Archive: Recordings 2019

Iona Fyfe – Dark Turn of Mind | EP Review | Cairnie Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.01.19

Fresh on the tails of 2018’s excellent Away From My Window, Iona Fyfe returns with a six track release, Dark Turn of Mind. Iona’s 2018 debut album after a series of EPs established her as one of Scotland’s finest ballad singers and rooted in the tradition while not afraid to experiment and absorb ideas. Expanding on her singing within the Doric Vernacular and the Scots language of the North East, Dark Turn of Mind features material by American writers and songs of Scottish origin that had travelled to America.  “Dark Turn of Mind” is a superb song written and recorded by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, originally recorded on Gillian’s 2011, “The Harrow and the Harvest album.” Deftly Iona has most definitely not recorded an Americana album. Her reading of the song, swings like Gillian’s but avoids echoing any of her evocative Country drawled inflections. Iona, sounds like herself, her voice wrapping round the words like they are her own. Her pace and Rory Matheson’s tasteful piano suggest a soulful sensitive jazz ballad. “Swing And Turn” has more sparkle and attack, Iona and Aidan’s vocals bob and dance delightfully over the accompaniment. Aidan’s guitar and Graham Rorie’s mandolin drive the song on, Rory Matheson’s piano part is interesting too, owing more to Chris McGregor and Jazz than the Folk tradition. “If I Go, I’m Going” is written and originally performed by Gregory Alan Isakov. Iona confesses, if that’s the word, to hearing it first in the soundtrack to the US David Ducovny TV show Californication. Perhaps she’ll turn to some Red Hot Chilli Peppers next. Personally I think its a strength of the Folk Tradition that no sources are off limits, so no implied apology needed. “If I Go, I’m Going” is an intimate reading by two perfectly measured vocalists of a wonderful song. “Golden Vanity” has its origins as an 17th Century ballad collected as far afield as Aberdeenshire, England, Canada and the Appalachians. Essentially a dark tale of reneged desperate promises, Iona Fyfe’s voice soars on this track, generating atmosphere, rising and falling like the sea. “Let Him Sink”, with its strident vocal, ringing piano and flourishes of guitar, in feel and arrangement reminded me of June Tabor or Joni Mitchell’s Blue. There is space around those huge emotional piano notes and Iona’s singing and everything shines.  “Little Musgrave” is an a capella version of this classic folk ballad. Iona’s version is an amalgam of Jeanne Robertson’s “Little Musgrave” and a version from Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Many like me, might be more familiar with the 17th Century song and story as Matty Groves. Versions and variations exist by Frankie Armstrong, Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Christy Moore and more recently Alela Diane. Iona’s version is rhythmic and hypnotic, her wonderful voice carries the tune and words perfectly with some fine flourishes.  Dark Turn of Mind demonstrates the restless searching of Iona Fyfe. The voice is the same and she gets inside the songs she has collected together here. What is also interesting and a credit to Iona is how different this sounds to 2018’s Away From My Window and how she and the players have made the material their own. The beauty of interpreters of song, is that they encourage the seeking out of originals and other versions, Dark Turn of Mind has led me to Gregory Alan Isakov and reconnected to Gillian Welch, hopefully it will work the other way too for Iona Fyfe.

Nancy K Dillon – A Game of Swans | Album Review | Rose Rock Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 05.01.19

Nancy K Dillon has a warm, pure voice that you could listen to all night. There is that lilt that recalls a more Country Indigo Girls and some of Nancy Griffith’s crystal purity. Dutchman’s Gold shows her ability to weave stories out of touchstone lyrical elements to make textbook Americana. Nancy, strips back Drew Neilson’s St Jude to its acoustic bones and invests it with a hymn like sense of light and hope. “Annabelle” has a great folk-blues pulse to its tune, gently played guitars from NKD and Chris Parks with a great foot stomp rhythm are hypnotic. With a touch of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Round To Die”, the tune and lyrics bring out the very best in Nancy’s fine voice.  “A Game Of Swans” demonstrates that this is a Transatlantic album, recorded on both sides of the Atlantic in the US and the UK, with Michael Connolly’s sweet Uilleann Pipes and Whistle playing. Musically “Fire In The Hole” is firmly grounded in the US with Stacy Philips’ resonator guitar and Michael Connolly’s fiddle building a superb atmosphere around Nancy’s vocal. “Ice And Bone” has a funky percussive beat and some lovely, decidedly Knopfleresque guitar licks from Any Troubles’ Chris Parks (although given Chris’ new wave credentials it could be a two way process) creating a evocative atmosphere in a strong song. Chris’ electric and some interesting percussion features on the upbeat insistent “Write Me A Letter.” “Poor Man’s Lullaby” is a spectral duet with Gavin Sutherland that has that rolling feel of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees.”  Eleven songs and an instrumental to close, this is an album of smooth Folk Blues and Country by a fine vocalist and songwriter. It flows around you, comfortable, comforting, well crafted and warming, like a familiar vintage coat on a fresh woodland walk.

Robb Johnson – Ordinary Giants | Album Review | Irregular Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.01.19

Ordinary Giants is a song suite by songwriter and performer Robb Johnson that explores the life and times of Ron Johnson, his father, a family history of the Second World War and the Welfare State. Robb has already released Gentlemen, Mojo Magazine’s Folk album of the month in 1997, exploring World War One and its consequences through the lives of his grandfathers.  Across a staggering three discs, Robb chronicles events from the 1920s to the 2000’s, using his father’s life as a focal point. Three discs, just short of three hours with fifty songs and spoken word pieces. The length proportionately reflects the broad , big themes covered, this is no self-indulgent concept album. There is light and shade throughout, nothing is overstated, over played or overstays its welcome, there is always a sense of balance and restraint.  Track one, disc one is Giant, an instrumental overture. Roy Bailey, folk giant, is the first voice on the album, delivering “A Land Fit For Heroes”, marking the of the Great War and the birth in 1922 of Ron Johnson. The irony of the lyric, the subsequent passing of much missed Roy just layers on the poignancy. “The Mysteries Of Fulham” is a wonderful song, full of sharply observed details, Robert Louis Stephenson’s phrase ‘penny plain two pence coloured’ ties us to the theatre and the lyric describes the unique Fulham grottos. “Slow Progress 1929”, with the beautiful vocals of Miranda Sykes and real lump in the throat backing choir, is a poignant masterpiece. “The Hang Of The Door” is a wonderfully delivered piece of Laurie Lee biography, Robb peers into the warm summer garden shed of the past, “Here Comes Mr Gandi” carries on the Stanley Holloway, George Formby period comedy song feel. Beneath the humour there is depth, reminders from history and sharp wordplay. As a Song Suite, certain themes, both conceptional and musical run through the whole three disc album, “Slow Progress” returns on the 1970-2018 final disc and the Utterswines voiced by Alan Clayson appear twice. “Did You Go To Eton 1934” and “Have You Seen The Papers” are Major Utterswine, sounding disturbingly like an reactionary right wing Jonathan Meads. Utterswine delivers a vicious popularist terrifying rant in defence of fascism, that would be comic if it didn’t chime with the Jacob Rees Moggs of today’s skewed World view. “Holding Hands With Hitler” delivered by a plum voiced Tom Robinson, nodding to The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, or mining the same vein of early oompah vaudeville jazz, reminds us that some of the upper classes admired fascism and its apparent promise of preserving the status quo.  The songs on Ordinary Giants illustrate and move on Robb John son’s narrative rather than existing just to tell the story. So there is a stand alone strength in the material and eight sides in the accompanying booklet to tell a more detailed story. “Holding Hands With Hitler” uses humour and sweet music to disguise disquieting truths. “Where You Can Go Depends Where You Come From” is another perfect poignant song. Small real details describe perfectly the way that big dreams are constrained by circumstance. Robb Johnson’s delivery is perfectly balanced between wistful and melancholic. Billy Bragg talks about Johnson’s ability to create a mixture of the political and personal. Songs like “Where You Go…” are well written, well delivered gems that use Johnson’s family history as a lens to examine our sometimes uncomfortable past and present.  Listening to this stunning, all enveloping album I found myself imagining it as a stage production or play. Tied together by Theatre references in “The Mysteries Of Fulham” and the light opera stage humour of “The Gentlemen Of The Chorus.” I found myself imagining a Victorian Music Hall, with the stage going dark after songs like “Where You Go…”, to light again on a tableau of actors to deliver spoken pieces like “Did You Go To Eton” or the short story like “Lou 1936”. The conceit works perfectly with a balance between musical pieces and spoken rants, poems or descriptive pieces.  “The Gentleman Of The Chorus” evokes period of early 20th Century 78s and semi-professional light opera, frequented by Robb’s father Ron and his uncle Ernie. Its a wonderful piece of historical detail and light relief between the barbs of “Major Utterswine” and “One More War.” Historically removed from amateur light opera, for me it evokes the rich delivery of Jake Thackeray and a 70’s Two Ronnie’s musical skit. “One More War” is a stunning piece of writing as Robb uses his father’s memories of meeting refugees, like mass observation diaries to pack a powerful punch. “Cousin Kitty and Me”, despite guitar accompaniment Miranda Sykes vocal is wonderful period pub piano singalong or small stage theatre. September’s Song closes the disc at 1939 as World War Two looms. Claire Martin has never sounded better, and more like a period torch song as Robb plays small band jazz with rippling piano and shuffle drums. Another classic song.  Disc two takes us through the period of 1940 – 1969. “Never Volunteer” is a humorous warning about joining up from Robb Johnson’s Uncle Ernie. Light references to Stanley Holloway’s Albert (but then remember what happened to him) wrap round a warning against volunteering for the Airforce. “A Very Nice Man In Uniform” carries this middle disc on, layering a bitter sentiment, like a smile wrapped round a punch, in a Concert Party Singalong to carry the message home. “Winter Statistics” is a dry but dark spoken piece over some sweet jazz chords as Robb Johnson mixes the personal and the political the micro and the national so perfectly. “Home By The Stars, J Johnnie”, “My Boy Wont Come Back” deal with Ron Johnson serving in the War. Starkly beautiful and told straight, the songs are emotional with little irony or humour, but a lot of integrity and emotion. In a voice that is part Music Hall part Newspaper street seller Fae Simon dissects the end of the war in “Attlee For PM For Me” political dichotomy, with sentiment and language that is chillingly relevant again. “Lou 1948” is another monologue from the Landlord troubling politically charged Lou, once again politics are rendered real through the lens of real people with a sprinkle of light relief. With a beautiful piano interlude, there is a real sadness to “The Parachute” and “In Nobby’s Class” two reflections on buried trauma, one from inside and one from outside. Sensitive and deep or light but insightful, the writing is just sublime. By now we are into a musical rhythm, “Craven Vale Hall” musically echoes “Where You Can Go”, “Lou 1958” is fascinating social history. “Bad Germans” hits you straight in the preconceptions, challenging assumptions about war comics and war films. Musically the Music Hall, Jazz tinged 30s and 40s have been replaced by brutal guitar, chilling clarinet and vocals that suggest Marianne Faithfull channelling Cabaret. Another stunning song that advances the historical narrative and is a strong stand-alone piece, “There’s Always Ovaltine” takes the doo wop sweet pop of the 50s and 60s then filters it through The 50s of Grease and Little Shop Of Horrors. A surreal mix of retro music and social commentary like those moments in Dennis Potters Singing Detective when dream like characters mouth Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. By “All You Need Is Love” and “Comprehensive Schools” the optimism of the post war peace for people has soured a little. Life is technicolour, but paradise has a dark under belly, to the tune and sentiment of “All You Need Is Love” one of the most well-intentioned, but drippy hippy songs ever. Great phased guitar and Grocer Jack 60s hit single kids chorus creates a wonderful period piece.  Disc Three starts with two stunning songs “Semi Detached” describes that nostalgic sense of potential missed in a land that apparently delivers. It’s a beautiful song and that sense that we have everything we ever wanted but something is missing, resonates. Miranda Sykes, accompanied by Robbs guitar is just perfect. “Goalkeepers” is a folk song, a timeless reflection over stratospheric violin and gentle guitar. Part Fairport Convention, part Billy Bragg, it is very English and just perfect. Utterswines are back again with “Did You Go To Eton 1976” and “Have You Heard The News”, different generation, same old fascists same old nonsense. Justin Sullivan, from The New Model Army, incapsulates that growing sense of dread with a stunning vocal, like a hellfire Leonard Cohen on “A Cold Wind Coming.” “Desk Job” is another gloriously surreal piece, telescoping work and a retirement speech into a ironic masterpiece that is part Terry Gilliam’s Brazil part Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.’ Lou’s final piece is lighter on obvious humour, but light in tone while laden with truths and reminders of the circular struggle. “Brown And Black” is a superb ragged bouncing brass infused folk anthem, sounds like the best of Latin Quarter or Rory McLeod, which is it as it should be, because he’s there on trombone and harmonica. Like Billy Bragg’s, “England Half English” the song is a glorious celebration of the pick and mix nature of what it is living in the UK and how interconnected we all are. In music there are cycles and codas, in life it seems we never learn and are doomed to repeat the same mistakes with some new ones for good measure. Maddy Carty’s sublime vocal on “Slow Progress 2009”, the final appearance of the Farraged Uttterswines on “All You Need Is Tweed” and the darkly betrayed “A Land Fit For Privilege” reminds that nothing has changed, that today resonates with some of the worst of yesterday. Some sadness is inevitable, dealing with the final stages of a life lived, but just when the album looks like its going to end with a final fade to black and silence, “The Clock Beyond Repair” begins to offer glimpses of hope and those ordinary giants. “Too Soon Tomorrow” is a charged song about passing on. “The Valediction” is a song of hope in adversity in wartime and in life. “Ordinary Giants” the title track, like Ordinary Giants the album, is a glorious celebration of the everyday and the ordinary. It’s a genuine heartfelt reminder and celebration of the collective power of individual ordinary giants to influence and create history.  This a stunning album, a brave, mammoth and entirely successful attempt to tell a story, then to use that story to cast a revealing light on a society. It uses a varied and earthy musical palette, that changes through time, nodding to the eras it describes, while managing to be cohesive and work as a whole. Robb Johnson weaves a compelling tale, enlivened with spoken pieces, sounds and humour that raises a wry smile, using a large cast to create something powerful and thought provoking. This is as English and as timeless as an urban Lark Rise To Candleford, or a Music Hall life spanning Quadrophenia. Johnson mixes delicate real life with a splash of caricature and satirical social comment like an acoustic wielding Dickens. If you thought Concept Albums were naff preserve of pompous Prog Rockers, then think, think again. Robb Johnson is a national treasure, both for aspirational aim and his deft lightness of touch. This should be a West End Play, a TV play or required reading at GCSE. The final thought is, where do you go from here?

Dan Rauchwerk – We Are More Than What We Leave Behind | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 13.01.19

Dan Rauchwerk is a founding member of the Folk group The Lords Of Liechtenstein. On We Are More Than We Leave Behind, you can hear the sound of his band coming through, but there is a slower tempo feel to the songs with air and space in the arrangements. Dan’s voice is more resonant and richer on this his first solo album.  “Mrs McLaughlin” has the earnest edgy feel of one of those 80s Men They Couldn’t Hang ballads. Warmed with keyboards and accordion Dan’s vocal has a little of The Pogues sharpness and rasp. “Memphis” in the hands of Marc Cohen would be a soulful smooth pop, radio friendly slow song. Dan performs his song as a sharp strummed Folk song with a Billy Bragg barbed edge to the delivery. “It Just Is” deceptively simple arrangement with a strummed guitar. Dan’s voice, thoughtful lyrics and a trance like intensity is, achieved. Victoria, with Kyle Joseph’s Bass and Spencer Inch’s percussion has a kind of left field pop singalong quality. Like Al Stewart, Dan takes fact laden history and creates a punchy bouncy singalong song.  “Carthage”, like “Victoria” looks back, with a yearning but melancholic gaze at yesterday. Again there is an intensity, with Dan’s rich vocal, jangling piano and pulsing guitar, it put me in mind of the chamber nu folk of Americana musicians like The Fleet Foxes, The Low Anthems and The Great Lake Swimmers. “Tears Shaped Like Islands” is another intense album highlight. The crackling keyboards create atmosphere and the duet vocals by Dan and Caitlin Mahoney are simply stunning. “Alene” is an introspective love song with a bubbling Bodhran that makes the song pop. “Modern Day Explorer” like much of Dan Rauchwerk’s writing has that slightly surreal attention to detail which coupled with his distinctive but dead pan delivery reminded me strongly of those Gothic Americana masters The Handsome Family. Lyrically profound and thoughtful, like a mandola strumming Philip Larkin, he closes the album on the truism line that titles the album.

Kim Richards – Leaves That Fly | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.01.19

Kim Richards is an artist, designer, teacher, musician, singer and songwriter from Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands. Exposed to traditional music sessions at home, writing songs for as long as she can remember and making cassette recordings since she was seven, this assured and well crafted album is her debut. The quality is evident from the moment you pick Leaves They Fly up, the gatefold sleeve is a hand drawn, digital illustrations and photos. The smooth blend between beautiful rendered traditional art and digital CAD gives a strong clue as to the flavour of what’s inside as Kim mixes her sounds as boldly and competently as she does her impressive art.  Kim Richards has a pure and fine voice, capable of being delicate and equally at home belting it out. On “First Love Becomes A Lads Hate” she gets to do both. The songs has a gentle acoustic start, but builds steadily with fluttering keyboards and accordion that sounds very contemporary. As the songs swirls and builds, so does Kim’s singing. Say We sets Kim’s soaring voice against a wash of insistent Guitars and mandolins. A layered folksy Tubular Bells sound with some sparkling whistle textures then a glorious voice floating and flying over the top. “The Mermaid”, inspired by a folk tale, is a delightful, filigree balance between piano and some electronic textures and beats. Again the song doesn’t stand still. Instead it rises and falls in mood like the sea, with Kim’s wordless vocal refrains over the top like mist. “Ballade Of Autumn”, with words from 19th Century poet and song collector Andrew Land, again balances, between the modern keyboard refrain, atmospherics and James Lindsay’s rich double bass. The overall blend is a warm blend of sounds that twine together perfectly. Mike Vass’ layers of backing vocals send us off into Enya The Celts territory. Kieran Halpin’s “Nothing To Show For It All” is another stirring piano ballad, with stirling support from Mairearad Green’s accordion and some fine vocals from Bryan Richards. “When The Leaves Grow” is another fine song with a moving, considered vocal, particularly the chorus. The accompaniment builds gently around the piano that opens the piece, electronic string sounds, fiddle and ripples of percussion create a wonderful soundscape. Kim and Mike Vass deliver some perfect vocals and stirring lyrics on “Footprints In The Snow” with a beautiful electronics and percussion atmosphere around them.  If Kim Richards had recorded this songs accompanying herself on the piano, then the quality of her voice, writing and playing would have made this a fine listen. As it is the players she has assembled and the rich arrangements, layering ancient, modern, acoustic and electronic, swaddle the listener and make it a powerful experience.

Joe Pisto and Fausto Beccalossi – Interplay | Album Review | Belfagor | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.01.19

A sort of ‘meeting of the spirits’ featuring Joe Pisto’s informed guitar playing and Fausto Beccalossi’s enchanting accordion flurries. Predominantly instrumental with a few moments of scat vocals, Interplay is a delightful experience, which I imagine could be enjoyed in a variety of ways; in a grand Spanish concert hall perhaps or over coffee and croissants at a shady pavement table outside a Parisian cafe, or indeed an equivalent establishment in Lombardy on the banks of Lake Como, the essence of which can easily be found simply by playing this CD on your home player. It’s dreamy stuff and easy on the ear, despite the complexity of the performances. “Sevilla”, the opening composition, steadily builds from its plaintive beginning to some vibrant and passionate exchanges on both instruments. The eight original pieces are each rich in melody, evenly paced and hugely enjoyable at the same time. Interplay is the best word to describe what these two musicians do and with not a single note wasted in the process.

Barnstormer 1649 – Restoration Tragedy | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.01.19

If like me your knowledge on Attila The Stockbroker is sadly lacking and limited to his performance poetry, politics and music of the 1980s then prepare to be confounded and taken in by Restoration Tragedy. Barnstormer 1649 is the band who deliver what they describe as Roundhead Renaissancecore . The term aptly describing the mix of 17th Century instruments and musical ideas, riding headlong with a Rock backline and Punk energy. It also describes the light and shade of the music and this album, drawing in Folk voices, gentle almost sublime interludes and well observed humorous, but sharp satire to entertain as well as inform. Attila wanted to create the other side to his home town’s ‘Great Escape’ a festival from the Cavaliers perspective celebrating King Charles slipping away to France. This is the result a concept album for the eleven years of the world turned upside down from the perspective of a modern day ranter.  Right from the start this is arresting, powerful music. “The Levellers Trilogy” runs from “March Of The Levellers” a renaissance dance with period instruments, Jason Pegg’s slabs of raw guitar and MM McGhee’s rolling drums. Who would have thought Atilla The Stockbroker played such a fiery folk rock violin (apologies if everyone knew that and I’ve clearly been under a rock since seeing him live in Bradford in 1987). Think David Munrow or The Third Ear Band, with The Edgar Broughton Band as a rhythm section. Muscular Folk Rock with the attack of Metal as if Black Sabbath had played on Liege and Lief. Listen also to the raw instrumental power of “The Battle Of Worcester”, a striking creation of the energy and sound of battle. “The Diggers Song” and Leon Rosselson’s powerful “World Turned Upside Down” with Atilla’s poetry in the middle complete a punchy stunning opener. “Wellingborough & Wigan” is Atilla’s sequel to Leon’s song. The sharp guitar and Tim O’Tan’s Recorders are joined by a kind of festival Reggae skank. Dave Cook’s muscular bass punches alongside those ska guitar stabs and the track bounces along. This must be intoxicating live, I can imagine a tent or field of people shouting the chorus. “The Monarch’s Way/Kings Cottage”, again has that wonderful juxtaposition of Renaissance recorders, driving guitars and huge Marching drums. Lyrically Attila explorers the driving of King Charles to France by Cromwell’s New Model Army. His vocals are powerful and emotional on this track as indeed they are throughout this album. Barnstormer 1649’s Restoration Tragedy is full of historic perspective and messages, but it is also shot through with humour and touches of John Otway’s wry comic touches. “Abiezer Coppe” is Attila, ranting poet telling the story of ranter and radical Coppe. As Attila himself says his tale is somewhat more earthy than Rosselson’s 1977 tale of Abiezer. Every generation likes to think they invented protest, hellraising and irreverence, but as Attila tells it, on this excellent track, they were polite compared to Coppe. Making connections between past and present and the dangers of looking for answers in a personality cult, The Man They Called JC. Serious cautionary notes rub alongside Eric Innes humour in another strong song.  Similarly “The Voice” connects Thomas Rainsborough 17th Century Leveller with a more recent New Model Army leader. Prides Purge with a wonderful Metal chorus, successfully twists deselection in 1648 with current parliamentary corruption. Harrison is a potent piece of Folk balladry, well written and delivered by Attila, great vocal harmonies tell a tale of betrayal and a man who fought for what he believed in until the end. Burford Requiem is a beautiful meditative instrumental, played on mandola and recorder. Written for three Levellers killed by Cromwell’s forces in an Oxfordshire churchyard. That it sounds like it could be lifted from a John Renbourn album is testament to this album’s power to inform, entertain and surprise. “The Fisherman’s Tale” is dream inspired flight of fancy about King Charles’ escape to France. Its also in the classic Folk tradition of beer fuelled by alcohol addled misadventure. In tune and delivery it brought to my mind Steeleye Span’s relaxed version of “New York Girls” a tale of beer driven robbery. Lord Protector moves the story arc on, detailing the Levellers disillusionment with Cromwell. Typically for Attila’s band it is delivered with vim and humour over gritty music. “Cromwell’s Funeral” is another poignant instrumental, just needs a continuity announcer at the end to sound authentically Radio Three. Perhaps Late Junction, home of the quirky, striking and unexpected will play it. Closing track “Robina” mixes ancient and recent history, making the large scale again personal to give a tale weight. So the lives of two Robina’s, one Cromwell’s sister the other Attila’s wife are looked at, historic perspective and self deprecation as a close to this fascinating, surprising and stirring album. Protest and comment that is feisty, musically powerful and engaging throughout.

Porchlight Smoker – 4 | Album Review | Long Way Home Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.01.19

Brighton-based British/American alt-country quartet Porchlight Smoker return with just under a dozen predominantly self-penned originals on this the band’s fourth album release, aptly entitled 4 (Four). The band’s choice of covers sit well with their original songs, such as Gillian Welch’s mournful Annabelle and a rather faithful reading of Ben Harper’s heartbreaker Walk Away, both of which are treated to distinctive arrangements here. There’s some fine and engaging storytelling, such as Steve Bell’s Loch Nan Dorb and The Clearances, both of which demonstrate the band’s folk sensibilities. With convincing vocals courtesy of all four members Steve Bell, Fred Gregory, Scotts Smith and Warman, the album flows with a showcase of melodic songs and with one or two surprises along the way, such as Gregory’s entertaining This Little Secret and Shoulda Dun Better at School, together with the charming instrumental Passchendaele Waltz.

Merry Hell – Anthems to the Wind | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.01.19

For the last eight years the band formerly known as Tansads has been trading under the Merry Hell banner and bringing to each of their many concert appearances just that. They’re undoubtedly an exciting live band, full of energy and vitality, yet their anthemic songs have found an equally acceptable place on the four fine albums recorded during this period. For Anthems in the Wind the band have revisited some of their most familiar songs and have reset them for acoustic performance, recorded live at one or two suitable venues in Bunbury, Wigan and Northwich. Though very much acoustic, this doesn’t for one second mean that the strength of these songs is lacking in any way, shape or form. The stomping “Loving the Skin You’re In” is just as energy-driven as it was when it opened the band’s second album back in 2013, if not more so. The very same can also be said for such songs as “Over the Border”, “This Time” and “My Finest Hour.” If the band’s familiar energy levels are very much maintained here on these songs, then the band’s sensitivity is also maintained with sincere readings of some of the band’s most notable torchlight songs, “Lean on Me Love” and “Leave the Light On.” For those already familiar with Merry Hell, this is a great addition to your collection; for those unfamiliar, this is a great place to start.

Du Glas – Too Many Ghosts | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.01.19

Debut album from Penzance-based four-piece country/folk combo, whose name translates from the Cornish as ‘blue/black.’ Of the thirteen songs here, a dozen are originals written by the band’s guitar player Anthony Power, with just the one cover, Jean Richie’s staple “The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.” Although the band maintain a crisp acoustic sound throughout, there’s something slightly wobbly about Lucy Osborne’s lead vocal, which may be the result of over-enthusiasm, though she does a convincing Chrissie Hynde on “Serpent Dance.” Anthony Power’s guitar, mandolin and backing vocals, together with Tom Dauncey’s driving double bass and Ged Kingsford’s empathetic drums, seem to get the job done, a job further peppered and seasoned by a handful of guest contributors, who effectively brighten the overall sound with splashes of fiddle, dobro and flute.

Sver – Reverie | Album Review | Folkhall Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 27.01.19

Sver are a five piece Norwegian Swedish Folk Rock band and Reverie is their forth album. Recorded live in Norway over two days, the album is an impressive mix of lively upbeat and more contemplative. “The Doctor”, written by fiddle player Olav Luksengard Mjelva to mark the qualification of his Doctor girlfriend Karin, is a thoughtful opener. Sensitive long drawn fiddle notes, accordion and wafting percussion from Jens Linell build four minutes of cinematic beauty. “Little Grisen” with a wonderful Folk Rock electric fiddle and Jens’ expansive drum sound builds in energy and tempo.  The whole album is impressively recorded with a huge ambience and room filling sound on the drums that has power and presence without swamping the mix. “Polska om Olav Luksengard Mjelva” and “Andas Polska” are an impressive pair of tunes by the band’s fiddle brothers in arms. Both the “Polska’s” and “E14” feature the tasteful and nimble guitar of Adam Johansson alongside those emotional fiddles. Listen out for the beautifully Hot Club guitar and cowbell solo in the middle which is superb. “Annas Vals” is a slower piece like “The Doctor” showcasing Leif Ingvar Ranøien’s accordion, simply divine fiddle and Drummer Jen’s ability to be light as air and rumbling rock solid in the same tune. “Lassi” is a tune by Andrea’s Bjørkas played here with a very knotty tempo and some more of that jazzy guitar strumming. “Boot n Rally” has a great rhythm, locked in part by the solid bass of guest Eric Ronstrom. Written for the second day of the festival the tune drives along with energy and rhythm. The title track has a great classic Folk Rock feel, with that electric swirling violin that Ric Sanders brought to 80s Fairport Convention. Final track “Love Boat” is a homage I guess to the 70s TV show. The tune starts innocently as a fiddle and accordion tune, but builds to a every so slightly cheesy ending, the soloing fiddle giving over to electric guitar, huge drums and uncredited yacht rock saxophone solo.  Sensitive and storming with touches of humour, beautifully played and recorded throughout.

Reg Meuross – 12 Silk Handkerchiefs | Album Review | Hatsongs | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.01.19

A mixture of songs and spoken word telling the story of Lillian Bilocca in the wake of the tragic Hull triple trawler disaster of 1968, which claimed the lives of fifty-eight men. The six songs, together with their spoken introductions, evoke the true life characters involved in this struggle. Reg Meuross’s words are brought to life by a convincing cast, including Mick McGarry and Sam Martyn, with a further contribution by Brian W Lavery, whose book The Headscarf Revolutionaries this song cycle is based upon. The subject has caught the imagination of many, not least with this release together with the accompanying multi-media shows, but also with a recent BBC documentary and at least a couple of plays, most notably Maxine Peake’s recent The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca with music by The Unthanks. A great effort is being made to keep this tragic story and the uprising that followed very much alive in our minds.

The Brothers Gillespie – The Fell | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 29.01.19

The Brothers Gillespie, raised in Northumberland and now based in Hexham are a vocal guitar and fiddle duo. Laid out on paper the recipe is deceptively simple, two guitars, two brothers voices, whistle, fiddle and touches of percussion and clarsach. But sometimes, great ingredients and skilled hands make the most perfect meal, transcending the bones of the recipe, and that is what The Fell is, the most perfect feast. “Golden One” is a stunning opener, Solo voice and guitar building to duo vocals. There is something special about siblings singing together, The Staves have it and that edge and power explodes out of The Brothers Gillespie. Beautifully recorded duo vocals capture that Greenwich Village Coffee Shop intensity and the twining together of the voices on early Simon and Garfunkel. James and Sam smoulder with the emotional flutter of Anthony and The Johnsons and the raw Psych Folk bite of Barry Dransfield’s “Werewolf” or The Incredible String Band. “Coventina’s Daughter” sweetens the brothers vocals further with touches of whistle.  The Brothers Gillespie’s version of “The Road To Dundee” crackles with power. The voices are just sublime and the accompanying guitar has some of that Bert Jansch Psych Folk snap and edge to it, another striking performance on a consistently strong album. “Tina’s Song” takes the connection to the land and the disquiet of Golden One and delivers a highly personalised anti fracking song. The Folk song in the making sense is heightened by the “Nottomun Town” edge to the tune. Guitars twang atmospherically while James and Sam passionately deliver a powerful message of dissent and protest. If this had been written and available then I’m sure Martin Carthy would have been belting it out alongside “The Famous Flower Of Serving Men.” “Northumberland 1 and 2” mix a spoken piece with guitar accompaniment and a song with lyrics by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. The whole thing is a triumph, the spoken piece is deeply atmospheric and the song is a folk triumph from its rich opening guitar to the perfect hair on the neck raising vocals. Tim Lane’s percussion just adds to the sense of powerful otherness on this classic track. The mix of spoken and sung vocals, the strong atmosphere and sense of place put me in mind of Jim Ghedi’s amazing A Hymn to Ancient Land, released this time last year. Both Ghedi and The Brothers Gillespie explore their strong connection to their ancestral landscape through visceral powerful music.  Most surprising track on the album is The Brothers Gillespie’s cover of Michelle Shocked’s “Blackberry Blossom.” Shocked recorded the upbeat song on “Arkansas Traveler”, the last of the trio of her American albums for Mercury. James and Sam’s version builds on the dark undertones of the lyric about dead lost love, imbruing the whole song with a Gothic edge and tension. “Wilderness Wild” sounds like an ancient folk song, dealing as it does with the dark power of the land and its hold over us. The interplay between the voices is incredible, like a English Traditional Simon and Garfunkel with trills of guitar and mandolin adding to the perfection. “The Banks Of The Liffey” has a superb guitar motif, fleet fingered harmonics, deft and descriptive like the best of Martin Simpson. The duo’s fine vocals and lyrics place it in that tradition of fine folk recordings that stretch back to the sixties. The chorus of two voices sounds like it could be perfectly swelled by a quiet Folk Club audience.  This is a moving and surprising album. Stunning songs beautifully sung and played. Without doubt a classic in the making from a duo potent with potential. The recordings jump out of the speakers such is the honesty and quality of the recording, touches of bird song gathered through the open window add to the power and integrity of what is here. Like a Japanese brush and ink drawing, every stroke is laid bare and there is a real beauty in the economy and grace of the music. Though there is a power and darkness too, this is never fey acoustic music, rather there is a savage beauty throughout.

John Kilzer – Scars | Album Review | Archer Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.01.19

The sentiments in the opening verse, ‘It ain’t no big deal, I’ve got a flatbed truck, Half a tank of gas and sixteen bucks..’ in a half Eagles, half Springsteen delivery, would probably not be immediately associated with the thoughts of an ordained Minister, yet this is by no means the only surprise on Scars, the new album by Jackson, Tennessee-born, now Memphis resident singer songwriter John Kilzer. This second album release for Memphis based Archer Records, is made up of eleven new original songs, written in just under three weeks, and each delivered with Kilzer’s unmistakable gritty vocal. Produced by Matt Ross-Spang (John Prine, Jason Isbell), SCARS was recorded with old school attitudes, from behind the glass, live off the floor, with vibrant results.  “The American Blues”, the first single from the album, is a pretty much down to earth no nonsense cut, although It sounds the most commercially appealing, whereas “Hello Heart” demonstrates Kilzer’s more sensitive side, with a soulful performance; “all Memphis music is soul music” concludes Kilzer. The optimistic acoustic title song alludes to Kilzer’s own demons of the past, a dark highway well travelled and the eventual sanctity of a Masters of Divinity from Memphis Theological Seminary, together with a PhD in religious studies from London’s Middlesex University and his current status as Reverend Doctor Kilzer at St John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis. A former athlete, teacher and Geffen Records recording artist, we get the feeling through these songs that his journey is nowhere near complete.

Claire Hastings – Those Who Roam | Album Review | Luckenbooth Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.02.19

Those Who Roam is the second album from former BBC Young Traditional Musician Of The Year Claire Hastings. The album is a smooth mix of Traditional, Claire’s own songs and a folked up version of the much covered “King Of California” by Dave Alvin. The band, Jenn Butterworth guitar, Laura Wilkie fiddle, Thomas Gibbs piano and Andrew Waite on accordion are tasteful and polished accompanists. Claire’s is measured and beautifully polished on “The Lothian Hairst” and “Jack The Sailor” with equally measured and sympathetic playing. “Seven Gypsies” with a wonderfully fiery violin and piano has more bite and punch. “Sailin’s A Weary Life” a variation on “A Sailors Life” famously included on Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking. Claire Hastings version crackles with that same dark tension, the intro is alive with edgy piano and otherworldly string noises. Hastings’ vocal throughout is intimate but emotionally charged and powerful. “Fair Weather Beggar”, while within the Folk tradition is a buskers song written by Claire. It’s refrain ‘come gather round I’ve got stories to tell’ is on the album’s gatefold sleeve as this songs’ romantic tale draws in part from Claire’s own experiences as a singer and musician.  “Logie O Buchan”, with another beautifully sweet vocal and tastefully restrained accompaniment was written in the 19th Century by George Halket. In “Nobel Helen Of Cluden” Claire tells the story of a woman who walks from Scotland to London to gain a reprieve for her sister convicted of killing her newborn child. The chilling tale is beautifully delivered with a particularly fine chorus. “Jamie Raeburn” is another quiet storm track, a powerful tale is delivered with emotion but no histrionics. Claire’s fine vocal is framed by brooding fiddle and piano, building tension. “King Of California” is a Transatlantic folk song, with Dave Alvin’s lyric dealing with a goldrush hopeful, while the tune is enthused with Celtic bounce and spring. Its theme of hopeful travel fits well on this album and Claire Hastings’ version is just a joy, charged with hope and potency. Standout track is Claire’s mostly unaccompanied “Ten Thousand Miles.” Her voice, with just the hint of a sample running in the background, layers on itself. Imagine part June Tabor and Maddy Priors Silly Sisters and part Judie Tzuke’s “For You.” Layering Claire’s just adds to the beauty of her delivery of a well known song.  This triumphant set of songs is almost a concept album, with migrant workers, departed sailors, songs that celebrate the open road and people who are changed or effect change through travel. It’s not flashy or showy but it is beautifully put together and an understated but rewarding listen. The careful construction, sequencing and recording even extends to the album sleeve, with Claire portrayed as a 1940’s traveller setting off or arriving, maybe with a, touch of brief encounter romanticism. It’s all very beautifully and tastefully put together and beats the hell out of all those cover shots of Folk Musicians in their best togs braced against the weather on a picturesque hillside or heath.

Scott Wainwright – Sentimental Debris | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.02.19

Scott is a master guitar player. After the layered lavish music of Talking Backwoods his last album Sentimental Debris is a tighter ship of solo guitar instrumentals recorded in one four hour session. If those parameters put pressure on Scott, it doesn’t show in these measured shining acoustic pieces. “King Kenny’s Dream” has the pick and slide atmosphere of a nimble piece by American Primitives John Fahey or Jack Rose. “Where Two Rivers Meet” and “Revival In The Valley” like the misty back sleeve shot and the blissed cow on the front are wonderfully bucolic pieces. Both have that effortless laid back but intricate trance like feel of Michael Chapman or Nick Jonah Davis. “Samuel’s Turn” continues that feel, with a touch of Country talking blues. Throughout there is a wonderful sense of space and pace. “Static, Back Then” is lights down low lullaby music, the beautiful sound of someone drifting off into sleep. Stanley, my Labrador, particularly liked this one, listening head on one side to the motif. Progressively through the sequencing of this fine album there is a growing sense of contemplation and quiet. “Ragtime Raga #1” has passages of frantic ragtime, but also moments of real meditative quiet that you can get lost in. This is atmospheric as much as an exercise in fleet fingered virtuosity that solo guitar albums can be sometimes. “A Day Without Sorrow” is languid perfection. Wonderful string bending and those resonant notes that John Renbourn played so well. The slide and bending add a surreal otherworldly edge to the playing, a little bit of disquiet amongst the quiet beauty.  Solo guitar is possibly niche, but Americans like Glenn Jones and William Tyler make big statement recordings on large labels to great reviews and attention. Alongside UK players like Jim Ghedi or a latter day John Renbourn mixing solo guitar instrumental albums with song sets, it would be good if Scott grabbed the collective ear of the atmospheric acoustic music buying hipster public. This is a limited edition physical CD, 100 copies, so don’t delay.

Katherine Campbell – Robert Burns Tune Unknown | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.02.19

Released for Burns Day 2019 this is a labour of love. Singer and Robert Burns authority Katherine Campbell has selected 10 songs where the original tune is unknown or lost. The tunes and piano accompaniment are all Katherine’s own. The considered beautiful piano, the wonderful recordings and Campbell’s pure voice suggest a classical recital, but there is a warmth in both her playing and her vocals. On songs like “If Ye Gae Up To Yon Hill Tap” and “Her Flowing Locks The Ravens Wing” the resonant piano and the rhythmic vocal have a dark beauty. I found myself listening once for Katherine’s vocal, rich, distinctive and pure like Vashti Bunyan or even Shirley Collins. Then listening again for those ringing piano chords with the melancholic limpid beauty of Bill Evans. By choosing songs previously unheard Katherine has shown as different side to Burns. It will be interesting to see what fans make of this more obscure material. Burns fans new and old will find much of interest in the notes and dialect glossary as well as these stripped back but starkly beautiful songs and arrangements.

Tannara – Strands | Album Review | Braw Sailin Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 04.02.19

Tannara are an atmospheric traditional band. Tracks like “Smiling” and “Good Ship” on their second album Strands are glorious and beautifully played, building into dense music that is all swirling fiddle melodies and infectious rhythms. While the songs capture some of that emotional Celtic soul like Blue Rose Code. “The Next Station Is..” with its huge guitar chords, electronics refrain like a buzzing valve amp and perfect vocals from Owen Sinclair and Josie Duncan, is just the best lush folk pop I’ve heard in ages. ” JC” and “Costies” turn a hypnotic electronic pulse, some fine guitar, harp and that soaring fiddle into something strangely wonderful, with more than a whiff of Dub. Marvellous meeting of musics. “Spent Lees” has another wonderfully soulful song with fine vocals. “Jutland” is an atmospheric twentieth century folk song, a historic spoken passage and radio white noise creates atmosphere with an emotionally loaded lyrics.  Becca Skeoch Harp, Robbie Grieg, Fiddle, Joseph Peach, Accordion and Keys and Owen Sinclair Vocals and Guitar make up Tannara. Together they can produce lively layered tunes that drive the feet but they can also make soulful music that play on the emotions. Music for the head, heart and feet, different strands of the whole person.

Matt Owens – Whiskey and Orchids | Album Review | Urby Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.02.19

A rather tasty collection of songs here, songs that form the basis of this Nigel Stonier produced debut solo outing from Noah and the Whale’s bassist and co-founder Matt Owens. The eleven songs lean effortlessly towards a Country feel but appear to cover a broader canvas, with subjects ranging from knackered old pianos, American girls, a notable night before Christmas, together with a song that describes (in no uncertain terms) a less than favourable following year.  “Lay Down Honey” is instantly accessible as an album opener and first single release, featuring the voice of Thea Gilmore, which serves to lift and complement the song in equal measure. “The Piano at the Greyhound” demonstrates Owens’ credentials as a fine lyricist, whilst the title song eloquently describes a failed relationship with both passion and affection. With shades of Shane MacGowan, notably on “Christmas Eve” and “One Fuck of a Year”, two seasonal songs, the latter has the potential to become an anthem for our modern world, a world possibly in crisis.

Angus McOg – Beginners | Album Review | A Buzz Supreme Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 06.02.19

Five years on from Arnaut, Angus McOg are back with Beginners. Since the 2013 release the acoustic guitars, pump organ and Folk feel has evolved, with a wider musical palette now being dexterously wielded. The Wicker Man Psych Folk vibe has metamorphosed into a shimmering Sigur Ros like pastoral music. Electronica and keyboards join the acoustic guitars with splashes of lush strings and drum loops. The World has rolled on and so have Angus McOg. “Laika” opens like a post rock Barclay James Harvest, with warbling mellotron like keyboard notes and a chorus of languid but smooth vocals straight from Mojave 3. “A Rooftop Love Song” continues the laid back Mojave 3 vibe, but this romantic song has a superb groove and some wonderful looping 80s Shoegaze guitars. Maybe it’s the Rooftop mention but there are moments of a shimmering Blue Nile minimalist perfection.  “Turkish Delight” has a slightly harder feel and stabs of delayed U2’s Edge guitar. The first perfect moment of the album is at about the 4 minute mark where the killer bass and Durruti Column guitar riff kicks in then we are really cooking. From that moment on, “Between The Lines” carries you away on a pillow of Siren vocals, stroked acoustic guitars and electronics. Think wafting 4AD meets Prefab Sprout. Antonio Tavoni’s vocal is in the mix, but just the sound of it, rather than individual words, pulls you in John Martyn like. There are even a few Get Carter like discordant noises at the end in this seven minute soundscape that doesn’t overstay its welcome. “Ulysses” has a real 80s Electro rock feel, with its driving rythmn, it builds too, to a distorted Sigur Ros climax, with a disquieting Helter Skelter false end only to return for some more. “Turn The Corner” is a softly breathed, quieter affair, a duduk, picked guitars and sublime vocals build a softly swaying picture. The pay off moment is the flugelhorn at the end. The title track, with its insistent guitar and rolling bass rhythm, is probably closest to the feel of the previous album. Except that the whole thing has a kind of Led Zeppelin Kashmir hallucinatory shimmer and shine to it. “Cold Sand” is built round a powerful percussive drum part from Nicola Bigi and some huge sounding, harmonium like, bass notes. The whole thing sounds like it’s lifted off a late period glorious Talk Talk or Mark Holis album with its hymn like glow of righteous melancholia, carried on mellotron waves. “Chanting Mime Hands” has another glorious guitar motif, fine vocal, rolling drum part, slowly building to a slow burn that ends the album.  Through veils of sounds and with an array of instruments, the band gently subvert the form in a kind of post rock-pop way. Tracks shimmer and ripple like heat mirages carrying glimpsed emotional vocals. Songs develop, to sound like ends that surprise and reveal themselves as middles like auditory trompe l’oiel. Sonic slights of hand are played like musical Russian dolls with revealed layers of interest and delight not nasty surprises of difficult listening. This is blissed out glimmering pop prog for the chilled out listener.

The Leylines – Recover Reveal | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.02.19

Formed more or less a festival band, or at least a festival is presumably the environment they work best, the West-country based band have now been around for a good five years and in that time have garnered a rather healthy following. This is possibly due to the sheer energy the five-piece band emits, choosing a name that conjures up no small measure of pseudoscientific strength and vitality; a more than suitable name for their wares. Not specifically a folk rock band, but purveyors of a musical genre you might associate with such bands as The Levellers and Ferocious Dog, a vibrant rock band then, with acoustic instruments including the all important fiddle, together with a lead singer blessed with the voice of Eddie Vedder. Steve Mitchell leads the band with focus and determination, and is joined by a tight musical collective, featuring Dan Thompson, Hannah Johns, Sean Booth and Dave Burbridge.  Following the success of their 2016 debut Along the Straight Track, the second album release Recover/Reveal showcases their current energy-driven set, kicking up a storm in places as one of titles suggests. The visuals that accompany the song “This is Your Life” are an indication of just how young the band feels, whilst the music demonstrates the band’s musical maturity. The dozen songs are driven along with tight arrangements, all of which you can imagine providing many a mosh pit with plenty of sweat and adrenaline this summer. Do check them out.

Ranagri – Playing for Luck | Album Review | Stockfish Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.02.19

I guess any new offering from this exceptional Anglo/Irish acoustic quartet could be seen as an eagerly awaited event, indeed this particular release couldn’t have arrived sooner. Musically inventive, whilst maintaining an easily accessible sound, Ranagri are a class act whose musical virtuosity and complexity sits well with the original material they produce, notably the songs from the pen of Donal Rogers. Playing For Luck is the band’s fourth studio album and includes a dozen original songs delicately arranged by the band, which also includes Eliza Marshall, Ellie Turner and Joe Danks completing the line-up.  The musical democracy embodied in these four musicians is reflected in Emre Meydan’s inner illustration, which sees the band depicted as Kings and Queens from the pack. Luck plays only a small part in this band’s success, which has more to do with hard work, a multitude of live appearances and various side projects, which has seen these musicians work with a host of household names including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel and Tony Christie. It’s difficult to single out particular songs from this set, but you would do well to start with the dramatic “Trees”, the haunting “The Stranger” and the utterly beguiling and beautiful “Out There.”

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba – Miri | Album Review | Outhere Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.02.19

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba’s fifth album Miri is more of a reflective set than the muscular Ba Power, the band’s previous album release four years ago. “Kanougnon”, the opening song, could in fact quite easily be taken as a lullaby, with Amy Sacko’s soothing vocal and Bassekou Kouyate’s fluid playing, together with a guest appearance by noted Moroccan Oud/Guimbri player Majid Bekkas. There’s a gentleness to this enchanting music from the start, echoed in the title instrumental “Miri”, which literally translates to ‘dream’ or ‘contemplation’.  Known to straddle two very distinct styles of playing, that of the traditional Ngoni (lute) music of West Africa and also that of a more explorative nature, we see Kouyate experimenting with a bottleneck for the first time, bringing an oriental feel to “Wele Ni”, which comes across more ‘Fenghuang/Hunan’ than ‘Paris/Texas’, yet this exemplifies Kouyate’s continual experimental musical journey. If “Wele Ni” looks towards the east, then “Wele Cuba” certainly casts an eye to the west, by incorporating Caribbean rhythms, which dovetail perfectly with the band’s very distinct, almost anthemic African chorus. There’s plenty of guests here including Abdoulaye Diabate, Kankou Kouyate and Habib Koite, together with Dom Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops) who adds some highly percussive ‘bones’ to the song “Fanga.”

Jamie Hutchings – Bedsit | Album Review | Come to the Dark Side Luke | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.02.19

Nine highly personal songs of a very much stripped down nature from Sydney-based singer songwriter Jamie Hutchings. The album title itself reflects the atmosphere of the songs; a lone voice from a room, emoting in a most introverted fashion with sparse arrangements, a gently strummed guitar with one or two rich embellishments. The opening song “Second Winter” is in a way reminiscent of the late Isaac Hayes’ treatment of “I Stand Accused” (the long version) with its spoken intro making up half of the performance; a completely different message, but with the same purpose, of setting up an unforgettable, yet everyday scene. Nowhere does Hutchings attempt to sell us a perfect singing voice, utilising instead, his own individualistic approach to storytelling, which befits his bedsit manner. It’s a whisper in your ear, very personal, highly charged. Recorded in a former shearing shed in the Australian outback, the stark songs are reflective, contemplative and utterly beguiling. Definitely worth a listen.

VRi – Ty Ein Tadau | Album Review | Erwydd Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 13.02.19

Patrick Rimes, fiddle and viola, Jordan Price Williams, Cello and Aneirin Jones, fiddle, make up Welsh chamber folk trio VRi. On Ty Ein Tadau, the band’s self produced debut album they are joined by vocalist, Beth Celyn. The trio’s music is structured and layered like chamber music but has some of the visceral darkness of Folk music. Like all the best music, there is light and dark, moments of silence and bursts of intense emotional noise. “Dewch I’r Frwydr” is a traditional Hymn tune from an 1859 collection. Stately and sombre it buzzes with a sense of Dvorak. The set “Breow Kernow” marries a structure and bounce of dance where the Fiddles bob and weave over a percussive Cello, with a soaring tune with the spiralling grace of Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending”. In flight and in frolicing dance the trio are captivating, the lines of the three instruments flying like falling water.  At times the booklet notes, expansive on the songs, but tantalisingly scant on musicians left me guessing. An educated guess would be that the band and Beth handle the fine harmonised vocals on “Ffoles Llantrisant” a fine contrast to the beautifully played music. “Crug Y Bar”, sublimely played is another Hymn tune, with the three stringed instruments offering a perfect interlude of chamber music. “Cob Malltraeth” an Anglesey folk song is a dark Folk psych classic. Plucked strings throb, while the Fiddles and Beth Celyn alternately soar and brood on this atmospheric album highlight. The “Cyw Bach” set is a trio of jigs, a tune by band member Jordan and two traditional Welsh ones.  After the dense atmosphere of the previous track, these just fly. “Aros Mae’r Mynyddau Mawr” is fusion with words by the Welsh bard Ceirog set to a melody in the Irish style of Sean-nos singing. Blended by the playing of the trio, the vocals are superb. “Clychau Aberdyfi” is a swirling hallucinogenic mix of songs about bells, with group vocals and words in Welsh and English it is an effecting track. “Taflu Rwdins” is a longer piece a mix of a Swedish tune and a piece of Welsh fiddler Mike Lease. The wordless vocals at the end are Hymn like and moving after some moving playing. The stated intention of this album is to celebrate traditional Welsh music, kept alive in part in the Hymn tunes of Chapel. So the old frowned upon music was breathed into the Chapel music. “Ton Fechan Meifod” certainly has a peace, a grave and the serenity of the Chapel. Final track “Gwr a i Farch”, is part crackling dance and part quiet contemplation, a fitting end to this striking album.

Michael Chapman – True North | Album Review | Paradise of Bachelors |Review by Marc Higgins | 13.02.19

February 2019 sees the latest album by Michael Chapman, English and unashamedly proud Northern guitarist, songwriter and vocalist. True North, wrapped in vintage photos, including some of Chapman’s own dating from his time as an Art College photographer tutor and an earlier family portrait, crackles with history. It is also a concept album or themed set of songs as it attempts to show us different aspects of truth and uses Chapman’s self reflection as a mirror to see our own humanity for what it is. His unwaveringly self critical eye takes a long look at himself and life’s lessons. “Its Too Late” is a song about the realisation of truth, soaked in regret. Chapman’s vocal oozes gravitas and he breathes the words, his acoustic ripples like sunlight on water while BJ Cole seethes masterfully on the pedal steel.  “After All This Time”, written and first recorded in the 90s, after a chance meeting in a bookshop, with his initially unrecognised ex-wife, is Michael Chapman at his very best. The words, written down or sung are poetry, he takes a very personal story and turns into a song of truth and hymn like universality. The electric guitar, nodding back to the opening of “Shuffleboat River Farewell” a life time ago on Wrecked Again in 1971, is ethereal Steve Gunn mining Chapman’s past. Michael’s own acoustic is an exercise in grace and space. The utter triumph of this track and, possibly the album, is the duet between Michael and Bridget St John. The lyric, sung by two people, suggests a sharing of responsibility and a growing apart, rather than a leaving and a blaming. “Vanity and Pride” uses a tune from Chapman’s 1987 Heartbeat album. The instrumental was titled, “The Minute You Leave”, Michael says he knew even then there were words, he just hadn’t written them yet. The tune is masterful and the words are charged and powerful, Chapman like a hellfire preacher rips away vanity and false pride to reveal truth.  “Eluethera” is a Island in The Bahamas, and a reflective escape for Chapman, who likes to get back there every now and then. On this album it is a sublime instrumental, in part based on the guitar from Michael’s Pachyderm one chord instrumental album. It is a chance for Chapman to deliver those hypnotic guitar hooks, duetting with BJ Cole’s shimmering pedal steel. “Bluesman” has another wonderfully world weary vocal, huge washes of double tracked acoustic guitar, atmospherics, paraphrased Stones lyrics and another fine performance from Bridget. “Full Bottle Empty Heart” is wry realisation around a song that is bitter, sweet and full of lyrical perfection. Again Michael and Bridget’s voices twine together in a way that is just captivating. “Truck Song”, is a new song, a strong contender for best in album, a favourite of his and a continuation of “Another Story” the truckstop waitress song. It’s also a short story, where, like Guy Clark’s “The Dark”, every word and every line is a picture. The band grooves, Sarah Smout’s Cello roars with emotion, as it does throughout the album. Michael’s beautifully picked guitar and Folk blues lines about ‘morning light’ reminds us that, despite a lot of water under the bridge, the spirit of his troubadour roots, Rainmaker and 1969 are not that far away. “Caddo Lake” is an inspirational lake in Texas, where Michael, roamer and traveller, in an exercise in musical mindfulness, lost an afternoon, playing his guitar, back against a tree. The full air, the sense of space and slowed time are palpable as Michael, Steve and BJ paint pictures. One of the albums messages is about living in the moment as well as reflecting. “Hell To Pay” is the moment of realisation of truth and consequences.  Michael recorded his first album, Rainmaker in 1968, seeing it released at the comparatively methuselah like age of 28. From the start he has assumed the role the outsider and people watcher, looking back, like that fully qualified survivor role he explored and defined. This has led to songs like “It Didn’t Work Out” from Rainmaker, “Stranger In The Room” from the career defining Survivor and “An Old Man Remembers” from Window. Its easy to see “Youth Is Wasted On The Young” as the bitter end of the dream for a 78 year old musician, until you consider his lifetime of songwriting around similar themes. I first heard him spout the line in 1989, strung out but unphased, after a night and morning on the tiles, failing to get back to his digs at Kendal Folk Festival. The song was first recorded as part of the Thurston Moore and English album in 2001. The lyrics are charged and heartfelt, but the longer you live and the fuller you live the more you have to look back at and compare to the uncertainty of the future. Its a masterful song, Michael’s vocal is real and lives the lyric, delivering it with complete integrity. Sarah’s Cello is a hymn like poignant final note. “Bon Ton Roolay”, is a wry smile after such a uncompromising song, delivered solo, with a chuckle, its a reminder that even poets, thinkers and seers go out and have a good time in search of, or maybe to briefly forget the truth. Stripped back after the fuller sounding 50 released in 2017, for a man who turned pro playing a Jimmy Giuffre drum less jazz instrumental on the guitar, this is his cerebral, ethereal, Americana Cool Jazz album. At a point when veteran hard living musicians are stuck in a retirement home endlessly telling the same anecdote, Michael is hitting another golden patch having delivered four of his strongest albums in succession. Or maybe he never stopped. Youth is wasted on the young and I want what he’s having. This is up there with his and anyone’s best.

Deer Tick – Mayonnaise | Album Review | Partisan Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.02.19

Mayonnaise seems to be an odd title for this collection of songs by Rhode Island band Deer Tick, that is until it becomes clear that this release of ‘odds and sods’ is intended as additional dressing for the main course, that being the band’s previous albums VOL 1 and VOL 2 released simultaneously last year, as well as being a souvenir of the material chosen for their recent tour. This release includes alternative versions, one or two covers as well as some brand new material, including “Old Lady”, which sounds for all intents and purposes like John Prine channelling Hurricane Smith at Tittenhurst Park circa 1971. Of the songs the band chose to borrow from others for their most recent shows, George Harrison’s “Run of the Mill” stands out. Originally from arguably the best of all post-Beatles’ solo releases All Things Must Pass, the performance doesn’t quite match up to Harrison’s passionate vocal on the original, but they have a damn good try nevertheless, in a Cat Stevens sort of way. The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” is also charming in its execution, with some slightly more inventive percussion replacing Mo Tucker’s click track tambourine on the original. “White City” is pretty much a straight homage to The Pogues, though a take on Bert Jansch’s reading of “The Curragh of Kildare” would have suited the album set better (in my humble..), if not the live performance. If “Memphis Chair” is to be seen as an almost throw away cocktail lounge instrumental, the bass driven Hey! Yeah! brings us back to reality with some vibrancy. Personally, the favourite has to be the return to “Limp Right Back”, an alternative take that sprinkles a little magic dust over all the other little odds and sods.

William Tyler – Goes West | Album Review | Merge Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 18.02.19

William Tyler is a gifted but unclassifiable guitarist and GOES WEST, his first since 2016’s stunning Modern Country, manages to show another aspect of his writing and playing. Desert Canyon originally released as Paper Hats in 2009, then reissued in 2015 credited to Tyler is four sides of beautiful raga like solo guitar and ambience, Beyond the Spirit released on Tompkins Square in 2010 ran with the atmospheric eerie acoustic of Leo Kottke and John Fahey. Impossible Truth from 2013 mixed the desert acoustic with dense electric guitar and some wonderfully spiky playing that recalled 69 Richard Thompson. Modern Country in 2016 was another game changer, anyone expecting another acoustic jewel, might have been disappointed, but, if like me you embraced his Bill Frisell meets Daniel Lanois ambience and tense atmosphere then it was a seminal album and a masterpiece. While the guitars on Goes West are recognisably Tyler, he does what he does best, which is, veer sideways to deliver something unexpected and different.  “Alpine Star” and “Fail Safe” start with exquisite picked guitar motifs that are all pastoral John Renbourn, but add James Wallace’s and Bradley Cook’s electronics and finally some delicate electric from Meg Duffy, layering around the original guitar part. William’s guitar parts chime and everyone else dances along. “Not In Our Stars” and “Eventual Surrender” have something of the previous albums shimmering ambience. Tyler’s guitar is an exercise in jazz like restraint, conjuring visions of endless highways and landscapes. “Eventual Surrender” has moments where it just might be about to break into Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Yr-Aur”, that nimble fingered ode to Welsh rural isolation. Play them back to back for proof of how well William Tyler holds his own against the atmospheric fret gods of the 70’s. “Call Me When I Breathing Again”, for all of its dramatic title, contains some of the most delicate and perfectly poised playing on the album. “Rebecca” has the fleet fingered acoustic of Beyond the Spirit, but made majestic and expansive by the gentle keys and guitars played underneath. “Venus In Aquarius” sets William’s dancing guitar alongside 70s Tangerine Dream electronics and that big pulsing drum and bass beat that was so integral to Modern Country. “Virginia Is For Loners” is ambience and atmosphere, there is a beautiful acoustic and an electric laying down a Grant Green GROOVE. “Man In A Hurry”, paradoxically starts with some of the most languid guitar on the album, till Meg’s electric just sizzles and burns. Like the rest of the album a groove and a mood is quickly established. “Our Lady Of The Desert” is a simply stunning duet, with accompaniment, between the guitars of William Tyler and Bill Frisell. Bill Frisell, a man so beyond genres he made his own. The two roll around each other so effortlessly in a delightful groove, the only problem is that it has to stop.  Maybe a response, as the title suggests, to relocating from Nashville to the West, this is an album of relaxed grooves, swirling guitars and atmospheres. Not as immediately arresting as Modern Country, it reveals itself as a slow burner of hidden gems when you find yourself leaving it on repeat and playing it over and over again.

Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly – Changeable Heart | Album Review | Pure Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.02.19

The Mansfield-born, now Derbyshire-based Ruth Notman and Bristol-based Sam Kelly have effectively pooled their respective talents to present a mixed set of traditional, contemporary and self-penned songs, on this their debut duo album, together with the help and assistance of a handful of select musicians, including Josh Clark, Anthony Davis, Ross Ainslie and Damien O’Kane, who also produced the album. Often, upon its arrival, we instinctively know that a new album will take several runs through before we get used to it; this is known as ‘grower’ and it certainly has its place. Then there’s the sort of album that comes along and is an instant and immediate winner, Ruth and Sam’s album Changeable Heart is one such album and grabs you from the first note.  That first note in this case, together with following few bars of “Bold Fisherman”, appears to echo Kate Rusby’s familiar sound, which is either coincidental or more likely due to the fact that the song, together with the rest of the album, was recorded in Kate’s Pure Records studio, with her husband at the controls. Once these two highly distinctive voices are heard though, something quite new and refreshing comes through. The title song superbly demonstrates the duo’s capacity for collaboration, something the two musicians are hardly new to. Ruth has worked with a string of co-conspirators such as Bryony Bainbridge, Saul Rose and Hannah Edmonds and Sam’s list of collaborators is seemingly endless, notably The Changing Room collective with Tanya Brittain and his own Lost Boys band. Together though, this duo works extremely well with some astonishing results, notably the romping “The Cunning Cobbler” and the jointly written title song “Changeable Heart.”  For those with a healthy respect for traditional songs, “My Lagan Love”, “Caw the Yowes” and “Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill” really couldn’t be in better hands, two of those hands delicately tinkling the ivories in a most dreamlike way. Ruth’s own “As You Find Your Way Home” is a welcome addition to her own songwriting repertoire, accompanying herself on piano accordion, a newish departure for the singer, whose years of hearing Saul Rose’s melodeon in her left ear has obviously done her no disservice whatsoever. As the cover design suggests, this album is all about love and the songs certainly live up to that notion and nowhere better than in the chorus of the duo’s gorgeous reading of Paul Brady’s “The Island”, the song that closes the album, leaving us with only one burning question.. when can we expect the follow up? A lovely, warm and uplifting album.

Vishten – Horizons | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.02.19

Vishten are an Acadian trio, playing music that pushes the Cajun music envelope, drawing in Celtic music, contemporary sounds to Canadian Folk. The band have been together for 15 years, if like me, this, their six album is your introduction then prepare to be swept away, intrigued and entertained, sometimes all at the same time.  There are storming moments like the skittering rhythm and fiery violin of Elle Tempète. The stomp of this opening track is tempered by the wonderfully layered vocals of Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc. The twin sisters, like many siblings and families harmonise and sing together wonderfully. Striking vocals and a strong rhythm are also central to the deceptively upbeat “Les Clefs Dr La, Prison”, actually describing a family visit to a condemned prisoner. There are also moments of calm and serenity. “Les Sirénes à Roméo” swirls in with Pastelle LeBlanc’s limpid piano and a guitar from Pascal Miousse that is half Mark Knopfler and half understated David Gilmour. All the while Emmanuelle LeBlanc’s whistle breathes gently through it all. Horizons celebrates the importance of the horizon in the visual landscape for these three Island dwellers. The music is rich and textured and a fusion with the pulsing guitar and retro keyboards creating a great feel, that the violin and Flute and whistle fly over. “J’àime Vraìment ton Accent” spans the moods, wonderfully dexterous jazzy piano spars with the unearthly jaw harp, with resonant notes that sound almost didgeridoo like. The middle section is a stately march with violin and piano, before it builds to a dance again. “Fleur Du Souvenir” and “L’hermite” are a beguiling mix, an infectious rhythm, Emmanuelle and Pastelle’s sweet vocals and moments of passion and beauty. With all three members providing percussion and rhythmic stomps the beats are dense and engaging. “Bi Bi Box” has an almost reggae or ska guitar part from Pascal Miousse. The chorus is strangely infectious as is Pastelle’s vocalise at the end. “L’autre Femme” with some wonderfully ethereal guitar is part kd Lang crooned ballad, part weird sounding accordion. A stirring tale of lessons, learned mes Soeurs carries the Daniel Lanois-esque guitar chords, adding beautiful spiralling vocals in an ethereal and powerful closing track.  Powerful and layered from the start, Vishten can stomp and dance or they can smoulder and soothe, creating masterful music throughout.

Innes Watson – Guitar Colloquium | Album Review | Isle Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.02.19

Innes Watson is a Glaswegian multi instrumental musician (although on this album he plays guitar), a teacher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, appearing regularly in my music collection and on at least twenty four records over the last fifteen years. Despite all of the above, this is Innes’ first solo album. Kris Drever says, “There are loads and loads of guitarists in the world but a tiny percentage are good. Innes is really really good!” and I’m not about to argue with Kris when Innes’ dexterity, grace and prowess as a writer and player are written large across this album.  First two tracks, almost by way of an overture are written for Sandy, Innes dad, the man who ‘put a guitar in my hands at four’ “Prelude for Sandy” and “Doo Da.” Both tracks feature an infectious guitar hook, the first is a gentle duet between guitar and fiddle with just a hint of the flying fingers and dexterity to come. The second track repeats a guitar motif while other instruments come and go. Constant and driving but full of sparkles and life is Alyn Cosker’s drumming. “Feds” is an old time American fiddle tune, here re-arranged for guitar. Innes’ guitar opening is a repeating almost minimalist part, that repeats like a Terry Riley or Philip Glass piece, with other instruments building the piece, almost like a snappier Celtic Tubular Bells. It is a delight to listen to. With four guitarists on the track its impossible to identify players, but the tasteful solos and flourishes are sparkling jewels. “Mando Endo” is a slow air, allowing the notes to breathe and the listener to drink in every inflection while Barry Reid’s electric guitar adds ambience. The album is carefully sequenced and the change to the wonderful “Udon Noodle” is an example of where one track flows seamlessly into the next. “Udon Noodle” and “Stubbs” have a harder funkier edge, with some of that attack of Michael Hedges or even a chilled acoustic Joe Satriani. “Waste Not” is another infectious guitar hook and some tasteful fiddle playing. “Waste” ups the tempo with the feel of those jazzy electronic bluegrass fusion albums by Bela Fleck. “Misty The Cat” and “For Queen Nell” recall memories of the tunes composer and the fore mentioned cat and Innes’ Aunt. Alongside the striking imagery and thoughtful sleeve design, the sleeve notes offer insights and amusing asides. Like a cat the tunes are unpredictable with hidden depths. By turns pastoral and sublime then suddenly feisty with harmonics and some more Satriani power chords. Stroke a reclining cats’ belly, when the paw and claws swipe with speed you’ll get a sense of this piece’s moods. “The Wee Dafty” is a hornpipe with a Billy Connolly like name, but daftness aside the jazzy folk playing with a little skank is just perfect. Roger is titled for Roger Bucknell MBE of Fylde Guitars. The track is a showcase for three of his finely made instruments played by Innes, Elliott Morris and Will McNicol with a light as air beautiful cello. Lovely celebration of a master maker, maybe its time for another Flyde Guitars album. With a bass pulse that sounds a little like Julian Lloyd Webber’s classical variations piece used as the theme for the South Bank Show, Glasgow Guitar Colloquium is a bouncing ensemble piece written for the 2011 New Voices concert. Lively, spirited with a real spring in its step its a lively closer to an entertaining and surprising album. Background mood music or layered music you can lean back into, it works as both.

Kel Assouf – Black Tenere | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.02.19

For anyone new to the raw and pulsating sound of desert blues, Kel Assouf pretty much lays out the essential tenets of the genre on this album. The Nigerien guitarist Anana Ag Naroun brandishes his trusty Gibson ‘Flying V’ like any western rock god and his licks dominate the band’s sound. Augmented by drummer Oliver Penu and producer/keyboard player Sofyann Ben Youssef, the trio’s exuberant energy can be felt immediately as they launch into the infectious guitar riff on “Fransa.”  Based in Belgium, the trio steadfastly approach the guitar riff-laden rock numbers with some urgency, although Youssef’s keyboard is equally energetic on such tracks as “Tenere” and “Ariyal” as are the prominent drums. Lyrically, the songs have a tragic potency and refer to the ongoing struggles of the nomadic Kel Tamashek. Some of that passion is evident in these songs. It’s not entirely made up of adrenaline-laden rockers though, as we are treated to a moment of sensitivity on the utterly beautiful “Tamatant”, which seems to shimmer on an oasis of golden desert sand.

Rachel Croft – Hours Awake | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 23.02.19

Rachel Croft is a North Yorks based singer and musician of considerable talents, vocally and instrumentally. This is her debut album, collecting songs written over the last five years. Straight off Hours Awake grabs you and takes no prisoners. “Old Climbing Tree” is moody and ethereal with a captivating low register vocal from Rachel. She just purrs through “Hear Me” and “Don’t Feel Like Holding On” like a rawer more sassy Katie Melua. “I’m Blue” has the vocal cadence of a huskier early 70s Joni Mitchell with some tasteful guitar by Emlyn Vaughan. “Only Dreams” is an absolutely classic radio ballad, nods to Bonnie Tyler or Judie Tzuke. Rachel’s voice goes from a smoulder at the start to a full throttle torch singer by the end. Minimal percussion and atmospheric guitar by the excellent Dan Webster and strings give the vocalist room to fly.  Accompanied by her own acoustic guitar, “Rainier Day” and “Change Your Mind” are classic 60s or early 70s folk troubadour, melancholic atmospheric and hypnotic with wafts of cello, percussion and guitar breeze in and out. Play it alongside Francois Hardy’s French folk pop noir self titled album from 1972 or Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter for that same breezy light but emotionally charged mix. “Long Were The Hours” evokes that contemporary celtic folk rock dark sparkle of the first Cranberries album, its that vocalise refrain that takes me straight back on this beautifully brooding track. “6000 Miles” is the theme music for a film or European detective drama. Rachel’s vocal is just sublime, crackling with a gospel edge while Nathan O’Gradys second vocal adds a wonderful contrast.  If, like me, you thought Lianne La Havas’ “No Room For Doubt” duet with Willy Mason was the best thing either of them have done so far, then this track with tickle you too. “Can’t Replace Your Perfect” is soulful perfection. There is a swagger, a groove and growl, the spirit of Jack Johnson or Shelby Lynne flows through Rachel as she testifies, very saving the best till last. Like the previous track the supporting singers bring out of the finest in Rachel, who is just hitting her stride on the fade. That Rachel produced the evocative wood cut like images for the album packaging, designed, storyboarded and edited the music video for “Only Dreams” is evidence of the breadth of her talents. Her considerable vocal power, presence and prowess, alongside her playing and writing is testament to the range of musical ability on this a very strong first album.

Chris Grant – The Road | Album Review | Spey Valley Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.02.19

No stranger to Glasgow’s thriving ‘open mic’ scene, the Morayshire-born singer songwriter Chris Grant delivers a further dozen songs here on his seventh album, each of which showcase his distinctive soulful growl, reminiscent of Cocker (Joe, not Jarvis) and each performed with a similar passion. Despite this being a solo album, as opposed to Chris being accompanied by his regular band Blues Response Unit, the songs on The Road are still treated to full band arrangements, a sound that could easily fill concert auditoriums and festival fields around the country.  Written and recorded over a four and a half year period, the songs feel somewhat ‘broken-in’ as if they’ve seen some of that long road already. Recorded at the Old Tannery Studio and surrounded by a good team, including Colin Austin who co-produces the album, Chris Grant sees this project as a ‘labour of love’ and some of that toil has now resulted in some soulful songs including “Broken, I Can Change” and “Don’t Go Yet”, each of which have the potential to be around for some time.

Gordie Tentrees and Jaxon Haldand – Grit | Album Review | Greywood Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.02.19

Ontario-born singer songwriter and former boxer Gordie Tentrees, together with fellow Canadian companion of the road Jaxon Haldane, take their respective guitars, harmonica, dobro, porch board bass, tambourine, musical saw, cigar box guitar, banjo and mandolin and serve up a feast of acoustic songs, a dozen to be precise, each recorded live at various venues in Alberta. The songs avoid polish and leave all the rough edges in, the aim presumably to provide the listener with precisely what they might hear at one of their many shows. The two musicians have travelled far and wide and have certainly put in all the leg work, having performed over five hundred shows in eleven countries over the last three years. Bluesy in places, the album’s charm is in its down home, back to basics aesthetic.

Eliza Carthy – Restitute | Album Review | Under the Bed | Review by Kev Boyd | 27.02.19

Restitute

Verb: to restore to a former state or position; give back, refund.

The predominant narrative accompanying Eliza Carthy’s new album speaks to it representing an act of reparation and redress for a ‘monumental’ (if unspecified) rip-off enacted on Eliza and her Wayward bandmates. As a symbol of self-determination in response to such apparent maltreatment you might imagine Restitute to be fuelled by bitterness and rancour or shot-through with resentment and anger. That’s not the case, or if it is, any acrimony is hidden deep within whatever the digital equivalent of ‘the grooves’ happens to be.  Regardless of the original motivation for this collection, these largely solo tracks – augmented with a scattering of notable cameos here and there – amount to a joyous, often emotional and always rewarding listening experience. If this is the first thing that strikes you about this album, then the second is a sense of the rich and varied quality of Eliza’s voice. We’re used to hearing how she’s one of the outstanding English fiddle players of her (or indeed any) generation, and there can be few who would argue with that, but it’s meant she’s perhaps not always been given her due as the incredible singer she clearly is.  The relatively sparse arrangements that characterise Restitute help focus attention on the two main sonic components of voice and fiddle and there’s nowhere on this album where Eliza’s singing isn’t remarkable. “Take The Man Who Puffs The Big Cigar”, with a vocal that breathes real life into a narrative that hovers between contempt and compassion for Leon Rosselson’s twin protagonists and where the song’s inherent drama develops through the nuanced interplay between Eliza’s voice and Jon Boden’s concertina. Or “The Slaves Lament / Farewell To A Dark Haired Friend”, where delicate undertones and soaring resonance exist in equal measure alongside subtle yet abrasive fiddle tones.  There are several other examples of similarly powerful singing: an unaccompanied rendition of Kipling’s “Gentlemen Rankers”; an astonishing version of “The Leaves In The Woodland” from Peter Bellamy’s perennial The Transports, with Martin Carthy helping out on guitar; an exhilarating “The Old Sexton”, from the broadside collection at Chetham’s School in Manchester. I could go on, but you get the picture? The thing is, Eliza grew to prominence during the revival of interest in British traditional music in the mid-to-late-90s, when critics tended to bestow primacy on instrumental expertise over and above vocal dexterity. Luckily, singers and musicians are stubborn buggers and Eliza is one of those who has doggedly trodden her own path regardless of opposition or favour from cloth-eared critics. So, while the instrumental elements on Restitute are faultless, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s Eliza’s voice that makes this an outstanding album.  Released as a privately-pressed, signed and numbered edition of 1,500 with exclusive art cards and a second CD featuring “The Announcer’s Daughter”, an audio book with original music written and read by Eliza Carthy.

Sound of the Sirens – This Time | Album Review | DMF Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 28.02.19

Sound Of The Sirens, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood are a West Country folk duo. This is worth stating at the start, as there are points during This Time, their second album, where you’d swear blind there was loads of them, rather than two fine vocalists with guitars, mandolins, a Piano and some percussion. “Awakening” establishes the core Sound Of The Sirens’ sound, percussive strummed guitars and two voices, sometimes harmonising, sometimes counterpoint. Abby and Hannah harmonise well, but when they sing different parts it is hairs on the back of the neck time, like a West Country Indigo Girls. Believe grabs your attention with its tempo and the hand claps and a capella vocal intro. There is a touch of the early acoustic KT Tunstall about the track and some great guitar and mandolin playing. “Another Day” uses the duos two vocals, one low one higher to great effect, alongside superb affirming lyrics and another fine counterpoint. “All The Webs” makes great use of a eerie chorus vocal distorted by a megaphone, contrasting the spare percussion and the duo’s captivating verse vocal. The whole effect is stunning.  The ballads “All We Need” and “Through The Night”, with a slow piano and beautiful use of space around the melody and the vocals, are a stripped back contrast. These build slowly and to great effect with a choir like quality to “Through The Night.” That heavenly choir continues on “Keeping Us Alive.” Opening with a capella vocals, it builds with a frantically strummed guitar and some thoughtful lyrics. The voices on “Lie Awake” reminded me of the power and passion of Australian trio The Waifs. Stunning chorus and a great audience participation opportunity when I saw them earlier this year. “Everytime” is a perfect make up song, with great emotion and tension in the vocals, a, perfect closer on a fine album from a duo that deserve more attention.

Kaz Murphy – Ride Out the Storm | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.03.19

In a career that has taken him from South Jersey, through Philadelphia, on to Santa Fe and Seattle and then more recently Los Angeles, singer songwriter Kaz Murphy has spread his dulcet tones far and wide. With one or two notable liaisons along the way, from his friendship with Dave Van Ronk and his work with poet Allen Ginsberg to the formation of his own band Mad Mad Nomad, a career has been formed and a craft steadily honed. The fourth in a series of albums released by Murphy, Ride Out the Storm once again showcases some fine songwriting and storytelling, delivered in a voice that falls halfway between Tom Russell and Scott Walker.

***

Elles Bailey – Road I Call Home | Album Review | Outlaw Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.03.19

The young Bristol-based singer songwriter Elles Bailey effortlessly straddles the lines between country and blues with her second album release, the follow-up to her 2017 debut Wildfire. Recorded in both Nashville and Wales, the album sees the husky voiced singer on good form with eleven songs written over a two month period, each one treated to a fine arrangement, backed by some of Nashville’s elite. Collaborating with Roger Cook, Bobby Wood and on “Little Piece of Heaven”, Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), the singer is in good company.  Whilst the bluesy “Medicine Man”, the first single release from the album, demonstrates Bailey’s gritty earthiness, the concluding gospel tinged “Light in the Distance” clearly demonstrates her soulful bones. Produced by Brad Nowell and Steve Blackmon Road I Call Home alludes to a life virtually lived on the road and with a five bar gate of over 200 gigs already achieved, the album with no doubt serve the singer well over the next 200.

Greg Hancock – The State of My Hair | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.03.19

A thoroughly engaging suite of highly personal songs from Devon-based singer songwriter Greg Hancock, who showers his memories with an almost tangible sense of warmth. Despite changing the names of some of the real life friends, associates and relations depicted in these stories, the characters remain alive and real to the listener. The identity of some of the characters can’t really be hidden, such as Greg’s own mother, who features in both the titular opening song and the album closer, “Bedtime Now.” Neither could there be any ambiguity in the subject of “Creases and Marks”, a deeply autobiographical study of the inevitable ageing process and the very song that marked the starting point for this album. Less specific characters inform such songs as “Thunderbird Wine”, a song which allows listeners of a certain generation to immediately relate to these almost cinematic reminiscences, bringing to mind our own particular Garys, Suzannes and Sharons from our own past, together with all the fumbling, the old railway lines and our own particular youthful tipple.  This is highly observational stuff indeed, covering all aspects of everyday life, from troubled unrequited love and eventual loss of innocence, to the ageing process and dementia, all observed with a measure of dark humour. With one instrumental, “Odyssey FC”, its title referring to the Odyssey Folk Club in Southend-on -Sea, Hancock provides us with a Bryter Layter moment, a perfectly timed musical interlude, which prepares us for the rest of the stories to come. By Hancock’s own admission, these fleeting reminiscences are not particularly significant, but as with all our best memories, they pop up now and again when we least expect them, and like them or not, they make up who we are today. This rather seductive album should be revisited every now and again, like a good book.

Serious Sam Barrett – Where The White Roses Go | Album Review | Ya Dig Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 06.03.19

Where the White Roses Go from the second it bursts from the speakers is an intense mixture of tender and tough. A solid insistent banjo drives the title track conjuring up straight away Bert Jansch and the Jack Orion album. Serious Sam Barrett has a fine, earnest vocal, delivering his songs with passion and integrity. Both the opening title track and “Last Of The Yorkshire Outlaws”, a classic folk blues song, crackle with that dustbowl psych folk power of early Dylan. A fact that is I’m sure not lost on SSB as Reece Leung’s stunning photo of him just needs a blissed out Ewan MacColl in to be that 1962 UK live shot of Bob Dylan. Not for a second to suggest that SSB is a copyist or revivalist, rather that he is aware of his acoustic heritage and swimming in the same waters.  He is lyrically current and biting too, put an electric band behind Yorkshire Outlaws and you are firmly in Arctic Monkeys territory. “I Don’t Need To Wait For Heaven” features fine almost hypnotic playing, strong vocals and a lyric very much in the bluegrass tradition. “Holmfirth Anthem” is a solo voice version of the West Yorkshire song, learned from. Sam is in fine voice and the spirit of the clubs flows through the track. “Bonaparte’s Love Song” and “Robin Hood and The 15 Foresters” both feature SSB’s rythmic and hypnotic banjo and rich strong vocals. “Everybody Needs A Helping Hand” and “Tennessee Line” are strong songs, if Bruce Springsteen had been born in the raised in The Dale’s, he would have sounded like this, kind of drystone Nebraska outtakes. Blending a raw Yorkshire Folk with a lively spit n sawdust acoustic Appalachian music. “Darling Where Are You” is a tender closer, celebrating the life of the rover in another performance with the burr and spirit of acoustic music from both sides of the Atlantic. Consistently through this album Serious Sam Barrett produces music with integrity and spark, managing to blend from the dustbowl and the Dales to make something compelling and powerful.

Grainne Holland – Corcra | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 06.03.19

After two albums of traditional songs, Corcra, her third is Grainne Holland’s first of her own songs. Holland has gathered an impressive band of musicians to back her, Aidan O’Rouke from Lau, Brian Finnegan from Flook and many others. With Grainne’s powerful voice, fine songs, captivating arrangements and strong playing the album is spellbinding. “Mise Agus Tusa” is a love song for husband Fraine, with its infectious clattering drums. “Coinsias Corp Agus Croi” is a mist like atmospheric piece. Sean Og Graham’s sublime guitar sparkles and patters like rain, while surprising trombone, fiddle and whistle suggest shafts of sunlight and Holland’s voice just soars. “Lon Dubh an Gheimhridh” a song of winter sadness continues the air of contemplation. Grainne’s voice is low and along with Og Graham’s guitar and Aidan’s fiddle pulls your heart strings inviting a sense of reflection and wonder.  “Ni Chluinim, Ni Fheicim” has an altogether more visceral vocal and some bubbling bird song like whistles, flute and electronics. With its ancient and modern mouth music the spirit of Martin Bennett is never far away on this fine song. Another fine vocal and another very fine arrangement and playing from a Stella band. “Goodbye Love” is another compelling tune and vocal, with the atmospheric high and low notes divided between mainly. fiddle and guitar. The comparative simplicity of the tune gives opportunity for musicians and singer to revel in the sense of effortless space and joy. Harry’s, written for Holland’s father, conjours a kind of Celtic Mike Oldfield playing mystical Incantations. The track builds slowly and steadily to great effect along its five minutes forty to great effect. “Empty” is a Celtic Pop song with another beautiful Og Graham guitar part and a wonderful vocal and with a hint of a soothing Delores ORoirdan. “Miracle” is the most delicate to last with the soaring vocal carried over a melody of hymn like piano and breath like washes of trombone, fiddle and whistle.  Surprising arrangements, beautiful playing, wonderful vocals on evocative songs make this a compelling listen.

Katie Spencer – Weather Beaten | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.03.19

I first became aware of the young singer songwriter Katie Spencer a few years ago at the Beverley Folk Festival, not as a performer, but as a teenager, just crossing a field with a large guitar case in her hand, her hair fashioned like David Bowie’s character in the film Labyrinth; well not quite as theatrical as that, but close enough to make an initial impression. I think I was pondering upon the fact that at the time folk festivals were by and large attended by adults and small children, a trend that has thankfully evolved over the last few years, with a healthy presence of lots more teenagers and young adults.  It may have been the following year, when I once again caught a glimpse of this little ‘Jareth’ crossing another field and this time I was curious enough to find out what was in the case and what it sounded like in this young musician’s hands. I was actually very much hoping that I wouldn’t be disappointed, which I wasn’t. Katie stepped up on stage shortly afterwards and performed a bunch of songs, which I immediately identified as something very special indeed. Katie is the sort of performer who commands your attention and your respect from the start without being in the least bit rock star about it. She seems delicate and fragile initially, but then you soon become aware of her strength, both as a singer and as an informed guitar player. She comes over as a thoughtful and conscientious young woman, with a clear understanding of where her music needs to go and where it might eventually take her.  Weather Beaten is Katie’s first full length album, a taste of which we first heard on her initial release, the Good Morning Sky EP, which featured an appearance by the late Ted McKenna. The EP also gave us an early indication of Katie’s developing songwriting style and her seemingly effortless ethereal sound. This was followed by a further recording, Live Soundtrack to a Short Film, which opened with the dreamy Drinking the Same Water, which appears again here. Influenced by both Roy Harper and John Martyn, Katie’s strength lies in the actual feel of the songs, rather than their message. I listened to this album three times through before actually consciously listening to the words, yet once we do eventually get around to concentrating on the lyrics, we’re treated to a further discovery.  Produced by Spencer Cozens (John Martyn, Joan Armatrading) and Katie herself, Weather Beaten features nine self penned songs, together with a reworking of the traditional “Spencer the Rover”, a tribute perhaps to the late John Martyn, or maybe to her producer, or maybe even to her own family name. Spencer is all over this album. Songs like “Weather Beaten”, “Hello Sun”, “Too High Alone”, featuring Martin Winning on clarinet and even the instrumental “Helsa”, each have a dreamy quality that Katie makes her very own.

Mikey Kenney – The Reverie Road | Album Review | Penny Fiddle Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.03.19

Mikey Kenney is a musician and balladeer from Liverpool. The Reverie Road is his third album and is released on Penny Fiddle Records. Tracks like the opener Bacca Pipes a dreamy variation of the tune “Greensleeves”, show he is a fine interpreter of both English and Irish music, while “The Path I Walk Upon” shows him to be a distinctive writer, adding rich material to the tradition. “The Path I Walk Upon” also features an affirming lyric about always searching and moving forwards, delivered in Kenney’s evocative, hypnotic vocal. Listen too, to the beautiful un-named chorus behind Mikey on “Napoli” or “Kitty Wilkinson.”  The album is described as a solo album, but is not solo recordings, the instruments and vocal are gently layered and subtly overlaid in a way that is atmospheric and enveloping rather than showy and ostentatious virtuosic. The sleeve notes, tastefully between photos and drawings, act like a compelling sketchbook, showing how moments, places and experiences are filtered by Mikey and used to create music. I am particularly by Kenney’s voice, it is real and effecting, with a little of the fragility and quaver of an Ivor Cutler. Add a few crackles of history on the utterly sublime “Montagna Di Menta” and it starts like a shellac 78 voice from history, building to something beautiful and hypnotic.  Solo, like on “The Golden Castle / The Broken Pledge” or “Brigid’s Jigs”, written for the Irish god of fire, Mikey is a compelling musician as you can close your eyes and get lost in the beautiful shape of the melody and the grace and power of his player. “Winder’s Hornpipe” contrasts, while flowing straight from the previous tune, showing his skill over accompaniment and some fine percussion. Closing track “Soggy Desert” is a glorious mashup between European early 60s film music and a love song to The Lune Estuary in Lancashire. The lyric finds a romance in its savage beauty while the music that swirls around is a Western Swing, Romany fiddle music, film strings, Bluegrass miasma. An upbeat, smile on the face end to an interesting album.

Joshua Burnell – The Road to Horn Fair | Album Review | Misted Valley Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.03.19

Joshua Burnell started recording this record in 2015, quickly after Into the Green and before The Seasons Project, his last album. This is a culmination, at least so far, of his interest in Folk song and Folk Music. From the start it is clear there is a joy in the songs, a joy in the playing and definitely a joy in the listening. Mark Radcliffe has sung the album’s praises in his Radio Two Folk Show and it is easy to see why.  The Road to Horn Fair opens with a perfectly constructed ensemble You vocal on “Pastime With Good Company.” It sits rather like “A Calling On Song” at the start of Steeleye Span’s first outing, or “Come All Ye” at the start of Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief. Like both of those perennial Folk Rock albums, “Pastime With Good Company” is quickly underpinned by a tight muscular electric Folk Rock and the end is a fiery, swaggering powerhouse version this traditional song running into “Berkshire Tragedy” the next track. Like Offa Rex the band collaboration between Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists, “Berkshire Tragedy” and the whole Road to Horn Fair album seethes with the taught energy of classic 70’s Folk Rock and Prog Rock. There are those huge intricate drums, big guitar chords, spirited vocals, the bounce of a well primed and well rehearsed band. The spirit of Folk Psych, Steeleye Span, The Trees, Fairport Convention and the tight musicianship and power of 70s Jethro Tull is never far away. This is like someone catching a ball thrown from the early 70s and running a fresh with it. “Cold Haily Windy Night” features great guitar and superb vocals from Joshua and Frances Sladen. It sits perfectly between the dark Psychedelia of Steeleye Span mark two’s version on Please to See the King and the utter majesty of Chris Wood and Eliza Carthy’s take on the first Imagined Village album. It is a masterstroke of fine vocals, Burrell’s unrelenting percussion and a pervasive Prog Rock vibe that is compelling.  “Plane Tree And Tenpenny Bit” is an unbelievably tight instrumental, that mixes Genesis Nursery Cryme keyboards, amazing timing and those driving slight punk guitars of The Horslips. Just listening to it is tiring, must be a blast to play. “Ah Robin, Gentyl Robin” marries beautiful John Renbourn early music vocals with a seething dark atmosphere and some edgy guitar. I last heard this track on Ian King’s (whatever happened to him) utterly classic Panic Grass and Fever Few. Sitting on some huge bass from Matthew Mefford, Joshua Burnell constructs that song that rises and falls, while creating great atmosphere and tension. “The Knight And The Shepherdess” is a Child Ballard 110 and was apparently popular during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. The rendition here is a rollicking, folk rock, joyous barn dance of a song with some fine fiddle. “Drowsy Maggie” and “Rakish Paddy” puts muscular drums and Hammond Organ behind the sweet fiddle delivering some omph and the raw rock and rumble of Full House era Fairport Convention. There is more than a tenuous connection, with “Rakish Paddy” being in the instrumental medley on Liege & Lief. The band continues to soar, like its a 1969 Deep Purple or Folk Rock album on “Raggle Taggled Gypsy”, with Josh in absolutely fine voice. “Horn Fair” is a delicate waltz lullaby and beautiful for it. “Cam Ye O’er Frae France & The Musical Priest” is a rollicking roller coast ride through this political song. The spirit of Ian Anderson at his most Roland Kirk run through it and the whole track just cooks.  The faux Medieval cover and the inventive castleations on the cover, like a period Steeleye Span or Jethro Tull album sleeve show an affection for the period and the feel of amped up 70’s Folk Rock and Prof. However the energy, vim and sheer oomph of the playing are compelling, connecting back to a form that has power and a vigour in the hands of Joshua Burnell. Like Offa Rex this manages to be part homage and part joyful journey onwards. More power to it I say.

Lau – Midnight and Closedown | Album Review | Reveal Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.03.19

Lau is Kris Drever, Martin Green and Aidan O’Rourke. Master musicians and movers and shakers individually and a majestic band together, for twelve years the trio has consistently produced music that innovates and surprises. By their own admission, this their first album of new material since 2015’s The Bell That Never Rang, is closer to late period Beatles, unexpected, experimental, beautiful and sometimes strange, than the traditional tunes and ballads of Lau’s 2007 debut. There is no “Revolution 9” and “Riad” the final track sees them playing as a instrumental acoustic trio, back where they started, but there is the sense of a wonderfully freewheeling outward looking band who have grown far beyond their initial remit and beginnings. This surprising and exciting album is produced by John Parish, famed for his work with PJ Harvey, Sparkle horse, Aldous Harding, Rokia Traore and many others. However I don’t this album is Lau with a grainy Alt Rock makeover, rather that they all were travelling together in the same direction. “I Don’t Want To Die Here” is a bubbling rolling delight of a song. The lyric is a free form recollection, as lyrical and personal as a 21st Century Folktronica Incredible String Band, juxtaposing thoughts on migrating Salmon, a sense of belonging and family. Listen on headphones and the fine vocals ride on a swirling upriver dash of accordion, fiddle, slippery rhythms and layered electronics, creating a stunning White Album blend of edgy and beautiful. “She Put Her Headphones” takes a wonderfully gritty keyboard pulse, rolling violin and another stunningly delicate vocal. The effect is a sound scape like a Croft dwelling Ben Howard, ageless and contemporary. Lau themselves offer the track as a, comment and sonic escape to current political ails. Lyrically dense “Toy Tigers” powers along on a cut up rhythm of acoustic guitars, finger snap loops and surprising electronics. Metaphors of panic, innocence and love layer messages. Disquieting and sublime at the same time. “Echolalia” is a sure-footed instrumental dance, with wordless vocals, beautiful finger picked guitar, earworm violin and washes of phased electronics, again a piece of sheer wonder. “Itshardtoseemtobeokwhenyournot” is a sentiment for our times, a song about fragile realities behind the day to day. Thoughtful mantra lyrics carried on insistent music. “Dark Secrets” is another lyrically dense and intense song, looking back with the opposite of nostalgia, laying open bitter truths, the fake Bohemia found deep in a glass and self deception. It is an emotional and rich journey, more personal than a folk song, but full of lessons and truths over a crackling shimmering soundscape. Midnight and Closedown closes with a pair of staggeringly beautiful instrumentals. “Return To Portland” is an atmospheric brooding track with electronic beats and post rock slabs of fractured folk sounds. “Riad”, written in Marrakech, in a haven against the North African heat and bustle is an instrumental warning against the idea that we can remove ourselves from day to day realities and problems. Music can be a haven, a solace, but also an opportunity, like “Dark Secrets” to reflect, consider and confront. “Riad”, informed by the adventures and experiments of twelve years, has depth and drama, but pared back to acoustic instruments it shows the band at its core, ready to begin again, searching ever onwards. The late period Beatles comparison holds up in the spirit of its experimentation and expansiveness, with a cohesiveness and sense of place that all great albums have. Hopefully it’s not going to imminently end on a chilly central London rooftop followed by recriminations and solo albums.

Simon Stanley Ward and the Shadows of Doubt – Songs from Various Places | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.03.19

Simon Stanley Ward is the only cowboy on the British country scene whose choice prairie partner from the cavvy is a camel, or so we’re led to believe on the cover shot of the new album by this ‘surreal’ singer songwriter. With his long term band the Shadows of Doubt, Simon delivers ten highly original and idiosyncratic songs, turning the apparent influences of John Prine, Hank Williams and Dwight Yoakam on their head, with songs that explore a desire to be Jeff Goldblum (but only in Jurassic Park), the pros and cons of being a Beluga Whale and the importance of water. Hugely Enjoyable.

***

Danny Schmidt – Standard Deviation | Album Review | Live Once Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.03.19

The tenth studio album sees the renowned Austin-based singer songwriter explore, amongst other things, fatherhood and family, with ten new songs, expressed with a distinctively cracked, almost fragile delivery. Described as ‘pencil sketch songs’, Danny elicits the assistance of a handful of choice musicians, including his partner Carrie Elkin on harmony vocals. Produced by Will Robertson, Standard Deviation once again reveals a songwriter’s songwriter doing what he does best, that is to present us with a showcase of remarkable songs from the heart, including such delights as “Newport ’65”, which channels mid-60s Dylan and the achingly poignant “We Need a Better Word.”

***

Nigel Stonier – Navigate | Album Review | Shameless Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.03.19

Renowned record producer pops out from his familiar position behind the console to deliver his latest solo album of original songs. Part Robyn Hitchcock, part Chris Difford with a whole load of Nigel Stonier in between, songs such as “Bad Dancers of a Certain Age”, “One of the Good Guys” and “Red Letter Life”, reflect the human condition from behind a wry smile. Whilst we find a tender side of Stonier in “Me With You” and “Safe Place”, two self-probing love songs, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong” is almost cinematic in its world view of the current situation we find ourselves in. Produced in partnership with Seadna McPhail, Navigate does precisely what it says on the tin, through our lives and times.

***

Mark Mandeville and Raianne Richards – Live in Manitoba | Album Review | Nobody’s Favourite Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.03.19

This album is a document of acoustic intimate house concerts, recorded in Manitoba, Canada in October 2017. House concerts because Mark Mandeville and Raianne Richards are captured, relaxed chatter and all, in homes and small community spaces. Originally from the US and now a phenomena in the UK, they prove to paraphrase The Field Of Dreams, even if you don’t build it the music still comes. The pair playing guitar, harmonica, ukulele, clarinet, penny whistle and bass with two strong voices deliver fine songs with a couple of covers. Both have a good strong Americana or Folk voices, especially when you consider these are acoustic performances, the mikes are to record not amplify. Mark and Raianne also harmonise well around each other on tracks like “Hand I Hold” and “Grain by Grain.” The pair push the duo format hard, with some quick changes, so Raianne’s earthy clarinet accompanies Mark’s guitar picking and harmonica. Stripped back there is a vitality, an integrity and a beauty in their performances. “Walls” by Tom Petty, pared back to two fine voices, guitar and uke of mandolin, is revealed to be a delicate love song and a real diamond. “One More Song” features emotional vocals and a perfect stripped back performance. The track and the rest of the album reminded me of hearing that cassette live album Home and Away by Clive Gregson and Christine Collister in the mid 80s, both feature fine twined vocals and spare accompaniment while capturing something real. Among songs like “If Someone Will Come With Me I’ll Go” and “As Long As It Takes”, are some very strong folk songs powerfully performed. After an album with very ‘Neil Young’ harmonica blowing through it, the set ends with a credible cover of his “Unknown Legend.” Resonant guitar to the fore, great duo vocals on a small town, back roads anthem, perfect for small spaces performances.

The Unthanks – Lines | Album Review | RabbleRouser Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.03.19

Essentially three unique song cycles, threaded together by history, poetry and from female perspectives. If previous projects by The Unthanks have involved large scale productions to include brass bands, strings and even full blown symphony orchestras, Lines pretty much gets back to basics, with emotive vocal performances, subtle arrangements and in the case of Parts Two, the use of the piano Holst wrote the Planets on and Part Three, the piano that originally belonged to Emily Bronte herself; we can only imagine the powerful connection in time and space between the popular 19th century writer and Adrian McNally’s tentative phalanges. Although in terms of distance, the Bronte Parsonage and the Hull docklands are practically neighbours, bookending the county of Yorkshire, the worlds of the Bronte family and Lillian Bilocca’s Headscarf Revolutionaries are worlds apart, yet there’s still the subliminal connection in and between the lines. As is expected, Emily Bronte’s words are eloquently delivered by both Rachel and Becky Unthank accompanied by Adrian’s delicate piano, whilst the guests, including both Sam Lee and Tim Dalling on the ‘middle’ song cycle which traverses the poetry and letters of WWI, brings another fresh dimension to the project. Originally written and performed in 2014 to celebrate its centenary year, World War One focuses on one or two slightly more obscure writers such as Jessie Pope and Teresa Hooley, their words so powerfully and emotively delivered. The arrival of each new project by The Unthanks, whether it be a new band album, a stage or tour production, a sideways diversion or simply an impromptu sing around the piano, it’s always an event. Lines is a three part event that should be heard, absorbed and remembered, beautifully packaged and presented as something to cherish.

Ian George – Kingdom Of My Youth | Album Review | Silver Branch | Review by Marc Higgins | 20.03.19

Ian George’s debut album, Kingdom of My Youth, is not the album he meant to make. Following the implosion of his previous touring band, he encountered Mathieu Chedid, Pop Music’s M, while drifting around Europe. An invitation by Mathieu to record at Labo M, his 17th Century Manor led to this album. Ian assembled the musicians, Vincent Polycarpe, percussion, Jacob Matheus electric guitar, Eugene Feygelson, violin, Nicholas Souchal trumpet and flugelhorn, Mathieu on bass and percussion with himself playing guitar, mandolin and piano. A special coincidence or happenstance was the catalyst, Ian provided half written songs and the collected musicians made a magical album. “Gitchie Gumee” is the corruption of the Ojibiee name for Lake Superior, the same used by Longfellow in his Hiawatha poem and Gordon Lightfoot in his “Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” In Ian’s hands it is a stunning pastoral song. His acoustic guitar and accents of other instruments are the bedrock over which his glorious voice just pours like a warm honey lullaby. Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley, Scott Matthews and Sam Brookes never crooned so angelically and so perfectly. “The Wild and Untamed” strips some of the languor away. A lyric that sounds like a folk song is beautifully sung over some spiker electric guitar. Vincent and Ian’s production keeps George’s voice the star, with perfectly placed wafts and breaths of other instruments through the ethereal soundscape. The electric guitar on “Kandinsky”, an ode to Creativity, stutters and flutters like a African guitar or thumb piano, while Ian’s delightful vocal shimmers through, like sunlight in mist. Son is a perfectly formed ambient pop masterpiece like a late Japan or David Sylvian gem. The vocal, like John Martyn, is as much about mood and sound as meaning. Finally the lyric bites and Ian roars out the wish of every child over some glorious brass stabs. “Better With A Buddy” shimmers in the headphones over an infectious bass and drum rhythm, while Ian George delivers a lyric that is part surreal lonely moment and part Appalachian folk song. As always his stunning voice imparts great yearning and emotion to the words. Possibly to show it isn’t all about the voice “L’Etang La Ville” is a delicate instrumental. Plaintive mandolin and a closely miked piano dance gently at first, then more passionately with a flameco-ish guitar and a soaring violin. So the beauty comes from the players and the playing too. “The Jolly Road” is by turns an upbeat pop folk song, with a touch of Syd Barrett delicate Psychedelia about it and a crooned lullaby. After the warm euphoric bliss of the first five, Ian George throws in a few late surprises. “Shenandoah” is a blissed out, spiritual reading of the folk song. There is a sense of some of the Rishikesh era acoustic Beatles on this final track. Runs up and down the acoustic guitar have a touch of Roy Harper and his plaintive melancholic vocal occasionally recalls S&G era Paul Simon. A touch more sad than chilled it is an emotional end to a mighty mood piece of a quiet moment or late night contemplative record.

Harbottle and Jonas – The Sea is My Brother | Album Review | Brook View Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.03.19

Our obsession with the sea has been detailed in every corner of the arts, from Hokusai’s monumental painting The Great Wave, Debussy’s impressionistic orchestral composition La Mer, Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Iris Murdoch’s Booker winning novel The Sea, The Sea and countless folk songs and shanties throughout time. The subject rarely fails to intrigue and always feeds the imagination, with its myriad stories. The Devon-based duo David Harbottle and Freya Jonas bring the subject alive once again in song, with an album comprised of predominantly self-penned songs reflecting our relationship with the sea, from various perspectives, such as the heroics of both the friar who stayed aboard the sinking Titanic to be with his congregation “Fr Thomas Byles” and Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who saved lives off the coast of Northumberland in the mid nineteenth century “A Lady Awake”, to Lillian Bilocca’s tireless campaign for better working conditions in the fishing industry in Kingston upon Hull in the 1960s Headscarf Revolutionaries. Even the unlikely appearance of Jack Kerouac, whose lost novel The Sea is My Brother provides the album with its title, makes this album ever more appealing. Perhaps it’s the duo’s arrangement of a poem by John Masefield “Hall Sands” that effectively injects real spirit into the album, a song you’re likely to play over and over.

ImRam – Ever New Joy | Album Review | Beautiful World Agency | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.03.19

This album should perhaps begin with track two, a wonderful blend of new and old, as the opening mantra on “Maheshvara Shiva” is guided by its contemporary feel, its bluesy lead guitar sparring effortlessly with tasteful electronica, a music designed around its alleged healing powers. ImRam is a Kriya Yogi, a healer who takes his music seriously. He surrounds himself with a multi-national collective, from his native Russia as well as India, Ukraine and the UK. The musical styles are even more eclectic, traversing Indian ragas, bhajans, kirtans, Sufi, Celtic and assorted shamanic chants and mantras, effectively uniting in a broad musical sphere. It’s rewarding to listen to, it feels good and has the potential to heal, an important attribute in these times, evident in such explorative signatures as “Sita Ram”, “Elfie’s Song” and “Lonely Shivaya.”

Nick Waterhouse – Nick Waterhouse | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.03.19

This is the fourth album by Santa Ana-born singer, songwriter and record producer Nick Waterhouse, whose retro rock stance seems to play out for real, each song sounding for all intents and purposes like the ‘real deal.’ With plenty of twangy guitars, a voice not unlike prime era Eric Burdon and a band of musicians and singers suited to the authentic Fifties era – the album was in fact recorded at Electro Vox Recorders, which is as near as we’re going to get to this highly distinctive style – this eponymous release shamelessly shows its roots on such delights as “Wreck the Rod”, “Wherever She Goes (She is Wanted)”, “Black Glass” and the vibrant instrumental “El Viv.”

***

Ustad Saami – God is Not a Terrorist | Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.03.19

There was a time in the mid-1990s when the mesmerising sound of the Pakistani devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would drift through the unassuming household of a quiet suburban South Yorkshire village, largely due to the influence of the then ultra popular Jeff Buckley, together with the lead song from the soundtrack of the Tim Robbins Death Row drama Dead Man Walking. It was a sound from another world, which was at once hypnotic, mysterious and deeply spiritual. This sound has been largely absent around this particular household, until that is, the arrival of this Ian Brennan-produced album. Released as Volume 5 in Glitterbeat’s ‘Hidden Musics’ series, the album features Pakistan’s Ustad Saami, a 75 year-old Khayal singer, Khayal being the predecessor of the popular Qawwali music famously produced by Ali Khan between the mid-1960s up until his death in 1997, with six titles which revisit the intense drones of an archaic form, performed in a multitude of languages, including Sanskrit, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and what might be politely described as gibberish. Recorded at Saami’s home in Karachi, the six pieces of varying lengths, “Hymn” coming in at just over a minute, whilst the sprawling “Longing” reaches almost nineteen, are deeply hypnotic and feature a voice that would be almost impossible to imitate, accompanied by a minimalist drone-like harmonium. The roots of this music stretches back to the 13th century and in this release, we detect that it has lost none of its power over time.

Copper Viper – Cut It Down, Count the Rings | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.03.19

With tight vocal harmonies and empathetic guitar/mandolin/fiddle playing, Robin Joel Sangster and Duncan Menzies perform with an almost sibling closeness, not unlike their inspiration, Simon and Garfunkel and the Milk Carton Kids, two combos who exemplify a certain vocal closeness that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the notion of having to be strictly connected by genes. The London-based duo have begun to spread their wings with an impressive debut album consisting of eleven self-penned songs that straddle the lines between Country, British Folk and Bluegrass; an album that will no doubt serve them well as their name becomes better known, with such fine arrangements as “Bad Desires”, “Hung Up Alone” and the rather sublime “Fly.” With Ryan Hadlock at the helm at the Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, WA, and the album being mastered by Gavin Lurssen (Plant and Krauss, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou), further credentials are rendered unnecessary. Cut it Down, Count the Rings is one of those albums that hung around the office for a few weeks before I got around to listening to it, which was inevitably followed by a niggling feeling that I had in fact wasted those weeks.

Simon & the Astronauts – Simon & the Astronauts | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 28.03.19

Simon is Simon Wells, musician, writer and participant in one of Boo Hewerdine’s song workshops. The Astronauts are Ben Hewerdine, Boo Hewerdine, Findlay Napier, Chris Pepper, Karine Polwart and Darden Smith. Simon and the Astronauts is a fascinating and surprising album, with Simon bringing a lyrical concept to the studio, spontaneously writing and recording with the assembled musicians. The speed of production brings an economy and edge to the proceedings. Everyone sings or adds their voice and despite pop electronica, edgy poetry, delicate music, dirty guitar, and rootsy Americana, there is an earthy classic English psych pop whimsy that binds it all together. Simon’s writing runs through the whole album and his spiky passionate spoken poetry fires out of “Tight Metal Jackets” and “Patti.” He is a singular and passionate voice, breathing fire and edge into the words. The final track written for Patti Smith is a glorious poetic hymn for a 70s time and place. How many songs circuitously name check Devo, CBGB’s and legendary East Of England indie record chain Andy’s Records. At times as edgy at Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” its a rewarding listen. Tracks like “Astronauts”, “Airmail” and “Box Of Tears” feature the always excellent slightly wry and melancholic vocals of Boo. Boo’s son Ben, himself a talented songwriter and musician plays and sings on “Granchester Meadow” and “Trampoline.” Part jazz torch song, part Larkin poem and featuring a historic recording Leon Theramin playing his eerie instrument, “Zinc” is a powerful piece. “Love Is” with glorious vocals from Karine Polwart is a life affirming Anthem and a beautiful list of that unpicks what love is. Luckily those kitsch naked cartoon characters from a billion 70s posters don’t get a look in. As well as contributing to the rhythmically lyrical “Tight Metal Jackets”, the excellent Darden Smith contributes “Oscar” a new wave Elvis Costello piece of Americana. Simon Wells’ vision and voice makes it hang together, while the supporting players add colours that create sparkle and deepen luster. As a solo performer, in a duo or a connector through his workshops Boo Hewerdine is a creative force. This is a sparky, sometimes raw and often beautiful album that touches and connects so many musical points and flavours into a cohesive whole. Wonderfully packaged album, with a kind of Dan Dare, Men in a shed, Boys Book of Adventure type humour too.

Dallahan – Smallworld | Album Review | Westpark Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.04.19

The five-piece Scots-based band return with their third album, once again exploring a broad range of musical styles, incorporating Balkan influences, Roma Gypsy melodies, North American tunes as well as traditional Scots and Irish material. The title appears to reflect the fact that musically speaking, these musicians do indeed inhabit a small world. In just five years Dallahan have provided a veritable melting pot of both instrumental compositions and songs, here delivered in both English and Hungarian. The ten selections showcase a tight and empathetic unity between the five musicians, with compelling arrangements throughout, from the opening set “Aye Chiki Chiki” through to the sublime closer “Arok Arok.” There’s a vibrant atmosphere permeating the album, which truly reflects the band’s world savvy live set. It goes without saying that on these songs and tunes, there’s no slouching, with each musician’s contribution being nothing short of outstanding.

Mike Vass – Save His Calm | Album Review | Unroofed Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.04.19

Occasionally, a musician comes along and surprises us by delivering the unexpected – Tim Edey proved himself as a virtuoso guitar player, then astonished us further with his equally astonishing melodeon playing. Phillip Henry let us know how good he was on the Dobro, then stuck a harmonica in his mouth and left us breathless – that sort of thing. We’d just about got used to the instrumental flair of Mike Vass, which is what I expected from this album, only to find Mike revealing his outstanding songwriting credentials and soothing singing voice reminiscent of Master and Everyone-period Bonnie Prince Billy. On Save His Calm, Mike treats us to something rather different to what we expected, an album of gentle and calming songs, as the title suggests, although a closer look at the title will reveal a more obvious reason when descrambled.  If Decemberwell (2012), In the Wake of Neil Gunn (2014) and last year’s Notes From a Boat confirmed Mike’s standing as a fine instrumental genius, then Save His Calm rounds off a perfect circle with songs to remember, including the contemplative “Gates of Saints”, the delightfully frank “Done With Calling You” and the hypnotic “The Rainbow of Your Last Days.”

Blick Bassy – 1958 | Album Review | No Format | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.04.19

Reflecting on the events that led to the independence of his native Cameroon, Blick Bassy’s tender song cycle showcases a rather affecting relationship between his own highly distinctive vocal dexterity and the fine performances provided by the small gathering of musicians, including Clement Petit on cello, Alexi Merrill on trumpet and keyboards and Johan Blanc on trombone. At the centre of the album, and its chief subject, is the anti-colonialist leader of the Popular Union of Cameroon, Ruben Um Nyobé, who in 1958 was killed by French troops, an episode pretty much suppressed until recently. In an effort to iron out the skewed history of his homeland as chronicled by his biased educators, Bassy employs a tender approach to highlight the truth behind his country’s troubled past, whilst delivering eleven utterly soothing songs, including the dreamy “Where We Go”, which almost abruptly concludes the album.

Davy Graham – Hat | Album Review | Bread & Wine | Review by Marc Higgins | 06.04.19

Hat, recorded and released in 1969 was Davy Graham’s sixth album and his fifth for Decca. To begin with there is a degree of formula to the ingredients. The album opens with an energetic take on Lennon and McCartney’s “Getting Better.” Graham’s jangling guitar and Danny Thompson’s impeccable double bass are spot on. Davy’s sleeve notes have an older statesman jazzer’s perspective on the ‘two lads’ showing promise. But it’s easy to see how a bohemian guitar player signed to a major label, building a reputation, might identify with the optimistic lyric. Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” is a vivid snapshot of the weary troubadour travelling between appearances and wishing they were somewhere else. “Lotus Blossom”, with killer bass and guitar parts, is a love song. Davy says he got it from English blues singer Redd Sullivan and that it’s a long time fav of smooth blues jazz singer Jimmy Witherspoon. I wonder if it would have amused him to know it was originally a risqué song about intoxication called “Marahuana” from a flop 1934 murder mystery farce called Murder at the vanities. Try singing “Sweet Marahuana” instead of “Lotus Blossom” and the sense of the song changes. ” I’m Ready” is the Willie Dixon song made famous by Muddy Waters. Davy’s vocal doesn’t have the velvet power of Muddy, but he delivers it with energy and conviction. “Buhaina Chant” is one of Graham’s most surprising interpretations, with his beautiful folk baroque instrumental a version of Art Blakey’s African Blue Note era percussion wigout. “Love Is Pleasing” is a melancholy folk song with a delicate and intricate guitar part. Graham’s voice seems more suited to this track. It flows perfectly into the following “Hornpipe For Harpsichord Played For Guitar.” His strident take on Dylan’s “Down Along The Cove” is an album highlight, Davy’s guitar and interplay with Danny Thompson’s guitar is masterful. Another inspired track is the county blues take on “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Davy and many players crossed paths, playing on the same all-nighter bills at Les Cousins and many others. So “Hornpipe For Harpsichord” has the feel of John Renbourn’s Sir John Alot album and “Stan’s Guitar and Bulgarian Dance” have the raga blues feel of Michael Chapman’s Rainmaker recorded summer 1968 released June 1969. “Pretty Polly” is another shimmering folk psych masterpiece. Graham’s guitar shimmers and chimes with atmosphere and his vocal is a delight. Graham’s “I Am A Rock” has the voice further back in the mix than the Simon and Garfunkel version. It is delivered with passion and conviction, another anthem for the world weary travelling folk troubadour.  Davy Graham was a staggering guitar player and a performer interpreter rather than than a writer. The sleeve notes detail the sources and his influences, sometimes his is a heartfelt close copy sung with love and sometimes his take is so Grahamesque and far from the original you can only marvel at his creativity and vision. With its transition from the earlier trio albums to a looser guitar led raga influenced wild folk feel this is one of my favourite Davy Graham albums. Despite being an obviously virtuosic player, he isn’t showy or flash, there is no noodling, some of the tracks are short, where other later guitarists might have showboated stretching out in the groove Graham says what he has to say then stops.

Amy Thatcher – Solo | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.04.19

Those who have already discovered Amy Thatcher for themselves will undoubtedly be familiar with her work with either The Shee, Sting, the Monster Ceilidh Band or indeed The Side, Kathryn Tickell’s band, or maybe all four. In each of these outfits, Amy plays an important dual role, that of an excellent accordion player and energetic clog dancer, but also as a composer in her own right. On this, her debut album, Amy goes solo as the title suggests and explores her compositional chops in more detail, as well providing us with more of her nifty finger and footwork. Albeit totally instrumental, the tunes are highly personal and in one or two cases, written with friends and bandmates firmly in mind, such as “April’s Child”, written for The Shee’s Lillias Kinsman-Blake, “Jo Lin”, for one of Amy’s best pals and “Ian’s Favourite” for a former teacher, written during Amy’s final year studying folk and traditional music. If Solo is dedicated to friends and family, nowhere is this more apparent than on “Sleep Spindles/Zakopane Christmas”, the former tune written by Shona Mooney, her bandmate from The Shee, the latter, a seasonal tune written for both Amy’s and her husband’s families. Amy’s latest musical venture will see her once again with Kathryn Tickell as part of her brand new venture, The Darkening, along with Cormac Byrne, Joe Truswell, Kate Young and Kieran Szifris.

Becky Mills – Tall Tales and Home Truths | Album Review | Talking Elephant Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.04.19

Often, taking time over a project leads to greater results and for Becky Mills’ new record, six years was enough to ensure that her listeners would sit up and listen. With ten original songs, Becky once again demonstrates a clearly defined confidence in both her song writing and her strong vocal performances, accompanying herself on guitar with unfussy arrangements, which allows her selection of fine collaborators the space to express themselves. Ruth Angell’s warm and inviting violin never outstays its welcome, nor does Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s concertina. Blair Dunlop’s atmospheric electric guitar is restrained, providing the space for Becky’s story telling, notably on “The Lady of Ballantyne.” Lyrically, the subjects weave between family stories and local folklore, inviting us to eavesdrop on the former Waking the Witch singer’s ethereal world. It’s been a while since Becky’s debut solo album Dandelion, and the arrival of Tall Trees and Home Truths has been well worth the wait.

Sarah-Jane Summers – Owerset | Album Review | Dell Daisy | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.04.19

Following on from 2018’s album Solo, a set of solo violin recordings which I absolutely loved, and an improv album earlier this year Sarah-Jane Summers releases twelve evocative atmospheric band recordings. Owerset, a Scottish word for translate, from the Norse oversette, is bourne out of a commission Sarah-Jane wrote for the 2016 Celtic Connections Festival. There is a definite link between the spirit of that festival and the way her music blends Scottish and Nordic traditions.  “Gall-Ghàidheil” opens with the evocative and savage twining of Sarah-Jane and Bridget Marsden’s fiddles. It is a noise of the edge of the world, of sea mist and the brutal beauty of cliffs. Guitar, accordion, double bass and trumpet swell the sound to a mighty roar behind those emotional fiddles. The doubling of the bowed bass and accordion sounds like a mighty archaic wind instrument. “Flit” features the very ECM nimble guitar of Scandinavian Juhani Silvola, his chiming notes ringing over the rest of the band in full flight. “Fitakaleerie” is a word describing a dance performed in a seated position while clutching beer. The music is suitably spirited and dexterous, part wheezing dance music with a great fiddle and accordion melody, part showcase for the lyrical trumpet of Hayden Powell. Like the best of Andrew Cronshaw’s recent genre ignoring music, “Gate” opens with a real whatthefuckisthat moment. Gate as in Brigate comes from Norse gata meaning street. Which is just a well as I’d not want to venture through a gateway described by this track. What I am assuming is Hayden’s trumpet spends the first the first minute, venturing even further out than Jon Hassell or Nils Petter Molver, in the spirit of Arve Henriksen, sounding like glimpses of another world. Breathy, hypnotic and compelling Hayden is joined by plaintive fiddle and guitar harmonics on a track that is enthralling and terrifying before resolving into a beautiful spirited melody. “Rowk” again features sublimely inventive playing and arranging with bent guitar notes behind accordion, stunning trumpet and fiddle playing as ethereal and captivating as the sea mist this track is named for. These stunning tracks I could listen to on repeat all night.  The title track is a two part Polka, played in both Swedish and a more Scottish style. As with the rest of the album the playing is heavenly, with lots of space for Morten Kvam’s Double Bass to shine. “The Handfasting” also opens with a wonderful passage of guitar and bass and some fine fiddle throughout, especially at the end. “Sgieg” is very Hipster Gaelic for beard, part furious dance music part contemplative acoustic guitar and fiddle. “Greet” Scottish for cry, is a final pared back beautiful melody shared between Sarah-Jane and Bridget’s fiddles, slowly building to a brooding piece that falls back to solo fiddle at the end.  This is a beautiful album, absolutely bursting with inventive and engaging playing and arranging. Juhani Silvola’s production means everything sounds perfect and dances for your ears. Slow and stirring or blood warming and spirited, fire and ice its all here.

Feathered Mason – Limbo Boy | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.04.19

Feathered Mason is a singer guitar player and award winning songwriter, by his own admission, out of time, born a couple of decades late in rural Illinois. With a rhythmic rumbling guitar and a cadence to his voice “Skeleton Song” recalls Kelly Jo Phelps and maybe a little of Seasick Steve. Either way it is a great opener, you can hear the room around the guitar and his vocal is compelling. “Mausoleum” is softer Country Blues, Mason’s vocal is laid back smooth with a great Kurt Wagner falsetto and Springsteen yelp over Jon Rauhouse’s pedal steel. Superb groove, real grower of a song. “Sisterworld” is a rail riding, resonator guitar showcase with some inventive percussion suggesting Feathered Mason is not simply the classic blues nostalgia musician he feels. Again a superb groove track with some fine guitar, a great vocal and electronic sounding acoustic beats, like a rural barn dwelling Daniel Lanois. “Get Right” has a Bluegrass meets Muscle Shoals feel with a freewheeling guitar and vocal linked in spirit to those early Ry Cooder albums. Superb violin ‘solo’ from Claire Wellin too, raw edgy and exciting, like the track. “Loose Shoes” is another languid country track with lovely guitar and soulful vocals nodding to The Rolling Stones’, “Sympathy For The Devil.” At the risk of coming over all Oz Clark or Jilly Goolden, you can hear a lot of flavours and references in “Loose Shoes.” I love a spoken blues and Feathered Mason does it well, story telling like Jim White or Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby” and chorusing like Robbie Robertson’s “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”, understated soulful and utterly compelling. This is a excellent EP, occasionally tipping into essential, that makes you want a whole album from Feathered Mason.

California Feetwarmers – Gloryland | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 17.04.19

Gloryland is the latest album from The California Feetwarmers. Anyone who saw them on their 2018 UK dates will attest to their power and draw as a live act, with many highlights of those shows recorded in the studio for this album. According to guitarist on the track Eddie Condon, Fats Waller’s “The Minor Drag” was a head arranged tune recorded in 1929 with a pick up band, playing by ear, after he and the hard living pianist had spent the rehearsal time and money on a two day bender. The Feetwarmers version retains that ‘seat of the pants’ tempo, with a wonderful refrain from the cornet and clarinet. Fats would I’m sure be pleased. “Over The Gloryland” from an even earlier 1906, with guest Jerron ‘Blindboy’ Paxton in wonderful voice, is a fine piece of early Jazz. The Feetwarmers can swing and blow when the brass and clarinet soar together, they can also play low and make a quiet storm behind the banjo. “I Got Dreams” marries their period jazz with some Oh Brother Where Art Thou sweet vocal harmonies and playing that just purrs. Charles De Castro on cornet, gets a lot of those evocative early Ellington band growls over the driving beat of the band’s masterful reading of “Short Dressed Girl.” The Merle Travis song “No Vacancy” has beautiful Western Swing warm vocals and a great rolling tempo. Paxton contributes further great blues vocal to “Rock Away Blues” and the woozy ‘I’m drifting back to dreamland’ duetting with the huge growling sousaphone and bass clarinet. “Wani Night” and “Feeling Drowsy” are a pair of wonderfully atmospheric instrumentals, mixing great jazz playing alongside some surprising twists and flourishes. “Royal Garden Blues”, like so much of this album is filled with the musical sounds of my youth. I didn’t spend my shorts years immersed on dusty 78s, rather watching Saturday reruns of Tom and Jerry and Laurel and Hardy. The crisp percussion, tight rhythms and free wheeling brass of the California Feetwarmers puts me right back there again. This is an exciting band, combining New Orleans early jazz, western swing, blues, Bluegrass and Country, into a rich freewheeling feel good music with layers. The band throw in some fine vocals and with ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton whose vocals, shift between Tom Waits growl to a Leon Redbone slurred croon, they are lifted further.

Davy Graham – Midnight Man | Album Review | Bread & Wine | Review by Marc Higgins | 22.04.19

Davy Graham is a legendary figure, his ability on the guitar, his influence and the endless stories make it difficult to separate the man and the music. Safe to say that everyone from Paul Simon to Ed Sheeran would sound very different without Davy. Travelling in Morocco, playing with musicians in North Africa on both the Oud and Guitar, Graham discovered or invented The DADGAD tuning. For many guitar players coming after him this opened up atmospheric possibilities, becoming almost as standard as standard tuning. In itself that is enough to justify Graham eternal admiration and the musical equivalent of a historic blue plaque. “Anji”, on an EP with Alexis Korner, an almost invisible instrumental album for Pye, allegedly at the instigation of Bob Monkhouse, the seminal first Decca album and his collaboration with Shirley Collins chart the route of an ever moving musician with a growing reputation and a sharp ear, recording what music he likes and trying with canny covers, possibly to appeal to a wider pop or Hipster audience.  “No Preacher Blues” written by Graham himself is a protest song, peppered with romantic references to the travelling troubadour lifestyle. It is Davy’s first recorded self composed song and while his boyish voice is at odds with the lyrics, its a good one. Musically with Barry Morgan’s bright jazzy percussion, Tony Reeves’ upright bass and wonderful guitar flourishes its a clear influence on later Pentangle with the same folk baroque over jazz back like summery feel. His take on Argentinian pianist and arranger Lalo Schifrin’s “The Fakir” is close to the frenetic hypnotic feel of the 1963 Cal Tjader version arranged by Lalo. The skittering percussion with finger symbols and pulsing drums are close in feel, Davy Graham’s eastern guitar carries the melody in a way that is beautiful, engaging and easier on the ear than the reeds and vibraphone in Tjader’s take. “I’m Looking Through You” is a sparking version of a Lennon McCartney Rubber Soul track. “Humming Bird” is another Graham song, a folk blues love song over a bossa nova beat. “Watermelon Man” is a Herbie Hancock composition, from his achingly cool, essential Blue Note period. The tune was then made popularised in a more Austin Powers mode by Mongo Santamaria. With beautiful flourishes that sound like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn in full flight Davy owns it and makes the tune his own on another album highlight. “Stormy Monday” is a sublime guitar bass and drums version of the traditional blues classic. With Morgan and Reeves providing a solid base on this “Money Honey” and Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ The Dog” is rhythm and lead over the top. He isn’t a blues shouter, but “Davy’s Folk Blues” is tight, funky and doesn’t put a foot wrong. “Fire In My Soul” is a version of Blues singer and inspirational guitar player Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” It’s a hymn to the blues and the singer’s love of life. “Lost Lover Blues” is a traditional folk blues with some beautifully nimble playing over Morgan’s train drum shuffle. Junior Mance’s call and response gospel jazz piece “Jubilation” maintains a wonderful jazz rhythm transposed to Graham’s three piece. Davy throws in some wonderful flourishes and runs while maintaining the pulsing piano beat of the tune. There is a lovely shuffle to Graham’s version of Oscar Brown Junior’s “Rags And Old Iron.” As a singer Davy doesn’t touch the jazz power of the writers version or the atmosphere of Norma Waterson’s later version, but his version is solid and well played. Vocally Davy Graham is more at home on the insistent album closer Jelly Roll Baker. Listen as well to the sparkles and shines between the guitar and bass.  This is a varied album of always impeccable folk blues guitar, stunning instrumentals and tasteful renditions of pop, R n b and blues songs. By 1966 The Beatles and others had established the idea of the performer songwriter. Davy’s opening own song is a credible romantic acoustic troubadour tale that would serve later songwriting guitar players like Michael Chapman, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Al Stewart and a million others very well indeed. The image of the guitar wielding midnight man is there on the cover. To these ears at least that fresh bright sound seems to have heavily inspired at least John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, recording their earlier albums at the same time, with the template for Pentangle, but the buying public rushing towards effects and sitar saturated Psychedelia sadly didn’t take to Davy Graham’s second Decca album. Fifty three years later, Graham’s sixties music, like a lot of the Chapman, Roy Harper and Pentangle stable music has aged well and sounds excellent. To this writer at least Davy and Co have retained a gravitas and integrity lacking in much of the more successful phased, flanged, pixie, Tolkien and Wonderland referencing music that immediately followed. It’s a shame more people didn’t get it at the time, but I think part of Graham enjoyed the outsider role.

Union Duke – Golden Days | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.04.19

The third album release by Toronto-based five-piece Union Duke, once again showcases the band’s raw exuberance with a sound that comes as close to a live performance as possible, before an audience of just the production personnel. The thirteen songs are all originals, written variously by four of the five musicians and delivered in a contemporary indie-rock/bluegrass/country style, with some delicious vocal harmonies, very much their own. “Heavy Wind” is a perfect opener, imbued with an urgency in its delivery, which effectively paves the way for such accessible tunes as “Bird on the Wing”, the uplifting “Chasing Headlights”, the banjo-led “Fare Thee Well” and the title song “Golden Days (I’ve Been Down).” If “Coffee/Whiskey” shows off the band’s informed bluegrass chops (there’s even a ‘yee-haw’ in there somewhere) and “Torn in Two” is possibly as Country as it gets, then the pop sensibility of “Reminder Song” should ensure the band plenty of radio play.

Jonathan Day – A Spirit Library | Album Review | NiiMiika | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.05.19

Just a glimpse at Jonathan Day’s tour schedule and we detect a well-traveled musician, with festivals, gigs and workshops from Shrewsbury to Hong Kong, Glastonbury to Bangkok, Llanfyllin to Tokyo. With such a tour planned, you would expect a performer to have something worthy to take on tour with them and in this case, we see the release of Jonathan’s third album, a conceptual piece that is at once atmospheric, ethereal in places and spiritual as the title suggests. With lyrics inspired by a deep well of literary sources, from Hermann Hesse to the Lakota visionary Black Elk, as well as a seventh century poet and the memoirs of the explorers Mallory and Irvine, the songs are richly embellished with inventive flurries courtesy of a variety of instruments from around the world, including the butterfly dulcerina, the tanpura, the suang guo and the mellotron, together with various percussion from the kitchen. Together, the instrumentation lifts each song from the page to the studio with impressive results. The opening piece, with the portentous title, “A Spirit Library – Welcome for Those Arriving, Lament for Those Lost on the Way”, is as grand an opening statement as can be expected to make an appearance on any singer songwriter’s third album release. A Spirit Library isn’t party music, nor is it something to play in the airport, rather it’s an album to listen to in the comfort of your armchair, with the coffee percolating beside you. It will help you dream.

Fémina – Perlas and Conchas | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.05.19

We don’t really need a diploma in Latin to figure out that Fémina translates to ‘woman’, a more than suitable moniker for these three Argentinian vocalists, whose sultry and sensual harmonies weave their way across continents, from their native San Martin de los Andes in the southern region of Patagonia, to the clubs of New York, Paris and London. The trio is made up of sisters Sofia and Clara Trucco, together with Clara Miglioli, who each appear a little like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus on the cover, their hair and conchas (shells) coming in as handy as fig leaf replacements from an earlier story. If the cover attempts to demonstrate their sensuality to varying degrees of success, the songs certainly come closer. Sensuality drips from the performances, certainly on “Agradezco” (I appreciate) and “Treparme” (climb up) with superb vocals both individually and collectively, to an enticing set of beats. Iggy Pop even makes a guest appearance on “Resist”, evidently unable to resist an attempt to sound equally as sensual as Fémina.

Sean Taylor – The Path into Blue | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.05.19

The Path Into Blue is Sean Taylor’s ninth album since Corrugations in 2006. Thirteen years have seen Sean gradually reveal and deliver a powerful John Martyn meets 70s soulful Van Morrison vocal, crooning and growling. From the start he has been a considerable guitarist, able to use killer lead and ornamented classic singer songwriter acoustic rhythm guitar to carry sharp seeing lyrics and poetry. The songs always personal and heartfelt with a growing personal voice, have a particular power and bite on this his sharpest set. The music, players and his well established working relationship with Mark Hallman at Congress House in Austin Texas means that it all sounds incredible. Time will tell whether the cover, a collage of a troubled nation, public shame and a Orwellian vision of an American emperors new clothes, is an image from a time we want to forget or a banner that signifies a turning point.  “This Is England”, maybe an alternate title for this razor sharp, on the money, album, has an Innervisions era Stevie Wonder funkiness to it. Sean delivers a sparkling spoken blues anthem for the age. Some of it is lyrically a difficult listen, but don’t blame the mirror if you don’t like what you see. Stephanie Daulong provides soulful vocals and Sean himself is alight, firing sharp, spot on social comment. “Lampedusa” is a smoking reflection with that John Martyn vocal and miasma guitar that Taylor does so very well. The sentiment is spot on “no man or woman is better than another, we should be equal should be sisters and brothers”. Sean finds a reflective grace contemplating on one of the more shameful moments in 21st Century history, so far. “Grenfell” again demonstrates Taylor’s ability to wrap thoughtful lyrics and emotion in beautiful music. “Is the money you make worth the lives you take”. It isn’t preaching, but the message and emotion are there. When words finally fail Sean expresses raw disappointment and rage through some blistering electric guitar. In “The Last Man Standing” Sean joins Mary Gauthier and Thea Gilmore in writing a Christmas song that blends warm glow and melancholia. Like the rest of the album, thoughtful lyrics are warmly wrapped, this time in very English brass and soulful choir vocals. “Little Donny”, like a jazzy dialled down 21st version of Martyn’s John Wayne, flicks some vim at ‘little hands’ himself. Another blues for our times, the sleeze and ooze is expressed through Joe Morales’ wonderful saxophone and those smooth chorus vocals. Old commander hairspray makes an appearance too. “A Cold Wind Blows” is a wonderful county blues, lamenting the plight of London’s homeless. Sean’s guitar and voice crackle with emotion through a John Martyn slur. Barren spaces and the cold wind are evoked by Henry Senior’s pedal steel. “Take It Down To The Mainsteam” is a solid bass, guitar, drums and Hammond rocker. Like a This Is England part two Sean rails against fake talent, fake empathy and fake integrity. Almost as an refuge from everything discovered so far “Tobacco and Whisky” and “Number 49” are stunning songs about oblivion, superb blues guitar, soulful organ and some well observed couplets make a wonderful evocation of being drenched to the bone. Beautifully sequenced, “The Other Side Of Hurt” perfectly describes the inevitable come down, there are no easy answers here. Sean’s, guitar, nudging close to David Gilmour note wringing and vocal perfectly evoke pain and menace over electric piano and percussion that Gil Scott Heron would be proud of. “In The Name Of God” is pure Southern gospel and church music. The most upbeat lyrics on the album, like “Lampedusa” and “Grenfell”, serve the remind us of ourselves at our best. Music to hold hands to. universal truths and reminders that we are better than this. John Lennon’s Imagine, delivered Aretha style by a hot band testifying in a clapperboard church. To end there would be going out on a high, so better that “The Path Into Blue” is a country tinged reflection on depression, being laid bare and integrity. It is a powerful closer with a message of connection and human frailty, ending on a nimble guitar flourish.  Lyrically Sean Taylor is a man of integrity, he delivers heartfelt messages that ground us while also twisting the knife to create discomfort. Wrapped inside richly drawn musical atmospheres conjured by masterful guitar, superb musicians and worldly vocals are reminders of lines that need to be drawn, truths shouted and embarrassments revealed. It is to Sean Taylor’s considerable credit that he balances all this integrity with such superb music that carries rather than simply serving the messages, so it is never sermons or preaching. Made me cry, overwhelmed, at times elated and ashamed within one song. This man is a national treasure and deserves to be listened to, in all senses of the word.

Odette Michell – The Wildest Rose | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.05.19

Odette Michell has a powerful folk rock voice. “The Wildest Rose” a traditional sounding own composition, with huge sounding percussion from Megson’s Stu Hanna and Phil Beer’s expressive fiddle shows off her confident full throttle singing perfectly. “The Banks Of Annalee” a rousing fairy tale is more intimate with wonderfully Celtic sounding whistle and fiddle from Toby Shaer. “Rolling Shores Of England” with Phil on second vocal and “Bless The Ground You Grow On” show off Odette’s beautiful voice perfectly against soft Celtic County Folk accompaniment. There is much to get lost in within Michell’s quiet understatement and nuanced singing on songs like “Dance Me Through The Night.” “Great Old Northern Line”, with a great guitar part mimicking the sound of a train, is another emotionally charged performance and song. “True Lovers Farewell”, like a guitar and voice lift from a 60s Joan Baez album is an absolute masterclass in how to deliver traditional songs and one of the strongest tracks on this fine album. Strong contender for strongest track on the album is the masterpiece “The Eastern Seas”, Odette channels Sandy Denny at her most Psych Folk over Phil Beer’s other worldly fiddle. Rousing and muscular like “The Wildest Rose”, stripped back on “True Lovers Farewell” or dusted with whistles and mist on “I Once Loved A Shepherd” this is an assured album and a great listen with lots of highs and no lows. Whether soaring or soothing Odette Michell is one to watch.

The Mountain Firework Company – The Beggar’s Prayer | Album Review | Fretwork Union | Review by Marc Higgins | 30.05.19

The Mountain Firework Company describe themselves as Celtic bedsit Bluegrass or Irish Mountain Music. Rightly so some fancy juxtaposition of words is needed to describe the relaxed freewheeling mix of warm vocal harmonies, alt country, snappy rhythms and Bluegrass fiddle on their latest album The Beggar’s Prayer. Think Saw Doctors meets Oh Brother Where Art Thou, or kindred spirits to the South Coast’s other good time Folk Country band, Police Dog Hogan. If I found a Wild West Photo, like CSN&Y’s Deja Vu cover, of a beaded band grouped around a horse drawn wagon with The Mountain Firework Company printed on the canvas, then it wouldn’t seem out of place. So both the music and the band have a kind of rich patina and timeless quality. “Like A Fire” and “Spare Change” are tightly played up-tempo romps with the melancholic lyrics of true happy sad country, underpinned by some fine playing. Instrumental “The Fish and The Crow” is achingly beautiful and the interplay between Mike Simmond’s fiddle and the acoustic guitars of Gareth McGahan and Brian Powell crackles with Celtic potent. There is a timeless warmth to the group vocal harmonies on “Refugee” that just says quality, as does the blend into “Ready To Run” the next track. Again the playing is spot on, on this track and indeed the whole album. Lovely Celtic Soul with a classic Van Morrison feel on the looping chorus too. “At The Golden Gate” and “If Only” are still more warm romps, with the band’s distinctive harmonies and infectious Bluegrass playing underpinning some bitter sweet words. “The Beggar’s Prayer” marries blues lyrics with the languid tempo and beautiful fiddle of a Leon Redbone record. “Come Back” has the laid back freewheeling feel of a Fisherman’s Blues Waterboys track, again the band locks into that soulful groove with sweet music and harmonies, while the lyrics drip with sadness and regret. “One More Time” is another blues, delivered as only The Mountain Firework Company can, layers of vocals, finely played guitar atmospheric percussion and wonderful hurdy gurdy.  For every moment of slight tongue in cheek country melancholia, there are as many moments of real insight emotion and integrity. Light sparkling music weaves around some darker lyrics. The tightness of the band vocals enhance McGahan’s distinctive Belfast warm brogue, while the band have that mix of precision and looseness like a well oiled good time music machine.

Curtis Eller’s American Circus – A Poison Melody | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.06.19

One of the most rewarding things about the songs of Curtis Eller, is that they take you to a different time and place to what you’re probably used to. In the past, the banjo-totin’ troubadour has provided us with tickets for an extraordinary trip through the annals of American history, evoking the spirit of the silent movie stars, dead presidents and boxing giants along the way, with the occasional pigeon ‘coo’ thrown in. Like Zelig, you imagine Curtis popping up in Movietone newsreels, appropriately attired in baggy trousers, vest and sneakers; the vaudeville clown with a deeper message, the burlesque entertainer with a pocketful of dreams. A Poison Melody sees Curtis and the American Circus come of age as the songs begin to grow on you from the start, notably “Radiation Poison”, “No Soap Riot” and the daring “After the Riot.” The vibrancy of Eller’s engaging performances are enhanced at every step along the way by the soaring punch of Steve Cowles’ tenor sax, Danny Grewen’s trombone and Danny Abrams’ baritone sax, or Tom Merrigan’s smokey blues piano on “Pay the Band”, not to mention Dana Marks and Stacy Wolfson’s alluring vocals, which effectively weave the soul into all the right places. At the helm though, Curtis Eller, whose expressive banjo licks are plucked and stroked with delicate restraint. The title song itself wouldn’t seem out of place on Tom Waits’ debut Closing Time, it’s superb duet providing the heart to this extraordinarily superb album, whilst the band’s treatment of Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” deserves revisiting again and again, lest we forget.

Alex Seel – Spell on a Tin Drum | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.06.19

Often singer songwriter albums, with no specific points of reference, covers for example, or that old famous guitar player who contributes a solo via email from his Malibu beach house, are sometimes difficult to write about. Then there’s always the sad back story of broken hearts along the road, personal tragedy or that specific lost weekend no one speaks of any more. In the case of Alex Seel’s new album Spell on a Tin Drum, we don’t need to rely on anything other than the songs themselves, which are immediately accessible and thoroughly engaging. Apparently written for the most part in a caravan on the west coast of Ireland, which is probably as good a place as any to come up with this sort of craftsmanship, the nine songs are highly melodic, beautifully arranged and feature some fine contributions, notably Tom White’s bluesy trombone on “Grass is Greener” and Toni Geiling’s sweeping violin/viola accompaniment on the album opener “Take This Guitar.” If identifying an influence or indeed a precedence for Alex Seel’s sound, Tim Buckley’s HAPPY/SAD period springs to mind, especially on “Before the Sun Goes“, the resemblance of which is slightly uncanny. As a dyed-in-the-wool Buckley head, I return to this one a lot, as should you.

Tony Burt – People Watching | Album Review | Mirror Blue | Review by Marc Higgins | 09.06.19

With a seasoned confident voice reminiscent of Mike Harding in singer songwriter mode and well written material drawn from a lifetime of living, Tony Burt is a fine performer. Writing songs and playing in bands since the age of twenty, reinvigorated by composition workshops Tony has only now recorded People Watching his post retirement debut album. Not exactly the usual folk rock n roll ‘Ziggy played guitar’ biog, but with a lifetime’s experience and reflection to draw on Tony doesn’t put a foot wrong. Songs like “Turning My Blind Eye On You”, “Fly Closer To The Sun” and “Devils Diamond” are classic singer songwriter tracks, avoiding cliche and well worn chestnuts. Experience gives confidence to Tony’s singing too and he carries lyrics on “If I Were a Wish” with gravitas and conviction where a lesser or greener voice might stumble or sound fey. Accompanied by Boo Hewerdine and Sitwell Studio’s Chris Pepper, this is the latest in a set of well crafted Hewerdine produced Sitwell Studios albums. Accompaniment by the three musicians is tasteful, understated and entirely suited to the material. The title is no idle boast either, “Monica Is Taller Than Me”, born out of a nostalgic flight of fancy, is a clever mix of well observed details that smack of the real and self-deprecating careful reflection. “The Village” with its harmonium and Burts’ rich voice has the feel of an emotional Roy Bailey classic. Lovely folk club favourite in the making, similarly “JJ’s Bar” with its well oiled club singalong chorus. The title track has a poignancy, with Tony giving names to people, that as a writer, outsider or observer he just watches, extrapolating real sounding imagined lives. Finally with a poet’s symmetry he turns his eye on himself “All human life is there, I wonder what they think of me?” Norman Neasom’s illustration on the cover showing a bar scene, like a darker Beryl Cook, fits the mood of the album perfectly. All in all this is a measured, well constructed set of songs and performances. Tony reckons he has fifty songs written so here’s hoping this is the start of a golden years golden patch.

Paul Anderson – Beauties of the North | Album Review | Fingal Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.06.19

If for you the fiddle is a lively dance Folk instrument played at speed to get feet moving then prepare to be confounded and compelled by Paul Anderson’s Beauties of the North. Recorded over thirteen years in a range of acoustically rich spaces, this is a collection of slow laments and airs from Scotland’s tradition. Not, Paul is quick to point out, a definitive collection of the finest, but some of the ones he enjoys playing. It takes a brave musician to play the fiddle solo, with every nuance out in the open and master musician that Paul is, he rises perfectly on the occasion. The long resonant notes on tunes like “Lament For Sir Harry Niven Lumsden of Auchendoir” or “Fyvie Castle” evoke a sense of space and distance, perfectly fitting the Beauties of the title. There is a savage beauty that describes the light and dark spanning valleys and peaks. Nature’s Celtic chiaroscuro capped with smoky clouds. A few tracks feature George Donald’s falling water drops Steinway piano, or Tony McManus’ beautiful guitar while Paul soars over the top. This is soundtrack music, romantically descriptive and expansive notes summon moods and pictures as surely as Ralph Vaughan Willam’s ascending lark violin motif from classical music, or Sarah-Jane Summers’ Scottish Nordic fiddle playing. Tracks like the romantic “Tap O Noth” are stirring like tentative steps on a Highland path rather than the frenetic pulsing of folk dance this is cerebrally warming beautiful music. With such a long gestation and recording time, change is inevitable and the passing is noted in the sleeve text of pianist George Donald and Alan Spencer instrumental in the recording of this album. Final word is Paul’s “this is without a doubt the finest recording of my own playing I’ve heard and comes closest to capturing what I sound like live.

The Little Unsaid – Atomise | Album Review | Reveal Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 15.06.19

John Elliott, vocalist, songwriter and The Little Unsaid main man has a captivating voice. It’s not a showy diva instrument, but his crooning whisper is compelling, drawing you into the songs. “Human” has the stripped back, melancholic minimal feel of late period Japan, Talk Talk, or a less self consciously difficult Radiohead. A beautiful pop piano ballad crackles with digital flutters and romantic strings. “Screws” is intimate plucked guitar and electronics, building emotionally in intensity. The post John Martyn Tim Buckley strummed acoustic troubadour layered with textures niche is currently a popular one. Neil Halsted, Passenger and a myriad of others drink at that well, but few do it so well. “Story” blends woozy choir vocals, like the final track on Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds, with some highly personal revelatory imagery to make a compelling whole. “Spiderman”, more contemplative Scottish recluse than lycra suited superhero, is another atmospheric piece of poetry, building in intensity. “Music” built round an earworm piano and bass loop is simply stunning. Music is the saviour, more important than stability, monetary measures of success. Like so many tracks in this excellent album the lyrics are full of emotional highly personal images that are charged with power. The title track is a delicate breathy anthem, building from ticking clock drum beat via a compelling vocal to washes of Paranoid Android choral bliss. “Ignited” is another album highlight, imagine The Bends era Radiohead covering Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. Its all chiming resonant acoustic guitar and dark atmosphere as John delivers another stunningly emotional vocal. “Particles” and “Chain” are more ambient, with strings and smouldering understated Guy Harvey like vocals where John repeats a line to build intensity. “Chain” has a thumping ear worm of a bassline as grimy and insistent as the bass woofer of a strip cruising car. “Moonrise” is beautifully layered, managing to sound delicate, gossamer thin and understated with great space at atmosphere. Fans on The Blue Nile, David Sylvian or late Japan will be reaching for the repeat on this track. “Willow” is beautiful urban folk, its percussive bass line is next doors stereo coming up the floor, the imagery is pastoral and ancient while the piano and Elliots beautiful vocal evokes new age folk Clannad or a soulful Enya. This track and this whole album is stunning and over too quickly. Nothing is overdone or overstated there is a kind of ambient intelligent pop template with all the songs coming in around the three or four minutes. Tracks like “Willow” could run on happily to twice that length, enveloping the listener in Ludovico Einaudi soundscapes.

Ferocious Dog – Fake News and Propaganda | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 19.06.19

Ferocious Dog, might be a fiendishly difficulty yoga position, a lewd figure drawing in the Karma Sutra or a hipster brewery. F.D are in fact none of these things, rather they are a bloody good electric band that mixes the hi energy of English Punk with a grimy, non fey folk sensibility. Ferocious Dog have that ‘grin on the face’ musical bounce and swagger of The Levellers, or The New Model Army. Dan Booth’s lively violin and the fact that John Leonard is a one man folk band covering Mandolin, Banjo, Uilleann Pipes and Accordion, means that it’s like Dave Swarbrick formed a spirited 70s version of Fairport Convention with members of Stiff Little Fingers. “Cry Of The Celt” mixes huge electric guitar chords and that rich violin at a driving tempo. The great drum sound, massive bass and driving guitars means the track never let’s up, as Ken Bonsall passionately delivers a tale of the Celtic people. “Traitors Gate” is another powerful frenetic folk punk anthem written from the perspective of the underdog. What sets Ferocious Dog apart is they way they can flip from fury to reflective within the same song, lifting you up and down. “Cover Me” is a poem by Nick Burbridge FD turned into an anthemic song. “Cover Me” describes the journey from miner, to striking miner, to reluctant squaddie, to hunt saboteur, to protest singer living on in the song. It’s a powerful number, driving home the lifelong struggle against inequality. “Fake News” is another powerful protest with truths and dirty lies delivered in a roaring hi energy storm of a performance. Protest was never this vital and musically alive. “Lacy-Lee”, with vocals from Chantelle Barrow, is a gentler folk ballad. It’s a song about not giving up hope and never giving up, written by Dan Booth for his daughter. His vocals contrast well with Chantelle’s in the albums “Battle Of Evermore” moment and his violin is a triumph. Landscape Artist is a co-write with Jeremy Cunningham of The Levellers. It’s a surreal war cry and an anthem for the built on, smothered landscape, captured by the critical eye of the artist. Unlikely subject matter continues in “Up All Night”, when playful humour about the troublesome ageing bladder is wrapped around some disquiet about Brexit. After the furious “Up All Night”, “Justice For 96” is a powerful but poignant song for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. “Bedlam Boys” is a raucous energetic riot, a Folk Punk take on the traditional song. Energetic and as a raw as the early 70s Steeleye Span version. The rattling roaring energy of The Pogues. “Yellow Feather” could be Ferocious Dog’s “Meet On The Ledge” or “One Day Like This.” An upbeat anthemic song with some thoughtful life lesson lyrics and a chorus that a festival crowd can roar and get moist eyed to. Underpinned by some captivating playing Ferocious Dog present a vital, hot blooded music that infuses Folk with that 80’s Peace Convoy raggle taggle Punk spark, vim and vigour. They make you think, make you look again at the ordinary and everyday with an album that makes you jump up and down, it fills you with righteous fire and leaves you on an upbeat note.

The Dovetail Trio – Bold Champions | Album Review | GR! Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 21.06.19

Right the start there is a purity and grace to The Dovetail Trio. The beautifully layered voices on “The Light Dragoon”, guitar and duet concertina, with moments where the band swells to a choir are just delightful. “Black Eyed Susan” and “The Wreck Of The Northfleet” are sublime exercises in harmonising unaccompanied voices. It’s never showy or flashy, but it is always perfectly judged. “Bold Keeper” is a furiously paced song, with the rich sounding concertina, and spry guitar evoking the spirited chase. “A Broadside” features Jamie Robert’s nimble and dexterous guitar with the group vocals that the trio do so well. Rosie Hood’s striking voice is to the fore on The Dovetail Trio’s beautiful version of “Death And The Maiden” and their rousing “Bold Champions.” Delicate and reflective by comparison is the cautionary tale of “Flower Of London” and the perfectly delivered “Two Sisters.” As with the rest of the album the interplay between the voices is just a delight, hanging in the air alongside Jamie’s guitar and Matt’s snarling concertina drone. “The Old Churchyard” is an exercise in hymn like intensity and poise. Rosie delivers a stunning lead vocal, supported by Matt and Jamie voices. “Four and Twenty Fiddlers” is a knotty addition live track, a considerable reminder that the trio can walk the walk live, without any possibility of studio buff n shine safety net. The final full stop on an album that manages to be both consistently impressive and a great listen. Mention must be made of the perfect recording by Tom A Wright at Powered Flight Music. Voices have presence and sit in space, while Matt Quinn’s Duet Concertina bubbles and roars with life and energy.

Felix Hatfield – Boundaries | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 27.06.19

Felix Hatfield’s biog describes him in terms of a Renaissance Man, but one imagined by Black adders Baldrick and Brecht. Real or imagined the idea of him sculpting with discarded objects, painting with concocted tinctures between strumming the guitar, creating for himself foremost and everyone else secondarily, is a compellingly romantic one. Bohemian, musician and artist existing outside of formal rules is a heady CV. Hatfield’s voice is like a favourite leather jacket, it’s a little worn with character and patina, it’s lived a life and wraps comfortably around you. The title track is a melancholic folk blues with Felix accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. Like a field recording the voice is back in the mix, delivering a country love song. “I Love You Blues” adds a train song harmonica to the strummed blues guitar. Felix, sounding frail and life worn delivers a superb self deprecating. This is no by numbers ‘baby’ mass produced blues, this is real life, packed full of emotion and humanity. “The Day I Cried In Your Car” is like a Hank Williams song delivered by Gothic Folk surrealists The Handsome Family. The closely miked guitar is well recorded and Hatfield’s lyric describes life with a dryly melancholic eye. “Roll On” is another beautifully bleak derelict postcard. Some of the imagery and rhymes are like Country Syd Barrett, but like the madcap there is a charm and innocent grace in Felix’s ode to keeping moving. “Take Care Of That Ass Darlin’.” For anyone who thinks only beautiful people with perfect lives populate songs, offering us saccharin voyeuristic fantasies. This is a song written about real people and real life by someone sitting half dressed on an unmade bed squinting at the day through a headache. Again the imagery is real life personal, rendered with affection. “Lion” is as stripped back and resonating as anything on the Rick Rubin Johnny Cash albums. Felix’s voice breathes the strangely erotic words with a crackle over a buzzing guitar. “Sex Addiction” mixes the ordinary and the strange, finding a Country song melancholia in dealing with an over active partner. Unique, strange to the last moment, part Townes Van Zandt, part Jake Thackray, Felix Hatfield let’s loose with a personal voice in musical field of acoustic performers singing ordinary songs about ordinary people.

Daria Kulesh – Earthly Delights | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 09.07.19

Daria Kulesh has a confident, distinctive voice. She and the band dance through the classic Folk Rock of “Golden Apples.” Low and beguiling or full throated and huge her voice and the music reminded me of Vikki Clayton. “Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood” is a more intimate delight. Daria’s rich voice and accompaniment from Johnny Dyer’s guitar and her own shruti box took me straight back to the 60s albums of Judy Collins. You must hear this track, quite possibly worth the price of the album on its own. “Shame Or Glory” mixes music hall piano and swagger with a bit of knowing world weary Mary Coughlan. This song, driven by Marina Osman’s fine piano and Daria’s fine timing, a hymn to ambition outstripping ability, is another album highlight. The title track is lyrically rich, a set of lessons on acceptable excess to live by, beautifully delivered by Kulesh and band. “Rusalka” is a song of temptation, delivered like a lullaby with Daria and Marina’s piano. Washes of voices build a mystical classical musical mist that put me in mind of Katie Melua’s “Little Sparrow.” “Vasilisa” and “Morozko” written by Kulesh, but based on Russian tales, crackle with the passion and smouldering power of classic folk ballads, building to layered atmospheric masterpieces. “Cap And Bells” marries words by Yeats to a tune by Joseph Sobol as against beautiful piano and hammer dulcimer Daria delivers this love song with restrained passion and power like a current day Sandy Denny. “Pride of Petravore” by Percy French is a tongue twisting lyric delivered here over a dance rhythm and tune, shaking the bones after the run of reflective songs. “Made of Light” is another anthemic composition by Daria, hymn like in its delivery and arrangement. Jonny Dyer’s wonderful trumpet adds a touch pastoral England. Some things are constants, where ever and when ever you are. So it is with “Greedy King” a Russian joke, and the historic fable of The Wise Men Of Gotham. Wonderful ringing percussion and bagpipes give a decidedly medieval feel, but the tale of the poor being milked dry by the rich with an escape into make believe and fantasy is chillingly current. This album, with its rich music, Daria’s striking voice and its European take on Folk Music is at times rousing, mystical and meditative and consistently a pleasure from start to finish.

Calum Martin – Imrich | Album Review | Leum Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 24.07.19

Imrich (immigration), is Calum Martin’s 7th studio album, released forty years after the first release by his band Island Express. The album with its central theme of emigration draws its sound from this long career and musicians from around the globe. “Chi mi Bhuam” has a kind of Gaelic Country feel, with Hugo Lee’s Saxophone and Martin’s guitar shadowing each other to great effect. Calum delivers a fine vocal on “Na Ar Baile”, Konstantin Tomov’s violin sounds decidedly pipe like and the whole effect is rather lifting and ethereal. That uplifting feel continues on the glorious “Monsieur Grenier’s Waltz.” It dances and waltzes like a 21st Century Albion Dance Band. The tune carried by Fraser Fifield’s very sweet sounding Saxophone, Yves Lamberts accordion and the excellent Ross Ainslie’s pipes. Ainslie’s playing features prominently on “Cutting The Trees / He Sona Ho Sona.” The wonderfully atmospheric ensemble vocals are an album highlight. Calum is a master of writing and arranging with the layering of Saxophone, Fiddle, Cello and vocals on “Cha Chluinn mi ‘n Tràigh” especially being a thing of wonder and beauty. Not being a Gaelic speaker myself the words are loaded with mystery, but the arrangement and playing just builds that atmosphere too. “Le Destin de Donald” features the rich vocal of Yves Lambert with accompaniment by his trio and is powerful stuff. “The Tolsta Road”, with programming by Uri Avi and Lorne Macdougall’s pipes, is another step sideways as misty and electronic as the best of Niteworks. It is a testament to Calum’s writing, arranging and lightness of touch that some many disparate musicians weave together into such a cohesive and well woven whole. “O Mhàiri e Mhàiri” is a traditional song, beautifully sing and played. Once again the Cello, Fiddle, Saxophone and Whistles twine together so atmospherically, Chamber Gaelic Folk is definitely a thing. “Dr John Smith of Breasclete”, opening with Ross Ainslie’s pipes, blows away any chilled reverie, insistent piping and electronics as exotic as The Afro Celt Sound System are a call to get up and move. “Macleod’s Crossing”, is a classic tune written by Martin that keeps you that movement going. “Mairi” with Scott Neubert’s plaintive mandolin is another Gaelic Americana number sung by Calum closing the album in reflective mode. This is a, finely crafted, thoughtfully played and arranged album. Calum is a fine singer and writer, has great taste in supporting players and the vision to put together something beautiful.

Buford Pope – The Waiting Game | Album Review | Unchained Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.07.19

Mikael Liljeborg, otherwise known as Buford Pope, hails from Gotland, an isolated Swedish Island in the Baltic Sea. Raised on a diet of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Neil Young, whose influence is evident here, especially on the Young inspired “Hey Hey Aha”, Buford Pope’s prolific output is beginning to stretch beyond his well explored European stomping ground. This latest collection of a dozen self-penned songs, points towards a more mature period of creativity, the mandolin-led “Hard Life” reminiscent of Steve Winwood’s return to form in the mid-1980s, contrasting with the gritty blues of “A Hundred and Ninety-Nine” to the delicate rendering of both “Can I Be There For You” and “Tell Me What I Am”, each of which demonstrates a decidedly tender side of Pope’s writing. With Mark Drake sharing a writing credit on the opening song “America”, The Waiting Game is pretty much Buford Pope through and through.

Dan Korn and Joe Sharp – Polaris | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.07.19

There’s something delicate and dreamy about the songs of Dan Korn, decidedly whimsical in places, “Idaho” and “Women in Love” for instance, then strangely emotive in others. Delivered in a fragile, almost whispered manner, there’s a consistency to the duo’s simple arrangements, just guitar and double bass with some additional percussion in places. Joe Sharp’s bass lines are both empathetic and understated, as are his harmony vocal parts. The classically trained musician also contributes two of his own original songs, “For Love” and “The Promise”, both seamlessly dove-tailed alongside Dan’s lion’s share of the writing. This is the sort of album you could take into a quiet solitary space and not come out for a while.

Katie Doherty and the Navigators – And Then | Album Review | Steeplejack | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.07.19

With a vocal timbre reminiscent in places of Nancy Kerr, the Newcastle-based Teessider Katie Doherty explores her own self-penned songs with a voice made to do magical things. The arrangements are beautifully traversed by Katie’s lead collaborators, Shona Mooney (The Shee) on fiddle and Dave Gray (Världens Band) on melodeon, whose empathetic playing and collective craftsmanship weave around Katie’s voice in a most versatile and informed manner. Even during the one non-original track “Polska”, a traditional instrumental, Katie’s ethereal voice permeates, bringing with it a sense of the ‘otherworldly.’ At the piano, Katie emotes in rich swathes of melodic grace, notably on the delightful “Heartbeat Ballroom” and in particular, the uplifting “We Burn”, which features the cast of Beyond the End of the Road, bringing the album to a close. This is an album that won’t be filed away on the shelf, not for a good while yet.

Gavin Sutherland – A Traveller’s Tales | Album Review | Self Release | Self Release | 27.07.19

It’s still difficult to hear the name Gavin Sutherland without being instantly reminded of such engaging melodies as “Love on the Moon”, “Midnight Rendezvous” or the lilting “Lifeboat”, along with elder brother Iain’s highly melodic “When the Train Comes”, “Moonlight Lady” and most memorably, “Arms of Mary”, during the Sutherland Brothers’ creative peak. I say ‘creative peak’, but perhaps that should be amended to ‘peak of their popularity’, as the two musicians, now into their autumn years, are still creating fine songs. A Traveller’s Tale is Gavin Sutherland’s sixth solo album to date and once again builds on a prolific catalogue of fine self-penned songs, created in quite a different way to those memorable SB&Q LPs of the 1970s. The internet provides new opportunities for communicating between musicians and the dozen songs here eloquently demonstrate that the distance in miles can be reduced to a matter of millimeters when using current studio technology. Those musicians, which include Seattle’s Nancy K Dillon, together with Heidi Browne, Dave Sutherland and Nick Zaka, offer fine contributions to each of the songs, delivered in Gavin’s now familiar, almost JJ Cale-like growl. The swampish vocal sounds are so authentic that “Wheels are Rolling” and “The Bend in the River” could be mistaken for something recorded in Muscle Shoals, rather than on the north-east coast of Scotland.

Michael Walsh – Quarehawk | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 28.07.19

Any ambiguity we might have surrounding the definition of the word ‘quarehawk’ is almost immediately resolved as this Manchester-born, now Sheffield-based musician sets out his manifesto midway through the title track, a set of three tunes with a spoken interlude in the middle. It’s bold, it’s liberating, and it’s joyous in its delivery, “I am the one whose head dances to a different beat”, he tells the listener before he goes any further. “I am the boy who could be a girl, I am that little boy who plays with dolls”, he continues, with unwavering boldness. He’s also “the fluter who wants to play slow” and it’s while playing his wooden flute and indeed his tin whistle, that we begin to completely understand the uniqueness of this ‘English cousin’, as he sets out to show us his Irish roots. The tunes are rich in atmosphere, brilliantly performed and sincerely delivered. “The Visitor” is a beautiful meditation on loss and reflection, spoken in a tender, yet completely honest voice, as poet Mike Garry’s gentle and dignified words dance upon the sound of a traditional air, “An Buachaillín Donn” or “The Brown Haired Boy.” By way of contrast, the Armagh-born singer Ríoghnach Connolly joins Michael on the stunning “Shores of Lough Bran”, together with some delicious harmony vocals courtesy of Bryony Griffith, reminding us once again that the Irish quite possibly have the all best tunes around. Other influences are explored such as the Asturian music of Western Spain, notably the lively “Barralin/Pasucáis de uviéu”, as well as being reunited with old friend, the Basque master of the Trikitixa, Kepa Junkera on the title piece together with the bonus ‘party mix’ of the same tunes. Bookended by a couple of tunes “Marian’s Favourite” and “Crowley’s Reel”, recorded live to a vinyl lathe, adds a touch of authenticity to the music on the album, reminding us of the past and as Michael tells us in the sleeve notes, “Don’t touch those knobs! It’s all about the crackle.” Standing in an alleyway, illuminated by the beam of a streetlight, lipping his flute and gazing up at the stars, we are provided with a twilight image that pretty much sums up the charm of this highly individual musician and the music on this album is a reflection of that in spades.

Chris Rawlins – Bring on the Rain | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.07.19

The high rise cluster of buildings on the cover of Chris Rawlins’ debut album suggests an adopted home of urban Chicago, though having spent many years developing his craft in New York, this singer songwriter actually began his journey in the wonderfully named Kalamazoo in Michigan some years before. Despite the stark inverted urban landscape, the songs have a surprising gentleness and simplicity to them, each delivered in a relaxed, almost reflective manner. Surrounded by a handful of choice musicians, notably Brian Wilkie on pedal steel, the songs lean towards tender country fare, though there are moments when Rawlins’ love of jazz is apparent, such as on “Leave.” Recorded in Chicago and produced by Steve Dawson, Bring on the Rain points positively in the direction of good things ahead for this new artist.

Nancy Kerr & James Fagan – An Evening With | Album Review | Little Dish Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 26.08.19

Recorded at two consecutive sell out shows in Sheffield and rural Hertfordshire, An Evening With Nancy Kerr & James Fagan is a chance to hear a powerful duo in their favourite environment. It also represents something of a 22 year retrospective, with some frequently requested songs from the duos previous albums, while also including never recorded live favourites and some new Kerr compositions. One of those “Broadside” is a powerful song about the most brutal engagement between two warships. Nancy is in fine spirited voice and James delivers muscular percussive guitar. The song emerged, Nancy says, from melodic interplay during the Elizabethan Session with Martin Simpson and John Smith. The version here is given a dramatic feel by James and Nancy, comparison between the two versions is interesting. “I Am The Fox”, written for James by Nancy features James’ lead vocal and Nancy Kerr’s expressive and sometimes otherworldly violin, again the song shows us the dark side of folk, entering a world of reprisal, retribution, reckoning and equality. “Kitchen Dance” is infectious dance music with a wonderful Eastern European flavour, close your eyes and there is definitely more than four hands and two instruments, that is how tight and in twinned the players are. Nancy’s striking version of “Barbara Allen” was passed from Sandra Kerr, folk singer and Nancy’s mother. “The Herald of Free Enterprise” about the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, written by the amazing Robb Johnson is by turns poignant and biting with James stirring vocal and a ‘lump in the throat’ audience vocal. This track is respectfully dedicated to Roy Bailey who also performed the song and who died three days before these recordings. You can hear, I think, a touch of Bailey’s gentle outrage and burr in Fagan’s delivery. Either way, it’s a stunning track and the audience chorus with James’ guitar and Nancy’s violin makes you wish you were there. There is the same intensity to “Lovers Of Us All.” “Fragile Water” is an album standout charming love song, atmospheric and a testament to how much you can build with just two musicians and two voices. Further evidence is provided by the swooping tune set “Australian Waltzes”. The glorious “Anderson’s Coast” and rousing “Dance To Your Daddy” are frequently requested tracks from their five previous albums. “Mr Weather” again with wonderful massed vocals and a bit of a “Meet On The Ledge” feel topically mentions the recently fought over and defended trees of Sheffield. Soothing, rousing and righteous in one song. A captivating album by a powerful act who confidently show how far you can go with the acoustic duo. A fifteen track advert for the live Nancy Kerr and James Fagan and a reminder to go and see them.

Sam Baker – Horses and Stars | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.09.19

Sam Baker’s story has often been told, a terrorist attack survivor, a lone troubadour and a passionate storyteller with a difference. Singer songwriters often have the luxury of inhabiting fictional characters in their songs whilst also eloquently telling the truth about themselves at the same time. Sam’s songs tell us that his own reality has come at great personal cost, some of which is reflected here in a sparse and clutter free setting. For Sam’s first live album, those life experiences come to us in a most direct manner, before an almost silent audience. Though it sounds pretty much an empty space judging by the sparse applause, there is still much electricity evident in the room, this particular room being the Event Center in Buffalo, New York. Recorded back in July 2018, the songs were never intended for release, being just another in a series of recordings made for the sole purpose of listening back, just to see how it went. The dozen songs are familiar and delivered with passion, a lone voice accompanied by an electric guitar, a bit of harmonica and the occasional percussive stomp. In a way, Horses and Stars just might be a good starting place for those not yet touched by this unique performer’s songs, such as “Broken Fingers”, “Angel Hair” and “Same Kind of Blue.”

Vera Van Heeringen – Won’t Be Broken | Album Review | Wood and Steel Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.09.19

If ever I’m fortunate enough to be at a festival with Vera Van Heeringen on the bill, I always stick around for her entire set, regardless of who might be appearing on the other stage. I always find her sets easy to settle into, which no doubt has something to do with her distinctively warm voice, her command over both guitar and mandolin and her unique stance as a first rate wordsmith. As a former member of the New Rope String Band, notable for their completely bizarre slapstick humour, Vera always came over as the female equivalent of Buster Keaton, her stoic expression effortlessly bringing joy to the audience. Here though, we see a completely different side of Vera’s multitude of talents, and on this her third solo album, which follows the equally impressive Standing Tall (2011) and Proper Brew (2015), the Dutch singer songwriter continues to show remarkable skill, whilst placing herself at the forefront of the growing tradition of transatlantic acoustic musicians.  We really need look no further for proof of Vera’s exceptional song writing  credentials than with the opening song “Gods”, which eloquently explores the changes we could make if only we were of a more divine nature. There’s pain within the lyrics, each adhering to a searching quality, unafraid to take a peek into the dark side, “Man with a Gun” for instance, which demands repeat plays. Stylistically, Vera and her faithful collaborators, Dave Luke on guitar and mandolin and Andy Seward on both electric and double bass, maintain a now familiar new bluegrass sensibility, with a brief ‘toe-in-the-Bayou’ moment on “Blankets”, where Dirk Powell and Jock Tyldesley’s accordion and triangle take us immediately to the swamps of Louisiana for a perfect conclusion to Vera Van Heeringen’s best album yet. Won’t Be Broken is perhaps a reflection of her engaging live appearances, the songs demand your attention throughout and coming in at just over half an hour, it’s hardly a big ask, so afford yourself the time and you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Kae Shelby – Music and Motorcycles | Album Review | Willow Sound Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.09.19

With an interesting backstory, including her career as an Ottawa law enforcement officer, the Ontario-based singer songwriter Kae Shelby returns to her first love, writing and performing quality songs. After serving a period as one half of the duo DanahKae with musical partner Danah-Lee Krieger, Kae goes solo with the release of her debut album Music and Motorcycles, the title inspired by the optimistic road song “My High, My Way.” The album shimmers with soulful rock ballads, including the highly radio friendly “Waiting for When” and the bluesy “Through the Reckless”, a song influenced by the relationship between Kae and her own father, which is both tender and highly emotive at the same time. There’s a subtle confidence ingrained in the eight predominantly self penned songs, with a couple of covers, Melissa Etheridge’s “Late September Dogs” and Brad Paisley’s “When I Get Where I’m Going”, both of which dovetail neatly between Kae’s originals. With North Easton on guitar, producer Anders Drerup on additional guitar, as well as sharing backing vocal duties with Kelly Prescott, the album maintains an intimate, uncluttered feel. There may be sadness here, but that sadness is offset by a resilient spirit and an inspirational drive.

TMSA – Young Trad Tour 2018 | Album Review | TMSA | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.09.19

Ensemble performances by the finalists and winners of last year’s BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Competition. As opportunities arise for our younger musicians, a spirit of unity supersedes a spirit of competition and the ten selections here demonstrates that unity perfectly well. With some outstanding musicianship and confident vocal performances, Hannah Rarity, Rory Matheson, Amy Papiransky, Alexander Levack, David Sedden, Luc McNally and Charlie Stewart shine under the directorship of Anna Massie. Selecting from a deep well of both traditional and original material, including songs from the pens of Amy Papiransky, Brian McNeill and Findlay Napier, both songs and tunes are treated to fine arrangements, each musician’s contribution demonstrating startling maturity.  The TMSA (Traditional Music and Song Association) of Scotland was established over fifty years ago and as a membership organisation continues to nurture new and exciting talent from north of the border. The voice of last year’s winner Hannah Rarity is represented here with a fine performance of Brian McNeill’s “Strong Women Rule Us All”, whilst Rory Matheson’s fingers walk all over the keyboard with Scott Skinner’s “The Mathematician”, but it’s the ensemble pieces such as the traditional “Tae the Beggin’” that demonstrates the collective’s chops best.

Oh Susanna – Johnstown | Album Review | Continental Song City | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.09.19

It’s hard to believe that twenty years have passed since the initial release of Oh Susanna’s debut album Johnstown at the back end of the last Millennium. Suzie Ungerleider began her musical journey four years earlier in the mid-Nineties, with the launch of the Canadian singer songwriter’s debut EP following shortly afterwards. A year later, five acoustic songs emerged as A Shot of Oh Susannah, each of which would later appear in more polished form on this album, included here as bonus tracks. Johnstown was always a bold statement that showcased Oh Susanna’s burgeoning prowess as a credible songwriter with a convincing voice to match, a sort of Patti Smith attitude delivered via Emmylou Harris tonsils. Produced by Peter J Moore (Cowboy Junkies, The Band), Johnstown has barely dated in the intervening years, in fact it sounds as fresh today as it did upon its initial release. Songs like “Alabaster”, “Old Kate”, “You’ll Always Be” and the title song mark Oh Susanna as one of Canada’s most convincing folk voices around today and the reissue of this landmark album reminds us of this fact all over again.

Sunday Morning – Four | Album Review | Bronson Recordings | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.09.19

Sunday Morning are a four piece band from Cesena in Italy. The succinctly named Four follows acclaimed Let It Burn. Most of the album was written while founder member and principal writer Andrea Cola was working alongside Daniel Lanois at Esplanade Studios in the Treme District of New Orleans. Four is a soundtrack to a road trip through the American Southwest. The songs and the sound is bigger, slower and more richly coloured than the bands earlier release as that journey and time spent in the US permeates through.  “If I Go” opens with drone, gains some superb drums, passionate vocals and is, all over that snappy Southern rock of The Kings Of Leon, only better. The smoulder and passion of the vocal is heightened by the sparse arrangement and sense of space like Daniel Lanois period U2. “Broken Arms” and “Waste My Time” burns and thump and snarl like Steve Earle roaring his way through “Transcendental Blues.” The Americana vibe continues through the roots rocker “May Your Heart.” “Power” filters that Sunday Morning intelligent rock through a kind of 80s nu wave early Pulp vibe. The jangling guitars, insistent drums and upbeat vocals create a real ear worm of a song. “Dreamer” is a glorious 70s homage big ballad, the guitar echoes classic ELO, the lush vocals and glam rock guitar solo hark back to classic Rock and will have any lovers of that period. “Can’t Stand Still” is a brilliant rock song with a Tom Petty edge as the words are sneered or spat out over some raw guitar. “We Were Wrong” delivers intimate vocals over lofi Americana on a beautiful album highlight. “Prove It” is the anthemic, long form, big hitter to end. Like the rest of the rest of the album the playing is sophisticated and production is spot on, on one of those ‘wave your phone light about’ slow tempo moments. This is an album made by a band aiming for the big league, this is an album that sounds like it was recorded by a band who were in the big league.

Annie Keating – Can’t Stand Still | Album Review | 8th Street Studios | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.09.19

A spirit of movement is captured in six songs on Annie Keating’s new mini-album Can’t Stand Still, very much reflected in the blurry walking feet and topsy turvy title on the album cover. It’s almost as if we were already prepped for the instant vibrancy of “Beholden”, which opens the record, its gutsy electric guitar lick courtesy of Dan Mills, who co-wrote this and three other songs on the record. “Beholden” captures our attention immediately, which is further maintained in the following five songs, notable the punchy $20 and the groove-laden “Mother of Exile”, curiously reminding me of “Oops.. I Did It Again”, which I don’t necessarily think of as a bad thing; I’ve always believed that Britney had all the best melodies, even if her lyrical content left a lot to be desired! Finally, the mini-album concludes with a faithful reading of “Trouble”, one of the songs written by a recuperating Cat Stevens in the late Sixties after being treated for a collapsed lung, which in this case is delivered in a more familiar, vulnerable, almost fragile Annie Keating vocal.

Amy and Gavin Davenport – A Boat of Promises | Album Review | Hallamtrads | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.09.19

This is the first outing on record for the husband/wife team of Amy and Gavin Davenport (Albion Band, Crucible), though they’ve been singing together for a good while. Both come from families known for their singing and therefore it was only a matter of time until the duo produced their own debut album. Like their Sheffield-based pals Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, the duo sing and write their own songs with further emphasis on the reworking of both traditional and contemporary material, both singing throughout, with Gavin’s guitar and cittern accompaniment, as well as guest appearances by Tim Yates, Tom Kitching and Jon Loomes.   There’s a strong focus on the sea, emphasised not only in Amy’s evocative cover painting, but also by her background as an experienced tall ship sailor, with fine readings of such songs as Stan Rogers’ “The Jeannie C“, John Connolly’s “The Widowmaker” as well as Gavin’s own “A Boat of Promises”, from which the album takes its title. The duo’s combined singing voices work well together, especially on such songs as “Drowsy Sleeper”, a version of “Silver Dagger” and Archie Fisher’s “The Return“, a sequel to “The Witch of the Westmorland”, yet it’s with such songs as “I’m a-Fading Day by Day” and “Anne Bonnie”, that brings Amy’s surprisingly strong and convincing voice to the fore. Nancy Kerr’s “Droving Dreams” is a fine optimistic opener, given to the duo as they set out on their further adventures, first London and then Liverpool, their current home, a song that I’m sure resonates throughout their lives, whilst serving as their own particular signature. Living in a city with strong connections to both the sea and music, A Boat of Promises could perhaps be seen as an organic continuation of its seafaring history and its strong musical heritage.

Henry Parker – Silent Spring | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.09.19

As someone who, to quote the verse of the sleeve of Stephen Stills first album ‘grew up on strings’, who was listening to the musicians who came out of the 60s clubs and folk revival while still in shorts, it is gratifying to hear the resurgence of players tapping into that mix of freewheeling spirit and dexterity. Henry Parker spent his teenage years in Heavy Metal bands and his twenties self releasing EPs and live CDs. Silent Spring his debut album brims with the spirit of traditional, progressive and psychedelic music that infused the Folk Rock scene of the early 70s. Not that I think that Henry is a revivalist, the singer songwriter guitarist equivalent of the bowler hatred trad jazz musician. For me he is percolating his ideas through his influences, starting from where they were and taking it on. He is spot on with his details, the inner shot of him nods to Nick Drake’s Five Leaves shot and John Renbourn’s debut. The drawn sleeve images reference the illustrative nature of gatefold LP sleeves for Comus, The Trees and a host of other heavy Folk Psych bands. Just the lettering is more contemporary.  The music is a delight as Parker, Theo Travis, Augustin Bousfield,  Brendan Bache, and David Crick more, with an array of guitars, percussion, flutes, double bass, 70s fender Rhodes and other exotic instruments really deliver. The guitar and the flute lines that follow the melody on “New Mantras” have a freewheeling early 70s John Martyn or Traffic feel. Theo Travis, one time member of Gong, Soft Machine and accomplished jazz musician is clearly in pastoral folk Prog mode. “Silent Spring” has the same languid guitar and jazzy percussion, the whole thing shimmers like Tim Buckley, with Henry’s electric guitar flourishes sounding very Blue Afternoon. The lyrics, inspired by Rachel Carson’s chilling book lament the decline in birds and bird song. “False Guidance” and “Days In A Dream” feature some wonderfully spry and fleet fingered guitar and fine vocals. “Sylvie” is a traditional song I will forever associate with Pentangle and Bert Jansch, but Parker’s wonderfully louche drawl suggests Michael Chapman fronting the Folk Jazz Fusion band. “Door Walk Blues” with its upbeat confident vocal and its folk blues guitar sounds in spirit like something off a Davy Graham album, the eastern sounding flourishes, the Terry Cox like percussion. It’s words marking the end of Henry’s metal band days. “Marbled Wren” is a sensitively played instrumental, played with feeling and space around the picked notes. Fans of fingerpicked guitarists like Jansch, Chapman, Renbourn will find themselves going back around this one a few times. The piece is inspired by a walk to work along the Leeds Liverpool canal. Titled for a canal boat he saw, we should be grateful he didn’t pass boaty mcboat face. On “Prospect Of Wealth” Parker’s guitar has that rolling slap rhythm and timing that John Martyn did so well. Parker’s voice, his guitar and the ripples of flute together create a great feel. Henry himself says the heavy atmosphere of the songs can be traced back to his early diet of Ozzy’s Sabbath and Soundgarden, I think its to his credit that his bright uplifting playing can carry the issues and ideas he songs explore without becoming cloying or down. “Willie Of Winsbury” is another song I will forever link with Pentangle and John Renbourn, but Henry’s very lyrical electric guitar intro and the rolling beat create an entirely different atmosphere. When finally the melody appears it is as a medieval but jazzy sounding lead guitar line that is quite beautiful and one of the highlights of the album. The piece’s five minutes pass in a moment and you are left decidedly wanting more. This one is highly recommended.

Sara Grey and Kieron Means – Better Days a Comin | Album Review | Wild Goose | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.09.19

Sara Grey, whose voice has been a familiar sound on the world folk scene over the last half century, is joined here by her son Kieron Means, whose own voice is reminiscent of Doc Watson, which brings a sense of authenticity to this fine collection of both traditional and contemporary songs. Sara’s reputation on the Old Time music scene, both as a fine solo singer and banjo player, as well as a collaborator in her popular duo with Ellie Ellis, is well documented. Those of us who remember the 1980s will remember some of the duo’s engaging shows on the British folk club circuit at the time.   Unsurprisingly, both mother and son sound good together here, their empathetic voices melding like honey. Both Sara and Kieran are steeped in the traditions of American folk music as opposed to what we like to refer to as Americana, which the two musicians are only too keen to point out. With over half a century as a performer behind her, Sara has a rich repertoire to draw upon and on Better Days a Comin, the sixteen songs and tunes showcases the duo’s familial unity, especially on such songs as the lilting “On the Way to Jordan”, from which the album gets its title, the blues-drenched “I Know Those Tears”, the apocalyptic gospel of “When This World is at its End” and the unaccompanied “Away Down the Road.”

Carly Dow – Comet | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.09.19

Canadian musician Carly Dow, writes well crafted songs that hook you in and delivers them in a voice that can be powerful and can be tinged with softness. Comet, following the earlier Ingrained which gathered international acclaim and charted in Canada. It is a little of veer into the new, the smooth angelic sounds of the first album now have edge, a touch of the real and a little glimpse of fire and teeth COMET opens on a blast, “Brightest Time Of The Year’s” stark banjo and striking vocal are Carly Dow, with atmospheric pedal steel and Cello accents washing around her. Both her guitars and voice are a little more strident on the mournful Country of “Sunlight Remembers.” The title track, uses striking hand claps and some classic 50s guitar to create an infectious best that Carly croons and smoulders through. Carly’s vocal on “Tiger’s Eye” just burns, the guitars and banjo are real hairs on the back of the neck stuff. This standout album track is crying out to the fade out track on some dark twisted David Lynch show. The album is, carefully sequenced with “Dreaming Of You” holding that level of intensity. Matt Filopoulos’ rolling electric guitar with that huge sound opens the track, expansive with that Link Wray menace. Carly delivers another superb vocal, still leaving room for a razor sharp guitar solo or two.   The slurred guitar and bass motif on “Like Coyotes” creates great tension and a rumble that Dow’s singing soars over. A gentle shuffle drum beat and tasteful guitar just carry those perfect moments on. The disquiet of the crime scene like “Somethings Lost” spills from the lyrics into Carly’s powerful vocal and edgy banjo notes. “Cut And Run”, a song about giving it all up, features a surprising rolling accordion that softens this quirky and beautiful love song. If “Cut and Run” is a left field love song then “Too Bright” crackles with lust and a slight taste of lust. This is a song about letting go and Carly’s husky tells it perfectly alongside another stratospheric guitar break from Matt. “Constellations” is a wonderfully stark back porch banjo song, sweetened by swells of voices and pedal steel guitar onto a perfect moment below the visible stars. Beautiful close to a striking, well constructed and delightfully delivered album that grows on what came before.

Jake Aaron – Fag Ash and Beer | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.09.19

The opening instrumental on Jake Aaron’s debut album came as something of a surprise, not just because of its title “Elvis Has Left the Building”, but because I didn’t expect such a jazzy Jimmy Smith-styled groove as an opener to an album entitled Fag Ash and Beer. Even though the cover Polaroid perfectly explains the album title, it still betrays the music within. Steve Lodder’s organ sound is straight out of a late Sixties exploitation movie and is surprisingly, just about the only thing like it on the album. The title song that follows immediately afterwards, brings us around to something more like what I expected, something more kitchen sink, with Jake Aaron’s crystal clear acoustic guitar very much to the fore and with an almost spoken vocal, together with a barking dog; this is no ordinary record.   There’s one or two shorter musical interludes between the songs, “For B”, “Allegro”, “Also” and “Late Night Radio”, all of which brings character to the album as a whole, rather than just serving as fillers. “Genevieve Alright” is reminiscent of Seventies Kevin Ayers, whilst “Morning Town” has the jangly resonance of the Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare.” Aaron’s own nod to all things equine, comes at the end with the extended instrumental “Give Me Your Horse”, which features the two Steves, Waterman on trumpet, sparring effortlessly with Lodder’s swirling organ. It’s a mixed bag as Aaron rightly points out, “like rummaging through an antique market.”

I See Hawks in L.A. and the Good Intentions – Hawks with Good Intentions | Album Review | Western Seeds Record Company | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.09.19

The first thing that struck me when I first picked up the sleeve of this record, was just how daunting it must be for an MC or DJ to introduce an outfit with a name made up of a dozen syllables, yet I’m sure this must have happened since the California-based quartet I See Hawks in LA met up with Liverpool duo The Good Intentions. From the banks of the Mersey to the ‘chaparral foothills of the Sierra Madre’, these six musicians have pooled their creative juices for their first collaborative release. Having met whilst Peter Davies and Gabrielle Monk were on a US tour as The Good Intentions, the collective worked up a couple of songs, “White Cross” and “Rolling the Boxcars”, in a Highland Park studio and then added the rest via the internet, a handy tool which effectively makes 5000 miles disappear with a click of mouse. With distance no longer an issue, the ten songs were developed over time with the core of the album written in partnership between Davies, Paul Lacques and Rob Waller, with roots firmly steeped in country music and with instantly accessible melodies throughout. With jaunty sing-along fare such as “Blue Heaven”, “Steel Rails” and “Will You Watch Over Me Now”, Victoria Jacobs’ “Hills on Fire”, written in collaboration with Lacques, adds a touch of something different, a tender performance that somehow seems to be quite out of step with the rest, an album highlight in fact.

The Ale Marys – The Ale Marys | Album Review | Wee Dog Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 12.09.19

A gathering of cowboy hats and pink hair styles hailing from the West, not the west of Tombstone, Dodge City nor indeed Nashville, but rather West Yorkshire, where the husband and wife team of Gerry and Ani McNeice co-write all ten songs on this, the country pop quintet’s debut album release. There’s mellow guitars, with the occasional obligatory ‘twang’ and tasty harmonies, led by Mr McNeice’s warm delivery throughout. The thing that makes this album so easy to listen to is perhaps Dave Turner’s whistle and flute (instruments, not cockney rhyming slang for his dapper attire), which seems to temporarily take us away from the Wharfedale Prairie and to places new.  There’s one or two guest appearances of note, including Michelle Plum’s emotive vocal on “I Walk Alone”, former Yachts/Christians songsmith Henry Priestman on the Joanna, together with the velvet voiced Edwina Hayes on the George Jones influenced “Drinking Again” and David Hartley providing some pedal steel in all the right places. Reflecting the fun of the band’s live set, The Ale Marys ought to congratulate themselves for making an album that raises a smile in these unsmiling days, especially on such songs as “Party”, “The Rest of My Days” and “Easy Fool”, which feels like a return to Ry Cooder’s Chicken Skin Music period. Treat yourself to some infectious Wharfedale High Life, but be sure to wear your stetson with your wellies.

Alice Howe – Visions | Album Review | Know How Music | Review by Marc Higgins | 12.09.19

2017’s You’ve Been Away So Long EP was a strong set of songs and following on, Visions builds nicely on what came before, widening the musical palette revealed on that first set. “Twilight” and “You Just Never Know” are pieces of smooth Folk County. Alice’s voice solo or with backing is spot on and her chiming guitar, tasteful snare drum and double bass hit the spot. “Lovin In My Baby’s Eyes” is a warm version of the Taj Mahal song. Her voice, especially on the chorus has some of Taj’s character, you can also hear the smile. Fuzbee Morse’s electric guitar, lead over Alice’s acoustic is a joy too. “Still On My Mind” is wonderfully soupy, a slow tempo hot night song. The vibrato on Alice’s voice and the strummed acoustic conjured memories of early Tracey Chapman, but the track builds with its organ and twin electric guitars into a piece of Muscle Shoals soul. “What We Got Is Gold”  is pure Acoustic Folk, Alice’s fine voice and rich picked guitar are centre stage, burnished minimalism after the previous track. “Bring It On Home To Me” is a soulful version of the Sam Cooke classic. The dry brass and the ripples of electric piano are Memphis soulful and perfect. Alice is soulful and understated, going to church without going overboard. “Too Long At The Fair” I knew from Bonnie Raitt’s 1972 Give It Up album, although the song is by Joel Zoss. Alice’s folk soul version sits between Bonnie, whose early material is clearly an influence and Zoss’ earthy slurred funkier reading. Again the band and Morse’s guitar especially smoulders and burns. Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee” gets a masterful reading, stripped of Muddy’s metronome steady guitar it becomes a swampy steamy soul joy. Alice does blues perfectly over shuffle drums and that period electric piano like it’s second nature and Morses’ guitar with its Jeff Beck bent notes is heartache personified. “Getaway Car” written by Howe is a blues staple, lines about travel and lots of breakup images, lovely brass stabs, Hammond  organ and a great use of space. Few do out Dylan, when it comes to Dylan, Hendrix’s “Watchtower” sits outside everything else, there are so many versions of “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”, but Howe’s clean, emotional Country version is just lovely. Like her Cooke cover, Alice is understated with her voice, but spot on and the old time harmonies on this grower of a song are just a dream. 2017’s You’ve Been Away So Long EP was a beautiful, perfectly formed bulb, a delight to behold, Vision’s is an opened flower, revealing so much beauty previously only hinted at. Who knows what Alice will do next, whatever it is this is a powerful second step. Choosing a preview track was a real struggle, there are so many different facets and strengths, in the end I plumbed for the track I kept replaying. But don’t go with my choice, buy the album and choose your own favourites.

Mike Vass – Four Pillars | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 13.09.19

This is an album by Mike Vass composer and musician. The Four Pieces is a suite of tunes composed for The Scots Fiddle Festival of 2018. Mike was commissioned to write music on the four major Scottish fiddle tune types, the air, the march, the strathspey and the reel. Four fiddlers play a piece each with Mike playing the march. So this is an album of Mike Vass composer first and performer second. There is something cinematic and emotional about the solo fiddle and Lauren MacColl’s opening to “Air” is definitely that. Solo on the first tune of the set ‘After Years’ or accompanied by a minimal piano and tonal vibraphone this is visceral stuff. Both the first tune and “The Ancient Day” the second piece, featuring a string quartet are transparent and shimmering like the very air itself. The “March” set opens with “A Handful of Dust” played by Vass, while still stirring, as the set type suggests there is more of a pulse or rhythm. The use of loop to swirl the fiddles around us in shifting crossing arcs is just beautiful. “From Regions Far Apart”, second tune of the set has Mike’s ebbing and flowing fiddle over Tom Gibb’s atmospheric icy piano and that fine String Quartet.  Their music manages to have the Folk swing and pulse with stately grace and a little of minimalism’s water drops pulse care of Iain Sandilands’ Vibraphone. Iain’s playing is more forward in the mix and Modern Jazz Quartet jazzy in Patsy Reid’s Strathspey Set. Reid’s fiddle burrs and growls on Vass’ “Thrown Away” duetting with disquieting Vibraphone notes. “Torrent of a Thing” has a little of the earlier swirl and loop and wonderful string swells. It’s Mike Vass’ music, but the character of the different fiddle players comes through and again there is a film music quality. Jenna Reid plays the final Reels. “Frenzy in the Coda” is aptly named, Reid’s fiddle ducks dives and swoops while the other musician dance around in a Steve Reich like pattern. “Under These Notes” is quieter contemplation with beauty in the air and space between the notes and String Quarters measured stately accompaniment. Tom Gibb’s piano comes in with an infectious and beautifully folky spring in its step, surprising us to the end.  Players gathered, the pieces were recorded in a single day at Castlesound studios, a further level of complexity and challenge. If there was pressure it hasn’t transferred to the music, the four sets, nine tunes are as chilled and limpid as Jazz’s Kind of Blue, there is that same sense of time hanging or speeding as the music needs it to, creating perfect moments of mood music. This sits between genres and different people will hear Classical, Folk and even touches of Third Stream or Cool Jazz. Or is it that the four Pillars underpin some many different types of music They are all there to be heard.

Rachel Harrington – Hush the Wild Horses | Album Review | Skinny Dennis Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.09.19

The first thing that hits you when you hear the sound of Rachel Harrington is the hurt in her voice. It seems genuine and real and when you read between the lines and crucially, listen to the lines themselves, it doesn’t take much to find the essence of Rachel Harrington’s heartbreak. During her recent convalescence after suffering exhaustion following some heavy duty touring, the Oregon-based singer songwriter took some time out to recharge, rescue a couple of horses, mourn her grandmother’s passing and write some songs.  Hush the Wild Horses is Rachel’s fifth studio album and features eleven remarkable songs that cover a range of topics, from war, addiction, childhood abuse to horses of course. Tipping her cowboy hat to her songwriting hero Guy Clark, Rachel taps into Clark’s unique craft and writes a song, along with Mandolin Hooper (great name), which could easily have come from the master songwriter’s pen. “Susanna” serves as a fine tribute to two much missed figures on the music scene. Bookended by two songs based on our equine friends, “Hush the Wild Horses” and “If Wishes Were Horses” focus on Rachel’s most recent project, the care and protection of two horses, both of which were heading for a grim fate. If anything can pull an ailing songwriter through recovery, then wild horses are possibly hard to beat.  Rachel approaches difficult subjects with an almost tangible sense of Cathartic determination, “Child of God” not only touches upon, but pounds with an iron fist the subject of childhood abuse, whilst “Save Yourself” serves as a heartfelt reach out to her meth-addicted brother. Despite almost forty-five years since the end of the Vietnam War, the effects are still being felt, not only by the veterans themselves but also the people around them. “Mekong Delta” is a tender reflection, inspired by the letters left by an uncle who committed suicide upon his return from South East Asia. This is an album that really tugs on the heartstrings.

Rod Picott – Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil | Album Review | Welding Rod Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 14.09.19

This is as intimate as it gets with Rod Picott wearing his heart very much on his sleeve, courtesy of a dozen songs recorded in the rawest of forms, one man, one guitar and a bit of haunting harmonica. Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil doesn’t for one second set out to masquerade as a polished album, but strives to present itself as an infinitely more honest record of his feelings, stripped down to basics. The subjects raised benefit from this paired down record, with an emphasis on every single syllable uttered, rather than worrying oneself about a bit of tuned percussion over here in this channel.  “I lost a couple of high notes from the top of my voice” is a fine opening line, which not only reflects all the moaning Picott has apparently been doing, but also a reflection of his age (early 50s). There’s a sense that the Maine-born, now Nashville-based songwriter is having a good old hard look at himself after a recent health scare. Rod looks back and reminisces about childhood, helping his father bail out their flooded cellar in “Bailing”, the harsh reality of suicide – his own as suggested in “A 38 Special and a Hermes Purse” as well as that of a childhood peer “Mark” whose short life ran parallel to the Kennedy assassination and key moments in The Beatles’ story, together with a meditation on Rod’s place among a lineage of testosterone-fueled fighters in “Mama’s Boy.”  Written for the most part by himself, with three of the songs co-written by Slaid Cleaves “Mama’s Boy”, Ben de la Cour “A Beautiful Light” and Stacy Dean Campbell “80 John Wallace”, who presumably provide all those important finishing touches, the songs on Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil shows us an artist holding a mirror up, all of which he will no doubt share as he takes to the road again, reminding us that it “still beats the hell out of hanging sheetrock.” Amen to that.

Amy Speace – Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.09.19

As a former Shakespearean actor, Amy Speace is grounded in the art of bringing stories to life and with the eleven songs on Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne, the Baltimore-born songwriter does precisely that. Often the songs deliver heart wrenching messages in an almost matter-of-fact manner, such as the the achingly melancholy “Ginger Ale and Lorna Doones”, which has no room tears, no heartbreak, just an overwhelming sense of emptiness, where no words are necessary, just a hand to hold. “Pretty Girls” is a meditation on the sort of hopeless envy that plagues the plain among us, with all the unfairness that comes with it and bravo to Amy for even going there.  Written with Jon Vezner, “Back in Abilene” revisits the early 1960s, whilst evoking the despair felt as Walter Cronkite delivers the impassioned news bulletin he’s most remembered for, as life goes on 180 miles to the west of Dallas. All these songs are powerful in their own individual way, with unfussy arrangements and empathetic musicianship from all involved. If Ben Glover’s gorgeous lullaby “Kindness” is a perfect closer, delivering an optimistic message, then the title song “Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne” is the perfect opener, a gentle piano and voice song with almost subliminal strings that builds to something worthy of any torch-lit stadium audience, a beauty of a song that confirms Amy’s credentials as one of America’s most underrated voices at the moment.

Session Americana – North East | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 16.09.19

It’s probably unusual to come across an album made up of songs from such diverse sources as James Taylor, The Pixies, Tom Rush, Jonathan Richman and Donna Summer, unless that is, you consider the geographical area from which all these artists came. New England is a melting pot of styles every bit as important as other notable musical areas of the United States and it’s by bringing these styles together that some of this can immediately be seen. The musicians at the core of Session America are joined here by a handful of singers and musicians to help breathe new life into some familiar and not so familiar songs from the Northeast, hence the album’s title. Fading in with a faithful reading of James Taylor’s “Riding on a Railroad”, which could quite easily be James Taylor, the songs take us on a journey through the past, with several voices adding spice to the main course.  Produced by Kris Delmhorst and Ry Cavanaugh, Northeast informs us that the roots of Americana are still a vibrant force in this particular area, and in a way echo the sort of thing explored in the late 1960s just outside Saugerties; although rather than plowing the tradition as in the case of The Band, these musicians are very much focused on contemporary songwriters from the Massachusettes and New Hampshire areas over the past half a century. One or two of those musicians are no longer with us, Morphine’s Mark Sandman for instance, whose song “The Night” is given a convincing melancholy reading by Ali McGuirk, whilst Donna Summer’s “Dim All the Lights” is treated to an Axl Rose vocal courtesy of John Powhida, offering a change rather than a rest. It’s perhaps with performances such as Jennifer Kimball’s reading of Patty Griffin’s “Goodbye” though, that gives this particular collection its heart.

Niall Mc Guigan – Spiritual Anarchy | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 17.09.19

As a practicing music therapist from Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, specialising in medical ethnomusicology, it stands to reason that Naill Mc Guigan should explore a wide range of musical influences, including Mongolian throat singing and mandolin-led folk rock, which filters in through this latest collection of songs. Spiritual Anarchy looks at the world around us in trying times, and investigates spirituality and its place in today’s society.  If “Butterfly” feels as if it could have been recorded in the midst of late 1960s psychedelia, both in its symbolism and arrangement, with a solid rock base and Incredible String Band/Dr Strangely Strange interludes, “I See” lends it’s feel more to U2, though once again, the arrangement calls for a change in tempo midway through, providing some dreamy fiddle which adds to the meditative refrain. The retro feel continues through to the concluding song “Mother Father”, which is reminiscent of Steve Miller’s “Journey From Eden” in part, as well as the otherworldly meditations of the young Syd Barrett. Poised to award Spiritual Anarchy just three stars, “Saoirse” came along, showed her face and tipped the balance towards four. A grand song.

Chris While and Julie Matthews – Revolution Calls | Album Review | Fat Cat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 25.09.19

Celebrating 25 years together as one of the country’s foremost music duos, Chris While and Julie Matthews show no signs of slowing down. Their songs have taken them all around the world several times, building a strong following along the way. They smile when there’s nothing to smile about, they laugh at themselves and the world around them and they cry when things go horribly pear-shaped. Chris and Julie are not just a singing group, they’re an institution. Oh yes, we’ve had Shakespeare’s Sister, Pepsi and Shirlie, Mel and Kim, but these two are the real deal.  Chris and Julie have been accused of being too polished and not rough enough around the edges, but what’s wrong with getting it right? The songs on Revolution Calls are treated to sumptuous arrangements throughout, from the hard driving title song, so vividly captured in Bryan ‘Brysy’ Ledgard’s cover design, through to Julie’s dreamy “Stardust”, each song in between a showcase of their intuitive craftsmanship. With the songwriting democratically shared, the songs dovetail together so well, it’s often difficult to tell which one’s at the helm and which one’s navigating. It’s a partnership of a vessel very much on course. If Julie takes care of the political angle, venting on those responsible for the mess we’re all in “Shake the Money Tree” or our collective irresponsibility when it comes to our dismissive attitude towards ecology “Landfill”, then Chris provides some of the tender moments in the beautiful “Two Halves Together”, a song based around a friend who moves his house from the suburbs to the coast, to get a better view from his window and “Long Lost Friend”, tenderly meditating on losing touch, which we all unfortunately do through nothing more than life getting in the way.  Julie addresses her concerns through her pen, issues that shouldn’t be issues in a perfect world, with “Coming Out” being foremost among them. This is where Chris and Julie excel, in their refusal to dilly-dally and get to the point, yet in such an eloquent and tender way. It hasn’t been a good year for the two women, both losing friends and Julie losing her mum, all coming at an already grim time in everyone’s life and “Black Dog” demonstrates that having friends around might just allow us to see through the darkness. Revolution Calls once again shows us a musical partnership that can deliver on their promise, something our politicians fail to do over and over again, whilst driving home their message with exquisite harmonies and memorable melodies.

Show of Hands – Battlefield Dance Floor | Album Review | Proper Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 26.09.19

The addition of master percussionist Cormac Byrne to the current line up of Show of Hands, can be immediately felt on this, the band’s eighteenth album to date. Joining Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes, Cormac not only peppers the songs with choice beats but transforms the overall sound to something new and vibrant on such songs as the opener “Lost”, the reggae influenced “Dreckley” and the infectious title song “Battlefield Dance Floor”, a thoroughly engaging drinking song set among the army campfires on the eve of several notable battles, as ‘Bhangra meets Morris” with Show of Hands very much under the influence of the Dhol Foundation. It’s a fatter sound, fattened out even further by the The Bridge Hill Shandy Men, a vocal chorus which includes one Paul Downes, a fellow Arizona Smoke Revue survivor.  If drums are to be a feature on this album, then it stands to reason that Military drums should also be included, making their appearance throughout Steve’s celebratory song “Swift and Bold”, written for the 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment in Exeter, for which he was subsequently made an Honorary Rifleman. Made up of predominantly self-penned material, Battlefield Dance Floor also includes one or two non-originals that were possibly far too tempting to leave off, Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” for instance, which receives a faithful impression from Steve here, whilst Phil delivers a rather tasteful reading of Richard Shindell’s road song “Next Best Western.” Writing in collaboration with Johnny Kalsi (Dhol Foundation/Afro Celt Sound System), Steve stretches his world sensibilities further with “Mother Tongue”, a poignant song that employs some delicious spiritual chanting courtesy of Shahid Khan.  For over thirty years Steve and Phil have been recording and touring as Show of Hands, building a reputation as one of the hardest working and most successful acts on the British folk circuit. With Miranda Sykes’ place in the band now firmly established, providing all the necessary bottom end together with her distinctive vocal contribution, and now the augmentation of Cormac’s genius, it’s going to be difficult to think of Show of Hands as anything other than a fully formed band and this album merely confirms that notion.

Andy Clark – I Love Joyce Morris | Album Review | Greywood Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.09.19

Initially, “Welcome to the Party” sounds for all intents and purposes like Glenn Tilbrook after a lost weekend listening to Double Fantasy, but there’s so much more here than meets the ear. I Love Joyce Morris, named for the family apple tree that his children would play around, as indicated on the cover illustration, is awash with accessible songs and Beatles influenced melodies, certainly on “Socks and Shoes”, “Welcome to the Party” and “Hunker Down.” If the opening song clearly invites us into his world, “But for You” goes on to set out the singer songwriter’s story so far, with a driving Graceland rhythm, whilst meditating on the fact that “time flies by at such a rate”, well doesn’t it just?  There’s just too much to like on this album, which unashamedly borrows from 1970s pop (surely that’s the opening guitar tumble to The Boxer on “Monsters” isn’t it?), yet he does it so well. “Daddy Please” is possibly the only rootsy departure from the album’s consistently melodic sound, with a few banjo-totin’ Bluegrass Clichés thrown in, whilst the kids ask all the seriously unanswerable questions. The tender moments are eloquently delivered, such as the gorgeous “Sunny Boy”, with a similar message to Lennon’s love letter to Sean in Beautiful Boy and the closer “Apples”, which confirms what we had already begun to suspect, that Andy Clark’s kids are but the apples of his eye. Well produced and packed with memorable songs and instrumental breaks in just the right places, I Love Joyce Morris is a record you will want to hear over and again.

Stone Irr – Performance | Album Review | Darling Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.09.19

Performance opens with “Nosedive”, it’s initial opening a cappella line a convincing pastiche of Smile period Beach Boys, whilst the Thom Yorke inspired song that follows captures quite a lot of what Stone Irr is all about. Moody, atmospheric and melodic, the songs on Performance, the second album by the Indiana-born, now Los Angeles-based singer songwriter, demonstrate the work of a burgeoning artist, clearly at one with his vocal range, which often moves towards falsetto.  If “All We Want Anymore” borrows from The Beatles at their Abbey Road best, with some accomplished melody lines and informed harmonies, the songs that follow meander slightly through various avenues of expression, with a clear emphasis on Stone Irr’s multi-tracked vocals throughout.  Produced by Mark Edlin and Ben Lumsdaine, Performance keeps to a stylish, unwavering Elliott Smith-like path, with one or two highlights, “Storyline” and “Calm” being the most obvious, before “Cheer Up” returns to the sort of melancholy Radiohead made a career out of.

Bob Bradshaw – Queen of the West | Album Review | Fluke Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 27.09.19

Queen of the West is almost cinematic in its execution, a landscape of dusty roads, border towns, ‘floating’ mountains and deep ravines, inhabited by outlaws, where Cork, Albuquerque and the ancient walls of Japan become one. A concept album of sorts, Queen of the West showcases Bob Bradshaw’s imagination in thirteen songs, related in style and character but equally they stand alone as individual stories, snippets in the lives of those inhabiting the general narrative. Foremost in the story is Ruby, the Queen of the West, whose presence is felt both in terms of a real life femme fatale and also as a theatrical character, echoed in the melodramatic feel of “Ruby Black.”  Bob Bradshaw’s attention to detail never wanes throughout the song cycle, whilst adopting all the twang necessary to evoke the feel of the West, but also utilising the fine collective of singers and musicians at hand to develop a more universal musical appeal. The exquisite “Child” reminds us of the campfire songs of old, in the manner of Utah Phillips’ The Goodnight Loving Trail, whilst “The Wearing of the Black” references the old country, effectively bridging the two cultures at the heart of this engaging story. There’s humour, sadness and hope along the trail, together with all the mystique of the Old West. Listening to these stories, you somehow feel a part of them.

Rachid Taha – Je Suis Africain | Album Review | Naive/Believe | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.09.19

I imagine it might have been a difficult task for those around the late Algerian singer and activist to oversee the release of Rachid Taha’s final album, recorded exactly one year ago almost to the day. Ironically, the final song on his final album is called “Happy End”, which is perhaps an eerily fitting conclusion to a vibrant and inventive career, a career which saw collaborations with Brian Eno, Damon Albarn and Mick Jones (The Clash) amongst others.  Je Suis Africain features ten songs, which includes the singer’s first song in English, “Like a Dervish”, which pulsates with joy and includes Ian Dury-like spoken passages. Though the songs maintain a highly contemporary feel, they are enriched by the close attention to Arabic traditional music, exemplified in the opening song “Ansit”, which shimmers like the North African terrain it so evokes. Rachid spoke in a variety of languages, performing in Arabic, French and Franglish, yet his music goes further, to include Spanish and Mexican influences, “Wahdi” for instance, featuring a sumptuous vocal performance courtesy of Flèche Love (Amina Cadelli) with a little Mariachi thrown into the mix. After mishearing the lyrics to “Andy Waloo” for Andy Warhol, imagining for a moment a pastiche of an old Bowie song, I definitely heard a crystal clear reference to Johnny Cash along with a choice English expletive somewhere in the mix, which makes Taha’s music strangely all the more engaging.

Velvet and Stone – Velvet and Stone | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 29.09.19

Picked up already by BBC Six Music and Radio Two Velvet And Stone play a muscular visceral Folk Rock. “Fisherman’s Blues” introduces both of band’s front women with the wonderful voice of Lara Snowdon and Kathryn Tremlett’s raw powerful violin. It’s a strong opener, Snowdon’s composition sounding familiar like a standard. Indeed tapping into classic a Folk Rock sound with confidence and attack the band sound like seasoned veterans not one four releases in with a debut album. The first track leads into the rousing storm of “Oh Boy.” A pounding rhythm, that fiery violin and Lara’s gutsy Psych Folk vocals deliver a powerful punch. If early Steeleye Span or The Trees had melded American Bluegrass with Electric English Folk it might have crackled, snarled and smouldered like this. “Lay Her Down” a suitably dark love song adds a sinister electric guitar to the roaring mix and again it just flies. “Breathe” has the airy space of Mazzy Star with piano notes and jazzy percussion swirling around the vocal. Long notes on Kathryn Tremlett’s violin build tension throughout.  What I’m guessing is Josiah Manning’s Banjuitar adds a Bluegrass eldritch edge to the intro of “Walls.” “By The Water” is an upbeat acoustic pop delight, with the bounce of 80’s All About Eve, driven by some Springsteen whoops. “Am I Dreaming” mixes acoustic singer songwriter intimacy with some contemporary edge and soaring playing. “Forget About The Rain” taps again into that potent Electric English Folk meets sinister Bluegrass Velvet And Stone do so well. Closer “I’ll Dream Of You Tonight” is a classic rousing Celtic love song, with a infectious rhythm that will get audiences moving as the bands lets rip.  The cover with a figure framed against a darkened hillside has a Hammer House of Horror or Wicker Man brooding atmosphere. The name Velvet And Stone encapsulates perfect the musical mix of Gothic drama, the velvet and timeless folk music, the stone drawing on traditions both sides of the Atlantic, with a bright sprinkle of contemporary sparkle and edge. Nine tracks, thirty minutes the album is lean and sleek with no excess, indulgence, nodding or filler. Hopefully what we have here is the first long play offering from musical marathon runners.

BaBa ZuLa – Derin Derin | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.10.19

Derin Derin is the first studio album in five years for Istanbul’s art house ensemble BaBa ZuLa, whose expressive and expansive sound dominates this ten-track release.  If sections of the album sound akin to film soundtrack music, then this is possibly due to the fact that some of it was originally conceived as music for a documentary about birds of prey.  Having been around for a good twenty years now, BaBa ZuLu have the chops to sound authentic and utterly contemporary at the same time.  So determined to create an authentic air, the band posed for a sleeve photograph, using an early photographic technique, evoking the spirit of their forefathers.  The four musicians, Osman Murat Ertel, Mehmet Levent Akman, Periklis Tsoukalas and Umit Adakale, may look like roadies for System of a Down, but their contemporary rhythms are steeped in Turkish traditional music, with the electric saz coming to the fore in places, along with the classical oud.  At times those two instruments sound deliciously vibrant together, “Haller Yollar” and “Ruzgarin Akisi” for instance, but for such tracks as “Kurt Kapma” and “Port Pass”, it could be an entirely different band, utilising sound effects, samples and programmed beats.  “Salincaksin” or “U are the Swing” has a particular emphasis on the beats, played by Ertel’s children on a kit modified by the late Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, who the band had connections with.  Despite being vocally uninspiring, instrumentally BaBa ZuLa is both an adventurous and enigmatic band in equal measure.

Finn Paul – Wind and Stone | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.10.19

Having been raised in Perthshire, Scotland, Finn Paul has effectively absorbed the surrounding landscape, whilst developing his own individual song writing style and competence at playing the guitar.  Wind and Stone is perhaps the result of tapping into that very distinct landscape, along with his enchanting adventures on the Isle of Lewis and his visits up into the Highlands.  In places the songs sound introverted, in others trance-like, “Treat Her Fair” for instance, which seems to plod on in two chords for a little too long, together with a highly mannered vocal style, but hey, if Nick Mulvey and Roo Panes can get away with it! It’s a moody affair from start to finish with some sweet moments, notably “Fortune.”

Gwilym Bowen Rhys – Arenig | Album Review | Erwydd Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 05.10.19

From frenetic Welsh language punk spirited acoustic music like “Yr Hosan Las”, to the spiritual reflective “Er Fy Ngwethaf” and sublime instrumental “Jac ye Oil”, Gwilym Bowen Rhys has it all covered.  Bowen Rhys hails from. Bethel, a village at the foot of Mount Snowdon.  He has been singing in his native Welsh language for as long as he can remember, developing a deep rooted connection with the traditional songs and music that are as part of the Welsh landscape as he is.  Following on from his debut album, shortlisted for the year’s best traditional Welsh language album at the 2016 Eisteddfod and a 2018 album of ballads, this is his third release.   Gwilym is a passionate and powerful vocalist, his singing on “Byta Dy Bres” which translates as eat your money a piece about selfish leaders is acid tinged and spirited.  Unaccompanied on “Lloer Dirion Lliwr Dydd”, Gentle Moon the colour of day, he holds his own too, delivering the traditional song with presence and fire.  “Jeri Bach Gogerddan” with Gwilym playing guitar and fiddle is another spirited instrumental.  “Cardod” starts with Gwilym’s achingly beautiful fiddle accompanying an emotional, almost spiritual vocal.  The lyrics are a poem on the virtues of charity by Rhys Pritchard a 16th century writer.  Even for a none Welsh speaker like me this is a brooding hairs on the back of neck moment, the sentiment and emotion burns through, with the music conjuring vivid pictures.  Title and defining track “Arenig” is another sonic landscape masterpiece, with Gwilym’s music and his great uncle Euros Bowen reciting his poem about the North Wales mountain.  The album and especially this last pair of tracks are alive with the wild power of the Welsh landscape, infused with the same savage beauty that runs through Finnish Folk Music.  “O Deuwch Deulu Mwynion” is a triumphant, joyful carol that celebrates the coming of spring.  With some jazzy clarinet this is a closing frolic after the brooding majesty that came before.

Chris Cleverley – We Sat Back and Watched it Unfold | Album Review | Opiate Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.19

Chris Cleverley approaches the problem of his ‘difficult second’ head on with something bold, brave and utterly compelling.  This shouldn’t surprise me, but still it does. Having already demonstrated his credentials as a first class songwriter four years ago with his debut album Apparitions, Chris takes giant steps by exploring the current world we live in, its change in attitudes and its call for tolerance, whilst waxing lyrical on such topical questions as anxiety, gender and mental health.  With the album’s title borrowed from one of a dozen eloquently written and passionately delivered songs, the sentiment of that particular song appears to permeate throughout and perhaps questions the problem at the core of all our current woes, that we do seem to sit back and watch it all unfold, something we will surely be quizzed about by future generations.  The mature, poignant and well-developed songs tackle subjects we need to address, whilst refusing to pander to ambiguity.  If “A Voice for Those Who Don’t Have One” and “Happy and Proud” tackle such hot topics as anxiety, panic and gender with uncompromising conviction, then “The Arrow and the Armour” does likewise with matters of the heart and provides us with an example of the fact that love songs and the ways of writing them, has certainly not dried up yet.  One also has to question how bad things can get if we have to consider such eternal sunshine of the spotless mind questions as explored in “I Can’t Take It”, suggesting a pill to wipe out all our feelings and memories, which seems to be a plausible option, however catastrophic it might be in the long run.  With Sam Kelly at the helm, the production sparkles with Chris’s informed finger-picked guitar up in the mix, especially on “Scarlet Letter”, together with some fine contributions courtesy of, among others, Evan Carson, Lukas Drinkwater, Marion Fleetwood, Hannah Martin and Kim Lowings.  If the songs and the music on this album are testament to Chris’s thoughtful and generous spirit, then providing a guide to the open tunings and indeed precisely where the budding guitarists among us should stick our capos, is above and beyond the call of duty. This is an excellent album.

Penguin Cafe – Handfuls of Night | Album Review | Erased Tapes Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.19

Keeping the spirit of his father’s music alive, Arthur Jeffes continues to build upon the unique and original compositions for which Simon was known.  An initial play through of the nine gentle and moody instrumental compositions that make up Handfuls of Night, possibly suggests something more suited to a Thomas Hardy film adaptation, “Chinstrap” for instance, or maybe even “Adelie” both of which conjure up images of Jude Fawley chipping away at his stones.  Further investigation however tells us that it is ice rather than stone being chipped away at, for a suite dedicated to an Antarctic adventure, as illustrated in the cover shot and in the composition titles, such as “The Life of an Emperor”, one of our endangered species – we’re definitely talking penguins by penguins here.   The project began with four especially composed pieces in celebration of the four species native to the Antarctic, the Chinstrap, Adélie, Gentoo and Emperor, all of which are suitably name-checked here.  The wide open and sometimes hostile spaces that provide a home for these creatures are suggested in such pieces as “At the Top of the Hill They Stood” and “Pythagoras on the Line Again”, the latter of which provides a slight echo of something Arthur’s dad did for the Malcolm soundtrack over thirty years ago.  There’s tension throughout “Chapter”, with its trance-like arpeggios keeping very much to the Penguin Cafe ethos of minimalism and adventure, which appears here in equal measure.  Whether the music on Handfuls of Night evokes for you the Antarctic tundra, Hardy’s nineteenth century Dorset, a cluttered metropolis as viewed from an overhead cable car or the mysterious surface of the Moon, it’s pure musical escapism, which will take you wherever you want it to.

Rafiki Jazz – Saraba Sufiyana | Album Review | Konimusic | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.10.19

Whenever all nine members of the Sheffield-based multi-cultural collective Rafiki Jazz line themselves up ready for action, there’s an immediate sense of the world united in music, with such iconic instruments as the steel drum, the tabla, the kora, the oud and the berimbau sitting side by side on stage, collectively representing the music of the Caribbean, India and West Africa, along with Arabic and Brazilian cultures; it’s almost like having all your world music requirements satisfied in one go.  Rafiki Jazz also boasts at least three very distinctive voices, each of which explore an array of diverse languages such as Urdu, Hebrew, Gaelic and English in a similar manner as the instruments explore their own individual sonic languages. Versed in a rich mixture of Sufi, Hebrew and Hindi, the voices of Sarah Yaseen, Avital Raz and Mina Salama steer such songs as “Su Jamfata” along with both passion and determination, whilst the instrumental prowess of the various musicians, including kora player Kadialy Kouyate, maintains this universal musical conversation throughout the album. Saraba Sufiyana, which translates as ‘Mystic Utopia’, consists of eight songs, each showcasing the collective’s extraordinary versatility, with one or two special appearances, such as established British folk luminaries Nancy Kerr, Sam Carter and Greg Russell, the Gaelic singer Kaitlin Ross and the throat singing of Juan Gabriel Gutierrez, that effectively broadens the musical landscape further, whilst breaking down barriers and borders with aplomb.  It’s such a tired notion when it comes to a genre we recognise as ‘World Music’, to see language as a barrier. In the case of Rafiki Jazz and the songs presented here, an understanding of those various languages is perhaps redundant; it’s the overall sound that really matters. Coming in at almost ten minutes, the album closer “My Heart My Home” is a triumph of empathy and unity, featuring a multitude of voices and vibrant instrumentation.

Emma Frank – Come Back | Album Review | Justin Time | Review by Marc Higgins | 10.10.19

American by birth and resident in Canada, like a kind of mirror Joni Mitchell, Emma Frank is an intimate and sophisticated sounding vocalist. Come Back released on Montreal label Justin Time is her forth album. There is something of contemporary chilled vocalists like Elena Tonra from Daughter and Ex:Re, but the obvious comparison with that slightly layered vocal with flourishes at the end of lines on “I Thought” and “Either Way” is the restrained folk jazz Joni Mitchell of Blue and Hejira. “Either Way” with its rippling piano and reflective lyric is a thing of absolute beauty. The sparse languid rhythm on “Two Hours” and minimal backing suggests Agnes Obel fronting The Blue Nile. There is a space and sense of timelessness with sublime vocal runs and a Radiohead type glissando guitar or keyboard wash that carries you away. After the shimmering glissendo of “Two Hours” the piano on “Sometimes” and “Promises” is folky and intimate, Emma’s vocal manages to be intimate Joni and to soar like early Judie Tzuke.  The simple arrangements and intimate soundscapes make this beautiful album sound like a club gig with an audience of one. Restraint, like the jazzy piano rain drop flourishes on “Promises” and shuffle drum beat, is the key to the emotion and atmosphere. Less is, definitely more, nothing is here that doesn’t need to be. “Dream Team” ideal theme music for a melancholic Scandinavian Detective Thriller, is a beautiful piece of vocalese and piano. “See You” has a slight knottier but lyrical piano and the trickier rhythm of Rickie Lee Jones. Again and again Emma’s vocal is an absolute joy to listen to. “See You” marries a brooding sublime, but emotional vocal with a beautiful piano that mixes Radiohead minimalism and Esbjörn Svensson jazz. “Come Back” has those swooping virtuosic flourishes with a low Olivia Chaney folkiness that flies gospel like over Aaron Park’s wonderful piano part. “Before You Go Away” with a gently strummed guitar and achingly beautiful vocal delivers a killer County classic at the end, again the soundscape of the sound builds gently and beautifully through the song. These last two songs are close to perfect in construction and delivery, with the rest of the album snapping at their heals. This is going to be in my top ten of the year unless I am very much mistaken. At 31 ½ minutes, this like many classic albums is all beautifully recorded killer with absolutely no filler.

Bantou Mentale – Bantou Mentale | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.10.19

The cover shot and various accompanying photos kind of explains the Bantou Mentale ethos, that of the various traditional Congolese people of Kinshasa in full tribal dress, making themselves very much at home in the Parisian Chateau Rouge.  The music echoes this with the dozen tracks that make up the band’s self-titled debut. The four members, Cubain Kabeya, Chicco Katembo, Apocalypse and Doctor L (Liam Farrell), play hard, energetic, slightly rough-edged and driven music.  If “Suabala” demonstrates the band’s utterly contemporary grime feel, then the heart of the album might be found in “Papa Joe”, written in memory of an old, now deceased friend who allegedly threw all the best parties, whilst the soul is successfully captured in the impassioned vocal on “Boloko”, each being possibly the most accessible songs on the record.  With musicians from the ranks of such notable outfits as Staff Benda Bilili, Konono No 1, Jupiter & Okwess and Mbongwana Star, it’s little surprise that Bentou Mentale shimmers with strong beats, colourful effects and vibrant rhythms throughout the twelve tracks.

Norman Mackay – The Inventor | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 16.10.19

With a title like The Inventor, this interesting album couldn’t sound more like a Victorian novel if it was finished in worn hand tooled leather and gold leaf. The sleeve, off white, like the eponymous Beatles album, is deceptively simple, open the tasteful case to an evocative photo of Mackay’s hands and instrument alongside a quote. “The Earth has music for those who listen”. One run through and you know two things, one Santayana’s quote is right and two the album title is no jocular boast. The accordion is the hands of a master like Norman Mackay is such an evocative instrument, drifting between noir film soundtracks, eastern European cafe music and visceral Folk music. It is a credit to Norman and his assembled musicians that this genre defying shifting music, sometimes hits all of these reference points in one track.  The achingly atmospheric opening title track moves from rainy film soundtrack to buoyant fairground, with Cameron Jay’s trumpet a small string section and Phil Alexander’s piano helping tell an array of beautiful stories. “Missy of the Mhor” is a more folk setting for the same ingredients with Norman’s accordion managing to always bring colour and interest. “Walter’s Waltz for All” is nimble dance music for all, but it’s the glide of a mirrored ballroom not a  frantic dance in a barn, there is beauty in the melody of Greg Lawson’s violin and Mackay’s accordion melody. Adam Bulley’s deft guitar accompanies Norman’s melody on Mackenzie Cottage, a tune for the musician’s parents. Su-a Lee’s Cello provides a stirring solo on this album that reveals delight after delight. “Carly’s Trip to Ecclefechan” is a piece of different moods, a choppy accordion intro, a hypnotic tune, an eldritch fiddle and a frolicking Miles muted trumpet. “Ian Mackay” is a straight ahead beautiful tune in memory of Norman’s father Ian. There is so much emotion carried in the strings and accordion. “Lord Anselm / Disco Inferno” had me at disco inferno. As you expect this a piece of two halves a pastoral duet between Jack Badcock’s guitar and the accordion, followed by a more rousing storm of a tune, the first percussion of the album driving the piece on. “Monachill Waltz” is a slow burn with a burst of colour from the strings and a emotional trumpet at the close. “Gellatly’s March”, written for Norman’s sisters wedding, manages a quietly stirring first section showcasing the strings and accordion, this builds to the bagpipes and finally a simply stunning climax by the Edinburgh Singers Choir. If that doesn’t make you sit up and listen, then you haven’t got a Soul. Phil Alexander closes the album, beautifully restating the title tune on a piano as lyrical as late period Brubeck. Simply beautiful.

Sleave – Don’t Expect Anything | Album Review | Engineer Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 18.10.19

To be honest, this sort of record rarely finds its way into these pages, Northern Sky usually veering a little more towards the rootsy side of things. The Richmond, Virginia four-piece Sleave, consisting of Charlie Bowen on guitar, Julien Robert on drums, Samuel McClelland on bass and Daniel Salinas on vocals, are a kind of throw back to the early days of Grunge, with obligatory shorts, black t shirts and inverted baseball caps. The dozen songs on their debut album Don’t Expect Anything succeeds in blowing the dust off speakers a little more accustomed to the gentle vibrations of the acoustic guitar, the Kora and the mountain dulcimer. Needless to say, Sleave can (and do) wake up the neighbours.  I enjoyed listening through to this album, which borrows from some of the cliches of alternative rock and American hardcore, with a Punk sensibility and the distant echoes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Formed a good quarter of a century after the heyday of Grunge, those years seem to have evaporated before our ears. Full of vitality, energy and sparkle, Sleave have managed to capture their distinct live sound with apparent ease. Go on, give your speakers a dusting.

Bird in the Belly – Neighbours and Sisters | Album Review | GF*M Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 21.10.19

The Brighton-based four-piece Bird in the Belly take us on another moody excursion through the past with eight traditional song adaptations, together with two originals on this, the band’s second album.  Following on from their impressive and critically acclaimed debut The Crowing, which introduced us to the contrasting voices of Laura Ward and Ben ‘Jinwoo’ Webb, Neighbours and Sisters investigates the darker underbelly of society, focusing momentarily on prostitution “Phoebe to Phyllis”, the lure of death “Coal Black Wine”, condemned prisoners “New Gate Stone” and “45 George Street” and the sins of a Victorian workhouse master “All You Females”.  Each song is well researched, stylishly performed and delivered with authority and with a no-nonsense approach.  Recorded in Brighton, keeping just about everything in-house, including the impressive sleeve artwork, which focuses on a collection of framed reliefs representing each of the songs, crafted by Bird in the Belly guitarist Adam Ronchetti, the album creates a feeling of mystery and curiosity.  Clearly darker than its predecessor, the focus is very much on the dual voices, with Tom Pryor completing the impressive collective’s line-up, whose multi-instrumental embellishments bring out the character of these unique songs. If any comparisons were necessary, which they are not, then Webb’s voice may be compared to that of Sam Lee, whilst “All You Females”” could be mistaken for Stick in the Wheel at their stomping best.  Aside from these two random similarities, Bird in the Belly are otherwise rather unique and utterly compelling.

Sway Wild – Sway Wild | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.19

Those already familiar with the music of Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer will know that it would be a difficult musical partnership to improve upon.  Both are excellent songwriters, singers and musicians, perfectly matched in terms of musical harmony, yet with the addition of bassist Thom Lord, the dynamic has been significantly changed, enabling Dave to explore the rhythms from the vantage of the drummer’s seat, which in turn allows Mandy to stretch out further, bringing her distinctive guitar playing much more to the fore; a much fuller sound, courtesy of a classic power trio format.  Soulful, funky and melodic throughout, the songs on Sway Wild’s debut self-titled album are further enhanced by the contribution of friends Alison Russell and JT Nero of Birds of Chicago on the opener “Comin’ and Goin’” and then again on the infectious “Chimney Fire”, complete with its memorable hook and odd expletive.  Fearless in their delivery, Sway Wild approach such songs as “Til the Honey Come” with energetic verve, Mandy’s almost sneering guitar licks in direct competition with the horn section. Vocally, Mandy excels on “Impatient”, with an utterly soulful performance, enhanced further by Dave’s intuitive harmonies.

Harri Endersby – Mazes | Album Review | Ivy Crown Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.19

Drawing from the same well of vocal styling as Josienne Clarke, the County Durham-based singer songwriter Harri Endersby wafts her ethereal sounds your way via nine self-penned songs on this, her second solo studio album, which comes hot on the heels of her 2017 debut Home/Lives.  With sparse arrangements built around Harri’s voice and guitar, piano and mandolin, and with only the slightest embellishment, courtesy of Rich Marsh, Ciaran Algar, Toby Shaer and Ian Stephenson, Mazes captures the steady development of a vibrant singer songwriter, whose ties to the North East remain a focal point of her work.  “Mountainside” is a gentle folk/pop opener, suggesting an affinity between human nature and the natural world, its spirit captured in the accompanying video promo for the song. there’s a sense of joy and gentleness embedded in each song, which invites further attention. The title song providing possibly the richest vocal performance on the album. If it worked for Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and to a lesser extent Roger Waters’ “Grantchester Meadows”, birdsong can be a most pleasing way to open a song and Harri finds it hard to resist on “Isla”, a gorgeous song featuring some fine ensemble orchestrations.  Co-produced by Harri and Rich, Mazes takes you to places you didn’t know you wanted to go.

Annie and Rod Capps – When They Fall | Album Review | Yellow Room Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.19

The dozen songs on When They Fall, the eighth album by the Michigan-based husband and wife team Annie and Rod Capps, have a bright and breezy feel, yet nothing here is what you might call lightweight. Performing together since the early Eighties, the two multi-instrumentalists have traversed their own musical landscape, dipping their toes in rock, musical theatre, Americana and country to find the sound they present here.  The uplifting “Poor Old Me” sets the toes-a-tapping with some ease, despite the desperation of the message, with a perfectly timed homage to the Stones in the coda. “Beautiful Scarecrow” brings a sense of 1950s radio in its arrangement, like the songs our folks listened to in post war hardship; just gorgeous to listen to.  Time is addressed in both “Brevity” and “Happy New Year”, reminding us of how time slips away, and don’t we know it.  With a cover illustration presumably representing the album’s penultimate song “This Little Apple”, one of the album highlights, the song name checks those that have served, Leonard Cohen, Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty, David Bowie, Glen Frey and Guy Clark among them.  Closing with “Build the Fire”, gives us an open invitation to sing a campfire chorus in the good old tradition, successfully capturing the essence of this duo’s unmistakable sound.

Atlas Maior – Riptide | Album Review | Atlas Maior Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.19

Based in Austin, Texas, Atlas Maior, named for the masterpiece of Dutch cartography, explore a wealth of musical influences, notably Arab, Turkish, Indian and Latin American, together with home grown jazz courtesy of the alto sax of Joshua Thomson.  The eleven instrumental pieces draw from a deep well of styles, most prominently the familiar maqamat modal style, which effectively draws attention to Thomson’s sparring with Charlie Lockwood’s oud explorations. It’s almost like taking the ‘duelling banjos’ theme to another level altogether.  If “The Curse” exemplifies this from the start, with each instrument striving to outdo one another in a highly competitive show of dexterity, then nowhere is this feuding instrument notion better captured than on the album closer, the sprawling “Osman Pehlivan”, which features guest oud player Palestine’s Sari Andoni, who provides Lockwood with an ideal sparring partner.  If the oud takes precedence in a number of places throughout Riptide, then “Nastaran” is a showcase for one of Thomson’s alto sax workouts, whilst “Chamber of Mirrors” introduces for one track only, the cinematic violin playing of guest musician Robert Paolo Riggio, which brings tension to the piece with a capital T.  Riptide is full of musical ingenuity and dexterity, held together by Ted Camat in the drum seat and double bass duties split between Gary Calhoun James and Tarik Hassan.

Terry Hiscock – Falling More Slowly | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.19

Terry Hiscock’s contemporaries back in the late 1960s and early 1970s would have been the likes of Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and Steeleye Span, foremost bands of the early days of British folk rock, though his band Hunter Muskett, named for an eccentric Cornishman, never quite achieved the same level of success.  Perhaps best known for his song “Silver Coin”, covered by Bridget St John and Archie Fisher among others, Terry returns with an album of songs that clearly show that the intervening years have been kind to him and that his voice remains warm, his writing thoughtful and his musicianship very much intact.  Falling More Slowly is not just a bunch of songs banged out to flog at gigs, in fact it’s anything but.  This stylishly crafted album brings out the best in these songs, with originals such as “From Here to Rosedale” a song about the blues singer Robert Johnson and “Where Are You Now (Sweet Marie)”, which is a love song reminiscing on those evenings listening to Dylan records, notably his titular Blonde on Blonde period heroine.  There’s a couple of familiar non-originals, the gospel tinged “Jesus on the Mainline” and the wonderfully entertaining “She Broke My Heart”, each prefaced with an atmospheric musical interlude, “Shenandoah”, “Blue Moon” and “Wild Mountain Thyme” among them. For the delicate “Dave’s Song”, Hiscock hands over the vocal duties to Gaynor Taylor, whilst Essex-based Noel Gander delivers “One of These Days”, otherwise it’s Terry Hiscock all the way.  An impressive and long overdue debut.

Bella Hardy – Postcards and Pocketbooks | Album Review |Noe Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.19

If we consider the twelve years of music making and nine albums along the way, Postcards and Pocketbooks: The Best of Bella Hardy could hardly fail to impress through its sheer expansiveness in terms of songwriting and musical collaboration.  Twenty-seven songs collected from a journey covering well over a decade, provides a wide variety of music all of which is presented here with a thoughtful running order, from Bella’s troubled pop sensibilities of “Learning to Let Go”, through to the previously unreleased “Tequila Moon”, Bella’s distinctive voice ringing out throughout.  Presented as a miniature double album with gatefold sleeve and pretty inner sleeves, Postcards and Pocketbooks is as good as a ‘best of’ compilation can get.  Eight of Bella’s official album releases are represented, with only the seasonal Bright Morning Star absent for obvious reasons, with informed choices from each, together with one or two previously unreleased tracks.  When it’s light it’s light, when it’s dark, it’s most definitely dark and Bella is one of the singers who does it best.

Alan Prosser and Al Clarke – Living in Clover | Album Review | Rafting Dog Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.11.19

Blues-based at its core, Living in Clover feels like a concept album of sorts, with themed songs, a sense of reflection whilst at the same time a notion of forward thinking, with occasional sound effects adding to the atmosphere.  Oysterband’s Alan Prosser collaborates closely with harmonica player Al Clarke on this intriguing collection of songs, such as the driving “Dream On”, setting out their stall with some bluesy harmonica and stomping rhythm. “Hold Back Time/Time Machine” maintains the ‘concept’ theme with a sense of urgency and drive.  Although the songs are highly creative with mature lyrics throughout as well as thoughtful arrangements, the songs could benefit further with slightly stronger vocal performances in places.  “High Rise/Living in Clover” brings into focus the heart of the album, the resilience of the elderly, with a spoken interlude, a true voice of the people, “I’ve never been lonely, I’ve always been a happy woman, I’ve had no grub to eat, I’ve gorn without, it was a very very hard living but we got through”, a voice echoed once again at the end of the album.  The instrumental “Jack’s Tune” is also reminiscent of the sounds of yesteryear, with a Max Geldray type harmonica solo, not unlike the musical interludes between sketches in the 1950s Goon Shows, whilst “Lazy Boy” becomes a dreamy interlude in itself, a delicate meditation almost shoved to the back of the class. Not perfect, but a thoughtful album nevertheless.  

Boo Hewerdine – Before | Album Review | Reveal Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 02.11.19

Singer, Songwriter, Musician, Side man, mover and shaker, Boo Hewerdine is a hard person to pin down. As a songwriter, writing for himself and Eddi Reader, he has penned some of the finest ballads you have ever heard. He was a member of an embarrassingly good 80s band, The Bible, whose sophisticated Rock Pop sat somewhere between The Blue Nile, and a janglier more Americana Danny Wilson. He is a guitarist recording and touring with the aforementioned Eddi Reader as well as working with numerous up and coming musicians alongside Chris Pepper at Saltwell Studios.  Skimming through a lot of new music the involvement of Boo is an assurance of quality.  Since 1992 both solo and in duos with Darren Smith and Brooks Williams he has produced a body of intelligent, measured and sophisticated music, of which Before is the latest example. The dense layered guitar pop of 2017’s Swimming In Mercury with its electronica, Beach Boys like harmonies has shifted to something more immediate and stripped back, but still with the same sense of the unexpected.   “Last Rays Of Sun” is built around layers of hit percussion and keyboards.  The instrument list for the album reads like a cross between the inside of an early Mike Oldfield Gatefold and a Moondog album.  The sound is minimalism or lofi electronica replicating Boo’s strummed guitar, but the effect is warm and hypnotic behind Hewerdine’s intimate vocal. Simply as instrumentals they would be fascinatingly fresh and as songs the effect is captivating.  “Imagined” opens with Gustaf Ljunggren’s treated guitar playing an interlude that leads into “Imaginary Friends” a song of childhood.  Boo’s vocal is intimate and measured, the accompaniment is bubbling and lively, sonically interesting textures without being dominant.  “Silhouette” is a reflective song with its breathy ECM jazz accompaniment informed by the preceeding “Shiruetto”.  As an exercise in how much to strip away to reveal the song it is beautiful, linking to the paired back imagery of the song. Boo’s vocal works both unaccompanied and against the wind instrument and slight electronica.  “Before” and “Before before” are wonderful fragments of blown sound.  “Before” is a hymn like with piano accompaniment and wafts of the most perfect clarinet and saxophone on this exquisite but slightly surreal love song.  Boo and Gustav have veered off into exciting ambient singer songwriter.  “Arriving” is a sublime of pedal steel guitar, slightly phased like an AM radio broadcast.   Gustav’s Pedal Steel, as ambient as the best of BJ Cole carries on through “Reno”, melancholic ambient jazz Americana played on a Bakerlite valve radio.  “Starlight” as a smooth classic ballad is a song I know well from Eddi Reader’s 2018 Cavalier album, a lush 1950’s crooner ballad on a cushion of lush backing vocals.  Boo strips his song back to another perfect vocal balanced over electronics and a kalimba, sounding like the embodiment of starlight itself, celestial and as translucent as light itself. Boo finds the lullaby in the ballad.  “Neverland” is a song of contrasts, delicate plucked notes, disquieting electronics straight off the Get Carter soundtrack and lush ELO chorus vocals.  The lyrics are about escape and the song is genuinely surreal.  “Wild Honey” is another ambient stripped back masterpiece, Boo’s melancholic  lyrics, set against gently wafting brass notes and piano notes. “Old Song” is reassuring nostalgia with a sting, the backing suggests a woozy dream sequence, a disjointed flickering home movie that blurs into the next instrumental interlude.  “I Wish I Had Wings” is another uplifting song of hope, Boo’s voice set against the strings he is singing about and an ethereal fairground organ.   This is a brave album that looks and leaps at the same time as Shark like Boo Hewerdine must keep moving forwards or drown, but moving in an steadily evolving way not in a self conscious reinvention.  His strong voice stands proud and grounds all of the songs in Booness and makes it instantly recognisable.  Changing and staying the same, not everyone can that and even fewer do it this well.

Hoth Brothers – Workin’ and Dreamin’ | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 08.11.19

The Hoth Brothers are a dream band, two distinctive vocalists and players, Bard Erdington V and Boris McCutcheon, Sarah Ferrells Upright Bass and contrasting vocals and Greg Williams, striking percussion. Formed from conversations while pruning trees in the Santa Fe apple orchards it was working and dreaming right from the start. With Bard and Boris releasing their own albums The Hoth Brothers album was recorded in three days at Erdington’s House. From the first stomping beat this is physical, energetic music. “Trees Of Heaven” is sweet gospel meets bluegrass. The trio provide vocals with songwriter Boris McCutcheon’s soft Springsteen voice taking lead, over an infectious guitar, banjo and rattling drum beat. Bard Edrington V’s ear worm intense banjo leads on “Dreamin’ and Workin’. His vocal is natural, warm and recalls the fine singing of Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher. This ode to manual work just grooves along with some beautifully languid guitar. The lyric is an accurate description of days filled with day dreams while working and nights filled with dreams of labour.  Boris’ vocals on “Singing Grass” and “Bitter Frost” are superb, lifted straight off the front porch and motels of Springsteen’s Nebraska, filtered through the dead eyed melancholia of William’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. The backing is stripped back on this classic in the making. “Whisky and a Woodstove” is a folked up development from Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. It’s a feel good stomper with blues harmonica, driving guitar and a find twining of Boris n Bard’s voice. “Flint Hills” is a softly told tale of backwoods living, it just breathes along with a life of its own. “Horses Are Made of Wind” has a jazzy slippery vibe with a touch of 3am Dr John in the vocal and fine second voice from Stepahanie Hatfield. Totally unique chorus too. “Rendezvous Dual” has a wonderful rumbling vocal from Bard like a wasted Johnny Cash over a plaintive guitar. This is middle of the night, under the prairie stars, back against a rock music. The lyric, celebrating the cloud round the silver lining is fine too, punctuated by a bleak harmonica and a warm mandolin wind.  I’ve never left this mountainside, goes the lyric on “Chili Line”, painting authentic pictures of the album’s characters. This isn’t dude ranch Country, this is the real deal. There is a gospel pulse of a sun scorched work song running through “O the Birds Still Sing”, this is the well worn folk blues of real life on a superb track, with a lyric about the suffering behind beauty. “January” adds a slick JJ Cale guitar line to the band sound over some fine trio vocals building tension on this dark song that directs barbs and bile at the orange president. Joint composition “Balancing Act” is a  21st Century protest song, protesting modern life with a, lyric like a County Randy  Newman. Closer “Wild Robby” is an escapist Cowboy ballad and a tale of misadventure, over an insistent banjo and guitar riff the song cascades with larger life details.  A warm and entertaining listen, great grooves, three voices that work well together perform an interesting mix of familiar themes and some surprising left field lyrics over tidy guitar and banjo riffs.

Catfish Keith – Catfish Crawl | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.11.19

Catfish Crawl, the eighteenth album from Catfish Keith is the sound of one man and his acoustic guitar, having a superb time playing dexterous, feel good folk blues. A lifetime of digging into Delta music means Catfish Keith approaches the material with originality, sensitivity, chops and flair. “Catfish Crawl”, the title and opening track, features his percussive and sometimes knotty finger picking. There is a strong rhythmic pulse with some exciting runs and bends over the top. Keith’s vocals fit the material perfectly, covering growling blues and some looser exultations. “Go Back To Your Used To Be” is altogether darker and atmospheric with resonant notes on the guitar and some expressive flourishes.  Catfish Keith is a guitar master, as expressive and sensitive given space as the most artful Michael Hedges wannabe. He also has impeccable timing, with a voice that sounds like he means it and has walked the walk. This is no multi millionaire playing stadiums singing about drinking cheap bootleg whisky, this is the real deal. The instrumental intros to this track and “Bella Mina”, nuanced and exciting suggest that he has a superb instrumental album in those fingers. His picking and use of harmonics is just top notch. Catfish Keith also has that voice where words become sounds and expressions, on “Bella Mina” it’s almost like tight on the beat scatting. Like John Lee Hooker, he could sing a shopping list and it would sound so cool. “Dixie Darlin’” uses a little double tracking to lift the vocals even further. The pace and long lines suggest a vocal dexterity and power too.  “Don’t You Call Me Crazy” with a wonderfully resonant 12 String, is an expressive song of excess. “Ramblin Blues” by Johnny Shines pushes that resonant folk blues guitar and voice further still. Like the rest of the album the crunch and whine of that bottleneck on the National guitar is perfectly recorded and pops out of the speakers. There is more spark and life here than in a yard of Clapton blues albums as Catfish Keith yelps and croons through the song. “Willie Mae” is from the playing of Big Bill Broonzy. This is stripped back rhythm guitar, tapping foot and crooning vocal. A rhythmic and solid as a train, there is also a delicate sensitivity to the playing, this is a graceful tightrope walk by a ballet dancer with a guitar not mindless head down boogie. “By The Waters of the Minnetonka” is a subtle baritone national guitar instrumental, mixing passages of slide, picking and beautiful harmonics. “Memphis Morning Train” is a homage to the spirit of Arthur Big Boy Crudup. Catfish Keith’s ability to play with timing and space over his rythmic stomping foot alongside an expressive blues vocal is impressive. Catfish Keith delivers a superb version of Furry Lewis’ “Turn Your Money Green”, the guitar was busier and the vocal lower in the mix than other versions is heard, making it an exciting duet between the playing and singing. “Banana In Your Fruit Basket” is pure filth and innuendo in the way that only the blues can. The guitar is steady and rolling, with some wonderful flourishes, while Keith’s vocal smoulders, yelps and steams over the top. “Whats The Matter Now” from Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, marries some sweet crooning vocals and perfect bottleneck to close the set on a high.  Masterful guitar, expressive vocals and a foot like a booted metronome, this is a solid killer album from a remarkable performer and an institution who just gets better with time.

Franc Cinelli – Night Songs | Album Review | Song Circle Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 11.11.19

Franc Cinelli mixes the rich acoustic guitar of the classic folk singer songwriter with some more contemporary textures and beats. “Adventure / Love” has the feel of early Michael Chapman, with the chiming guitar, eastern raga like percussion and at times of “Tomorrow Never Knows” mysticism from Franc’s evocative voice. “Stay Strange” a wonderful exultation, like a blissed out “Forever Young” is a great feel good anthem. The song is driven by Drew Manley’s drums and exotic percussion with Cinelli urging us on. “Night Song” with its laid right back folk jazz feel features a superb languid vocal from Franc that is part Leonard Cohen rumble, part whispered Nick Drake. Maybe it was the title, but “Fly” and “Horses” with their spot on acoustic guitar and rich lyrics sounded to me like a later Drake, if things had played out differently. Not to suggest for a second to suggest that Franc is an imitator, rather that there is a nod and a similar vibe.  “Breathe”, with Chantal Brown’s vocals alongside Cinelli’s passioned lead, has a superb gospel feel to it, rising from a “Wade In The Water” vibe into something very spiritual and moving with some great string like sounds. Very moving indeed. “Four Walls” has a smooth louche alt County feel, like late night Lambchop, with Franc confined and crooning. “Rave On” is a romantic rambler song, with a captivating vocal and wonderful guitar part and again an intoxicating eastern vibe. “Walk With Me Jimi” is an upbeat percussive shuffle of a song as Franc speaks the lyric Paul Simon like, describing this larger than life character. Again Chantal Brown’s soulful vocals give the song more a gospel spirituality. Title track “Night Life” is a melancholy love song with evocative imagery and a romantic Spanish guitar while builds to an intense “Pinball Wizard strum. Lofi electronics, Cinelli’s passionate vocal and Laurence Saywood’s rich bass build the song to a big finish.  Franc says the songs come from a place of introspection, it is a definite set of mood music aptly collected under the title of Night Songs. This is a fine album that flows together, full of thoughts and triggering plenty too. A soundtrack to red wine, cold evenings and dark windows, a great listen.

Clever Square – Clever Square | Album Review | Bronson | Review by Marc Higgins | 14.11.19

Clever Square from Bologna have the dense, grainy sound of American indie rock. The disinterested knowing leer comes through in Giacomo D’Attorre’s vocals on “Are Glasses And Contacts Ruining Your Vision”. There are guitar sounds or bursts  rather than clever solos, long on emotion if short in duration. “Cringe” has another great guitar sound and melody with D’Attorre’s vocal nodding to early Robert Smith and other iconic 80s slackers. Adele Nigro adds a second contrasting vocal to “Avocado Phishing” and some outrageous Saxophone as out there as Morphine.  “Busted Religions” has a languid warm vocal like Grandaddy and a fine guitar and banjo melody. “Song For Beer Delivery” has torque and one of those fat slow guitar sounds that builds steadily. “He Cried She Decried” shimmers with almost Americana, sparkling guitar and a lyric about pain. “Endless Herman” is further proof, with its brilliant  weary vocal, electric piano and languid guitar chords that Clever Square really sparkle when they slow down and leave some space. Again great guitar sounds and electronics. “To Spoon Feed You” carries the same idea through a engaging slowed down strummed guitar and  piano ballad. Simple and captivating. “Fast Food Lovers” closes the album with a crunching guitar wig out song. Lo fi indie sound with integrity that really smoulders and engages on the tracks where the band slow down and cook up an atmosphere.

Johnny Coppin – 30 Songs | Album Review | Red Sky Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.11.19

Like most compilations that span decades, they usually provide a good place to start if you are not already familiar with a particular artist’s work. In the case of these thirty songs, the listener is formally introduced to the songwriting legacy of one of the UKs most enduring talents.  Johnny Coppin has been at it for a good while now and in just under two hours, over four decades can be traversed with a fine selection of songs lifted from several of Coppin’s album releases, both solo and in collaboration with others, such as Mike Silver and Phil Beer. Opening with one of the song writer’s favourite openers “When All is Said and Done”, the double CD gets off to a great start with one of Coppin’s most accessible songs.  Borrowing from the ‘red disc/blue disc’ combination, famously used for the Beatles most successful compilation albums, two sides of Coppin’s career are represented, with full band releases first, followed by those of a more stripped down acoustic setting. If four decades are represented, then the sound of the 1980s is unavoidably present, with over-produced and heavy on the reverb keyboards and guitars, but that goes with that particulat decade’s territory. There’s more than two sides to this writer’s credentials though, and Coppin takes the poetry of Charles Causley, Christopher Marlowe and Laurie Lee, among others, and crafts memorable songs from their words, notably Causley’s “Innocents’ Song”, later covered by the popular folk outfit Show of Hands and once again prepares us for the seasonal period and just in time. On the whole, these are songs of a well-travelled troubadour and provide a condensed taste of a notable song weaver’s story so far, which serves as a fine introduction to Johnny Coppin’s prolific canon, which in turn could have those new to the songs delving further.

Aziza Brahim – Sahari | Album Review | Glitterbeat Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.11.19

The Algerian singer, actress and activist Aziza Brahim returns with Sahari, her fourth studio album and her third released on the Glitterbeat label, which once again reflects the tragedy, turmoil and tradition of her homeland. Far from the Saharawi refugee camps of the Tindouf region of Algeria, Brahim sets out her stall in Barcelona, her adopted home and once again delivers some of the most accessible music in the genre, with instantly memorable melodies and engaging rhythms throughout.  Her distinctive voice drives the songs along, reminding us that from tragic circumstances comes enchanting music, the words of which are really inconsequential, leaving the feel of the arrangements to do all the necessary communicating.   The voice and the guitars are very much to the fore, underpinned by the tabal drum, which is effectively at the very heart of this music.  The title track itself is a good example of old traditional styles meeting head on with contemporary grooves, together with some highly infectious tribal vocal techniques. The same can be said for the arresting “Ard el Hub”. These songs can be trance-like in places, which is probably the best way to enjoy the music; to find the time and inclination to fully absorb yourself in these delightful rhythms. If the songs reflect the hardships and turmoil of music in exile, then the cover shot for Sahari, of a young girl dressed as a ballerina against a refugee camp background is utterly compelling, with optimistic young dreams captured right there against vivid blues skies. Wonderful.

Luke Jackson – Journals | Album Review | First Take | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.11.19

It’s perhaps remarkable that at just 25, Luke Jackson delivers his fifth album, when some musicians of this age are barely off the starting line.  It’s even more remarkable that a 25 year-old can write such a song as “Baby Boomers”, an astute comment on our times, which encapsulates perfectly a young person’s fears.  Adopted by the British folk community, Luke’s stylised approach and mannered vocal authority could equally fit neatly into a much wider arena, much in the way of your Ed Sheerans, in fact it’s hard to resist thinking that if only Sheeran’s audience could hear these songs!  Co-produced with Dan Lucas by his side, Journals shows a maturity in Luke’s songwriting. If “Baby Boomers” demonstrates Luke’s credentials as a fine chronicler of modern times, even if might be a one-off Billy Bragg/Grace Petrie moment (although “This Ain’t Love (But It’ll Do)” has its moments), then “Home” shows us Luke’s sensitive side, with a powerful love song topped by a show-stopping power ballad vocal performance.  The album’s show stopper is probably “Queen in Her Own Way”, which takes us to highly personal territory, a beautiful statement of family love, sung in the third person and addressed to Luke’s father upon the occasion of his Nan’s passing.  With a gentle reading of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” following immediately afterwards, almost as a coda, any Larry David murmurs of disdain are withheld on this occasion. Famously sacrosanct territory it has to be said, with only one truly acceptable re-working, which she did herself for the Unhalfbricking album fifty years ago, it’s completely understandable how irresistible this song can be; it’s a damn good take all the same.

Various Artists – Sunshine of Your Love: A Concert for Jack Bruce | Album Review | MIG | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.11.19

Jack Bruce’s stately position in the history of popular music cannot be overstated. A stalwart of the British blues boom of the early 1960s and noted bassist with such outfits as Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organisation, to the much more succinctly monikered rock trio Cream, the musician is remembered here in a concert staged on the first anniversary of his death. The concert brings together a variety of musician friends, former collaborators and members of Bruce’s own family in a celebration of his best loved work, including such songs as “I Feel Free”, “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love”, which the three disc release is named for. Among the invited musicians captured here on two CDs plus a DVD film of the event, include volatile Cream band mate, the late Ginger Baker, who appears towards the end of the show, staged at the Roundhouse in London, on both “We’re Going Wrong” and the aforementioned “Sunshine of Your Love”, whilst Eric Clapton, who wasn’t in attendance, contributes the final instrumental “For Jack”, a plaintive acoustic meditation accompanied by some familiar humming, with the famed guitarist clearly reminiscing about his old friend.  The accompanying concert, organised by Jack’s daughter Aruba Red and widow Margrit Bruce Seyffer, is captured on the accompanying DVD, which opens with some vintage monochrome footage of Bruce performing “Train Time”, a bluesy harp solo, reminding us of the giant behind the concert that follows. The opening song “Hit and Run” featuring fellow bassist Mark King, interweaving vocal duties with Stealth, also features Clem Clempson, looking uncannily like Clapton, who delivers some fine lead guitar. The same line-up follows with a stirring take on “I Feel Free”, the scat vocal intro having Bruce’s unmistakable mark all over it. If Liam Bailey contributes some eerily close vocals, especially on “Politician” and the old Skip James blues “I’m So Glad”, other notable appearances include Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and British soul singer Joss Stone. With a couple of high points being “Don’t Look Now” delivered by the octave-spanning London-based singer Nandi, together with an inventive cello-accompanied “Rope Ladder to the Moon” courtesy of Ayanna Witter-Johnson, the only real ‘neither here nor there’ moment goes to Hugh Cornwell and his soulless and forgettable “Hear Me Calling Your Name”, only the slightest niggle in an overall glowing event, which raised money at the time and continues to raise money for good causes.

Atlantaeum Flood – One Day | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 15.11.19

Those of us with memories as long as a Camel track, will recall a time when Prog’s overblown concerts – an articulated lorry just for the giant Persian carpet for example –  resulted in a speedy return to the three minute pop song courtesy of a thing called Punk. Then there was the lamentable visage of Andrew Latimer reaching Nirvana during an overlong guitar solo in The Snow Goose on the OGWT back in the day, which had us all reaching for the off switch.  Prog isn’t new by any means and there are those among us who still search for inventiveness and progression via the twelve notes available to us.   Atlantæum Flood, a name that includes a ligature, which in itself achieves its Prog pretension status, may be looking towards pushing the boundaries with this concept album, each track essentially named for the eight distinctive periods that make up an ordinary day, “Before Sunrise”, “After Sunrise”, “Before Noon” etc. and onward to midnight (or just after), but there’s not an awful lot of difference between each of these pieces, they all sound pretty much mid-morning.  Each piece, essentially a chord progression repeated over and over with one or two embellishments, enjoys bits of birdsong, some ethereal noodling, one or two Mike Oldfield-like guitar motifs and some tension building arrangements, all of which is quite listenable, certainly more than what might be considered minimalist elevator music, but One Day sadly fails to sufficiently excite.

Finn Paul – Wind and Stone | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 18.11.19

Finn Paul has the perfect voice for his classic acoustic material, looking backwards it has the distinctive lilt of Donovan and a touch of more contemporary Nick Mulvay. Scottish singer songwriter and guitarist Finn draws on growing up in Perthshire and memories of Joni Mitchell, John Martyn, Sandy Denny and Led Zeppelin, among others soundtracking childhood car journeys. “Spanish Silver” is an evocative song, layered guitars, Psych sounds and a emotional layered vocal, mandolin ending that is straight out of “The Battle of Evermore”. “The Watcher” is a more stripped back affair, the focus is on Finn’s voice slipping from restrained to looser on the choruses. His guitar part is a subtle delight too. “Norwegian Sea” reminds me of Mulvey, Finn Paul’s voice set against rippling keys and atmospherics, drawing you in. “Treat Her Fair” is mantra like, a crooned soulful love song with Finn like a folky Van Morrison riffing on the chorus, building up a sublime vibe. Blissed out music that locks into an atmospheric groove, with Daisy Tempest’s vocals a final delight.   “Anna” opens with a electro acoustic shimmering interlude that recalls John Martyn. Finn’s vocal is so soulful like the best of Ben Howard or Damien Rice, solo or layered this is love song quiet moment perfection. A mood piece of aching emotion that is crying out to be soundtrack music or on a million beak up playlists. “Fortune” continues the intimate folk soul mood, Finn’s ability to repeat a word, Morrison like, playing with the subtle differences and inflections is just a delight. “Dance It All Away”, a song of regrets, is built around producer Angus Lyon’s beautiful, sparse, piano part. Finn delivers the ballad with restraint and power, could be another James Bay on the rise here. The title track has a delicately pastoral guitar part more Anthony Philips Genesis than Folk with rich Cello and violin  later, Paul’s vocal double tracked and emotional is, the real star against this foil, rolling the words and using every nuance fully, great closer.  A wonderful debut album that nods to the past, contemporaries and hints of a great future.

Allison Lupton – Words Of Love | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 18.11.19

Alison, Singer, Flautist from Ontario Canada is a self styled Celtic folk musician and performer.  Words of Love, her forth solo album is a rich mix kof Celtic traditional music, American or Canadian Folk and Bluegrass. For this album Alison leads an allstar International band including the amazing Andrew Collins on mandolin, Tony  McManus on guitar and Ivan Rosenberg on dobro. “Away” opens with Alison’s soaring voice and Tony’s nimbly strummed guitar.  Shane Cook’s very Irish sounding fiddle and Lupton’s own flute and Whistles ensure that this fine track, like much of the album, has a foot on both sides if the Atlantic. “What Will I Dream” a song by Lupton  reflecting on Canada’s place in the world, with Andrew’s insistent mandolin, the slippery dobro and Lupton’s pure voice put me in mind of the best of Crooked Still and their spry modern Bluegrass. “When First I Went To Caledonia” contrasts McManus’ atmospheric guitar and some powerful Double Bass from Joseph Phillips. Lupton shines through with her singing on this migrants song and her sublime playing too. “Words Of Love” another Lupton feel good song is a delight with its lush chorus and another top class vocal from Lupton. “Lost Jimmy Whelan” is a traditional lament for a dead lover. The bowed Double Bass introduction, Alison’s  singing and the eerie fiddle notes are very atmospheric, real hairs on the back of the neck stuff. Proper Psych Folk. “Ontario Tune Set” is an opportunity for the cracking musicianship of the band to show through as Alison, Shane and others fly gracefully through a set of tunes. It maybe an Ontario set, but what I guess is Tony’s guitar carries through the percussive sense of the bodhran. “Dusty Boots” is another atmospheric song with the band building up an eerie atmosphere of Americana and Celtic sounds behind Alison’s vocal. The chorus is a perfect marriage of Bluegrass’ tight harmonies and the lush group vocals of Clan as with this track being for me one of album highlights. “Poverty Knock” is a, West Yorkshire Weavers song Alison learnt from Pete Coe. Lupton’s blends the evocative chorus with some lively Bluegrass Mandolin Guitar and Dobro. The lyric may be dark but the band’s playing on this and “I Will Rise” is bright and lively. “The Grand River Waltz” is a stately, graceful glide of an instrumental, reflecting on Alison’s daily watching of the river on its journey to Lake Erie. This is a beautiful and reflective end to a bright, lively and atmospheric album.

Ainsley Hamill – Belle of the Ball | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.12.19

This debut outing as a solo artist sees Cardross singer Ainsley Hamill stretching out with just five songs on her first solo EP Belle of the Ball.  Already known for her work with Barluath, The Unusual Suspects and Fourth Moon, Hamill’s refreshingly soulful voice, a mixture of Julie Fowliss and Heather Small (if you can imagine that), is very much to the fore, backed by some well chosen accompanists, notably The Lost Boy’s Toby Shaer and The Willows’ Evan Carson.  Equally at home with traditional Gaelic material “Latha Dhomh’s Mi Buain a’ Choirce” and self penned originals “Runaways”, “The Green Woods Back Home” and the title song “Belle of the Ball”, Ainsley Hamill appears to have all the confidence and vocal assurance to find her own niche in this ever expanding genre. Belle of the Ball provides a taster of what’s to come when she releases her debut album due for release in 2020.

Benji Kirkpatrick and the Excess – Gold Has Worn Away | Album Review | Westpark Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.12.19

Having served as a longtime member of both Bellowhead and Faustus, it came as something of a surprise when in 2015, Benji Kirkpatrick delivered the excellent Hendrix Songs album, which effectively saw the multi-instrumentalist stripping down to basics a dozen of the legendary guitarist’s best loved songs to reveal something very special indeed; great songs with equally great melodies, performed with more than a little TLC.  Four years on and still loaded with musical vigour, the son of folkies John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris, once again looks towards his more rock oriented roots, this time concentrating on thirteen rock-infused originals.  Opting for the classic power trio format, Kirkpatrick is joined by Pete Flood on drums and Pete Thomas on bass, who between them make for a cohesive driving unit. The songs are unsurprisingly mature with some fine arrangements, fleshed out by the inclusion of just two guest vocalists, Rowan Godel and Janie Mitchell.  The driving “Pinned Down” and “Human Cost” to the stomping “A Classic Cut” are matched measure for measure by the instrumentals, the Eastern-influenced “Stuck in the Loop”, and the complex Maartin Allcock-like grooves of “Got to be all Mine” to the album’s show stopper, the soul-fuelled “In Your Cave.” True to most classic rock albums, there also the obligatory sensitive ‘Tears in Heaven’ moment, in this case the delicate “Back to the Fold”, which is perfectly poised for balance. Gold Has Worn Away shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does and therefore isn’t going up onto the dusty shelf anytime soon.

Jim Moray – The Outlander | Album Review | Managed Decline | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.12.19

The first thing to notice on The Outsider, is just how good it sounds. The guitar on “The Isle of St Helena” just couldn’t sound better, each ‘turnaround’ almost melts into your ears.  The collection of traditional songs are delivered in a most direct, uncluttered fashion, with Moray on top vocal form. The arrangements are given a few ‘Stick in the Wheel’ type hand claps rather than bothering with a drum kit or array of Yamashta-like percussion, which keeps things tight and accessible.  The songs remain pretty simple throughout, which they each appear to benefit from.  Recorded at three or four locations around the UK, the ten songs benefit further from some choice contributions from Sam Sweeney, Nick Hart and Jack Rutter, among others, along with a recently acquired 1949 Epiphone Triumph, apparently obtained from a Liverpool cabby.  Joined by Josienne Clarke on “Lord Gregory”, the duet stands out as an album highlight, which is reminiscent of the Child Ballads project produced by Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer a few years ago. Once again, a flawless pairing. Now resident in Merseyside, a place that presumably has more to offer than taxi drivers’ discarded vintage instruments, the album concludes with a warm and faithful reading of “The Leaving of Liverpool”, something that would presumably grieve this singer very much.

Mishra – The Loft Tapes | Album Review | Hudson Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.12.19

There’s at least two ways of understanding the music of Mishra, the obvious way being to hear the songs ant tunes on this album, the other way being to see them in the flesh. For a backstage radio session at this summer’s Cambridge Folk Festival for instance, the four-piece outfit appeared to take the traditional pose of such notable musicians as Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, by sitting cross-legged in a slight crescent shape, performing with such instruments as the Tabla and Calabash as well as the more Western derived banjo, bouzouki and whistles.  Born out of the duo of Kate Griffin and Ford Collier, Mishra sees the two musicians joined by Joss Mann-Hazell on bouzouki and double bass and John Ball on Tabla, whose role is a little like that of Garth Hudson of The Band fame, that of a teacher, his experience in Indian Classical music being crucial to Mishra’s development.  On The Loft Tapes, the musicians take their Eastern-flavoured music to new areas as they interweave American and their own British roots influences into the mix, notably on “Road Dust and Honey” and “Taru”, together with the instrumentals such as “Jog for Joy”, whilst also including an inventive take on Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town”.

Josienne Clark – In All Weather | Album Review | Rough Trade | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.12.19

There’s little doubt that Josienne Clarke is possessed of one of the most original singing voices in the country, not only in the melancholy of her timbre, but also in her unique phrasing, each lyric pitched like poetry, delivered with poise and high artistry.  Having worked closely with both guitarist Ben Walker, the jazz composer Kit Downes and more recently Samantha Whates in PicaPica, Josienne has developed her rich vocal style without losing any of her originality, inventiveness and humour.  The songs included on her first solo record on Rough Trade are distinctively Josienne’s, a little bit quirky, a little bit serious, a little bit playful, a little bit wistful, but never throwaway. It’s almost as if every syllable and every note are strategically placed for best effect, from the mournful opener “Learning to Sail in All Weather”, the optimistic “Leaving London” to the highly infectious pop drama of “Slender, Sad and Sentimental”, which should be compulsory listening when running the hoover around the house.

Awkward Family Portraits – Everything We’ve Done Up Until Now Except What We’ve Done Since | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | 01.12.19

Awkward Family Portraits. With a name that sounds like a meme or social media hash tag this band mixes Western Swing, Rock n Roll, Louche Gypsy Jazz, Louis Jordan, the guitar of Les Paul and knowing County. So well do this band get inside 50s valve Rock n Roll that it comes as a surprise to realise they are young players and hail from Scotland. “AFP Theme”, sounding like a late night broadcast from a 50s Twilight Zone Country Station cutting through the static, brilliantly defines the quartet’s territory perfectly. The intro is pure Hillbilly Blues Brothers meets Bob Wills from Julen Santamaria. “Keep On Keeping On” and “Can’t Control Cupid” with an infectious shuffle beat and some sharp electric guitar and sweet fiddle are straight ahead good time music. “Chapati 3” with a great lead from Timmy Allen is languid rockabilly with some wonderfully smooth harmony vocals. “Way The Wind Blows” is superb crooned Rock n Roll with a killer 50s guitar solo from Timmy and Gipsy fiddle from Roo Geddes.  Beneath the Rock n Roll spit n shine of “Kick The Bucket” there is a serious message delivered with gallows humour as aptly as a band named Awkward Family Portraits can. The punch behind the smile. “Day in the Life of a Lying Man” with lines straight from National Enquirer is a wry raspberry at fake news. The wry lyrics are beautifully wrapped around some slick guitar picking and fine playing. Surprise at the end is “Come On Down” a heartfelt acoustic Country song that owes more to porch bluegrass and Gillian Welch than electric Rock n Roll, revealing some punch in Allan’s voice. A sincere wry lament, to leave you thoughtful rather than smiling. Like the game box cover says from ages 1 to 100 fun for all the family. Seriously slick informed music, delivered with a degree of homage and a smile.

Diabel Cissokho – Rhythm of the Griot | Album Review | Kafou Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.12.19

“We Can Do Blues” sings Diabel Cissokho just ten seconds into the opening song on this, the Senegalese singer and kora master’s fifth album release Rhythm of the Griot. Delivered in French, “On Sait Faire Blues” is an affirmation of what soon becomes pretty obvious, that this band can indeed do the blues. It’s a crossover of sorts, a mixture of trance-like blues and delicate kora playing in the traditional style, from a musician who now splits his time between his native home of Senegal and his adoptive home of Cornwall. The songs here may seem contemporary and vibrant, with some over-loaded reverb, but the essence of this music stretches back through centuries and some of that feel is ingrained in the rhythms he and his collaborators produce.  The sparring between the stringed instruments and the blues harp is evident on the instrumental “Koullo”, which brings a sense of a blues conversation, with each instrument vying for dominance, whilst “Manssaya” achieves the same but within the context of a conversation between voice and kora. The highly infectious call and response groove to standout track “Barakhama” brings possibly the strongest sense of tradition, reminiscent of some of Ali Fark Toure’s early work, as does the final track “Fasso”, with a guest vocal performance courtesy of Nama Cissokho.

Lakou Mizik – HaitiaNola | Album Review | Cumbancha | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.12.19

Uplifting collaboration between Lakou Mizik and a host of guests, from Leyla McCalla and the Preservation Hall Jazz band to members of Arcade Fire. Never a dull moment from start to finish with some of the most infectious grooves and festival rhythms, where Haiti meets New Orleans with relish. With both historical and cultural connections, the Caribbean spirit is matched with the enduring spirit of Louisiana, where the mix of styles and textures go hand in hand, with each of the musicians delivering fine performances throughout, both vocally and instrumentally.  With the disastrous events of 2010 clearly serving as the foundation upon which Lakou Mizik was built, a spirit of empathy and solidarity unifies the ‘collaborative gumbo’, which comes over as pure celebration. The celebratory “Iko Kreyol” makes an appearance, reminding us once again of its place in both Haitian and New Orleans culture, a nod also to the Dixie Cups and the late Dr John. It’s not all street party and celebration though, with one or two moonlit melodies such as Steeve Valcourt’s sumptuous “Rasanbleman”, featuring Leyla McCalla’s voice and cello. With contributions from Anders Osborne, Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews and Jon Cleary among others, HaitiaNola brings a unique blend of Mardi Gras and Kanaval, which is both irresistible and essential listening.

Kankou – Kuma | Album Review | Cannery Row Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.12.19

Mali’s Kankou Kouyate and Scots producer Mark Mulholland join forces for this exceptionally rich and varied album, which seems to effortlessly span musical cultures. Kuma, which translates to ‘Words’, finds Kankou on fine form, the warmth and texture of her voice very much in focus, with some equally rich arrangements. Having met in Bamako in 2017, the two musicians have developed a working relationship which is full of empathy and innovation.  Hailing from a highly respected family of musicians steeped in the Griot and Jeli traditions, her father being Fousseyni Kouyate, brother of Bassekou Kouyate, Kankou manages to bring her own musical heritage into a fresh contemporary landscape with an almost Neil Young-like title track, a Sandy Denny-ish “Obadya” and a veritable rock workout on “Dimi”, complete with sneering heavy on the wah-wah guitar licks. Through it all though, it’s Kankou’s voice that leads us on the journey, which also features contributions from Olaf Hund on ‘electronics’ and Vincent Bucher on harmonica.

The Milk Carton Kids – The Only Ones | Album Review | Thirty Tigers | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 02.12.19

Nice to see the Milk Carton Kids back to their stripped down acoustic best, there’s nothing quite like gently played acoustic instruments to bring out the best in close harmony voices. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan have already established the fact that they have two of the most compatible voices on the acoustic music scene and the seven self-penned songs on The Only Ones very much confirms this.  With some tasty guitar licks ala David Rawlings, especially on “I’ll Be Gone” and “I Was Alive”, the duo pepper their songs with a bright and crisp sound throughout, while their voices dovetail effortlessly on each of the songs. There’s an intimate feel maintained, especially on “My Name is Ana”, which you can imagine being performed right there in your room, just for you. The only negative point I reluctantly mention with this release is that it’s a little too short, just 25 minutes, which is no doubt handy for the 10” vinyl release, but on CD, a bit of a brief encounter, in fact about the size of a pixel.

Catherine Rudie – The Möbius Kiss | Album Review | Madge Wildfire Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.12.19

Having endured the dual crisis of the termination of both a long term relationship and the creative space in which the London-based singer songwriter worked, Catherine Rudie responded by channeling her creative juices into the making of The Möbius Kiss, the title being derived from a David Byrne drawing. Losing herself in an almost covert operation, of stealing time at her workplace at the weekend, a space conducive to creativity and an ideal replacement for the one she had lost, the Sutherland-born musician focused on her own situation, with beguiling results, one of them being the sound of the building’s elevator, together with the proclamation ‘going up’ in the introduction. Those results have been further enhanced in this debut album, with more than a little assistance from Stephen Hodd.  Otherworldly in places, Catherine’s breathy, almost spoken passages, evoke a ‘faeries at the bottom of the garden’ feel, a momentary escape from reality. Traditional instruments such as the guitar, piano and percussion get a mention in the credits, but are then dwarfed by the presence of the term ‘sounds’, suggesting that the songs are largely accompanied by ethereal instrumentation or perhaps anything that comes to hand. Despite the almost dreamlike arrangements throughout, the lyrical content verges on the darker side of the human condition with the eerie counting that lurks within the title song, together with the almost isolated statement ‘electric orange’, then the broken bottles and sharp knives of “Everyday Dangers”, the stinging insects of “Chasing Wasps” with the vaporous peel of a midday bell, to the slightly unnerving fingers of “The Airtraffic Controller”. It’s all rather mystifying and slightly perplexing, but definitely worth further investigation.

Frank Birtwistle – Volume Two | EP Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.12.19

On this second helping, Frank Birtwistle, the Sheffield-based composer and guitar player, delivers seven evocative instrumentals, each of which explore the tonal qualities of the acoustic guitar, much in the manner of the Windham Hill musicians before him. With just single word titles, that is with the exception of “Midsummer Haze”, such pieces as “Horizon”, “Gossamer” and “Seasons” take us on a restful, meditative and trance-like journey.  At times reminiscent of the guitar playing of Gordon Giltrap, Frank Birtwistle never overloads his pieces with an unnecessary note count and tempo remains steady throughout. There’s dexterity in his playing but nothing flashy, reminding us once again that guitar playing needn’t necessarily be a competition. Volumes One, Three and Four are also available from the artist.

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley – 11th Street Sekondi | Album Review | Agogo Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 07.12.19

The award-winning Ghanaian saxophonist and singer Gyedu-Blay Ambolley returns with an album of feel good songs, each of which is an indication that Highlife is alive and well. His twelfth album release since 1973, 11th Street Sekondi appears to continue from where the late Fela Kuti left off, albeit in much shorter portions. With Afrobeat being very much the order of the day, Ambolley’s arrangements occasionally come very close to the Kuti style, notably the engaging “I No Dey Talk I Do Dey Lie” and “Who Made Your Body Like Dat”.  Known as an early pioneer of Rap, Ambolley’s rich baritone has become widely known both on home turf and throughout the world, the title of this album a direct reference to the district of West Ghana, where the musician was raised. If the sprawling “Ignorance” delivers its ‘call and response’ message to a driving beat, “Who Go Pay” takes on a much more joyful attitude, a song to bring a bit of sunshine to these bleak winter months.

Steve Hogg and Jeff Spencer – Present Nilsson Sings Newman | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.12.19

Tribute album’ are fun, more so for the artist recreating the music than for the listener it has to be said. Many classic albums have been carefully recreated in an almost forensic fashion, with bold attempts to get the timbre of the voice just right or the sound of the bass spot on. It’s rather curious then that in the case of this album, which sets out to revisit Harry Nilsson’s homage to a selection of Randy Newman songs, that we have a tribute of a tribute. The point of it all is unclear, but the sound of it is rather good. Perhaps there was an opportunity here to cover ten different Newman songs (there are plenty to go at), but I rather suspect this is more a homage to the late Harry Nilsson, a much missed talent. Hopefully, Steve Hogg and Jeff Spencer’s labours here will signpost new listeners to the original release fifty years on.

Fat Suit – Waifs and Strays | Album Review | Equinox Records | Review by Marc Higgins | 14.12.19

Fat Suit are, as the name might uncharitably suggest a big band and Waifs & Strays, their fourth album is expansive and far reaching with an incredible twenty eight musicians listed on the sleeve. Unlike the outfits namesake however their music is never grotesque, out-sized or cumbersome. This is a big band with a big sound featuring broad strokes, textures and soloists. The arrangements and writing is a delight throughout an album that fizzes with interest from its opening to its fade.  “Rumblings” opens with some Ellington brass sounds and 70s Cop TV show theme funk. There is a massive groove and some almost Prog keyboards, but the star is soloist Fraser Jackson’s electric guitar with touches of fusion Jeff Beck, Dave Gilmour’s wobbled notes and Zappa’s bent notes. A superb opener with the recording really putting my speakers through their paces. “Keo” has a more knotty time signature allowing drummer Mark Scobbie to show off with some fine stops and starts. Mateusz Sobieski’s funky and some times barbed Tenor Saxophone pushes out some huge notes like full bodied red wine. The track builds and builds, with a huge peak in the middle that decays to a rhythm section and electronics complex dance, both the build and the tap like stuttering dance are a funky joy. “The Crane and the Crow” features two definite voices. A big triumphant storming opening and a more questioning sparse section for Johnny Woodham’s very Nordic sounding muted trumpet then finally Woodham’s flies over the rest of the band.  “Countryside Quiet” is more folky and pastoral with Corrina Hewat’s Harp, strings and some beautiful piano building up a rich Celtic interlude that is reflective and meditative after the earlier stomp. “Brum Doing A Wheelie” is a glorious mash up of brass, pulsing keyboards, Hitchcock cinematic strings, some huge sounding runs the drum kit and a wonderfully upbeat keyboard solo. “Caretaker” is big tight and thumping  with Brass and huge bass notes funkily beating out a rhythm while Liam Shortall’s Trombone fires out sliding notes and salvos, again my Amp and Speakers were put through their paces. Wonderfully inventive Ska Brass and dubby electronics closing section too. “Uh-Oh” is again knotty and twisting with some of those mid 70’s Frank Zappa textured stops and starts that only a very tight band can do. Liam Shortall’s Trombone muscles through again and the whole piece doesn’t let up for a minute from its Average White Band “Pick Up The Pieces” guitar riff, to its shimmering keyboard funk, some joyous Brass flourishes, restrained solos from Sobieski’s Tenor and a final freak out. If that it is Davie Dinsmuir’s guitar that opens “Mombasa” then it is a thing of beauty on the quiet section and the muscular blasts that come afterwards. Or it might be Gus Stirrat’s Bass that smoulders through the intro. Anyone who thinks Jazz has become beard stroking music appreciated from an armchair needs to hear this big bodied swaggering stomp that still manages to flutter and sparkle at the same time. Closer “Lunar Milk” is more subdued and reflective but still with that body builder strength and power. After a beautiful opening Alan Benzie conjours up a Miles Davis In a Silent Way keyboard interlude while the strings soothe. This in album that shifts slowly through moods and colours like a lava lamp. Turn your back for a moment and something striking has shifted and changed musics or idioms to go elsewhere while still locked into the groove. This is modern electric jazz for people who like jazz and irrepressible expansive instrumental music for people who hate jazz. Fat Suit? Phat Suit more like.

Willie Campbell and Band – DiLeab: A Legacy | EP Review | Comhhairle Nan Eilean Siar | Review by Marc Higgins | 28.12.19

DiLeab: A Legacy is an EP recorded by Willie Campbell. He was commissioned to write a set of songs that were then explored and developed with schools from Barra, Ulst, Harris and Lewis, the Western Isles. Students from The Nicholson Institute, Stornoway Primary, Laxdale Primary, Sir E Scott, Castlebay Community School and Sgoil Bhaile á Mhanaich then accompanied Willie on this EP, telling these tales of The Western Isles. The pairing gives the song a connection, a depth and a gravitas that they might not have had if Campbell alone had delivered these lyrics and tales.  “My Time Wasn’t At Hand” is a folk classic. An emotional tale of loss and leaving is sensitively delivered by Willie with fine backing from the youth choir. “Innse Gall” an anthem for the Western Islands is a straight duet with Willie and the childrens’ choir singing together, sometimes with accompaniment, sometimes a capella. “In Honor Of The Past” is a kind of Country or Americana call and response with lines shared or bounced between Willie and the choir. The spring in the tune and the uplifting vocals are strangely at odds with the lyrics dealing with the clearances. “We Sleep At Peace” is another County classic lyric and vocal, dealing with loss. Willie’s rich voice carries the verses well and the choir accompaniment on the chorus adds poignancy. “On a Wave to the West” is another strong song, with the band suggesting the Island origin and the Canadian destination of the song’s travellers and migrants. Again the pairing of the vocals adds an emotional weight to the telling of the tale.  This is an interesting set of songs and an inspired pairing with some strong songs and powerful performances.

The Legends of Tomorrow – Don’t Go to Nashville | EP Review | Market Square Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.12.19

Despite Colin Harper’s assertion that these songs are merely observations, “Don’t Go to Nashville” comes over as either a tongue-in-cheek or a scathing attack on Music City, reminding us of the fact that there just might be “too many songs and too many co-writes going wrong”, while name checking the unusual coupling of Joni Mitchell and Ralph McTell in the same sentence and an overriding nod towards “Hey Jude” during the coda.  The author of such books as Dazzling Stranger (Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival), Harper occasionally puts aside his pen and picks up his guitar to perform with a bunch of friends under the guise of ‘Legends of Tomorrow’, where such songs emerge.    Sandwiched between two new songs, “Don’t Go to Nashville” and the teasingly curious “Greta Thunberg at the End of Time”, an environmental meditation in the style of The Cranberries, are three songs originally recorded between 2000 and 2008, remastered here by Cormac O’Kane for this release. A stand out “People on the Highway” recalls Pentangle’s Solomon’s Seal-period and features a fine vocal courtesy of Janet Henry as well as an uncredited Martin Hayes on fiddle.

Wayward Jane – Old Train | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.12.19

Wayward Jane have so much going for them musically, not least the voice of Sam Gillespie, whose instantly identifiable tones bring a warmth to the songs on the Edinburgh-based quartet’s second album release. “Hills of Mexico” is infused with everything that makes Old Time folk music accessible today, with a percussive banjo, skittering fiddle, unintrusive double bass, all of which brings the best out of Gillespie’s lead voice and Rachel Walker’s almost subliminal backing vocal. A fine start to an album of fine songs and instrumentals. If the excellent “September” and the title song highlight both ends of Gillespie’s vocal range, then “Lyra’s Tune” and “Sandy’s Mudcat” showcase the instrumental prowess of all four musicians, without any obvious pointless ‘sore fingers’ showiness.  Rachel Walker’s voice can be enjoyed on “Carolina”, her regional dialect clearly cutting through, successfully bridging the Atlantic Ocean with panache. Throughout the album, there’s a live feel devoid of clutter and ruthless overdubbing, focusing instead on the sound the band presumably aim for when standing before their audiences, of which this reviewer wishes to be part of before too long.  With fine interpretations of the Son House blues “County Farm” and Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues”, Old Train is almost guaranteed to find its way onto your player time and time again.

Natalie MacMaster – Sketches | Album Review | Linus Entertainment | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.12.19

Natalie MacMaster’s status as Canada’s ‘Queen of the Fiddle’ is confirmed once again here with her first album release in eight years.  As expected, there’s some inspired playing on the dozen tracks, not only from Natalie’s own dexterous fingers but also from accompanist Tim Edey, whose flair on both guitar and accordion cannot be overstated.  There’s a stream of pure joy flowing through the centre of this album, with each instrumental set showcasing the relationship between each of the instruments, a veritable conversation devoid of words.  If these are merely sketches as the title suggests, then I’d like to hear the finished work. The album almost serves as a ‘music for all occasions’ scenario; there’s barn dances, square dances, slip jigs and reels a plenty, each of which can be equally enjoyed seated or up on your feet. “Professor Blackie” alone is such a beautiful air, that you can easily imagine it being chosen for the birth of a child, the first dance at a wedding or indeed, a funeral for a friend.

Catherine MacLellan – Coyote | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.12.19

After a brief period of time away from song writing in order to concentrate on a body of work related to her late father, Catherine MacLellan returns with her sixth album to date, a showcase of mature song writing with melodies you feel you might already know (but more than likely don’t).  Despite the lineage, the daughter of renowned Canadian songwriter Gene MacLellan, famed for penning such songs as “Snowbird”, a hit for Anne Murray back in 1970, together with comparisons to fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, Catherine MacLellan can really be considered an artist in her own right, with a penchant for delivering songs that are uniquely her own.  Despite Catherine’s devotion to other projects, the last four years have proved to be highly productive judging by the standard of these fourteen songs and we need look no further than the opening title song “Coyote” for proof of Catherine’s credentials as a first rate wordsmith. The songs such as “The Road is Divided”, “Waiting on My Love” and “Out of Time” benefit from fine arrangements and a full band sound, which is neither cloying nor cluttered; in fact everything seems to fit dovetail-like. In the hands of Catherine MacLellan, nouns such as reflection, heartbreak and hopefulness become more than mere words, they become almost tangible entities through these songs.

Kelly Steward – Tales and Tributes of the Deserving and Not So | Album Review | Glass Wing Records | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.12.19

The cover shot of this album by Illinois-born singer songwriter Kelly Steward suggests that she has at least two sides, those being the ‘tales’ and ‘tributes’ or perhaps the ‘deserving’ and the ‘not so’.  It’s an intriguing start, rewarded by what lies beneath the surface. There’s a feeling that this debut album has been a long time coming, after years of movement, of life changes, of reasons to make songs and at the age of 42, it just seems like the right time to release her debut full length album.  The presence of Greg Whitson’s lap steel and Dan Pitney’s pedal steel keep the country roots growing throughout, which effectively feed Steward’s country sensibilities, but there are also bluesy moments, such as “Outlaw” and “Earthquake”, together with an obvious nod of respect towards Bonnie Raitt on “No Time for loving You”. At the heart of the album comes a moment when genres and styles become obsolete, with the sublime “Travelin’ Ghost”, a moment to savour.

Matthew Robb – Dead Men Have No Dreams | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.12.19

The name Townes Van Zandt immediately springs to mind from the opening line of the title song on Matthew Robb’s latest release Dead Men Have No Dreams. The rugged sepia mugshot featured on the cover conjures a mixture of archive material from Ken Burns’ Civil War series, to how you would imagine the man behind such songs as “Waiting Around to Die” or “Poncho and Lefty” to look, although Townes never did look quite so bedraggled, even when he was slurping vodka and coke from separate bottles. Matthew Robb presents to us an image of the well-travelled troubadour, with ten songs, some sprawling as in the title cut, others not so.  If the social messages in both “Common Destiny” and “Spoils of War” work so well, it’s because of the almost jaunty take on the old talking blues model, almost as if saying, take it or leave it, it’s your call, with a shrug. The same can also be applied to “Pass the Buck”, where Robb wears his Dylan sensibilities on his sleeve. “Mothers Song” once again recalls Townes in reflective mode, a song that would be a suitable climax to a late night candle-lit song sharing soiree, just as the last of the Jack Daniels is poured.

A Winter Union – Live in Concert | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 31.12.19

One disappointing aspect of becoming an adult is the likelihood of chronic cynicism setting in when it comes to the Festive Season, which in time may even become ever more pronounced if you let it. When did we stop sending Christmas cards because we were concerned about trees for instance? When was it okay to introduce profanity into a Dickens Christmas classic? When did we start wishing it was all over before November was done?  They say Christmas is for kids, which may or may not be true, but I sort of hanker after the excitement of those long gone days as I begin my third act. If there’s one thing that comes somewhere near conjuring up those ancient feelings, it’s not the smell of cooked turkey, nor is it the chilly feel of the oncoming snow, or indeed the sight of half a million lights attached to your next door neighbour’s garage. No, it’s very definitely the sound of songs and carols that bring out the seasonal cheer.  A Winter Union has become a tradition in itself simply because the musicians involved can do it so well and we can appreciate it. The launch of this live CD, recorded at the Otford Memorial Hall in Kent, precisely one year ago, coincided with the collective’s current tour, their final date being held at The Greystones in Sheffield. It was a rainy, not snowy night and the stage had been set to include a fully illuminated tree and winding holly busily climbing each of the microphone stands. A Winter Union is basically made up of two established folk duos, Ben Savage & Hannah Sanders, Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts and Jade Rhiannon Ward of The Willows, that’s two highly distinctive voices and three extraordinary instrumentalists and much more besides, each of whom were only too pleased to sign several copies of this souvenir CD, suitable for one’s own collection or as Christmas gifts for pals and with Jess Morgan’s enchanting design, it also makes a fine decoration to sit next to the baubles on the Christmas Tree.  Most of the songs on the CD came out to play on the tour, traditional seasonal fare such as “We Three Kings” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High”, one or two originals, including Jade Rhiannon’s “Elizabeth Woodcock” and Katriona’s delicate “Every Midnight Mile” as well as a few well chosen, notably Robb Johnson’s “Boxing Day” and Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight”. Now normally such songs as Joni Mitchell’s “River” are considered sacrosanct, but Hannah Sanders delivers something close to perfection on both the album version and what we heard at the Greystones, with Ben Savage creating the sweetest of sounds as tone bar meets steel strings on his Dobro. Both this years’ live performance in Sheffield and the recording from last year remind us that Christmas really isn’t just for the kids, it’s for anyone with a sense of seasonal wonder.