finding their place in the world, and I hope that the world encourages and inspires them both to keep on writing – because if it does then we might get a whole album of original songs from Jimmy & Sid, and that is something I am very much looking forward to!  Go and buy this album.

Rab Noakes – The Treatment Tapes EP | EP Review | Neon Records | Review by Ian Taylor | 24.01.17

The launch of Rab Noakes’s last album, the excellent I’m Walking Here, released in 2015, had to be delayed as a result of his being diagnosed with tonsillar cancer early in that year.  Characteristically stoic and defiant however, the Fife singer-songwriter vowed to deal with the condition head on, rather than wallow in self-pity or give in to the ‘brave battler’ tabloid language that invariably surrounds the hideously random disease.  With the support – both emotional and practical – of his wife Stephy Pordage, he saw off the rigours of thirty radiography and two chemotherapy sessions which understandably rendered him inactive musically for several months.  Thankfully, he has made as full a recovery as he dare claim.  As Noakes says though, “When something like this happens to the likes of me at least I know I’ll probably get a couple of songs out of it.” If that sounds flippant, he continues, “Truth is though, it’s what we do creatively.  We utilise experience and observation of, and response to, life’s ingredients, add a helping of imagination and deliver a work”.  Which is exactly what he has done with The Treatment Tapes.  The EP comprises six songs written during, and/or inspired by his period of enforced inactivity.  “Fade (To Shades of Black)” opens the EP, a solo voice and guitar piece very much in the style of latter Noakes work, such as that on I’m Walking Here, with a delightfully mellow and rich tone to his guitar and a lyric about “..not wasting time, getting up and doing things, being in the moment”.  Then comes “By the Day (One More Shave ‘n’ Haircut)” which is perhaps a little more explicitly autobiographical, documenting the sequence of events from diagnosis (“Breaking news in the afternoon, one more thing that’s happening too soon”) to treatment (“The whole affair seems like a sequence of dreams, fuelled by potions, tablets and creams”).  Noakes adds his own backing vocal and there’s a little percussion which helps drive the song along and tempers its initially gloomy, but ultimately hopeful message.  Mindful is significant for Stephy being given a writing credit.  They wrote the words jointly to a tune that had been around since a US holiday in 2013.  Anne Rankin’s oboe gives the song added poignancy.  “Stay vital, like vinyl” seems an extremely appropriate sentiment in the context.  “That Won’t Stop Me” reflects Noakes’s defiance in facing his disease.  His fingerpicking blues guitar playing and Stu Brown’s percussion a perfect foil for the ambiguity of the lyric.  “I Always Will” is a love song pure and simple, celebrating the reciprocation inherent in the process of tackling an illness as a couple.  The opening riff almost sings the words “I’d do the same for you”, and you just know that he would.  Finally, “Water is My Friend” might literally reflect the necessity of hydration in the treatment process, and the mantra that emerged as a result, but it’s also laden with prosaic social commentary: “There are people looking after me who don’t get paid enough, while bankers take a big reward for far less useful stuff”.  It’s an upbeat end to what could have been an utterly depressing listen, but in fact even taken superficially is a worthy addition to Noakes’s body of work.  When you know the context from which it emerged, it is all the more remarkable.

Baba Zula – XX | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.01.17

This two-disc compilation covers a wide range of music courtesy of one of Turkey’s most interesting psychedelic outfits.  Here, taking the ‘best of’ concept to new heights by choosing live recordings and remixes, instead of re-releasing already established tracks, the Istanbul-based explorative ensemble celebrate their twenty-years together with a release that captures some of their most adventurous work.  Covering a wide range of styles that includes psych-rock, Anatolian folk music, Krautrock and anything else that comes to hand, XX (or ‘Twenty’) not only provides something new for established fans but also a good starting point for newcomers to their music.  It has to be said, there’s plenty to go at here, especially with an additional disc covering dub mixes.  The gentle side of Baba Zula can be found in the enchanting trance-like sound of Cecom, complete with the dreamy sound of gently splashing waves, assorted exotic birds singing and crickets chirping, which is in stark contrast to their more suggestive “Erotika Hop”, a sort of fleeting “Je t’aime moi non plus” for those in a particular hurry.  XX also demonstrates the band’s fondness for collaboration, with such luminaries as Sly & Robbie, Mad Professor, Dr. Das (Asian Dub Foundation) and Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten) to name but a few, adding their particular musical voices to the mix.  By all means let the cover shot distract you and enter the world of Baba Zula.

Manran – The Two Days | Album Review | Manran Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.01.17

From the stylish cover of the album and the moody band shot inside, to the opening Guitar and Uilleann Pipes on Fiasco, An Da La – The Two Days first track, this is an album that just crackles with cool sophistication.  The instrumentation and much of the music may be firmly within the tradition, but the delivery and feel are, to these ears, very 21st Century.  Like The Afro Celt Sound System, The Peatbog Faeries, Shooglenifty or Martin Swan’s Mouth Music, as John Martyn said of his 1970 electric sonic experiments, “the needle is new and the patterns are old”.  While keyboard textures are threaded around pipes, guitar and frisky percussion, the energy and the sprit are true.  “Trod” is a storming electric track that crackles with power behind a hypnotic Gaelic lyric.  On a dark song about over indulgence the band are tight with some head down rocking passages against vocal parts that recall early Clannad, but all with a gritty rawness and no folk ‘tweeness’ in sight.  Inspector is a more straight ahead set of dance tracks that showcase the tight rhythm section and the sheer drive and attack of Ryan Murphy’s Pipe playing, you can imagine the crowd being driven wild to this track.  That Manran are looking outwards is clear by their choice of Pandora by the excellent Canadian songwriter and performer David Francey.  The thoughtful song is a tempo break after the tunes and its consideration of the impact of the modern world and technology is timely.  Like the album’s title track, it’s also a further indication of Manran’s intent to be both current, in the moment and the latest part of a long shifting tradition.  Sadly not that there is anything new in social comment or protest.  “Parallels” is the other side of Manran, infectious dance music, a hard edged drum and bass rhythm with skittish pipes over the top, you can feel the sweat drops fly.  “Autobahn” has more of a slippery time signature, any appreciative moves would have to be more considered than the old school punk pogo-ing to the previous track.  An interesting bass line underpins turns by accordion, the pipes and Ewen Henderson’s vocals.  “Fios” is an anthemic song that tells of the 19th Century Islay clearances.  After an acoustic troubadour start the impassioned vocal is underpinned by wonderfully gritty keyboards, and a rhythm that sounds like a call to arms or thousand marching feet.  As with so much of this excellent album, the arrangement is always interesting, instruments build, swell and fall like an angry sea, providing light and shade.  Rising out of the keyboard sea swell at the end of the previous track the Alpha tune set shifts from atmospheric keyboards into a fine Pipes duet ending in another piece of puirt a beul, mouth music, the vocalisation of instrumental music.  Celtic BeBop.  This is another excellent element of Manran’s music.  Alone is their take on Ben Harper’s Americana spiritual.  Craig Irving’s vocal is more strident than Harper’s, with none of his hesitant vulnerability, in Manran’s capable hands this is a life affirming song of hope.  “An Da La”, the title track, is an album highlight among many highs.  Thoughtful lyrics cutting between Gaelic and English run over keyboard and pipe airs.  The lyrical parallels with current affairs and illusions to American Presidential elect are deliberate.  The album closes with “Hour” a set of jigs and pipe reels.  “Lochan na h-Achlaise” the second tune opens with some almost dubby fiddle playing and a Bass part that is more Clash than Celtic.  Great Torrington in North Devon inspires the last breakneck roaring highland reel indicating that it’s all about the delivery rather than the just the material.  But then given that Manran have already drawn in American Gospel Folk Blues and Canadian Social Protest, this should be no surprise.  This is an album that veers sharply from slow burn and smouldering to raging inferno, by a band whose music has the attack and musical vim of Stiff Little Fingers tempered with grace and delicacy.

Kate Dimbleby – Songbirds | Album Review | Folkstock Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.01.17

Bristol-based Kate Dimbleby, daughter of broadcaster David Dimbleby, has carved out a niche for herself in the genre of layered vocal pyrotechnics, inspired by those of Bobby McFerrin after studying with him in New York.  Experimental throughout, Songbirds features eleven songs, each showcasing Kate’s vocal inventiveness, creating close harmonies through the medium of the vocal looper pedal.  All the voices are hers, whether sung in scat form or in more coherent lyrical song.  There’s a cupful of The Roches in some of its quirkiness, a shot of The McGarrigles in some of the more tender moments, together with a teaspoonful of Laurie Anderson in the slightly challenging “Happy”.  Occasionally there’s a sense that Kate is experimenting even during the performances here, bringing the meandering closing verse of “Whatever” to its conclusion with “That’s about enough of that!”  There’s no doubting Kate Dimbleby has a very good and soulful singing voice, “These Things They Will Come” is proof of that.  Above all though, Songbirds is a celebration of the human voice and some of what it is capable of, something the Dimbleby family are only too familiar with.  Like Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells though, where the musician plays every instrument except the drums and a bit of flute, therefore making the claim for an entirely solo effort void, Kate concludes an almost totally a cappella album with a few field recordings and assorted electronica on the closing track “Song for a Hill”.  So, an almost totally a cappella album then.  Produced by the young Lauren Deakin Davies for Folkstock Records, Songbirds has every likelihood of taking you by surprise as it did I. 

Andrea Terrano – Innamorata | Album Review | Atlantic Jaxx | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.01.17

There’s a crystalline clarity in Andrea Terrano’s playing that draws you into the music like ripples on water.  Indeed, the watery metaphors could easily be stretched further.  Each track on the London-based Italian/Russian instrumentalist’s latest album Innamorata is rich in sun-dappled reflections and flashes of brilliance.  The word “innamorata” is Italian for “in love” and if you weren’t already in love with the liquid notes of a sweetly played Latin guitar, then you soon will be.  The album gently laps at the ears with its opening track Woodlands before a tide of arresting images rises.  “Autumn Symphony” is a lively, life-affirming piece, helped along by energetic yet delicately controlled percussion whilst “Our Story”, drenched in lush string arrangements, tugs powerfully at the heart.  And, every now and again, we cut to a sun-drenched drama unfolding in the traditional chord structures of emphatically strummed flamencos as if the whole record has opened up to reveal a beguiling system of roots.  This constantly captivating album has a filmic quality that is never more apparent than in the final track “Cinemotions” that gives producer Felix Buxton, of Basement Jaxx fame, the chance to sew enchanting little sequins of sound into the fabric of the piece such as a cricket’s chirp, atmospheric humming and drip-drops of electronic pulses, each helping to embed Terrano’s sparkling melodies within the romanticism of the whole album.

Emmet Scanlan and What the Good Thought – These are the Dreams, This is the Life ! | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.02.17

The best EPs always offer an appetising sampling of an artist’s style and, given that Emmet Scanlan and What The Good Thought are an independent outfit whose self-penned material is diverse and constantly shifting, their latest five-track release is a comely assemblage of approaches to quality song writing.  Opening with the throbbing Chilli Peppers-esque “Over Again”, which showcases both Scanlan’s soulful vocals and the taut musicianship of the band, the mood is recast with the little jungle swing number “You Know Who Knows”.  And whilst “Bless the Weather” lays a sweet nursery rhyme melody against a wallpaper of world rhythms, “In Love and Falling” is a delicate front-porch love song that is repeated via an equally lovely “Cinematic Version”.  Limerick’s Emmet Scanlan is joined here by an international band of merry musicians with Sweden’s Peter Akerstrom on guitar, Italy’s Alan Preims on percussion, Scottish cellist Nicola Geddes and fellow Irish musician Cathal Doherty on bass.

James McArthur and the Head Gardeners – Burnt Moth | Album Review | Moorland Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.02.17

James McArthur graduated from playing drums with Paul Weller to striking out as an acoustic troubadour.  Burnt Moth is his second album.  There is a wonderfully intimate lo-fi feel throughout.  The arrangements and McArthur’s vocal delivery recall early 70s Heron or Magna Carta.  A more contemporary reference point with be 4AD’s Mojave 3 or Neil Halsted’s solo work.  “14 Seconds”, the album opener pairs his finger picked guitar with a mournful pedal steel and some lovely strings.  “What the Day Holds” continues the intimate acoustic vibe, with a great passage where the layered guitars and strings spark off each other.  “No Door” has some beautiful guitar picking against a great country fiddle line, it could all be lifted off an early 70s Bert Jansch album.  “To Do” is a duet with Samantha Whates around a delicate piano part.  Aching delicate it sounds like the theme tune for a Scandinavian Detective Drama, you can image it playing as the camera drone swoops across unending grasses under a brooding sky, panning past while our flawed main character stares moodily into the middle distance.  “Bluest Stone” features striking guitar and mandolin parts that nod ever so slightly to Led Zeppelin and their “Battle of Evermore”.  But with James McArthur the effect is bucolic rather than histrionic, as the music draws you in and surrounds you.  “Twice a Day” and “Evens on Green” continue the layered guitars and at times feel like Genesis on Trick of the Tale with its vocal refrains on “Entangled” or David Gilmour’s country lap steel on Meddle Era Pink Floyd track “Fearless”.  An album of warm intimate songs.  A delicate voice wrapped in layers of guitar, pedal steel and sympathetic strings creates an atmosphere that is inviting and enveloping.

Brigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough – Mockingbird Soul | Album Review | BDM Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.02.17

It’s easy to picture Brigitte DeMeyer perched upon a high stool, her arm resting almost lifelessly on the bar, a glass tumbler twisting back and forth between her arched finger and thumb, the bourbon almost done, as the singer’s smoky voice infiltrates the joint.  Then there’s the heels of Will Kimbrough’s boots resting upon the end of the bar, one leg over the other, as the guitar player reclines just enough as to avoid falling backwards.  This is the picture that accompanies the New Orleans-influenced song “The Juke”, one of a dozen songs on the duo’s latest album release Mockingbord Soul, a picture of smoke-filled juke joints, nighthawks and barflies, the Rock-Ola awaiting a spare nickel.  The Nashville-based duo have been making songs together for six years and have in that time honed their craft with delicious vocal harmonies, seasoned playing and a penchant for writing evocative songs.  It’s Nashville Soul, delivered here on their first album as a duo.  That the duo hail from different parts of the country, Brigitte from California and Will from Alabama, makes it all the more evident that their pooled resources, influences and inspirations melt into something new, vibrant and at the same time utterly beguiling.  Whether it’s the informed finger-picking on such songs as “Running Round” and “Broken Fences” or the more jazz-inflected “Honey Bee” or the bluesy title song, the material is consistently handled with confidence and style.  Then, as if all the surprises appear to have been delivered, the album closes with an unexpected gem, Robin Williamson’s “October Song”, which appears to have found itself a million miles away from the Edinburgh folk cellars of the mid-sixties, yet once again the song captivates in its beautiful simplicity.

Geoff Lakeman – After All These Years | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 06.02.17

Few people record debut albums at the age of 69 and of those that do fewer still are likely to produce a work of such charm and confidence as After All These Years.  Geoff Lakeman is perhaps best known as the patriarch of a folk dynasty of sorts, being the father of immensely successful Sam, Sean and Seth Lakeman and father-in-law to the equally illustrious Kathryn Roberts and Cara Dillon.  Geoff has played in the family band with his sons and their mum Joy but until his recent retirement after 50 years as a Fleet Street journalist he’d been content to stay in the background.  Encouraged by his family – Sean produces and plays guitar on After All These Years while Seth plays violin and viola and Sam piano – Geoff has struck out with an album of Cornish songs, traditional favourites and a couple of self-penned originals. Despite there being a number of acclaimed guests dotted throughout the thirteen tracks it’s Geoff’s mature yet smooth voice and distinctive duet concertina that dominate the album.  These may be best demonstrated on the entirely solo “Ye Lovers All” and “Bonny Irish Maid”, both from the Irish ballad tradition and both highlighting his pleasant vocals at their relaxed, conversational best.  Other traditional pieces are the lovely Cornish version of “Green Cockade” and the Aussie transportation ballad popularised by Bert Lloyd, Jim Jones.  The latter includes subtle fiddle accompaniment from Seth Lakeman but perhaps the most welcome guest on the album is Nic Jones.  Now a near-neighbour of Geoff’s, Nic contributes some fine chorus singing to a great version of Reg Meuross’s “England Green, England Grey”.  The general mix of songs is handled well.  A couple of broadly political pieces like Roger Bryant’s “The Farmer’s Song” about several generations of family farming coming to an unhappy end, or Geoff’s own “Tie ‘Em Up’ which tells of the difficulties faced by West Country fishermen, sit easily among the more light-hearted contributions like “When The Taters Are All Dug” and Geoff’s own “Doggie Song” which laments the banning of dogs from Cornish beaches. Given his lifetime of experience and active involvement in his local folk scene and considering his significantly more celebrated offspring it may not be too much of a surprise that Geoff Lakemen has assembled a collection of great songs and persuaded a number of his accomplished friends and acquaintances to help him realise them.  What is perhaps surprising to those of us who hadn’t previously appreciated his talents is the depth of quality to Geoff’s singing and playing throughout this collection.  Every track oozes charm and likability in a way that’s unusual for any album, but for a debut release – whatever the circumstances – it’s extraordinary.

Townes Van Zandt – Texas Rain | LP Review | Charly | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.02.17

From the opening few bars of “If I Needed You”, we know we’re onto a good thing.  Uncomplicated and immediately accessible, Townes Van Zandt introduces us once again to his artistry with a song that needs no introduction.  The fact that on this version the singer-songwriter is joined by Emmylou Harris only adds to the joy.  The first time pressing on vinyl of Townes Van Zandt’s album of duets Texas Rain comes as a handsomely packaged double disc set, featuring other guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Freddy Fender amongst others.  Initially intended as a sort of comeback album after Van Zandt’s ‘lost’ period, the project was soon transformed into a fully formed duets album, culminating in one of the finest recordings in the Texas singer-songwriter’s canon.  Originally released on CD back in 2001, the Kevin Eggers-produced album features Freddy Fender adding authenticity to “Pancho and Lefty” with its injection of Tejano, partly sung in Spanish, whilst Jerry Jeff Walker’s reading of “Blue Wind Blew” sees the two musicians evidently having too much fun; Walker’s quip during the song’s coda is a tell-tale sign of Van Zandt’s then current period of sobriety.  “Waitin’ Around to Die”, one of Van Zandt’s earliest songs, maintains its mournful properties with Calvin Russell adding no further glimpses of joy.  There are lighter moments however with Kimmie Rhodes joining Van Zandt on the frilly “Brother Flower”, whilst Kathy Mattea’s silky voice empathetically dovetails with Van Zandt’s inherent sensitivity on the gorgeous “At My Window”.

Townes Van Zandt – Flyin’ Shoes | LP Review | Charly | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.02.17

When the needle first located the groove on a borrowed copy of Townes Van Zandt’s 1978 release Flyin’ Shoes, it had already been around for a good ten years.  It was in fact, the first LP I’d heard by the Texan singer-songwriter, although many of his songs were familiar from versions recorded by others, notably Emmylou Harris and in particular her reading of “Pancho and Lefty” a couple of years before this release.  The opening few bars of “Loretta”, gave me the impression that there was more to this songwriter than I’d first imagined.  Cut to 1990 and this enigmatic son of a Fort Worth lawyer rolled into my hometown like tumbleweed, to perform in front of a dozen people, a moment I could hardly have believed had it not happened right before my eyes.  Much of Townes Van Zandt’s back catalogue is currently available again on vinyl and in the case of Flyin’ Shoes, on special edition blue vinyl, and it has to be said, sounding as good as when I first heard it back in the mid-1980s.  In just ten songs, all written by Townes apart from Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”, easily as hot as the version famously delivered by Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks during the Last Waltz concert and film in the early 1970s, the album captures Townes Van Zandt at his creative best.  With the aforementioned Loretta, a breezy love song and a fitting opener, through the desperately melancholic title song “Flyin’ Shoes”, complete with its crying harmonica intro, and then over to side two for “Dollar Bill Blues”, with its curious Pinky and Perky-backing vocal effect, the timeless “Rex’s Blues” and of course the lilting “Pueblo Waltz”, which name checks his good pals Susanna and Guy Clark, always a good thing, we find an artist at his peak.  A few months after I saw Townes Van Zandt for the very last time, he was gone, an almost inevitable result of years of abuse, leaving a legacy of music, songs and a reputation of being one of life’s true one-offs.  Now that twenty years have gone since the passing of Townes Van Zandt, Flyin’ Shoes has been released as a remastered edition, sounding fresh and ready for new and old ears alike.  With extensive sleeve notes taken from the first CD pressing of the album, together with lyric sheet both included in the four-page inner sleeve, the LP version of this album is something to long admire, the songs reminding us all of the enormous contribution Townes Van Zandt has made to the tower of song.

Dietrich Strause – How Cruel That Hunger Binds | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.02.17

Dietrich Strause is a difficult man to pin down, on this album his music is informed by Americana, Alt Folk and early jazz but it is all filtered through a gauze of strangeness.  At times he evokes the absinthe melancholy of Madeline Peyroux, at times his singing is right there with the best of The Fleet Foxes, upbeat but chilling.  “The Beast That Rolls Within” the opening track has ambience and an Alt-Folk feel of The Low Anthem or The Great Lake Swimmers.  Strause’s vocal rings out over a very rich mix of guitar and electronics that swirl around him.  The lyrics are full of Americana references that add to the folk feel.  “Lying in Your Arms” lifts the tempo and the mood with a brass heavy chorus that sounds like Neil Hannon and the Divine Comedy.  There are no music credits on the album so we are left to assume that Strause, a music college trumpet major who left to pursue  an interest in guitar is providing all the layered textures of guitar, organ and brass himself.  “Pennsylvania” after “The Beast That Rolls Within” is an album highlight.  The lyric and vocal again have a Baptist hymn quality that recalls the best of The Fleet Foxes, but with a wonderfully woozy New Orleans Jazz intro that leads to beautiful double bass, piano and a plaintive layered vocal.  “Home From the Heartland” is a strong anthem of a track, another high point, the lyrics rich with religious imagery just ooze atmosphere and class.  Strause’s vocals shine through on this track, testifying over a dirty jazz Hammond part and some sparse but tasteful backing.  “Around the World” is a darkly beautiful track of regret that suits Strause’s melancholic delivery perfectly.  It opens with a twisted harmonium part and a clarinet part that would make Sidney Bechet smile with the music building and swelling through the song.  “Boy Born to Die” is all about the layered guitars, with a plucked electric part that recalls the clipped electric Gibson of Michael Chapman, but still those dark sinister brass parts twist the song into something else.  “So Long So Far” starts as a dark lullaby drifting through an alcoholic or drug induced haze giving way to an upbeat section with a dirty saxophone part that smoulders like the best of Morphine and Dana Colley, an almost guitar wig-out and ending with more New Orleans chamber jazz.  “The World Once was Turning” arrives with a wonderfully evocative percussion loop, if Tom Waits had come in on the vocal he would not have sounded out of place, it is very much that kind of sonic space.  This is another wonderful song of regret that builds and just as you are wondering what next it stops, I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something.  The album is short, the songs are short, perfectly formed but short, often leaving you wondering what next.  The album was recorded in seven days in a farmhouse studio in Maine that shortness of time may be responsible in part for the brevity, perhaps that’s part of their charm and appeal that they are perfect, beautiful and fleeting.  Like bubbles in 17th Century Vanitas paintings of Pieter Claesz or Harmen Steenwijck the tracks are arresting things of beauty that hold your attention completely while they are with you but all too quickly they are gone and that is very metaphorical.

Siobhan Miller – Strata | Album Review | Songprint Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.02.17

From the first note this is a considered album that smoulders with class and sophistication.  Siobhan Miller’s voice is set against sympathetic backing from a stellar cast from folk’s who’s who.  Kris Drever, Aidan O’Rourke from Lau, Ian Carr and Phil Cunningham, along with many others, provide always interesting support.  The band, however adroit, are foremost a foil to a jewel set in a ring, as Miller is very much the star here, with her pure voice consistently shining through on tracks like “The Sun Shines High”.  Siobhan talks about her desire to pay tribute to established performers like Sheila Stewart, Dick Gaughan and Pod Paterson.  Two of the strong performances on the album are “What You Do With What You’ve Got” and “Pound a Week Rise”, songs recorded and often played live by Gaughan.  Siobhan’s delivery on “What You Do With What You’ve Go” steers well clear of Gaughan’s vitriol, recalling more closely Si Kahn’s warm upbeat original.  But Miller’s pure and beautiful voice finds the hope and joy in the song and with an upbeat chorus, it really crackles.  Stand out tracks include Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings”, performed here with a slow considered tempo, a great fiddle part and Admiral Fallow front man Louis Abbot’s second vocal perfectly complimenting Miller’s.  The band is restrained here, stepping up between the verses with the voices shining through on the chorus.  Ed Pickford’s “Pound a Week Rise” drives along, the guitar and bass replicating a clapping stomping foot folk club rhythm.  In this time of ‘pie in the sky’ politics the lyrics and Siobhan Miller’s delivery seem very poignant.  The arrangements on “Unquiet Grave” and “Thanksgiving Eve” demonstrate the strength and closeness of the players.  The album was recorded with the band putting down whole takes together, natural atmosphere no click tracks and that shines through.  “Unquiet Grave” is acid folk, stripped back to arresting vocal and guitar.  “Thanksgiving Eve” is a jazzy shuffling rhythm where the drums and bass blend with layered vocals and the awesome fiddle of Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke.  It all blends together perfectly.  “The Month of January” is a well-represented traditional song, Frankie Anderson performed it on her 1976 Topic album, June Tabor recorded a stark version on Abyssinians in 1983.  Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s version on Fire and Fortune in 2012 was similarly chilling and gothic.  Siobhan Millers’ singing of the cautionary tale, despite the bleak lyric is warmer as she turns each syllable into beautiful music, before Tom Gibbs’ insistent harmonium lifts the mood completely.  “False False” is another chilling tale of life’s betrayals, it is also another album highlight.  Miller’s voice just soars, the violin wrings at your emotions and it is all accented by Louis Abbot’s inventive drum part.  “Bonny Light Horseman” is another track where Miller’s voice just pours out in all its glory over some tasteful country tinged Bouzouki and Guitar picking.  “The Ramblin’ Rover” closes the album, a storming number, it’s an ‘us against the world’ song.  One of the few mentions of colitis within the folk tradition and its recounting of the widespread bollockitis disease should ensure the album gets one of those parental advisory stickers.  It all guarantees you end this excellent album with a smile on your face and reaching for the repeat.  Highly recommended

Esteban Alvarez – Tico Groove | Album Release | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.023.17

With his album Tico Groove, Costa Rican pianist Esteban Alvarez has served up an especially nourishing dish.  The Steinway Artist nominee and Akademia Award-winning composer invites us in for a notably intimate performance of ten seductive instrumentals, each infused with Latin flavours that may equally settle relaxingly on the ear or insist upon a dance.  The urge to get up and oil one’s hips is never stronger than on tracks such as the uplifting “Caballito Nicoyano/Ticas Lindas”, featuring some fiery flamenco guitar from Jose Manuel Tejeda and the infectious rhythms of percussionist Ignacio Berroa, as well as the charmingly buoyant “Pasión”, featuring the supple clarinet of Dr. Richard Shanley and his wife, Hellen, on flute.  Resting, for the most part, on the dependably lithe double basslines of Lynn Seaton, Tico Groove is an album on which Alvarez’s searching and perpetually inquisitive piano is just one of the multitude of fine flavours.  And whilst the dish is at its most tasty during the full-band performances, the arresting solo piano piece “Amor de Temporada” reminds us who’s head chef and where we should be directing our compliments.

Sean Taylor – Flood and Burn | Album Review | Proper | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.02.17

Sean Taylor is a London based Folk Blues performer.  He is a master with the guitar and has a voice that seethes with presence and power.  Flood and Burn is his eighth album since Corrugations in 2007, Sean is never less than very good on record, but since hooking up with Mark Hallman in Austin Texas he has found his unique voice and an excellent foil.  Flood and Burn is a perfect starting point to discover Sean Taylor, especially as time may decide that this is his strongest album in a 10 year recording career, certainly feels that way now, till the next one anyhow.  “Codeine Blues” the album opener is a superb track.  It opens with jazz piano and a huge saxophone with its keys flapping, breathy and expansive like Jan Garbarek in mid flow.  Sean’s vocal evokes a 21st century John Martyn, slurring and bending, snaking round the notes like a third instrument.  Add a sublime second vocal from Jaimee Harris, a testifying Hammond Organ and the track just soars.  It reads like a heartfelt love song as Taylor likens his love to a drug.  The title however suggests a darker affair like Van Zandt’s “Waiting Round to Die” where Townes finally finds one friend that won’t desert him in his final hours.  If this track with its anthemic ‘beautiful day’ riff doesn’t end up on a million, coffee table hip compilation CDs there is something very wrong with the universe.  Walk With Me, Sean’s excellent fourth album was recorded in Dublin with Trevor Hutchinson from The Waterboys.  Sean’s Family are Irish and he connected with the spirits of Yeats, Wilde and Yeats while there.  There is some of that Irish lyricism in “A Good Place to Die” as the rich fast paced vocal brings Mike Scott, of The Waterboys, enlightened streams of consciousness to mind.  Sean revels in the romantic lifestyle of the journeyman troubadour and the lyric bubbles with timeless folk blues references.  Sean bends and shreds a killer electric guitar too, he may be name checking his Gibson acoustic.  But he does it while furrowing his face and pulling a solo that is pure Gilmour.  “The Cruelty of Man” has a beautiful jazz vibe, brushes, smooth guitar and a perfect muted trumpet, but like the best of Simon & Garfunkel, there is a fist in the smooth jazz velvet glove, as Taylor grapples with the iniquities of the world and the cruelty of man.  “Troubadour” is another anthem to the journeyman musician, sweetened with a glorious pedal steel.  “Run to the Water” is a blues anthem from its compressed lead vocal, the shimmering electric guitar and Taylor’s ‘Charlie Musselwhite’ harmonica stabs shadowed by Andre Moran’s fine slide.  “Life Goes On” is another album highlight, where a heartfelt but slight lyric is given depth by Sean’s superb voice, proving he could sing a shopping list and it would be sublime.  Here he is soulful like early 70s Marvin Gaye.  Long time collaborator Hana Piranha features on violin.  Title track “Flood and Burn” is a Blues standard in the making, that if stuck under the noses of Ben Harper or Eric Bibb would make huge waves of interest in Taylor the interpreter and songwriter.  “Beauty to the World” is another album highlight, it crackles from the first moment of Taylor’s wonderful picked acoustic.  The vocal is another slurred, slippery masterstroke, with the lyric and the delivery evoking that 2am bottom of the bottle moment when through the glass you glimpse perfection.  Taylor and Hallman layer guitars around the vocal, the wobbly piano is a sonar ping through the alcohol fog and everything is just perfect.  What you hear on this track is he sound of the two guitar players having a great time, lost in the joy of playing.  “Bad Case of the Blues” features a wonderful Tom Waits Leon Redbone Vipers lounge vocal as next to you in a late night bar, Sean Taylor whispers secrets into your ear, while Hana Piranha leans in with a ‘Grappelli on drugs’ jazz violin part.  Sean Taylor’s take of “Heartbreak Hotel” manages to own the well visited classic.  From the John Lee Hooker steal riff at the star, through the tempo change, the slap guitar riff and the train harmonica he makes it his own.  Superb duet with Eliza Gilkyson too. Longtime live and album collaborator Danny Thompson plays on “Better Man” the final track.  His cathedral sized Double Bass sound opens the track and his stops and slides punctuate the track adding still more gravitas to Taylor’s vocal.  Wonderful English dance music is evoked by the interplay between the guitar and double bass, imbibing the track with a Pentangleness if there is such a thing.  The song is a love song, to a lover or to us the listeners, the troubadour’s audience and describes how we lift and make him a better man.  Listening to this album on repeat through headphones I’d like to assure Sean it’s a two way thing, his voice, his guitar, his music, his often spiritual lyrics carry the listener to better places and better spaces.  Turn it up for Hana’s violin on this track and lose yourself in that too.  Final mention for the sequencing of the album, as the fading piano chord at the end of “Better Man” blurs into the start of “Codeine Blues” if you have the album on repeat.  Further indication of the subtlety, layering, care and grace that’s gone into this album.  Buy this album if you are a fan of Sean Taylor, buy this album if you are a fan of intelligent folk blues music that transcends genres, buy this album if you want to be ahead of the beard stroking list making critics, as this is surely going to feature large in those end of year ‘best of’ lists.  “Oh yes Flood and Burn, excellent isn’t it, bought it when it came out, played it to death, made me a better man”.

The Backyard Devils – Honkytonk Heartbreaker | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.02.17

From the opening few bars of “Rambling” it becomes immediately obvious that The Backyard Devils have a raw energy ready to share with anyone in close proximity.  Twangy guitars, gravelly voices, attitude in spades and an immediate groove best served in a late night bar that stocks good whiskey.  It’s Rockabilly at its core complete with a well-slapped upright bass together with the skittering shrills from its little sister the mandolin.  Christien Belliveau’s lap steel comes across as completely devoid of coyness, rather an extrovert such as on “All I Want to Do”, where it effectively steals the show.  The New Brunswick-based outfit are also able to deliver the sort of Flatt and Scruggs bluegrass that first caught our ears as Bonnie and Clyde created havoc on the streets of Texas during the Depression, “Gospel” and “Morning Peeler” are both testament of this.  Mostly self-penned, the songs also feature a pretty faithful take on the Stanley Brothers’ “How Mountain Girls Can Love”, albeit with an almost sneering vocal.  Complementing the music is the cover, a sepia shot reminiscent of Hopper’s Nighthawks painting, likewise conjuring the afterhours.  If there was any doubting this band’s ‘road’ credentials, look no further than “Hard Times”, which is laced with images depicting the flip side of the perceived glamour of it all.

Top Floor Taivers – A Delicate Game | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.02.17

We seem to be getting rather used to seeing young musicians in collaboration these days, whether that be as part of a ‘collective’, a themed commissioned project, or more commonly as part of a good old tried and tested band.  In any such format, the strength of this collaborative prowess appears to awaken something special in these musicians time and time again.  Top Floor Taivers is such an outfit, made up of two Scots, Claire Hastings and Heather Downie on ukulele and clarsach respectively, a Lancastrian pianist, Tina Jordan Rees and an Irish fiddler Gráinne Brady.  Currently based in Glasgow, the quartet arrange their music to reflect the tradition, on such material as “Johnny o’ Braideslee” and “The False Bride”, as well as showcasing their own compositions, “Jeannie and the Spider”, written by Heather and her brother Alasdair and “Little Man”, written by Claire Hastings based on an old nursery rhyme.  Added to this, the repertoire also includes one or two contemporary songs, such as Richard Thompson’s hugely popular leather-clad redhead/motorbike combination “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, Findlay Napier’s beguiling “Princess Rosanna” and Leonard Cohen’s pessimistic “Everybody Knows”, each showcasing the band’s flair for arrangement.  Contrary to their collective name, these musicians have hardly been idling away their time, recently being nominated in the Up and Coming Artist category at the 2016 MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards.  The Taivers are already a good three years into their stride and A Delicate Game may just prove to be a fine debut for them. 

Mike Grogan – Too Many Ghosts | Album Review | Poacher Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.02.17

Too Many Ghosts is Mike Grogan’s third album and his fourth release.  It follows a significant gap after Make Me Strong, his last album.  Clearly Mike has spent the time playing and reflecting, as there is a significant shift and refinement, that much is obvious from the first moment of the first track.  The wonderfully rich voice that gave us “The Light of the World” on Make Me Strong is still there as is his fine fingerpicking guitar, but there is a swagger, a presence, that lifts the whole album.  “Show Them What Love Can Do” just smoulders and burns.  It opens with a chorus vocal and a Phil Beer’s fiery violin, but quickly builds to a sound that is more Elbow and Guy Garvey than Festival Folk Tent.  You know that the infectious chorus is going to sound amazing picked up by a large beery crowd part way through a set as the sun is going down.  The violin is joined by an express train guitar and the song dissolves into that chorus and you know it will last forever at the end of a gig.  “Let Me Feel the Rain” is a perfect adult pop song, after a beer, if this came on the jukebox most people would agree that it’s an excellent song and swear blind that Robbie Williams has found his mojo again.  Mike croons and pulls at your heartstrings like the best of the old school crooners.  Wonderful keyboards on this track and through the album by John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, a man with real studio chops.  The title track turns the acoustic folk back up with mandolin trills and gentle swells of accordion, but Mike makes it timeless by laying down another killer perfectly paced ear-worm chorus duetting with Miranda Sykes.  The Way continues the folky vibe, heartfelt lyrics, tasteful percussion and a perfect stripped back middle section of voice violin and piano.  Powerful chorus is provided by The Green Man Folk Club in Alton, proof that Mike Grogan is the pied piper when it comes an infectious singalong.  I wonder if he tapes all his gigs for the next album, just in case. Jokes aside perhaps the strength of the material and his delivery is that it is all road tested and as familiar as a vintage Martin D-28.  “Big Ships” is one of those hairs on the back of the neck songs.  It opens with some atmospherics and violin that place it in Show of Hands’ territory and Grogan’s warm weathered voice paired with a rolling violin makes an excellent job of it.  If you are going to record with Mike Tucker, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes then Show Of Hands are the elephant in the room.  I don’t think it diminishes or demeans what Grogan does with his fine song writing and strong voice to make the connection.  “Hallelujah” is a fine song that recalls the intelligent contemporary rock music of Elbow and includes some particularly poignant lyrics.  “Underground”, like much of the album, is a collision of old and new, a wheezing pump organ opens the track but is joined by a looped chorus and a pulsing electronic beat and a wonderfully Floydian vocal from Miranda Sykes.  Mike’s lyric draws on mining imagery and paints a powerful picture, amplified by some very intelligent backing.  The track is supremely evocative, the spirits of Tin Miners, Colliers, First World War Sappers and blitz scarred civilians are all crouched terrified in the dark with us.  Perhaps we are all, in some way trapped and in a time of darkness.  A perfect song, a folk song for the future and very much like Mike Grogan, screaming for wider exposure.  If they ever film Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams Tunnels series of books, here is the theme music. Heaven Is Here and Goodnight end the album in an upbeat pairing.  “Goodnight” especially is heartfelt, a stripped back voice and guitar joined by piano and accordion.  With more than a nod to Dylan’s “Forever Young”, it sounds like a benediction, written to close proceedings as an encore after a fine gig.

Dipper Malkin – Tricks of the Trade | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 18.02.17

Dipper Malkin are the duo of John Dipper and Dave Malkin.  Dipper could most recently be found playing fiddle with the Methera string quartet and is a veteran of the English Acoustic Collective alongside Chris Wood and Rob Harbron while Malkin was a founder member of electro-trad ensemble Tandem.  With this pedigree it’s perhaps unsurprising they are collectively exploring imaginative and challenging ways of interpreting largely traditional repertoire.  Dipper plays the rarely-heard (in folk music circles, at last) baroque instrument viola d’amore which offers the opportunity for him to experiment with unique tunings and explore the rich and varied timbre of the instrument that comes to define the sonic mood of several tracks on Tricks of the Trade.  Malkin’s guitar is equally prominent on a number of traditional and original pieces.  In fact, the musicianship throughout this album is impeccable and there’s a clean, unfussy sharpness to the production that emphasises the exquisite execution.  There could perhaps have been a better balance of songs to tunes as on the best of the three songs, “All Things are Quite Silent” there’s a quiet resignation to Malkin’s vocal delivery that perfectly suits the material.  It might have been interesting to hear the duo bring a similar sense of imagination to the rich English song tradition as they do to the traditional tune canon.  That being said, it’s hard to fault an album of such high standards in both arrangements and performance.  Dipper Malkin set out to make an album equal in artistic value to contemporary classical music and in accomplishment to improvised jazz and I guess the experts in those genres would need to comment on how successful they might have been.  What I can say is they have achieved is an album of largely traditional English instrumental repertoire played on acoustic instruments to an incredibly high standard.  There are no gimmicks, relatively few noticeable overdubs and just a couple of brief and tasteful cameos by guest musicians.  There is, however, a tonne of skill and ingenuity in what turns out to be an album of quiet beauty.

La Mambanegra – El Callegueso y su Mala Mana | Album Review | Movimientos Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.02.17

From the opening bars of Puro Potenkem, the lead song on the new album by Colombian orchestra La Mambanegra, there seems to be an immediate desire to drop everything – apart from a handy saucepan and wooden spoon – in order to shamelessly dance around the kitchen; the pan and spoon blending nicely with the very prominent cowbells and various other assorted percussion on this most lively album.  It’s pretty much salsa, or more accurately break salsa through and through.  Rich in Latin rhythms with a little Funk and a pinch of Hip-Hop thrown in, the songs feature some highly engaging and vibrant call and response styled vocals, whilst the horns blow like there’s no tomorrow.  The energy refuses to subside over the next eighty-odd minutes, in fact in places the horns seem to be positively on fire, especially during the trumpet solo on “El Sabor De La Guayaba”.  Listening to El Callegueso y su Mana Mana is like opening the curtains upon summer, even though we’re still in the middle of February.  The nine-piece La Mambanegra, or The Black Mamba, brings together some of Colombia’s finest musicians, from the funky percussion through to the horn section, a sort of Santana without the wailing guitar solos.  The charismatic Jacobo Vélez peers through reflected shades on the cover, which to me is reminiscent of Leadbelly from an entirely different era, though with the blue skies reflecting the Caribbean Sea rather than the cotton fields of Louisiana.  The only aspect of this release that slightly unnerves me, is the photo of the two furious-looking machete-wielding women on the reverse of the cover.   

Daria Kulesh – Long Lost Home | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 19.02.17

Fascinating and enjoyable in equal measure, the title of the Russo-Anglo chanteuse’s album cannot be separated from the stories that make up the songs in a collection that is exotic in voice, instrumentation and subject matter.  To mix geography and metaphor, the writer could rightfully be described as the Scheherazade of the Steppes.  Within the album the political and the personal are intertwined, along with social and historical commentary, no more so than “The Moon and the Pilot”, combining personal history, the futility of war, Stalinism and its effect on Ingushetia – the country of Daria’s origins, an ancient and proud land between Europe and Asia that became a Soviet state, from which it appears the people have not yet recovered.  For all that, it is a song of beauty, tragedy, love and depth, featuring haunting, occasionally soaring vocals and has rightfully received much airwaves love over the months preceding the release of the album.  It is the mixture of the subject matter, the writer’s intriguing voice that has hints of her Russian roots, adding a quality of enigma to a delivery that is as crystal clear as the mountain streams of her ancestors.  All these positives make the album step outside anything that could be described as the mainstream and so in my wilder musings and the more fertile corners of my imagination this album is a rediscovered ‘70s classic, the product of a captivating yet mysterious singer-songwriter, an artefact in its gatefold sleeve so resplendent that its place between Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band only served to highlight its attraction and the number of layers within the package.  The presence of background and explanatory notes in the booklet is both welcome and adds to the enjoyment, in which the exotic nature of the album is underlined by the inclusion of “Distant Love” a traditional song translated from the original Ingush but presented as a bilingual experience.  “Dance like a God” combines both allusion and description, serving to highlight the literary element of the album with metaphor and allegorical elements there for the unravelling and no more so than in the final song.  A CD for everyone, except perhaps unreconstructed Stalinists, listen digest, enjoy, then buy your own Shruti box and see were that will take you.  As a small aside, for those unfamiliar with Daria, she is also a member of the band KARA who recently welcomed Pete Morton to their ranks and are also more than worthy of your interest.

Thom Hell – Happy Rabbit | Album Review | Lost Boy Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.02.17

The predominantly pink wash of colour on the cover artwork, together with the seemingly cheerful bunny illustration and accompanying album title gives absolutely no indication as to how good the music on Thom Hell’s latest full-length release actually is.  The Norwegian singer-songwriter (real name Thomas Helland) pours just about everything into the mix, with all his influences not only evident in the songs themselves, but actually name checked on the inside sleeve, together with a series of tiny photographs with each influential LP held up by a small child.  The songs pay homage to the variety of styles, presumably absorbed from an early age, but also manage to avoid sentimental nostalgia.  The Beatles, and in particular McCartney’s sense of melody, is all over this record, especially on “Without You” and “Famous”, and echoes of the Beach Boys are there on “Blues in A”, whilst Jeff Lynne is so evident in the epic “In the Night” that it could quite easily have been heard filtering out through the windows of the spacecraft on the cover of ELO’s Out of the Blue.  The highly melodic pop songs such as “Leave Me to Die”, pour out of this album like silver, all of which points to the studio genius of Thom Hell and Morten Martens’ production throughout.  On the whole, the arrangements are dynamic and spirited with plenty of room for experimentation and tightly arranged harmonies.  Above all though, this is a fine example of a noted musician trawling the annals of his own musical journey, with Happy Rabbit traversing all the musical avenues and from all directions.

Fairport Convention – 50:50@50 | Album Review | Matty Grooves | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.02.17

So, fifty years eh?  Who’da thought?  The institution that is Fairport Convention reaches half a century with an evident sense of joy, albeit tinged with some degree of sadness, in as much as one or two key players involved in this enduring story didn’t quite make it through; Martin Lamble, Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas and lately, the charismatic fiddle-playing genius himself, Dave Swarbrick.  Added to these notable casualties is the long list of musicians who to this day wear their Fairport credentials with pride.  The band’s notoriety in this particular area, which effectively saw Pete Frame sticking a new ink cartridge in his pen when drawing up the band’s family tree, is legendary, especially in Fairport’s earlier years.  As the band steadily evolved, its audience likewise changed.  Yes there are the die-hard ‘lifers’ who have been there since the beginning, but then there are those who missed the likes of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny far too much to consider sticking around further.  Then, the Cropredy years saw the emergence of many younger fans, who eagerly climbed aboard the Fairport vessel specifically to join in with the band’s annual celebrations upon the rolling meadows of Oxfordshire near Banbury.  For a band that has already released dozens of albums of varying degrees of satisfaction over the years, together with various celebratory offerings (History Of, The Cropredy Box etc.) not to mention turning up annually for their summer knees-up, you would have thought that the half-century Rite of Passage would have been marked by something exceptional.  50:50@50 – an album made up of 50% studio releases and 50% live cuts and released in the band’s 50th year – is not a bad record at all, it’s just not what I would have expected upon such an auspicious occasion, but there again, for a band who makes every summer a special celebration based around itself, such aspirations of grandeur might be slightly over-egging the pudding.  Concealed within a stark black sleeve, emblazoned with their now familiar gold foiled logo, together with a handful of With the Beatles inspired mug shots, the fourteen selections deliberately steer clear of anything from their early period, with the possible exception of a pretty faithful revival of “Lord Marlborough”, originally included in their Angel Delight set.  The album instead focuses on a handful of Chris Leslie originals such as “Eleanor’s Dream”, which boldly opens proceedings, “Step By Step” and “Devil’s Work”, rubbing shoulders with a bunch of recently recorded live cuts.  Chris goes on to update us on the band’s penchant for autobiographical musings, adding “Our Bus Rolls On” to the tradition which also includes the likes of “Come All Ye” and “Angel Delight”, this time with a very distinct appreciation of his own fellow band mates: ‘I love strings, those kind of things, to write a song or two, I have no fear with my friends up here, it’s all I want to do’.  Then follows Ric Sanders’ enduring instrumental “Portmeirion”, the best thing from that model village since Number Six’s surreal episodes escaping a large white balloon called Rover.  No stranger to the fields of Cropredy, Robert Plant is here to offer a rather low-key guest spot, with a twangy trot through the gospel-tinged “Jesus on the Mainline”, together with some bluesy gob organ, recorded live at one of the Cropredy warm-ups in Banbury, whilst Pentangle legend Jacqui McShee joins her husband’s band in the studio for an almost Peggy Seeger-ish reading of the traditional “The Lady of Carlisle”.  Yes, there could have been a definitive 50-CD box set encompassing the band’s entire career, with nods to absent friends and brilliantly funny outtakes (remember Swarb’s April Fool’s Day prank?), not to mention many of the band’s most memorable songs from each of the five decades since the band’s birth in the Summer of Love, but 50:50@50 does capture a small portion of it.  Dare I say here’s to the next 50 years? 

Bargou 08 – Targ | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.02.17

Blues enthusiasts familiar with the opening track on Paul Oliver’s The Story of the Blues double LP set from 1969, will be familiar with the tribal chants of the Fra-Fra Tribesmen of Ghana, recorded by Oliver himself as an indication of what is believed to be the origins of what we now refer to as the Blues.  In Bargou 08’s Targ, there’s a similar feel of authentic roots music being captured in its rawest form.  In this case we shift from Ghana to the Bargou valley in the mountains of Tunisia along the Algerian border.  Nidhal Yahyaoui has maintained some of the traditions of the region with his band, using traditional instruments alongside the relatively modern Moog synthesiser.  The tribal, chant-like songs, some of which are over three hundred years old and each presented in the Targ dialect, form the basis of this album.  Whether the trance-like rhythms of Bargou 08 can maintain an interest through the nine similar sounding grooves, there’s little dispute over the importance and validity of the capturing some of this indigenous traditional music.

Carol Fieldhouse – Linen | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Mary Andrews | 25.02.17

Linen is a beautifully presented debut album, the artwork is soft and stylish, with welcomed liner notes.  The whole album is written (or co-written) by Carol Fieldhouse with the exception of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, a brave choice of cover.  The album has been beautifully produced by Boo Hewerdine and the production and performances are hard to fault.  This is certainly a well put together release.  The guitar is beautifully played, the vocals are well delivered and the mixing is perfect.  “A Little Piece of Land” has a distinctly John Denver feel to it, beautifully sung, arranged and written it could be a song straight out of 1970’s Colorado if it weren’t for the references to rural mobile phone and broadband black spots.  It’s a lovely start to the album.  The other stand out track is Billy Marshall a song written about the Galloway ‘King of the Gypsies’.  It’s the most produced track on the album, driven along with the assistance of Neill Macoll, Boo Hewerdine and Evan Carson.  The rest of the album is… well, it’s just a bit too easy to forget.  There’s little wrong with any of it… there just wasn’t much that really caught my interest.  There’s a lot of introspective, very similar feeling songs that don’t particularly go anywhere.  Slightly jazzy middle-of-the-road singer songwriter material.  It’s the kind of stuff that a writer needs to get out of their system so they can get on and write the good stuff.  One of those songs, maybe even two, would be absolutely fine.  As it is, they just blended together.  I had high hopes for the cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  It’s well sung.  It’s well produced.  It’s something I’m sure I’d enjoy if I heard it performed live… but it didn’t make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in the way I might have hoped.  If this were a single, or possibly an EP, it could have been a triumph.  Carol Fieldhouse has proved herself more than capable with this debut and to that extent we’re looking forward to the 2017 project ‘Hill’, if she can capture some of the quality she achieved with Billy Marshall and A Little Piece of Land it’ll be a project well worth taking note of.

Chris Wood – So Much to Defend | Album Review | RUF | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.03.17

William Blake, in the oft quoted opening verse of “To See a World” talks about taking the time to look at, and find the sublime in the small and ordinary.  “To see a world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower” Philip Larkin, grumbling poet, had the gift of being even to mine through the ordinary to find the extra ordinary and that is very much what it feels like Chris Wood is doing here.  The delicately picked and strummed acoustic of tracks like “The Cottager’s Reply” or “Come Down Jehovah” from 2007’s Trespasser, via rawer tracks like Hollow Point from 2009 has evolved or mutated.  Chris himself talks about a musical journey in the notes of None the Wiser from 2013 and his love affair with an Epiphone guitar and the Hammond Organ.  None the Wiser to these ears is the transition album, the imagery in the lyrics shifts to more contemporary and the sound becomes more electric and soulful.  That deliberate disconnect where dark lyrics are wrapped in beautiful folky acoustic guitar, to a degree falls away.  Wood’s website describes that album as the sound of a pub band singing the hymns and anthems of a disaffected people.  It is this spirit that 2017’s So Much to Defend bubbles with.  It’s the modern folk song of Billy Bragg.  But, like Bragg So Much to Defend is never a bleak listen, Chris Wood’s soulful and real voice is warm and comforting, adding to the lyrics warm glow.  The title track opens the album with a simple guitar and percussion backing and a rich stream of consciousness lyric.  A number of short stories beautifully intertwine as we peek into a set of unfolding lives.  Like Blake, Wood looks hard at the ordinary and in 21st Century Britain’s adversity finds beauty.  Words flow and his mastery is such that it feels effortless and without artifice.  In every life, Wood shows that despite difficulty, there are beautiful moments and there is always something to defend.  First world problems, popular culture references even nursery rhymes catch Wood’s eye or ear and are woven into what is a future folk song.  Chris Wood’s Art School teacher criticised him as having “a remarkable eye for trivia”.  Their loss is very much our gain, under the singer’s gaze nothing is trivial, rather his songs are shot through with poignant detail that makes their stories real.  “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” is a love song for those leaving home and the parents watching them wobble off with life’s training wheels still attached.  It is shot with an aching soulfulness that is Curtis Mayfield singing Joni Mitchell’s Hejira.  Underpinning it all, under the observational narrative, is a parents’ love and a heavenly Hammond Organ.  “Only a Friendly” is another love story, the love for the familiar and the real.  Chris Wood observes ordinary life sharply with a Shakespearean sense of the larger than life and a touch of Tom Sharpe’s bawdiness.  The clipped electric guitar is joined by a banjo and wry poetry ensues.  Agriculturally a Flail is a tool for separating grain and husk, wheat and chaff and body and flesh as a gladiatorial weapon.  Here in “The Flail”, a brutal little ditty, it’s a metaphor for brutal indiscriminate change as ordinary people are thrown about and cast aside.  This theme continues in “1887”.  The track is a setting to music of one of AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad poems.  1887 was the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  Here Wood wryly demonstrates that it’s the ordinary individuals, through faceless sacrifice who save the Queen.  “Strange Cadence” is built around a hypnotic looping guitar riff and a mournful flugelhorn that is pure Jon Hassell along with “The Shallow End” it deals with our ability to delude ourselves, to be dazzled and distracted from the important issues.  Like “So Much to Defend”, “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” and “Only a Friendly” Wood uses his observation of the small details as a way of pulling back the camera and reveal the big issues in a way that is powerful and engaging.  In “More Fool Me” the joke is very much on Chris Wood as he documents the end of the traditional music business and with it the life of the gigging troubadour.  This is the way the world of the musician ends, not with a bang but with a wry smile and a sea of raised camera phones watching the performance for the audience.  “You May Stand Mute” is a song originally written in 2009 to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Origin of Species.  Time has twisted the lyrics slightly some of the Darwin references are gone and fossil shells have become phosphor shells and human bombs as contemporary Chris Wood poignantly ponders faith how it connects and divides.  So Much to Defend is an album that tackles difficult issues and difficult times head on, but Chris Wood’s skill as a lyricist and ear for detail and his sometimes cracked but always warm and compelling vocal means we are enlightened and we are lifted rather than lectured and left down.  As the intertwined stories of the title track show it’s a question of perspective whether you fix on the light or the shade.  The graphic cover showing half a tug of war makes it very clear that we are not alone, that we are many that we are pulling together, demonstrating that there is so much to defend and a will to defend it.  An excellent contemporary album, latest in a long line of excellent albums from a man who may only now be hitting his stride.  There is so much here to recommend.

Jim Lauderdale – London Southern | Album Review | Proper | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.03.17

There’s something of the ‘elder statesman’ about Jim Lauderdale as he poses for the cover portrait of his latest album release; part George Jones, part Townes Van Zandt, part Willie Nelson, but pretty much totally Jim Lauderdale.  The lines on his tanned face indicate a life lived, lessons learned, songs sung and the battered guitar featured in the centre spread photo of the accompanying booklet also shows signs of a road well-travelled.  Fresh from his recent appearances with the Transatlantic Sessions, Lauderdale has been busy making new friends on the Celtic Connections scene, and not before time too.  The classy arrangements here, particularly on the tender “I Love You More” demonstrates that Lauderdale seems equally at home as a lounge crooner as a guitar-wielding Saturday night cowboy down the local juke joint, as exemplified on the album closer “This is the Door”.  For the sheer soulfulness of Lauderdale’s rich-in-emotion vocal prowess, look no further than the Muscle Shoals-drenched “Different Kind of Groove Some Time”, co-written with John Oates and recorded a fair distance from the Deep South of America.  As the title suggests, the album was recorded in London with Nick Lowe’s circle of pals very much involved, with Neil Brockbank and Robert Trehern producing.  A fine addition to an already highly prolific catalogue.

Coven – Unholy Choir | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.03.17

This time last year, O’Hooley and Tidow, Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie gathered together as a collective under the guise of ‘Coven’ in order to tour a selection of songs the six women had worked on during the previous year.  One year on and the busy singers and musicians, namely Belinda O’Hooley, Heidi Tidow, Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Grace Petrie, have gathered their collective potions, encircled the cauldron and set about organising a second tour and also recorded and released their debut EP just in time for it.  The Unholy Choir EP features six songs, including a couple of originals, together with some tastefully selected covers, including Kate Bush’s gorgeous “This Woman’s Work”, which is treated to a fine uplifting vocal arrangement, and Maggie Roche’s equally emotion-driven “Quitting Time”, this being possibly the first Roche cover since the singer’s untimely death last month.  Originally formed to celebrate International Women’s Day, Coven have begun to make their mark on the folk/acoustic music scene, not only for their musical credentials but also for their commitment to social issues.  Any song that opens with the words Dick and Gaughan in a row is a sure fire winner and Grace Petrie’s anthem “If There’s a Fire in Your Heart” does precisely that and lives up to our expectations of it.  One familiar song, intimately known and loved by any discerning O’Hooley and Tidow fan, would be the opening song “Coil and Spring”, from which the EP title derives, centred around Pussy Riot’s celebrated protest against the Russian Orthodox Church.  Co-written by Belinda, Heidi and Boff Whalley and originally heard on the duo’s 2014 album The Hum, the song here takes full advantage of the collective’s collaborative voices.  However good the songs sound on this EP, there’s a distinct sense that they’re all aching to be performed live, and some of us are aching to hear them.

Various Artists – Terraforming in Analogue Space | Album Review | Independent Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 06.03.17

This double CD works in a number of ways.  To look at it in reverse order, its second disc, the original tracks, acts as a killer compilation of tracks originally released by the IRL.  While the first disc, the remixes is part exploration of a shared musical language and for the uninitiated part mix of the known and the unknown.  While it’s the disc of original tracks I return to most frequently, both discs alone offer plenty of rewards and reasons to listen again.  However together they are something truly special.  By their nature it seems logical to start at the beginning, so the second disc of original tracks opens with Tinariwen “Oualahila Ar Tesninam” a track off their 2004 album Amassakoul.  Tinariwen are a group of Tuareg musicians from the northern Sahara region of Mali.  Their blend of furious percussive hand claps, call and response vocals and a dirtier version of the endlessly looping Malian blues guitar is always compelling.  From music named after the desert we get “Desert Road” from Justin Adams.  Adams, having played with Jah Wobble and Robert Plant and been heavily influenced by Arabic music, is a maverick, musically nomadic, player.  His rolling guitar is a beautiful counterpoint to Tinariwen.  Adams’ 2000 album Desert Road is an absolute classic if you like layered mood music you can fall into.  Had Mike Oldfield had recorded Tubular Bells in Bamako, Mali, rather than rural Oxfordshire, it might have sounded like this.  Here the Justin Adams track functions as a pause between two infectious upbeat tracks that it’s impossible not to move to.  Third track is Adams paired with Juldeh Camara, a Gambian Griot, musician and storyteller.  “Ngamen” is a duet between Adams’ primal blues slide and Camara’s plucked or bowed one string fiddle, the Nyanyero, with a superb vocal over the top.  So far so perfect.  Terakaft (Caravan) are another Malian Tuareg band with rolling guitar lines, glorious vocals and some treacherous rhythms.  The mood shifts with some rawer tracks, blind South Sudanese singer General Paolino has a voice that I’d defy you not be moved by, but there is a grittiness and an edge.  His voice is not gymnastic but it is real and affecting.  “Paolino” blends perfectly into the street music of Malawi Mouse Boys.  MMB were roadside fast food sellers, peddling mouse kebabs to passing traffic in Malawi.  Their music, group vocals behind a lead singer, like African Doo wop, is backed with percussion and a strummed guitar.  Like “Paolino”, it is raw, with rough edges, but it has power because of, not despite those edges.  Written between sales and presumably to drum up sales, MMBs music is compelling, proof that, as Si Kahn says “It’s not just what you’re born with, it’s what you do with what you’ve got”.  Imed Alibi’s “Maknassy”, is a bigger production, its guitar from producer Justin Adams, weaves it back into what has gone before and Tunisian singer Emel Mathouthi’s vocals are worth the price of the album on their own.  She cuts loose over Adams’ guitar and you are transported.  Lo’ Jo are a France based band.  Their tracks “Sur Des Carnets Nus” and “Yalaki” are taken from 2009’s Cosmophono.  The Lo’ Jo sound atmospherically mixes the feel of a circus band, French chanson and North African music with some fiendish production.  It is all atmosphere and utterly beguiling.  Xaos features Dubulah a key character in IRL’s history.  Dubulah or Nick Page was a founder member of the dark World Dance band Transglobal Underground and Dub Colossus the ethio/UK fusion band.  Like “Desert Road” Xaos’ “Pindos Full Moon” and “Processional” are interludes between toe tappers.  A mix of Greek electronic musician and composer Ahetas Jimi and traditional musicians.  It is ambient, timeless music, designed to reset your soul and is quite beautiful.  Dub Colossus’ “A Voice Has Power” places a spry reggae dub rhythm behind one of those, ‘diaphragm shaking’ low vocals that Transglobal Underground delighted in. Dub Colossus’ album Addis to Omega, is a set of dub styled tracks featuring Dubulah, Justin Adams and others.  It is fusion music at its best and well worth further exploration if you haven’t already.  Acholi Machon are a Ugandan band and mix thumb piano percussive lines with call and response vocals that hark back to Tinariwen and the Malawi Mouse Boys.  That the second disc stands alone and is a triumph of sequencing, blending into a seamless musical road trip is a testament to IRL’ ears and vision.  The album is a successful attempt to kick down musical doors and barriers to listening.  The first CD gets to people, via the remix and the dancefloor, the second disc is a more contemplative listen and compels you to search out the original albums.  This is an excellent album, but only buy this if you are prepared for it to cost you a fortune, leading you to the eleven parent albums and the back catalogues of eleven amazing acts.  Like all the very best compilations, stretching back to those seductive 60s cheapies like Island’s You Can All Join In, lock up the plastic, this is going to get expensive.  The remix CD opens with Transglobal Underground’s rework of Tinariwen.  The percussion that opens the original track is king, the call and response vocals and raw guitar when they come in later are back in the mix and an element rather than attention grabbing.  Despite treatment, wherever you put it, that Tuareg guitar still grabs you and the track works well.  This track like the Dhol Foundation remix of “Ndinasangalala” smooths some of distinctive rough edges out to make something smoother, something more pop.  Although the rich drum sounds of the Dhol Foundation are always interesting, this track does contain one of the collections few hiccups where the over-laid huge drums rather clash with the original vocal tracks.  Dub Colossus’ mix of Justin Adams’ “Desert Road” bends the original.  The guitar sounds part Brian Eno’s “Desert Guitars” from Another Green World and part Justin Adams North African Saharan guitar.  The Radar Station mix of “Ngamen” by Adams and “Camara” is very funky with some wonderfully lofi dub keyboard squiggles and an incredible guitar break in the track where we are back in an early 70s psychedelic wig out.  It is wonderful for all that, re-mix and original elements blend perfectly.  On the Afriquoi remix of “Terakraft” all that remains of the original track is the vocal, around which new beats and rhythms are wrapped.  Where the Radar Station mix of “Ngaman” is sympathetic. The Afriquoi and the Lunar Drive mix of General Paolino, are radically different.  Little of their original feel remains, the original tracks are treated as textures, but the resulting music is still very much worth a listen.  There is still something glorious about hearing General Paolino’s vocal spinning over crossing electronic rhythms.  The Dalek Romeo mix of “Manja” starts strongly, the frantic energy of the vocals is intensified by the electronics, and the original rhythms are built into the new electronics.  However the middle section by comparison, sounds worryingly like 80s Tangerine Dream, but it works well when the MMB vocals return.  Like the Adams and “Camara” Radio Station mix, something both sympathetic and new and exciting is made.  The Echodek mix of “Maknassy” gives you more of Emel Mathouthi’s vocals which is a treat, but the heavy rhythm, at times un-wielding against the slippery subtly of the vocal represents to these ears another rare mismatch.  The Syriana mix of Lo’ Jo’s “Sur Des Carnets Nus” is dark and edgy.  Strange vocals, a great jazz double bass, endless atmosphere shortwave radio vocals, it’s as if David Lynch’s Twin Peaks soundtrack, decamped to North Africa.  This is glorious, the soundtrack to a hallucinatory fever dream.  The TJ  Rhemi mix of  Xaos “Pindos Full Moon” and Insentisi mix of Dub Colossus. “A Voice Has More Power” retain the textures of the original tracks while layering in a beat.  Penguin Café Orchestra’s mix of Acholi Machon’s “Convoy” is another left field joy.  The rhythm is drawn out of the original mix and a very Penguin Café Orchestra strings part winds around the vocal.  Bernard O’Neill’s mix of Lo’Jo’s Carnet US Vatican Radio is an ambient mash up, like The Orb at its finest and a beat free surprising closer.  Across the double album, this is an intriguing set.  Part celebratory retrospective of key tracks arranged and sequenced with a masterly touch. Part wide ranging remix project with different artists mining for what Dubulah calls 21st Century soul.  Either way, the exposure is deserved and the listening journey is always interesting and represents time well spent.  Like any journey some of it is ultimately more memorable than other parts, but anything that gets us listening harder and wider can only be a good thing.  In these shifting times of uncertainty, this double CD set is a strong reminder that below superficial and irrelevant differences our similarities and common languages of music and emotion run deep and ultimately bind all of us together.  Credit and respect to IRL for consistently delivering and for such a sympathetic set that rewards and surprises.

The Most Ugly Child – Copper and Lace | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.03.17

You don’t expect authentic, shit-kicking Honky Tonk to come out of Nottingham, but once the raw and lively “What Might Have Been” and “Golden Gate” have opened Copper and Lace, it becomes pretty clear that The Most Ugly Child have a tighter grip on Americana than some of their US contemporaries.  Led by the vocals of Daniel Wright and Stevie-Leigh Goodison and featuring some delightful fiddle from Nicole J. Terry, Copper and Lace recalls the golden age of bar room country whilst spilling over, occasionally, into the realm of chugging folk rock “Lungs” and the heartfelt storytelling of Steve Earle and family “Roses”, “Queen of the Honky Tonk”.  The whole package is held together tightly via Matt Cutler and Max Johnson’s impressive rhythm section and varnished with some spine-tingling pedal steel from Big Jim Widdop.  Whilst there’s a lot to like about the shimmering musicianship on this impressive release – the band’s first full-length album since forming in 2012 – it is, perhaps, the sweet interplay of vocals from Wright and Goodison that gives Copper and Lace its enduring appeal.  Fragile, often to the point of risking dissonance, these are the kind of vocals that insist on pulling us in closer, and by the final track on the album, the quietly sublime “My Pony”, you can’t help but press play again.

The Hut People – Routes | Album Review | Fellside | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 10.03.17

There’s always a sense of having been somewhere when the needle has lifted on the latest album from The Hut People.  Take Home is Where the Hut is, the duo’s first studio album, which presented an exploration of global folk rhythms, and Picnic, their 2012 release, which was nothing short of a transcontinental journey.  With Routes, the newly released twelve-track album from accordionist Sam Pirt and percussionist Gary Hammond, we join the boys again for a traverse across the landscapes.  From Whitby to Belgium, Brighton to Sweden and as far as South Africa and Canada, Routes delivers another set of infectious tunes from a duo that seemingly never rests.  Pirt’s accordion has you gasping for breath during such intricate tunes as “The Humours of Tulla” and the quirky “Maid’s Stomach” whilst Hammond’s ever inventive shakes, clangs, bangs and boings fire an exceptionally adventurous and indefatigable engine.

The Fretless – Bird’s Nest | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 11.03.17

To spend thirty-five minutes ear-deep in the music of The Fretless is to know the fickle rhythms of instrumental folk music’s stirring undercurrent.  Bird’s Nest, the Canadian string quartet’s third outing, is a restless record whose energetic rhythms carry tufts of intricate arrangements, pleasing melodies and broad chunks of emotive chords swiftly along its winding stream.  Original compositions such as Eric Wright’s “Hidden View”, Karrnnel Sawitsky’s “Ronim Road” and Trent Freeman’s “Jig of the Blood Moon” showcase the nimble elbows of the quartet’s three fiddle and viola players whilst Wright’s masterful cello keeps each piece blustering wilfully along.  And just when you’ve got a foothold on the strutting rhythms, there are moments of painterly quietness, as with Ivonne Hernandez’s “Jig Jog”, when Wright’s cello leads the rest of the quartet into a smeared, tranquil landscape of sneering strings.  Much of the nine-track album is dedicated to the band’s beautifully woven originals but a few well-chosen traditional tunes have been thrown in for good measure, such as the pensive title track and dust-flinging renditions of “Maybe Molly” and “Maids of Castlebar”.  Thanks to the speckless production of Joby Baker and The Fretless, every strand of hair on string is preserved for what is a rather stunning, textured and altogether delightful album.

Son of the Velvet Rat – Dorado | Album Review | Fluff and Gravy Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 14.03.17

Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder have created a work of sprawling, melancholy beauty with Dorado that is, at once, a dusty landscape painting and a gritty dime store paperback.  Consider “Cooper Hill”, a song that blends inspirations from the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Tom Russell but shimmers most brightly with Georg’s original song writing and knack for spine-tingling chord changes.  “Blood Red Shoes”, featuring backing vocals from American singer songwriter Victoria Williams, may be Leonard Cohen-esque but there’s an infectious freshness in Georg’s emotive vocal, albeit delightfully cracked and weather-worn, that makes the song shine.  And whilst much of the album is dedicated to sun-dried, sand-covered songs that play like short flickering films, there comes the occasional glistening oasis such as the upbeat “Surfer Joe” with its punchy percussion and zesty guitar riffs.  It’s no surprise that this husband and wife team, who go by the intriguing name of Son of the Velvet Rat, have upped and left their native Austria to set up home in Joshua Tree.  The American landscape has clearly deposited plenty of grit in their bloodstreams.  Whilst Dorado showcases the superlative song writing talents of Georg Altziebler, it also features some fine playing from organist, accordionist and vocalist Heike Binder, pianist Patrick Warren, bassist David Piltch, guitarist Adam Levy and drummer Jay Bellerose, as well as guest appearances by such artists as fiddler Bob Furgo and guitarist Gar Robertson.

Neil McSweeney – A Coat Worth Wearing | LP Review | Hudson Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.03.17

Atmospheric throughout, Neil McSweeney’s latest release, his fourth full-length album to date, requires some immediate attention.  The Andy Bell produced album features nine self-penned songs, each crafted with considerable care and each treated to some slick production.  Often improvisational musical trinkets tend to jar but not here; everything seems so naturally placed and technical wizardry is treated with a good deal of imaginative flair.  In places the Sheffield-based singer-songwriter wears his influences well, whether Tom Waits “Forlorn Hope” or Nick Cave “The Call”, the voice demonstrates versatility throughout.  The guest musicians are well aware that the bar has been set high and each is prepared to jump.  Ben Nicholl’s double bass brings to the party a domineering confidence, whilst Emily Portman and Lucy Farrell’s distinctive voices can be heard throughout the album as well, notably on the haunting chorus of “Waving Not Drowning”, a title paraphrased from poet Stevie Smith’s celebrated poem, and in a way helps to adhere to the song’s ethereal feel.  On “Night Watchman”, we find McSweeney at his most intimate, with a voice as close to your ear as possibly imaginable, a simple unobtrusive guitar accompaniment somewhere in the background refusing to get in the way of the delicate vocal communication.  This is perhaps how all of Neil McSweeney’s songs should sound, sparse, intimate, gentle and deeply personal, but then we would be deprived of his adventurous spirit on some of the harder edged songs.  The album closer is a veritable buffalo stampede of a performance, with the band stretching out into Bad Seeds territory once again; a genuinely exciting climax to what is for all intents and purposes, a great contemporary album that will no doubt make its mark.

Ashley Henry – Ashley Henry’s 5ive | Album Review | Jazz Re:freshed | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.03.17

With a forceful piano style that blends the heady intensity of Robert Glasper with the ruminative explorations of Jason Moran, Ashley Henry presents a collection of five compositions that formerly herald the arrival of Britain’s latest young jazz sensation.  A recent graduate of the Leeds College of Music and Royal Academy of Music, 24 year old Henry has already begun carving an impressive niche.  Indeed, the release of this constantly inventive and seductive five-track record coincides with Henry’s nomination for Breakthrough Act of the Year at the Jazz FM Awards 2017 which will be held on April 25th.  Beginning with the invigorating “Deja Vu”, which showcases Henry’s energetic yet meditative playing, Ashley Henry’s 5ive boasts four original compositions including the scintillating “St Anne’s” and studiously groovy “Altruism” which, along with the angular contemplations of “Deimos”, demonstrate a deep affinity for hip hop without abandoning the realm of sublime acoustic jazz.  The decision to include a stunning rendering of “Monk’s Dream” not only demonstrates Henry’s good taste but also his ambition.  Indeed, Henry’s solo opening of this well-known Thelonious Monk composition furnishes the album with its most arresting moment.  Henry is joined by the tight rhythms of bassist Sam Vicary and drummer Sam Gardner and benefits from the punctilious production of Paul and Mat Clark.

Jenn and Laura-Beth – Bound | Album Review |JBLB Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.03.17

Jenn Butterworth (Anna Massie Band, Songs of Separation) and Laura-Beth Salter (The Shee, The MacLean Project) unite for a rather delightful slice of British Americana for an album’s worth of gentle country-inflected songs and sore-finger styled instrumentals, each musician handling their guitar and mandolin credentials with some deal of authority.  The two musicians, having met and worked extensively together on the thriving Glasgow folk music scene, have developed a deep understanding of American music, which mixed with other global influences, not least material from their own respective English and Scottish musical heritage, makes for something of a universal appeal.  Songs such as Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide” and Mindy Smith’s gospel-tinged “Come to Jesus”, work exceptionally well, especially when augmented by some of Laura-Beth’s stunning mandolin playing and Jenn’s informed flat-picked guitar, such as on “Shine”, “1234” and “Apple at the Crossroads”.  Sore fingers indeed.

The Rachel Hamer Band – Hard Ground | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Sheila Trow | 21.03.17

Hard Ground is rooted in the social history of the region and is delivered by a band with a considerable understanding of historical legacy and its social and political influences.  Here we have a fresh and contemporary, yet ultimately respectful approach to many traditional songs.  A four piece delivering a unique blend of voice, guitar, fiddle, and flute.  Appropriately, given the funding from the Graeme Miles Bursary Hard Ground opens with the lyrically brilliant “Blue Sunset”, and the word painting begins…”and the grime from the tall factory chimney’s turns orange, violet and gray”.  Here Graeme Armstrong’s guitar playing begins to shine, Sam Partridge’s flute weaves its magic in beautiful harmony with Grace Smith’s violin and Rachel’s voice.  The arrangements are simply stunning, and continue to reveal, further vocal nuances alongside layers of rhythm and instrumentation, on repeated listening.  Immediately apparent is the harmony formed between Rachel’s voice, Sam Partridge’s flute and Grace Smith’s violin.  The ‘vocal’ harmony work is minimal, yet beautifully crafted and punctuated by meticulous unison singing on Jean Ritchie’s “West Virginia”, and Andy Dutfield’s “Will Jobling”.  The band’s captivating arrangement of Ewan MacColl’s “School Days Over” with its opening of acoustic guitar and voice, its finale of contrapuntal voices and a flute which floats seemingly effortlessly above it all, is remarkable.  Where vocal harmony appears on tracks such as Rachel Hamer’s “Bevin Boys”, Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Red Winged Blackbird”, and in the latter part of Jim Molyneux’s “The Digging Song”, it is subtle and entirely complimentary.  Rachel’s voice has an inherent depth and pathos entirely suitable for the subject matter.  Her clear diction results in vivid storytelling, which transports us into the world of the protagonists and ultimately reveals the weight and influence of our historical past.  Hard Ground is a tour de force in its genre, a coherent album in terms of subject matter and style, and one that continues to keep on giving.

Ann Duggan – Dust Upon the Wind | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.03.17

By sheer coincidence, I listened to Ann Duggan’s latest album release whilst sitting on a bench at Hull Paragon Interchange, coffee in hand, waiting for the next train bound for the equally alluring town of Doncaster.  As the jingle-jangle of Rob Hines’ guitar opens the first song, I’m amused by the opening lines of “Dust Upon the Wind”, ‘Saw you today, you missed your last train home, You were sitting in the station, drinking coffee on your own..’, it seemed almost poetic that this album would form the soundtrack of my short journey home, with Ann Duggan’s voice effectively commentating on just another day via the lyrics of long-time collaborator Colin Granger.  By Hessel station, as the late afternoon sun set upon the glistening Humber, its imposing suspension bridge towering above the Northern landscape, “Reflections” whispered the optimism of a brighter future after a messy break-up, with the suggestion that there is indeed more fruit on the vine.  Looking out of a carriage window as the train moved forward seemed to suggest a poignant metaphor.  Throughout the album, Ann Duggan traverses the ups and downs of relationships, from a bitter break-up to the reassurance of a brighter future with “Every Step of the Way”, where one protagonist commits to an unbreakable bond with the other.  By Goole, the drama continues through a bluesy “Hurricane”, whilst being transported from the ebbing of an ordinary day in the industrial North of England to the luminescence of a “Carolina Moon”.  “Been Here Before” continues to audibly shape my own situation as ‘Sitting beside the railroad track, Memories of you come flooding back, Waiting for the train to bring you home’ sang in my ear, almost as a lullaby, whilst also reflecting on the bleak faces of those waiting around on the platform as their day likewise awaits the onset of dusk.  My journey almost done, just as the doors of Thorne North’s information office are being locked up for the night, the Country influenced “Songs to Cure the Blues” recalls the many towns, many stations, many miles travelled thus far.  Pulling out of Hatfield and Stainforth station, the CD drew to its close with the appropriate “When the Day is Gone”, which for this reviewer, practically summed up the close of an ordinary spring day.

Emily Maguire – A Bit of Blue | Album Review | Shaktu Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 22.03.17

Emily Maguire is a British born singer songwriter and this is her fifth release and her first after a three-year break.  Maguire a classically trained musician was out of action for two years, suffering from chronic tendonitis.  Unable to play a bout of depression followed. Emily is the first to acknowledge that this album came from a dark time in her life, but recognises in the song “I’d Rather Be” that light often comes out of or with dark.  The album is more stripped back than her earlier albums, but X Factor producer Nigel Butler works with Emily’s soulful songs and in terms of emotional intensity less is definitely more.  Emily’s voice over the keyboards and subtle orchestration on the opening track is captivating, there are no histrionics or gymnastics, just a warm voice that draws you in and holds your attention.  The emotion rises on the short chorus and the albums first mention of the blue lyrical motif.  This is classic intelligent 70s singer songwriter territory, recalling piano led ballads by Judie Tsuke or Carole King.  Emotionally intense with a simple arrangement.  “Getting Older” places the intimate vocal against a gently picked guitar.  Again, Emily Maguire’s vocal and her delivery of an emotive lyric, a personal narrative laid bare, draws you in and holds you tight.  The title song is plaintive, but ultimately upbeat showing how difficulties can colour life in a positive way.  “For Free” is more outward looking as Maguire considers the natural world and its freedom against the seductive but shallow freedoms of our online line selves.  “It’s Alright” is a song of love gone cold, as over some anthemic piano chords, Emily lays herself bare.  Like so many of the songs, this is a beautiful lyric with some sharp word play and a powerful vocal.  “Now Somehow” is an album highlight, a torch song, a jazz standard in the making.  Beautiful playing, an earworm melody, broad themed lyrics and a crystalline vocal make this a perfect moment.  This should be picked up by a moody TV thriller, its brooding atmosphere are crying out for a melancholic Wallandar or a Broadchurch.  “The Banks of the Acheron” is an achingly beautiful folk song, a dark portrait of a miscarriage.  “The Words That I Could I Say” is another love gone cold song, written, like “It’s Alright”, when a head full of thoughts keeps you awake, but this time the songwriter is frozen by circumstance and less decisive.  “Stone and Sky” is a ghost story, a starting point for a Neil Gaiman tale, and a metaphor for people frozen by circumstances, unable to go forwards or back.  Like “Wish You Were Here”, “I’d Rather Be” is a song that weighs out metaphors, similar, but less gnomic than Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa”, it is a song of conclusions and resolutions after an album of reflection and examination.  It’s a brave soul who takes on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, Sandy Denny’s anthemic pondering of passing time and it’s an indication of Emily Macguire’s quiet power that she makes it her own on this hymn like album closer.  This is a brave and powerful album, a perfect example of a songwriter deciding we need to see it all, raw and real, not auto-tuned and homogenised.  True to herself, having sung of taking the highs and lows over hiding in a narrow mind, Emily gives it to us straight, giving us an album of performances that have intensity and integrity.  It cannot be coincidence that the title, the cover and its stripped back, paired back nature recalls Joni Mitchell’s Blue, an intense album of relationships under the microscope songs.​

Oka Vanga – Dance of the Copper Trail | Album Review | Crazy Bird Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.03.17

It’s quite refreshing to hear songs treated to such sumptuous arrangements as those provided by husband and wife team Angela Meyer and William Cox, otherwise known as Oka Vanga, on this the duo’s second album following the success of their award-winning 2014 debut instrumental release Pilgrim.  Joining continents, the Cape Town-born singer, mandolin, ukulele and guitar player Angie and London-based singer guitarist Will are joined by musician friends Patsy Reid on fiddle, Oliver Copeland on double bass and Mark Tucker on percussion, who together create a gentle and effectively soothing acoustic sound throughout.  The eleven songs and tunes on Dance of the Copper Trail, clearly mark the duo’s rightful place on the contemporary folk scene, with a selection of both self-penned and traditional songs, including a sublime reading of “She Moved Through the Fair”, a showcase for Angie’s remarkable – and distinctively her own – voice.  Once Angie’s voice seeps into your psyche, you will scratch your head in confusion and no doubt question why the duo’s previous album was instrumental only.  If there’s some inherent magic to be found in the fabric of the opening song, “The Wicken Tree”, then that magic is echoed in Angie’s earthy, spell-binding and utterly convincing voice.  The same goes for “Ashes to the Wind” and “The Devil’ Tide”, both of which showcase the duo’s flair for empathetic musical interaction, whilst the lilting Capercaillie provides the album with one of its most uplifting moments, helped in no small part by Patsy Reid’s skittering fiddle performance.  This really is a superb album and one which will hang around on the player long after the plaudits have been bestowed.

Gary Innes – ERA | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 23.03.17

Highland born accordionist Gary Innes is a founder member of the force that is award winning Celtic band Manran.  Since his first solo album How’s the Craic in 2005, Gary has released a multiple collaborative albums with Breabach’ Ewan Robertson, accordion band Box Club and played on three albums with Manran.  This sense of musical restlessness and breadth of influences is typical of this his second album.  Its strength comes in part from the busy twelve years since his last album of his own material.  At times this album feels like flicking through a diary, well-thumbed photo album, or rooting through an old desk.  Gary Innes’ own notes explain and expand on some wonderfully esoteric song and tune titles.  Part of the album’s charm and interest comes from the stories behind the music and his inspirations.  What raises ERA beyond the mundane is the fact that behind some quirky titles lies music that is often atmospheric, stirring and genuinely uplifting.  Light and shade rather than just thumping dance music.  Opening set of tunes set up the album nicely, spry and lively playing.  An interesting time signature leads to a swirling dance set.  “The Road to Lochabar” slows right down and is positively cinematic, it is that evocative, with a rising swell of vocals, pipes and flute.  “The Caman Man”, against a long history of football songs is a folky ode to shinty.  The song being written after Gary Innes’ retirement from playing. There is a strong sense of geographical place and a place in time to this album.  The previous tune was inspired by the drive back to his home and “The Caman Man” is grounded by Robert Robertson’s local Lochabar accent.  Songs about a Scottish sport are admittedly a bit niche, but it flows from the beautiful previous track and its uplifting lyric easily encompasses more than the game Innes was writing about.  “May Life Always Be Peachy” is one of those moments where the music has an emotional depth and a cinematic quality that goes far beyond anything its name might suggest.  At times suggesting “Both Sides the Tweed”, it is on this and other slower tracks where Innes; power as a player and a composer bursts out of the speakers and demands your attention.  Similarly “The Highland Obama”.  It’s almost as if the wry titles are a self-deprecating attempt to downplay the intensity and inventiveness of the music, defuse any muso pretention.  A kind of Celtic, Spinal Tap ‘lick my love pump’ moment.  Titles aside, turn it up, close your eyes and be prepared to be transported on sensitive and inventive music played with mastery.  Siobhan Miller’s perfectly phrased vocal on “Zara”, Scottish Soul, just deepens rather than breaks the mood.  Mention must be made for moments, like between the verses on “Zara”, where Pipes and guitar are layered and sculpted while Steve Byrne’s drums are an exercise in understatement, accenting the rhythm.  “Grace and Pride” as a sentiment sums up what is captivating about this album, graceful playing, a lightness of touch and the pride of a man looking at a part of world he knows well and letting us into his life.  As a song it is another strong emotive vocal, some musical twists and turns and a heartfelt lyric.  “Our Heroes” is a real lump in the throat moment.  Duncan McGillivray plays a stirring air on a set of bagpipes played at the Battle of Festubert in 1915, while around him a folky big band build a bewitching atmosphere.  A charity single with all money raised going to Scotland’s veteran charity, Erskine.  A powerful end to a fine album.  Gary Innes is very much up there with master players like Donal Lunny and Davy Spillane equally at home with the fast the furious and the smoky and brooding.  Not to suggest that being a member of the excellent Manran and his many collaborative projects aren’t also perfect moments, but let’s hope it isn’t another 12 years till album number three.

Old Blind Dogs – Room with a View | Album Review | OBD Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 25.03.17

From first sight of the digi-pack sleeve this is clearly a considered album.  A sense of timelessness and a sense of place seeps though everything.  There is a playfulness through the presentation of the album, did the title suggest the sleeve or did the sleeve suggest the title, either way it works.  A postcard from a magical and musical place.  The landscape, the surreal sense of ancient but modern, the prog rock album cover juxtaposition of the parlour chairs, the hearth and the heather, the little touches of humour, the whisky label lettering and the weathered feel it all works together, like a cypher the clues are there, you know what it is before you play it and it does not disappoint.  With nine tracks it might at first feel like a short album, an afterthought.  But the tracks are slow builders, given time to breathe and mature, like a fine single malt.  Part way through a track the walls melt, the front room fades away, till all that remains, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, is the hearth and your arm chair.  Suddenly you are sat in that landscape with the music blowing through the gorse.  Track one is nearly six minutes of slowly building Celtic Music, but it is twisted by the band’s recent American travels with some decidedly Appalachian fiddle playing.  “A Ring on Her Hand opens with a beautiful bubbling sound, sampled pipes? treated whistles?, think interlude from Terry Riley.  The whole track is a perfect blend of vocals and layered guitar an understated rhythm with some heavenly pipe playing.  “Newe” is an exercise in restraint.  Pipes and whistles swirl, with all the breaths and burrs of the player punctuating the tune over another masterfully understated delicate rhythm.  The intensity and pace of the playing builds through the track, ending in a gloriously furious fiddle part.  This music gets in your synapses like wind in the wires and before you know it your feet and fingers are not your own.  There is a wonderful sense of space around the guitar part in “The Earl O March’s Daughter.  Like John Renbourn’s playing, it’s the air between as much as the notes themselves.  Old Blind Dogs have a wonderful way to subtly layer vocals, that is used to great effect to accent and emphasise on this track and on “Warlike Lads of Russia” and “A Ring on Her Hand”.  It’s not showy virtuosity, it always serves the song and the atmosphere, but it is quietly perfect, a smoothly blended whole.  “Sawney Bean” is another hybrid, infectious traditional music, but the staccato guitar and rhythms recalls riding the rails across an endless Mid West prairie.  “Gavottes Des Montagnes” features a gloriously dark phased acid folk fiddle, a brooding intro to a captivating pipes and fiddle duet.  Again to these ears the pipes drift towards becoming bubbling electronic keyboards, illustrating that fine music has no boundaries.  The final set of tunes “Died and Gone” starts slowly with layers of plucked strings, fiddle and pipes, it all feels effortless, but like a zen brush painting everything is in the right place.  Again like “Newe” the tempo and intensity builds, pauses in the playing like gear changes.  You know this is going to be amazing live.  While the ruined hearth might be hard to source, listeners are recommended to find a comfortable chair, their own glass of what almost certainly isn’t cold tea or honey and lemon and get lost in the music of Old Blind Dogs.  All that’s missing is a fireside hound.​

Omar Rahbany – Passport | Album Review | Rahbany Yahia Productions | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.03.17

Three years in the making, Omar Rahbany’s Passport is a treat for the senses from a Lebanese pianist and composer who is yet to reach his thirtieth year.  The treat begins within the act of opening the CD’s exquisite packaging with its book-like binding, thick textural pages, colourful digital illustrations and inviting track-listings; it’s a tantalisingly tactile experience that leads the listener comfortably, and somewhat excitedly, towards the music.  Blending jazz and classical with Arabic and Lebanese folk influences whilst addressing the socio-political climate of the Middle East, Rahbany’s debut release swoops ambitiously between the grand instrumental orchestral arrangements of “Overture” and “Umbrella Woman” and such enchanting jazz and folk pieces as “Zook: The Power Station” and “Mouthwashahat”.  There are sprinklings of tangos, flamencos and some enchanting vocal pieces such as the dramatic “Anarkia” as well as moments of exceptional sparing beauty, especially during “Trip to the Moon” when Rahbany’s piano takes centre stage.  With shades of Pat Metheny, Wim Mertens and even George Gershwin, Passport is an expansive and often cinematic work from an exciting young artist.  Whilst Rahbany’s compositional artistry is the real star of this extraordinarily ambitious project, almost two hundred individuals contributed to the making of Passport, most notably its lead musicians such as accordionist Tony Dib, bassist Steve Rodby (a member of the Pat Metheny Group) and percussionist Raymond Hage.  The album’s producers, Rahbany and Mahdi Yahya as well as conductor Volodymyr Strenko should also be commended for the success of managing the sheer magnitude of this impressive project.

TEYR – Far From the Tree | Album Review | Sleight of Hand | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.03.17

After two years of honing their craft on the road, the London-based Irish, Welsh and Cornish trio Teyr (which means three in Cornish) have bestowed upon us an album of exquisite quality and uncompromising energy.  Far From the Tree presents ten works of sculptural beauty that demand our attention from note to note.  Opening with “Reeds & Fipple”, a delicately layered instrumental which introduces us to the guitar, pipes and accordion of James Gavin, Dominic Henderson and Tommie Black-Roff, the album gives way to the rousing song “Banks of Newfoundland” from the Canow Kernow (Songs of Cornwall) which showcases the trio’s impressive vocal prowess and ability to craft an intricate and beguiling masterpiece out of an otherwise simple folk song.  The format remains much the same throughout the album, with sinuous folk tunes such as the sweetly rolling “The Badge” and breathlessly energetic GM giving way to painterly renditions of traditional songs such as “False Lady” and “Huntley Town”.  Despite the consistently brooding presence of traditional song and melody, however, the album benefits from a handful of original pieces such as “Nothing Grows” with lyrics from Irish poet Stephen Muldoon and James Gavin’s exhilarating “Dean’s Banjo” which closes this astounding debut album with a warmly effervescent crescendo.

Roving Crows – Bury Me Naked | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.04.17

Well we’ve had Black Crowes, Counting Crows and Stone the Crows, not to mention the Magic Crows Bluegrass Band, but here we have crows of a roving kind.  If you were wondering what the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire-based quartet might sound like without having actually heard them before, a visual representation of their sound could possibly be found in the three-panel photo on the inner gatefold sleeve of their new album Bury Me Naked.  Here we find, to the far left, Paul O’Neill showing an acoustic guitar precisely who’s boss, whilst to his left we find Caitlin Barrett in classic folk rock poise, giving her fiddle a good ‘seeing to’ to.  Then there’s Loz Shaw, almost bent double over his electric bass in a moment of ecstasy or pain (or both), whilst the imposing figure of Tim Downes-Hall pounds the bongos with a fervour befitting the energetic creed of the band.  Then again, you might well be already familiar with the band’s sound from their two previously released full-length albums, both of which in essence paved the way for this, their first release in four years.  Opening with the title song, based on the essential Native American text Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s epic study of a people so blatantly and openly wronged, Bury Me Naked is a folk rock statement with a conscience; the liner notes go on to state the band’s environmental ethos, which is reflected in some of the music included here.  Although the rock aspect is explored throughout, the band are unafraid to venture into world rhythms, such as the reggae-inflected “Refugee”, a powerful message set to a lilting groove reminiscent of Men at Work’s infectious “Down Under” and “Passing on the Love”, a true life story about friends on the road.  Afro rhythms also form the basis of the opening of “Revolution is Now”, a powerful statement of intent.  Fiddle player Caitlin Barrett comes to the fore vocally on her own Riverside, as well as revisiting Jimmy MacCarthy’s “Ride On”, which closes the album, recalling Mary Coughlan’s version from the 1980s, but for the main part its O’Neill leading the band with one or two vibrant instrumentals thrown into the mix.  

Mike Bloomfield – A Retrospective | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.04.17

When Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary fame made his rambling introduction at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, clumsily introducing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to the stage, he probably didn’t have a clue of what was about to happen a few hours later when the band returned to the stage in order to back Bob Dylan in what became a notable turning point in popular music.  This announcement precedes “Born in Chicago”, one of the previously unreleased songs on this magnificent retrospective of Mike Bloomfield’s contribution to popular blues music when it was first released as a two-LP set in 1983.  The two-disc set, now reissued as a double CD set with additional material, captures Bloomfield at his rawest, a massively overlooked guitarist at the cutting edge of contemporary blues from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, as part of such outfits as the Electric Flag, Al Kooper’s Super Session and the Butterfield band.  The 18-song compilation is intercut with several interview segments, giving the collection some historical context, such as the inclusion of a candid admission by Bloomfield of the difficulty in working with the notoriously complex Butterfield.  It’s Bloomfield’s peerless guitar playing though that brings this compilation to life, especially on such tracks as the Al Kooper collaboration Really, the live recording of “I Wonder Who” also with Al Kooper from 1968 Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and something slightly more understated on the rather soulful version of “It Hurts Me Too”, featuring a vocal by John Hammond and Dr John tinkling the ivories.

Mokoomba – Luyando | Album Review | Out Here Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.04.17

The soulful second album release by Zimbabwe’s six-piece outfit Mokoomba and follow up to their 2012 debut Rising Tide, takes us on a musical journey through the traditions and customs of the Chinotimba Township of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe along the Zambezi River.  The self-produced album Luyando, which translates to ‘mother’s love’ incorporates the highly infectious traditional rhythms mixed with soukous, ska and salsa, delivered not only in their native Tonga, but also in Shona, Luvale and Ndebele, not to mention a little English, notably on the refrain of the album opener “Mokole”.  Mokoomba’s trump card is in the voice of lead singer Mathias Muzaza, whose occasional soulful rasp is at time reminiscent of the vocal timbre of both Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye; utterly youthful and immediately captivating. Mokoomba, a name which literally means having a deep respect of the river, demonstrate a passion for their native music and have the drive and ability to take it to the further reaches of the world, without losing any of its power and spirit along the way.  Their Ladysmith Black Mambazo-inspired “Nyaradzo”, which closes the album, places the singers right at the heart of their African roots.  Playful, sincere and highly listenable.

Barry Goldberg – Street Man/Blast From My Past | Album Review | Retro World | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.04.17

Still going strong at the age of 74, Barry Goldberg has provided keyboards for only the best artists of the blues and soul world. From stints with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in his teens to recent outings with Stephen Stills and Mick Taylor, Goldberg has carved a long career as one of America’s go-to session men.  He also played keyboards for a certain Mr Zimmerman at the now legendary Newport Jazz Festival when Dylan went electric.  His steady solo output, however, is no less impressive with a dozen or so LP releases since his Billy Sherrill-produced 1966 debut Blowing My Mind.  This latest release presents a single disc reissue of a pair of albums from the early seventies, both originally released on the Buddah label and featuring sassy production from Lewis Merenstein, who took Van Morrison to dizzying heights with his superlative Moondance and Astral Weeks albums.  Street Man (1970) is a bold, often brash but consistently soulful instrumental record which showcases Goldberg’s white-hot organ playing via the well-known melodies of such classic songs as “I Got a Woman”, “Soul Man”, “Hey Jude” and “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay” whilst Blasts From My Past (1971) consists of mainly original material from the gospel-infused “It Hurts Me Too” to the psychadelic love song “Sittin’ In Circles”.  The latter album, recorded at the infamous Muscle Shoals recording studio and featuring the Mar-Keys horn section, opens with “Jimi The Fox”, a heartfelt tribute to the recently departed Jimi Hendrix which features a rasping guitar solo from Mike Bloomfield.  Lovingly preserved by Sony and Floating World Records, this 21-track reissue of two fine albums comes complete with a glossy book full of liner notes by Alan Robinson, detailed musician rosters and original artwork.

Amy Duncan – Antidote | Album Review | Filly Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.04.17

Amy Duncan is a Scottish singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, originally trained as a double bass player and Antidote is her sixth album.  Built around recordings made in her own home, the music manages to sound intimate without ever feeling limited or lo-fi.  A combination of Duncan’s wide musical palette, playing keyboards, guitars and double bass herself, a sure touch and Calum Malcolm’s studio mastery, also heard on The Blue Nile’s superlative Hats album, breathes life into the album.  There is a sense of grace, space and deliberate understatement in common with The Blue Nile’s later albums.  “Steady The Bow” opens the album, harp and Amy Duncan’s beautifully pure and emotive voice to the fore.  There is a wonderfully folky traditional lilt to the lyric.  Sue McKenzie’s cool saxophone twines with the music, ethereal and drifting, adding a jazz edge to acoustic music in a tradition that looks back to 60s legends like Pentangle and more recent genre straddling acts like Lammas.  Whatever it’s called, this is music too broad to be pinned to just one label.  Gentle percussion tinkles through the mix with shifting atmospherics and crowd sounds widening the space around the music.  Train sounds, bird sounds and a sense of space open “The Journey” the found sounds illustrate the imagery of the song and help us inhabit the headspace of the writer.  It is never forced or contrived, all the elements are perfectly balanced and become part of the musical whole. Amy Duncan’s vocal is sublime, folky to begin with before hitting a deep note that recalls classic Kate Bush, intimate, low and arresting.  Describing the journey the arrangement shifts and changes alternating a more frantic pace with the Bush like passages.  “The Severed Head” contrasts a dark metaphorical lyric with a languid guitar line that is jazzy and part Penguin Café Orchestra. Alison opens with pure atmospherics, as a ‘dopplered’ siren drifts between the speakers and just screams early morning city.  Again Sue McKenzie’s saxophone is perfect in its ECM Garbarek iciness, adding another element to the scene being set.  Against keyboards that are jazzy and vibes like, Amy’s lyrics are upbeat and positive.  Duncan is open about the song writing being an attempt to explore her overcoming adversity in health and life, to find a way to move beyond a depressive cycle.  The journey is physical as well as emotional, free to move around her home city of Edinburgh Amy made field recordings, these weave in and out of the music so we are very much part both journeys.  The sense of movement is carried by frequent road noise and road imagery.  Recording at home, with time and space, the sense of freedom spills into the music, the mood and the feel of the album.  “Golden Fox” is another uplifting vocal that sings of freedom against a perfect cycling Bill Evans like piano.  As well as being a superb vocalist, the playing on this track suggests there is a mean jazz or classical pianist in there too.  So the grace of the glimpsed fox is suggested by an utterly captivating keyboard passage.  Clearing describes another moment in time, continuing the same mood and almost the same song.  Carried by the singing it is all very Zen as you are held in that second, cocooned and carried by wonderfully buoyant music.  “This is the Road” pushes the tempo and is edgy by comparison with a higher saxophone, some frenetic piano and a Norma Winstone crystalline edge to the vocal.  Determined to push on, the mood is determined and the music reflects that with a more barbed beauty.  “Lost Balloon” and “Pieces of Me” both open with a very contemporary looped electric guitar line and a chorus of layered but perfectly phrased vocals.  The balloon may be lost to its owner but Amy envies its height and escape, after the languid dawn of “Golden Fox” there is a sense of urgent energy.  “The Caretaker” brims with the same energy, the mood upbeat, if the album is cathartic then a decision has been made this is a hymn to the certainty of positively travelling forward.  “Antidote” carries the jazzy ambience and the certainty on.  The atmospherics at the start become music and fade into a melodic Reich like marimba keyboard motif, minimal while the voice soars over the top, revealing the metaphorical significance of the plants pushing between the urban brickwork and pavers, they are green shoots.  This is a glorious album, both understated and majestic, very much a quiet storm, as a singer songwriter looks at themselves and their world in a way that is engaging.  The voice, the playing, the lyrics there is so much here to recommend.

Various Artists – Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.04.17

It comes as a surprise to find a new Woody Guthrie related album without the name Billy Bragg all over it.  Guthrie’s self-styled successor doesn’t necessarily always have to be associated with Woody’s legacy.  Of course, that legacy continues to be recognised on his home turf and not only in his birth state of Oklahoma, but all over the country and in the case of these songs, the Northwest Territories along the mighty Columbia River.  The songs on Roll Columbia are from a period of hyperactivity during the Spring of 1941, which coincided with the building of the great dams along the Columbia River, notably the Grand Coulee Dam, a major construction project that would ostensibly bring ‘eleckatricity’ to the masses.  Of the 26 songs included here, 17 were recorded by Guthrie for an accompanying documentary film commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration, which eventually surfaced as The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream (1949).  Throwing himself into the task, Guthrie wrote ferociously for the period of one month, which resulted in a handful of highly memorable songs, such as “Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee Dam”, “Pastures of Plenty” and “Roll, Columbia, Roll”.  Some of the songs were written prior to the project such as “Hard Travelin’”, which here is given some of that authentic Guthrie treatment by Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, two major players in this project, whilst one or two songs are being heard for the very first time, in much the same manner as the songs on Mermaid Avenue by the aforementioned Billy Bragg and Wilko back in 1998.  “Lumber is King” is one such song, performed here quite brilliantly by Cahalen Morrison, a voice of authority and clarity, not unlike that of Guthrie himself.  Interestingly, these songs were written in the same year as America joined all the fun in Europe and Hitler gets a mention in “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done”, which in effect puts the project in some additional historical context.  With other contributions by Pharis and Jason Romero, David Grisman, Tony Furtado and REM’s Peter Buck, the album comes with an informative 44-page booklet and 26 songs that capture perfectly an important era in America’s Northwestern history.

Hunter Muskett – Unafraid and Sober | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.04.17

For those unfamiliar with the name Hunter Muskett, and do stop me if this sounds like egg sucking tuition, the three-piece version of the college band formed in London back in the heady days of 1969, playing at such notable venues as The Marquee and The Troubadour gaining a reputation on the scene as a folk group who use electric instruments.  After a couple of albums, Everytime You Move (1970) followed by Hunter Muskett (1973) which saw the arrival of fourth member Roger Trevitt, joining original members Terry Hiscock, Chris George and Doug Morter, the band eventually called it a day in 1974.  As the band drifted into distant memory and whose dusty LPs began commanding eyebrow raising price tags on Ebay, the band reformed in 2010 and soon had a comeback album on the shelves.  That Was Then, This Is Now (2013), followed a series of live dates, which saw the band finding their own niche once again on a much changed live scene.  The band’s latest release, Unafraid and Sober is a gentle album of mainly self-penned songs, each suitably crafted to include some fine guitar solos and mature arrangements.  Added to the orginal songs such as “Fields of France”, “Next to Me” and the title song “Unafraid and Sober”, which features a beautiful guitar passage based on the traditional “Banks of the Bann” melody, the band invited along Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee to sing the ethereal Lal and Mike Waterson classic “The Scarecrow”.  Along with this, we find tucked away in the coda of Terry Hiscock’s “North of Clear Lake”, a verse of Buddy Holly’s “I Guess it Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, which only adds to the tender simplicity of this enchanting album.

Madison Violet – The Knight Sessions | Album Review | Big Lake Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.04.17

Toronto-based Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac have been writing, recording and touring together since 1999 (believe it or not), and over those 18 years the duo known as Madison Violet has consistently produced convincingly good songs and delivered them with sumptious arrangements and breathtaking vocal harmonies.  For their eighth album, the duo found themselves popping in and out of Toronto pawn shops in search of items that would potentially add new sounds in the studio, from children’s discarded toys to broken ukuleles.  The Knight Sessions in a sense sees the duo return to basics; simple arrangements, gentle acoustics and mature self-penned songs, some of which have appeared previously but have been ‘re-imagined’ here, and most importantly with all their musical versatility still very much intact.  Brenley’s highly individual smoky voice is, as always, complimented by Lisa’s empathetic harmonies, which in turn gives the duo their familiar and distinctive sound.  We need look no further than “Ohio”, “Same Song”, “These Ships” and “We Are Famous” for evidence of that.

Ben Hunter, Phil Wiggins and Joe Seamons – A Black and Tan Ball | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 14.04.17

Kicking off with a languorously climbing harmonica, fiddle and guitar and a song about creatively murdering a disloyal friend, A Black & Tan Ball presents thirteen tracks that dive back into American musical history with equal authenticity and good humour.  Building on the success of their stint as a duo, multi-instrumentalists Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons are joined here by renowned harmonica wizard Phil Wiggins.  And when Wiggins’s tongue isn’t licking at an impressively agile harmonica on instrumentals such as the traditional “Shanghai Rooster & The Dominicker Hen” and the perky Guitar Rag, it’s pressed firmly into cheek for such novelty jazz and blues ditties as “How’m I Doin’” and the aforementioned “Do You Call That a Buddy”, a song which features perhaps the best and most subtle musical reference to hurling someone out of a window.  Whilst the album is drenched in old-time wit and mischief, Hunter, Wiggins and Seamons never stray from their serious esteem for antique Americana and jazz classics such as Ellington’s “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me” and Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque”.  Other highlights include a delectable version of the traditional folk song “John Henry”, complete with wonderfully resonant banjo, as well as a mandolin-led rendering of Leadbelly’s “Poor Howard”, both featuring high lonesome vocals that add yet more texture to the fine musicianship at play on this riveting record.

Steve Soden and the Sweet Peas – Welcome to the Asylum | Album Review | PB Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.04.17

Slightly eccentric third album by Birmingham-based singer-songwriter and poet Steve Soden, who for this album gathers over twenty musicians together over a twelve month period to record the dozen songs that makes up Welcome To The Asylum.  The songs have a highly retro feel, particularly the opening song “Mean Woman Blues”, a doo-wop pop tune that could easily have been recorded in the 1950s, a song that wouldn’t be out of place on the Grease soundtrack.  Recorded in Bromsgrove and Droitwich, then mastered in London, the dozen songs appear to be imbued with a tongue-in-cheek quality, almost a pastiche rather than a tribute to the glory days of rock and roll.  If the songs don’t entirely convince us of their eccentricity, then the accompanying DVD film promo, a bizarrely grotesque vignette, shows Steve Soden in Hammer Horror B-Movie mode.  It’s a bit dodgy, but it’s meant to be.  The fact that the songs are listed on the inner sleeve in a representation of a vintage juke box goes one step further to indicate that this is really a bit of fun.  “Lost My Way”, another throwback to an entirely different era, has a certain sincerity, as does “My Heart’s on Fire”, but elsewhere one or two numbers appear to be borrowed from Leonard Cohen’s catalogue melodically speaking, such as “Waiting on a Dream”, very much reminiscent of the lilting “Dance Me To The End of Love” and then again in the closing title song “Welcome to the Asylum”, which is almost like “First We Take Manhattan” delivered by Alistair Crowley.  

Ewan MacPherson – Fetch | Album Review | Shoogle Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.04.17

This masterful instrumental album by Ewan MacPherson (Fribo / Salthouse / RoughCoastAudio / Shooglenifty) brings together a bunch of high quality players that one feels were not picked just because they were close at hand.  Fetch showcases the talents of several hand-picked collaborators in    order to bring this music alive, music predominantly composed by MacPherson himself, who handles guitar, mandolin, mandola and banjo with equal authority, whilst also taking care of business with a bit of jaw harp and harmonium along the way.  If the title isn’t adequately explained by the cover shot of Ben the labrador leaping into the lake, then we are reminded of the literal definition, that of bringing something back and also that of a stretch of water ‘over which a given wind has blown’.  Some of this is evident in the music; the fact that MacPherson has travelled far and wide to discover, then gather the essence of, and finally to re-imagine the feel of that music in his own compositions.  Whilst “Saltus” is every bit influenced by Scandinavian traditional music, with Sigrid Moldestad’s hardanger fiddle and Magnus Lundmark’s percussion driving the tune along, the Scots influence on such as “Dead End Glen” is very much in evidence, with the occasional jazzy excursion on such as “The Cherry Tree Reel/Dog’s Got an Itchy Nose”.  At times gentle and contemplative, the standard of musicianship leaps and bounces in places, giving the album a vibrant and joyful feel.

Dreadzone – Dread Times | Album Review | Dubwiser Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.04.17

Dreadzone are a British institution. A band who since its formation in 1993 by ex Big Audio Dynamite drummer Greg Roberts, has continued to morph and absorb influences.  Alongside a warm embracing keyboard stew that sounds vintage and now, expect the unexpected, North African music, Ska revival, hypnotic acoustic guitar and of course some well-chosen vocal samples.  What defines this album is how effortlessly the band tame and master so many apparently disparate musical ideas, directing them into a blend that is recognisably Dreadzone.  It appears effortless, an exercise in tasteful understatement.  “Rootsman” arrives on a swirling melange of loops, samples and sounds, classic dub vocals, a sweet chorus and some very electric drum n bass percussion.  A huge sounding keyboard bass rumbles underneath, everything manages to sound simultaneously 40 years old and contemporary.  The tune is infectious and uplifting.  The lyrics, while attempting to establish Dreadzone as the elder statesmen they surely are, fall a little flat.  Impeccably delivered, they are shallow and leave it to the music to demonstrate the essentialness of Dreadzone and their reggae credentials in 2017.  “Mountain” sets a darker vocal reminiscent of Tricky or classic Massive Attack against the warm uplifting vocals.  There is a wonderful tension, between the two, like a beautiful musical argument or debate.  Again the bubbling keyboards and groove of the track is beautifully constructed.  Escape demonstrates the successes of this album perfectly, brass or brass stab samples ride through the electronic keyboards over a sharp bass riff and some very sweet lover’s rock style vocals.  It as a warm and seductive blend that you cannot help but nod along to.  A slip into a more electronic vibe for the last 90 seconds of the track still manages to maintain the vibe and that feel of ancient and modern.  Escape opens with a bright keyboard pulse that is so 90s dance, but the warm vocals and the dub rhythm manages to blend it into the Dreadzone brew.  “16 Hole” takes the sea shanty vibe of Captain Dread off their 1995 Second Light and welding it to a rewritten Kenny Rogers lyric makes a driving song about Gun crime.  As it’s Dreadzone the samples and found sounds are threaded through the mix.  “Black Deus” uses a great spoken piece by what sounds like Gil Scott Heron with his distinctive diction to advocate direct action and protest.  As through the rest of the album, the feel is dub reggae, but the soundtrack is hard edged electronic keyboards.  A ‘Freedom’ chorus links it back to the 60s protest movement as does the ‘hairs on the back on the neck’ piece from Martin Luther King, as true now as it ever was.  Freedom, like the music of Dreadzone, really matters.  Short wave radio sounds bleed through a few of the tracks of the album and they introduce the North African musical loops of Music Army, adding another sonic spice to the rich mix.  Again the lyrical message is slight but the groove and vibe more considerable with beautiful moments of sparring African guitar and slippery oud.  Area Code is a joyous tempo lift that recalls the frenetic pogo-ing of Ska revialists like The Beat and the Selector and is glorious for it.  Vocalists Louchie Lou and Michie One inject some attitude and punch.  The song still twists and turns with dub slipperiness, but it is an infectious stomper throughout.  “Never Going Back” sounds like an end of relationship song, starting angry it quickly becomes upbeat and positive an anthem to change and moving forwards.  Superb vocals blend over a bubbling electronic backing, dance meets reggae ballad.  “Where Is My Friend” pulls the tempo down and confounds expectations with a late night beach campfire acoustic guitar some splashes of melodica and one of Earl 17’s warmest and best vocals on the album.  Slightly marred by the ‘maker Jamaica’ rhyme, this is still a laid back masterpiece of a reggae song.  Consciously or unconsciously “After The Storm” replicates the chilled languid mastery of  “A Canterbury Tale” off Second Light, the piano refrain, the clipped pronunciation on the film sample and we are back in 1995.  Indian music, spacial guitar chords and a building deep keyboard pulse take this to other places, but this glorious album closer manages to bridge twenty years effortlessly with the past and the present holding hands.  The more they change the more they manage to seem to stay, at the centre the same and maintain a core of Dreadzoneness.  This is an album that comforts and confounds then comforts again, like the best of Massive Attack and those 70s Island Reggae albums this is a grower and a keeper.​

Elliott Morris – Lost and Found | Album Review | Dominoes Club Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.17

With a string of EPs under his belt, Lincolnshire-based singer-songwriter Elliott Morris has finally released his long-awaited full-length debut record, an album of finely-crafted originals that are accompanied by some highly accomplished arrangements (“One More Day”, “Let it Out”) and trademark guitar playing (“The End of the World Blues”, “I’m a Stranger”).  Hard-working, dedicated and strongly in touch with his own abilities as a musician, the young singer/guitarist effortlessly straddles the fence between established folk mannerisms and his own pop sensibilities, with eleven accessible songs with engaging melodies, often utilising his now familiar percussive guitar slapping technique, but at the same time avoiding the overtly flashy or showy affectations that often come with the practice.  His half English, half Scots background lends itself to crossing of borders both physically and metaphorically with an eagerness to play and an energetic and demanding touring schedule.  No overnight success, Elliott has worked the clubs, festivals and concert halls for a good few years, which seems incredible judging by his youthful looks.  But there again, he started early.  Produced in Scotland by Mattie Foulds, Lost and Found features an impressive cast of musicians including Paul Carrack, Innes Watson, Mike Vass, Laura-Beth Salter, Lisbee Stainton and Alan Thomson.  The first album of hopefully many.

Tamikrest – Kidal | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.17

The one thing we can always rely on when it comes to the sound of what we now refer to as Sahara Blues, is the utterly infectious groove that seems to permeate each song and the opening few bars of “Mawarniha Tartit” exemplifies this notion perfectly.  Little changes in that groove throughout the song, yet we stick with it until the end and allow ourselves to be drawn into an almost trance-like state.  No other music is quite like it.  Tamikrest’s latest release Kidal, recorded in Bamako, has been two years in the making and once again showcases the band’s credentials as one of the foremost bands of its kind.  Following the success of Taksera (2015), and Chatma (2013) before that, Kidal continues to promote the music of the area with a title named after the desert town, which stands in the Malian desert and which is surrounded by endless stretches of barren open space, an environment rich in tradition but also of both conflict and defiance.  The eleven songs demonstrate a commitment to maintaining the Tuareg traditions of Tamikrest’s homeland, but also shows a fearless approach in bringing the music into the twentieth century with modern electric instrumentation.  Occasionally though, an acoustic arrangement can stand out like a jewel, in the case of Kidal, the closing song “Adad Osan Itibat”.  With the charismatic Ousmane Ag Mossa at the helm, a sort of cross between Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, Tamikrest show no signs of bailing out of the rebellion or indeed abandoning their nomadic people.

Vieux Farka Toure – Samba | Album Review | Six Degrees Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.04.17

You only ever get one chance at a first impression and so to take advantage of the full impact of your first impression of this wonderful album, I suggest you turn the volume up to eleven, especially on “Homafu Wawa”, with its homage to Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in its opening riff.  There’s ten tracks here to get your teeth into, each one exemplifying Vieux Farka Toure’s hard-edged musical prowess, helped in no small part by the dozen musicians and singers employed to good use here.  Produced in collaboration with Eric Herman, Samba sounds fresh and vibrant, with a raw energy that you feel through your vibrating speakers (I’m taking it as read that you turned it up to eleven as suggested?)  It’s certainly not full-on Malian rock and roll throughout and in places we see some undisguised tipping of the hat to Vieux’s late father Ali Farka Toure, especially on “Reconnaissance” and “Ni Negaba”, both of which almost sends a shiver; there are definitely ghosts in this music.  The album was recorded as part of the Woodstock Sessions, which is in effect a live studio set-up in Saugerties, New York, with an audience invited specifically to observe the recording process, in effect creating a live experience too.  The title, which translates in Songhai to ‘second born’, indicates quite rightly that Vieux is the second son of the legendary Malian guitarist and despite having some of that influence ingrained in the material here, Vieux Farka Toure’s own individual musical sensibility naturally comes to the fore.  The sense of family runs through with “Mariam”, a song dedicated to the women of his native Mali and in particular to his own younger sister of that name, featuring Idan Raichel on keyboards.  Released just in time for his UK summer tour, Samba is sure to bring more than just a flavour of a Mali to our shores.  A really terrific record.

Ben Glover – The Emigrant | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.04.17

Ben Glover’s vocal pleasingly combines the lilt of Mike Scott with the growl and fire of David Gray.  With a childhood in a sleepy Northern Ireland village and eight years in Nashville, Ben has a foot in both camps.  He is a personification of the Transatlantic Sessions spirit and TV show.  On songs like Ralph McTell’s “From Clare To Here” and the traditional “Parting Glass” his voice blends beautifully between both sides of the Atlantic.  “A Song Of Home” draws in so many elements, Bono’s breathy sense of expectation, Van Morrison’s ability to vamp on the sounds of words and a wonderful rasp in the vocal.  A pared back arrangement of minimal piano, strummed guitar and tasteful strings sets up the whole thing perfectly.  This is a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Astral Weeks and is an album highlight.  Not that there is any filler.  “The Emigrant” carries on the piano with a hymn like quality to Ben Glover’s impassioned vocals and an anthemic message in the lyrics.  He delivers an emotional vision of what it means to be dislocated, although so powerful is Glover’s vocal he could probably grab your attention if he was singing a shopping list.  He says “It can be a scary thing to be away from all you’ve known and all that feels familiar, and I hope this record gives something to people who are in that scenario”.  The song, started in Ireland and finished with Gretchen Peters in Nashville triggered a desire to make this album, drawing together the older tradition with a present day spirit.  “Moonshiner” is another traditional song.  American Folk, Appalachian Music and Irish Music collide, as a wonderful violin part is laid against a snapping drum part that is straight out of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”.  With a stunning vocal that is both weary of the world and challenging it to do its worst, he broods like The Boss at his best.  Just needs a few whoops or yelps at the end of the track.  While managing to sound nothing like her own songs, “Heart In May Hand” is a co-write with Mary Gauthier.  Indeed the writing credits, Ralph McTell, Brendan Behan, Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters, Eric Bogle should be reason alone to pick this album up and give it a listen.  Before you’ve heard Ben Glover’s impressive singing and the great playing.  As well as “From Clare To Here” Ben takes on “The Auld Triangle” and “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and makes them his own.  Glover’s vocal is at it’s most raw and ‘Shane’ like on Behan’s “Auld Triangle” and Bogle’s anti war anthem, but in a way that is ultimately his own, he wrings out the feeling from every note, against some atmospherics and pipes Auld Triangle just flies.  A very straight ‘school assembly’ piano on “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” means that every inflection and wobble sounds impassioned.  Any histrionics are deftly avoided with some considered and understated vocals delivered close to the mike in at times a dropped voice.  “The Green Glens of Antrim” allows him to stretch out the vocals a little more and is a superb closer.  Ben’s singing and an emotional whistle solo pulling on the heart strings like a slow dance at the end of the night or a well chosen encore.

Cormac Begley – Cormac Begley | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.04.17

Cormac Begley is an award-winning player and an innovator.  The Irish Times described his concertina playing as a ‘masterclass in timeless musicianship’.  Cormac plays in a number of duets, with Liam O Maonlai of Hothouse Flowers, Caoimhin O Raghallaigh from Hardanger D’Amore, Rusad Eggleston of Cello Goblin and Libby McCrohan.  He is a member of a trio with Noel Hill and Jack Taty and plays in the band Re featuring Liam O Maolai, Maitiu O Casaide, Eithne Ni Chathain and Peter O Toole of Hothouse Flowers.  Cormac was involved in the dance production bu choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan entitled rainan has recently returned from an engagement in Cuba where played for Irish President Micheal D Higgins’ first state visit to Havana.  The album represents a conscious effort to make the listeners really listen and engage.  The material is sourced specifically for the recording and much of it is either previously unrecorded or composed for this occasion.  The tunes are recorded in St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, the space allowing us to hear every nuance and movement of his playing.  The laying bare extends to the recordings which are all whole takes, Cormac is at pains to state that there is no studio manipulation.  The breadth and scope of the playing is breath taking with bass, baritone, treble and piccolo concertinas being played and showcased across the thirteen recordings.  This is without doubt a labour of love and is Zen like in its clear sense of purpose and purity of vision.  The music is free and physical.  Like all acoustic music the physicality of playing becomes part of the sound, form function and aesthetic all inform each other.  The opening set of “Reels The Yellow Tinker/Ril Mhor Bhaile An Chalaidh” puts me in mind of the very expressive harmonica playing of Rory McLeod, where the sounds of air in the Concertina and the taps of the keys recalls the physical mouth music and grunts of folk harmonica.  Or the runs of notes and cadence of the keys on the saxophone as John Coltrane looses himself in the middle of “A Love Supreme”.  Alongside slower more reflective pieces like “Frenzy Polka” on a treble Concertina there is an ever-present beat to Cormac’s playing.  The amazingly named Dipper Bass Concertina on “Rocking The Cradle” crosses musical traditions carrying some of the roaring breath sounds of soulful blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite.  As well as carrying us along on the faster more frenetic pieces Cormac Begley can also build suspense and atmosphere with the space and drama on slower paces like the air “Beauty Deas an Oileain”.  Like the genre and culture crossing music of Andrew Cronshaw he summons pictures and creates a superb sense of space with sound and atmosphere.  There is a cinematic, descriptive quality to the music that suggests his playing would lend itself to film soundtrack.  Cormac Begley may be currently limited to niche appeal, releasing solo concertina music isn’t going to lend itself easily to a Mercury Prize. Being in the free jazz end of traditional folk dance music is essentially in the left field of the left field.  However, this is undeniably a stunning album of solo instrumental music that crackles with power, vim, drive and integrity, leaving you glad that someone is putting this out and making such a fine job of it​

The Andrew Collins Trio – And It Was Good | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.04.17

Bluegrass has come a long way since the first Appalachian settlers began bashing, bowing and plucking whatever instruments they had to hand.  Indeed, the music has enjoyed a long history of evolution, and whilst much of what Bill Monroe would recognise as bluegrass is still very much alive and well, experimentation has widened the boundaries extensively since the dawn of the 21st Century to create a fascinating hybrid.  One of the artists responsible for blurring the lines between bluegrass and complex classical music is Canadian mandolin player Andrew Collins.  By injecting virtuoso composition and a keen eye for complex yet beautiful melody, Collins has lifted old time instrumental folk music a few more feet into the air.  On And It Was Good, Andrew is joined by fellow string wizard Mike Mezzateszta and superlative bassist James McEleney for an eight-track concept album inspired by the life and work of the late avant-garde fiddler Oliver Schroer; another Canadian artist who, in his tragically short life, heaved traditional music towards new and exciting realms.  These eight fascinating, nimble-fingered and moving compositions – all of them Collins originals – celebrate not only a much missed musician but the very marrow of Canada and its music.  As well as spilling forty minutes worth of frothing trio instrumentals, Collins has coloured the album with the enchanting sound of the Phantasmagoria String Quartet.  The opening track, “Light From The Darkness”, is an exciting and constantly impulsive piece but, thanks to the emotive string quartet parts, has a melancholic and somewhat filmic quality that manages to pluck not only at musical strings but at those of the heart, too.  “Seeds Of Its Own Kind” takes this a little further with its devastatingly beautiful, Nick Drake-esque opening whilst “Fish and Fowl” represents the magic of fusing traditional and experimental music to create something which struggles to be defined but never fails to delight.

Sweet Gum Tree – Sustain the Illusion | Album Review | The Orchard/Plastic Head | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.04.17

With Sustain the Illusion, songwriter Arno Sojo, better known as Sweet Gum Tree, returns with another set of dreamy works of lyrical allure – his fifth release since 2010’s The Vulnerable Almighty and his long-awaited follow up to 2014’s superb The Snakes You Charm and the Wolves You Tame.  Produced by Ireland’s David Odlum (Glen Hansard, Gemma Hayes) this new release finds the French troubadour in fine poetic form with arresting lines such as “no need to burn your icons they will self-ignite / On starless nights, when heroes go down in flames” on the bass-led “Burn Your Icons” and “Kid brother, how can I ever forget the way your held me tight / Our freckled faces under snowflaked suburban skies” on the melancholic “Clean Slate”.  Mixing electronica with a vocal performance to rival, though clearly inspired by the likes of Mark King and Nik Kershaw, Sustain the Illusion presents another thoughtful yet highly accessible collection of Sojo’s unique songs.

Maddison’s Thread – Sixty Minutes an Hour | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 01.05.17

My travelling companion is sixty years old, she is the sister of my good wife.  We listened and believe these songs should be received with good grace.  The day after our journey, we return to the car and as we start the CD replays.  We both comment that we still have songs going round in our head.  It turns out that they are different ones but between us there is half the album in there.   This is good.  It is not hard to thoroughly enjoy this album, the Thread’s eponymous leader, Lee’s love of both music and words shines through every track and he is promiscuous in his flirtation with genres.  Sure there’s folk but there is rock, blues, a little jazz and should you hanker after a little French café music, yes that’s in there as well.  Despite all the influences and the cast of friends and their varied instruments Lee assembled for the album, there is not a note out of place.  It isn’t a case of less is more – this is not spartan music, it can be deep, textured and luxuriant but it is very much a case of enough is exactly enough – his take on Roy Harper’s “Flycatcher” is an inspired reimagining, reminiscent of Barclay James Harvest in their pomp, yet he can also be fragile and vulnerable as well – this is an album that creates a satisfying whole from disparate elements and is all the better for it.  Right from the opening track which nods towards both Middle Eastern themes and bossa-nova, there are surprises and delights throughout.  Lyrically the album is never less than interesting, shining lights on personal relationships and insightful social commentary.  The first theme also involves a delight filled duet with ‘voice of an angel’ Edwina Hayes, and the latter on “Parasitelful”, which also called to mind the much overlooked Kevin McDermott Orchestra.  Lee’s choice of Edwina as a vocal partner is wise indeed as they complement each other magnificently, Lee’s voice could be likened to suede, smooth but with enough of a nap to make it both distinctive and interesting.  An album bearing repeat listenings on long journeys and at destinations alike.  Wristband, you don’t need no wristband.  You just need a Maddison my friend.  And yes, he does remind me of Paul Simon at times and that can never be a bad thing!

Seafoam Green – Topanga Mansion | Album Review | Mellowtone Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.05.17

Seafoam Green are the soulful vocals and guitar of Dave O’Grady and instrumentalist Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes.  Following a recording studios meeting O’Grady was invited by Robinson to open his US and UK dates, this quickly led to writing and recording together.  The songs are collaborations, Robinson produces and the album is a pure delight from start to finish.  As the good book says ‘in my fathers house there are many rooms’.  Seafoam Green’s Topanga Mansion leads us through a fascinating array of musical spaces in a huge building filled with the facets of LA’s 70’s Topanga Canyon.  In my head I’m sitting on the porch, on the vinyl sleeve’s gatefold cover, listening to the album.  “Celtic Wanderings” is a beautiful opening track.  Imagine a musical meeting of a Five Leaves Left Nick Drake track and Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”.  Not to suggest that this is a conscious homage or that Seafoam Green are copyists, simply that close your eyes and the endless possibilities of the summer of 1969 fill the room.  Dave O’Grady’s world weary vocals are soulful against Cello, Pedal Steel and some perfectly placed backing vocals.  Home continues that Americana Soul vibe, like a European Dylan LeBlanc Dave O’Grady’s pull at your heart strings with that warm but miserable, pleasantly melancholic vibe that is so intoxicating.  The vocals achieve a crystalline Fleet Foxes purity while Muireann McDermot Long’s backing vocals testify a quiet storm up around him.  The ancient organ sound just confirms that this is being laid down in a down south rural clapperboard chapel while the river rolls slowly by.  Rich Robinson’s rich electric guitar on “Down The River” raises the temperature a few notches, his Kossoff licks summon O’Grady’s inner Paul Rodgers and the spirit is free in every sense of the word.  The exchange between the Rhodes electric keyboard and the guitar is pure classic 70s boogie that puts a Skynyrd sized grin on your face and has you reaching for the bourbon.  This isn’t a fey singer songwriter album, it has balls, it has chops.  Sister cools the temperature a little, against layers of slithering guitar lines some of the album’s strongests vocals back some lyrical punches with another slow burn soulful anthem.  The instrumental return after a few a brief silence is a glorious surprise too, a hidden gem in an album of delights.  But it is a brief return as “Runaway” and “Lowly Lou” are glorious turned up to thirteen assaults on the speakers with huge guitar and raw smouldering vocals from O’Grady.  Again Seafoam Green surprise and surprise with Adam McDougall’s lyrical piano part in the middle of a gloriously languid almost Prog interlude on “Runaway”.  “Royal Call” is another rich, emotional duet.  Rich Robinson’s perfect production plays with space, allowing the voices, snappy country drums and an amazing pedal steel to fill the room.  “Pretty Tyrants” opens with a lovely piano lullaby that builds with another stunning vocal duet, beautifully understated accompaniment and my favourite lyric of the album “Red wine voodoo”.  We’ve all been there.  The lyric is charged, the delivery gloriously bitter sweet and the pairing just sublime.  “Far From Golden” is another intimate piano ballad with those evocative early 70s paired vocals.  It’s the UK’s Prelude or Crosby Stills and Nash, it’s a warm sound that just pulls you in for Robinson’s fiery solo at the end.  The sequencing of the album has clearly been given a lot of thought, short gaps between the tracks means one track builds on the mood and soundscape of the track before.  So it is with the stunning closer “No Wasted Words”.  Hanging piano notes from ­“Far From Golden” lead seamlessly into a roaring keyboard part that recalls Pink Floyd circa “Echoes”.  Over a ticking clock drum beat O’Grady spits out some lyrics that rail against the world in the albums most contemporary sounding track.  Floydian shimmering piano, bitter vocals, a superb atmosphere closes the album.  Look at Topanga Mansion as a whole, it starts acoustic and pastoral like a gig support band, builds to the swampy rock Skynyrd or Tony Joe White set in the middle and closes with a more intimate piano led segway, kind of ‘end of the gig’ upturned chairs on café tables feel. It is surprise after surprise.  Dave O’Grady can do aching troubadour and he can do whisky growl with all points in between.  Feel good music that puts a smile on your face and has you reaching for the volume knob to turn it up.  This is apparently a limited release with 500 vinyl copies, well 499 you’ll have to prise mine out of my cold dead fingers, and 500 cds.  You really want to get this, if this isn’t a forerunner for a wider release you’ll kick yourself for missing this classic in the making.

Mick Ryan and Paul Downes – The Passing Hour | Album Review | WildGoose | Review by Kev Boyd | 05.05.17

Mick and Paul each have long and distinguished histories and have worked with some of the better-known names in the UK folk scene and beyond.  Mick is a fine singer and an accomplished songwriter while Paul is an effortless guitarist blessed with access to a range of styles and techniques who can also turn his hand to banjo, piano and vocals.  The Passing Hour is their fourth album together.  The core tracks are several of Mick’s own compositions which all have a broadly humanist appeal and Paul shares writing credits on one song.  “Thankful Village” is written from the perspective of those rare villages whose sons all returned alive from the Great War.  It’s driven by Paul’s dynamic guitar playing and includes concertina by Martyn Bradley.  “One Day” is inspired by the apparent fact that since the end of the Second World War there has only been a single day when no country has been at war with another.  Jackie Oates helps out on vocals here and adds viola on a couple of other tracks while elsewhere Kate Riaz rounds off a cluster of guest musicians with some subtle cello accompaniment.  Of the remaining songs, “The Midshipman’s Boast”, written by Helen North, is perhaps a standout and is the perfect album opener.  Tom Lewis’s “All At Sea” is a song of regret and the true story of a man who longed to be a sailor but had never seen the sea.  A handful of traditional songs add to the mix with “Song of Repentance”, an Irish street ballad, being a noticeable highlight.  “Old Swine”, another of Mick’s originals, rounds off the package.  It’s a comic song exploring the importance of the family pig to the villagers in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise To Candleford and though listed as a bonus track, it sits well with the album as a whole.

The Brother Brothers – Tugboats | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Kev Boyd | 07.05.17

The Brother Brothers are identical twins Adam and David Moss, originally out of Peoria, Illinois and now based in and around Brooklyn.  They play their own songs with obvious nods towards the American country and hillbilly traditions and Tugboats is their debut six-track EP, clocking in at just under 20 minutes.  Guitar and fiddle provide the instrumentation but it’s the brothers’ harmony vocals that dominate the EP’s aesthetic.  Obvious comparisons are with the Everlys or Louvins, and not just because of the brotherly connection, although it’s true to say there’s a special quality when siblings sing together that’s evident in spades on these tracks.  The harmonies are crisp and clean throughout, not to mention note-perfect, and everything sounds as effortless as it, rather annoyingly, no doubt is.  It’s hard to identify any obvious highlights as the quality of performances is high throughout and the whole thing zips past at a fare old pace so there’s little time to contemplate qualitative decisions.  If pressed I’d cite “Notary Public” as an example that presents perhaps the most complete melding of vocals and instruments with the bonus of a vaguely humorous lyric.  Small but perfectly formed, Tugboats is a great taster but The Brother Brothers deserve a chance to stretch their musical legs, so to speak, on a full-length album.

Rattle on the Stovepipe – Poor Ellen Smith | Album Review | WildGoose | Review by Kev Boyd | 09.05.17

Listening to Poor Ellen Smith, the sixth album by Rattle on the Stovepipe on WildGoose records, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that this acoustic trio don’t hark from deepest Appalachia, such is the authentic stamp they bring to much of their repertoire.  In fact, they hail from various parts of England and having congregated in and around West Sussex they bring with them a wealth of experience of singing, playing and teaching in the British, Irish and American traditions.  Dave Arthur is an EFDSS Gold Badge holder who will perhaps be best known to some for his 1970s collaborations with Toni Arthur but whose more recent résumé includes two decades editing English Dance and Song and a considerable amount of time collecting songs and tunes in support of his passion for American Old Time music.  Pete Cooper plays, teaches and writes about the fiddle traditions of England, Ireland, Europe and the United States and between them Dave and Pete form two-thirds of Rattle On The Stovepipe.  They play a combination of fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, melodeon and harmonica and the trio is rounded off by Dan Stewart, an accomplished clawhammer banjo player who also contributes guitar and mandolin to the mix.  It’s been their undertaking for several years to explore the relations between the British, Irish and American music and although the songs and tunes on Poor Ellen Smith draw largely on the American string band tradition they also include hints of repertoire from this side of the Atlantic as well as a few more recent compositions.  There’s an awful lot to like here and as one might expect the musicianship throughout is exemplary.  Fiddle and banjo tend to take the lead but there’s enough variety of instrumentation across the 17 tracks to ensure no specific format feels overused.  Dave and Pete share the majority of the vocals with all three providing some sympathetic harmonies at various interludes and the CD comes with some nicely detailed notes for each track which adds a welcome depth to the overall package.

Christy Scott – Amaranthine | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.05.17

Christy Scott is a young singer songwriter from the Scottish coastal town of Buckie.  Now studying music at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, this self released EP is her first CD and is a long awaited release.  “Hearts Collide” the EP opener is a strong start, with a gentle Folk Americana feel.  Keening guitars and a rich melancholic vocal grab your attention from the go.  Christy’s voice with its beautiful burr is sympathetically cradled by warm acoustic instrumentation and some beautifully understated playing.  She has surrounded herself with fine musicians, Alice Allen on Cello, Aidan Moodle from Gnoss, also studying at the Conservatoire is on acoustic guitar, Madeleine Stewart a member of Folk Fusion band Eriska plays fiddle, Charlie Stewart, Double Bass is BBC Scotland’s 2017 Young Traditional Musician of the year and a member of Dosca, Neil Paton on drums plays with the Brodie Jarvie Septet, Davie Dunsmuir on electric guitar plays with the Scott Wood Band.  That so many of the players are current or recently past Scottish Conservatoire students is an indication of the musicality here and the sense of the beginning of a future musical pedigree.  The set is titled “Amaranthine” ‘unfading and everlasting’ indeed, a strong opening statement from a musician demonstrating commitment, chops and that they are here for the duration.  “Potion”, track two, has a lighter almost acoustic pop touch.  The tune skips along on the balls of its feet skittish and infectious.  Until the fiddle break it could be The Weepies or 80’s indie guitar pop band The Sundays.  Christy’s voice is pure and clear and holds your attention totally.  The playfully titled “Another Song About Another” features another wonderfully dark country slide guitar riff and a bedrock of a rolling drums from Nel Paton.  The vocal duet at the end of the track is just blissful.  “Flawes to Uncover” is another collision of heavenly vocals, county strings, jazz percussion and skittish guitar.  “Hope Street” the final track is probably the most contemporary sounding track on the EP, the close miked guitar with its valve amp sound and the sounds of fingers on strings sounds very 4AD or Belladonna.  Nothing on this set stays still and the middle section is a percussive clattering drum part, strings and a chilling vocal duet before a big guitar work out and a final vocal that leaves you hanging.  Stunning.  As a listener this five track EP feels like one of those self-service buffets, you load your plate and just keep discovering other things to pile on your dish.  All you can eat indeed.  An assured opener from a strong singer and a set of names that will im sure keep cropping up on future fine recordings.

Johnny Cash – The Original Sun Albums 1957-1964 | Album Review | Sun/Charly | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.05.17

If you were to visit Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, you would no doubt be entertained by one of the studio’s current tour guides, who would willingly demonstrate to you just how Johnny Cash achieved his famous guitar sound; by placing a dollar bill between the fretboard of the guitar and the strings.  This very distinctive sound is now as legendary as the studios themselves and the seven albums that were originally released on the Sun label between 1957 and 1964 have been gathered together in one package for the first time, sounding just as fresh today as they did at the time of their original release.  Concealed within a handsome 60-page LP-sized (or slightly under) book, the eight discs include all seven original albums, the complete Sun 45s and a collection of rare recordings, such as the brilliantly shambolic “You’re My Baby (Little Woolly Booger)”, which sees Cash in playful mood.  The 83 songs include one or two duplications, such as “I Walk the Line”, which appears on the first LP, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar and also again on The Songs That Made Him Famous, Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams (curiously enough), and a fourth time on the RARE! collection.  If the immediately recognisable voice of the ‘Man in Black’ is the focal point here, then there is also something enduring about the almost naive muted guitar twang of regular guitar player Luther Perkins, which although was overshadowed by more dexterous guitar players to come, still remains the iconic sound of the time.  Despite the seemingly prolific output for Sun, recording such classics as “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Cry Cry Cry”, “Hey Porter” and “Rock Island Line”, which opens this set, Cash was only with the label barely a year, leaving for CBS at the end of 1958, yet it’s with these sides that Cash is remembered.  Remastered from the original Sun tapes, the box set is therefore an invaluable record of Cash’s formative recording years, which also gives us an insight into the marketing strategy of a small independent label keen on giving Cash fans precisely what they really wanted at the time.  Fortunately those fans, along with a new breed of followers, can now hear the entire Sun collection whilst reading the sleeve notes and track listings precisely how they appeared the first time around sixty years ago.  File under essential.

Kadia – The Outlandish Collection | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Ange Hardy and Rob Swan | 12.05.17

Kadia first came to our attention by turning up at gigs and immersing themselves in the folk scene. We’ve seen them in audiences at concerts, watching intently from festival crowds, taking part in workshops, and providing some truly stonking support slots.  Their Christmas 2016 support slot for Jim Moray was a particularly enjoyable and impressive performance.  So, it’s fair to say, that expectations for The Outlandish EP were high.  They’ve met and exceeded expectations.  This is a beautifully produced piece of work.  Producing an EP that contains the variety that Kadia have demonstrated shows a real insight into their attention to detail, this release has had a lot of thought put into it.  This is a collection of songs that holds up against anything released by any of the major players in the British folk scene, and that any established act would deservedly be proud of.  “Captain Ward” hits the ground running with lead vocals from Chris Bailey, the “Cricketers Set” demonstrates their ability to turn out tunes with the best of them, lead vocals from Lee Cuff are at the core of the wonderful delivery of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”.  “The Keeper” is an acapalla vocal arrangement that allows David Hoylands vocals to make a more evident appearance on the EP.  “Randy Dandy” then finishes the EP with a relaxed confidence that’s truly admirable.  With three part harmony, and a wonderful blend of instruments (cello, drum kit, mandolin and three piece harmony? Yes please!) Kadia have found a fantastic sound.  This EP lived in our car for well over a week without being taken out of the player.  That speaks volumes.  Production, delivery, and attention to detail throughout are superb. This is an EP that is so well put together it’s hard to remember it’s not a full album until you’re half way through the third listen.  Latterly we’ve spent some time in the recording studio with Lee Cuff; his musical ability, ear, technical knowledge and professionalism are hard to fault.  Keep an eye on these three.  They are on a trajectory that deserves to see their names become more and more known on the contemporary folk circuit.

Carrie Elkin – The Penny Collector | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 19.05.17

Written in a year that was bookended by the birth of Elkin’s first child and the process of caretaking her father through his final months, The Penny Collector is a diary, a poet’s song cycle through all the emotions that these journeys entail.  Lyrically and musically Carrie Elkin manages to be fragile and fierce, raucous and tender raw.  Often at the same time.  This is first and foremost a singer’s album and what a voice, as it whispers and croons then roars open mouthed when the moment is right.  Gathered around Elkin are a collection of fine musicians who know when to quietly stroke the strings and when to roar.  Just as impressive as Carrie’s vocal is the ragged roar of the music, it swerves those warm country sounds and gentle singer songwriter vibes.  Preferring a mix of tender and tumultuous that is often Neil Young like, with its almost contrary contrasts, but savage or sweet it is always beautiful and compelling.  New Mexico opens the album in a way that is both visually and sonically cinematic, with guitar atmospherics and some ponderous piano chords, till Carrie’s vocal, potent and as chrystaline as Nancy Griffith at her best, draws a picture, vivid as a Georgia O’Keefe.  The lyric crackles with emotion and a sense of space.  This is a landscape Elkin is part of, this is she tells us, her New Mexico.  It’s where she was born into the world, it’s where her father, to whom the record is dedicated, recently died.  She feels the power of the landscape run through her in this invocation, like an opening spell.  Guitars scream and squeal constantly evoking the scale and power of the landscape that Elkin’s gripping vocal conjures up in front of us.  “Always On The Run” is an emotional examination of the complex lives of the people that live in the landscape Elkin describes.  In a wonderful duet with some dirty guitar and a great second vocal that recalls Bruce Springsteen at his Nebraska raw throated gritty best.  “Albatross” summons a retro vibe from its valve amp electric guitar sound, the sultry vocal and the washes of organ, part Sun recording part Gillian Welch.  The second vocal and the languid drum beat stretches time as we sit in the heat before a gathering storm, wailing guitar notes suggest distant rumbles of thunder or static on the radio.  Again Carrie Elkin conjures wonderful vivid pictures, atmospheric black and white Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange images flicker before our eyes.  After the dark atmosphere of “Albatross”, “And The Birds Came” lifts the mood slightly with its shuffling dance rythmn that suggests a starkly lit singer on a barn stage before dancing figures.  Beneath the slow dance beat, the lyrics are a dark heartfelt lament for the passing of her father, with Carrie’s vocal perfect but dripping with raw emotion.  “Crying Out” is an achingly beautiful examination of loss and the filling of empty moments built round layered vocals and a wonderfully emotional cello part.  “Tilt A Whirl” recalls the sense of space on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball.  You can hear that space in Carrie’s vocal, which is intimate and beautifully phrased. Huge guitar notes that decay into noise hang in the air with a ragged beauty.  This song is a wonderful roller coaster, the final verse with its sparse piano coming between the choruses is just glorious.  Listen over headphones or on big speakers and Elkin’s verse vocal at the end is right in your ear, over guitar ambience she wrings emotion and nuance out of every word in a way that is just glorious.  “My Brother Said” is an excuse for some extreme noise guitar that squeals and squalls against the country stripped back beauty of Carrie’s vocal.  A strong cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” draws a line under the dark reflection of the album.  Simon’s anthemic words offer truisms and solace, connecting together the anguish and pain that we share.  Elkin’s vocal and delivery of the lyric is pure and commanding.  “Lamp of The Body” with an interesting counterpoint between the song lyric and lyrics from the gospel tune “This Little Of Mine” is a short and sweet uplifting blast to end the album.  After some dark introspection and reflection we are left raised up and carried.  This is simply a glorious album that is going to be on all of those best of year lists, beat the rush get yours now.

Elephant Sessions – All We Have Is Now | Album Review | Elephant Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.05.17

Elephant Sessions describe themselves as a neo-trad band.  But by the end of this album you are left feeling that they have transcending traditional traditions and are very much whirling off into their own instrumental world.  Against a rock solid back line musical rules are bent and rewritten in a way that is strikingly fresh and exciting, as John Martyn, himself not a stranger to mixing it up, said on The Road To Ruin in 1970 ‘The needle is new and the patterns are old’ and there is very much a sense of that through this album.  Not that Elephant Sessions are being different for differences sake rather that they follow the music where it takes them and are never constrained by genres or traditions.  So “Wet Field Day” opens with a very new wave guitar riff that is soon shadowed by a very quick fingered mandolin part.  Whatever the genre, this is dance music that slithers and shimmies keeping your feet tapping, but there is an intelligence to the playing and a feeling that someone is calling the changes to stop it ever getting stuck in a straight-ahead groove.  “Lament For Lost Dignity” is one of the most strikingly surprising tracks on the album, from its opening chopping guitar and mandolin exchange to the slightly ‘dubby’ middle section.  The fiddle and mandolin melody is just lovely, while the interesting rhythms put a smile on your face.  Just brilliant.  “Misty Badger” has the feel of one of those knotty folk jazz tunes that Bela Fleck used to delight in, dance music that paradoxically sounds quite tricky to move to. Fiddle and Accordian just fly.  “Dirty”, another album highlight, brings that dirty Jethro Tull metal guitar riff to the folk-rock party.  The fiddle carries the tune while strings, vocal ambience and guitar squalls layer fascinating textures.  “Summer” places a very contemporary finger snap and keyboard part against a Crooked Still mandolin riff.  I want to say bluegrass Coldplay, but, on the page, that sounds as appealing as a porridge cocktail mixed with red bull.  Textures weave through the song, while the mandolin and fiddles spiral on together, it all sounds amazing.  “Tingles” with its richly retro keyboards and ethnic sounding strings has a touch of the Afro Celt Sound System or the Malian Kora about it.  This is going to sound incredible, wafting across a festival field and will drag people to their feet regardless of whatever tradition they think they are dancing within.  The syncopation of the strings build, the electronics rise, the groove is infectious and as a description “Tingles” rather underplays the shamanic feel of the track.  “Frans” is an atmospheric, almost cinematic contrast to the previous track.  A rich fiddle part fills the air over a huge drum pattern.  The mandolin shadows the fiddle in that, four hands, two instruments, one melody way that Elephant Sessions do so well and you are gone, lost in the thick of it.  An organ like keyboard part just adds to the ‘hairs on the back of the neck –ness’ of the whole track.  Beautiful come down music that I could happily listen to all night.  Just when you think you have it all figured out “I Used To Be A Nice Boy” places a dirty early 70s funk line behind a bluegrass like melody.  Melody is melody, but the range of contexts and musical genres thrown into the mix on this captivating album hold your attention to the music every second of the way.  Final track “Doofer” after some outrageous feedback, layers the Martin Barre metal guitar against a driving techo rhythm, imagine Metallica sparring with a beautiful electric fiddle part.  Outrageous, breathtaking music that will stop you and demand your attention.  Play it loud and play it again and again until you are completely folked.

India Electric Co – EC1M | EP Review | Shoelay | Review by Steve Henderson | 25.05.17

The day that downloads entered our music world, the game not only changed for listeners but musicians too.  If you want evidence that the album concept died at that point (or, at least, took a long lay down on a couch), just check out how Ed Sheeran dominated the singles charts with the release of his last ‘album’.  As listeners enjoy the freedom of just downloading the tracks they like, it became obvious that bundling a few tracks together for release needn’t require forty minutes or so of music.  Step to the front of the queue, India Electric Co, whose cunning plan is to release three EPs in 2017 contrasting musical themes from both country and city.  Already having created a buzz with their debut album release, The Girl I Left Behind Me, their first flirtation with a shorter format of twenty minutes is the city influenced EC1M.  Yes, why not name the five track EP after the postcode that inspired the opening track, Farmiloe?  Slipping and sliding, the track is beguiling with its staccato strings and an accordion that comes in and out as does the link into a found sound recorded in Paris.  Drawing from the traditional song “Farewell He” and American poet E.E.Cummings, you’ll get the picture that this duo is not only adept at arranging their music but well-read enough to provide a heady mixture for the music fan.  As “Parachutes” floats in, that staccato feel hovers again in a way reminiscent of how Kraftwerk keep their songs in motion except that Joseph O’Keefe is happy to layer a fiddle over the rhythm along with Cole Stacey’s delicate vocal.  “Camelot” has that same European feel and it’s no surprise that the duo has been not only backing Midge Ure but also opening his shows.  Their sound has that continental flavour that Ure’s Ultravox outfit favoured and I’d imagine that our old European friends will drool over this combination.  Perhaps not surprising, then, that the final tracks “The King of Rome” and “Castles in Spain” namecheck European destinations in songs that also have that layered sound where folk meets jazz meets pop as if on some kind of steadily moving musical travellator.  You can really imagine listening to this in the car or some other leisurely travel situation.  My one difficulty is that the style does dominate in a way that might wear you down in a longer format but, hey, five tracks of inventive music from a duo that seems packed with talent.  Why should I complain?    

Steamchicken – Look Both Ways | Album Review | Chicken Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 25.05.17

Steamchicken musically stir together folk and Cabaret era swing jazz with panache and style.  Formed by Ted Crum when he left Peeping Tom they have been playing festivals for twenty years.  Look Both Ways is their first album with vocalist Amy Kakoura and a fine listen it is too.  From the opening call of the brass section this is an album that sticks up two fingers at our compulsion to pigeon hole.  Is it jazz or folk?  I’ve been listening to it for a while and I am none the wiser.  Opener “Jericho” is an old spiritual that swings along, pushed by Joe Crum’s driving drums and a wonderful brass chorus.  Again and again through the album Amy Kakoura’s vocals are a powerful force, she can be an American Greenwich Village folk singer or a big Shirley Bassey belter and they just sparkle here.  Second track “Brigg Fair”, an English folk song collected by Percy Grainger, is given a treatment that demonstrates the layered beauty that is Steamchicken.  A Reggae drum pattern with just a little studio sparkle opens, the brass chorus joins in and then we get Amy Kakoura in sultry torch singer mode, like Kate Bush at her breathy best.  Saxophones chorus Memphis brass style like a 60s Atlantic Records session and that wonderful voice holds our interest until the end.  “When I Get Low I Get High”, from its compressed sound opening, just oozes with Prohibition era carefree abandon, Amy Kakoura gives Imelda May a run for her money as she spits rock n roll power on this catchy ditty to a pick me up.  “Western Approaches” moves swiftly from folk ballad, with its watery ambience, to a swaggering Kurt Weill number.  Kakoura roars the lyric with the power and passion of 60s Bassey or Mary Coughlan.  This track with its swaggering beat, rolling piano and ‘thumbs in the braces’ music hall delivery typifies the album’s feel good factor and demonstrates it strengths.  Time and time again the music crackles with a power and an ‘other worldliness’ that lifts this far above anything the band has released before.  If you loved Steamchicken already, prepare to have your mind blown.  Indeed the album sleeve notes say ‘here at last we find the fabled Steamchicken in its natural habit: surrounded by an excess of brass, volume and upsetting puns’.  Dodgy word play aside there is a sense here that even the band recognise they have put down something powerful and momentous.  “Gypsy” and “Oh Mary” with their edgy reggae beats, vocalise and jazz brass are enthused with a power that turns well-known lyrics into smoky torch ballads.  “Oh Mary” tips into dub and positively skanks along around a pulsing keyboard riff and a rich blues vocal.  “Big Tin Horn” starts as a kind of retro 30s jazz vocal number, flappers with pearls crooning into an ancient microphone, but the folk reel when it comes twists the whole thing into an alternative dimension, like some kind of musical steampunk.  Intoxicating and just mad.  It sounds like coliding radio stations on a Bakelite ancient radio, as jazz clarinet meshes with harmonica and jigs and reels.  “Foot Falling” is hypnotic, infectious and compelling.  The rhythm section lay down a funky devilish beat that just cooks, huge drums, 70s reggae bass and harmonica defy you to keep still.  The vocal, brass and harmonica spar, in a ‘call and response’ Ska way, that is simply wonderful.  The shifting tempo and vocal gymnastics show that this is first and foremost dance music that will send the audiences wild.  This track, like much of this classy and surprising album, played to the big band Clare Teal Jamie Cullum market could be a huge cross over hit.  “Mary And The Soldier” takes a Folk Ballad and turns it into a big band anthem with a groove and elasticity that Bellowhead could only dream of.  It roars along, as what sounds like an accordion swirls over a reggae infused beat on a bed of big band brass stabs and choruses, till it ends on a rapid crescendo that leaves you gasping.

Torgeir Waldemar – No Offending Borders | Album Review | Jansen Plateproduksjon | Review by Damian Liptrot | 25.05.17

Being completely unfamiliar with Torgeir, I was unsure what to expect as the disc went into the player but what followed was a series of surprises, mostly positive and none unpleasant.  As the music revealed itself, the first surprise was that the first track could have come straight out of the early seventies California singer-songwriter scene, fragile and open with hints back further to the likes of Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.  No Scandinavian stereotypes here, though the vocal is pure, clear and more Home Counties grammar school than Topanga Canyon, which leads to the second surprise.  Track two crashes in in the manner of “Cinnamon Girl”, with the whole feel of the track reminiscent of Neil Young in his Crazy Horse prime, with neither guitar nor vocal coming as a disappointment to a fan of the real Shakey – definitely more Barn Door than Green Door.  “Among The Low” is next up, offering shades of The Strawbs, Old Crow Medicine Show and a sprinkling of psychedelia, a stand out track amongst a satisfying collection.  The remainder of the album contains other hints of quality influences, Dylan and Harper amongst them.  Lyrically introspective at times but also inviting listeners to consider the wider state of the world.   The only nod towards his Norwegian compatriots’ love of black metal is a reminder that ‘We’re All Going to Die’ as he rocks out once again.  A further surprise occurs as track 8 is replaced by one that appears very familiar, only to be recognised as Track 1 reappearing, meaning that the song content is limited to a slightly disappointing count of 8, as more would have been welcome.  Following the music, a little investigation revealed further surprises.  Whatever images of the singer that the music had conjured were proved incorrect, as a short search revealed a long haired, bearded, black clad individual who could have been a stunt double for Hawkwind’s Dave Brock at any time in the 70s, definitely another hit for Scandi-Noir, and no need for subtitles!

Nick Byrne – Through the Tall Grass | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 25.05.17

The songs on this five track EP offer a slice of melodic, meditative acoustic folk pop.  Nick has a pleasing voice with an earnest melancholic lilt.  Plaintive ballads are underpinned by strings and an occasional electric slide.  Opener “Half” sets a layered vocal over a strummed jangling guitar in a way that recalls Jose Gonzales with a wonderfully English cello.  “Mind Maps” is a gentle reflective song with atmospheric slide, dreamy acoustic strumming and some delicate vocals that bring 70s introspective singer songwriters like Al Stewart or 80s acoustic pop to mind.  “Birch Tree” continues the same feel, with those wonderfully English strings, and the melancholic slide guitar that is one of the CDs highlights.  “This Town” starts with a solo guitar beautifully played, a lovely electric guitar refrain that nods to 80’s indie pop atmosphere merchants The Sundays.  Nick’s guitar on “Through The Tall Grass”, the final track is heavenly, as an exercise in atmosphere it is the most completely successful track on the EP.  A stripped back arrangement lets the tracked vocal shine through and the dissolve into atmospherics and bird song at the end underlines the pastoral imagery and nature of this album​.  Lyrically the imagery ties all of the songs together, making this feel like a song suite that washes over you as a whole or one long soundscape.  A strong opening effort from an intimate performer who turns it down to draw you in.

Afenginn – Opus | Album Review | Westpark | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.05.17

Opus is the sixth release from Danish outfit Afenginn and, perhaps, the most suitably titled of the bunch.  The album is, in fact, a symphony of four movements inspired by the “uncontrollable, unforeseeable, yet still somehow navigable” nature of life. Indeed, the album was directly inspired by an accident that left composer and band leader Kim Rafael Nyberg stranded in Tasmania for forty days.  Form the slowly-building heartbeat rhythms of its opening, the organism that is Opus seems to discover itself via its many small and intriguing parts.  In just a few minutes, the album gathers impressive momentum, taking on infectious Eastern European rhythms and chord structures via pieces such as “Bordrone”, “Rasende Tabul” and the effervescent “Akkapolska”.  The musicianship is nothing less than awe-inspiring, with a thirteen-strong line up of clarinetists, percussionists, mandolinists, citternists and violinists to name just a few and not to mention the inclusion of a Bulgarian female choir.  And whilst much of the album presents a criss-crossing exploration of instrumental folk and classical styles, there is also a sprinkling of captivating vocals from Ólavur Jákupsson who provides the haunting, chant-like harmonies on “Luna Televisio” and the heartfelt “Partiro Futile”.  Nyberg has been quoted as saying that Opus is “more like a long-term relationship than a one-night stand”, affirming his right to make a big and long-lasting statement in a world that appears to be obsessed with small and instant gratification.  The eighteen tracks that make up this grand musical statement proudly substantiate their composer’s philosophy in their ability to be ornate, exhilarating and satisfyingly proud of themselves.

Damien McGeehan – The Tin Fiddle | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.05.17

Damien McGeehan’s renown as one of Ireland’s best fiddlers is founded on the fine contribution he made to the now disbanded Donegal fiddle trio Fidil.  To many, then, an entirely solo project may seem like a brave departure, but due to some nifty production techniques and an exquisite handling of his instrument, McGeehan’s The Tin Fiddle tricks the ear into presuming that many musicians are at the mike.  Not so.  It may be difficult to grasp the notion, but this album’s array of delicious sounds comes from a single Frankenstein’s monster of an instrument; a fiddle whose parts have been salvaged from a long-retired instrument and bashed into shape by a master tinsmith.  Yes, every note, scratch, bash, pluck and tap on this collection of twelve tunes is the work of one man and one tin fiddle.  There are moments of sprightly delight such as “The Gravel Walks To Grannie” and the familiar “The Four Posts of the Bed”, each with its fair share of elbow-shattering scrapes and nimble pizzicato, as well as moments of melodic elegance such as the sweetly evocative “Eleven Oaks” and the haunting “Paddy’s Rambles Through The Park”.  The album ends with the brand new composition “The Waterfall” which is easily the most painterly of the pieces on the record, its abstract melodies coiling dramatically around ripples of strings and ambient, rain-like fiddle-body percussion to close what is, at once, an album of traditional simplicity and stout-hearted invention.

Dan Walsh – Verging on the Perpendicular | Album Review | Rooksmere Records | Review by Sheila Trow | 28.05.17

The definition of a ‘true great’ is for me, the one who makes it all seem so effortless, somersaulting, and floating through the air whilst landing perfectly, wobble free, just as though little energy, and hours of practice were uninvolved.  The technical skill in Dan Walsh’s Verging on the Perpendicular is patently obvious, but the superb writing, in this eclectic range of tracks, takes the crown.  “Chase Suite”, a slow, intricate, and lyrical piece, is one such track that certainly soars, and is a self-penned contemporary masterpiece!  Ultimately Dan’s sequence of songs and tunes, is rich in diversity, offering a look back to his roots, in a tender rendition of an old Irish folk song, “The Suilin”, and a look forward in “Want What You Don’t Have”, one of his own songs, where he surely shines both lyrically and vocally.  Dan is an exceptional musician, with an obvious love of his main instrument, the banjo.  He plays superbly, and has an undeniable desire to demonstrate the banjo’s versatility, never more so than on “Funky Haystack” a raw track that fair scuttles along, to a percussive back beat.  Subtle rhythm sections and the occasional vocal harmony are rare, yet simply beautiful additions to these original arrangements and unique compositions making this a truly authentic and finely balanced piece of work.  Dan has a combination of musical talent and well-honed craftsmanship.  He manages an unblemished approach to every track and there’s a real sense that nothing is left to chance.  “Leave This Land”, a blue grass piece written by Dan to acknowledge his sadness on leaving New Zealand reflects his love of American roots music, and speaks of his desire to return to a place that became home.  We also encounter traditional folk, a pair of 7/8 tunes, jigs, several new songs, and yet somehow in Dan’s safe hands, they all hang together perfectly.  If you love the banjo, often accompanying a true and honest voice, then you’ll love this CD, and if you don’t usually enjoy banjo music, then in a very short time, be assured, you will grow to love this very fine offering.

Emily Mae Winters – Siren Serenade | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.05.17

Emily Mae Winters first came to our attention last year with the release of her four-song Foreign Waters EP, produced by Ben Walker, which clearly pointed in the direction of a potentially promising future.  Confident in this knowledge, the singer songwriter once again teams up with Walker along with Lauren Deakin Davies, who co-produce Emily’s follow up debut full length album Siren Serenade. There’s a healthy mix of British and American country folk here; on the one hand there’s such country-inflected songs as “Hook, Line and Sinker” and “Blackberry Lane”, both of which benefit enormously by Ben Savage’s fine Dobro fills, then Emily alternates this with such British folk club fare as “Fiddler’s Green” and “Down By the Sally Gardens”, both of which are treated to a lavish arrangements, reflecting Emily’s own Irish upbringing and Celtic sensibilities.  This is further exemplified by “The Ghost of the Pirate Queen”, a folk ballad packed with poetic Irish imagery.  With poetry close to Emily’s heart, the dreamy originals continue to hold our attention, such as the lavishly arranged Reprise, the confident power balladry of “As If You Read My Mind” and the gospel-tinged a cappella of the title song, aided by fellow singers Hannah Sanders Lauren Parker and Lauren Bush.  With dreamy cover artwork courtesy of Elly Lucas, Siren Serenade is a fine debut.

Tilly Moses – Alight and Adrift | Album Review | GingerDog Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.06.17

This debut album by Tilly Moses, a young Suffolk-born, now York-based singer-songwriter/mandolin player, comes as a result of a lengthy teenage apprenticeship spent writing, performing, collaborating and recording in preparation for this moment.  Tilly’s penchant for theatrical hats and colourful garlands, her frequent exposure at festivals up and down the country and her seemingly beguiling nature have prepared her well for the release of these dozen songs, all of which show a marked maturity since we first heard some of them on stage or via YouTube videos over the last few years.  If her Painted Faces EP, recorded in her mid-teens, effectively got the ball rolling on her burgeoning recording career, then Alight and Adrift is poised to launch that career with more determination.  Tilly’s ethereal voice on such songs as “Definitions”, “Paper Conflicts” and “Flatlands” demonstrates strength and fragility in equal measure, whilst Harbour shows a mature approach to collaboration as she duets with the BBC Folk Award winner Sam Kelly.  Accompanying herself on harmonium and shruti box, as well as her faithful soulmate, the mandolin, the song arrangements have a gentleness that focuses predominantly on her voice, with some empathetic playing from BBC Jazz Award Winner and Mercury Prize nominee Kit Downes, singer-songwriter Samuel McKie, recorder maestro Finn Collinson and Mawkin fiddler James Delarre.  All twelve songs are Tilly Moses originals apart from the traditional “Hares on the Mountain”, which is treated to a strong and determined arrangement here, yet you feel you have heard some of them before, such as “Fear With Fire”, delivered with military precision, which I feel I’ve been listening to for years.  Alight and Adrift is a seriously good debut for a young performer who I’m sure you’ll hear more about very soon. 

Katie Spencer – Good Morning Sky | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.06.17

There’s nothing really quite as rewarding in music as bearing witness to a burgeoning talent through an artists’ teenage years, watching that talent grow and develop with an equal measure of drive and determination, whilst taking each opportunity as and when it comes along.  Yorkshire-based Katie Spencer has done her apprenticeship as a floor singer, as the tentative opening act and as the performer who is given the spare twenty minute slot in the festival bar, who can now consider herself an artist who we should take notice of.  Good Morning Sky is Katie’s debut EP which features five self-penned songs, each soulfully performed with convincing passion.  Drawing on the influence of John Martyn, not only collaborating here with two former Martyn band mates, drummer Ted McKenna (SAHB, Rory Gallagher) and keyboard player Foss Paterson (Jethro Tull), but also playing Martyn’s acoustic guitar on the opening song “It’s True”, the EPs atmosphere recalls some of the essence of Martyn’s best music.  The songs are treated to a delicate and mature guitar style to go with her distinctively graceful voice, which is enough in itself, yet Katie makes further room for her musicians to breathe, such as on Magazines, where producer Brian Young offers some sweet guitar licks.  The atmospheric “Moths to the Light” also features Tim O’Connor’s empathetic lead guitar playing, which fits the arrangement perfectly and contributes to the EPs overall dreamy sound.

Track Dogs – Serenity Sessions | Album Review | Monde Green Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.06.17

The third album by Track Dogs, the Madrid-based quartet formerly known as the Garrett Wall Band, offers a fine balance of acoustic soul blended with gentle pop sensibilities, augmented by the band’s ubiquitous trumpet sound, courtesy of Sheffield-born Howard Brown.  Recalled for their pretty faithful treatment of Nick Drake’s “Hazy Jane II” on their eponymous debut, we find the same spirit of dreamy pop in the fabric of these eleven songs.  The soulful opener, “To the End”, which incidentally you could imagine being performed by either Al Green or Marvin Gaye, reveals within it a strong anti-bullying message, especially when illustrated by its accompanying video made up of a series of poignant photographs.  The band’s tightness is exemplified in the second song “So Much Dust”, which demonstrates the band’s rich vocal harmonies and strong sense of melody.  With a cover that almost tricks the listener into believing the band to be a bluegrass outfit, we find something entirely different within, not unlike the more recent discovery of Darlingside.  There’s one or two surprises on the record, with a tribute to the former AC/DC frontman in “Bon Scott, He Rocked”, released as the first single from the album, the vibrant stomper “The Lights Went Out in Cotos” and finishing with a fine reading of the old Faces singalong “Ooh La La”.

Front Country – Other Love Songs | Album Review | Organic Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.06.17

San Francisco Bay’s ‘roots pop’ five-piece Front Country add a further dozen selections to their repertoire with this their second album, which for the most part showcases the songwriting credentials of singer Melody Walker, whose assured delivery sparkles throughout the album.  Soulful, gritty and determined, Melody lives up to her name with some of her finest songs to date, songs such as “I Don’t Wanna Die Angry”, “Keep Travelin’ and the superb opener “If Something Breaks”, whilst breathing new life and energy into the Carter Family’s 1920s staple “Storms Are On the Ocean” to great effect.  Anyone who has caught the band live will know their instrumental workouts are of a high standard of musicianship creative flair and here Adam Roszkiewicz’s “The Humpback and the Sloth” (or T.H.A.T.S.) demonstrates inventiveness in spades. The band’s combined voices can be best heard a cappella on Walker’s highly personal “Good Side”, which is imbued with a distinctly gospel feel.  For “Undone”, Walker playfully borrows from the novelty song “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”, which in effect demonstrates her confident approach to songwriting.

Sound of the Sirens – For All Our Sins | Album Review | DMF Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 09.06.17

From the opening track “Smokescreen” Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood, who are Sound Of The Sirens, offer an utterly captivating blend of vocal harmonies, strident acoustic guitars and infectious upbeat music.  There is a venom and vim to their delivery, like American duo The Indigo Girls and 90’s UK pair The Dear Janes, Abbe and Hannah contrast sharp lyrics with a bright, edgy upbeat sound.  The duo based in Exeter, met working together at the Timepiece club, where they first performed together.  For All Our Sins is their debut album after a series of wonderful EPs and building a reputation as a captivating and energetic live show.  “Smokescreen” is a belter of a song, hand claps and the pairing of those voices, sometimes together, sometimes apart, makes for an intense rollercoaster of an opener.  “Mr Wilson” and “Together Alone” are a calmer ride, the beautiful call and response vocals are layered against a great finger picked guitar part.  Again, on these tracks, the arrangement of the voices makes a strong impression as Sound Of The Sirens alternate lines or harmonise beautifully.  Listen to the uplifting “In This Time” where the two vocalists build to an anthemic choir delivering a compelling message of hope.  “Grow” is a real ‘fist in the air’ anthemic song that screams positivity and energy like the best of Thea Gilmore.  “Chaos” opens with a rolling bass riff that recalls Harvest era Neil Young or America, but, because this is Sound Of The Sirens, it doesn’t stand still for a second, what sounds like a mandolin joins in before beautiful layered vocals carry you away.  “Cross Our Hearts”, two voices dropping in and out of incredibly tight harmony over beautiful acoustic guitars, represents the essence of what is compelling about this album.  Mental health and being involved in a campaign to raise awareness in primary school education, informs “The Voice” against a bubbling keyboard and a dub rhythm Sound Of The Sirens rail against that small voice inside of us, showing that below bright acoustic music there is a serious message.  Final track “The Circus” starts with swirling sounds and atmospherics, an echo of the track before, creating a sense of the turmoil that the lyric suggests.  Abbe and Hannah set their vocals against each other, syncopating lines to create a kind of conversation lyric that is just stunning, fitting together perfectly.  There is a magic created when voices combine to create harmonies, from Allegri to Crosby Stills and Nash, performers have spun gold using the placing of contrasting voices against and alongside each other.  Sound of the Sirens latest CD fans these long burning embers to create flames.​

Sharon Shannon – Sacred Earth | Album Review | Celtic Collections | Review by Damian Liptrot | 12.06.17

Like a football manager with unlimited funds, Sharon Shannon has reached the point at which she can attract the best players that she wants, assembling a team of Champions League proportions.  As could be expected with such talent on display, they are solid at the back, creative in midfield and adventurous upfront, with all the individuals matching the musical skills of their leader.  Building from a solid base in traditional Irish tunes, the immaculately assembled squad are capable of shifting shape, style and tempo apparently at will, with flashes of instrumental brilliance coming and going as the tunes develop.  Although a dominant theme is the newly found African influence, a quick glance through the list of players will confirm that this is truly world music, with every continent being represented.  It’s just like listening to Brazil, except it’s much, much more than that.  When the voice arrives in track three, “The Machine”, there are still surprises to be had as the powerful state of the globe lyrics are delivered, not only in a traditional style but with elements of both rap and chant and then, to illustrate the role of voice, suddenly shifts to French, whilst continuing the message of concern.   All this is delivered with shifting instrumental patterns but a beat so insistent that it produced a massive percussive attack on the steering wheel whilst stationary and an immediate transfer to the MP3 jogging playlist back at HQ.   It comes as no surprise to find out that the original inspiration for the track came from collaborative work in New Mexico – I wouldn’t have expected anything less.  To return to a football analogy, there are those whose role it is to analyse a game, identifying possession rates, assists, tackles and dribbles completed.   If I watch football, I look to enjoy the ebb, the flow and the unexpected excitement, so I shall leave analysis of particular musical styles, instruments and individual contributions to people better qualified and with a different outlook.  There is, of course, an informative booklet.  Whilst there is a significant amount of inventiveness and fusion throughout, a good player knows when the ball needs to be placed firmly into Row Z and so there are also more traditionally focused tracks but then again, there is the odd diversion into the almost traditional with a good time, southern boogie with Cajun inflections but this is balanced out elsewhere with essence of Breton prog rock.  Sacred Earth, a world of ideas, take a trip around it.

Alun Parry – Freedom Rider | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 12.06.17

From street busker to the beating heart of a musical community, Alun Parry’s output has reached the seven album mark and his commitment, his love of music and the quality of his writing and playing remain undiminished.  As a protest singer with a particular love of Woody Guthrie, Freedom Rider encompasses Alun’s concerns, that can be focussed on individual issues, such as the death of a psychiatric patient, to wider issues of the overlooked history of child labour and the movement for civil rights in the song that gives us the album title.  While he is unlikely to make the playlist of any Tory Battlebus anytime soon, there is a range to his songwriting that moves outside the realm of anger and issues and into the world of interpersonal relationships.  Often tinged with sadness and regret, there is a country element to several of these songs that belie his Liverpool origins – until you notice the unmistakable Scouse twang that adds further character to his delivery.  The music of the Mersey does however flow through his songwriting bloodstream.  There are nods to the Sixties sound, the folk heritage of the Liverpool Spinners and even the chiming pop of the likes of the Lightning Seeds.  Whilst we cannot escape the shadow of Lennon, whereas one thinks of a “Working Class Hero” as something to be, Alun celebrates a working class hero that was, union leader Jack Jones gets his own upbeat memorial.  A true comrade of the city, putting effort into encouraging others, both musically and politically, organising events to share ideas and music, the world needs more Alun Parrys, though the one we already have will do for a start.

The Unthanks – Diversions Vol 4 – The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake | Album Review | RabbleRouser | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.06.17

“What’s so hot about reality?” Rachel sings with such aching weight on “Dream Your Dreams”, the second song on this remarkable new record from The Unthanks.  That single lyric, scribbled down by a wistful mother at her parlour piano sometime in the 1950s, not only leaps from the velvet-shadowed grooves of an album so possessed by whimsy and reverie but manages to land with a thud on our modern consciousness.  As the world we live in creases beneath the burden of hideous reality, trust The Unthanks – one of the most ambitious and perpetually fascinating bands currently making music – to furnish this mad, mad world with a very necessary path into preternatural enchantment.  For their fourth volume of  Diversions, The Unthanks present both a celebration and ambitious re-imagining of the music of Molly Drake, the mother of the much celebrated but no less mystifying singer songwriter Nick Drake.  Twenty four years after her death and only ten years since the first official release of the home recordings she made over half a century ago, The Unthanks have fed Molly’s seductive songs through their now renowned mastery for beautifully autumnal performance to create, perhaps, their most arresting album to date.  They have done so with the help of Molly’s daughter, the actress Gabrielle Drake, who weaves a shimmering thread through the record with touching readings of her mother’s image-rich poetry.  Whilst the inky currents of Adrian McNally’s arrangements of piano, voice, bass, fiddle and clarinet, as well as atmospheric field recordings, flow seductively below, Gabrielle’s subtly reverberated voice rises with all the stately flavour of Richard Burton’s contributions to Under Milk Wood and War of the Worlds.  For those who are familiar with Molly’s indelible recordings, with their charmingly inventive piano chords and a voice so hauntingly similar to her famous son’s, songs such as “How Wild The Wind Blows” and “I Remember” will, no doubt, stand out as two of the many pleasing inclusions, along with the aforementioned “Dream Your Dreams” which blends Rachel’s pure and youthful vocals with Becky’s fiddle-bow voice to create some spine-fizzing harmonies.  And whilst Molly’s style lends itself quite willingly to that of The Unthanks, it’s intriguing to hear such unanticipated interpretations; “Little Weaver Bird”, for example, is stolen from the safe little nest that Molly constructed for it and transformed into a powerfully pensive masterpiece complete with chanting harmonies, tolling piano chords and skittering percussion.  The intrigue continues as the collaboration between Gabrielle and The Unthanks yields the astonishing fruit of songs Molly composed but did not record.  “Soft Shelled Crabs”, for example, comes bounding out of Gabrielle’s childhood memories and into the hands of this ever determined band with joyful curiosity.  Diversions Vol. 4 – The Songs and Poem’s of Molly Drake provides another glimpse into the artistry of a band so intent on making music of superlative quality and bare emotion.  By lending their singular compassion to the music and words of Molly Drake, The Unthanks have been absorbed into the beguiling continuum of the Drake family history.  And if it isn’t enough to animate the ghost of that fascinating clan’s inventive matriarch, we’re also offered an appendage of eight extra recordings which can be acquired via The Unthanks website.  And, let’s face it, who wouldn’t be left wanting more?

Boo Hewerdine – Swimming in Mercury | Album Review | Reveal | Review by Marc Higgins | 14.06.17

This is a poppier Boo Hewerdine, who effortlessly manages to reference all the way across the broad music palette of late 60s or early 70s gatefold plush albums.  The opening electronic chords of “Satellite Town” sounds disturbingly like the opening of Hewerdine the musical, with Boo’s dry vocals setting up a narrative while a high production dance number swirls across a West End Stage around him.  Again and again the reflective biographical nature of the lyrics and the musical nods make this feel like an inventive and ironic stage show.  The electro soundscape of “Satellite Town” with occasional atmospheric jazz breaks manages to sound new and classic at the same time.  Rather like a musical Pleasantville, the music sounds knowing and modern while being retro and cool.  Listen to the jazz guitar chords and Bacharach brass stabs on “Voice Behind The Curtain”.  “A Letter To My Younger Self” carries the mood of the autobiographical musical forward, intelligent sharp pop/rock with Steely Dan Saxophone and an infectious chorus.  “My First Band” is built around beautiful Beach Boys vocal lines, with sharp perfect lyrics impeccably delivered in that distinctive Hewerdine wry vocal.  The guitar based troubadour has morphed or has been shed, to be replaced by a carefully crafted intelligent pop artist.  The lyrics are still as sharp as ever, but the soundscape is Ben Folds meets a lush Beach Boys or ELO wash.  “American TV” maintains the song cycle feel with Boo reflecting on the appeal of US technicolour over a valve warm 60s feel production.  “Sleep” another beautifully crafted song, built around a crunching electric guitar part and a 67 County Joe and The Fish organ sound, is almost mid 60’s Beatlesque in the way the vocals run around each other.  “Gemini” explores, through clever word play, a close relationship with retro references to the American Space Program and an ear worm of a discordant electric guitar.  “The Boy Who Never Cried Wolf” sets sequenced electronic keyboards against Hewerdine’s vocals in a way that almost recalls the Pet Shop Boys, with another infectious tune and a superb arrangement.  “The Year That I Was Born” shifts back and forwards through time, the bassline is 70s Pink Floyd, the lyrics are peppered with early 60s references, as they would be, managing to be nostalgic and thoughtful.  Think of a tasteful and poignant spin on the sentiment of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”.  The song oozes sadness and nostalgia that kind of warm melancholia of a man staring into his pint sitting on the bar.  “Drinking Alone”, a song about drinking, by contrast manages to be jaunty, like a Chas and Dave or Music hall number with the keyboard refrain that sounds like an insistent alarm clock cutting through the morning after fog just adding to the songs wry humour.  “An Atheist In A Foxhole” is a piano ballad, pure jazz with a wash of saxophone, poignant lyrics and an arresting delivery that catches your heart strings.  “Swimming In Mercury” is an another aching song that deals deftly with pain, loss and the troubles of day to day living.  A stripped back ballad with a retro percussion loop, beautiful guitar and a lyric that ends the album perfectly.  After writing Radio Ballads for the BBC and the recent Child Migration series, producing other artists, recording and touring as State of the Union with American guitarist Brook Williams, recording and touring with Eddi Reader, Lau’s Kris Drever and Duke Special, producing the excellent My Name In Brackets retrospective and releasing an album of lost recordings.  This feels like a new direction, but not in a self-conscious Spinal Tap way, rather in a growing and constantly evolving kind of way.  This is a real game changer of an album, Boo Hewerdine’s albums consistently gather 5 stars and critical acclaim, but Swimming in Mercury, takes that then makes you sit and smile for the sheer unexpectedness of it managing to be beautiful and strange, familiar and fresh. ​

Tift Merritt – Stitch Of The World | Album Review | Yep Roc | Review by Steve Henderson | 15.06.17

With supporters like Hiss Golden Messenger, Andrew Bird as well as Don Henley who recorded her song Bramble Rose from the debut album of the same name, many have wondered why Tift Merritt has not more firmly established herself at the top of the music tree.  As this, Merritt’s sixth studio album, Stitch of the World evidences, she’s got the songwriting and vocal skills that should seal the deal for listeners.  Growing up in North Carolina, she may have previously found inspiration for her songs whilst living in such as Paris but on this occasion, like other songwriters, the artistic fuel was some upheaval in her private life.  Stitch of the World gathers together titles like “Heartache Is An Uphill Climb” and “Love Soldiers On” that hint at that personal pain.  Both of these being the type of soulful song that allows Tift’s vocal to waft across the music like a cooling breeze at one minute before powering the song along in another.  An approach that has had some critics make vocal comparisons with Emmylou Harris and Dusty Springfield.  However, the record starts with “Dusty Old Man” with driving drum rhythms and some great guitar that looks at the brighter side of relationships and contradicts the more obvious themes in some songs.  Therein lies some of the mystery in her writing because she’s not a teller of tales but a painter of pictures with lyrics leaving room for the listener to draw from their own imagination.  No surprise, then, that the lyrics of “My Boat” are adapted from a poem inspired by the writing of Raymond Carver.  Similarly, songs like the joyful “Proclamation Bones” and the mournful “Icarus” are mysterious in their way but hint at searching out love and losing it.  Indeed, the title track itself with its neat guitar motif can be read as a describing love’s place in holding the world together.  More twinkling guitar work from Marc Ribot lays scattered across other tracks adding a suitable contrast to the gliding steel guitar work of Eric Heywood.  Towards the end of the record, Sam Beam of Iron and Wine offers up delicious duet vocals on three tracks with some spectacular results, especially on “Eastern Light”, signalling an opportunity for future work.  In fact, you’ll get more of this if you splash out on the deluxe version of the album which has three extra tracks.  Whatever you choose, rest assured Stitch of the World does, of course, add to the rich tapestry of life.

Richard Durrant and Ismael Ledsesma – Durrant y Ledesma | Album Review | The Burning Deck | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 16.06.17

The Brighton-born guitarist and composer Richard Durrant is a musician who rigorously refuses to be labelled.  A quick spin of any of his records – and there are many of them – demonstrates the diversity at work in this artist’s repertoire.  Durrant is as much a classical guitarist as he is a folk guitarist.  For every bit of Scotland and England in his playing there is a little South America and a pinch of Eastern Europe, too.  Indeed, Durrant not only crosses geographical boundaries with his music but also those of time; recent albums, for example, have focussed on music from the thirteenth century as well as arrangements of Vivaldi and Bach.  For his latest outing, Durrant has teamed up with Paraguayan harpist Ismael Ledesma to produce an album of such fetching elegance that you find yourself taking a deep breath between tracks.  These are tunes that lull the listener into a state of total tranquillity, not simply due to their sweet melodies but via the exquisite musicianship that, during such tracks as “Guarania Para Shoreham” and “Amazonas”, lends new profundity to the act of plucking a single string.  Both players are deeply connected to their instruments and, like the collaborations of Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch or Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal, it’s often hard to know where one musician ends and the other begins.  There are also some moments of jubilant energy on this wonderfully engaging eleven-track album, such as “La Balada Del Indio” and “El Vagabundo” that ripple the serenity with equal vigour and grace.

Bellevue Rendezvous – While Rome Burns | Album Review | Journeyman | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 18.06.17

With their wide repertoire of European tunes and a uniquely attractive sound, Scottish trio Bellevue Rendezvous make a welcome return with this impressive third album.  While Rome Burns consists of ten instrumentals with such alluring titles as “Vals etter Sigurd Aalmen”, “Hvit Marsj” and “Hicazkar Sirto” as well as other such evocative names as “Piping the Fish”, “The European Dream” and “Source of the Spey”.  The music is just as handsome as the titles suggest, especially as the trio rely on such instruments as the Swedish nyckelharpa and cittern, along with fiddle and guitar to create their crisp and shimmering sound.  Gavin Marwick, the trio’s fiddler, provides the opening track “Smoke and Mirrors”, a darkly pensive tune which he wrote “a while ago, somewhere in Europe” and one that segues neatly into the optimistic charm of “Mozaik”, penned by the trio’s guitarist Cammy Robson.  This beautiful opening gives way to a series of tunes from Galicia, Norway and Finland, showcasing Ruth Morris’s nyckelharpa and including the traditional “Onga Bucharesti”, a stirring wedding reel that was introduced to the trio by De Dannan’s Andy Statman.  Gavin’s compositional artistry returns soon, however, with the notably Scottish-flavoured set of tunes “Piping the Fish” (Marwick), “Source of the Sprey” (Trad) and “The Unicorn” (Marwick), each providing a subtly spellbinding, dreamlike prelude to Marwick’s political twosome Nero’s and “The European Dream” which present a rousing ‘fiddler’s eye view of world events’.  With one foot entrenched in the Scottish folk tradition but all other limbs reaching enthusiastically into the rest of Europe, Bellevue Rendezvous deliver an album of distinct optimism, joy and musical unity with While Rome Burns, and one that will insist on taking you along for the ride.

Albert Hammond – In Symphony | Album Review | BMG | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.06.17

In other hands, an orchestrated release of one’s back catalogue might prove to be something of an act of desperation.  Indeed, who needs a large and expensive orchestra only to have it drowned out by the sound of a barrel being scraped?  In the hands of legendary songsmith Albert Hammond, the reality is quite different. Hammond is one of the few songwriters whose songs, thanks to their incredible durability, cross genres and generations and never seem to be tarnished by repeated handling.  Take the opening song on this treasure chest of Hammond originals; “It Never Rains in Southern California” has been covered by a long list of diverse artists including Sonny & Cher, Barry Manilow, Agnes Chan, Trent Summar, Japanese musician Saori Minami and Latin singer Andy Russell.  And yet, on In Symphony, the latest release from its composer, this classic 1972 song seems fresher than ever.  At last, a record of well-known songs treated to orchestral arrangements is something to be celebrated.  Flourishing flutes, lush strings, majestic brass and inspiring choral arrangements are lovingly layered over a tight band, widening each track to reveal curious nooks and crannies that may have been overlooked during previous covers.  Hammond’s splendid and timeless masterpiece “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” sounds monumental with its lavish string accompaniment, as do “When I Need You” and “Don’t Turn Around”, both better known via versions by Leo Sayer and Ace of Base but, perhaps, never better recorded.  There are also moments of eye-opening delight as you realise the sinuous journey that Albert Hammond’s songwriting has taken. A Spanish version of the Celine Dion-recorded “Just Walk Away” is included under the title “Alejate”, as is a somewhat Disney-fied rendition of Hammond’s “I’m a Train”.  Of course, no matter how these songs are arranged, much of the quality that’s ingrained here comes from the songs themselves – melodies that seem to be sewn into the very fabric of our shared musical consciousness – as well as Hammond’s suitably weathered vocals.  In Symphony is a gift of precious treasures, wrapped in new paper and bestowed upon us with loving care.

Various Artists – New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.06.17

“Jazz grew up in a thousand places, but it was born in New Orleans” the great film-maker Ken Burns once said, acknowledging the fact that the roots of this evergreen musical genre first broke ground over a century ago in the Louisiana city’s Congo Square.  But whilst jazz has done much of its evolving in such disparate locations as Chicago, New York, Paris and Havana, the very spirit of the music still haunts the ornate streets of the Big Easy.  New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City provides a briefly joyous glimpse at the beating heart of jazz in that unique city via recordings of some of its most renowned brass bands.  The Liberty Brass Band, Treme Brass Band and Hot 8 Brass Band are each represented here through their ebullient renditions of such staple jazz compositions as “The Sheik of Araby”, “Lily of the Valley”, “Amazing Grace” and “Old Rugged Cross”.  Take a moment to savour the artistry behind the Liberty Brass Band’s version of Panama, a languorously pendulous tune that reminds us why jazz’s earliest conjurings contained the fire that continues to fuel it.  Get beyond the complacency we’ve imposed upon early jazz and you’ll find, especially within the Hot 8 Brass Band’s superb New Orleans (After the City), an ever-fresh and utterly exciting music that refuses to let go throughout this effervescent and celebratory disc.

Shortstuff – Big Blue | Album Review | Blonde on Blonde | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 23.06.17

British folk club circuit favourites since the mid-70s, Dave Thomas and Hugh Gregory – better known as Shortstuff – have finally been given the opportunity to release a selection of their archive recordings via their new collection, Big Blue.  The acoustic bluesmen recently uncovered a selection of long-lost tapes from their early days in a London attic and, by adding a few recordings from the early 90s along with some gentle mixing, the spirit of this fine blues duo has been forever preserved on a short but utterly engaging disc.  The material would please any self-respecting blues fan. Included here are pleasing covers of songs by JJ Cale “Magnolia”, John Mayall “Sitting In The Rain” and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee “Love’s a Disease” as well as a haunting, string-accompanied version of the traditional Honeybabe.  There’s also a dapper take on the Dan Hicks number “O’Reilly At The Bar” which features some fine guitar improv, a slinking bassline and a snappy little snare.  With some flavoursome acoustic solos, chugging rhythm guitar and honey-sweet vocals, this is a record which, after four decades, we’re fortunate to finally have available to us.

Sam Amidon – The Following Mountain | Album Review | Nonesuch | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.06.17

There’s nothing quite straightforward when it comes to Sam Amidon; there always seems to be a surprise around each corner.  Highly experimental at the best of times, nothing really could have prepared our ears for the closing track on this Sam’s sixth album The Following Mountain, where Sam’s love of free jazz becomes a little more than apparent, almost twelve minutes of it to be precise.  It’s to this album what “Hair Pie: Bake 1” was to Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica almost fifty years ago; self expression on a grand scale, aided and abetted by drummer Milford Graves, who drives the improvisational piece along.  Elsewhere we see the more familiar Appalachia, albeit from Amidon’s own pen for the first time, with Sam’s dry vocal permeating “Fortune”, “Juma Mountain” and “Another Story Told”, in which Amidon’s Viv Stanshall-like “fiddle” announcement midway through would probably have been left out in the hands of any other musician.  Not Sam Amidon though, who in this one instance reminds us of who we are listening to.  As with all Sam Amidon’s albums, it’s difficult to listen through just the once and a repeat play is an essential requirement.  Helping out are Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Regina Spektor) handling production, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Milford Graves, guest percussionist Juma Sultan (who worked with Hendrix, notably during his Woodstock set) and saxophonist Sam Gendel, who gets a name check in the title of track five and plays a blinder solo throughout.  If this is the way Amidon’s music is heading, gimme more.

Skipinnish – The Seventh Wave | Album Review | Skipinnish Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 23.06.17

The belief in the power of the Seventh Wave, when compared to those that came before, runs through folklore and legend the world across.  This is Skipinnish’s seventh album and arrives on a wave of popularity with successful single releases and sell out live shows across the country.  There is a sense of rebirth too, as amidst the groundswell, the album also features the lead vocals of new member Norrie MacIver.  With great memories and gratitude to past members the band acknowledges that it is aware of its past and excitedly poised to sail on.  Alive the opener is a swelling song of affirmation with a hymn like verse that opens the album beautifully.  A choir like chorus creates an atmosphere as if we are gathered around a church piano before the band kicks in and we swirl away.  The writing is rich, with nautical metaphors and imagery that celebrates the joy of being alive “feel the bliss wash your being”.  The song has a perfect simple beauty and could well come to be their “Meet On The Ledge”.   First set of tunes “The Hag” blasts away any sentimentally on a swell of driving rhythms and superb playing.  As in many great things, the devil is in the detail and across the set there is control and constraint with beautiful airs and then passages where you just want to surrender to the music and chuck yourself about.  “Harvest Of The Homeland” is another affirming song with Skipinnish keeping a torch alight for a way of life that is clearly close to their hearts.  Again the writing is rich with metaphor and imagery, people are small against a huge sky and a powerful landscape.  There is a soulful power in the massed voices, organ and a snarling folk rock electric guitar.  “Ocean Of The Free” begins as a work song round that recalls the warm folk popularised by bands like Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends. But in the hands of Skipinnish the form twists with a snarling folk verse and a swaggering ‘pogo’ tempo that celebrates the life of Hebridean sailors.  The writing gives the song a strong sense of place and connection, while the driving rhythm never lets us forget that this is dance music.  “The Iolaire” shows again the thoughtful side of the band.  A lyrical piano and an emotional violin open a song that describes the sinking of the Iolaire in 1919 and the loss of at least 205 sailors returning to Lewis having fought in The First World War.  The song drips with irony as it details the loss of men who had survived four brutal years in the futile fields of war and describes how they were in sight of the harbour lights of home when they wrecked.  Again Skipinnish, give the island dwellers perspective, using the dark savagery of nature to remind us of the smallness of man.  Even war, which is the worst of man’s excesses, is surpassed by the blind indiscriminate scythe that is the sea around the islands.  The sailors had survived the war, but the first day of peace would show their bodies, carried ashore on the morning tide with the scattered wreckage.  Like the song, there is a melancholic beauty and a cold power in the gathered choir of vocals and Caitlin LR Smiths haunting vocals.  If that doesn’t bring at least a lump to your throat then nothing will.  December is a wonderful song that sets the cold of winter against the warm whisky glow of love.  Love of course conquers everything and we are left with a wonderful guitar and keyboard atmospherics instrumental that crackles with heartfelt emotion.  Second set of tunes “The Old Woman” sets three jigs and dances between two Gordon Duncan tunes from a slightly wider tradition.  The first “The Soup Dragon” celebrates one assumes The Clangers, themselves travellers from slightly further away than the North Sea, the second, written by a man described as the Jimi Hendrix of the Bagpipes, honours legendary musician Rory Gallagher.  “The Island” is a song suite opening with a lyrical electric guitar that is part Pink Floyd part Knopfler.  The set of songs celebrates island life and those distant summers which are always perfect.  There is a warmth and a longing for a place and time and a strength to the words, suggesting that this is a traditional song in the making.  Like so much of the album from the evocative cover through many of the songs, “Home On The Sea” and “Walking on the Waves” describe the joy of coming back to the islands and the seas that they are set in.  “Walking on the Waves” is a revisit of an earlier Skipinnish, here given a new edge and power.  “Alba” with emotional vocals is carried along on waves of electric guitar that gives it a folk-rock swagger and power.  Skipinnish manage to add light and shade by slowing it down for a beautiful vocal section.  The album closes with a rich array of tunes within “MacNab’s Set” and finally “Cro Chinn t-Saile”.  The playing is always impressive and powerful.  The opening quickstep sets powerful Highland Bagpipes to the fore, through “The Devil In The Kitchen” and some Gaelic tunes the music pulses and swirls around you in waves, the tempo rises and falls and you marvel at the tightness of the playing and the way the music changes.  “Cro Chinn t-Saile” is a powerful closer, it opens with a slow air that is all atmospherics while the opening and closing stops of the accordian play a mournful tune.  This morphs perfectly into Bagpipes that carry the tune on in a way that is stately and cinematic.  The final section with the massed Gaelic voices guilds what was already pretty close to perfect.  For a traditional music dance band Skipinnish pull expertly and dexterously on your heart strings when they want to.  While for a lyrical instrumental band, they can get you up and dancing like a beast possessed, with an ease that seems almost unearthly.  In The Seventh Wave by Skipinnish you have very much the best of both worlds, the fire and the wonder.​

Lena Laki – Take Me With | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.06.17

Lena Laki is a London based German born singer who has progressed from Jazz and Folk covers to her own brooding ‘Cohen-esque’ material.  Take Me With is her debut release and it is an assured opener with glorious arrangements and a confidence in its delivery.  The songs are rich almost lush without being overblown or overplayed at any point, there is poise, power and restraint.  Lena Laki’s vocals capture from the start of the first track a sense of intensity, longing and melancholy.  The rhythm is carried on a strummed electric guitar but what grabs you is the glorious vocals and the superb string arrangement.  Brings most strongly to mind the melancholy of Nick Drake the intimacy of 80’s 4AD vocalist Heidi Berry.  Craving uses a bigger vocal, alongside the crystalline fragility there is a roaring power as Lena lets with rip with a heartfelt vocalise.  On both tracks the different deliveries completely hold your attention.  Stab has a music hall Kurt Weill roll and lilt to it, like Mary Coughlan at her best Lena Laki sounds like she is stalking a small theatre stage from a Degas painting, spitting the words into the footlights.  The soaring gypsy violin just cements the feeling of time and place on this emotional roller coaster of a track.  “Now It’s Time” is more intimate, again much of the atmosphere comes from the interplay between the strings, the guitar and Laki’s rich vocals.  “Another Woman” is a jazz torch song, as the wounded singer tells a tragic tale of the trapped over a sparce piano.  The arrangement is beautifully judged building and falling to hold your attention perfectly.  More like this please.

Hamsa – Lawless, Winged and Unconfined | Album Review | Proper | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 26.06.17

Opening with the most achingly beautiful clarinet you’re ever likely to hear, Lawless, Winged and Unconfined is an album of searing and untameable expression from a band that injects new energy into klezmer.  Led by clarinettist and composer Merlin Shepherd, Hamsa clearly thrive on improvised jams to mould their infectious sound; a fact which comes into focus via the little opuses of “Soon It Will Be May”, “Sahar” and the album’s title track.  Glenn Sharp provides some razor-sharp guitar as Simon Russell and Ruth Goller pound out their impressively incisive basslines.  And whilst Guy Schalom’s frothy drums keep the band from flying off in all directions, it’s the liquidy Hammond organ and brawny accordion of Carol Isaacs that binds the whole thing.  The zenith of the album is reached during its title track; a breathless, ever-ascending piece which owes as much to Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane as it does to traditional Jewish music.  Lawless, Winged and Unconfined is, as its title suggests, a constantly ambitious album from a group of musicians who place exploration at the forefront of their performance and, thanks to the compositional prowess of Shepherd, there are plenty of intriguing nooks and crannies to plunder here.

Solana – Camino | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.06.17

Camino is the third album by Bristol-based gypsy band Solana since their debut in 2012.  The eight-track album once again presents a sublime splash of continental colour from a band whose name is Spanish for the “sunny side of a mountain”.  Indeed, the whole album is drenched in sun, from the light and airy “Once”, which successfully blends Celtic melodies with lush Spanish rhythms, to the seductive “Diving” with its impishly plucked fiddle, hypnotic guitar phrases and reggae beat.  With Camino, Solana have once again absorbed a plethora of world rhythms to explore some of the most beguiling settings for their melodies.  This is never more apparent than in tracks such as Gnomad, with its complex but infectious drum beat and effervescent fiddle/flute lead, and the accordion-fuelled “Cheap Nougat” which blurs the line between sizzling Spanish flamenco and polka.  A wonderfully sunny album for the summer ahead.

Alice Marra – Chain Up the Swings | Album Review | Inner City Sound | Review by Marc Higgins | 29.06.17

Alice is a member of Dundonian Indie Popsters The Hazy Janes, but she is presenting a set of her father Michael Marra’s songs.  Michael Marra’s rich writing was rooted in the Folk tradition and shot through with a real sense of Scotland and Scottish life.  After successful career as a musican and composer of classic songs Michael died in 2012.  On the collection of Marra classics and rarities Alice is backed by a band that includes members of Michael’s Gaels Blue Orchestra.  Alongside this release Michael Marra’s back catalogue from 1980’s The Midas Touch and High Sobriety the solo concert from 2000 is being comprehensively reissued.  Michael had collaborated with the Hazy Janes including his children Alice and Matthew both on record and in concert and Alice continues that collaboration on Chain Up The Swings.  The arrangements on the songs are rich and lush with a stately quality.  Alice’s voice is pure and clear an obviously contrast to Michael Marra’s world worn rumbling burr.  On classic songs like Frida Kahlo’s “Visit To The Taybridge Bar” the cadence of her crystalline vocal is a beautiful contrast to Michael’s familiar reading of his lyrics.  On Frida Kahlo’s “Visit To The Taybridge Bar” especially there is a fragile power to Alice’s tender reading of the surreal story.  Her vocals on “Mother Glasgow” are warm, giving the song a hymn like quality.  The band is understated and sympathetic, never showy, the guitar solo and choir vocals on “Goodnight Lovely You” are classy and serve the song well, there’s nothing histrionic or overstated.  The playing on tracks like “Chain Up The Swings” oozes with the languid swing or tasteful restraint of Van Morrison’s band or Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra and straddles genres like the best of both those bands.  Brass, Piano, Clarsach, the instruments may be drawn from different backgrounds, but the whole has a cohesion and a dreamlike quality.   The piano notes and ethereal vibes that blend into “Mincing Wi’ Chairlhi” have a jazz shuffle and a lightness that recalls kd Lang at her most heavenly.  On this track again the sparkling piano and lightness of touch puts me in mind of Van Morrison around the Hymns to the Silence era and add to the same spiritual quality in the music.  The songs with their evocative mix of surreal imagery and the ordinary injected with magic realism are Michael Marra’s, while Alice’s singing and the album is a heartfelt tribute that breathes a new life into the mix of the obscure and familiar.  With the simultaneous re-release of Michael Marra’s rich catalogue his fans are in for a treat and both old and new Marra enthusiasts will enjoy the feel and experience of Chain the Swings.

Various Artists – Pop Makossa | Album Review | Analog Africa | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.07.17

The word Makossa, immortalised on the international hit by Manu Dibango “Soul Makossa”, comes from the Douala word to dance.  First and fore-most the Pop Makossa compilation is dance music.  Whichever of the 12 tracks, recorded between 1976 and 1984, you start with you will not be sitting down for long.  Makossa, typified by the Dibango hit is built round a heavy central bass beat with lots of Brass accompaniment.  What connects the music on this compilation is that it all comes from a period where Makossa was infused with funk and disco to make an infectious hybrid.  The label Analog Africa, do very much what is says on the tin, indulging in bigtime international crate diving and the musical equivalent of those Victorian plant collectors, tracking down forgotten classics or unheard gems from the past to make wonderful collections of African music.  Their tagline ‘the future of music happened decades ago’ sums up what is exciting about their compilations and their attitude to music, driven by the idea that the best music you’ve never heard was recorded, forgotten and languishes in this case in Cameroon.  The sleeve of the album, part Russian Constructivist poster with its giant red letters, part tribal art pattern, part mad Godzilla Science Fiction poster very much sets the scene for the eclectic music within, visually representing the collisions of folk and urban styles.  The album opens with Dream Stars’ “Pop Makossa Invasion”, a wonderfully chopped electric guitar, as funky as anything Chic ever did and a trance like vocal chorus stand out in a strong opener.  There is a wonderful lo-fi and otherworldly vibe to the track which has the feel of a shamanic long loose Fela Kuti piece.  This first track is the epitome of crate diving, so obscure, even within Cameroon itself, as to not as even been released at the time of recording.  “Yaounde Girls” from 1984 has a great rhythm, some superb analogue keyboard sounds and a bass line groove to die for.  The slightly phased woozy shifts through the track add to the feeling that is being played on a hot ghetto blaster in the past.  Or that the studio tapes have languished forgotten in humid obscurity and we now listen to their flawed beauty through a sonic patina added by time.  Bill Loko on “Nen Lambo” is a great energetic vocalist with the lilt and drive of an early Youssou N’Dour.  Again, the brass like stabs of early synth keyboards are wonderful analogue textures, while the bright pop production produces a track as infectious as the best of Kylie or anything by Stock Aitken and Waterman.  Eko’s “M’ongele M’am” has the percussion, brass and infectious call and response chorus of The Gibson Brothers’ “Cuba” and “Oh What A Life”, effortlessly demonstrating what a massive hit this could have been with international recognition on its release in 1980.  Hopefully labels like Analogue Africa will release us from the shackles of international distance and propel us by the ears to a future as musically rich and diverse as our gardens are, enriched by earlier botanists and collectors.  Olinga Gaston’s “Ngon Engap” from 1977 is one of the earliest tracks and its wonderful guitar line and beat perfect frenetic rhythm makes it my favourite track from the set, along with the looping guitar licks and solo on “Ye Medjuie” the next track.  The grooves continue with tight rhythms and superb vocals through tracks by Nkodo Si-Tony and Pasteur Lappe.  The Bass solo on “The Sekele Movement” and the songs raw rap like vocals are other gems to listen out for.  The liquid bass line on “The Sekele Movement” the rubbery shuffle underpinning the Mystic Djim and those wobbling notes on “More Love” serve to remind why Cameroonian bass players are renowned the world over.  Pat’ Ndoye’s “More Love” uses a simple lyric, superb vocals and an infectious hook in a way that worked worldwide for Bob Marley, to create an excellent feel good track.  Some fine Saxophone and Trumpet drive the middle section and means that even at eight and a half minutes there isn’t a wasted moment.  I’d defy anyone to remain still for this track especially as again the spirit of Fela Kuti looms large.  Clement Djimogne’s “Africa” layers simple riffs to build tension, while its treated vocals and tempo drive it on relentlessly.  Deni Shain, DJ, music producer and Analogue Africa associate travelled to Cameroon, travelled to Cameroon to finalise the project, license the songs, find archive photos and connect with the Artists.  His journey from the port of Douala to the Cameroon capital of Yaounde brought him into contact with the lives and stories of many of the featured musicians.  Shain met Bernard Ntone whose lone single as band leader, the infectious slab of Afro-funk Mussoloki was recorded on the sly using dead time at the end of a Manu Dibango session in 1977.  It took nearly a year but he managed to track down the illusive Bill Loko in Paris.  Sadly, Deni wasn’t able to meet Mystic Djin who had died in 2009.  Yet Mystic’s widow greeted him by saying she had always believed someone would coming looking for his music.  She was right the time for rediscovery of so much music through the efforts of Analogue Africa is finally here.  Dig deep on this album and back into the Analog Africa catalogue

Ashley Hutchings – Street Cries | Album Review | Talking Elephant | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.07.17

The re-issue of Ashley Hutchings’ collection of dark traditional songs Street Cries, which contains revamped material, songs altered to suit the present day back then at the turn of the Millennium, clearly indicates that nothing much has changed over the last sixteen years.  Dressed in a new sleeve, where the image of a bell-ringing ‘Governor’ has been ditched in favour of a much more contemporary Banksy-like illustration, the songs still sound as fresh today as they did back in 2001.  The thing that startled most listeners back then was the quality of Hutchings’ collaborators, whether they be the new kids on the block (Cara Dillon, Kathryn Roberts) or the established old guard (Dick Gaughan, June Tabor, John Tams, Dave Burland), their voices add weight to this collection of songs.  No stranger to the rehashing of old folk songs and putting a new slant to them, Hutchings drives the dozen songs along, joined by some fine instrumentalists, including Phil Beer, Joe Broughton, Ken Nicol and Pete Zorn.  If the collaborative efforts of those involved is key to the appeal of these songs, including the fine juxtaposition of Judy Dunlop and John Tams on “He Ran Out of Road”, based on the traditional “Salisbury Plain”, it has to be said that the rich variety and inimitability of the solo voices really does put the cherry on top of the cake, including the voice of Helen Watson with her bluesy “Salford Girls”, Dick Gaughan’s assured performance of “Young Henry Martin” and the late Vin Garbutt’s interpretation of the “Three Jolly Beggars”, a voice that is already greatly missed on the music scene.

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child | Album Review | Legacy | Review by Steve Henderson | 03.07.17

Into his eighties, still touring, still recording, Willie Nelson has an energy and career that has never stopped revealing musical treasure.  God’s Problem Child is the first album of new songs since his Band of Brothers release in 2014.  And, yes, it’s another treasure trove of great songs.  With his advancing years, it’s almost inevitable that he’s in reflective mode considering mortality and all that brings with it.  Please don’t let that put you off by assuming that this is a depressing collection of songs that would even turn off the ‘dark is beautiful’ crowd.  No, this is a master songwriter that can offer songs that bring a tear to the eye as well as those that make you chuckle too.  That wit turns up in songs with titles that speak for themselves like “Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own” and “Still Not Dead” with the latter poking fun at past exaggerated reports of his demise.  While he’s clearly still on fine form, let’s not ignore the assistance Willie gets from Buddy Cannon, producer and co-composer of seven of these songs including the two already mentioned.  The songs aren’t all focussed on death and, in what is becoming standard for any US release, he has his say on the recent election of Donald Trump.  Pointing out the country had the chance to be ‘brilliant again’ but blew it, on a song with the advisory title of “Delete and Fast Forward”.  Similarly, there’s a beautiful version of “A Woman’s Love” which considers the comfort that love provides us in life.  The centre piece title track deserves a special mention with its wonderful slow blues and consideration of how God doesn’t call time on life for bad behaviour.  Written by Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White and featuring the distinctive vocals of the latter as well as Leon Russell on, possibly, his last recording, it’s a classic worthy of being adopted for use as the album title.  While on the topic of the dear departed, the album closes with an affectionate cover of Gary Nicholson’s tribute to Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone”.  By the way, check out their 2015 record with the tongue in cheek duet “It’s All Going To Pot”.  Whilst I can’t confirm that Nelson’s longevity results from his well recorded views on the benefits of cannabis, it’s no hallucination that with albums like this one he’ll never be gone.

Harri Endersby – Homes/Lives | Album Review | Ivy Crown Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 05.07.17

There is a swagger, a potential that bursts out of every note of Homes/Lives, Harri Endersby debut album release. Her voice, solo or in a multi chorus is assured, confident and always demanding of your attention.  The band, Endersby, Rich Marsh and the wonderfully named Curtis Wayne Pierce Jr, sounds like a million pounds and along with some smart production add considerably to the whole.  At no point on repeated listens have I felt this was the tentative sound of a musicians first faltering steps.  This is someone striding confidently to the full spot light of centre stage and letting rip.  Harri is on record as being inspired by the stark Icelandic electro-pop of Asgeir and Samaris and Intro the album opener, with its rattling drone, ambience and chilling vocals has a strong sense of that northern ambience that floods from Iceland, but also ECM ambient jazz musician Jan Garbarek.  If they make anymore Wallender then Emily Barker’s Nostalgia would have a run for its money as incidental or theme music.  “Laughter Lines” has the same glorious vocals, running on from the Fleet Foxes and The Staves.  There is also a wonderfully recorded guitar, its huge note rumbles behind the harmonising vocals beautifully.  The sound of the album Home/Lives is a big sound, but it is also an intimate sound that draws you into that warm voice.  The track “Homes/Lives” carries on the perfect voice with a little vibratro and picked acoustic guitar.  The bass and keyboards that build in swell up behind the vocals, building a wonderfully melancholic atmosphere.  First Aid Kit, Bon Iver, the reference points triggered by an achingly beautiful voice over skilfully layered guitar and electronics are endless.  “Bird And Whale” and “Noise” are carried on a choir of treated vocals, the beats that come in are perfectly placed and a reminder of how contemporary sounding this all is.  There are wonderfully intricate guitars parts too, with flying fingers like the best of Newton Faulkner or John Renbourn as the falsetto choir tugs at your heart strings.  There is a sense of real beauty running through the whole album. Noise even rocks out a little, before subsiding back to some Renbourn or Chapmanesque harmonics, but then it has too really with a title like that.  “Stars Fall Down” is skilfully produced, there is space around the wonderful vocals as their sound fills the speakers.  New groups like The Staves, who place voices together so well need to be listening carefully to the effortless beauty of the track particularly.  “Let Me Run” has Harri Endersby opening up the voice and sounding like a 21st Century Judie Tzuke thundering through an anthemic ballad.  Hear changes the feel and places Harri’s voice against beats and some industrial sounding keyboards.  Someone should play this to the many fans of London Grammar or Clean Bandit, Endersby voice ties it all together and knits ancient and modern into something beautiful and strange.  “Stay Awhile” adds a kind of pitch shifting, Laurie Anderson vocal to the mix, layering straight and treated voices together into an electronic whole that is wonderfully hypnotic.  Harri’s vocals and the playing bind it together.  With “Flesh And Bone” the transformation, like some kind of Folk Cyberman, is complete, the chopped and sampled sounds inhabit the world of early 80s experimental Peter Gabriel, Bjork or Imogen Heap.  The beautiful finger picked guitars and CSN ambience of the first tracks have been replaced by machine man urban music, with a pulsing rhythm we are in Florence And The Machine or Royksopp territory.  Almost in an exercise to see how far it can go, what still binds it together is the wonderfully expressive vocals of Harri Endersby.  Final track “The Snow”, with its plucked violin intro and beautifully pure wintery vocals returns to a stripped back chilly ambience and we end as we began.  There is much to listen to in this debut album, sometimes disparate elements and musics are blended and layered together perfectly.  Acoustic and electronic, human and machine are all intertwined to make a whole that is bewitching and definitely within the tradition of fine genre straddling music.  “Where does your mind go when your eyes close” indeed, there is definitely an otherworldly quality to the best of this album.  Whatever you decide it should say on in the tin this is can of delights you will not regret opening.

Vasen – Brewed | Album Review | Northside | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.07.17

There’s one thing a band can be sure of after 28 years together, that their performances will be tight.  Väsen, a threesome who have been playing together since the late 1980s and have released no fewer than seventeen albums, are so tightly bound that their handling of opulent Swedish folk is as dazzling as it is pristine.  Vasen’s latest release Brewed serves up an intoxicating flagon of fifteen instrumental originals that mine the Uppland landscape for traditional melodies which, thanks to the band’s organic collaborative playing, emerge reinvigorated.  The opening track “Väsenvalsen” is a muscular and notably angular piece which showcases the seering poiana – a five stringed viola – of Mikael Marin as well as the cleanly chugging guitar of Roger Tallroth.  There are further brawny moments such as the dramatic “Tiomiljonerspolskan” and blustery “Hogmarkar’n”, but the real treasure is to be found in the more delicate melodies of such tracks as “Framtidens March” and “Jungfrun Av Norge” which, thanks to Olov Johansson’s splendid nyckelharpa, are gilt-edged and so exquisitely rendered.

Taarka – Fading Mystery | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 05.07.17

The word taarka refers to the process of roasting spices in Indian cooking.  When spice seeds are added to hot oil, they bring forth the intense flavours that provide the base for all Indian culinary delicacies.  It should be easy, then, for a reviewer to get a hold of such etymology and squeeze it dry.  But there is so much more than spice and intense flavour on Taarka’s Fading Mystery.  Here is a delicious dish of enough influences to keep even the least hungry listener nibbling.  There are moments of pure bluegrass magic, such as “What My Darlin’ Says” with its delectable exchange of solos from fiddler Enion Pelta-Tiller, guitarist Mike Robinson, mandolinist David Tiller and bassist Troy Robey and the rumbling and rambling Finn MacCool Crosses the Rocky Mountains.  There’s also some dazzling gypsy jazz on Retreat.  But the traditional genres are reshaped on the American foursome’s eighth release to create a refreshingly modern sound.  The opening track “Carried Away”, for example, would fit neatly into the repertoire of a contemporary rock combo, whilst the masterpiece of this record, Pelta-Tiller’s gorgeous Athena, injects the band’s Appalachian sound with the melodic and harmonic sensibilities of The Beatles.  Aside from the impressive interplay of guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass on Fading Mystery, much of this album’s strength lies within the vocal chords of Enion Pelta-Tiller.  What we have here is a distinctively moreish voice that benefits from its blend of smoky innocence and occasional surprise of soaring flights.  It’s certainly the shimmering thread that keeps these ten tracks sewn tightly together.

Josienne Clarke and Kit Downes – Such a Sky | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.07.17

There are voices.. and then there are voices; voices that take us on a journey, where the actual vocal inflections and sonic nuances are infinitely more important than the words themselves.  Take for instance Josienne Clarke’s multi-layered vocal on the coda of the opening song here, “Out of View”, where words are no longer required in favour of a mood or a meditation or just a feeling.  The five songs on this collaboration EP feature one of the most distinctive voices on the acoustic music scene today, together with the highly inventive musicianship of Kit Downes, which seems to be a match made in Heaven, or even for that matter, a lovely real place.  There’s a sense that we didn’t know how much we wanted this EP.  The beautiful melodies on “Out of View”, “Beyond the Green” and “Undo”, each penned by Josienne with Kit helping out on “Beyond the Green”, together with an exercise in adaptation based on an aria by Mozart – not the easiest of tasks to get one’s tonsils around –  and surprisingly, “Who Will Buy”, a song lifted from Lionel Bart’s popular musical Oliver, see Josienne at her plaintive best.  Who else does melancholy quite as beautifully as Josienne Clarke?  It’s a rhetorical question and there’s no need to send in your answers on a postcard.  Just listen to this and make your life better.

Keith James – Tenderness Claws | Album Review | Hurdy Gurdy | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.07.17

Known for his meticulous dissection of Nick Drake’s idiosyncratic guitar techniques, which he handles with surgical precision, Keith James takes a series of poems written by some of our most noted poets and tenderly delivers each one wrapped in melodies all his own with arrangements courtesy of producer Branwen Munn.  The visionary poet William Blake sits comfortably beside lyricist Pete Brown, who’s “White Room”, which became one of Cream’s biggest hits of the late 1960s, is featured here with the same melody, albeit with an entirely different approach.  Atmospheric in places and aided by one or two almost subliminal sampled effects, the collection includes both Dylan Thomas “A Process in the Weather of the Heart” and Federico Garcia Lorca “Andalucia”, who rub shoulders quite effectively and in the hands of Keith James, become one.  Twentieth century poetry is further explored with the inclusion of the Beats, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac occupying the same space once again, with “Daydreams for Ginsberg” being graciously rewarded with a rather dreamy Drake-like accompaniment.  There’s always a sense of ‘now which Nick Drake song is this guitar passage referencing?’  James adds three songs of his own, each of which read very much like poetry on the page, yet they are also treated to some fine arrangements, lifting each of them to another level.  My only criticism is that Keith’s highly emotive voice, although maybe emotive in a slightly theatrical manner reminiscent of Shawn Phillips, does tend to become slightly one dimensional towards the end, although having said that, there are some satisfying moments when further embellished with Sarah Vilensky’s Eastern flavoured vocal contributions.

Richard Thompson – Acoustic Classics II | Album Review | Beeswing | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.07.17

Richard Thompson returns with his trusty Louden to deliver the second helping of outstanding acoustic performances; two-way family favourites rescued and warmly refurbished from his own vast back catalogue.  His Fairport days are fondly recalled in “Genesis Hall”, previously investigated in a similar manner on 1984’s acoustic live set Small Town Romance.  There’s the enduring “Meet on the Ledge”, which here steps aside from the familiar Cropredy crowd sing-a-long in favour of the touching meditation on friendship it really is.  If that’s not all, then the utterly gorgeous “Crazy Man Michael” makes a welcome return, reminding us once again that although songs are generally performed best by their author(s), in this case Thompson and Dave Swarbrick, it reminds us once again how Sandy Denny’s reading of the song back in 1969 continues to send a different kind of shiver.  With the ghosts of Sandy and Swarb perched upon RT’s shoulder, and acknowledging that the proverbial bird of youth has long flown, it’s actually rewarding to hear these songs performed once again from a mature perspective and in their much appreciated stripped down form.  “Devonside” thoroughly deserved to be on the first volume of acoustic classics and therefore arrives a little late to the party, wearing its ‘classic’ title with pride.  This second volume also delves into more recent solo endeavours, relatively speaking, with such inclusions as “Gethsemane” and “Bathsheba Smiles” from the late 1990s Mock Tudor set, with “Guns are the Tongues”, being the most recent song, originally from Thompson’s 2007 album Sweet Warrior and here featuring some additional mandolin and layered vocals.  Each of these songs sound refreshingly new once again but perhaps the most pleasing are those from the troubled and much lamented duo years when he and his then wife Linda wore their hearts very much on their respective sleeves, here remembered with a delicate reading of “A Heart Needs a Home”, which is as powerfully emotive as ever.  With fourteen classic songs already covered on the first volume, this edition just goes to further demonstrate how important Richard Thompson’s songwriting credentials really are.

Justin Adams – Ribbons | Album Review | Wayward/DJA | Review by Marc Higgins | 09.07.17

Both on his own records and as a sideman Justin Adams has always an compelling listen.  From Justin’s early days with Jah Wobble’s Invaders Of The Heart, he played memorably with Robert Plant, injecting Plant’s music with a dose of electric Saharan blues.  Adams partnership with Drecker, vocalist on Ribbons, stretches back to tracks from Take Me To God the 1994 Island Invaders Of The Heart album where she was a featured vocalist.  From 2001’s fine Desert Road onwards Adams has released a series of solo albums and a trio of African fusion albums with Gambian musician Juldeh Camara.  His production work has seen him working with Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno and Malian band Tinariwen.  Ribbons abandons the traditional rhythms of Adams Indie Rock beginnings for the snaking African guitar of Tinariwen, with shifting sand like presence through an often mystical soundscape.  As with many musicians before him Adams has turned to abstract Art for inspiration, drawing on work by painters like Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro and Robert Motherwell as starting points.  “Lightshaft” the opening track has a strong sense of the ambience and shifting light of a roomful of Mark Rothko paintings.  The guitars and distant devotional voices drift and shimmer in a way that recalls Vangelis’ music for Bladerunner and Peter Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack, both excellent musical touch stones.  “Wassoulou”, named after an area of West Africa and a strand of vocal music is more directly infused by the African pulsing guitar.  Layered instruments slowly build with a rhythmic loop that strongly suggests staccato vocal sounds.  If Mike Oldfield had journeyed to sixties Morocco with Davey Graham then Tubular Bells might have sounded funky like this.  Harping with its beautiful slack string sounds evokes the quasi ethic music of ECM Records legend Stephan Micus and the African Ngoni.  The rattling strings have a gritty ambience which Adams sets against waves of guitar feedback, sounding like John Martyn at his most abstract.  Across the whole album there is a languid beauty, this is the music of open spaces, distant vistas like a desert sunrise jam.  This not the claustrophic music of a highrise city centre or a tiny spaces lit only by artificial light.  “Crow Dream” features the beautiful vocals of Aneli Drecker from Royksopp more prominently.  Justin Adams provides a series of looping guitar motifs while Drecker croons atmospherically shifting from “Great Gig In The Sky” vocalise to an icy electronica blues.  “Grey Green” has a guitar sound lifted straight off The Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead album, but the guitar loops back over itself, building a trance like feel, swirling and winding like beautiful smoke.  Imagine a dirty garage band take on Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” piece built around Pat Metheny samples that featured so memorably on The Orbs “Little Fluffy Clouds”.  On this and all the tracks, the music has the space for you to appreciate the most glorious crackling analogue guitar sounds.  “Ariel” has a Moorish, North African feel as the flurries of flamenco like notes shimmer and resonate building tension and atmosphere.  “Khamsa” is another showcase for the glorious sound of Aneli’s vocals, both a resonant lead and a more abstract Cocteau Twins like chorus swirl over a buzzing bass drum like note.  The whole track crackles with a kind of ambient resonance like an early blues 78 and sounds decidedly other worldly.  “Deep C” and “Strand” are guitar pieces, on Deep C Justin Adams builds sound around harmonics and riffs that recall Robbie Krieger’s eastern mysticism on The Doors “The End”.  On “Strand” chiming notes build waves of feedback, string squeaks sound like birds against a rumbling bass.  As chilling as anything Blind Willie Johnson recorded, this is a man in total control of his instrument and his music.  “Fog March” features beautiful Psych guitar parts, a frenetic percussion part and some superbly unnerving vocals from Drecker.  “Open Invitation” pushes the vocal till it folds back on itself to create a Throat Singing note which is picked up through the track against nervous but insistent guitar parts to create a dark, sinister Sigur Ros like music.  The sound rises and falls in waves in a way that is cinematic and glorious.  The final bass note spreads from the speakers to the furniture and the music seems to fade away into the fabric of the room.  This is destined to be an ambient classic of the future.​

Adrian and Meredith – More Than a Little | Album Review | Vertigo Productions | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.07.17

Nashville is a city filled with Cowboys, Urban and Country and a myriad of ‘sat on a stool’ James Taylor wannabe songwriters.  East Nashville duo Adrian and Meredith cut through it all, decisively and confidently with their own compelling raw roots sound.  Part energy infused spit n sawdust bluegrass, part Sun records Rock n Roll, part lo-fi raw punk, part revival tent carnival attraction roared through a battered bullhorn.  Whatever the label it ends up under you cannot deny the energy, the vim, the drive and the sheer feeling that a gritty fun is being had.  From the cut and paste sharpie coloured feel of the digipack sleeve, to the defiant posture of the pair looking of the photos, the scuffed work boots and the recorded live to tape ethos, this is an album that makes it way to your stereo on its own terms.  It has rough corners, it has life and energy and a sense of real life captured in its being.  Any artifice with the tape effect at the start is blown away by the raw guitar and the rapid fire vocals on “Take A Boat” the superb opener.  On this track and the stomper tack “Greasy Coat And Kitchen Girl”, Adrian and Meredith’s vocals spark off each other and make a compelling sound, as different but perfectly matched as their rock n roll electric guitar and country fiddle.  Bank bubbles with the same energy and an infectious old school compressed mike sounding vocals.  Adrian on “Fixer” spits out the lyrics while Meredith roars Imelda May style.  Paul Niehaus’ Pedal Steel is tasteful and reminiscent of another time.  It is his collaborator Paul Burch or the majestically cracked vocal of Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher that More Than a Little’s raw punk infused retro swing country most closely recalls.  “Birthday Cakes” is a superb song, weary vocals, emotional waves of pedal steel, dirty electric guitar and the industrially tight drum kit of Aaron Distiler.  Composed of train sounds and rhythms from an earlier time this is a music that evokes the expansive prairie landscape.  More Than A Little marries Adrian’s raw guitar chords with a bluegrass stomp to make a modern ‘grin on your face’ Western Swing.  This is infectious music that seeps into your being like spilt whisky soaking into an ancient bleached bar top.  “Hero” is just as glorious, but slowed right down with a that mix of Southern Soul and Celtic mysticism that Mike Scott and The Waterboys hit in their best moments.  “Hero” with its waltzing brass and languid tempo shows that, fast on a road side bar dance song like “Get What She Wants” or slow on a track like Fixer this band hits it fully with every track.  “Country Song” with the honesty and integrity that shoots through this album has the pedal steel, country fiddle and crooning vocals to the fore.  “Southern Call” is a call to action song, with a stirring lyric delivered at a breath taking tempo, like a hobo rap over the atmospheric wafting sounds of the fiddle and pedal steel.  “Old Midwestern Home” has an expansive sound, a reflective lyric full of evocative imagery and the rhythm of the rails running through it, a strong closer on an excellent album.  Adrian and Meredith declare this album is a love letter to a New Nashville, a call to arms for independently minded artists with true vision and I would agree that this is the sound of a line being drawn and a voice declaring, don’t listen to that…listen to this.​

Addictive TV – Orchestra of Samples | Album Review | K7 | Review by Marc Higgins | 14.07.17

Between 2010 and 2015 Graham Daniels and Mark Vidler visited over 25 Countries.  From Brazil and Mexico to Senegal, China and back, filming and recording local musicians.  This album an extension of their on-going live shows as Addictive TV, documents and celebrates the process of layering together musicians and music to make connections, matching, splicing sampling and marrying.  The album is a labour of love in every sense of the word and a listen that is richly rewarding on repeated listens.  It works when you listen to every note and marvel at the artifice of it all and it works when you don’t, and you just enjoy the perfect moments created.  The percussion on first track “Hangman” is a cut up of an improvisation by Madrid based musician Daniel Salorio, while collaged over the beats are the percussive flute of Christophe Rosenberg and the beautiful French acapella act Ommm.  One track in and I already have three new musicians whose catalogues I want to dig into.  Like on closer “Herbal Haze” the overall effect is hypnotic with a dub reggae vibe.  Through the album distance and the passage of time separate the separate performances that are layered together.  Years separate Florin Iordan’s mandolin sounding Romanian cobza on “Unity Through Music” and Gatha’s cello loops recorded years later in sunny Bordeaux.  The spat out rhythms and hissing lines of Joe Publik and Moroccan rapper Si Sismo blend perfectly.  The train spotter listener can poor over the notes identifying individual performances and players, but what is remarkable is the way that elements so separated by time and space blend so perfectly to make a sonic masala.  “Eastern Baschet” is named for the ethereal and haunting sound of the Cristal Baschet an instrument of glass rods played with wet fingers.  You can hear it two minutes in on the track, dripping with suspense.  The instrument developed in the 1950’s by the brothers Baschet is played here by Francesca Russo.  The artifice of perfection on these layered performances isn’t complete and the ambience of the Bahcesehir University rooftop in Istanbul where Korkutalp Bilgin’s resonant tanbur plucking was recorded bleeds through, showing us some of the ghosts in the machine.  Revealed too is the improvised nature of the music as Bilgin, Daniels and Vidler bounce ideas about, their voices discussing what to play, becoming part of the textures.  “Kora Borealis”, as the title suggests, celebrates the music of Senegal and the west coast of Africa.  Kounta Dieye’s beautiful Kora was recorded in the Senegalese small village of Ndem.  Senegal rap star Matador was recorded in the capital Dakar, appearing alongside French acapella band Ommm.  “Beachcoma” is a perfect blend of performances.  Laetitia Sadier, lead singer with 90s band Stereolab provides a beautiful lounge-esque vocal that complements the Brazillian guitarist Mazinho Quevedo as perfectly as any of Getz Gilberto and Jobim’s 60s Samba records.  The wonderfully warm breathy trumpet like cornet of Alistair Strachan and the 25 piece French children’s choir, recorded continents apart, just take it to another level.  The lyric is like Gong’s Daevid Allen at his smiling goofy best, but the track is just sublime.  “Rapscallion” was created for an Orchestra of Samples performance at the Berwick Media Arts Festival in 2014.  The band recorded local Scottish and Northumbrian musicians.  Featured here is Shona Mooney BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2006.  Running like Shooglenifty and The Afro Celt Sound System, across genres, Shona plays with French rap duo Milk Coffee and Sugar (themselves a melding of voices from Rwanda and Cameroon) and the glorious young trumpet player Aleksandar Djordjevic.  However fascinating the individual ingredients are, what holds your attention is the way that together they just work so well.  Get online and you can lose yourself forever on an immersive and meticulous website that allows you to burrow into each track, reading up on each performer and recording session. Like the best albums do, it leaves you with a list of musicians and performers to investigate and some of the best new music you’ve never heard before.  “Sundown (That’s A Fact)” a meeting of Alejandro de Valera’s guitar, Mathieu Serot’s ethereal flute and the spiritual and soulful vocals of American Marcellus Nealy, sounds like they have recorded a trio rather essentially created one.  Tracks like this and “Beachcoma” make you hope this is the beginning, like Baka Beyond of a long association and exploration by Addictive TV.  The American collages a classical or west coast cool jazz piano riff, some Americana or Nick Cave-ish vocals by the wonderful Theo Hakola and the result is glorious and hypnotic with percussion textures that span the globe.  “Sitar Hero” features and celebrates the sitar playing of master musician Baluji Shrivastav OBE, building his spell binding performance from improvisations recorded at his London home.  Reading like an honours list rather than session credits Baluji plays alongside virtuoso tabla player Kuljit Bhamra MBE and the, by comparison, edgy French singer Aurelie ‘Lily’ Jung.  Paradoxically “Herbal Haze” the album closer, was the first track worked on, suggesting a cosmic cycle, as they end at the beginning.  The track, Addictive TV reckons, also includes the most unconventional samples with Brazil’s answer to Stomp, Parubate, hitting car exaust pipes, Israeli beat box style vocalist Nir Yaniv and Lorenzo Mos from Italy and Mexican Humberto Alvarez who repurpose and rebuild objects to fashion their instruments.  The texturing is fascinating, but as always blends into a seamless glimmering percussive whole behind Nir’s souring wordless vocal and all the killer bass and reggae keyboard bubbles the track title would suggest.  What to call the music on this album, as we do like to classify.  It’s been bottled and shaken to mix, until the bubbles form, but what do you write on the label?  Addictive TV talk about international musicians and the commonality of our interconnected human experience, as explored through music.  But one person’s tidy genre label is an irritant to others.  It’s only a matter of time before flaring tempers over the sub divisions of music causes a bloody civil war between factions armed with shards of sharpened vinyl.  Shout Records are better than CDs into a crowded room of music fans and see what happens.  Louis Armstrong Jazz innovator, singer and legend, when asked about genres of music is famously credited with saying.  “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song”.  World Music, the easy term to reach for, is a well-meaning but uncomfortably patronising term.  Uncomfortable, because until Sterns release an album of field recordings from the indigenous people on Mars or the un-named planets orbiting Alderbaran, then all music is World Music, as it is composed played and appreciated on our world.  Terms that divide music culturally or geographically, look for difference where the only difference is attitudinal. But as a beautifully layered collage of what feels like the music of ‘all of the world’, this album fits the term ‘World Music’ without any implied condescension.  As a massive sonic collage, that manages to simultaneously celebrate differences and commonality, then if anything deserves, for the size of what it attempts to encompass, the repurposed term World Music, then Orchestra of Samples does.  Listen to this album and rejoice in what connects us and celebrate the joy of the subtle differences.  You can chose to lose yourself in the detail and there is a lot of it to get lost in, or you can listen to the gloriously connected music, made from cultural and geographical counterpoints and marvel at how seamless it is all is. ​

Avital Raz – The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent | Album Review | Sotones | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.07.17

Avital Raz started out as a child singer of classical music in Jerusalem, after completing degrees in vocal performance and composition she studied Dhrupad singing in India.  The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent weaves through Troubadour Americana, Baroque choral singing, Indian Drones and the cadences of Middle Eastern Makam.  Opening track “TV” is so country with the slightly edgy but warm vocal of Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara.  Backing mixes country and European accordion music as Raz’s glorious voices runs free over the top.  “Bored Lord” is a spiritual delivered with Iggy Pop’s rock n roll insolent curled lip or Nico’s chilling majesty.  The vocal is beautiful and bitter at the same time delivered with a punk indifference and strut.  “Male Order Bride” released as a single is a dark but wry commentary on gender equality.  If Edith Piaf had covered country and infused it with Roger Miller’s snappy delivery, the result would smoulder like this, a dirty talking blues, delivered out of the corner of the mouth.  “The Damn Flood” chirps and swirls with Eastern Oud, Ney and Duduk.  Again there is a tension between the beautifully mystic backing and the bleakly beautiful vocals.  The lyric has a written beauty and the delivery is dark and nihilist in a Brechtian or Punk way.  The Duduk playing and percussion that opens “Isabel St Revisited” is hypnotic and beautiful, riding on a great atmosphere Raz delivers a dark lyric.  Listening to Avital’s vocal is like being cornered by a large snake the voice rises and falls, its cadence bobbing and swaying like the head of a python, the whoops or high notes when they come are as vicious as a bite.  Jukebox showcases a western swing vocal backing that is twisted but delightful.  Raz sings over the top with the presence and rich resonance of early Leonard Cohen. “Regarding Angels” takes the chorus to celestial level, with a huge choir behind the American guitar and vocal.  Both this song and the following The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent chop about with solo talking blues passages, delivered almost as asides set against trance like instrumentation and waves of backing vocals.  What sounds messy when described on the page, rises and falls, builds and breaks like a great wave form of a song with a bubbling rhythm, sounding glorious to the ear.  “Shame” has the mix of gothic American and dark humour typical of The Handsome Family.  Raz is an interesting listen with the falsetto doo wop backing that is almost Frank Zappa, challenging but compelling and always rewarding.  “My Lover is Cold” is a collision of traditional themes, set to a jaunty but sinister tune with her delivery seductive and alluring.  “Yossi’s Song” recalls the decorative wordless singing of the much loved Sheila Chandra as Raz’s Indian training comes through.  The arrangement is simpler with a solitary beautiful resonant guitar picking a counterpoint to the glorious vocal.  The final two tracks leave the most beguiling track till the end with their universally appealing tales of love and love gone very wrong.  Like Cohen’s “Suzanne”, a song that “Sorry About The Pills” reminds me of, the final song features a beautifully delivered lyric with darker depths.  We are in Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets” and “Slim Slow Slider” territory, the swirling slide guitar that wafts through the song is pure Pink Floyd late 60s psych and Avital’s vocal is transcendental and just beautiful weaving a bitter tale.  From beginning to end an album that is light and shade, darkness and light, one beautifully contrasting the other.  Always interesting and always surprising.

Wild Honey – Torres Blancas | Album Review | Lovemonk Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.07.17

Torres Blancas is the third album for Wild Honey the electronic folk pop vehicle for Spanish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Guillermo Farre.  Torres Blanco is 10 tracks of bright upbeat hazy electronica, pop songs and beautifully sunny vocals.  Farre’s previous albums, Epic Handshakes and a Bear Hug (2009) and Big Flash (2013) were both sung in English.  Returning to his mother tongue he feels has allowed greater self-expression.  To ears so used to hearing English vocals the combination of whispered or gently sung Spanish lyrics, shimmering electric guitars and retro electronic percussion gives it all the sheen of Lounge exotica or Tropicalia.  As sophisticated as sipping a cold cocktail while gazing at a perfect sunset or the distant Corcovada Mountain.  A self-confessed film geek who works by day for a classic films channel, Janus like, Guillermo is comfortable looking backwards and forwards, drawing on his collectors thirst for everything that is retro, pulling in elements of psychedelia, 60s pop, film music and electronica.  “Reverb Infinita” and “Siguiendo A Desconocidos” both have a wonderful keyboard passages that could be straight off a 60s Sci Fi film before they dissolve into effortlessly beautiful exotic pop.  Stereolab’s Tim Gane worked on Big Flash and band mate Sean O’Hagan contributes orchestral arrangements to Torres Blancas.  This long association, or maybe a shared vision means you can hear elements of Stereolabs retro keyboard drum patterns, keyboards and period intelligent pop in a lot of this album “El Volcan De Monserrat” is atmospheric vocals, gritty compressed percussion and some gloriously uplifting lush strings. Torres Blancas marries the perfect breathy pop vocals with those rich strings and Farre’s 60s guitar lines.  Tracks like “Ojo De Cristal” and “Mapas De Zonas Desiertas” have a soupy hallucinogenic grainy production layered around the vocals of Guillermo and Anita Steinberg and that chiming guitar.  “Desenfocada Out Of Focus” perfectly sums that bright pop rock 60s vibe with that musical fuzziness like been two glasses down a summer bottle of white wine.  The chorus vocals and that big guitar sound is just glorious.  This is top down summer driving or beach music like early Everything But The Girl or an retro analogue keyboard version of Simon And Garfunkel.  The easy tempos and washes of sound both cushion and uplift.  Like all classic intelligent 60s-esque pop albums it is short and focused at thirty five minutes of distilled down songs and sounds, leaving you wanting more.

Martin Simpson – Trails and Tribulations | Album Review | Topic | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.07.17

When Jackson C Frank first performed his song Blues Run the Game in the Bohemian folk clubs and beer cellars of the 1960s, the singer didn’t leave the impression that he’d done all the hard travelling the song spoke of, due in part to his youthful appearance.  The song now seems to have done all that hard travelling all on its own, or at least with the help of all the singers who have performed it over the years.  Best rendered by an artist who has indeed lived the hard travelling life – in the case of Martin Simpson, almost five decades of it, emphasised further in his rugged appearance courtesy of Elly Lucas’s cover portrait – the song now rings with a certain truth.  The song is as good an opener as it gets, especially for Martin’s 20th album and throughout the thirteen tracks, including one or two gentle interludes, Martin once again holds command over his chosen instruments – the usual guitar and banjo but also Weissenborn lap steel, resonator guitars and ukulele – all of which is confirmed with each touch of the strings.  I have to confess I was never the biggest fan of Martin’s singing voice in the early days, although it always seemed right somehow for the songs, especially on such as “Louisiana 1927”, “The Roving Gambler”, “Biko” and “Icarus”, yet these days that voice has settled into what could be described as an integral part of Martin’s art.  The voice and the playing work very much in tandem on such songs as “Katherine of Aragon”, “Reynardine” and certainly the aforementioned opening song, yet Martin’s musicianship is another thing altogether, brilliantly executed with seasoned dexterity.  Produced by Andy Bell, the album features guests, friends and family members including Nancy Kerr on fiddle and viola, Andy Cutting on accordion and melodeon, John Smith on guitar, Ben Nicholls on bass, Toby Kearney on drums and percussion, Helen Bell on strings, Amy Newhouse-Smith on backing vocals and a surprise appearance by Martin’s daughter Molly on vocals on the ethereal Emily Portman song “Bones and Feathers”.

Over the Moon – Moondancer | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 18.07.17

Over The Moon are a Canadian Roots/Swing duo.  Moondancer, their debut album was recorded in their ranch in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and just oozes with integrity and charm.  The album packaging features an atmospheric photograph of Over The Moon with Suzanne Lovesque and Craig Bignall, against the landscape of their home.  They are holding their instruments, faces set like frontier pioneer farmers in a hand coloured 19th century photograph.  Over The Moon don’t look like soft musos on a dude ranch, they look like they live the life they write about or write about the life they lead.  From “Strangers We Meet” and tracks like “By The Mark”, the interplay of Craig and Suzanne’s voices, harmonising, alternating lines or creating syncopation are simply glorious.  Instruments like Craig’s Banjo and Aaron Young’s electric guitar help paint the picture, but the voices are the star.  “House On The Hill” is a less sentimental take on Graham Nash’s “Our House”.  Feels like a Kathrine Edwards track with that Country ballad feel.  “Turtle Mountain” is an anthemic song, documenting the 1903 Crowsnest Pass disaster.  Suzanne’s vocal is powerful and chilling on this band composition, a folk standard in the making.  Again Aaron Young’s acoustic picking is fine around Craig’s banjo.  The bursts of Dents Dufresne’s violin and the tune give this a sense of Fairport’s “Matty Groves”.  “Over The Moon” and “Alberta Moon” are feel good tunes with that loose warm feeling of Western Swing and the best of Leon Redbone a Canadian by association.  Accordion and Clarinet on “Alberta Moon” slide by beautifully.  “Moondancer” by Canadian legend Ian Tyson, himself a chronicler of the rural life and a neighbour to Over The Moon, is an album highlight, with the feel of an early Eagles track.  Again Suzanne’s vocal, against washes of steel guitar and accordion, is just a joy.  “By The Mark” is a considered and heartfelt reading of the David Rawlings and Gillian Welch song.  The less is more approach really works here with space given to the wonderful harmonies.  “The Hills of Grey County”, dealing with ecological concerns and the perils of distant big business is another Folk song in the making.  Over The Moon’s reading of Henry Hipkens’ “That’s How I Learned To Sing The Blues” is warmer than Hipken’s empty bottle drawl, but theirs has a New Orleans French Mardi Gras swagger.  This is a love gone cold song you can dance to, rather than cry into your whisky to.  Rob Loree’s atmospheric character sketches on the cover, from the hapless troubadour about to get bucked to the reflective banjo player inside, have a Grant Wood folksy charm, but I am not sure they do the band or the music justice.  There is grit, integrity and a power in these tracks, sometimes raw, sometimes charming with a sense of place and honesty that just shines through.  The characters in the booklet raise a wry smile but the music leaves a much stronger lasting and deeper impression of warmth and a real life being lived.​

Jamie Francis – The Patient Neighbour | Album Review | TCR Music | Review by Ian Taylor | 25.07.17

Banjo player Jamie Francis has been the constant companion of folk troubadour Sam Kelly since they met at University, throughout their BBC Folk Award-winning Lost Boys and Changing Room incarnations, and has also played in Seth Lakeman’s band.  Francis is therefore more than adequately qualified to produce this, his first solo album, helped only by fellow Lost Boys Graham Coe on cello and the seemingly ubiquitous (in a good way!) Toby Shaer (John McCusker, Heidi Talbot, Cara Dillon) on, well, everything else. The Patient Neighbour features banjo-led arrangements of traditional Irish and American tunes alongside some original compositions – around half of each – at least one of which – the traditional American tune “Angeline The Baker” – has featured in a Lost Boys live set, and rightly so, as it is a rollicking good tune.  Francis also contributes guitars, mandolin and bouzouki to the mix, and shows throughout what a fine musician he is.  But it is on banjo which he excels, whether it be on fast-picking tunes or slow ballads, such as the beautiful original piece, “Dodd Wood”; the Ernie Carpenter arrangement of “Elk River Blues”, or the haunting solo album closer, “Last Sun On The Solway”.   The traditional material is skilfully presented also, the guitars and whistles on top of the banjo giving the material an almost live feel.  Check out “The Patient Neighbour Set”, for example, which builds over almost five minutes of sheer joy to a foot-stomping climax.  Whilst mention of an album of banjo music would normally generate a list of jokes as long as my arm in this household, Francis puts the doubters to shame with this more-than-accessible collection.

Porter Nickerson – Bonfire To Ash | Album Review | Weasel Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.07.17

Porter Nickerson are Carmen Nickerson a soulful vocalist and Willy Porter mean guitar player and vocalist with more than ten of his own albums under his belt.  The pair met after the release of How To Rob a Bank, Porter’s 2010 album and began collaborating soon after.  After working together on EP tracks and “This Train” on 2015’s Human KindnessBonfire To Ash is the first duo album.  “Old Red Burn” is an intimate slow burn opener.  Beautiful shuffling percussion, soulful organ and two voices that complement each other perfectly, you can hear the nods, grins and winks as they share the vocal.  “Plant A Garden” has a lyric as wonderfully left field as anything David Crosby wrote for CSN&Y.  The song is a rich mix of vocal harmonies, layers of guitar and a hypnotic atmosphere.  “I Need You” is a more intimate piece, both Porter and Nickerson have fine voices and this song shows them at their best on their own and as a duo.  Together the two voices are just uplifting.  “Living Proof” is a ballad with a huge lyric of triumph over a life lived, touch of organ and those glorious voices raise it to spiritual levels.  “Echo of Love” is a lyrical joy, lines that flow with grace and beautiful detail “I’m skating by myself staring down through the clear”.  Beautiful percussion gently hammers out a train track rhythm.  Porter and Nickerson share out the verses, carrying on the idea of two people estranged and separated but both hurting.  “Wasting Time” is another slow burner with a deliciously sparse drum beat and that languid feel of Emmylou Harris on Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” or an early Rickie Lee Jones.  Porter and Nickerson spin a beautiful atmosphere on these slow brooding songs, time just stretches out deliciously.  The album Bonfire To Ash is most aptly named on these smouldering songs.  “In Bloom” starts as a raw spoken blues that builds soulfully as Carmen’s vocal joins the track.  The guitar solo, pure Lindsay Buckingham against the vocals, gives how far Porter Nickerson could take their sound and songs if they wish.  “Loving On Her Mind” is a soulful country masterpiece, with a little touch of Memphis Swamp care of the electric keyboard, another stone cold classic.  “If You Stay” is a great break up song, heart felt vocals with some glorious counterpoints and harmonies, again enriched by some soulful backing.  “Signs” starts as a bottle half empty blues with a world weary compressed vocal and fills out with two vocals into a beautiful duet over a shuffling beat and a gently plucked guitar.  Like all the best you are left wanting more.  I’m a fan of Willy Porter’s as a gritty folk blues troubadour, but pairing him with Carmen Nickerson’s vocals creates something else, greater than the sum of the individual parts.  The best of moments come when you are played the best music you’ve never heard.  Here’s hoping this is the start of longstanding rich partnership and a beginning.

John Cee Stannard and Blues Horizon – To The River | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.07.17

For his latest release, John Cee Stannard continues to walk the path he began laying on such previous outings as Stone Cold Sober, Bus Depot Blues and The Doob Doo Album.  The songs are so deeply entrenched in Americana, particularly ragtime, early jazz and country blues that it may come as a shock when John’s palpably English vocals kick in.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition that seems to improve with each song, from the jaunty Separation 2 to the laid-back History, the fleet-footed take on “House Of The Rising Sun” to the swinging “Nothin’ Is What You Get”.  John is joined on To The River by a fine array of like-minded musicians including the renowned Simon Mayor on fiddle, virtuoso pianist Matt Empson and the multi-talented Julia Titus who heightens the authenticity with her fine supporting vocals.

Whyte – Fairich | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 28.07.17

Whether the term ‘Gaelic Ambient Electronica’ excites or offends the ear, this frankly resplendent collaboration from composer and musician Ross Whyte and Gaelic singer-songwriter Alasdair Whyte is an album that simply has to be heard.  Fairlich is the Gaelic word for awaken, sense or feel, and from the very first note of “Gaoir”, it’s clear that the Whytes are eager to stimulate even the most dormant parts of our consciousness with their stirring soundscapes.  Ross’s ethereal synths and samples flow unobtrusively beneath Alasdair’s reedy vocals on such tracks as “Fuaim An Taibh” (The Ocean’s Sound) and “Cumha Ni Mhic Raghnaill” (The Sister’s Lament) whilst “Leis A Bhata” (The Black Oaken Boat) welcomes the guitar of Laurie Cuffe as well as the invigorating sound of a string quintet.  With extensive liner notes which complement each of the seven tracks, Fairich provides an often cinematic plunge into the depths of electronica and Gaelic song, and it does so without ever losing itself in the tide of intricate sound textures thanks to Ross and Alasdair’s impeccable command over their art.

Ross Couper and Tom Oakes – Fiddle and Guitar | Album Review | Haystack Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.07.17

There’s something deeply exciting about the music of Ross Couper and Tom Oakes.  Within the symbiosis of the duo’s playing there lies an electricity that is managed so meticulously, remaining restrained during the gentlest moments then fizzing to the surface as each tune rises towards its climax.  Fiddle & Guitar, the duo’s first full-length album, undulates with said magic thanks to Ross’s graceful elbow – a familiar one for Peatbog Faeries fans – and Tom’s impassioned strumming.  On Phil Cunningham’s Cathcart there’s something equally mechanical and organic in Tom’s guitar whilst Ross’s lithe fiddle melody weaves threadlike between the chords as the tune gives way to the infectious grooves of Vioar Skrede’s “Apo Fetlar Top”.  There’s a wealth of lively rattlers on this album, from the strutting “Pig’s Reel” to “Sam Cormier’s”, but the slower tunes are no less intoxicating.  The melancholic 92nd Year is one of the album’s highlights thanks to its exploratory guitar chords, dainty fiddle lines and a heartbreakingly gentle middle section, consisting of subtle guitar plucks and wisps of sorrowful fiddle.  A return to tranquillity for Tom’s self-penned “The Last Gasp” lends the album one of its most delicate moments in which sprightliness is exchanged for intimacy without any loss of the fervour that makes this album such a success.

Fools Gold – Fools Gold | Album Review | Retro World | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.08.17

At the same time that Ry Cooder’s Chicken Skin Music, The Eagles’ Hotel California and The Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station were being released to critical acclaim, another California outfit by the name of Fools Gold were hoping to find success with their own studio outings.  Consisting of Tom Kelly on bass, Denny Henson on guitars, Ron Grinel on drums and Doug Livingston on pedal steel, Fools Gold were best known as Dan Fogelberg’s live band but were fortunate enough to be managed by John Baruck who had connections with the company that helmed the careers of The Eagles, Boz Skaggs and Steely Dan. With the help of such influential friends as Glyn Johns, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh, Fools Gold released their eponymous debut in 1976 followed by a second album in 1977 before disappearing.  Now, forty years after its release, Fools Gold has been remastered to present ten fine examples of that typical California sound that had such a great impact on seventies pop and rock.  Highlights include the pedal steel-infused cover of Dan Fogelberg’s “Choices”, the evocatively sun-kissed Sailing to Monterey and the CSNY-inspired “I Will Run” complete with spine-tingling harmonies and a chugging west coast bite.  Why this gem of an album failed to reach any success in the wake of such releases as Hotel California, Can’t Buy a Thrill or The Sound of Bread is anyone’s guess.  But it can’t be said that this collection of tightly-performed, well-written and exquisitely-produced songs lacks anything other than the wide listenership it deserves.

Various Artists – Mac Ile: The Music of Fraser Shaw | Album Review | Fraser Shaw Trust | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.08.17

In May 2015, the Glaswegian piper, whistle player and composer Fraser Shaw passed away after his battle with Multiple Sclerosis.  He was just 34.  Almost immediately, Shaw’s friends and family set up The Fraser Shaw Trust to raise money for the relief of MS, particularly in Argyll, Scotland, through a series of projects and events celebrating Fraser and his music.  One of the Trust’s first major projects has been to create an album of Fraser’s tunes, performed by The Islay Sessioners, a group of fourteen musicians and some very special guests. The result, Mac Ile: The Music of Fraser Shaw, is a beautifully rendered collection of twelve tunes, most of them composed by the late Shaw and all of them dedicated to his memory.  Opening with the sweetly melancholic “Back to Islay”, with Kevin O’Neill laying the groundwork of the track with a stunning whistle, the album moves delicately between Shaw’s well-loved compositions including the beautiful “Trip to Glasgow” featuring Laura-Beth Salter on mandolin, the arresting Islay Skies and the energetic Cairns Set, featuring Peatbog Faeries fiddler Ross Couper, in memory of the lively sessions Fraser would host over drams and Jager-bombs at The Cairns Bar in Glasgow.  The Sessioners are also joined by pianist Mhairi Hall and vocalist Kathleen Graham for the outstanding Calum McDonald-penned piece “Clachan Uaine”, one of the most poignant moments on an album that overflows with great sorrow and celebration.

The Twisted Twenty – The Twisted Twenty | Album Review | Penny Fiddle Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.08.17

As the album opens, with its invigorating violins and glistening cittern, a refreshing optimism swells and rises, one that is most often attributed to the music of Bach and Handel.  But instead of the Brandenburg Concerto or “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, this is the “Ragged Sailor Set” by The Twisted Twenty, an ensemble of seven international musicians dedicated to blending the musical worlds of baroque and folk music.  And, with their eponymous debut, they certainly succeed.  With Holly Harman, Alexis Bennett, James O’Toole and David Rabinovici providing effervescent baroque violins, Ewan Macdonald on cittern, Lucia Capellaro on baroque cello and Carina Cosgrave on baroque double bass, The Twisted Twenty seems to exist in its own rather inviting realm, one that heaves folk music deeper into the twenty-first century whilst facing backwards, with notable reverence, at the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  “John Anderson, My Jo” is a powerful rendering of the Robert Burns poem and one that benefits from Holly Harman’s uniquely commanding vocal whilst “Arthur McBride” is a brooding and genuinely haunting instrumental take on the well-known tune.  The darkness in tone is revisited on Thomas Ravenscroft’s “The Three Ravens” which, once again, provides an opportunity to bask in Harman’s deeply affecting voice, and the tone is sustained for a fiery reading of James Oswald’s Scottish melody “Three Good Fellows”, a thunderingly impressive nine-part slip jig.

Rahim Alhaj Oud and String Quintet – Letters From Iraq | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.08.17

Letters from Iraq is an attempt to express the love and pain in the lives of the people in war torn Iraq through a series of musical pieces for strings and oud.  Virtuoso oud player and composer Rahim AlHaj, a native of Iraq and now a naturalised American citizen, came into possession of a number of letters written by Iraqis, describing events and sectarian violence during and after the American occupation.  These personal stories so touched AlHaj that he gave them voice in music.  The pieces are presented as program music, intended to conjure imagery or tell tales hinted at in the titles.  The stories are detailed in the extensive booklet track notes, but the music is performed without words. Eastern Love – Sinan, the opening track tells the story of a doomed romance, set against violence against the Sunni community of Baghdad. The percussive Rigg, a Middle Eastern small single headed frame drum like a tambourine, beats out a rhythm that is both eternal like love and rises and falls to suggest heart beats. The melancholic tune is carried by both the violins and cello of the string section and AlHaj’s resonant and emotive oud.  “Forbidden Love – Tiama” continues a similar story of a Shi’ite Man and a Sunni Woman, driven apart by the violence.  In this piece a plaintive Gypsy violin speaks as the women and AlHaj’s oud the man, the notes becoming voices, conjuring such pictures.  This is sparse music, with space for the emotion to pour out of every note of the soloists.  It is also dark music that speaks of sorrow.  “Running Boy – Fuad” describes a boy trapped after a car bomb explosion, wonderfully resonant descending oud notes and the deep bass voice of the cajon a Latin American drum describe those stretched moments perfectly and build huge tension.  “That Last Time We Will Fly Birds – Riyadh”, like the Dave Sudbury’s song “King Of Rome”, describes how flying homing birds means you are sharing their freedom to feel free yourself, only to have that feeling shattered when their roof top homes are destroyed and the birds scattered.  Again different instruments tell different elements of the story, the oud describes the sense of loss (loss of the birds home and loss of the excuse of their care as a cover for meeting a girlfriend) and the strings describe the movements of the flying birds.  The song titles, each with the names of the person whose story is being told, and the track notes, full of the everyday, universal and very ordinary details of life, add depth and power to the music.  “Going Home – Rahim”, with the most ominous drawn out tremolos, describes AlHaj’s return in 2014 to Baghdad after an exile following the US invasion.  The delicate and soulful solo Oud passage in the middle is Rahim returning to his childhood home.  This is possibly the most powerful piece on the album as it describes the moment when the composer and player realises that Baghdad is no longer his home and what he is misses is in the past.  “Unspoken Word – Laila” is an Iranian lullaby and a lament for a boy’s lost mother with a gloriously expressive violin solo.  The final two tracks “Fly Home – Fatima” and “Voices to Remember – Zainab”, offer light among the shade.  “Fly Home – Fatima” uses an infectious percussion rhythm and some uplifting oud and violin to show that everyday life endures, between the horrific stories are moments of precious living and a hope for a return to normality.  “Voices to Remember – Zainab” is a dance that looks to a time where Iraq is united.  Rahim says “Music can make us laugh, make us cry, make us march into war.  I want to make music to make us realise peace”.  This album makes us cry, makes us laugh and tells stories that contrast the universal beauty of everyday live with the indiscriminate destruction of conflict and war.  AlHaj, born in Iraq, living in America concentrates on the inhumanity and doesn’t take sides, but points out that battles are not only fought far away, that war has come to his homeland and now to our homelands.  He acknowledges that as individuals and as groups we are capable of being the worst but hopes “This album will inspire listeners to choose love, wonder and hope” and be the best.

King Ayisoba – 1000 Can Die | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.08.17

King Ayisoba, born Abert Apoozore in Ghana in the 1970s, makes an arresting and compelling music.  His sound is in a tradition rather than traditional.  He plays the Kologo, a West African stringed instrument that creates a pulsing percussive beat.  But it is Ayisoba’s vocals that stand out on first listen to this album, rather than his prowess with the Kologo.  His voice, a powerful, raw instrument that he pushes to its limit, just screams with passion and power throughout this album.  Against the bedrock of his Kologo his voice is as striking and impassioned as anything Johnny Lydon ever spat into a microphone.  “Grandfather Song” and “Ndeema” are just Ayisoba’s vocal and Kologo, a reminder that he has a firm grounding in Ghanaian traditional music.  Elsewhere, with the drums leading and upfront, not an exotic textural addition, the music takes from electronica and from hip-life (a Ghanaian style that fuses local highlife music with hip-hop and rap).  Tracks like “Africa Needs Africa”, “Wekana” and “Dapagara” layer traditional instruments against grainy electronic keyboards, Ayisoba’s voice and guest vocalists to create a soundscape that is rich and hypnotic.  “Anka yen Tu Kwai” has a beautiful groove of Kologo and electronica pulsing together that contrasts the passionate and raw vocals over the top.  “1000 Can Die” with a dark texturing that recalls Transglobal Underground, cutting through the soup is a dubby shimmer is the distinctive spoken rap of Lee Scratch Perry, building into an anthemic statement.  Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius adds a raw jazz edge to “Dapagara”, a melodic base over which the vocalists just soar.  After the fusions and juxtaposition of past present and future on this experimental album, “Ýalma Dago Wanga” and “Ndeema”, the final tracks, with traditional drum, kologo and vocals that are more crooned than roared, are by comparison gentle and soothing.  Unlikely to ever appear on one of those soothing, carefully sequenced African music compilations, this is an uncompromising album that looks confidently to the future.​

Rio Mira – Marimba Del Pacifico | Album Review | Aya Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 03.08.17

Based in the coastal town of Esmeraldes in Ecuador, named after a river that runs from Ecuador into Columbia, formed as a collaboration by musicians from the two neighbouring countries and guided by the distinctive warm percussive tones of the marimba, this is stunning music that blurs boundaries and borders.  The marimba that opens the first track and underpins much of the music of this album is a symbol of the band’s Afro-Pacific identity and is intertwined with the escaped slaves known as maroons who made the region their home from the early 16th Century onwards.  But that history and the distinctive African call and response vocals are channelled into something that is new and joyous, infectious and uplifting.  In 2015 UNESCO declared the marimba music of South Pacific Columbia and the Esmeraldes Province to be Intangible Cultural Heritage.  The legacy of those who escaped from shipwrecked slave ships, or nearby plantations, seeking refuge along the Pacific coast, is then undeniably a positive one with the music demonstrating the unity that binds together regions divided by state borders.  “Adios Morena” and “Agua”, the first two tracks are built around the resonant warm sound of the marimba and wonderful call and response vocals, creating a spiralling cyclical sound.  That sound builds slowly with two syncopated marimba rhythms that envelope you and carry you like waves on the shore.  “Guarapo” and “Nina Elena” bring the striking vocalist Kara Kanora to the fore and have strong twisting dance rhythms that will be recognisable to anyone of South American and Cuban music.  The beautiful call and response vocals are still there but they rise and fall over infectious pulsing beats.  The drum sounds get bigger and bigger on “Roman Roman” with a huge frame drum behind the vocals adding to the hypnotic effect.  Rain sounds and atmospherics on “Aguacerito” title the song and with a beautiful and simple vocal piece create a delightful interlude like the flipping of the sides on an LP.  With “Patacore”, “Ronca Canalete” and “Andarele” the tempo and layered drums with three separate rhythms are infectious and captivating with the vocal chorus driving everything on, this is definitely not music to sit still to.  “Estaban Llorando” features softer percussion textures with the strong pulsing beat coming as much from the call and response vocals and again is hypnotic and utterly beguiling.  “Chikungunya” is another short vocal piece, perhaps an interlude to prompt you to stop, breathe, take a moment, flip the record and start all over again.  From the slow hypnotic warm marimba, to the rich textured vocals, the layered rhythms and the rich history, there is much here to reward repeated listening.  Rio Mira’s Marimba Del Pacifico is released on AYA Records a newly formed offshoot of an Argentinian label, an outlet for projects from across South America.  The band, the album and the label brim with a sense of the new, the infectious, and the exciting.

The Last Dinosaur – The Nothing | Album Review | Naim Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.08.17

At 16, Music college students Jamie Cameron and James MacDonald, as When I Was A Little Girl, recorded the well received 2005 independent album Good Morning Sunshine and Goodnight, a year later a tragic car crash, involving them both, claimed the life of James.  By his own admission Jamie had had an uneventful, idyllic life until that point.  He found it difficult to comprehend.  “I thought I came out of it relatively mentally unscathed, although in hindsight that’s a trick you tell yourself”.  Eventually over the course of years, with Luke Hayden, a new musical partner, as The Last Dinosaur, Jamie began to very perceptively address his feelings about life, dying and process his grief.  There was no conscious decision to write an album about anything, but the songs  that came all dealt with similar themes and getting them down was ultimately cathartic.  Picking up where The Blue Nile, Talk Talk and Mark Hollis left off, with an intimate ambient sound built around strings and electronica, The Last Dinosaur have created a cocooning set of tone poems.  Jamie Cameron’s vocals, breathed into the microphone and his potent stroked acoustic guitar infuse the album with a warmth and a glow.  The album The Nothing is uplifting and life-affirming, its lyrics may tackle the subject of mortality head on, but the overlapping, interlaced and sometimes fragmentary melodies are like drifting in and out of a blissful reverie.  Atoms opens with a deceptively simple acoustic guitar as Cameron looks beyond the pain of now, to a bigger picture and to find some sense of it all.  Grow, with its cycling electronics and atmospherics and the most spectral of lead guitar notes is almost Floydian as it creates a potent pastoral soundscape, a moment to lose yourself in.  The National Stage reflects on the transitory nature of physical existence against a buoyant guitar riff and some glorious strings.  “All My Faith” and “Well Greet Death” have the lush acoustic warmth of Blue Rose Code or Bears Den, with choral voices and affirming lyrics that just carry you away on uplifting sonic pillows.  That dream like state is further stretched by the Penguin Café Orchestra like instrumental “The Body Collapse” which continues the beautiful minimalist piano motifs, electronica and a glorious viola piece from Rachel Lanskey.  “Wings” stretches Jamie’s breathed intimate vocals to their most whispered and hypnotic, every syllable is precious and given space, contrasted by the lush string passage in the song.  “On Water” builds emotion with waves of electronics, sampled vocals and a bubbling keyboard motif.  “The Sea” builds slowly, tension is created by a plucked string and another gloriously potent vocal and its tales of metaphorical oceans and the journey of life.  “Goodnight” imagine Bill Evans’ careful melancholic piano chords filtered through the warm soundscapes of The Blue Nile.  A beautiful and considered album which works sonically and thematically as a whole, like Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours, rather than a concept album.  Real life, shot through with real pain and loss has led to an album that deals on an intimate level with some of the big issues, achieving an emotional intensity that speaks to everyone regardless of their situation.  You cannot fail to be moved or captivated by this.​

When Rivers Meet – Liberty | Album Review | One Road Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.08.17

This debut release from British duo When Rivers Meet, essentially husband and wife team Grace and Aaron Bond, shows some promise, especially in the duo’s trump card, Grace Bond’s instantly accessible and distinctive voice, emphasised in the delicate “You Blinded Me”.  Most of the self-penned originals on Liberty, named for the duo’s newly arrived niece, as well as the duo’s new found freedom, sit well with the two well-known covers, an intimate Kris and Rita styled “Suspicious Minds” and an inventive minor key take on the old Johnny Cash standard “Ring of Fire”.  Sadly, the two voices are not really made for one another and therefore there’s no fantastic harmonies to speak of, in fact I’d go as far as to suggest – at the risk of coming over all Simon Cowell, which I am really loathe to do – that my money would be on bringing Grace into the spotlight throughout.  “Regrets & Lies”, jars a little, enough for me to ponder why producer Chris West didn’t talk the duo into leaving it out altogether, or at least to shift it from track four to the very end, it adds so little to the album.  Grace Bond is in possession of a fantastic voice which needs to be heard and adopting a more Eurythmics musical ethos than a Sonny and Cher one would benefit the duo greatly.  Having said that, “Can’t Pay My Way” works well, with a rather splendid New Orleans jazz arrangement.

Reg Meuross – Faraway People | Album Review | Hatsongs Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.08.17

Reg Meuross is one of the most reliable singer songwriters in the country today.  His songs are often touching, poignant and easily accessible, yet he doesn’t feel a need to shriek or scowl, grumble or growl, rather, he stands before us with guitar in hand and moves through a song as a concerned observer, calmly watching and reporting back with honesty and compassion.  There are no banners, no marches, no changing profile pictures, just words and melodies to awaken our senses in a most effective way.  He’s not likely to baffle, perturb or confuse us with needless ambiguity, rather he speaks in a language we all understand – a singer songwriter through to the bone.  Faraway People is inhabited with characters, real or imagined but vividly drawn.  There’s the implausible scenario of Phil Ochs and Elvis Presley grabbing a bite to eat at a supermarket just outside Doncaster.  Then there’s Hank Williams and Dylan Thomas emptying bottles of the hard stuff in an Alabama bar before literally and metaphorically leaving us.  Then we find the unnamed angel in a blue dress, the queen of soul, a nurse let down by her government once again, and Sophie, a conscientious student, murdered, along with a sibling and a friend, by an evil regime for distributing leaflets in wartime Germany.  The songs’ subjects weave through time and space, both historical and current, such as the story of the former student Ahmad Al-Rashid, a Syrian Kurd refugee, whose flight to freedom from his war torn homeland is really just one of hundreds of such stories, yet is still poignant and moving.  There’s Michael Brown, the victim of yet another race killing, cut down in his prime, like any number of Dylan heroes who have gone before.  The list of characters is endless, a number of them packed into the opening four and a half minutes of the title song “Faraway People”, as the songs cover a pattern of life we unfortunately know only too well, from modern times way back to the Roman era courtesy of Cicero.  Protest songs with a keen eye on human nature and the foibles that go with it.  These are songs of and for our times, meticulously observed and intricately rendered in verse, with the sparsest of accompaniment, together with one or two love songs in order to balance our anger and fear.  Songwriting at its best and in more than capable hands.

Jupiter and Okwess – Kin Sonic | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.08.17

There’s something striking about the Congolese musician Jean-Pierre Bokondji (aka Jupiter), his tall gangly frame and growling voice as deep as the ocean being his most notable features.  A formidable presence on stage, the singer commands attention, whilst his band Okwess (Kibunda for ‘food’), provides enough punch to ensure there’s no confusing them for merely a backing band.  On this second album, the follow up to Hotel Univers (2013), we find the Kinshasa-born singer determined to take giant strides through his own Congolese roots, based on the traditional rumba-styled dance music of the Congo, which this band treats to an infectious contemporary rock feel.  If the hysterical laughter at the beginning of “Emikele Ngamo”, as well as elsewhere on the record, reflects the positive mood of both Jupiter and his band, then by contrast, the impassioned vocal performance on “Pondjo Pondjo” demonstrates Jupiter’s versatility as a performer and emphasises the fact that there’s definitely room for a more soulful and reflective side to his music.  The sheer energy of “Bengai Yo”, in which Jupiter utilises stories and parables to denounce injustice, doesn’t so much etch its message into your soul as scratch it in deep with six inch nails, with a determined guitar riff and infectious rhythm.  Produced by Marc-Antoine Moreau and featuring Damon Albarn on keyboards, the eleven tracks demonstrates a musician who means business with a band of musicians only too eager to share Jupiter’s vision with a cover designed by Massive Attack’s 3D (Robert Del Naja).

Sam Baker – Land of Doubt | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.08.17

Texan singer-songwriter Sam Baker seems to have taken his time with this, his fifth album, once again engaging his audience with a selection of highly distinctive songs from the heart.  The first thing we notice is Sam’s particularly mannered singing style, where he inserts spaces between each word, which probably speaks volumes for the art of his own songwriting, in that each word, each syllable, is very much pronounced, possibly because each word very much counts.  The jagged drawl continues throughout each song in an almost hesitant manner, ensuring each verse is delivered clearly and concisely.  The survivor of a 1986 terrorist attack in Peru, Baker’s determination to tell his stories as a highly thoughtful singer-songwriter continues to develop with five albums now under his belt together with a steadily growing and loyal audience.  The four musical interludes here serve to create a certain mood prior to some of the album’s best songs “Margaret”, “The Feast of Saint Valentine”, “Peace Out” and the closing title song.  Whilst “Same Kind of Blue” investigates the story of a quiet unassuming soldier sent out to war in South East Asia with the unfortunate name of Charlie, the collective name of the enemy, “Leave” is a heartbreaking confrontation with lost love.  We sense from these songs a life very much lived and love very much lost and occasionally in a minor key. 

Callaghan – The Other Side | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.08.17

It comes as little surprise that Lincolnshire-born singer-songwriter Georgina Callaghan, known professionally by her surname only, chooses to pursue a radio friendly pop direction on this her latest EP release.  Following the current trend for releasing shorter bursts of creativity, Callaghan’s five-track EP is in effect a showcase for her more accessible pop tunes, richly arranged and orchestrated with her confident voice very much to the fore.  In places the songs are nailed-on contemporary radio tunes with the lead song, the title track, appearing twice here, yet for the life of me I can’t spot the difference between the two apart from the fact that the second version is about half a minute longer.  For me though, Callaghan excels mostly in the stunning performance of what I see as essentially the EP’s showstopper song, the exquisite “Surrender”, which is not unlike a gorgeous mixture of Sarah McLachlan, Regina Spektor and the Cranberries all rolled up into one; the EP is important if only for this fine piece of work.

Sibusile Xaba – Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah | Album Review | Mushroom Hour/Capital Arts | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.08.17

Occasionally an album will come along that gets so deeply under the skin that it demands to be obsessed over and gushed over in equal measure.  It happened with Buena Vista Social Club twenty years ago, Tinariwen’s Tassili in 2011 and then Clychau Dibon, the outstanding collaboration between Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, in 2013.  This month we herald the arrival of another breathtaking “world music” release, this time from South African guitarist and singer Sibusile Xaba.  Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah is Xaba’s two-disc debut release and presents a fascinating fusion of jazz and malombo.  For the uninitiated, malombo is a traditional African healing ceremony and its music, of which Xaba is a proponent, combines hand-drumming and vocalisation with the rhythms of jazz and popular African music to create a spellbinding concoction of ruminative sounds.  Open Letter to Adoniah is minimalist in construction, but it’s this unadorned approach that lends this half of the two-disc set its infectious charm.  The majority of the disc consists of a single guitar, hand-drums from Xaba’s son Thabang and chanting vocals.  With such tracks as “Wampona”, “Swaziland” and the stunning “Sibongile: Tribute to the Mother (Reprise)” you’d be forgiven for letting yourself float a few feet off your living room carpet.  Unlearning, the other half of the set, is a more jazz-based affair with Ariel Zamonsky on double bass and Bonolo Nkoane at the drum-kit, mixing gentle bossa nova rhythms and unfettered jazz explorations on such tracks as “I Wrote It For Ziare” and “Internet Dance”.  Both sides of this impressive debut benefit from Xaba’s inventively soulful Zulu vocals and the reflections they cast on the strings of his acoustic guitar.  And whether its relaxed and meditative sounds or flights of exuberant jazz fusion that you’re looking for, this album simply will not disappoint.

Fine Lines – Hour of Need | Album Review | Parade Recordings | Review by Damian Liptrot | 17.08.17

Before I start, I shall have to declare an interest – I like Fine Lines and looked forward to the release of this, their debut album with a fair degree of anticipation and on initial listening was not disappointed.  However, in the interest of fairness and objectivity, Hour of Need was shared with the sternest critic of my musical tastes and when she not only approved it but encouraged a replay, then I felt my belief was justified.  “Fine Lines” is essentially the distillation of the musical loves and influences of David Boardman and operates with a floating line-up based around a core membership the guitar/vocals of Mr Boardman, the complementary vocals of Zoe Blythe and the keyboards of Gary O’Brien.  The remainder join as and when the situation and the venue demands or allows and the album reflects this fluidity of scale within the songs themselves, whilst still retaining an essential ‘Fine-ness’.  At the heart of the sound is classic acoustic rock, spanning both American and British exponents of the art and for nit-pickers everywhere, takes in some Canadian influence, with a majestic version of “I Shall Be Released” that owes more to The Band than to the solo artist responsible.  Whilst the impeccable selection of a cover version is to be applauded and enjoyed, there is much more to be appreciated in the band’s original material, mainly from the Boardman pen but with a few co-writes.  Think of bands that you love, that for one reason or another no longer offer much of interest, either through lack of inspiration or lack of membership.  Fine Lines manage to bring the spirit of the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Roddy Frame and The Beautiful South to their music without becoming derivative or a tribute, though the bitter-sweet ruminations on the nature and experience of relationships of the latter are never far from the content, titles such as “Forget About You” and “Just Tell Me Why” acting as clues pointing in this direction.  The vocal interplay of David and Zoe is a huge plus point, the keyboard, including a distinctive Hammond organ, add value and interest throughout and this is augmented by a variety of contributions to produce the whole band effect, including guest appearances by several members of Merry Hell and with a nod to a certain Mr Radcliffe on drums, returning to the occasional melancholy of Foes rather than his current jolly rogering with Galleon Blast.  Individual songs, I hear you ask. Well, there’s the bounce of opener “Feet Don’t Touch The Ground”, the aching within “It’s Not Easy” and the melodic richness and swell of the near title track “In My Hour Of Need”.  Infectious, thoughtful, insightful and damned catchy, music for those of us who think Americana is a starting point rather than an end in itself, coming out of Knutsford – catch them if you can.

David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanack | Album Review | Acony | Review by Steve Henderson | 19.08.17

Some years ago, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were at the forefront of a resurgence in the interest around American traditional music and its roots.  It was a similar reaction against the schmaltzy aspects of Nashville to the one pushed forward by ‘outlaw’ and ‘new’ country acts before them.  Though new recordings from Gillian Welch have been limited in recent years, David Rawlings has released a couple of albums under the name of the Dave Rawlings Machine.  Now, back with his full first name but having discarded the machine, Rawlings has released Poor David’s Almanack.  Like the other records released under his name, there is a much wider palette of material than that you’d expect from a record carrying Gillian Welch’s name on its cover.  That’s not to say that she’s absent from the record.  Indeed, she is listed as co-writer on five of the tracks and adds her distinctive harmony vocal all over the place.  In what was, by today’s standards, a short recording period of a week or so, the enthusiasm of all concerned bubbles up across the record.  Much of that must come from the closeness of the musicians on board for the ride with such as Willie Watson and Brittany Haas as well as members of Dawes, The Punch Brothers and Old Crow Medicine show.  While the name at the fore of this record may have changed slightly, the approach is like earlier releases from the Dave Rawlings Machine.  That means you’ll hear everything from a stripped back sound to a full-on band treatment of the songs at hand.  “Money Is The Meat in the Coconut” is a childlike romp that could pass itself off as intended for a classroom singalong.  With “Yup”, we have an equally simple feel to the chorus drawn from the song’s title but, lyrically, it tells more of a sinister tale.  Its eerie use of a musical saw just goes to emphasise the juxtaposition in the feel to these songs – contrasts being something that pervades the whole album.  On the sleeve notes, there is an admission that several of the songs are loosely based on traditional stories and songs though this stops short of any credits to traditional arrangement.  Lindsey Button has the strongest traditional feel to it though Airplane with its stripped back sound runs it a close second and could have fitted as neatly on a Gillian Welch record.  Elsewhere, on the track Cumberland Gap, you could be listening to a contemporary Neil Young song – indeed, his “Cortez The Killer” popped up on an earlier Dave Rawlings Machine record.  So, lots of contrast on this record whether in the arrangement of the songs or the nature of the songs themselves and their lyrics.  The variety brings with it a richness that lovers of rootsy Americana will enjoy to the full.

Ryan Young – Ryan Young | Album Review | Ryan Young Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.08.17

Voted ‘Up and Coming Artist’ at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards in December 2016 and a finalist from BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Music Awards in both 2015 and 2016.  Ryan Young has performed on the BBC Hogmany Show and at ‘T’ in the Park to around 80,000 people, sharing the main stage with Paolo Nutini and Phil Cunningham.  Beautifully recorded across four days in the Opera Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, this album is an altogether more intimate affair.  The rich recording captures the tones of the acoustic music and the ambience of the room, especially on the fiddle and piano.  From the slow and mournful “The Back Of The Change House” with its resonant melody over a stately piano part to the fleet footed jigs and reels like “Caber Feidh/To Chase The Goats Off The Rocks”, Ryan is a masterful player with pacing and emotion is his playing whatever the tempo.  For me it is the slower material, especially “Ryan’s Despair”, a solo piece where you can hear the air around the fiddle and every ounce of emotion is there in his playing.  The stuttering bow work seems more reminiscent of Jaqueline Du Pre’s definitive recording of Elgar’ Cello Concerto than Folk Club dance music.  The notes draw pictures and weave an atmosphere in the air.  Perfectly poised, with power and great timbre is Leo Forde’s understated guitar work.  On tracks like “The Rothiermuras Rant” they sound like one person with four arms playing two instruments.  On this finely recorded album it is a pleasure to hear James Ross’ sensitive piano playing.  On John MacColl’s Farewell he shifts from playing huge chords behind Young’s soaring fiddle, to a section where they circle round the tune together.  When you have all three players on “Willie’s Auld Trews” and “The Harris Dance” within the same set of tunes there is a power and drive in the way they carry the music forwards.  Another highlight is the shift from the slower paced “What Pain I’ve Endured Since Last Year” which starts with some monolithic piano chords and great squalls on the fiddle to gradually build in tempo across the set of tunes.  This is an amazing debut album from a virtuosic player in many ways at the start of his career, it will be interesting to see where he goes after this

Rafiki Jazz – Har Dam Sahara | Album Review | Riverboat Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.08.17

Things change as they travel, all things are broadened by travel and music is infused as it crosses the world. So Township Jazz of the 50s and 60s, filtered Post Bop through an African bounce and lightness of touch. Gambia’s Bembeya Jazz National band synthesised Jazz, Cuban rhythms and Rock n Roll to make their own music.  The guitar itself travelled in an early form up through Europe and across into America, then back again with its 20th Century electric form re-pollinating the desert blues of Saharan Africa and Zimbabwean Jit among many others.  Shakespeare, in Ariel’s Song from The Tempest talks about the seas ability to create mystery changing the ordinary over time into “something rich and strange”.  People are so diverse that they do that, as musical ideas flow back and forward like migrating birds, changing ordinary into new and exciting.  Today music and musicians that remind us of everything that we have in common, while at the same time exploring the richness that comes when you cross cultural and geographical boundaries are a well needed breath of fresh air.  Formed in Sheffield in 2006 Rafiki Jazz began as a physical and musical meeting of regional roots and jazz musicians with migrant and refugee artists.  Eleven years later founding member and bass player Tony Koni remains at the helm, steering and co-producing. This album was recorded as much as possible with a live sound, with musicians playing together.  The result, as you will hear, is a natural sound with a sense of a room full of musicians listening to and sparking off each other. You can hear the grins the nods and the sense of togetherness.  The album opens with a big swirl on a resonant Kora played by Kadialy Kouyate a Senegalese player from the great line of Kouyate musician songwriters or Griots.  Sarah Yaseen’s Sufi inspired vocals meditate on the inevitability of death.  “Sunno”, the duet track resonates with emotion and power.  “Saya” is an arrangement of a track by legendary Gambian band Ifang Bondi, who as The Super Eagles can trace their roots back to the 60s.  Rafiki Jazz take the funky reggae tinged afro-mandingo sound of “Ifang Bondi” and turn it into hypnotic, lovingly crafted devotional music.  Percussion and Tony Koni’s rock solid bass lay down a groove, guitar and kora flourishes weave in and out, while Sarah Yaseen, Mina Mikhail Salama and Avital Raz’s vocals just soar over the top.  The whole band contributes a trance like chorus that is simply divine.  “Tasbih” has an Arabic or North African feel, with some of the juxtaposition that Rafiki Jazz excel in.  Arabic percussion and an Oud create a strong atmosphere through Mina Salama’s arrangement of three Coptic praise songs.  Mina Salama’s vocal is compelling and cinematic in the way it creates an atmosphere.  As with the previous track Salama’s breathy kawala flute adds another layer of texture like richly scented incense smoke.  Juxtaposition makes it sound like you are adding opposing elements to create contrast, but rather when the Kora and steel pans appear they add to the expansive atmosphere rather than jar.  “You Are Light” is based on an 11th century Hebrew poem.  Avital Raz’s breath taking vocal and tanpura drone invokes a beautiful Hindi raag, which Cath Carr’s sensitive steel pan work emphasises, with a sitar like feel, rather than goes against.  Fans of those unclassifiable ECM records recordings that straddle Jazz and international music, or the spiritual music of Stephan Micus or Sheila Chandra, will find much to appreciate on this album.  “Har Chand Sahara” recalls Pakistani playback singer Nayyara Noor, with lyrics based on the poetry of Shohrat Bokhari.  The opening tanpura and Vijay Venkat’s evocative violin wind around each like mist and smoke forming into vivid pictures.  The voices of the vocalists blend beautifully, again adding to the rich melange of delicate guitar, kora and flute.  A sense of the spiritual lyrics throughout the album is given by Sarah Sayeed’s English spoken piece in “Jhooli Laal Qalandar”.  “Cheikh Amadou Bamba (Serigne Touba)” closes the album as it opened with Kadialy Kouyate’s Kora rippling behind beautiful vocals with everything buoyed along by the lightest flickering percussion.  All music is a mix of borrowed and combined elements.  What makes Rafiki Jazz and Har Dam Sahara so special, is the skilled way they blend the elements to make something beautiful.  The skill of Rafiki Jazz, is in their lightness of touch, nothing sounds forced, and the way that they make a musical masala where your ears fizz with individual sounds but nothing is overpowering or out of place.  A physical reminder of the interconnectedness of everything and the fact that when you put people from different backgrounds, traditions and cultures in a room together they make something that is spiritual, uplifting and simply beautiful.​

Holy Moly and the Crackers – Salem | Album Review | Pink Lane Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.08.17

There’s little doubt that Holy Moly and the Crackers are one of the most vibrant live outfits in the country today, a band whose individual members attract your immediate attention, making it difficult for you to take your eyes off any one of them.  There’s the charismatic frontman Conrad Bird, whose towering personality betrays his diminutive frame, a passionate performer with all the theatrical prowess of a seasoned Thespian.  Then there’s Ruth Patterson, the perfect foil for Conrad, whose radiance could be compared with that of a 1940s Hollywood movie starlet.  Their chemistry is tangible.  If this was not enough, then there’s always the supporting cast whose stage antics divert your attention from the main protagonists momentarily; Rosie Bristow stage right, her bohemian accordion aflame, Martha Wheatley stage left, her soaring trombone pointed directly at the audience, both musicians fully immersed in dance as they entertain.  This highly engaging band from the North East, presents some of that live magic here on Salem, their second full length album, with one or two songs that have been hanging around their live repertoire for some time now.  There’s the sultry “Sugar”, with its crackly retro intro and Conrad’s growly, almost lecherous delivery.  Then the rockabilly of the punchy “Cold Comfort Lane”, with its sneering guitar riff commanding your attention, followed immediately by a taste of the Deep South on “Hallelujah Amen”, a slice of swamp gospel which would ring in your ears after each show, now finally available to take home with you.  Difficult to categorise, Holy Moly and the Crackers weave several musical genres into an exhilarating tapestry all their own, one minute very much gypsy folk influenced, the next a thoroughly absorbing country gospel soul, with plenty of attitude punched in, a sense of the burlesque injected into everything the band play.  Holy Moly are a band that most festivals should be placing at the top of the bill if only the regulars would step aside.  Listen to this, then see them at your earliest convenience, you will not be disappointed.

Michael Chapman and Ehud Banai – EB=MC2 | Album Review | NaNa Disc | Review by Marc Higgins | 23.08.17

This music, the album EB=MC2 and before that, Chapman and Banai’s concerts together can ultimately be traced back to two valleys.  One near Hawnby, North Yorkshire, lush green and full of trees, the other, more austere, in northern Galilee.  Michael Chapman, paying his way through Art College in the early 60s worked as a woodsman on the North Yorkshire Mexborough estate in the summer breaks and found inspiration for classics like In The Valley and Among The Trees, leaning against the trees with his guitar.  Slightly later, Ehud Banai spent an extended reflective period in the 70s, alone near Rosh Pina in Galilee, with his guitar, a ghetto blaster and one cassette.  On that inspirational cassette was Michel Chapman’s 1969 Fully Qualified Survivor album.  Travel forward over 30 years to 2012 and Ehud, now a successful musician with a string of his own albums, is playing The 12 Bar Club on Demark Street in London.  With one of those mystical coincidences that lift the hairs on the back of your neck and give life sparkle, he is on the same street and less than 20 doors from Regent Sound A, where the majority of Survivor was recorded.  The club owner came up to Ehud and said that he didn’t understand one word of his songs, but that he could hear the influence of Michael Chapman in his guitar playing, he gave Ehud Michael’s address and Ehud wrote to Michael suggesting some tour dates in Israel.  Chapman lives to travel and globe hop “If I ever got the money I’d wander all the time, a fully qualified survivor, like some fool or some sublime” he sings on “Soulful Lady”, the opening track on this album and first recorded in 1969 on Chapman’s seminal Fully Qualified Survivor album.  Concerts organised, the two finally met, on an Israeli radio program just before the first show in Tel Aviv.  At the behest of the broadcaster Michael and Ehud improvised a piece for two guitars and magic happened.  On their first tour they performed a set each and a joint guitar piece.  On the second tour they played a set each, a set together and finished up in the studios recording together, producing this album.  First track is a new version of the fore-mentioned “Soulful Lady”.  Michael’s nimble acoustic is beautifully complemented by Ehud’s washes of ethereal electric guitar, harmonica and tasteful lead.  Chapman sings the verses and they duet on the chorus.  The 1969 “Barnstormer” is reimagined as a shimmering desert blues.  With both men at an age where the cliched pipe and slippers are what is expected and looking like they have lived in and walked through the desert, then the image of the fully qualified survivor is even truer now than it was then.  “Angel” is a shared composition, again opening with beautiful reflective guitar from Chapman, before one of those ‘one musician, two heads four hands’ moments that make this album so special, when both musicians play acoustic.  The lyrics are full of well-worn blues sentiments about love, age and time, given a spiritual dimension by the title and Ehud’s spine tingling Hebrew lines.  “Plain Old Bob” (has a hoe down) is an instrumental, written for an itinerate dog in Eleuthera, originally recorded on Chapman’s 2015 Tompkins Square album Fish.  Again and again on this album the interplay between the two guitarists is just exquisite.  Michael in the left channel and Ehud in the right, this is a masterclass in atmospheric acoustic playing.  “Sometimes You Just Drive” is an apocalyptic flight of fancy, inspired by seeing the aftermath of repeated flooding in Carlisle Cumbria.  Michael picks acoustic, while Ehud layers on some Floydian atmospheric electric and slide guitar.  The moment after Chapman’s line ‘I send a prayer up to the lord’, straight out of a Blues Spiritual where Banai’s singing in Hebrew offers a prayer, is just mesmeric.  The track just builds and builds in atmosphere and intensity. With three songs on 50 Chapman’s album from the start of the year, and three instrumentals from his previous release and The Mallard being recorded three times since 2016, then it is tempting to see EB=MC2 as a re-tread or an indulgence and that would be a massive mistake.  In a Zen like way, or a Jazz way, recording for Michael Chapman is about the moment, he picks musicians not to tell them what to do, but to see what they can do.  If you can, then set up “Sometimes You Just Drive” from 50, released in January and the same song from this album and just marvel at how the interactions of the performers in the moment reshapes the material.  “Guitartar” is a glorious instrumental, harnessing the spirit of Chapman’s Rainmaker and the Incredible String Band, a duet between guitar and an Iranian long necked instrument called the Tar.  The interplay between the two is wonderful and like “This Thing Has No Name” you sense it could have been an album on its own.  “The Mallard”, a song about loss, regret and the fastest steam train in the world features a wonderfully world weary cracked blues vocal from Chapman and a sublime slippery eastern guitar lead part from Banai.  Two guitars, bass, Michael and Ehud’s vocals and Maya Belzitsmann’s ethereal cello makes another beautifully balanced piece.  “Rosh Pina” was written by Chapman, inspired by his visit to the valley of Ehud’s epiphany and recorded first on his 50 album.  Here, to give the whole album context, Ehud, while nodding to some of Michael’s own lyrics, writes the story of his valley and their first meeting through music.  Proof that music crosses all boundaries and reaches out to everyone it touches “like a cure to the broken heart”.  “Like Sometimes You Just Drive”, this track is especially moving.  “This Thing Has No Name” despite a throwaway title is another perfectly played instrumental all about the interplay between the two musicians and their masterful guitar work.  After their initial meeting, Ehud wrote an instrumental piece called “Michael Chapman Haya Kan”, Michael Chapman was here, on his 2015 album Esh Ktana/Ze Hapaskol and Michael wrote a piece called “Ehud” for Fish.  On EB=MC2 that solo guitar instrumental is performed as a duet for multiple guitars and Ehud’s expansive shimmering electric playing takes the piece to a whole another level.  Another reason, if one was needed, to start dipping into Ehud Banai’s back catalogue.  Final track “Birdman” is a joint composition, built round a killer guitar riff and shuffling beat and atmospheric vocals, a fine closer.  If you are fan of interesting, shifting guitar, sparkling duets, music that captures a moment of connection, then buy this album.  At a career point when you would expect musicians to be reflecting, looking back and mentally compiling the greatest hits package, then Michael Chapman and Ehud Banai are looking forwards with an intensity that is inspirational.  Fifty years after the generation that wrote the book on the folk troubadour and their transcendental guitar playing, these two, fully qualified survivors both, have revealed the start of another chapter.  “And what is waiting up the road, young again or just too old”.  You decide.​

Ron Pope – Work | Album Review | Brooklyn Basement Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.08.17

Ron Pope’s presumed creed, a desire to work to live, rather than to live to work, as emphasised in this album’s title song, certainly seems to reflect a perfectly logical work ethic, yet with seven solo albums now under his belt in just fifteen years, there appears to be a contradiction in terms.  This singer songwriter indeed lives to do this.  Recorded at an analog studio for the first time, rather than digital studio, Work reflects Ron Pope’s life thus far with a collection of highly personal songs, some recorded almost as stripped down acoustic demos with no further embellishments, some arranged around his finely tuned band, each of the performances sounding both relevant and accomplished.  Produced by Ted Young at the Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville, the album includes songs of a philosophical nature, the notion of a relatively young man pondering upon his own mortality in “Someday We’re All Gonna Die”, whilst reassuring us that his dancing days are not over yet by any means.  We get a sense that Ron Pope is very much here and still very much enjoying it, occasionally alluding to a more hedonistic lifestyle with the soul-filled rocker “Let’s Get Stoned”.  On perhaps the prettiest song on the album, The Weather, we hear a fabulous duet with Georgia singer Molly Parden, whose gentle harmonies add something relatively sweet to what is essentially already an easily accessible album.

Mark Lavengood – We’ve Come Along | Album Review | Earthwork Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.08.17

These days the Dobro might well be seen as an integral part of most modern Bluegrass outfits, yet we rarely see it in the hands of a lead player, rather somewhere to the side, its player poised over the instrument in one of two optimum positions; the traditional seated position with the guitar upon the player’s lap or alternatively, the now much more familiar standing position with the Dobro ingeniously strapped to the player’s torso.  Michigan-based Mark Lavengood appears to have no problem bringing the instrument to the fore, the instrument featured liberally throughout We’ve Come Along, his new album.  Not only do we become acquainted with Lavengood’s playing, his songs and his voice here, we also get a sense of his character, notably during the intro to “Vulpes Vulpes”, which captures some studio banter, a little like the memorable Morrissey exchange between Ryan Adams and David Rawlings that famously kick starts Adams’ Heartbreaker album.  There’s some familiar material here, such as Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride”, both of which sit well between the original songs and tunes, the tunes being a couple of interludes that offer contemplative moments between some of the more raw performances.  The sprightly “Three Day Blow”, with its references to the Velvet Underground and “Sweet Jane”, suggests a rather different musical background to the acoustic bluegrass that makes up We’ve Come Along, an edgier offering.  Joining Lavengood are Keith Billik on banjo, Kyle Rhodes on guitar, Jason Dennie on mandolin and Spencer Cain on upright bass, who between them create a laid back contemporary approach to this old mountain music.

Jon Palmer Acoustic Band – The Silences In Between | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.08.17

The Jon Palmer Acoustic Band is one of a handful of Northern British outfits frequently booked for their fully functional credentials as an exciting live band, more than capable of finishing off an afternoon, an evening or an entire festival in style.  Wearing their folk rock roots very much on their sleeves, embellished here and there with some notable rogue folk and alt country elements as well as the occasional sea shanty, together with an almost tangible sense of fun, the band seem to be tailor made for live performance.  In the studio, their repertoire, mostly made up of Jon’s original songs, transfers quite well, with the band’s endeavour to capture the same energy.  There’s ample strummed guitars, skittering fiddle runs and lilting mandolin chops, all of which drive the songs along, whether they concern little earthquakes, cold winds and whiskey, or just the sweet innocent ignorance of love.  There’s also a cheeky nod towards Snow Patrol during the instrumental interlude on “On the Day I Stumbled Into You” – in the words of the great Barry Norman “and why not?”  Throughout, Jon and the band maintain a firm grip on good time folk music, despite pointing out in the lyric of “Barleycorn Boy”, it’s not a folk song because “nobody dies, nobody drowns and nobody gets lost at the fair” a veritable anthem to the folk song tradition nevertheless.  There’s The Waterboys, Oysterband and Saw Doctors, and then there’s Otley’s favourite band, and with this album, very definitely at the top of their game.

Commoner’s Choir – Commoner’s Choir | Album Review | No Masters | Review by Ange Hardy & Rob Swan | 28.08.17

We had absolutely no expectations for this album, no preconceptions whatsoever.  We’re going to come right out with it and say that “The Commoners Choir” is one of the most significant album releases of the past five years.  This is an album that has got us excited, enthused, and outright riled up.  The arrangements – which are utterly fabulous – twist and turn throughout the songs in such a way that mean you never hear the same thing twice.  From the moment we put this CD on in the car we knew it was something special.  Before we even get onto the contents of the songs; we need to talk about the arrangements.  Musically, this is an impressive piece of work.  The album is filled with fabulous melodies, but also counter melodies.  It has intricate sprinklings of vocal landscaping, clever little rounds and harmonies arranged in an untold quantity of vocal layers.  It sits familiar snippets of tunes that you’re sure you know up against counter melodies that you’ve never heard, and it sounds glorious.  This album is accessible and inclusive.  It manages to be political without patronising.  It has a defined political agenda whilst maintaining an overriding sense of humour, joy, and hope.  This is the kind of album where you’ll find yourself singing along to a song at the top of your lungs; and then – half way through – you’ll realise the words that you’re singing… and they hit you like a proverbial tonne of bricks.  Yes, this is an album that gets us very, very excited.  This is not just a collection of songs, it is a masterful work of art.  As a disclaimer: we’re both massive Chumbawamba fans.  This is not a Chumbawamba album it is simply a project spearheaded by a single member (Boff Whalley), but it’s impossible to review The Commoners Choir without drawing at least some parallels.  There’s a certain channelling of Chumbawamba through the music.  Familiar lyrical phrases like “singing in the dark times” and “a singsong and a scrap” find their way into the songs.  Arrangements and melodies have a certain comfortable familiarity, most of the twenty-one tracks are refreshingly short, and there’s a continuity that ties the album together into a cohesive whole.  Most recognisable however is the message delivered through the songs. Boff Whalley has often channelled the voice of the people through the guise of Chumbawamba.  But through The Commoners Choir he’s not only perfectly channelled the voice of the people, he’s also succeeded in channelling their voices themselves.  There’s no less than fifty-eight choir members on this album, and they are harmonious and in tune throughout. This is a beautifully orchestrated piece of work.  The album highlights the injustices, the inequalities, and the inadequacies of the current state of the world.  The Commoners Choir Manifesto, which existed before there were any choristers or any songs includes their intentions: “we’ll be explicitly political and committed to what we sing about…. We’ll sing about the world around us, about inequality and unfairness, and about the things that need changing.  The words we sing will be angry and clever, but we’ll sing them with as much harmony, melody and earworms as we can muster!”  The world around us is not entirely beautiful, and nor are the songs.  The opening “Angry Song” is full of harmonious joy… but the decision to include the sound vomiting into a toilet bowl is indicative of the choir’s commitment to their message.  It’s not supposed to be a beautiful moment.  It’s a moment that’s supposed to drag you out of the relaxed daze they’ve lulled you into and slap you in the face with meaning.  The songs are interspersed with clips from newscasters and presenters, amongst those we recognised were the voices of Chris Packham and Theresa May.  The choir is also occasionally supported with just the subtlest of percussion or additional musical arrangement.  It’s a subtle but highly effective production.  These are songs from the left; but they’re sung with a political conviction and openness that makes them feel accessible.  It’s not aggressive shoved-down-your-throat songwriting (okay… the Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson songs are possibly a tad aggressive – the inlay reveals the choir themselves argued about the general rights and wrongs of advocating murder in song. but it’s songwriting with the intention of getting you look at the world around you, and then – if you see the injustices – to get off your ass and do something.  There’s a real power in being able to write a song that expresses an opinion on a subject like driven grouse moorland “The People’s Armada” in a way that’s listenable, enjoyable, politically valid… yet doesn’t really insist on your allegiance in either way. For me, this is an album that’s a masterclass in how political writing should be done.  It’s simply highlighting a particular view of the world, delivered with wit and melody.  There’s too many tracks to describe them all; but stand outs for me are “Robin Hood in Reverse”, “Mechanical Movable Type” and “Three Boats” which are amongst the most glorious of arrangements.  “Angry Song”, “Shelter Song” and “Get Off Your Arse!” were probably the three songs which had the biggest political impact.  If I had to single out just one track to listen to, I suppose it would be “Robin Hood in Reverse”.  A song written in response to Bradford’s National Media Museum ‘donating’ it’s incredible photography collection to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum – cultural spending totals £69 per head in London but just £4.50 per head in the rest of the country. The choir (uninvited) flash-mobbed the museum’s foyer to sing this song.  Ultimately you need to read and digest the entire inlay to understand the validity and intention of all the songs.  The inlay also highlights their commitment to singing songs out in the world.  The choir have sung on Kinder Plateau in the Peak District, written songs for the picket lines of junior doctors, sung about broadsides in libraries and about floods from Hebden Bridge…  We’ll say it again: what Boff Whalley has done with this hard working and undeniably talented band of choristers in Leeds has produced an album that’s one of the most significant releases of the past five years.  With luck, the repercussions of this movement will be felt long into the future.  To refer back to their original manifesto: “This will be a choir unlike any other… We’ll rehearse until we’re brilliant”.  If a review could end with a standing ovation, this would be a good time to stand up.

Moirai – Here and Now | Album Review | WildGoose Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.09.17

Let us consider the cover artwork for Here & Now, the new album by Moirai (pronounced More-eye).  There’s something exceptionally refreshing and rejuvenating about those swirling colours, something within the subtle changes in shades that invites us deeper into the work itself.  The same could well be said of the music on this seductive second album from the all-female trio.  Indeed, it’s not surprising that the artwork was created by Mel Biggs, one third of this outstanding multi-instrumental outfit.  Beginning with a sublime take on Rose Milligan’s life-affirming poem “Dust If You Must”, Here & Now unfurls a patchwork quilt of sweetly harmonic folk songs, graceful instrumentals and a handful of impressive originals.  The musicianship is stunning, with always elegant and often dazzling moments of accordion, fiddle, flute and clarinet, but it’s the approach to their music that distinguishes Jo Freya, Mel Biggs and Sarah Matthews from other combos, not to mention vocal harmonies that make even the longest hairs stand to attention.  There is great joy on this album, studded with glimmering sequins of humour and love.  Behind the spine-sizzling a Capella vocals of “Doffin’ Mistress” there lies a delightful mischief that rises again in the wonderful “Brexit Biscuits”.  And even the more melancholy moments are coloured with uplifting hues such as “Rolanda’s Mother” and “The Hare”, the latter composed and sung by Jo Freya, an artist of countless talents and who may be better known to some as one seventh of Blowzabella and, to others, as the trusty MC of Whitby’s Musicport Festival.  One of the highlights of this constantly engaging record is the trio’s gentle take on Daz Barker’s “Here & Now”, the title track whose arresting lyrics benefit from Moirai’s impassioned vocals and a clarinet solo that tugs determinedly at the heartstrings.  “Moments to remember”, the ladies sing, “but none of them compare to here and now”, a line that epitomises the exuberance that runs right the way through this lovely album.

Dona Onete – Banzeiro | Album Review | Mais Um Discos | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.09.17

The voice of the feisty 78 year-old Brazilian singer Dona Onete takes you a little by surprise upon first hearing it.  There’s not the slightest glimmer of a shrinking violet here, instead we find a singer who certainly means business, in fact there’s almost a sense that Dona is making up for lost time.  Having given up any thought of being a singer when at the age of 22 the newly wed Amazonian was forced to silence that most distinctive voice for a spouse who didn’t much like it, Dona went on to pursue other fields of endeavour instead.  Having worked as a history teacher and campaigner for workers’ rights during the ensuing years, she eventually found herself retired and widowed and answered a call to return to the path that was probably always meant for her.  After releasing her debut album Feitiço Caboclo at the age of 73, Dona now assumes the mantle of ‘the grande dame of Amazonian song’ and holds back little lyrically with songs that address gay rights, indecent proposals, fishy-smelling waters “No Meio do Pitiú” and an assortment of different types of kiss; either ‘hot, frozen, sweet, salty, bold or abusive’.  Working within the rhythms of the traditional carimbo, samba, pagode, ska and bolero, Dona Onete is convincing throughout with some sumptuous musical arrangements intent on forcing listeners to their feet.

Kate Ellis – Carve Me Out | Album Review | River Rose Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.09.17

Listening to the songs of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-born, now London-based, singer songwriter Kate Ellis, reminds me of first hearing Nanci Griffith at the outset of the so-called New Country scene back in the mid-1980s, a time when country music became relevant once again after a period of rhinestone encrusted miasma.  Raised in New York to an American father and English mother, the young Kate Ellis was exposed to folk music at an early age, with grandmothers on both sides also being musicians.  Leaving a career in law aside, Ellis has returned to that music with her formative influences intact, from Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger to Gram Parsons and Leonard Cohen, with her own father as a closer to home inspiration, he having once performed with the legendary Hank Williams.  Kate’s voice is the main focus here, lifted by mature songs and strong arrangements.  The standout song, “Ones You Love the Most”, is up there with the very best of the genre, both in the writing and the delivery, whilst songs such as “Paper, Scissors, Rock” and “Inside” demonstrate the work of a mature songwriter.  “Going Against the Grain” is also a fine example of her collaborative aptitude, with a fine duet with co-writer Andy Hobsbawm.

House Above the Sun – Five Hours North | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.09.17

The first single and album opener on Five Hours North, the blues-based “Runaway Devil”, immediately demonstrates this band’s Americana credentials, despite the intro’s apparent Eastern influenced guitar riff.  With Jim and Ariel Moreton at the helm, the London-based outfit stretch their own distinctive sound on this, the band’s debut full-length album and follow up to their self-titled debut EP of 2015.  The ten convincingly stylish songs draw on the combination of Jim’s guitar and voice, the undoubted driving force behind “House Above the Sun”, along with the sparsest, almost tentative harmony accompaniment of Ariel, which seems to fit perfectly the mood of the songs.  The smooth West Coast groove on such as “Eagles Dare” balances measure for measure with some of the more blues-based material, notably “St Augustine’s Blues”, the opening bars of which could easily have been lifted from the Woodstock soundtrack.  Putting aside the prominent electric guitar momentarily, we are treated to “Footsteps”, a fairly stripped-down acoustic performance with just a smattering of electric frills, which gives us a glimpse of the Moreton duo’s intimacy.  Not just a great debut, but a truly great album.

Various Artists – Urgent Jumping East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics | Album Review | Sternsmusic | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.09.17

Urgent Jumping the compilation is twenty seven tracks, nearly 150 minutes, of a rich cross section of music recorded in East Africa between 1972 and 1982.  Through, what influential club DJ John Armstrong’s extensive sleeve notes call the boom years, African musicians flocked to East Africa, especially Nairobi.  Here they could record through the day and play at a club through the night.  Congolese musicians and players from South Africa, Kenya itself, Tanzania, Zambia and beyond played together, switching bands, swapping tunes, performing and jamming. Building the music that you hear here.  Fuelled by Kenyan independence, investment by the multinational labels and the influx of talent from all across sub Saharan Africa, there was a strong and skilled recording industry in Nairobi in the early 60s.  The label Sterns, has been fortunate in securing access to an extensive library of East African music, much of what you are listening to was originally issued on 7”, singles and as such has remained unheard since original release.  In many cases the Kenyan label releases now commanding three figure sums at auction.  The array of riches on offer across this double CD are incredible, both in their breadth and their power, there is the hypnotic chiming electric guitar with a jazzy lead on tracks like L’Orchestre Grand Piza’s “Oboti Kolisa” from 1976 and L’Orch Moja One’s “Dunia Ni Duara” from 1982.  There are 60s psychedelic garage band keyboards and prescient 80s electronica on the Sunburst Band’s “Matatizo Nyumbani” from 1973 and Hafusa Abasi & Slim Ali and the Kikulacho Yahoos Band track “Sina Raha”.  “Sina Raha”, with its compelling bass and percussion beat, other worldly keyboards, beguiling compressed vocal chorus, soulful brass lines and spoken interlude is a case in point, a four and a half minute sonic jewel and it was only a B side.  Here it is lifted from the tape vault of history’s amnesia for your delight, and a delight it is.  Tracks like the Sunburst’s Band 1973 “Enzi Za Utunwani”, with its frenetic beat, 60s organ sound and its psychedelic lead guitar chimes with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Santana, this is very much not from isolated backwater.  Some like L’Orch Dar International’s “Rafiki Sina” with instruments and voices suggesting birdsong, lean towards 90s journeys into chill out music.  Some tracks like L’Orch Dar International’s “Chama Kimoja” and Juwata Jazz Band’s “Mpenzi Zalina” are so steeped in reverb and tape compression, and are as grainy as any artefact from Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Ark studios that they sound like shortwave radio transmissions.  But these imperfections are reminders, like patina, that we are listening to messages from another time and a distant place.  What ties everything together, as musicians from across the continent blend together their playing, layering in those chiming guitars, the afro rock beats, the Cuban rhythms and the brass lines is the infectious beat.  Fundamentally this is all dance music, club music to move to, sounds that put a smile on your face.  The set is aptly titled.  It is too easy to think of Africa as one place, rather than a continent of different cultures and peoples with individual and sometimes disparate identities.  The 60s gave us the politically exiled music of musicians from South Africa, the 70s the shamanistic dark jazz funk of Fela Kuti from Nigeria.  The 80s gave us Jit from Zimbabwe.  More recently Mali’s Desert Blues with the Kora and its re-appropriated, possible descendent, the electric guitar and the music of the Tuareg people have enriched international music fans.  Now it is time that we looked in depth at the musical legacy of the East.

Elliott Brood – Ghost Gardens | Album Review | Paper Bag Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.09.17

For their sixth album release, the Juno-winning Ontario-based trio Elliott Brood have found themselves in unexpected reflective mood having stumbled across some old demos and song sketches that were thought long lost.  Revisiting these song ideas, the band have polished up some of the material that forms the basis of Ghost Gardens, a title that refers to those gardens that seem to thrive long after the original owners have gone.  In a way, this title reflects the fact that the seeds for these songs were sown long ago and have now been given the opportunity to bloom.  The eleven songs don’t necessarily fall into any discernible style or order, rather they’re formed under the influence of various genres; “Til the Sun Comes Up Again” and “Dig a Little Hole” skiffle-like in their simplicity, “Gentle Temper” almost Ryan Adams-like, “Thin Air” could have been recorded in the 1920s and judging by the wind-up gramophone intro, it just might have been, whilst “2 4 6 8” has an almost Clash-like approach once it gets going, hard rocking and attention grabbing through to the end.  The melody line of “For the Girl” could easily be mistaken for a Paul McCartney throw away from his self-titled debut, just as the dust settled on the Beatles’ tombstone back in the day, a notion echoed in the “Revolution #9” effects-laden penultimate track “Searching”.  Slightly eccentric, Ghost Gardens is a fine little album of new material from older ideas.

Amy Henderson – Soul for a Compass | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.09.17

Amy is a graduate of the prestigious National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High School and the Folk and Traditional Music Degree at the University of Newcastle. The University course led to an interest in community arts alongside her live performing.  Coming through strongly on this debut album are her interests to Cajun and Zydeco alongside her rooting in and commitment to Scottish Traditional Music.  “Why Walk When You Can Fly” opens with a spry tinkling refrain on the accordion and piano that strongly suggests the Penguin Café Orchestra’s lightness of touch.  Amy Henderson’s vocal on this upbeat version of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s motivational song skips along.  It’s a great album opener, setting out as it does Amy’s intention to aim high and not accept second best.  “Lady Mary Ramsay” and “Kirsty and Kevin” set Amy’s pulsing accordion, which carries the tune, against piano and guitar.  Her playing has light and shade and shifts of mood and place that hold your interest.  “Kirsty and Kevin”, like the later “Linda And Kenny’s Waltz” is one of those atmospheric slow tunes, where space and long notes draw you in rather than breakneck paced whirling dance music.  The relationship between the sparse percussion, those big double bass notes and the accordion is simply wonderful.  “Easy And Free” and “Bonnie Ship The Diamond” showcase Amy’s beautifully pure voice.  The first track is just about the singing, with the voice filling the room on the verses.  The second is a faster swirling song and Henderson’s rich singing is one of the colours carrying the tune and painting glorious pictures.  “Make Up Your Mind” is a spit and sawdust breath of air a heaving Country Cajun number with a real twang to Henderson’s singing and the playing, an interesting contrast to the rest of the album.  The final pair of tunes contrast Amy’s skills as a performer, Nina is a wonderful rolling accordion tune with all those rich orchestral noises that the instrument can conjure in the hands of a skilled player.  “Golden Years” is a stately slow almost sombre piece, full of poise, atmosphere and power.  This is an assured, confident and rewarding debut contrasting bursts of speed swirl and occasional Cajun swagger with a stately beauty and grace.

Duane Forrest – The Climb | Album Review | Traaxx Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.09.17

“Oh I was sitting at the edge of the sea” sings Duane Forrest at the start of the first song, backed by the ambiance of waves on an expansive tropical beach.  Steam of consciousness lyrics, spilling over with evocative detail draw you in from the start.  His warm and inviting voice is backed by a rippling guitars and some keyboard bass notes.  The crooning lilt is from the same beach troubadour world as Jack Johnson, but the textured backing and Duane’s guitar parts give an emotional depth and a touch of edge to this story of beauty and menace.  Right from the start this album is so much more than just easy on the ear ragged acoustic pop music.  “Piece of Cake”, bubbling along over a reggae bass line is feel good music, an ode to everything that is good, the duet vocals suggesting two people singing about the other.  But “Policia” opens with a huge darker cello that segues into a beautiful percussion, picked acoustic guitar and vocal bossa nova.  “The Walk” is another of these glorious juxtaposition that Duane Forrest delights in, music full of surprise where nothing can be taken for granted.  Early Paul Simon acoustic music morphs into languid reggae with a huge dub beat behind Duane’s passionate vocal and just a touch of “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.  This track, like others on the album, should be on a million beach acoustic compilations and enjoyed over a cold one.  “Midsummer Night’s Dream” carries on the Jose Gonzales meets lush reggae electronica vibe.  If Zero 7 had recorded in a Cuban beach house, it would sound as good as this.  “1 Night Stand” and “Wedding Bells” show that Forrest’s feelings and love can build intensity with just guitar and vocals, as easily as he does with distinctive twisting lush arrangements.  “1 Night Stand” is a plea to be taken seriously and the heartfelt lyric is delivered over a simple backing.  Duane’s passionate vocal and guitar are king, with just a few musical flourishes to really carry his message home.  “Wedding Bells” feels like a diary entry and has a certain power because of it.  The whole album is at its core broadly biographical, The Climb referring to Forrest’s journey up out of darker times.  Currently resident in Toronto, he has lived in Mexico, Honduras and Puerto Rico amongst others.  Given this and his Jamaican heritage perhaps it is no surprise that Duane has so successfully blended Bossa Nova, Jazz, Reggae and Soul into his music and his rich ballads.  “Warrior 1” marries a part prayer spiritual lyric, jazzy strident double bass and some wonderful vocals.  This song oozes depth and power while also screaming ‘hit’.  “G’Morning Bossa” is another heart felt love song, built round a killer guitar riff it nods lyrically and musically to the Brazilian ‘new’ music.  “Chevrolet” is another album highlight, snappy electronic and acoustic percussion and a Cuban Jazz bass riff and some Cuban lyrics, the whole track overflows with class and a feeling of summer.  “End Of The World” features two wonderfully paired soulful vocals.  In this song a hypnotic groove delivers a lyrical realisation of the simple things that are really important.  Poet Philip Larkin, not often mentioned in reviews of languid mutant Bossa Nova Jazz Reggae Folk, said “what will survive of us is love”, and this song confirms it.   Occasionally the words could come across as glib, but the sentiment is real and heartfelt in this ditty hymn to true love.  “Mariela Of My Dreams” brings all the lyrical elements of this biographical album together.  Biblical lyricism and a final heartfelt song close the set.  Ever the conjourer Forrest leaves it until the final minute of the album to let his John Martynesque right hand on the guitar, build into a shimmering ecoplex cloud.  It has to be said, that vocally Duane Forrest is often very reminiscent of Jack Johnson.  But it is such a beautiful, natural and hypnotic sound, that this quickly ceases to matter.  Forrest clearly has a fertile musical imagination, and a host of stories to tell and his songs fizz with a million ideas.  It is this ability to marry the beach troubadour vocal and slap guitar with other elements, while telling stories rich with the details of real life that makes this album memorable and suggests that here is someone who is really going somewhere.

Warsaw Village Band – Sun Celebration | Album Review | Jaro | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 12.09.17

Opening with a swell of shimmering violins, dripping dulcimer notes and pounding percussion, Sun Celebration proceeds with unrelenting currents throughout.  This seventh album by the Warsaw Village Band marks twenty years of the Polish octet with a double-disc plunge into the rushing waters of the band’s effervescent music.  And what music it is.  Uncompromising in their insistence on mixing sounds from a diverse array of traditions, these thirteen mesmerising tracks are sewn together by the common thread of sky worship and, like the mystical solar cults this album celebrates the music pulsates with mystery, passion and otherworldliness.  The double album is split into two distinct parts – #sun and #moon – with the first section providing much of the album’s most stirring and animated songs such as “Perkun’s Fire” and “Vibernum Orchard”, with their aching chants and percussive pulses, and the second introducing more languid and meditative tracks such as “Lull – Lullaby” and the wonderfully evocative “Towards the Sun” which closes the album.  Whilst the captivating and often inventive turns on such staple Polish folk instruments as Płock fiddle, dulcimer, Biłgoraj suka, hurdy-gurdy and baraban drum lend the album much of its irresistible magnetism, Sun Celebration reaches its most dizzying heights via the band’s enchanting vocals that, when condensed to a single strand can be notably haunting and, when stitched together in unison and harmony will often lift even the heaviest of listener from his seat.

Quetzal – The Eternal Getdown | Album Review | Smithsonian Folkways | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.09.17

The extensive sleeve notes contained within the handsome 44 page dual language illustrated booklet, detailing thoughts on social justice, race, anger, frustration, disillusionment and hopelessness amongst the indigenous peoples of Latin America, almost overshadows the music found within.  One of the two key players on The Eternal Getdown, Martha Gonzalez, an activist, feminist music theorist, assistant professor of Chicano and Latin studies, who just happens to be in possession of a strong and forceful voice to be reckoned with, endeavours to address some of the many issues in song here on this, the second Quetzal album release on the Smithsonian Folkways label.  Quetzal Flores, the founder of this outfit, translates some of the many theories on the struggle for dignity that explain the ‘eternal getdown’ into 18 superbly produced tracks that cross styles and borders to create lavish musical vistas, which include the Spanish-flavoured “La Bamba” and “La Loroncita”, the Stevie Wonder influenced “Getting to Know” and the ultra-catchy “Pillow People”, which I defy anyone to play through just the once.  The music can be enjoyed on its own merits, but identifying and understanding some of the social concerns, ideologies and basic human empathy, will make The Eternal even more fulfilling.

Sarah-Jane Summers – VIRR | Album Review | Eighth Nerve Audio | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.09.17

When Sarah-Jane Summers confided in me, “it doesn’t fall wholly within the traditional genre”, little did I know precisely how far removed from your common or garden fiddle tunes album VIRR actually is.  Highly experimental at its core, the twelve-track concept album explores the sonic possibilities of the viola and fiddle without bothering us with actual tunes.  The plucks, scrapes, taps, pats, rubs and lovingly rendered caresses allow us to eavesdrop upon something intimate, whilst Sarah-Jane investigates, experiments and ultimately flexes her curiosity, conducting her sonic inquisitiveness with a devoted touch.  Each of the pieces reflect the forces of nature in terms of the weather, each named by Norwegian terms such as “Katrisper” (a strong gale), “Aitran” (fine rain) and “Unbrak” (the beginning of a thaw).  This daring adventure could be taken as Avant Garde in its concept, but at the same time, allows us to feel the wood, the catgut and the horsehair like never before, with only the hint of a musical air, so we needn’t overly worry ourselves about getting up and taking our partners.  Astonishingly creative.

Massa Dembele – Mezana Dounia | Album Review | Izniz | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.09.17

Recorded in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, in the eastern region of Mali, this relatively short album, just eight compositions rendered in about 30 minutes, bears all the hallmarks of the enchanting traditional music of the jeli, whilst playing the kora-like kamala n’goni, not normally associated with the griot music tradition.  The abundance of trance-like n’goni flurries, together with Demele’s rich falsetto, notably on the opening title song, “Mezana Dounia”, augmented by Dembele’s own percussion, captures our attention and imagination from the start.  There’s something relaxed about Dembele’s fluid playing, which is at once meditative, contemplative and almost spiritual in feel.  The thirty minutes of playing time, although too short for this kind of music, is easily remedied by repeat plays.

The Emily Askew Band – Alchemy | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.09.17

Transforming old styles into new is a notion I always respond quite well to – as long as it doesn’t include suddenly bursting into inner city rap midway through with an ‘explicit’ sticker slapped onto the CD sleeve.  The Emily Askew Band handle this material with delicate detail, both instrumentally and vocally, with a dozen well-crafted pieces of music drawn from such early forms as French Renaissance, 13th century secular English, Medieval Galician and the odd chant from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat.  The accompanying 12 page booklet eloquently describes the historical context from which these beautiful melodies derive, whilst Phillip Speakman’s photographs capture the essence of the instruments in close up; the shawm, the vielle, the bagpipes etc., each alluding to ancient times.  These particular instruments, all in the more than capable hands of Emily, sit well with the relatively modern folk styles and techniques provided by Jamie Roberts’ idiosyncratic guitar playing and Ben Corrigan’s electronics, as well as the highly empathetic fiddle playing of John Dipper, each of whom bring to the project an intriguingly stylised feel.  Adding further atmosphere and depth to the music is the array of percussion utilised to great effect by Simon Whittaker and Louise Duggan.  “Pase el Agoa Ma Julieta” also finds the band in fine vocal fettle with an astonishing 15th/16th century Spanish a cappella song, where the singers are joined by special guest James Patterson.  There’s nothing stuffy or overly academic with these interpretations of early music, rather the musicians bring to Alchemy an all embracing and highly affectionate warmth, just right for a beautiful music we should all really cherish.  

Occidental Gypsy – 44070 | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.09.17

Fans of Django-brand jazz may already know Occidental Gypsy, either via the band’s stunning 2011 debut Over Here (which featured a superb Western Swing take on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”!) or by attending one of their utterly engaging live performances.  The New England quintet has been building a sturdy reputation as one of America’s foremost gypsy jazz bands for the best part of the last decade and their second full-length release 44070 provides another delectable slice of the pie.  There are some well-known numbers here, including a heart-warming version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”, a take which benefits greatly from Jeff Feldman’s walking bassline, and a haunting rendition of the Reinhardt/Grappelli composition “Tears”.  The album concludes with a devastatingly beautiful version of Over the Rainbow which, thanks to the simple guitar/violin arrangement, nudges the song back into its rightful place after so many cheap efforts from other musicians over the years.  But despite some pretty beguiling covers, 44070 is at its impeccable best during the original compositions of the band’s guitarist Brett Lee Feldman.  “A Day With Paula May”, for example, presents a complex ramble through the enduring excitement of gypsy jazz whilst the adorably sweet “Messalina (Lover Lamb)”, with its restless rhythms and Eli Bishop’s intoxicating violin lines, lends the album some of its finest moments.  It’s very finest moment, however, comes right at the beginning; “44070/Song for Vrba”, the album’s opening track, is both a moving and exhilarating Feldman original that celebrates the story of Rudolph Vrba whose escape from Auschwitz in 1944 and subsequent writing of a detailed report on the mass murders at the concentration camp led to the saving of over 200,000 lives.  The track, like its subject matter, is nothing less than spellbinding.

Madam Tsunami – Long Way From Home | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 19.09.17

The graceful, fiddle-led instrumental that opens Long Way From Home might well suggest an album of gentle, airy folk tunes.  However, what follows this arresting intro is a collection of foot-tapping songs, infectious melodies and compelling lyrical inventions.  Led by Aberdeen-based Kiwi musicians Adam and Coralie Usmani, Madam Tsunami is an acoustic quintet that succeeds in blending traditional folk music with engaging lyrics on such subjects as love, longing and living far from home.  The title track of this, the band’s second album, opens a sweetly melancholic photo album of childhood and a home that now lies thousands of miles away, complete with a melody that tempts us to hum along.  It’s this knack for catchy refrains and sing-along choruses that lends this album its enduring charm, especially during the wonderfully upbeat “Plot On The Moon” and the spellbinding “Cinderella”, with its bluesy piano solo and tasteful minor turnarounds.  There are also some very satisfying moments of dust-kicking bluegrass such as “Shot Down” and “Man On The Run”, both incorporating those aforementioned catchy choruses and notably elaborate fiddle lines courtesy of Coralie.  Each of these well-constructed songs benefits from Adam’s sandy vocals and Coralie’s angelic harmonies, not to mention the latter’s elegant fiddle and the former’s pristine acoustic guitar.  Innes Cardno provides the mischievous mandolin, Ross Ainslie plays pipes while Stewart Wilson’s bass and Simon Gall’s piano and percussion keep the whole thing firing along very nicely indeed.

Satuo – Earned | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.09.17

Vienna-based band Satuo release their third album Earned, which combines the five-piece band’s Austrian, Italian and Finnish musical roots with a dozen easily accessible songs, each imbued with a distinct folk/pop sensibility, whilst at the same time borrowing from French and American influences.  Bright and breezy from the start, the opening strummed guitar intro on “One Day” being an optimistic beginning to what is essentially an ‘up’ record.  The songs are predominantly sung in English, despite the band’s multi-national personnel, with one or two songs sung in the band’s native languages, notably the beautiful “Muista Minua”.  The band’s name translates from Finnish as ‘fable’ or ‘fairy tale’ and the stories here are told with an uplifting delivery.  Laura Maria Korhonen’s voice dominates most of the songs, all of which are treated to fine arrangements throughout, with occasional banjo, mandolin and guitar embellishments, together with Laura’s own musical saw and melodica.  The blues workout based around the traditional gospel song “Motherless Child” opens up an entirely different feel to close the album, with an assured performance that warrants further investigation.  The album comes complete with a 16-page booklet, illustrated by Magdalena Wolf, whose naive artwork rather tastefully complements the songs. 

Tom Russell – Folk Hotel | Album Review | Proper | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.09.17

Criminologist, Teacher in 70s civil war beset Nigeria, Taxi Driver, Songwriter, Musician, Artist and crucially, early architect of the genre we now call Americana, Tom Russell inhabits a musical world that he helped create.  From Russell’s own distinctive painting on the album cover, part bleak Edward Hopper urban landscape part neon colour Nudie Cohn suit, it is clear we are entering a personal space.  Russell’s voice is a rich well-worn instrument, its deep timbre giving his songs a gravitas and a reality.  Whether a Johnny Cash rumble or a low intimate whisper it holds your attention completely.  Folk Hotel gives Russell ample opportunity to delve back into his own ghosts and memories, “Up In The Hotel” weaves together stories of the infamous New York Chelsea Hotel where Dylan Thomas died in 1953 and Russell’s own wry recollections.  “Leaving El Paso”, a duet with Eliza Gilkyson, and “I’ll Never Leave These Horses”, evoke those cruel rural wastes and have the melacholic feel of Guthrie’s “Deportees”.  Tom Russell’s strummed guitar and voice evoke that strangely warming glow of sadness and regret.  These are songs about people who live by the choices they have made with a stoic resignation.  “The Sparrow Of Swansea”, again with Gilkyson’s second vocal, continues Russell’s interest in Dylan Thomas.  Ralph McTell might have a bit to say about the tune, but the imagery and word play are rich and engaging.  “All On A Belfast Morning” marries “High And Low” a poem by Irish Poet Playwright James Cousins with a stream of consciousness examination of a Belfast morning strangely reminiscent in places of Thomas’ Under Milk Wood or Joyce’s Ulysses.  Delivered in a morning after voice that is part Johnny Cash and part Van Morrison, Russell filters it all through a watery eye.  Again the lyrics are part anecdotal memory and part romantic imagery delivered with the burr of a drunk at a lock in sing song.  “Rise Again Handsome Johnny” is a sharp piece of quick fire Country Americana, marrying Russell’s own memories of JFK to a kind of Arthurian legend.  Perhaps in America’s hour of need handsome Johnny will rise and return like a modern “Once And Forever King”.  After the bleak imagery of earlier songs this is a fine slice of uplifting, feel good, songwriting.  On songs like “Rise Against Handsome Johnny”, “Harlan Clancy” and “The Last Time I Saw Hank” Tom Russell shows that he can take Irish romanticism, history and memories and produce music that is both all his own and  that owns Americana.  Harlan Clancy tells the compelling story of ordinary rural America through Harlan’s story, packed with imagery shot through with gritty realism.  The song feels like another facet to James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”.  Elements of Southern Tex Mex on the album come from the accordion, elsewhere, like on “The Light Beyond The Coyote Fence” and album closer “Scars On His Ankles” atmospheric electric and acoustic guitars build beautifully dark atmosphere.  “The Dram House Down In Gutter Lane” and “The Day They Dredged The Liffey/The Banks Of The Montauk/ The Road To Santa Fe O” blends the intonation and lilt of an Irish traditional song with the dark imagery of frontier Americana and Irish touchstones blending both into a wonderful whole.  “The Rooftops Of Copenhagen” is a spoken blues, a classic road song with a Roger Miller or Townes Van Zandt warmth to the vocal.  A wonderfully rich lyric and performance where Tom Russell moves smoothly from first person personal anecdote to wry troubadour parable.  The duet with Joe Ely on Bob Dylan’s, doesn’t have the bite of Bob’s version, but the performance is wry and knowing with a gravitas.  Final track “Scars On His Ankles” is a mythologizing of a meeting with Lightnin Hopkins and reads like a chapter from a folk blues Mezz Mezzrow, evocative and hypnotic.  “History and legend bind us to the past”,  Russell rattles off like RL Burnside, he could be describing his own motivation and the process of looking back through his writing.  Folk Hotel feels like a place, like Cohen’s “Tower Of Song”, a space filled with the legends and history that fill the album, all rubbing shoulders larger than life and seething with energy and life.  Russell describes it as a kind of mind palace, a space inhabited by the folk and blues legends that he summons to inspire and inform his writing.  On Folk Hotel there are no surprises, no electric drums or heavy metal, but an album’s worth of Tom Russell stretching out in the world he knows so well and doing what he does best.  The writing and the performances are top notch and as familiar and rewarding as ancient cowboy boot moulded perfectly to your feet or a faded rain shaped hat.

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 22.09.17

Two of the most arresting albums to pass through my hands in the last few years, this album and Aldous Harding’s debut have had one interesting thing in common.  Musically, while having a certain sonic charge and eerie late night ‘hairs on the back of the neck’ atmosphere in common they both inhabit different, if overlapping worlds.  What they have in common is geography, that they were recorded at the same studios, The Sitting Room, in Lyttleton, New Zealand.  Having been to Lyttleton, following the bus route out of Christchurch to its end, to see what was there.  I can vouch, that while having a David Lynch raw charm, it isn’t a big place and if it buzzes and crackles with creative buzz (which it obviously does), then my radar was clearly off that day.  But on the strength of this singularly powerful album and Harding’s folk noir slowburner, then it’s only a matter of time before there are tour buses and a steady stream of musician hopefuls gathering at what could turn out to be a ‘through the looking glass’ antipodean home of the hits.  From the power of the voice, to the space around the percussion on tracks like “Bury My Body”, or the sound of the room on “Don’t Be Afraid”, this is an album that draws its synergy from the power generated by excellent musicians, a fine studios and top notch production and engineering.  Like the Ragged Glory era Neil Young, Don’t Be Afraid’s title track opens with valve amp hum and the ambience of guitar and voice filling a room.  Dave Khan and Delaney Davidson’s guitars simmer and shimmer with 50s Sun Studios energy behind Tami Neilson’s mighty biblically proportioned roar of a voice. Imagine the raw power of Sister Rosetta Tharpe meeting the velvet perfection of jazz singer Nancy Wilson and you are not far wrong.  The guitars and Tami’s vocal compete to see who can send the most shivers down the spine.  As an album opener it’s a strong one, crackling with sinister energy and a deep significance as it’s the final song that Tami’s musician father Ron wrote.  “Holy Moses” continues the sonic attack, as if The White Stripes and Alabama Shakes were playing together, with a music that is soulful, spiritual and electric brutal at the same time.  Neilson and band power through, with a sound that is vinyl warm retro and modern raw at the same time.  The lyrics are gospel and blues with some classic call response chorus and the angriest guitars in the world.  Lonely turns everything down to an intense simmer with pedal steel and a keening vocal that is like Amy Winehouse at her retro crooning best or the best of early kd lang.  “So Far Away” seethes with a stately power and an effortless swaggering blend of ancient and modern that it took Imelda May ten years of albums to build to.  Country, Blues and Rockabilly it’s all here.  “If Love Were Enough” is a slow masterpiece, Neilson’s croon beautifully stretches out time, moment by moment over huge guitar chords and a drum beat that sounds like a slow waltzing steam train.  “Bury My Body” is carried by the voice and the most arresting drum beat since Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac laid down “Looking For Somebody” in 1968.  Canadian born, New Zealand based singer-songwriter Tami Neilson has built a reputation for a soulful impassioned vocals.  Originally a member of Canadian family group The Neilsons with her father Ron, this album is shot with his memory.  Sleeve notes that give songs a poignancy, songs that are co-writes of pieces he started, recollections of his enthusiasm for pieces recorded.  The album opens with the last song he ever wrote and closes with his demo of the same number, his passing gives an extra gravitas and an extra weight to the lyric.  “The First Man”, the final full track on Don’t Be Afraid, written by Tami and her brother Jay is a powerful love song from a daughter to her father.  Soulful, and heartfelt, its calm simplicity compared to the rest of the album adds to its intensity. This smouldering, dark album adds a layer of smoke and power to Tami’s earlier outings and is a fine point to discover a developing talent if you haven’t already.  Favourite track, it’s hard to pick one from this classic album that isn’t.

Abatwa (The Pygmy) – Why Did We Stop Growing Tall | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.09.17

The Abatwa ‘pygmy’ tribe is identified as one of the most marginalised, voiceless and endangered populations in Africa.  This album, the forth volume of Glitterbeat’s acclaimed Hidden Musics series, follows volumes bringing together, Hanoi Masters, Khmer Rouge Survivors and Every Song Has Its End: Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali.  Producer Ian Brennan is a man with a mission, a kind of international cultural crate digger, recording the lost, the disappearing and the obscure.  This collection brings together performances that are strange and abstract, often beautiful and sometimes disquietingly raw.  “Beautiful Rwanda” (Rwanda Nziza) blends a passionate vocal from Emmanuel Hatungumana with the Umuduli a percussive one string instrument, and manages to be both delicate and edgy.  “Stop Crying Now” (Ihorere)  is a beguiling duet between Emmanuel Habumuremy and Ange Kamagaju, husband and wife with accompaniment by the eleven string Icyembe a plucked instrument that sounds like a resonant guitar.  The track is a hypnotic masterpiece, with vocals from another world.  “War Song” (Urwanikamiheto) features 67 year old Beatrice Mukaeungi, leading her sons in song.  There is a gospel call and response; quality to the beautiful vocals with its circling drum pattern.  More unexpected and rawer are tracks like “Child Of The Streets” (Umwana W’umuhanda) and “Come Closer” (Igira Hino).  Featuring Rosine Nyiranshimiyimana and Bihoyiki Dathive, these are passionate gritty raps with grimy textures provided by battery operated loop machines.  Energy and a sense of urgency come through on every note, but shot through with a raw savage beauty these are a different kind of discerned gem. Not always an easy listen they are always compelling.  “Protect The Enviroment” (Umuyange) is a passionate duet, accompanied by the bluesy sounding Icyembe and bursts of bird song.  “Night Street Walker Who’ll Care For My Children” (Cyabusiko) has a keening vocal over a layer of Mbira textures, the thumb piano with additional found metal distorters sounding treated like digital ambience, its notes sounding clipped like a loop or sample. But this is not a studio soundscape, this is the sound of a relegated people, making their music and being given an international audience.  Abatwa, titled in an attempt to rehabilitate a pejorative name, a slur, gives a voice to often otherwise voiceless people.  The collection of haunting solo and group vocals, accompanied by more traditional stringed instruments and often almost post-apocalyptic sounding loops and samples, grabbed on the crudest of machines, is by turns sweet and melodic, then edgy and discordant.  That this is, as the series suggests, an otherwise hidden music serves to remind us of the rich diversity of songs, sounds and messages in Africa.  There is a whole continent of musicians and singers who are adeptly using traditional forms and appropriated forms like Rap to make beguiling music.

Jen Cloher – Jen Cloher | Album Review | Look Out Kid | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.09.17

The lyric “those who can, they do, those who can’t, review” didn’t go unnoticed by this journalistic pretender as the Melbourne-based singer songwriter Jen Cloher made clear her stance on the state of the music scene in Shoegazers, one of the ten songs on this her eponymous fourth album.  There’s a distinct sense of saying it how it is in these songs, which surprisingly comes across as quite refreshing.  Throughout the album, we find a close collaboration with her musical partner/wife Courtney Barnett, whose sneering left-handed guitar licks embellish the songs in all the right places.  Appearing almost Patti Smith-like on the cover, a candid shot that could easily have been snapped by Robert Mapplethorpe, the image is just as revealing as the songs, such as “Strong Woman”, which is about as up close and personal as a songwriter gets.  Patti Smith, an obvious influence, gets a namecheck on the album opener “Forgot Myself”, which is also treated to a Kubrick-esque promo video, featuring Barnett in duplicate.  Barnett’s idiosyncratic guitar playing, notably on the free-flowing “Analysis Paralysis”, makes the enjoyment of this record even more enjoyable.  Strong, punchy and packed with observations on her relationship with a successful partner on the indie music scene, (Shoegazers, Loose Magic, Great Australian Bite), this album is essential for all its joy and sorrow.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real – Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real | Album Review | Decca | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.09.17

With all the necessary country sensibilities you would expect from the son of legendary songwriter Willie Nelson, together with the influence of his mother’s record collection (Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan), this young surfing cowboy fits the bill for introducing his own brand of rock-inflected country to the world with a band of friends, whose collective name derives from a lyric in the old Neil Young song “Walk On”.  Curiously enough, the band went on to back Young on some extensive touring, which also led to helping out on the Canadian rocker’s last two studio albums.  Opening with the soul-fuelled “Set Me Down on a Cloud”, we find something more than your usual country rock, something rather more captivating.  The band are pretty much on form, tight and together, with some keen guitar licks towards the end of its seven minute spree.  Willie himself appears on the lilting “Just Outside of Austin”, with one or two trademark licks, whilst his octogenarian Aunt Bobbi plays piano, keeping it all pretty much in the family.  One of the real surprises on this, the band’s eponymous album release, is Nelson’s vocal sparring with Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga to you), who between them create the sort of vibe once entirely the domain of Delaney and Bonnie, with the magical waters of Muscle Shoals almost audible in the background.  The swampy vibe on Carolina has Dr John’s voodoo stamped all over it, albeit with a mischievous nod towards Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” tagged onto the end. Lukas Nelson’s band did promise us something real and this just might be it.   

Ifriqiyya Electrique – Rûwâhîne | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.10.17

The soundscapes that Ifriqiyya Electrique present on Rûwâhîne move uncompromisingly between haunting, unsettling, hypnotic and euphoric, each track refusing to let go of its listener as it flickers ominously in and out of darkness.  This debut release from the Tunisian Sufi outfit mixes elements of ceremonial chant, desert rock, industrial music, trance and hip-hop to summon the spirits of the Banga communities of sub-Saharan Africa.  The healing rituals that inspire the music are said to drain their followers of all senses in an effort to find and destroy their inner demons.  Indeed, there is something distinctly therapeutic within the soulful outpourings of these eight tracks, especially the thunderous “Qaadrii – Salaam Alaik – Massarh” which grows from its subtle percussion opening towards a stirring cacophony of chants, beats and electric guitar drones, as well as the roaring and infectiously rhythmic “Lavo – Baba Marzug – Sidi Saad – Allah”.  Even when the instruments are stilled for such tracks as “Mawwel” and the tribal chants of Sidriiya, a compelling disquiet is aroused that makes the silence at the end of this incredible record almost unbearable.

Bob Leslie – Land and Sea | Album Review | Big Red Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.10.17

“Salt wind stings my eyes blowing up from the sea” so Bob Leslie sings on “Orkneyjar”, one of the highlights from his latest record Land and Sea, an album that captures the mists and winds of the Scottish land and seascapes via twelve original songs from this fine singer songwriter.  Each song presents an enchanting narrative wrapped in poetic Scottish dialect and backed by stirring strings and whistles.  “Sir Alexander Leslie”, for example, tells the tale of the First Earl of Leven, “Bess Millie” pays tribute to the “spaewife o owld Stromness toun” whilst “Cape Breton” and “Tho We Lang Syne Landit oan Fair Isle” revisit historical subject matter with more gusto than a chill highland wind.  There’s also a generous serving of Bob’s singular humour, especially on “Her Father Called Me Frankenstein” and “Big Dead Bob”, each providing some giggles on this tapestry of historical ballads and heartfelt odes to Leslie’s beloved Scotland.  Bob provides the bold voice and guitar on all tracks whilst such respected Scottish musicians as Avril Cleland, Wendy Weatherby, Kate Kramer and Bernadette Collier deliver some arresting performances on whistle, cello, fiddle and backing vocals.

Richard Thompson – Acoustic Rarities | Album Review | Beeswing Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.10.17

Released ahead of his autumn tour, Richard Thompson revisits some of the more obscure songs from his back catalogue.  We really have to go back to 1976 for his very first career retrospective, the Island double set Guitar/Vocal, which saw the release of a collection of live recordings, studio outtakes and assorted rarities including material with his former band Fairport Convention and duo songs with his then wife Linda.  Here though, fourteen of his lesser known songs are re-recorded with sparse acoustic arrangements following the lead of both Acoustic Classics I and II, recently released on Beeswing Records.  There are no less than six previously unreleased songs rubbing shoulders with the so called ‘rarities’, however we do see the re-emergence of some of the more memorable songs from Thompson’s impressive back catalogue, such as the Henry the Human Fly-period “Poor Ditching Boy”, with Thompson’s familiar mandolin/guitar/accordion arrangement, Bright Lights‘ “End of the Rainbow”, just as sparse and melancholic as originally planned, and Hokey Pokey’s “Never Again”, originally performed by Linda Thompson back in the day, each of which sounds surprisingly new and fresh once again.  Of the unreleased material, we find Thompson in Bretchian mode with the highly theatrical “I Must Have a March”, and again in delightfully playful mood with his homage to the legendary Alexander Graham Bell.  For completists there is a return to that earlier Island release, with the inclusion of “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman”, although I would imagine for the completist or die-hard Fairport fan, it’s the new reading of Sloth, complete with overdubbed harmony vocal that will be seen as a valuable addition to their record collection. 

Lal and Mike Waterson – Bright Phoebus | Album Review | Domino | Review by Steve Henderson | 05.10.17

Up on Yorkshire’s east coast, the folk family that started with Watersons and developed into Carthys with the arrival of Martin has been central to the English folk music scene of recent years.  Scourers of secondhand music will tell you that Bright Phoebus by Lal and Mike Waterson has been one of the most sought after folk recordings of yesteryear.  To be precise, 1972.  Now, Domino Records has stepped into the fray to make the album available in a remastered form guided by David Suff and Lal’s daughter, Marry Waterson.  It can be found in CD and vinyl formats as well as standard and deluxe versions where the latter includes a set of demos from the album.  So, what is all the fuss about?  To some extent, it’s the mystery built up around these recordings. Think that, so far, The Watersons as a group had been known for their interpretation of folk songs from the country’s rich tradition.  So, it was something of a surprise to find that Lal had been writing her own songs along with brother, Mike.  Having played these to Martin Carthy, a swell of interest was carried through the folk scene of the time.  Queuing at the door to get on board with the recording were such as Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks and Maddy Prior alongside family members Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy.  These non-family musicians were known for their folk rock style, like that of the members of Fairport Convention who drew from both sides of the Atlantic to create their sound.  However, Bright Phoebus is a record full of characters and a range of different styles that means some have suggested that this is folk music’s Sgt Pepper moment.  A comparison that is even harder to ignore when you hear the similar opening track jollity of “Rubber Band”.  Like The Beatles’ masterpiece, the tracks stand alone as individual pieces where listeners will have quite different favourites.  Whether you go for those which sound like unbridled folk pieces such as the Lal Waterson and Bob Davenport on “Child Among The Weeds” or the music hall feel of “Magical Man” with its further echoes of Sgt Pepper.  “Danny Rose” has an American beat to it with a dash of skiffle in the mix whilst “Shady Lady” has a Waterson chorus layered over what could have been a Fairport Convention track – hardly surprising given the presence of Thompson, Hutchings and Mattacks.  “Red Wine and Promises” is a personal favourite with Norma Waterson telling the tale over Martin Carthy’s guitar work of a drunken night ending with her no nonsense lyric “I don’t need no bugger’s arms around me”.  A feeling that many will recognise.  Mind you, talking of favourites, who could resist a singalong to the title track’s chorus too?  In 1972, the record was not well received by the followers of The Watersons who were mystified by its changes in style and a lack of traditional material.  Sadly, some suggest that Mike Waterson was so upset by this that he never sang his own contributions again.  It’s true to say that its wide variance in styles means that listeners could find that some tracks may not sit with their own individual taste.  However, there is plenty that will catch the ear and, today, we can all explore this landmark record and pick out personal favourites.

Hafdis Huld – Dare To Dream Small | Album Review | Red Grape Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 06/10/17

Icelandic singer Hafdis joined Icelandic electronica band GusGus at its inception and was vocalist with FC Kahuna on their album Machine Says Yes and the hypnotic single “Hayling”.  Hafdis also appeared on Tricky’s Knowle West Boy album.  Dare To Dream Small is Haidis’ fourth solo album.  It’s Huld’s glorious warm voice that stays with you from this album, carried by delicate and deft playing and arrangements.  On the tracks with a full band there is a bright acoustic pop feel, with the lightness of touch and bounce of Fairground Attraction.  Perhaps it is not coincidence then that Simon Edwards Double Bass player with Fairground Attraction plays on “Dream Small”.  There is also a rich collection of writing collaborators, with Tim Gordine, Calum MacColl, Alisdair Wright who plays on the album, Nick Kershaw and Boo Hewerdine sharing the credits.  Alisdair’s playing forms the core of the accompaniment as he gently layers in guitars and washes of keyboards, creating textures and atmospheres in which Hafdis’ vocals are centre stage and can really shine.  She has a skilful way of breathing spark and warmth into lyrics that are often sharply observed and anything but bright and uplifting.  Placing slightly left field observations like the oversized jumper in “Fineshade Forest” against the ‘almost sadness’ of the kerbside figure captured in “By The Road”.  Wonderful hooks on tracks like “Last Rays Of The Sun” are infectious and classic, making you feel like you have known these songs your whole life.  “Leaving Me Behind” and “By The Road” underpin the lightness of touch on the album, with the beautiful track spun out of Hafdis’ breathy vocal and gossamer light plucked guitar.  Huld shines too on the more layered piano ballads like “Violet” and “Underdog” whether she is plaintive over the solo keyboard or double tracked over the wonderfully melancholic string section her voice is perfect and beautiful like snow or ice crystals.  At times the interplay between Hafdis’ reflective vocal and the piano refrains on “Is It Better” recalls Joni Mitchell at her most stripped back on Blue.  “Is It Better” with its icy piano intro, sublime vocal, infectious lyric and slowly building atmosphere is another example of a perfect song you feel that you have known your whole life.  Huld’s vocal against the jazzy guitar chords and Simon Edwards Double Bas on “Dream Small” demonstrates that she can do smouldering torch singer too.  Album closer is a darker, slightly claustrophobic track with an edge and a touch of 80s electronica about it, leaving you with a sense of intrigue and  sense of the depths beneath the bright delicate acoustic music that makes up much of Dare To Dream Small.  This one will grow on you.

The Mining Co – Mountain Fires | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 14.10.17

Since their last album Burning Sun And The Atomic Power Within The Mining Co have expanded that album’s inviting alt country sound, stirring in 50s and 60s singer songwriters, retro keyboards, strings and brass.  From the start this album builds on the earlier 2016 release.  The rich voice with its baritone rumble and the strummed guitar of “Julie’s Song” has the cadence and immediacy of Bruce Springsteen’s excellent stripped back Nebraska album, or the warm intimate tones of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.  “Closer” adds Gothic sixties groovy keyboards and a circling drum pattern that sounds like 69 Pink Floyd.  Michael Gallagher’s voice shifts as the lyric dictates from deep Nick Cave to a wonderful falsetto that again recalls the soulful Wagner.  “Against The Grain” is a slacker manifesto, detailing Gallagher’s intention to go “my separate way…always against the grain”.  This is a dark gothic anthem, a slightly less kooky Handsome Family, as glorious duet vocals deliver bleak lyrics over sparkling folk rock backing.  That sentiment informs the albums intention to veer off down the road less travelled.  “Safest Way” with a wonderful bass line and beautiful duet vocals is another album highlight.  Michael Gallagher’s vocal pure and high on the intro, sounding like Harvest era Neil Young on the chorus.  “Missing Part” adds brass and strings to the rich mix behind Gallagher’s fine vocal.  “Weight In Gold” opens with some huge Cortez The Killer electric guitar chords, one moment the track seethes with anger and rage, the next flipping in a second from raw to tender, this is another album classic.  “Laws Of Attraction” is a fine woozy gospel song, a huge chorus of voices frames a heartfelt love song.  This is a strong set of songs, rooted in the Alt Folk and Country traditions, but drawing in a wide range of sounds and sensations, creating a sound journey that twists and turns on a gentle psychedelic ride.

Dan Raza – Two | Album Review | Deep River | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.10.17

Dan Raza has a fine and lyrical set of pipes with a depth that suggests someone who has lived beyond his years.  There is a rich blues quality and a Celtic lilt to his singing.  On tracks like “Silent’s The Night Wind” or “Don’t Shoot The Stars Down” there is a definite Waterboys, or less well known, Andrew White, or Van Morrison circa Veedon Fleece folk soul quality to the music.  Whoever is in his record collection, or whoever are his musical heroes, his delivery is compelling and holds your attention completely.  He has a voice that imbibes his lyrics with a lyricism and even a mysticism as he breathes and whispers the words with a jazz man’s sense of timing.  This is an album that you want kick back and to listen to staring into an open fire with a glass in your hand.  “Payday” with Barbara Bartz’s fiery fiddle, has buckets of that roots rock swagger that Mike Scott and his Waterboys do so well and more than a touch of Ryan Adams’ country punk vim.  In the wake of The Iraq War, Neil Young featured “Every Little Dog”, a track off Dan’s first album on his Living With War website.  Young’s connection with Raza’s songwriting and the fact that Geraint Watkins’ soulful organ and BJ Cole’s evocative pedal steel run right through the album demonstrate the classic contemporary feel of Dan’s material.  It also underlines the connection Dan Raza has made with seasoned musicians who have literally played with everyone who is anyone.  “Midnight And The Wine” has the feel and tempo of an early Eagles country rock number with Raza picking on banjo and BJ Cole’s ethereal Pedal Steel crying to the night.  “Still Can’t Believe You’ve Gone” is full of surprises, starting as a troubadour number with a great Ralph McTell like guitar part till it veers off beautifully into a wonderful English Rhapsody of uplifting horns and organ.  A divine feel good lullaby of a track.  “Shadowlands” breaks the gentle Celtic reveries a little, its big Neil Young guitar riff at the start and an uneasy drum beat grab your attention, Dan’s passionate vocal alternates with the guitar and a fiery violin to hold you on the edge of your seat till the song’s end.  “Galway Lights” closes the albums and illustrates its strengths, a heartfelt emotional vocal, a wonderful warm atmosphere that glows with an acoustic soulful intimacy, managing to feel fresh and hundreds of years old.  This is Dan’s second album and showcases the fact that vocally, musically and lyrically he is growing and maturing while making music that with strength and depth below its beautiful sparkling surface.  A recommended album and a recommended performer who deserves to be on your radar.  Fans of Van Morrison, Mike Scott, The Waterboys, Andrew White and the more organic Ryan Adams will find much to hold their attention here.

Sally Barker and Vicki Genfan – In the Shadow of a Small Mountain | Album Review | Small Mountain | Review by Marc Higgins | 18.10.17

This album grew out of a fifteen friendship between singer songwriter Sally Barker and American Vicki Genfan.  In a melding of old and new the material was written in a summertime Appalachian cabin, the title suggesting the extent towards a sense of place informed the writing.  The songs were then finessed via transatlantic Skype sessions and recorded in snowy New Jersey studios.  In the Shadow of a Small Mountain is forged in a meeting of technologies and the acoustic traditions of both sides of the Atlantic.  This is very definitely an album about connections and synchronicity with the guitars and voices of Sally and Vicki blending together perfectly.  “Hopes Songs Dreams” although a joint composition grew out of Sally’s Skype explanation of who Sandy Denny was, with the explanation becoming the song.  Sally’s pure vocal, echoed by Vicki’s and wonderful guitar from both opens the album.  “Holding On” is another perfect blending of two strong singers, but listen out for Vicki’s gospel vamps in the middle.  The interplay between two fine guitar players is also very evident on tracks like “Feels Like Flying” and “Little Red Box”.  “Little Red Box” is a slight melancholic anthem for the lost red phone box and all of those stolen moments spent inside.  Barker does regret and loss so very well, building an atmosphere and looking back into her own life.  “Something Blue” has a wonderful blues shuffle feel, languid brush work on the drums, jazzy guitar and perfect vocals that drip with emotion.  “Moonshine” is filled with the imagery of illicit hooch, over some very cosmic, spry guitar, lovely slide and banjo add to the Americana feel.  Fine interplay between the two vocalists too, especially on the vocalise vamp that closes the track.  Just when you think you have the whole album figured out, African percussion, what sounds like a thumb piano and a low whistle stretches the envelope, building a very different atmosphere.  Andrew Finn Magill’s whistle and Vicki’s bass at the end build a wonderful Celtic groove that Davy Spillane would have been proud of.  This is a wonderful album, the music is intimate and inviting.  The two musicians so connected that while the styles are sometimes different they blend into a beautiful whole, the groove on tracks like “Weekday Harvest” is infectious.  Americana, Country Folk and Jazz are all in the blend, this is feel good acoustic music with a bounce that will leave you with a smile.

Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes – Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes | Album Review | Community Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.10.17

Passing The Den at one of the UK’s biggest folk festivals this year, some of these songs beckoned and one felt instantly transported from the flat summer fens of Cambridge to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, through sound alone.  This is a delightful album made up of fourteen songs that instantly appeal.  Sam and Tyler work so well together as a duo, with a sense of the essential, rather than the overblown in their respective playing.  You almost imagine this album to have been recorded direct from the back porch, as the cover photo suggests; the banjo and guitar interplay complementing the duo’s dovetailed vocal harmonies throughout.  It’s with little surprise that Sam and Tyler cite their parents and grandparents early on in the credits, for giving these musicians the grounding of a good Virginian home, from where much of this music derives.  Although many of the songs sound traditional, for the most part the songs are from the pens of such memorable writers as Boudleaux Bryant “Well I Guess I Told You Off”, Ola Belle Reed “Tear Down the Fences” and Maybelle Carter “Lonesome Homesick Blues”.  It is however with their own material that the duo shine the most, such as Tyler Hughes’ tender “When We Love”, a ballad that underscores the importance of love in troubled times, with a gentle reminder to those in power who often choose to forget such notions.  Sam and Tyler’s empathetic playing is certainly matched by their harmonious singing voices as they bring the essence of mountain music to a world audience.

Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock – Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love | Album Review | Little Indian | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.10.17

Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love is the second album from Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock, following on from 2015’s superb Two Wolves.  Marry is the daughter of Lal Waterson, and has recorded two acclaimed albums with her brother Oliver Knight as well as appearing on Waterson albums and many others since the seventies.  David Jaycock is an accomplished musician, a member of The Big Eyes Family Players and a producer of a series of fine albums in his own right.  Their second album together grew out of a writing retreat run by singer songwriter Kathryn Williams.  It was here that Marry connected with Portishead’s Adrian Utley musician and producer.  Utley was an inspired choice for producer, being very interested in letting Waterson’s rich voice and Jaycock’s distinctive guitar occupy their own space while he wove atmosphere around them.  “Vain Jackdaw” the opening track has Marry recorded outside on a rooftop, with ambience and space glowing around the hypnotic solo vocal in a performance that holds you completely.  “Lost” (Adjective) places Marry’s beautiful vocal against Jaycock’s fingerpicked acoustic, rich and reminiscent of Martin Carthy’s “Scarborough Fair” and a Utley’s second glissando psychedelic electric adds a dark undercurrent of sinister beauty.  “Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love” is a dark psych folk anthem in the making, shot through with that intense bleak gravitas that inhabits early 70s versions of Steeleye Span and The Trees.  The voice and guitar twine together wreathed in strings and keyboard swells with chilling lyrics that sound like they are read of grave stones in an overgrown churchyard.  The title itself illustrates a sinister note that lies beneath everything we do and achieve.  There is a cinematic aspect to much of the album, the vivid lyrics, Waterson’s potent delivery and timing and the glorious guitar, paint pictures.  “Out Of Their Heads” with its passage of music box piano keyboards conjures images of aged black and white flickering film of empty rooms and blank eyed figures in old fashioned clothes.  Jaycock’s fleet fingered classical guitar opens “Gunshot Lips” and the track sparkles like sunlight on water.  The lyric reads like Philip Larkin writing folk music from a cold Hull bedsit.  There is a beautiful tension between the bright guitar and the emotion in Marry’s voice in another classic noir track.  “New Love Song” is written by David A Jaycock and is a fine duet, with the voices blending beautifully.  “Three Of Them” is based on a Japanese tale, the Japanese say that we have three faces, your first, the one you show the world, the second you show your family and close friends, the third you never show anyone and it is the truest reflection of who you are.  “On Second Tide” is a song of and about the sea, the shimmering guitar suggests the waves, the lyrics are full of ocean imagery while Marry Waterson explores ideas of letting yourself go.  “Forgive Me” is another tender song with a beautiful guitar part and a beguiling vocal, if there is a folk tradition of a smouldering torch song then this is one, bathed at the end in shimmering guitar.  “Small Ways And Slowly” swelled by Romeo Stodart’s and Kathyn Williams vocals and percussion still manages to sound understated.  The subtle beauty of the album comes from the lightness of touch across the board and a brooding quiet fire or intensity.  That the album manages to simultaneously sound 45 years old and wonderfully contemporary, shot with through with classic folk revival atmosphere and a sense of now is the sign of a classic in the making.

The Young’uns – Strangers | Album Review | Hereteu Records | Review by Ian Taylor | 21.10.17

The Stockton on Tees Folk Club alumni have rightly inherited the mantle of the folk world’s star acapella trio from the recently retired Coope, Boyes and Simpson.  Strangers, their fourth studio album, is their strongest yet and contains some potentially classic original songs from the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award 2015 and 2016 ‘Best Group’ winners.  These songs have flowed freely from the pen of Sean Cooney, who along with Michael Hughes and David Eagle have come up with as fine a collection of ‘songs for our time’ as you could wish for.  The album opens with a cover of the aforementioned Folk Awards’ ‘Best Song’ in 2000, Maggie Holland’s “A Place Called England”, a sharply observed and still relevant acerbic yet optimistic comment on the state of the nation, the silky smooth harmonies in sharp contrast with the bitter lyrical message.  Next up is “Ghafoor’s Bus”, a jaunty sing-a-long which again belies the serious message delivered within the celebratory tale of the Teessider who converted a bus into a travelling kitchen to feed refugees across Europe.  The addition of a choral backing from Aldeburgh Young Musicians adds to the goosebump-inducing, atmospheric nature of the song. But before those goosebumps have had a chance to subside, album highlight “Be The Man” shoots them back up with the in-yer-face tale of Matthew Ogston and Nazim Mahmood, a couple whose lives were shattered by the failure of Naz’s parents to accept his sexuality, ultimately leading to the young Muslim’s suicide.  Surely destined to be a folk classic, the ballad benefits from stirring instrumental backing, including Jude Abbott (Chumbawamba) on flugelhorn and Rachel McShane (Bellowhead) on cello and fiddle, which sets Cooney’s stunning lead vocal off perfectly.  It’s a fine, inspiring anthem even on a superficial level, but I defy anyone to listen to the song knowing the back-story, and not be moved to tears.  Indeed, Cooney’s voice appears on the edge of cracking on occasions, and who can blame him. Powerful stuff.  And there’s no respite from the emotional rollercoaster as “Carriage 22” recounts the true story of the brave train passengers who foiled a terrorist attack on an Amsterdam to Paris train in 2015.  The acapella rendition somehow instilling the account with more poignancy and consideration of what might have been.  “Cable Street” recounts the story of Johnny Longstaff, a Stockton-born teenager who was part of the hundred thousand strong crowd of all ages and backgrounds who stood in solidarity with the Jewish community of the East End of London against Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted fascists in 1936.  Again, the acapella arrangement instils the song with extra pathos.  No Pasaran!  Next up, “Dark Water” is the true story of two Syrian refugees who successfully swam the Aegean Sea to escape conflict following the death of the brother of the storyteller.  There is atmospheric backing on this slow-tempo ballad from the Aldeburgh Young Musicians, Eagles’ piano and Hughes’s guitar, and lush harp accompaniment from Mary Ann Kennedy.  This sensitively arranged song rises in strength and optimism as the journey develops, reflecting the calmness of the album’s ocean-blue artwork, in contrast to the ‘wild and high’ waves the boys experience, and ultimately the bittersweet nature of the successful outcome to the journey.  We’re brought swiftly back to earth by the opening bars of “Bob Cooney’ Miracle”, the story of a ‘loaves and fishes’ type act by a Spanish Civil War volunteer, taken from the memoir ‘Proud Journey’.  Then the sublime “Lapwings” (which the trio performed on ‘Springwatch’ recently) brings further contrast.  The beautifully observed words of a First World War Private are sensitively delivered in rich acapella tones.  The final two songs on the album, “With These Hands” and The Hartlepool Pedlar, contain common themes in relating the tales of a 1950s immigrant from Guiana, Sybil Phoenix, and Michael Marks, founder of Marks and Spencer, an eastern European Jewish refugee of the late 1th Century.  Ultimately the message from the two songs is that both individuals and society can triumph over hate and desolation, and it’s a message that the whole album represents – one of hope and a better future in these troubled times.  This may not be an album which reflects the dry and rapid fire humour that runs through the band’s live shows and back catalogue, but these Brexit, Trump and Tory-blighted times are not very funny, let’s face it.  The Young’uns, however, will still put a smile on your face with the sheer strength of their songs, the beauty of their arrangements, their spell-binding harmonies, and their absolutely spot on topical social messages.  An absolute triumph.

Jack Rutter – Hills | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.10.17

Still in his mid twenties, as well as being a member of both Seth Lakeman’s and Jackie Oates’ band, Jack Rutter is already a highly respected singer, guitarist and interpreter of traditional material.  Hills is his debut solo album, a pure and unadorned set of tracks, with one voice and one instrument and the ambience of the room.  Recorded by Joe Rusby at the Rusby Pure studios, the recording is rich and balanced, on tracks like “The Deserter” and “Hatton Wood” the guitar and Jack’s voice literally resonate and sing.  Every vocal inflection and every note of his acoustic are caught perfectly.  Jack learnt “The Deserter” partly from a Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick album and there is something of Carthy’s assured attack on the strings and tune in Rutter’s playing.  The driving rhythm of his right hand is hypnotic and compelling. Jack’s attack on the Concertina is also masterful, his playing on “Morning Trumpet” and “It Hails It Rains” bristles and cracks and spits with a raw power.  Without accompaniment his vocal is sure and powerful, assured and full, his unaccompanied “I’ll Take My Dog And My Airgun Too” is a delight.  Such is the resonance and character of his voice that he can sing “The Dalesman’s Litany” in his mid twenties and inhabit every image, delivering it like he is recollecting a youth long passed and well lived.  His guitar here too is fiery and passionate with the attack of a 60s Carthy or Roy Harper.  Jack Rutter makes mention of recording without ovedub and live in the studio and it to his considerable credit that under such potentially unforgiving light, tracks like “Young Susan on Board of a Man of War” roar with power in their rawness.  Jack’s singing and playing flow into all space like silver or gold filing a jewellers mould, extra instrumentation or adornment would get in the way and detract from the pure beauty revealed.  Play “The Dalesman’s Litany”, “The Banks of Sweet Dundee” or “Morning Trumpet” for the confident guitar part pounding rythmn part resonant notes, for the powerful boom of Jack’s voice or the dark power of his concertina and hear the arrival of a considerable talent on this assured debut.

Davy Graham – Folk Blues and Beyond | Album Review | Bread and Wine | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.10.17

Listening back to what is now considered a folk classic, Folk, Blues and Beyond, Davy Graham’s second album release, now sounds pretty pedestrian in the vocal department, although his mastery of the acoustic guitar is still startlingly vibrant.  Whether tackling blues standards such as “Cocaine”, “Rock Me Baby”, “Leavin’ Blues” or “Ain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do”, the influence on the young guitar explorers of the mid-1960s such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Wizz Jones is all too evident and a great debt is still owed to Graham by young guitarists even today.  Whilst we continue to cite The Beatles, The Incredible String Band and to a certain extent Paul Simon as early explorers of World Music, Graham was already at it in 1964 with such melodies as “Maajun (A Taste of Tangier)”, an instrumental the guitarist found whilst visiting Morocco around this time.  In the early Sixties, even the most adventurous folk musicians couldn’t escape the influence of Bob Dylan, and here Graham turns his attention to “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, which here receives one of its earliest cover versions, complete with the rhythm section of Tony Reeves and Barry Morgan on bass and drums respectively.  With original sleeve notes by producer Ray Horricks, together with additional booklet notes by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, the re-issue of Folk, Blues and Beyond confirms it to be an essential record for any serious collector of British folk records.  

Megan Henwood – River | Album Review | Dharma Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.10.17

Since winning the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2009 with her brother Joe Henwood, Megan has released a trio of albums, this being the third and an EP with Jackie Oates.  Over the last six years, Making Waves, Head Heart Land and now River have charted Henwood’s slow burn development into an accomplished writer performer and musician.  With each album you find yourself thinking.  “Loved the last album but this one is something else again!”  River, from its beguiling cover and the first note to its slow burning end is the sound of a major talent drawing all the strands of their art together and releasing something that really demands your attention.  There is a maturity, a confidence and a depth here that shines out of every note.  “Join The Dots” the opening track is a tightly wound exercise in space and tension.  Atmospheric electric guitar is teased and caressed like a solo Jeff Buckley track while Megan Henwood’s glorious voice alternates between brooding and soaring.  “Fresh Water” is another intimate emotional vocal that glows and burns from the speakers.  Backing is tasteful and understated, noir trumpet and washes of pedal steel build a Hissing of Summer Lawns era Joni Mitchell like atmosphere.  It’s a simple lyric of love and desire lifted skywards by the sublime music and Henwood’s torch singer vocal.  It begins the watery analogies and references that run through the album, connecting and enriching the tracks.  “The Dolly” is a melancholic song of resigned regret, reflective lyrics peppered with Oxford’s real life and the hypnotic lilt of Thea Gilmour or a Cotswolds Ani Difranco.  “Seventh” is one of the many tracks on this stunning album that suggests Megan is growing steadily beyond her literate folk roots beginnings.  The huge sounding acoustic guitar that again suggests strident Difranco is joined by a sparkling ambience and space on the voice and keyboards that carries the whole song higher and higher.  A slippery dubby edge to Tom Excell’s excellent production lifts the song.  “House On The Hill” is another richly atmospheric song and another hymn to regret and love.  The atmosphere, the skittering percussion, Henwood’s smouldering vocals and those other worldly vocal choruses mean this track is going to be snapped up as film or TV music, sound tracking a pivotal fraught or charged moment.  Tracks like “Rainbows” and “Apples” are examples of those perfect skeletal acoustic tracks that Megan has always done so well, but this time they sparkle and crackle with a presence and power that suggests this might be a real game changer of an album.  “Peace Be The Alien”, a call to take a moment and chill simmers with that same energy.  Megan’s voice is an instrument of beauty as she fills every syllable with potency and power.  Like Chris Wood she manages to slip perfectly, like water, through some complex stanzas and make them sound like spiritual soul music and her phrasing effortless.  “Oh Brother”, a song about Joe Henwood, musician and builder of the straw bale studio where the album was recorded, takes the beautiful analogy of the river as a journey.  Megan’s sense of love and pride just floods through the song, there is clearly great power in these Henwoods.  Beneath the jaunty rhythm of “Used To Be So Kind”, as the title suggests there is a dark bite to the lyric. An examination of the fear of failure to achieve your own high standards, of the grind of life’s knocks and the way that the grass is always greener in other people’s gardens.  Like all true art, beneath the beauty in these songs there is a depth and hidden darkness.  “The Craftsman” continues the tinged melancholy with just a guitar and that glorious voice Megan wrings the emotion out of the wreckage of the end of a relationship.  “L’Appel Du Vide” is a huge anthem of a song that rivals Leonard Cohen best for dark potency and a roller coaster ride.  “L’Appel Du Vide”, the call of the void, describes that dark fascination to jump from high places and the seductive draw of danger.  That key unlocks the lyric into a series of darkly reflective moments, the river here is a deadly force, one of a series of dangers that the song courts.  Called and tempted by actual and metaphysical perils, the way that Megan describes riding the edge of danger at the end of an ordinary day is utterly chilling.  The final sense is that, acutely aware of the perils senses heightened she stands on the edge of the Cornish Atlantic revelling in the glory of living.

The Foxglove Trio – Distant Havens | Album Review | Foxglove Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 27.10.17

The task of following their 2015 debut These Gathered Branches was always going to be a bit of an uphill slog for The Foxglove Trio.  Amazingly, however, these three outstanding musicians appear to have skipped effortlessly up the incline with Distant Havens, an album that keeps your ear superglued to the speakers by, once again, delivering a collection of fetching takes on traditional and contemporary songs.  There are so many reasons to love The Foxglove Trio and each engaging facet is at play here.  The emphatic melding of Patrick Dean’s melodeon and Cathy Mason’s cello creates a wonderfully dramatic sound whilst Ffion Mair’s crystaline vocals, whether in English or Welsh, can ripple the discs in even the sturdiest spine.  Put the trio’s voices together for tracks such as the evocative “Branwen” and ethereal “Si Hei Lwli” and something verging on pure magic happens.  The highlights of this second release from The Foxglove Trio are in strong supply from the re-imagining of Dave Goulder’s “January Man”, here titled “The January Girl” and delivering a potent climate change message, to the cunning handling of Foo Fighters lyrics that introduce and conclude the album.  There’s also a spellbinding choral take on Jean Ritchie’s powerful “Now is The Cool of the Day” which, like many of the tracks here, lifts this record to a higher plane.

Gigspanner – The Wife of Urban Law | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.10.17

The arrival of any new Gigspanner album is always preceded by eager anticipation in these quarters and the trio’s fourth album to date is no exception.  So good is Peter Knight’s trio, I’ve come to expect nothing short of musical excellence in both their choice of material and their intricate arrangements, but most importantly, in the standard of each musician’s masterful playing.  Even after a swift change of line up, Sacha Trochet replacing regular percussionist Vincent Salzfaas, who was forced to retreat due to ‘family matters’, the standard has remained of the highest standard both in their instrumentals and in the songs.  The Wife of Urban Law, its title taken from a gravestone in an Oxfordshire graveyard, features just nine tracks, each one imbued with that special Gigspanner treatment.  Take the traditional “Spencer the Rover” for instance, covered by many in the past, the tune may have been compos-ed by the roving Spencer but here the song benefits considerably from this fabulous arrangement by the trio.  The very idea of including a highly melancholic klezmer instrumental midway through, a perfect change of direction to follow the lyric ‘caused him to lament’, Knight wandering very much into Daniel Hoffman territory, that is both inspired and unexpected at the same time.  It’s this sort of adventurous spirit that has been the benchmark of Gigspanner’s appeal through their recorded output thus far.  Vocally, Peter Knight never strays into cloying techniques and keeps it pretty simple, which seems to keep us focussed on the material’s more enchanting moments.  Both live and on record, Peter Knight’s Gigspanner continue to thrill, just in time for their imminent extensive British tour.

Meridian Brothers – ¿Dónde Estás María? | Album Review | Soundway | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 29.10.17

Beginning life as a one-man conceptual project in the late nineties, Meridian Brothers has developed into a constantly imaginative and exciting live quintet.  For ¿Dónde Estás María?, founder Elibis Alvarez returns to the studio to cook up ten infectiously lively and eccentric tracks that propel Colombian psychedelic music into a wholly new domain via an inventive blending of electronic and analogue sounds.  Alvarez brings traditional sensibilities to his forward-facing music for this constantly engaging outing and whilst tracks such as “Yo Soy Tu Padre”, “Yo Te Fabrique” and “Hablame Amigo, Citadino” are clearly rooted in Cumbia and the musics of pre and post-colonial Colombia, they shimmer around their very modern edges thanks to some wonderfully painterly synths and inventive filtering and layering of Alvarez’s vocals.  Where this album really triumphs, however, is in its generous and notably hypnotic use of strings.  On “Como Estoy En Los Sesenta”, for example, Alvarez’s string arrangements infuse the piece with a gripping drama whilst the nasal, sneering cello on “Estare Alegre”, “No Estare Triste” transports this fascinating record into a delightfully otherworldly realm.

Pons Aelius – Captain Glen’s Comfort | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 01.11.17

The North East music scene has produced some fine folk outfits over the years from Lindisfarne to The Unthanks, Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies to the Young’uns.  In 2015, the  traditional sextet Pons Aelius, named after the Newcastle Roman fort, were the deserved recipients of the Celtic Connections Danny Kyle Award and now, two years on, the band have released their much anticipated debut album.  And what a fine debut it is, too.  Captain Glen’s Comfort presents eight instrumentals that encapsulate the band’s frenetic energy and affectionately expansive arrangements.  Whilst Callum Younger’s measured percussion, Bevan Morris’s inventive basslines and Alisdair Paul’s lithe guitar provide a reliable yet wildly flexible backbone, the sorcerous melding of Jordan Aikin’s swaggering pipes and Sam Patridge’s supple flutes take us on a soaring tour of some pretty striking soundscapes, especially during “YRSNÖ” and the strutting “Oh My Doughnuts”.  It’s Tom Kimber’s banjo, however, that provides this album with its key ingredient, most notably on Molly and Jimmy’s as well as his exploratory mandolin solos on “The Way is Clear” and “Captain Glen’s Comfort”.  The musicianship on this album is outstanding, often reaching moments of euphoric climax such as Jordan Aikin’s pipes solo on £75 Fine which summons the ghost of jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley with its daring improvisations.

Hadrian’s Union – Aural Borderalis | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Damian Liptrot | 02.11.17

Strange place Cumbria.  Not quite Scotland and its shared Caledonian identity, yet too far from England’s cultural epicentres to be dragged into any passing mode du jour.  A place then where they do things their own way, at least if Hadrian’s Union are anything to go by.  Yes, they do make their own entertainment and now they have been kind enough to share it with the rest of us.  Aural Borderalis is an album of only 12 tracks but a 1,000 ideas – sometimes apparently even in one song.   Starting with a track that fuses the best of 70’s rock with the finest of folk sensibilities, they then proceed through the likes of Gogol Bordello with extra Klezmer, a little Genesis married to a growing Moody Blues lushness – and that’s just the music – which frequently offers delightful, inventive and evocative flourishes throughout, embellishing the songs with further touches of class.  Not surprising given the line-up that has been added to the original core of the band, with Folk Award winners, ex-Whapweaselers and the like.  Lyrically, there are themes of social concern, anger, regret and isolation, as well as deep love, longing and loss.  Perhaps all folk favourites one way or another but in terms of both words and delivery, lyricist, singer and HU founder Stew Simpson can be heard to channel his inner Strummer, with nods to Morrissey as well as those princes of the North East folk scene – Lindisfarne, no less.  Following on from this, it is Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter time and then a gentle instrumental before it starts all over again.  Right in the middle of this festival of eclecticism is the least typical track of all, which perversely sums up HU in the most effective manner.  English Eccentrics will call to mind The Bonzos, Stackridge and even the lyrical whimsy of Ray Davies at his Kinkiest.  It is, in effect, their “Intro and Outro”, telling all of their raison d’etre and their ties that bind.  Overall, it’s a strange beast of an album but a lovable one, bounding around with abandon at times, then curling around you in front of a warm fire.  Listen and wonder!

Edgelarks – Edgelarks | Album Review | Dragonfly Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.11.17

Standing back to back on the sleeve of their latest album, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin enchant before a single note is played.  Birds circle the margins as the duo’s newly adopted name suggests, serving as an eloquent introduction to the twelve songs included within, which enchant equally. Hannah Martin’s mature vocal delivery has either developed over time or maybe it’s always been that way without us really noticing.  Rich in texture, due in no small part to John Elliott’s special touches, the songs are allowed to breathe through the duo’s arrangements, from the opening song, “Landlocked” through to the eastern influenced sound of “The Good Earth”.  Conceived in Australia while out there on tour and recorded in Cornwall, the album also features Phillip Henry’s familiar slide guitar and beatbox harmonica playing, both understated and never getting in the way, therefore allowing each song to remain uncluttered with only the essentials shining through.  The songs indeed shine through, with two of them having previously been aired during Hannah’s tenure with the Shake the Chains project, the almost whispered “Yarl’s Wood” and the exceptionally tender “Song of the Jay”.  Adding to the Indian flavour of this and other songs on the album is Niall Robinson on Tabla, with other contributions from Lukas Drinkwater on bass.  “We’re all passing through” suggests the sleeve notes – be sure to let Edgelarks pass through you. 

Brother Roy – Last Man Standing | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.11.17

It’s rewarding to hear a record so chock full of songs rich in melody, with lush orchestrations, maturely written lyrics and embellished with the sound of a sweet Hammond organ, occasionally swirling along in the mix as if it was 1965 again.  “Heartbreaker”, the opening song, ticks the same boxes that Lennon put his proverbial mark to in the early 1970s, in the days when he would be seen hanging out with Harry Nilsson, downing the Brandy Alexanders like there was no tomorrow.  Claimed as a ‘rock and roll missionary’, we tend to listen with great expectations and speculative curiosity that we may just be in the presence of a musical authority.  Well I don’t know much about the man they call Brother Roy, but I trust my taste buds and these songs work blissfully well on my remaining senses.  Based in New York, Brother Roy has a confident approach to song writing, occasionally wearing his Leon Russell, Harry Nilsson and Beatles influences very much on his sleeve, but it apparently suits him, and in the case of Last Man Standing, it suits this reviewer well too.

Blue Rose Code – The Water of Leith | Album Review | Navigator | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.11.17

After four studio albums and two concert sets of perfection, where Ross Wilson’s burred soulful vocals glide skip and slide over sublime music, offering a personal vision of a world that is emotionally charged and exploding with physical and metaphysical beauty.  It is frankly a mystery why Blue Rose Code are not huge, selling by the lorry load, carried ever higher on critical and public acclaim.  You get the feeling that there is great musicianship and a powerful instrument in Ross Wilsons playing and vocal.  He also has impeccable taste when it comes to musicians and collaborators, but everything is channelled into the song or the moment.  There are endless references to Jazz and the virtuosic folk music of John Martyn or acoustic period Tim Buckley, but at no point does it get showy or widdly, everything is filtered through a pop or soul pragmatism to make charged, perfectly balanced musical moments.  “Over the Fields”, the duet between Ross Wilson and Beth Nielsen Chapman is a classic example of everything that Blue Rose Code do so well.  Touches of Celtic mysticism come from the rich lyrics and the Irish whistles at the end of the track.  Wilson’s soulful vocals on tracks like “Bluebell” are effortless and perfectly phrased, a rich instrument that like the best of John Martyn, Mike Scott and Van Morrison dances the musical hinterlands of folk, jazz, pop and rock.  Thoughtful philosophical lyrics sparkle and dance over ‘smile on your face’ feel good music that appeals to the head, the heart and the feet.  Tracks like “Ebb and Flow” are upbeat music with pulse, stabs of Memphis brass, gospel choruses make for air thumping party dance music.  Blue Rose Code artfully balance the stomp with gossamer delicacy on “Passing Places” and “Sandaig”, where guitar and an aching violin alongside sublime Kathleen MacInnes Gaelic vocals build moments of perfection.  Sandaig bay was immortalised as Camusfearna in “Ring of Bright Water” by Gavin Maxwell’s classic book telling of his life with otters at this lonely spot like Van Morrison’s finest moments Ross’ reflective lyrics mix anecdotal detail with pure beauty and a sense of wonder at every moment.  This is soulful music that enriches and cleanses the soul.  “Nashville Blue” from the louche rhythm, to the double bass and Colin Steele’s Miles Davis trumpet is pure staring into the empty glass jazz torch music.  Ross Wilson’s lyrics and delivery are heartfelt and sublime a window into real emotion.  “On the Hill Remains a Heart” is another album highlight with a finger pick guitar part that would make John Martyn smile and that double track vocal that Blue Rose Code do so well.  The track builds with romantic strings and a Celtic ‘wig out’ that sounds like the up tempo bit from Tubular Bells till Wilson reigns it in and ends with pipes and a fine vocal.  “Polaris”, named for the star of steadfastness, itself a metaphor for guiding principles, is a perfect example of the magic of Blue Code Rose.  Strings, warm soulful vocals, life affirming lyrics and jazzy brass blend together to make something that is beguiling and simply perfect.  Topped only by a wonderfully eccentric spoken word piece, a reading of Glasgow poet Edwin Morgan’s “Strawberries” from 1968 that brings to mind a kind of Celtic Kate Bush or Incredible String Brand in its ability to find a kooky honest beauty.  “The Water” is one of those tracks you can blissfully lose yourself in, stage diving into or wild swimming through its beauty.  Like a Piano led “Glistening Glyndebourne” the Trumpet, Double Bass and rolling piano conjures endless images.  As well as being a passage of pure beauty, “The Water” is also the set up for “To the Shore”, so we feel the emotional payoff of the first line as it talks of return.  Wilson’s delivers another charged performance as he draws strength from where he is now and who is now.  The metaphors and lyrical imagery is rich and powerful.  Strings swirl and Brass builds with all the drama of a film score, along some frankly psychedelic glissando guitar and what sounds like an infant heartbeat.  After the emotional rollercoaster of the previous track “Child” is a china delicate vocal piano and strings lullaby.  One of the last things you hear is an Alto Saxophone that manages to sound at different moments like a bagpipe chanter and a Saxophone is typical of such a rich and layered album as it blends together musics to make something at times beautiful and unique.  For fans this another indication of the powerful and personal voice that is Blue Rose Code, for the uninitiated this is a perfect moment to dive into the Waters of Leith.

Greg Russell – Inclined to be Red | Album Review | Fellside Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 18.11.17

A hugely enjoyable collection from Greg Russell, who many of you may know from his outings with playing partner Ciaran Algar, collaborators, The Transports and the Shake the Chains project.  Starting with a track from the latter, telling of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the UK’s first female doctor and later also a mayor, the album progresses through 12 tracks, a seamless mixture of self-penned numbers and a well-chosen selection from a wide range of sources, both traditional and contemporary. The dominant feature of the album is Greg’s voice, which, after casting around, my listening companion described as organic and grainy and that will do for me.  Beautifully rich in a manner that belies his relatively tender years, with degrees of energy and passion, character and nuance that made us wonder just how he will sound with a few more years under his belt and how much we look forward to finding out.  In fact, it was only on the second listen that we devoted any focus to the musical accompaniment.  Excellent though it is, once attention has been directed, it is at once restrained and complementary, allowing the voice, the words and the character of the songs breathe and resonate.  This is noteworthy given the range of instrumental prowess available within Greg’s cohort, that the line-up and could be described as almost sparse, with help coming in the not inconsiderable forms of Archie Churchill Moss on Melodeon and Blackbeard’s Tea Party’s Tim Yates on double bass – a man also not unused to breathing fresh life into old songs.  The decision to exercise restraint in this way can be seen as either a mark of confidence in the songs or a simple mastery of the form and either way it matters not.  Whilst Inclined to be Red suggests a direction of political leaning and it is true that a concern for his fellow man (and woman) permeates the songs.  Thematically the album spans the political, the personal and the philosophical and like the instrumentation, it is subtle rather than in your face, whatever the subject matter, be it The Tolpuddle Martyrs in his stirring version of “The Road to Dorchester” or the fate of the planet in Greg’s own “Race to Burn”.  Similarly, tales and thoughts of life on the road inhabit songs that invite listening and consideration rather than would either predictable tales of lonesome misery or overblown debauchery.  The title of the album does, however turn up in one of the more personally focussed songs, telling stories of individuals, such as “Crooked Jack”, the a cappella “Willy-Ole Lad” (both songs of men burdened and constrained by their circumstances, as the political is never too far away).  The reference comes in the American import Joe Bowers, where the central character is disappointed to find out that the woman he loves has left him for another and borne a child whose hair colour is the subject of the last line of the song (which has been altered from the original by Greg for just that purpose).  I shall leave you to work that one out for yourselves.  The album sleeve notes credit the sources of the non-original songs and make interesting reading in that context, as does his observation that he has been inspired by an encounter at a folk club in which he was informed that politics has no place in music.  However, it is his revelation that his career in music has led to his giving up on his dreams of playing professional football that allows me to suggest that, with Inclined to be Red, Greg really is playing in the Premier League!!  Certainly one of my albums of the year and there’s still time to make it one of yours!

Molly Evans – Deep Time and Narrow Space | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Rob Swan and Ange Hardy | 19.11.17

Let’s start with the most important part of a good review: this EP is spectacularly good.  Go and buy a copy now.  Done that?  Okay, good.  Now we can start talking about it… and that might start to get complex…. because much like the oral folk tradition, or Chinese whispers, or the Hollywood blockbuster Inception, any attempt we make to explain these songs will be a retelling of a retelling of a retelling of a story… That’s because the songs of Molly Evans on Deep Time and Narrow Space are themselves retellings of the stories of Alan Garner.  Those stories of Alan Garner are largely retellings of older (Garner would argue universal) stories.  I was entirely unfamiliar with the work of Alan Garner before this EP turned up.  It transpires that Garner is a novelist best known for his children’s fantasy novels and his retellings of traditional British folk tales.  Garner is part novelist, part poet, part collector of folk stories.  So, presuming you’ve already brought Deep Time and Narrow Space you now need to go and get yourself a copy of Collected Folk Tales by Alan Garner.  That’s what we did next.  Got it?  Great.  Read it?  Okay, good.  It’s good isn’t it?  We’ll continue.  Molly attributes the catalyst for this project to the melody she’s set “Maggoty’s Wood” to, a melody which started to form unbidden upon her first reading of the poem.  There’s something exciting that happens there; when one artist inspired by the work of another.  The result is a sense of exploration and discovery throughout the songs… this is a landscape filled with Hob-goblins, Faerie Kings and Bogarts.  These songs conjure those images and landscapes with ease, and you get a certain sense that you’re being guided through Garner’s Cheshire-inspired landscape by Molly herself.  Molly mentions on the CD’s sleeve notes that the songs are “texturally and melodically inspired by the English folk song tradition”.  She’s certainly achieved that remit.  With Andy Bell producing the album they’ve managed across just six songs to produce songs that somehow call to mind June Tabor “Maggoty’ Wood”, Faustus “Mist” and Kate Rusby “Bryer and Bonfire”… but despite that it’s an undeniably unique sound with a vocal delivery that’s manages to continuously dance along the edges of dirgeful without ever ceasing to be pleasant.  The quality of playing and productions is absolutely top rate with Molly Evans on vocals and duet concertina, Jack Rutter on guitars, bouzouki, banjo and duet concertina and Archie Churchill-Moss on Melodeon.  Jack Rutter and Archie Churchill-Moss have a long history of creating beautiful music together (as two thirds of Moore Moss Rutter), and they provide the perfect ambiance for this body of work.  This EP is an absolute delight.  The story of Gobbleknoll (the opening story in Garner’s Collected Folk Tales and the closing track on Molly Evans’ Deep Time and Narrow Space is an absolute gem.  Who wouldn’t love a Sioux legend about mischievous shape-shifting sword-wielding rabbits battling man eating caves?!  Molly Evans has created an exceptionally enjoyable CD of music which deserves repeated listening.  The result is a glimpse into the world of Alan Garner that leaves us wanting to read more of his work, whilst equally leaving us in anticipation of hearing more from Molly Evans.

John Hassell – Dream Theory in Malaya | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.11.17

To listen to a reissue of Jon Hassell’s seminal 1981 Dream Theory in Malaya album is to realise how fine it sounds, how little it has dated and how much it sounds like music that was to come after it.  The strange mystical blown tones of Hassell’s compressed, pitch shifted and layered trumpet inhabit the same sonic world as late period Japan and David Sylvian.  Looped voices and sounds connect to Jean Michel Jarre’s mid 80s album Zoolook.  There is the same sense of glimpsed music from another culture that permeates Peter Gabriel’s instrumental soundtrack albums for Birdy and The Last Temptation of Christ.  Jon Hassell himself talks of trying to conjure musical soundscapes that were indeterminate, that could have existed, rather than being evocations of actual places.  Opening track “Chor Moire” a cut up of chorused trumpets, looped and live is still a difficult listen, an interesting experiment, a lively texture rather than immersive experience.  “Courage”, although only slightly longer, stretches out, with its frenetic quasi Polynesian drum choruses looping behind Hassell’s eldritch trumpets, heralds from another world.  Few people beyond Miles Davis, have a signature sound that is rich so evocative and so uniquely their own.  Dream Theory predicts the ambient House music of The Orb and The KLF by under pinning the loops, ambience and blown sounds with a huge pulsing reggae Bass beat.  “Datu Bintung at Jelong” features a pulsing loop as rhythmic as a Steve Reich or Philip Glass piece in a kind of call and response with Hassell’s otherworldly insistent trumpet choruses, becoming hypnotic over its length.  Malay with its sparser intro of gongs, sampled birdsong and a wonderful animal call like trumpet is probably the most accessible track on the album.  A beautiful water splash rhythm, sampled off a record of BBC recordings made during the Queens tour of the commonwealth, adds a warm and worldly bottom note to the decidedly otherworld calls being played by Hassell.  The overall effect is wonderful and a centrepiece to the album.  “These Times” is a series of sketches as hazy as an early morning awakening in a humid tropical paradise.  Ambient sounds, instruments blown on the breeze through an open breeze.  A new age meditation CD filtered through some kind of humid fever dream, it is as soft and shifting as the previous two tracks are rhythmic and hypnotic.  “Ordinary Mind” with its deceptive title, is a bonus track for this reissue.  Samples of a chorus of chanting echoed voices phase with distorted waves that could be distant wind or water on an empty beach.  Another beautiful slice of slowly shifting ambience it is a sonic holiday postcard from another dimension, a gentle end to a wonderful album as we walk slowly up a beach.  After Jon Hassell, post jazz Norwegian trumpet players Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvaer have developed voices that while filtered through their home landscapes own a sonic debt to Hassell’s tunings and eerie sound.  Both through collaboration and through influence, Brian Eno, The Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, Japan, Bjork, Ry Cooder, Ani DiFranco, huge swathes of the ECM stable of artists and numerous others are indebted to the sound and music of Jon Hassell.  Much mainstream music from the early 80s sounds dated, Dream Theory in Malaya, a postcard from another dimension, at times difficult at times sublime sounds fresh and exciting.

Kate Rusby – Angels and Men | Album Review | Pure Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.11.17

The wings are out for Christmas as Barnsley’s favourite daughter pops down from the top of the tree to celebrate the festive season in song.  Surrounding herself with members of her own touring band, including husband Damien O’Kane and accordion player Nick Cooke, both of whom also take care of production and mastering respectively, the songs bear all the hallmarks of a new Kate Rusby album, each of the thirteen selections treated to informed arrangements, including a seasonal brass section with Andrew Duncan at the helm, and fine performances throughout.  There’s a good mixture here, including Richard Thompson’s uplifting “We Sing Hallelujah”, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s timeless “Let it Snow” and Chris Sugden’s playful “The Ivy and the Holly”, as well as the more traditional seasonal fare, “Hark Hark, Sweet Chiming Bells” and “Deck the Halls”.  Notably, Kate also revives her own super hero “Big Brave Bill” who this time sets out to save Christmas, which will no doubt keep the kids happy.  For me though, the golden bauble on this particular spruce, is Kate’s reading of David Myles’ “Santa Never Brings Me a Banjo”, featuring Union Station’s Ron Block on banjo and Sierra Hull on mandolin.  Christmas albums are not everybody’s cup of Yorkshire tea, but this one will certainly be played on December 25th around this reviewer’s house.

Saskia Griffiths-Moore – Night and Day | Album Review | Music Without Measure | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.11.17

One or two firsts here, notably the first time I’ve reviewed an album produced by an artist who once established a Harley Street practice, who then went on to travel and explore music.  Not so new and unusual are the musicians Saskia has hooked up with, each of whom have previously been given column inches within these pages, notably Ciaran Algar (fiddle), Lukas Drinkwater (bass) and Evan Carson (drums).  Add the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award nominee Jack Cookson to the line-up and there’s a very healthy collaborative vibe behind Saskia Griffiths-Moore’s songs.  Defining her music as Anglicana, Saskia explores light and shade on this her second studio album, with ten self-penned songs and a delightful reading of the traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme”.  With a confident self-assured vocal delivery, the songs leap out at you, such as the album opener “All for You” and the punchy “Joy of Defeat”, whilst others demonstrate Saskia’s handling of restraint, notably the atmospheric title song “Night and Day”.

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards – California Calling | Album Review | Compass Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.11.17

There’s an immediate warmth to Laura Cortese’s new album California Calling, which features her band, the Dance Cards, namely Valerie Thompson (cello), Jenna Moynihan (fiddle) and Natalie Bohrn (bass), together with multi-instrumentalist/producer Sam Kassirer.  Musically speaking, the songs cover a lot of ground, ranging from the pop sensibilities of Stockholm and the title song “California Calling” to the rootsy grounding of the opener “The Low Hum” and the traditional “Swing and Turn”.  With an initial Beach Boys-styled harmony vocal, “Hold On” builds to Eleanor Rigby-styled proportions, demonstrating just how far Laura Cortese has come along in terms of her musicality since those formative days on Boston’s acoustic music scene.  With such songs as “Pace Myself”, the chosen single from the album, we see that this is no ordinary Americana album, rather a richly interwoven and extraordinarily well-constructed acoustic-based pop record, likely to reach a much broader audience than the usual fare.

Gavin Sutherland – Wireless Connection | Album Review | MIG | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.11.17

It’s been a couple of years since Gavin Sutherland’s previous album A Curious Noise, the style of the songs of which I likened at the time to that of the late JJ Cale, with all his mystery, his Tulsa growl, his cliched laid-back bluesy sensibility.  One-time member of the Sutherland Brothers Band and the hugely successful Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, Gavin Sutherland seems to have done what every self-respecting pop/rock star should do, that is to grow old gracefully, not that he could really be described as old.  Nowhere on this latest release, Wireless Connection, do we see an artist pretending to be twenty again, but rather we see a mature musician utilising his distinctively weathered voice to deliver a dozen highly personal songs that range from the enduring appeal of the gramophone record, the magnificence of the Northern Lights, the connections between us all through the power of the wireless and the simple pleasure of sipping blueberry wine.  It might be a long while since those youthful siblings were lying in the arms of Mary, bobbing up and down on a lifeboat or providing Rod Stewart with one of his biggest hits, but it’s still rewarding to hear the familiar Sutherland sound this far down the road.

Hannah Aldridge – Gold Rush | Album Review | Rootsy Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.12.17

Hannah Aldridge is Muscle Shoals born and raised, daughter of Walt Aldridge acclaimed songwriter, musician and producer at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals.  Clearly steeped in musical heritage, a sense of place and a life well lived her music oozes with quality and power.  “Don’t leave me like this I might explode” Hannah sings on “Aftermath”.  “I’ve got a fever, been wearing me out” opens “Lace”.  There is an intensity, a real sense of a human cost of singing these songs, such is Hannah’s delivery.  Gold Rush is Hannah’s second album, a huge slab of sound, rich in that humid Southern Rock that crackles and snarls from the speakers.  Aftermath sets up Aldridge as a survivor who has walked the walk ‘born in a crossfire’, over a huge, drum beat and some stabbing electric guitar the lyrics are fired out with vim and fire.  ‘I did not come here to be fragile’ what doesn’t kill you definitely makes you stronger and comes out as couplets of bullets and barbs through the writing.  This is music to whirl round a wooden floored road house to.  The valve warm beautifully retro sound of a voice crooned into an old microphone over some raw rock and roll guitar continues with “Dark Hearted Woman” another huge sounding song that manages to blend music that can be both tender and then as hot as a glowing brand.  The huge chorus of voices on “Burning Down Birmingham” cools it down a little, but the whole track still smoulders with gospel tension and atmosphere.  Hannah Aldridge’s voice shines through on this track, both solo or carried on the backing chorus she really delivers.  “The Irony of Love” wraps Aldridge’s emotional voice in acoustic guitar and atmospherics, slow burn building intensity through this superb track.  “No Heart Left Behind” and “Living on Lonely” marry a dirty Southern Rock with some glorious vocal harmonies and a huge drum sound that wouldn’t sound out of place on Rumours by the transatlantic incarnation of Fleetwood Mac.  Simply stunning.  Listen to the last minute of “Living on Lonely” for a lesson in atmosphere menace and suspense delivered by the guitar and rhythm section.  “Lace” is a huge maelstrom of a track, the opening acoustic guitar is set alight by some cathedral sized electric guitar chords while Aldridge whispers, croons and finally roars a song of biblical proportion.  Carried by a celestial backing chorus Hannah’s vocal assumes hurricane proportion carried on waves of distortion.  “Gold Rush” with a perfectly taught vocal, resonant acoustic and washes of pedal steel is an emotional calm after the storm.  Another slow burner with a beautifully bitter sweet lyric.  Recommended turned up loud through some big speakers to fill the room and fill your life.  Part Southern Country Rock Belter, part Fleetwood Mac California intelligent Rock, part taut Tom Petty swagger but all killer.

Jim Causley – I Am the Song | Album Review | WildGoose Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 02.12.17

Amongst his many projects, Jim Causley has long maintained a dedication to reviving and celebrating the poetry of his native West Country.  His 2016 album The Clay Hymnal set the poems of Cornish poet Jack Clemo to music whilst his 2013 album Cyprus Well paid its respects to Jim’s distant relative, the renowned Cornish bard Charles Causley.  This year, The Charles Causley Trust has encouraged Jim to return to the poems of his late relative via I am the Song which sets twenty one of Causley’s celebrated children’s poems to music with the help of eleven musicians including Matt Norman, Keith Kendrick, Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll.  There’s a lovely mix of Charles Causley’s whimsy and ethics on this record from the wonderfully silly “Mrs McPhee”, featuring a deep and nasally cello from Anahata, to the biting satire of “I Saw a Jolly Hunter”, which delightfully dispenses with a hare hunter at the barrel of his own gun.  Jim’s chromatic button accordion provides the perfect vessel for Charles’ lyrics, especially those of such jaunty songs as “The Obby Oss, I Took My Wife to Market” and the wonderfully infectious “Good Morning”, “Mr Croco-Doco-Dile” which, thanks to Pete Bullock’s baritone sax, has all the eccentricity of anything by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.  There are also moments of profound beauty such as the blissful “A Memaid at Zennor” and the melancholic “Lord Lovelace” with its haunting depiction of the ravages of war.  Never has Charles Causley’s poetry seemed so alive and vital and we have Jim to thank for it.

Hot Tuna – Live at New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA 9.69 | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Damian Liptrot | 03.12.17

Bear with me for a moment as hopefully this will become both clear and relevant.  I recently spent an enjoyable time watching the new Blade Runner sequel, a follow up to a film that my wife and I have enjoyed many times over the last 35 years.  Although the film itself was well worth watching, what was also enjoyable was discussing how the new offering fitted with the older, much loved version.  So, we come to the current CD.  I am making the assumption that most people reading this will be aware of the background of Hot Tuna and their links to the more widely known Jefferson Airplane.  For those who aren’t: formed by Jack Casady (bass) and Jorma Kaukonen during a period during which the Airplane was grounded due to Grace Slick’s throat related indisposition, in many ways Hot Tuna was Americana well before there was Americana, offering an acoustic based take on well curated Blues and Country classics from the likes of Lightning Hopkins and the Rev Gary Davis (who gets three writing credits on the album).  The shifting line up of Hot Tuna was as much a staple of 70’s music press as those of the likes of Fairport Convention over here, with only the founding duo remaining ever presents.  The band’s first album, issued in 1970 was recorded up close and personal in the New Orleans House, a club in Berkeley, California and amongst other things is notable for the inclusion of the sound of a breaking bottle during one of the songs.  This release comprises songs and versions that were recorded by Casady and Kaukonen, along with harmonica Will Scarlett from the same sessions but did not make the final selection at the time, including the aforementioned Davis titles, two Kaukonen originals and two trad arrs attributed to the core duo, “Uncle Sam’s Blues” and “Know You Rider”.  Nothing about the songs or these particular recordings of those included on the original release suggest that they were in any way inferior, though the sleeve notes do not offer any other clues as to why they were not chosen.  On a historical note, the recordings date from round about the same time as the recording and release of Jefferson Airplane’s classic Volunteers – an album that has been shared and enjoyed by my wife and I for round about the same span as Blade Runner (I told you I would make it relevant).  And there my friends is the joy of this album – it was ever going to be their chosen release, it features musicians responsible for many hours of musical enjoyment chez nous and also numerous other places.  So phone a friend who shares your musical tastes, put on this album and enjoy the music along with the conversation about the influences and nods to the blues, the touches of country and where the pure California flourishes sparkle and shine.  It won’t break any new ground in your listening life, the enjoyment is in its relationship to your past.  A great ingredient for an evening well spent in good company – including that of the musicians.  What a long strange trip we’ve had.

Alice Howe – You’ve Been Away So Long | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.12.17

Boston USA based performer Alice Howe marries a warm soulful vocal with a touch of Gillian Welch, an ability to pen timeless classic songs and impeccable guitar playing.  “Homeland Blues” is perfectly crafted talking folk blues.  Something of the tunes’ lilt recalls Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues”, the warm burr of Howe’s glorious voice soon surpasses all comparisons, pure or husky as the moment requires it is always a delight.  Alice’s strident acoustic and Jeff Fielder’s shimmering dobro unite with the rich voice to make this opener about perfect.  “Nothing But You” is a slower affair, with echoes of Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” and another glorious vocal this is a song that recalls the very best of the classic late 60s early 70s singer songwriters.  “Make a Fool Out of Me” has a touch of country to it and a wonderfully bleak lyric again beautifully delivered by Alice.  Great guitar picking on this track too.  “You’ve Been Away So Long” with Jeff Fielder on harmony vocals is another wonderfully melancholic lyric, spun into light and air by Alice’s pure singing and the gossamer fine accompaniment.  This is Alice Howe’s second release following on from an extended EP in 2014, as her voice gains depth and character here’s hoping that is full album release is on its way after this perfect and tantalising set of tracks.

The Drystones – We Happy Few | Album Review | Shedbuilt Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.12.17

Six years since their first gig – an impromptu performance to fill a folk club slot at the last minute – British duo The Drystones present their third and most exciting album to date.  Ford Collier (guitar and whistle) and Alex Garden (fiddle and guitar) once again manage to forge a clean and exhilarating sound on We Happy Few via the playful intertwining of strings and percussion, making occasional detours from such trad-based tunes as “Green Mountain”, “Hole in the Wall” and “The Cheshire Set” – which features a delicious tabla – for a handful of hauntingly sung songs such as the Elizabethan nursery rhyme “Man of Words” and the American folk song “Katy Cruel”.  There’s also a fiery rendition of “My Son John”, the opening track from The Imagined Village’s Empire & Love, which benefits from its gutsy distorted guitar and a fiddle that could cut right through you, as well as a welcome appearance of Simon Jeffes’ “Music for a Found Harmonium” during “On the Dot”.  It’s no wonder, with its inspiring mixture of nimble tunes, sincerely rendered songs and inventive use of traditional instrumentation, that Songlines magazine recommended We Happy Few as its Top of the World album in October and the accolades continue to arrive.

Amy McAllister – String on String | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 04.12.17

With her celestial voice and heavenly harp, it would be easy to make an angel of Amy McAllister for this review of her debut album, String on String.  Strip back the halos, wings and fluffy clouds, however, and you’ll find an album that explores Celtic music with equal measures of sincerity, dexterity and serenity.  The Antrim-born harpist, singer and fiddler has spent much of her life performing around the world, representing Ireland at the world’s largest harp festival in Brazil and bringing a touch of Irish class to weddings and blessings.  String on String is, therefore, an album of impressive quality and, despite its romantic packaging, is far from one of those run-of-the-mill collection of harp tunes that might provide half an hour’s tranquillity.  Consider Amy’s vocal on “Holy, Holy”, for example, which wears its jazz influences proudly, or the heartfelt way in which McAllister interprets “Bonnie Blue Eyed Nancy” over a wonderfully reverberating trickle of piano and harp.  And then there’s the utterly seductive “Mi Amor” that, thanks to its layering of vocals, strummed ukulele and achingly beautiful harp melody, demands several plays before moving on.  There’s an arresting elegance to this album, a fine thread that weaves itself through harp tunes such as “Jigs”, “O’Carolan’s Concerto” and Catriona McKay’s “The Swan LK243” as well as the aforementioned songs which each showcase Amy’s delicately vernal vocals.  It’s an album I’ll be turning to frequently.

TootArd – Laissez Passer | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.12.17

From the funky opening guitar riff of the title song “Laissez Passer (Let Him Pass)” we immediately recognise the desert blues territory we’ve once again strayed into, with TootArd’s six musicians foisting their own particular Golan Heights roots upon the genre.  The band, whose name translates to ‘Strawberriest’, present a healthy mix of mountain rock and infectious Jabali reggae, which effectively brings to the fore their own Syrian roots, their occupied home of Majdal Shams remaining very much close to their hearts throughout.  On this, the band’s second album, although the first to receive an international release, the music exudes an incredible sense of joy, though the songs tell of the struggles that come with surviving difficult times in occupied territory.  There’s catchy riffs, infectious refrains and celebratory choruses, all of which makes Laissez Passer an uplifting experience, particularly “A’sfur, Sahra” and the memorable opening title track.

Kirsty Merryn – She and I | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.12.17

Some really fine material here, each song an example of the work of a seemingly mature singer, songwriter and performer.  Based in London, although originally from the New Forest, Kirsty Merryn presents quite a remarkable debut album, remarkable first and foremost for being just that, her debut.  It all sounds pretty accomplished from the start, as Kirsty accompanies herself on piano on the opener “The Pit and the Pugilist”, sounding for all intents and purposes like Belinda O’Hooley’s twin sister.  Steve Knightley takes over midway through the album, offering the lead vocal on “Forfarshire”, a song about Grace Darling, which is a little like having David Crosby chirp in just after the final chord of “Little Green” on Joni’s Blue.  Kirsty’s voice is strong, confident and dominant and by the time we get to “The Fair Tea Maker of Edgeware Row”, hers is really the only voice we actually need.  Despite this, most songs about this particular lighthouse keeper’s daughter usually gets a thumbs up, whoever chooses to sing it, the story itself an utterly powerful slice of Northumbrian drama.  Collaboration appears to be spread across Kirsty’s debut, Luke Jackson popping up on “Delilah and Samson”, this time providing more drama from a different book altogether.  Along with Delilah and Grace Darling, Kirsty Merryn paints bold portraits of Annie Edson, Henrietta Lacks, Georgiana Houghton and Emma Hamilton – strong, adventurous and singular women, whose lives should be remembered and celebrated, and on She & I, they most certainly are.

Daniel Carlson – Not a Drawing | Album Review | Folkwit Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.12.17

The advice that Daniel Carlson received during the making of his new album Not a Drawing was apparently ‘less Paul McCartney, more Pink Floyd’, although the songs here sound pretty much like lots of McCartney enhanced by Floyd gadgetry.  Imagine a tank-topped fool on the hill dancing around a ruined amphitheatre in Pompeii and it all will come clear.  The Chicago-born singer songwriter, who now oscillates between Amsterdam and New York City, thinks art, breaths art and probably devours art for breakfast.  Careful to ensure his songs are wrapped in sleeves designed by known artists, in this case Nayland Blake, who also came up with the album title, Carlson takes time to associate with such artists, together with video artists on each project, demonstrating a symbiotic relationship with the art world, which in turn seems to inform his own songwriting.  There’s a tendency to think of the songs as an artistic statement rather than just a bunch of good songs.  I expected to hear a sonar ping at the beginning of “All on Display”, the Floyd influence probably at its most obvious, yet in other places, Carlson’s songs can be compared to Jeff Lynne and surprisingly on “Everybody’s Dumb About You”, to Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, the Moog maestros behind some of Stevie Wonder’s finest work.  This said, Not a Drawing is essentially a song-based album, rich in melody and oddly appealing.

India Electric Co – Seven Sisters | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.12.17

With a cumbersome monika that could easily be mistaken for a utility card on the Asian edition of Monopoly, the London-based Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe present the second in a trilogy of EP releases, the title of which once again relates geographically to the duo.  Following on from EC1M, named for the postcode of the Clerkenwell district of London where the initial EP was recorded, Seven Sisters relates in name two areas of importance for the duo, the district of London where much of the material was first imagined and the name of the coastal cliffs of Sussex, close to Stacey’s childhood stomping ground.  Recorded at both Sutton House in Hackney and in an empty house in Devon, the marriage of the rural and the urban is once again explored, the five songs and standout tune set demonstrating once again the duo’s command over arrangement, particularly on the album closer, “Flash Company”, slowed down – compared to other familiar versions – to reveal a distinctive focus on the story, its eerie backdrop apparently featuring an atmospheric bowed cymbal.  With material spanning three centuries, from English songs and Scottish ballads through to Northumbrian dance tunes, Seven Sisters is yet another landmark release for a duo currently making a big splash in the acoustic music pool. 

Assembly Lane – Northbound | Album Review | Self Released | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.12.17

Upon first hearing Assembly Lane’s debut album Northbound, the last place that came to mind was Newcastle upon Tyne, but this is indeed the city the four members of the band, Tom Kimber, Niles Krieger, Bevan Morris and Matthew Ord chose as their base.  Their fresh take on bluegrass and traditional old time folk music seamlessly intertwines with a rich and assured contemporary Americana feel, from the traditional “Sir Patrick Spens” and “The Hills of Mexico” to three rather tasty originals from the pen of singer/mandolin player Tom Kimber.  For those with a lifelong love of all things Big Pink, Assembly Lane treat the best of the double negative titled songs, “Ain’t No More Cane”, with almost reverential respect.  These musicians are no slackers when it comes to instrumentals either, with Kimber’s “Mind the Gap” and “Fivefold”, both of which allow the band to stretch out.  Closer to their current home, “The Fair Maid of Northumberland”, previously heard by both Dick Gaughan and Rachel Unthank and the Winterset on their debut record, is treated to a fine arrangement and an equally fine and convincing vocal, demonstrating that the band are just as comfortable with British folk song as they are with the American material.  As I pop the proverbial needle back to the start for the umpteenth time, I can confess to really liking this album a lot.  What’s not to like?

Head for the Hills – Potions and Poisons | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.12.17

The Colorado-based four-piece roots outfit Head for the Hills openly admit that there’s no re-inventing the wheel here on their fourth album release, but there again, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?  One thing’s for certain, what we get from the band is variety; one minute experimental bluegrass, the next jazz-tinged acoustic swing, each selection tantalisingly fresh and accessible, with top drawer musicianship and mature vocal harmonies throughout.  The songs tackle realistic subjects, drawn from the darker side of the human condition, such as the title song itself “Potions and Poisons”, those conditions highlighted almost in list form.  There’s food for thought, accompanied by a rhythmically tapped foot, all of which makes for a fulfilling listening experience.  The instrumentals “Floodwaters” and “Bucker” adhere to the sore finger ethic, with some fine syncopated rhythms that I imagine almost guarantee whoops and hollers all in the right places during live performance, something we should all experience first-hand at our earliest convenience.

Rhiannon Scutt – #9 EP | EP Review | Self Release | Allan Wilkinson | 10.12.17

When musical partners Rhiannon Scutt and Pete Sowerby, otherwise known as Rita Payne, parted company a couple of years ago, the news came as a bit of a shock and with a fair deal of sadness.  This seemingly perfectly formed duo, with instantly recognisable melodies and unmistakable vocal harmonies, rose in local popularity like lightning, swiftly progressing from reliable support act to headliners almost overnight.  One life lesson learnt a long time ago though, is that you should never take sides in a divorce and it was relatively easy to watch Rhiannon continue as a solo singer songwriter and performer, occasionally dipping into the curious world of Devo, as part of a tribute act to that particular band, whilst Pete continued with the expanded Rita Payne.  Named after the Sheffield cafe where the EP was recorded, #9 offers a handful of new original songs using musicians who had up until this point never heard the material before. A live jam then, with one or two rough edges, compensated by the vibrancy of a live off the floor performance.  It’s not the tightest recording of Rhiannon’s career thus far, but it’s probably her most honest and true; ‘Beautifully imperfect’ is the way Rhiannon describes it.  With songs such as the delicate “I Swim” and the highly personal “Waging War”, Rhiannon demonstrates her own resilience as a surviving solo artist, with a promising future just around the corner.

Thunder and Rain – Start Believing | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.12.17

Listening to Thunder and Rain’s new album Start Believing reminds me of first hearing the Rankin Family back in the Nineties, their rich harmonies and rock/pop/country sensibility a reward for anyone who cares to listen.  Formed around the nucleus of mandolin player Peter Weber and singer/guitarist Erinn Peet-Lukes, whose formative busking days in Seattle set the ball rolling, a ball that has picked up a little momentum after the duo expanded the band from just the two of them to a rather larger collective, resulting in the current line-up of Weber and Peet-Lukes together with bassist Ian Haegele and dobro player Chris Herbst.  Produced by former band member RP Oates, who also contributes guitar, piano and banjo, Start Believing maintains crystal clear production throughout, with informed musicianship built towards raising Erinn Peet-Lukes’ fine vocals to the fore throughout.  Despite a pretty dreadful cover shot, Erinn apparently surrounded by Kraftwerk on a summer vacation, the songs are thoroughly accomplished, immediately accessible and utterly radio friendly for any truly discerning and feel-good radio station.

Ross Ainslie – Sanctuary | Album Review | Great White Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 13.12.17

Ross Ainslie is an accomplished musician and composer, clearly always looking outwards and onwards.  After years of playing with Salsa Celtica, India Alba, Treacherous Orchestra and alongside musicians like Jarlath Henderson and Charlie Mckerron, there are clearly a lot of elements and threads running through all aspects of his work.  Sanctuary is a landmark album, it is Ross Ainslie’s third release and it represents the fruition of a dream to put together an album designed to be listened to as a continuous piece like a journey.  Sanctuary also represents a physical journey with music influenced by travels and ever widening experiences of the world’s music and a personal journey through five years of sobriety.  Ainslie reflects that the life of the journeyman, travelling musician, involves a lot of social drinking.  Reacting to this he found himself spending time on the road by himself.  With track titles like “Inner Sanctuary”, “Protect Yourself” and “Beautiful Mysteries”, on a collection titled Sanctuary, it is clear there is a cathartic or therapeutic process here.  Ross himself states that the title is a description of the role music played in being a refuge and a creative pick me up.  But it is a mistake to overstate just that part of the process, what makes this album so arresting is the quality of the music and playing that this refocused creativity and new journey has uncovered.  “Inner Sanctuary” opens with some expansive road noise atmospherics and cinematic marimba like keyboards.  Influenced by travels in India a decidedly eastern violin and the wonderfully expansive Bansuri, a Hindustani side blown bamboo flute begin this album of travels.  The soothing lilt on such a rich opening track and the hypnotic sounds of that flute and exotic violin put me in mind of Zakir Hussain’s seminal 1986 ECM album Making Music, a milestone in telepathic fusion between genres and styles of music.  Interestingly Hussain plays on this album.  “Happy Place” while on more traditional instrumental ground is no less beautiful with its captivating stuttering whistle and banjo refrain.  It serves as a kind of sonic palette cleanser before the stately beauty of “Sense of Family”.  Ainslie is at his most lyrical and most emotional when he slows right down and just smoulders, which he does perfectly here.  An aching fiddle melody over atmospherics of rain or water, accompanied by Steven Byrne’s perfect guitar, along with “Inner Sanctuary” represents some of the albums most beautiful moments.  When the Pipes join the melody then superlatives run out.  At its most beautiful on the slow and fleeter footed numbers this album also reminds me strongly of Donal Lunny’s superb 1987 self-titled live album, one of the finest instrumental Celtic music albums every recorded.  One of Ross Ainslie’s stated reference points was Mike Oldfield’s minimal inspired opus Tubular Bells and at times, like on “Protect Yourself” the whistles and pipes spiral like widdly prog guitar.  Similarly musically interesting are the keyboard textures on “Surroundings”, another example of the wide reach of this album.  “Home in Another Dimension” features the Indian master musician Zakir Hussain on Tabla, the track as a whole is a wonderful mix of fast tempo and contemplative with a fine sense of the east provided by the percussion and Soumir Datta’s Sarod.  “Home in Another Dimension” and “Cloud Surfing” are well paced high points on this excellent album finely balancing break neck fast finger runs with slower passages.  “Escaping Gravity” is a loopy sounding tune with some truly uplifting poetic words delivered by Jock Urquhart.  The metaphorical examination of escaping the strong pull of the expected is a profound mission statement of intent.  This is an album that dexterously mixes stunning deft and lively traditional playing with some truly enlightened passages, inspired and touched by travels and experience.  That the music describes a physical and spiritual journey gives an album that is never less than interesting an extra sense of depth and added beauty.

Lauren MacColl – The Seer | Album Review | Fèis Rois | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.12.17

Commissioned by Fèis Rois, The Seer is a new work by Lauren MacColl, one of the finest contemporary fiddlers in Scotland today.  If this was Prog Rock, this would no doubt be a concept album, but as we are knee-deep in the Scots tradition, let’s call it a commissioned suite, based upon the prophecies of the renowned 17th century Highland prophet, Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer.  The ten original pieces that make up the suite feature both instrumentals and songs delivered in both English and Gaelic.  Lauren’s work as part of the all-female quartet RANT, the brilliant Salt House and as a member of Rachel Newton’s touring band, has stood her in good stead for such a grand project as this, where she invites some illustrious company to join her.  With accordionist/piper Mairearad Green, fiddler/pianist Megan Henderson, guitarist/mandolin player Anna Massie and percussionist James Mackintosh, Lauren has gathered an empathetic group of fine musicians, embellished further by Rachel Newton’s trademark Clarsach flourishes together with her unmistakable voice on “Taladh Choinnich Odhar” and the powerful last words of the prophet, “An Unkindness of Ravens”.  Wrapped in a sleeve evoking the brooding atmosphere of the bleak Highlands landscape, beautifully photographed and designed by Somhairle MacDonald, The Seer’s overall impact, musically and visually, is both contemplative and utterly dramatic at the same time.

Johnny Cash – Greatest Hits | Album Review | Charly | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.12.17

The recent plethora of Johnny Cash re-issues through Charly, all seven original Sun LPs newly remastered and released on 180 gram audiophile vinyl, together with the slightly expanded CD box set featuring those seven albums plus a special bonus disc of rarities, has effectively put Cash’s formative years back in the public conscience.  Twenty songs from the period between 1955 and 1961 have been carefully chosen and compiled for the release of this greatest hits compilation, featuring such classic Cash 45s as “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line”, packaged in a sleeve that could easily be mistaken for an original Sun release if it wasn’t for the Charly label tucked away in the corner, such terms as iTunes, Spotify and ‘digital stores’ in John A Singleton’s sleeve notes and of course, the barcode.  Times may have changed since Sam Phillips first recorded these gems as the actual celestial sun beat down on his tiny studios on Union Avenue in Memphis Tennessee around sixty years ago, yet listening to this collection reminds us of just how important the songs really are.  If you were to really concentrate whilst listening to the songs, on that particular period of history, on the twang of the guitar and the percussive rhythm of the ‘dollar bill’ sandwiched between the fretboard and the strings, on the simple arrangements and most importantly, on Johnny Cash’s iconic tones – hairs may very well stand up on the back of your neck.

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne – Outway Songster | Album Review | Wild Goose Records | Review by Damian Liptrot | 20.12.17

Possibly a new name to many, CB-K may be a familiar face through his appearances as part of Granny’s Attic, the young trio appearing with increasing frequency at events around the country.  If this upwards trajectory wasn’t enough, Cohen has now commenced a series of solo appearances, featuring nothing other than his melodeons, accordion and voice – which are well deployed throughout the album, all three having gained him nominations and awards.  The Outway Songster of the title refers to the tradition of the journeying musician who serves up popular tunes of the day, as well contributing his own creations to the mix.  The selection of songs are a reflection of Cohen’s current favourites, largely traditional or historically derived, harking back as far as the Victorian period, with some having been developed in the playing and as one would expect are well chosen to reflect his skills and talent.  For one who has come to the folk genre from a less than traditional background, the 12 tracks on the album provide an education as well as an entertainment.  They also establish Cohen firmly within the group of excellent young musicians for whom a combination of historical knowledge and technical excellence will provide them with career opportunities as solo entertainers, group members and project collaborators (see also my recent review of Greg Russell) for many years to come.  As a confirmed listener, rather than participant, a couple of plays of the CD passed with enjoyment and this was aided by the sleeve notes that identified the origins of each of the tracks. For the more proficient or learned amongst us, there were notes as to how the songs had been developed from the originals along with technical info about the instruments played – this will always be of interest to some but is not necessary to enjoy or appreciate the album, though strangely this did add to the feel of authenticity of the collection rather than highlighting ignorance on my part!  This album should do much to cement his deserved reputation as a purveyor of fine musical fayre and I look forward to seeing how this develops, as his immersion in the genre yields inspiration for his own tunes to be passed on in time.

Mairearad Green and Mike Vass – A Day a Month | Album Review | Buie Records | Review by Sheila Trow | 21.12.17

Clear musical expertise and panache, oozes from every pore, in this offering from Mairearad Green and Mike Vass.  The collaboration, between these two exceptional musicians, creates a synergy rarely encountered.  The intention of the pair was to meet one day each month, to play and arrange music together, and from that collaboration comes A Day a Month.  The CD is filled with vibrant Highland traditional melodies, beautifully arranged, so we gain a fresh, contemporary understanding of tunes that feel as though they’ve been around forever.  Each ‘day’ presents us with such diverse content, many widely dissimilar elements and constituent parts, all bound together in one exquisite bundle.  Do I have favourites?  Well yes, but I could probably guarantee that everyone’s favourites would differ.  For me “Dhomhuil, Buntata” and “Hail” are stand out tracks.  “Dhomhuil” is a lilting, plaintive tune, swiftly followed by the rhythmically insistent, percussive “Buntata”, which feels like the beat of life itself.  Finally we have “Hail”, acutely emotional and demonstrating the unique understanding and musicality of these two unquestionably, fine musicians.

Willie Campbell and the Open Day Rotation – New Clouds in Motion | Album Review | Invisible King | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.12.17

Based on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, this highly regarded singer songwriter and one time co-frontman of indie band Astrid, continues his run of critically acclaimed albums under the guise of Willie Campbell and the Open Day Rotation, with this outfit’s third album New Clouds in Motion, following on from the success of Down by the Head (2008) and the Tony Doogan produced Toxic Good Toxic Bad (2012).  Adopting a bright and breezy pop style, the songs tend to jump off the disc rather than sidle up slowly, with accessible melodies reminiscent of such bands as fellow Scots, the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver.  Continuing to bridge mature rock sensibilities with guitar-driven pop, songs such as the opener “Mary Rest Your Head”, “Born to be Blind” and the Springsteen influenced “Going Through the Motions” suggest a vibrant live band at work, while mellow curios such as “I’ve Got a Kite” and “Winter Late in Spring”, keep things evenly balanced.

Damien O’Kane – Avenging and Bright | Album Review | Pure Records | Review by Phil Carter | 26.12.17

Following on from 2015’s hugely successful Areas of High Traffic, Damien O’Kane returns with his much anticipated third solo offering Avenging and Bright.  The artwork on the new album suggests a continuation of the sartorial theme that adorned the cover of his previous album, with the then sharp suited and close barbered O’Kane now more sworded, bearded and booted and with an appearance not unlike a lead character from Game of Thrones.  The theme of the artwork is inspired by the title song of the album Avenging and Bright, Thomas Moore’s 19th Century poem based on the story The Three Sons of Usnach.  Hard to believe it’s been seven years since the first solo outing Summer Hill but throughout the course of the three albums, the basic formula of traditional and contemporary songs reinterpreted in new and musically exciting settings has understandably remained unchanged.  O’Kane’s  refreshingly unique style and his ability to reinvent great folk songs with pin sharp production and stellar musicianship reaches even greater heights on Avenging and Bright, and this is most certainly not a slow-burner album.  From the opening track Boston City through to the infectious self-penned instrumental “Dancing in Puddles” the music draws up an eclectic canvas of sounds and themes that are immediately accessible and sufficiently varied in structure and depth to keep you hooked.  The engine room of the Damien O’Kane band comprises of the ever present Steven Byrnes and Steven Iveson on guitars, Josh Clarke on percussion and Anthony Davis on keyboards.  Separate guest appearances by the banjo master that is Ron Block (Alison Krauss Band) and the lady of the house Kate Rusby provide some lovely embellishments to the songs “Boston City” and “Lately” respectively, with Ron popping in again for a duet with Damien on “Dancing in Puddles”.  Production wise, the album is a far from being a raw and sparse offering to the point of possessing an almost clinical sound.  But I ask you, has there ever been a Pure Records release that has suffered from poor production, of course not and this album is definitely no exception with a weak track not anywhere to be found.  Avenging and Bright is a truly accomplished album that puts the top hat on a creatively exhausting year for Damien O’Kane that also saw him take in an extensive spring and summer tour schedule with his band, as well as completing work on two the Kate Rusby albums of the past twelve months and not forgetting the now customary Christmas tour schedule.  Not bad for a wee lad with a banjo from Coleraine.

Ange Hardy – Bring Back Home | Album Review | Story Records | Review by Phil Carter | 28.12.17

It’s hard to believe that Bring Back Home is Ange Hardy’s sixth studio album, how did that happen?!  Hardy’s prolific output in no way sacrifices quality over quantity, and in fact it is the consistently high standard of her music that never ceases to amaze her ever growing and appreciative audience.  It’s testimony to Ange Hardy’s standing that in spite of the deluge of CD’s I am lucky enough to hear over the course of a year, her hugely enjoyable 2016 release Findings, accompanied by Lukas Drinkwater can still be found a year later residing within easy reach of my CD player and continuing to enjoy frequent playtime.  Bring Back Home picks up where Findings left off and once again presents the listener with a well-structured portfolio of finely crafted songs all beautifully performed and that collectively should at last see Ange Hardy rightfully take her place amongst Folk’s major league players.  Hardy has always managed to amass an array of notable musicians to guest on her albums, with previous guest lists including Nancy Kerr, Kathryn Roberts, Ciaran Algar, Archie Churchill-Moss and Evan Carson.  Bring Back Home is no exception, and the album features some wonderful cameos from Peter Knight, Alex Cumming, with return appearances from Lee Cuff and Evan Carson.  In essence, Bring Back Home is a truly exquisite album with all but two songs being original compositions.  It would be grossly unfair to pick out individual tracks for preference or special mention as the quality and structure of the album affords each song an equal place at the table.  My appreciation and affection for Ange Hardy’s music grows from album to album and her latest work only serves to further increase my regard for her as a consummate performer and an extraordinarily talented writer, musician and interpreter of traditional folk song.  One thing’s for sure, Bring Back Home will be yet another Ange Hardy album that doesn’t find itself at the bottom of the CD pile for some time to come.

Darden Smith – Darden Smith/Trouble No More | Album Review | Retroworld | Review by Marc Higgins | 29.12.17

Darden Smith is an Austin resident, Texan born singer songwriter.  Emerging as part of the mid-eighties New Country boom along with Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle.  It is the languid observational style of Lovett that the strong opener “Two Dollar Novels”, with vocals from Nancy Griffith most closely recalls.  Smith’s first album in 1986 was the small label Native Soil from which “Two Dollar Novels” was re-recorded, followed by the self-titled album, first on this set recorded for Epic records in 1988.  Darden’s weary vocals give a gravitas and weight to all of his songs with “Little Maggie” and “God’s Will” also revisited from his first album.  Ray Benson, front man of Western Swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel produces the album and there is a touch of that band’s upbeat smoothness across tracks like “Day After Tomorrow”.  “Love Me Like a Soldier” again with vocals from Nancy Griffith is another fine song with a more stripped back feel.  Alongside the Western Swing big band flourishes of “Day After Tomorrow”, “God’s Will” and “Talk to Me” feature self-styled King of Zydeco Cleveland Chenier and his brother CJ and just rip along with some fine swampy guitar from Sonny Landreth.  There is the same good time swagger and country swing that runs through Michelle Shocked’s Short Sharp Shocked and Captain Swing.  Fans of those will find that same assured song writing and interesting arrangements on Darden’s self-titled album.  After a surprise hook up with UK singer songwriter Boo Hewerdine and a duo album, Darden, now on the Pop arm of EPIC, came back with Trouble No More in 1990.  Pete Anderson producer of Michelle Shocked’s breakthrough album takes the sound, away from the sweet country to a more rock based feel.  The playing and production is snappy with Darden’s vocals reminiscent of a new wave era Joe Jackson or Joe Henry.  “Frankie and Sue” swings with a pop jazz vocal swing.  “All the Kings Men” sounds vocally like Boo Hewerdine, Smith’s collaborator on “Evidence”, the album between the two on this set.  The track has a great bright pop feel.  “Fall Apart at the Seams” is a superb country influenced ballad with shuffle beat and some soulful playing, another classic slow Darden Smith track.  “Trouble in Mind” is another strong performance, with a kind of soul country Marc Cohen feel, especially when the backing choir swells and rises, this is real feel good music.  Right at the end “Bottom of the Well” is a perfectly phrased acoustic track with Darden’s warm voice sweetened further by accordion and violin in an uplifting country tinged gem.  What you have here on this reissue CD are two chapters in the journey of a by now seasoned performer, singer and songwriter.  Two of the many sides of Darden Smith, acoustic sweet country or harder edged intelligent rock music, both ae worth a listen.  Hopefully you will dip into these albums and then investigate other fine recordings by the excellent Darden.  In the ensuing 27 years he has released a further eleven fine interesting albums.​

The Railsplitters – Jump In | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.12.17

Occasionally, a CD drops into your lap and without so much as another thought, goes immediately onto the player.  There’s normally a reason for this; either the cover design is so utterly thrilling you just feel obliged to stick the record on, then again, it might be the name that you recognise and with itching curiosity, you’re overwhelmed with a burning desire to find out what all the fuss is about.  Then there’s always the possibility that you’re entranced by subliminal messages cleverly embossed into the cover, forcing your hand, but I think that’s unlikely.  Usually, and certainly in the case of Jump In, it’s because you’re already very much familiar with the band’s golden track record and you know instinctively that you’re in for a treat once again.  Five years in and with one or two line-up changes along the way, the Railsplitters’ third outing follows their self-titled debut The Railsplitters (2013) and their second helping The Faster it Goes (2015), and brings with it a further ten immediately accessible songs and tunes as we pretty much knew it would.  The Colorado-based bluegrass quintet serve up the material with no small measure of maturity, vigour and professionalism, with great songs and stirring tunes right from the heart.  Lauren Stovall’s distinctive vocal delivery is very much there again, along with Dusty Rider’s busy banjo playing and Peter Sharpe’s equally busy mandolin playing.  Joe D’Esposito’s assured fiddle playing dove-tails into the mix whilst Leslie Ziegler drives it all along with her double bass.  Never failing to miss their stride throughout the album, the Railsplitters provide just a taster of what we should expect to find on the band’s forthcoming tour.  I can’t help thinking that it’s going to be even better than before.

Coast – Windmills in the Sky | Album Review | Ruabhal Records | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 30.12.17

Once you’ve heard the powerfully painterly soundscapes of “Is Sinn Na Tuinn Air Bhàrr A’ Chuain”, the first track on Windmills in the Sky, there’s no letting go of this wonderfully sprawling new album from Scottish folk rockers Coast.  With its frothing mixture of highland folk sounds, gleaming guitar solos, irresistible melodies and arresting harmonies, Coast’s fourth outing is a muscular addition to the band’s growing collection.  Songs such as “River” and “No More Heroes” provide the perfect soundtrack for a highland road trip, especially as both seem to straddle the line between mainstream rock and traditional Scottish folk music, whilst “You’re So Beautiful To Me”, “The Whole World” and the album’s title track explore some rather tasty sonic textures thanks to nifty turns on synthesiser, organ, pipes and piano.  The whole package is sewn together tightly by Paul Eastham’s towering vocals and Finlay Wells’ spirited guitar licks.

Coca Tenorio – Cold Like Stones | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 30.12.17

Drenched in shimmering Spanish guitar, tropical rhythms and songs with distinct Ecuadorian flavours, Cold Like Stones couldn’t be less Scottish.  And yet the entirety of this enticing new album by Coca Tenorio was recorded at Watercolour Studios in the West Highlands of Scotland, not far from the place that the Ecuadorian singer songwriter has called her home for almost twenty years.  Eight years since the release of her debut album Todo Transito, Coca has assembled a group of musicians from Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador and Scotland to cook up twelve stirring songs that call upon love, loss and a sense of home for their diverse subjects.  Each song, whether sung in English or Coca’s native tongue, possesses an exotic seductiveness thanks to Coca’s yearning vocals, rippling guitar arpeggios and infectious percussion.  Its a wonderful blend that reaches its soulful best on such tracks as “El Testigo” and the album’s beguiling closing track “Angel of the North”.

The Transports – A Tale of Exile and Migration | Album Review | Hudson Records | Review by Ian Taylor | 30.12.17

An epic staged ‘folk-opera’ collaboration featuring members of The Young’uns, Faustus and Bellowhead along with folk royalty Nancy Kerr and Greg Russell, The Transports toured to massive acclaim in 2017, and this live recording of that production heralds a further tour in January 2018 which will inevitably be equally revered.  Peter Bellamy’s suite of songs, based on a true story of 18th century exile and love, tells the tale of Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes, convicts who met at Norwich Gaol, fell in love and had a son together, before Susannah was chosen to be transported to Australia in one of the first convict ships to sail from Plymouth in 1788.  Refused permission to marry and accompany Susannah to Botany Bay, Henry is distraught until a sympathetic guard, taking pity on the family when the child is refused passage too, speeds to London and persuades the Home Secretary to order that the family are reunited, and they sail into exile together.  The work was originally published in 1977, on the back of the seventies folk revival, with some of the biggest names of the time featuring on the original recording, including The Watersons, Martin Carthy, A L Lloyd, June Tabor and Dave Swarbrick.  It was named The Guardian’s Folk Album of the Year and featured in Mojo’s ‘Top 100 recordings of the 20th Century’.  This 40th anniversary revival is an astonishing piece of work.  Fourteen songs are each preceded by a piece of narration from Matthew Crampton, moving the story along and clearly setting the context for each song, which are as rich and varied in style as could be imagined.  One new song has been included in this recording, Sean Cooney’s “Dark Water”, which also appears on The Young’uns recent Strangers album and tells the story of a Syrian refugee, Hesham Modamani, who swam the Aegean Sea to escape conflict and poverty.  The reference points are poignant and pertinent; the common themes of forced migration and desperate acts are at once both subtle yet obvious, and Cooney’s song fits seamlessly into the original suite.  Elsewhere the story is told through virtuoso musicianship and fine voices, both individual and in harmonious ensemble. From the passionate pull of “The Leaves in the Woodland” as Nancy Kerr tells Henry’s mother’s story of a broken family, to the rousing Saul Rose-led final shanty “Roll Down”, every emotion is touched on, every folk-style represented.  Instruments are used symphony-like to express the mood, from Rachael McShane’s plaintive cello to Paul Sartin’s mournful oboe, as the story rides the roller-coaster of raised and dashed hopes towards its ultimate happy ending.  Buy this album, but also go and see the show, in what will surely be a rich, fulfilling and memorable experience for audiences across the UK. 

Peatbog Faeries – Live @ 25 | Album Review | Peatbog Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.12.17

The Peatbog Faeries have been delivering their special blend of twisted Scottish Traditional Music, Electronica, Folk, Jazz and Rock since 1991.  Their exciting Celtic Fusion music has been wryly described as Acid Croft.  Given the Peatbog Faeries origins in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, Acid Croft aptly describes the band’s exciting mix of ancient and modern, with traditional Celtic arrangements and instrumentation mixing with sequencers and trance music.  The Peatbog Faeries gloriously stick two fingers up at the idea that modern electronic dance music is exclusively the product or soundtrack of urban clubs, bypasses and shady gatherings in empty inner city warehouses.  Seamlessly from loft to croft, this is the powerful stomping heartbeat of wide open spaces and early morning kissed beaches.  There is romance and invention in the idea that vital music is made in isolated stone buildings at the end of un-made roads as well as in bedrooms in high rise flats lit by flickering headlights on nearby flyovers.  This album, released to mark twenty five years, is a glorious testament to the rich sound of the Peatbog Faeries in concert.  Is it because of the process of playing it live, or the space of the room that it is played in, or the tension of the expectant audience, but tracks like “Jakes on a Plane” have a depth, or a space in their sound that lifts them far beyond their studio version.  Some of the subtle sample voices and acoustic guitar elements are deeper in the mix and the track has a bigger richer sound.  It’s like the difference between solid state circuits and valves, or vinyl and digital, everything is bigger warmer and more real.  Colour after black and white.  There is also a beautiful blend of tempos as the album shifts between big beat music that compels you to move and shifting airs that invite contemplation.  Alongside the electronics and exquisitely played fiddles, bagpipes and whistles, there is some spikey edgy guitar with the chime of Zimbabwean Jit and great old school Hammond organ.  In a great sonic Tardis the whole of musical history from the last 60 years and beyond is being appropriated, repurposed and pulled into the swirling whirligig that is The Peatbog Faeries.  Tracks like “Spiders” and “Marx Terrace” take dance beats and spiralling sqeaking keyboards, throw in some dubby syth bass to bend off into a shifting fiddle tunes, before adding in gritty electric guitar.  This is true fusion, where disparate elements are melded together to make a new whole.  This is not tokenism or olde music played loud and electric.  To the Peatbog Faeries eternal credit alongside the storming dance numbers are pieces like “Fishing at Orbost” with piano and pipes creating a shimmering image of stillness, space and tranquillity that is about the exact opposite of chucking yourself around quickly.  Graeme Stafford’s piano is a thing of beauty shifting between classical and jazz, sharing the limelight with Peter Morrison’s pipes and Ross Couper’s fiddle.  There is subtly and passion, light and shade.  The inventiveness of the sounds and textures shifting alongside beats on tracks like “Strictly Sambuca” demonstrates how completely the Faeries new music has eclipsed the electronic dance music it has borrowed from and consumed into its folk tradition, creating a 21st Century ancient and modern that is simply stunning.  Cinematic enough to be headphone music as every nuance and shade comes alive in your ears, but infectious enough to make you want to jump up and down with a fist in the air.  The playing and tempo on “The Folk Police” suggests that experiencing this lot live will require a trip in the Folk Ambulance followed by an old fashioned Folk lie down in a crumpled heap to the gentle come down closing track “The Skyline Of Skye”.  Bands like the Peatbog Faeries, the Afrocelt Sound System, Skipinnish, Manran and a host of others are carrying forward the traditions of musics from across the Isles and the world, into a future where musical and geographical boundaries are fluid or even cast aside and everything is possible.  Listen to “The Humours of Ardnamurchan” or “Folk Police” from this album and prepare to be transported spiritually and physically. ​

Fela Kuti – Box Set #4 | Album Review | Knitting Factory | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 31.12.17

There’s little doubt that Fela Kuti’s popularity grew after his death in 1997.  Re-issues of his albums, under various guises including Koola Lobitos, Nigeria 70, Africa 70 and Egypt 80, have come and gone over the last couple of decades since his untimely death, with each LP release finding new audiences worldwide.  The current trend for music curatorship continues with Erykah Badu’s choice selection of seven LPs from the Afrobeat creator’s back catalogue, the fourth edition joining three previous box sets curated in turn by Questlove, Ginger Baker and Brian Eno respectively.  Bearing in mind that these previously released sets make up a total of nineteen LPs, you might think we’re fast approaching the section marked ‘and the rest’.  We would be wrong though, as this limited edition set includes the brilliant Coffin for Head of State (1980), with it mesmerising guitar riff underpinning some of Fela’s most hard hitting no-nonsense pidgin lyrics.  This, combined with Yellow Fever (1976), No Agreement (1977), J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop) (1977), V.I.P. (1979), Army Arrangement (1984) and Underground System (1992), marks out yet another bold statement in Fela Kuti’s prolific output.  Characteristically, most of Fela Kuti’s compositions are long, in some cases taking up both sides of an LP, split between parts one and two, whilst in other cases, just one song per side.  This may be one of the reasons why Fela’s work was rarely heard on the radio.  Dressed in their original sleeves, some of which were designed by Lemi Ghariokwu, Fela’s long-serving visual force, the seven LPs provide yet another insight into one of the most charismatic, ambiguous, unusual yet gifted musicians to come out of Africa.

American Young – AY | Album Review | Curb Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 31.12.17

American Young are musician songwriter Kirsty Osmunson and producer songwriter Jon Stone.  Already established as writers for Lee Brice, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton and many others this is their first album.  AY was released in the US on Curb Records in 2016 and to celebrate their nomination at the British Country Music Awards it now gets a UK release through Proper.  American Young see themselves as more than a name or a band, rather they define themselves as a movement.  American Young on the album AY and the acts they have written for represent a new movement in the sound and feel of contemporary Country.  Central are the tight vocal harmonies of Kirsty and Jon with jangly guitars on tracks like “God Sends a Train” and “Slow Ride”, fiddle on “Something to You” but the whole album has an electronic pop or RnB sheen.  When you compare the sound of tracks like “Soldiers Wife (Don’t Want You to Go)” on the 2014 American Young EP to the versions on AY you can hear the journey and the change.  There is the same lush pairing of voices, but the 2014 takes are acoustic pop against the 2016 richer deeper sounding, big time anthemic album offerings.  Kirsty Osmunson’s voice, especially on “Hometown Girl” recalls the purity and power of The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams, set against a plucked electric guitar. Jon Stone himself is also blessed with a powerful voice and brings an almost southern rock Kings of Leon snarl to “Slow Ride”.  The song writing is classic country, recalling real moments of love and melancholia, everything flows so smoothly and effortlessly.  “God Sends a Train” one of the stand out tracks on the album recalls the real life devastation Osmunsen endured when her mother survived a car and train collision.  Tracks like American Dream offering a vision of a kind of nostalgic idyll, an antidote to bumper to bumper light polluted modernity have hit written all over them.  What makes this album interesting is the marriage of timeless vocals, classic country song writing, acoustic instrumentation and mainstream modernity.  In the end the elements that go in to a cake, whatever the recipe, are only part of the story, cause in the end all that really matters is the taste.  The packaging of the album, from the iconic graphic of the cover, to the studio shots inside consciously step away from the obvious, there isn’t a big hat or a hand tooled leather boot in plain sight.  The backlit landscape on the back cover and the barn wall background offer more subtle touchstones.  American Young’s AY represents a successful attempt to re-write or step over some of the old musical certainties of Country and present a contemporary sound that sounds now without forgetting its roots.  Altogether a very enjoyable listen.

Niall McGuigan – Awareness | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 31.12.17

Niall McGuigan is a musician and music therapist from Co Monaghan Ireland.  He is a musical journeyman playing in bands that span from rock to reggae, funk to metal.  He is a traveller and similar to the Australian Aboriginal idea of Songlines, his music and his songs are a record and a reaction to the earth he has walked and the experiences he has had.  But importantly in case this sounds like worthy musical pick and mix, from the first moments of this album he is an absolute master of laying down hypnotic acoustic guitar and building an atmosphere in a song.  “The Bigger Picture” and “Stillness” are sublime pastoral hymns built around guitar and Niall’s powerful vocal.  Fans of rich bardic acoustic music, the like of Roy Harper, Michael Chapman and Al Stewart at their finest or the raw attack of Martin Carthy will be hooked from the first note.  The arrangements are subtle and beautiful, a little double tracked guitar, some resonant Bass or a second vocal as Niall adds Robert Plant flourishes on Stillness.  Spirit adds a John Martyn blues rhythm to Niall’s beautiful guitar, throughout there is a groove and a calmness running through the music that carries you.  “Altai Magtaal” is a traditional praise song from the Altai Mountains in Mongolia.  During his MA in Ethnomusicology McGuigan studied Khoomi or Mongolian throat singing and it is that unique, otherworldly and gripping sound that features on this track.  Clare Foley’s excellent vocals with a touch of the Stepps themselves and a manic banjo build an Incredible String Band-ness through the song, creating something utterly wonderful.  However disparate it all sounds on the page, Niall’s skill is that it all blends to a hypnotic musical atmosphere.  “Buyant Goi” is another traditional Mongolian melody, slow and stately guitar and bowed Double Bass, like Danny Thompson at his finest, are the acoustic bedrock behind some eerie throat singing and a wonderful low vocal from Niall.  On this highlight track the drone of the Double Bass against the drone of the vocals is savagely beautiful and unlike anything else.  Like the chamber jazz of Jan Garbarek, the music recalls the wind over a frozen landscape and flowing rivers and streams.  Communicate a troubadour folk blues written following experience as a music therapist and “Typical Jah” another slithering acoustic reggae number lift the mood melding folk sensibilities perfectly to a Jamaican rhythm.  The Hot Club of France guitar flourishes and Niall’s Saxophone just lift the mood further in this music to put a smile on your face.  “Yarrow”, developed from a studio jam, is another wonderful piece of fusion as electric bass, Tibetan percussion, African percussion a didgeridoo and shamanic chant build an intense atmosphere bringing many of McGuigan’s musical experiences together in one piece.  Following on from a musical scrapbook track is “I Know Me Now” a moment where the power of music brings self-awareness, a perfect way to end this often intense album.