A to Z Album and Gig Reviews
Florida-born Sam, a protegé of Merle-Travis-style guitar master Gamble Rogers, made a deep impression on critics with his 1997 Waterbug debut, Solitary Travel, for the high standard both of his songwriting and his fingerpicking. Deft was the most-often-heard adjective describing both skills, and is the one that springs most readily to mind again with this new release, a joint venture between Sam and fellow-fingerpicker Gabriel (who produced Sam's debut, and who as a previous winner of the Merlefest guitar fingerpicking competition should have no need to prove his muso credentials!). Deft and quietly astonishing, with both guitars doing solid service in understated support of the musicians' chosen material. In this instance, we're treated to just three of Sam's own fine compositions, with one apiece by seven other writers making up the tracklisting. There's a truly lovely instrumental version of the Carter classic Wildwood Flower just over halfway through the disc, and elsewhere the duo turn in sensitive renditions of Kate MacLeod's beautiful Lark In The Morning and Steve Earle's Fort Worth Blues. I wasn't convinced by their take on Mississippi John Hurt's Louis Collins, I'll admit, but Michael Smith's There makes for a suitably powerful end to the disc. I can't find fault with the two musicians' interpretations or their playing, but in the end it's that very understatedness that lets the disc down just a tad for me, for it's all on one level and consistent to a fault, neatly balanced and even-handed, to the extent that even with concentrated listening I don't quite get excited by it, despite the evident warmth of the singing and playing and the two performers' complete empathy with each other's artistry.
David Kidman October 2006
Although for various reasons both economic and personal Tom the quintessential "great lost American songwriter" will not be touring the UK this year, at least he's managed to release a new album. Its subtitle Bare Bones VI turns out to be a dual-purpose indicator: firstly that its instrumentation is admirably sparse and uncluttered (Tom's own guitar and harmonica being augmented only by some delicate lead acoustic guitar and bass from his brother Paul), and secondly that it forms the latest instalment in Tom's integral, long-running and continuing series of direct, succinct and pertinent observations on our lives. He tellingly examines the paradoxes of the world in which we operate, where the old adage that "the more things change the more they stay the same" rings truer than ever; his modus operandi is to put us right back in the 21st century equivalent of Woody Guthrie country, where the immortal spirit of the maverick (the "unreasonable person") is constantly being disconnected from its body and from the society in which it lives. Tom defines and celebrates the maverick, "undefeated and fearlessly alive", in whom he finds the hope that will prove our redemption and salvation – even when "Someday the sea will swallow the shore and this land will be our land once more". On Railroad Rainbows And Talkin' Blues, Tom deals us a whole new batch of typically powerful and sharply observed vignettes of the "flesh and blood people somehow still making their way through this corporate infested wasteland", who are "existing on the margins of approved social behaviour often under conditions of great peril and human suffering". This time round, Tom's odyssey begins in standout form with Out In The Spooky Country, a dark journey through a weird America and its people, then moving on through its landscape with the ghosts of his heroes perched resolutely on his shoulders (notably Hunter Thompson on Riding With Mr Thompson). Alongside the insightful character portraits and life-changing interactions with such folks as The Girl From Tornado Country and Man From Illinois, and even non-humans (Donuts And Deer), Tom also finds room for tender philosophy and telling introspection (In A Roomful Of Guitars, Who), and the picture's completed by a few of Tom's trademark semi-spoken fables (Annie's Homemade Pies, Sweet Hell, Ten Cent Gas). Inevitably there's just a touch of the we've-been-there-before about one or two of these, but hey, what goes around comes around after all – and This Grand Old Land will shine again – which is part of the point Tom needs to make. And when he does it all so winningly, with such deliciously laconic humour spicing his deeper turns of phrase, then you don't feel in the slightest shortchanged. And you just know he's so right-on! With Railroad Rainbows…,Tom's produced another fine set of thought-provoking and evocative songs, whose unequivocal appeal is crystallised, and focussed even more keenly, by Paul's lovingly empathic playing.
David Kidman June 2009
If you're a troubadour like Tom Pacheco it's a different kettle of fish. For a start you have a vast back catalogue that makes your credentials quite clear and hitting the campaign trail for Kerry hits deep in the pocket. The other difference is here on his new album; his post 9/11, second Bush term missive is unequivocal.
His sleeve note offers a bleak analysis of the times we find ourselves in, noting that writing songs less bracing than these would have been "fiddling the light fantastic while Rome burned".
And what songs they are; the keynotes are the title track, a call to arms for us all to 'take our planet back' and a call to artists to paint 'new Guernicas' and to infuse a revolution into the 'DNA of the notes they play'. Bookending the album 'Not In My Name' is "one of those rare tunes which inspires people to join in on the chorus without being asked". It's true Woody or Seeger in nailing the misdeeds of the administration whilst, in its massed voices, it binds us together in a defiance ('You're President, Sir, you're not King') that breeds optimism.
There's little of the other side of Woody'n'Pete here; only 'Frieda's Secret Garden', a knockabout marijuana moment with a deeper hit at the demonisation of the versatile plant offers levity. There's warmth however in Pacheco's tale of 'Woody And Jack' and the self explanatory 'That's What Life Is'.
The bleakness, however, imbues 'North Dakota''s menace; the corporate exploitation of 'Six Bucks An Hour' and the future nightmare of 'The Last Drop' ('The Nesslee Corporation bought all the rivers up / They say some places water costs a hundred bucks a cup'). The rich contrast of America's cultural heritage and its present day fear driven disassembly is at the heart of 'Grandma's Blue Blanket' and the collapse of family underpins 'Uncle Joe'.
Far from being a lousy listen it's actually a rich musical journey; Tom's melodies - especially after a few listens - are wonderful and the production by The Band's Jim Weider is spot on. He uses his own armoury of tasteful guitar textures to lightly embroider the tracks which he underpins with double bass and occasional keyboard washes. And the doubling of Tom's rich, resonant vocals with the lighter approach of Meg Johnson on several tracks is inspired.
So, whilst Rebel Spring will not catapult Tom Pacheco from small audience club gigs to the Royal Albert Hall at fifty quid a seat, it's worth noting that whilst Mr. Springsteen does so by drawing on the inspiration of Guthrie, Seeger et al, Pacheco is the real thing, cut from the same cloth as those guys with the same dust on his boots and the same song in his heart.
Rebel Spring is available from www.cdbaby.com
Should I need to convince you that you need another new Tom Pacheco album, now? So far this year, he's already released The Long Walk, an inordinately fine rock-flavoured collaboration with a Norwegian band (scoring vastly more than the half-expected nul-points!), and plans later on (in the autumn?) to cut a brand new album for Appleseed to follow the acclaimed There Was A Time. But Year Of The Big Wind is so much more than a stop-gap record, even though it's but a modest, self-released venture. In all but name, it's Bare Bones III - the mere thought of which will set Tom's fans drooling with expectation I'm certain. Though recorded in Woodstock, NY, Year Of The Big Wind oozes the south-by-southwest, with its roll-call of (sometimes tall) stories of life's real characters, their survival and endurance in often desperate places against all the odds. Uncanny evocations and solid philosophies, fractured memories and forlorn experiences, these are all encapsulated within contemporary America, described by one commentator as "a weird new Twilight Zone" - a highly apt comparison, given Tom's penchant for thoughtful sci-fi. The album contains 15 tracks, of which 13 have never been recorded before (and since the remaining two include his classic Bird's Eye Heaven I'm not complainin'!). And lordy, there's not a remotely weak song on here, whereas some of them will I'm sure take their place amongst his finest creations. Tom's voice and guitars are helpfully and colourfully augmented by a variety of guitars, dobro and mandolin played by The Band's Jim Weider. Top-quality Americana in every respect, and Tom's strongly individual talent reigns supreme. Like the indomitable characters that populate his songs, Tom just keeps on keeping on. All that's missing from the package is the lyrics… and you can get those off Tom's website.???? Do buy this CD, either from Tom himself through the website or from Graeme at Fairoaks (http://www.angelfire.com/music5/roots2rockmusic/rootsalbums.html#P), and in doing so you'll help Tom to finance his next record real soon!!
The Pack - Twelve Little Devils (Selwyn Music)
The Pack is a twelve-strong group of indecently talented young people who, "hell-bent" on succeeding, have stormed festival stages over the past three or so years, winning everyone over with their vivacious and totally committed performances of traditional and composed material, mostly tunes. (They number within their ranks 422's Sam Pirt and Ola's Michael Jary, but I shouldn't need to tell you that each and every one of them's a damnably good musician.) Even in the cold light of CD, it's obvious they're having a great time, and their enthusiasm and enjoyment is very infectious indeed. Not only is the individual playing well nigh faultless, and their ensemble precise, but the inventiveness of the arrangements, wherein different instrumental timbres are played off against each other, is a real strength too. Brass players, squeezebox players, woodwinders, fiddlers – you name it, they've got it; and the let's have-a-go spirit informs the very philosophy they apply to the sources they trawl, for they play anything they fancy and can pick up, being the widely travelled little devils they are. This can mean Irish, Scottish, American, Canadian, Scandinavian, Turkish, whatever – and so what/why not? (I like the way they credit their sources properly in the insert notes too.) It all makes for invigorating listening, and 'tis truly a glorious noise when the whole ensemble plays together, as on their showpiece Congress Reel set. And apart possibly from the two purely vocal tracks and the theatrical Devil Came Down To Yorkshire, which sound a bit like extracts from a sixth-form end-of-term show-off concert (albeit a superior one!), the whole album proves a fun experience that's surely repeatable outside the context of the sheer weight of the Pack's live presence.
This is weird. It starts out with a luscious adagio violin melody that sounds like it comes from a Schubert string quartet, then in comes a casual walking backbeat, then a lazy (if at the same time restless) vocal and rippling mandolins filling out the backcloth. The second song marries Parisian café accordion with that same backbeat and some twenties-jazzy instrumentation and harmonies. Two separate tracks later on are waltzy instrumentals that I'm sure I know from somewhere, with more of that café accordion. The album moves on through bossa-nova, salsa and Satie-esque piano interludes to the accompaniment of further seductive café rhythms. But seekers after an answer to the enigma will find that it's impossible to find anything out at all from Gregory's own website, which redirects us to his MySpace site, which in turn carries next to no information. All I can find out comes from the label's website: ie. that Gregory's a London-born, Southern California-based singer-songwriter, who - at least on the evidence of Love Made Me Drunk - specialises in retro-sounding ultra-melancholy songs that reek with the heady ambience of the near-timeless Parisian café environment. He describes his songs as musical postcards: and that's not a bad description really. The primary colours of his palette are accordion, swooning violin, cheeky jazzy trumpet and parlour-piano, delicious soupçons of mandolin and tinkling toyshop percussion with gently brushed drumkit. But the inspiration behind this album would seem, at least from the information given on the Seedling website biog page, to be a bit of a one-off and thus not entirely typical of Gregory's work elsewhere. Here's Gregory's own explanation of its genesis: "The real story behind Love Made Me Drunk is a bittersweet and beautiful tale. At the age of 30, my mother informed me that the man I thought was my father was in actuality my stepfather, and though she knew nothing of my real father's whereabouts she gave me his name. After a great deal of searching I found that his father was living in Paris, and a reunion was arranged. On my first walk with Papa through a city park we talked about life ... Papa stopped and said son, you are in love with love, and I replied, Papa, that is a great song title. Reflecting back, I realized that I have such a fond memory about each of the songs on the CD, and I can recall where I was and what I was thinking when I composed them in Paris and Normandy." Love Made Me Drunk was recorded in Gregory's tiny bedroom in San Diego, and its impact is powerfully immediate, if rather idiosyncratic; it may even make you slightly drunk yourself...www.myspace.com/gregorypage
David Kidman September 2007
There's an underlying and somehow magicl truthfulness about Brad Paisley's latest release, 5th Gear. It's not so much a musician knowing his limits and sticking to them because as far as country music goes, Paisley's talents are pretty well boundless. It's more that he draws strength from staying close to what always had made great country music. Instead of looking too far over the horizon for inspiration, he finds it in exactly the same places that the greats who preceded him looked, love, home, country and heartache.
So although Paisley gives 5th Gear a 21st century veneer with Online, it's heart lies in a fantastic no frills, country album, great guitars, straight talking lyrics and a voice that has already garnered 10 Grammy nominations. On 5th Gear, Paisley bares his soul completely with the ballad Like It Did and has a thoroughly good time with the rollicking honky-tonk of Mr Policeman and, while that may all sound a bit dated, Paisley not only makes it work perfectly he keeps it fresh adn alive, largely because there's not a hint of cynicism to taint songs like If Love Was A Plane, when the singer believes in it as much as Paisley does, it's easier and comforting just to give yourself to its feelings. Admittedly there is no Whiskey Lullaby on 5th Gear - songs like that come along once in a lifetime - however, there is much to savour, the fun of Better Than This is tempered by the exquisite layers of With You, Without You.
It has to be admitted that those who sneer at the sentiments expressed by country music, will find plenty of ammunition on 5th Gear, it is unashamedly old school. There's even a heartfelt piece of gospel, When We All Get To Heaven, it's an album that pulls no punches in its adherence to tradition. What the cynics fail to realise - to their cost - is that Brad Paisley makes music from the heart and that music will be listened to long after they're forgotten.
Michael Mee July 2007
Rockabilly is not new (but what is these days?) but it's huge fun and I bet those Paladins were smiling when they recorded their seventh album, Palvoline No.7. I sure was whilst I was listening to it! Who needs techno-driven rubbish? This is put-on-your-dancing-shoes-and-party music which captures the spirit of early country-style rock'n'roll with its twangy guitars, punchy drumming, and uptempo melodies played with verve and style. It's the real thing.
Paladins home is San Diego, California, but this hard-working 3-piece band (Dave Gonzalez on guitar and vocals, Thomas Yearsley on bass and Brian Fahey on drums) tour worldwide. Their fifth album, the 'live' The Million Mile Club, is a reference to all those miles on the roads and thousands of gigs played. Guests on No.7: James Hunter (also known as rocking English R&B performer Howlin' Wilf) joins them for a duet, Micah Hulsher sits in (though you feel he's bound to be standing) for a Jerry Lee Jewis-style wrecker of a piano piece on 'How Long You Gonna Tease Me', and Chris Lawrence's heart-tearing steel guitar on 'Gone', all add flavour to this high-octane brew.
It's encouraging to know that, with so many releases from 'back catalogue', this roots-rock revival band, formed in the 80s rather than the 50s, have captured the imagination of a new generation of fans - me included!
What is it with Polydor and female singer songwriters with strange sounding names beginning with N. After Dreamworks's eccentric diva Nelly Furtado now comes this Brit with the silent t and a guitar bearing the legend 'be not half assed'. An even more idiosyncratic debut album than Nelly's, it's no less intoxicating and intriguing, throwing up a clutch of reference points that sail through Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and, she'd add Carole King, Dylan, The Beatles and Steely Dan. There's a touch of the 'I'm a bit mad, me' to the girl whose songs gleefully scatter across such topics as ambition, the music business's soul-sucking nature, bad boys, death, Jesus, alienation, self-destructive tendencies, guilt (I'd make a bet she's Catholic) and, on Watch Out Billie, surely a cautionary tale of 15 minutes of fame directed at our very own Mrs Christopher Evans. A little bit jazz, a little bit pop, a little bit intense, a little bit spry, you could argue her songs are a touch pretentious and slightly overwritten, but what you can't dispute is that Daily Bread, Jump, Blood Is Blood and the title track have an intelligence and emotional resonance - and indeed musical perfection - that suggest Ms Pallot is at the start of what promises to be a very lengthy and rewarding career.
Reviewing each of Angie's previous albums in turn, I've not been able to avoid tagging this exceptional Lancashire-raised (now France-based) artist as a best-kept secret; and, despite persistent championing by Bob Harris and in the pages of many well-respected music publications, that status inexplicably remains even now, several years down the line. And yet Angie, in collaboration with her lyricist Paul Mason, has delivered some of the most lasting of singer-songwriter albums of the past decade, and her career now gains another memorable instalment with the release of album number six, which once again sports an eye-catching and highly colourful package design (also Paul's work, incidentally).
Old Sticks… has been deliberately conceived as a "two-sider" in the tradition of the vinyl LP, with Side One a series of songs with more electric, comparatively rocked-up arrangements and Side Two containing the more delicate (and delicately-scored) numbers. Although there's not really a weak track as such, the "second side" arguably brings the stronger material. It's a shame that disc opener Ballad Of Jack Everyman is subjected to what sounds a premature fade, but, that quibble aside, the predominantly uptempo Side One provides plenty of gutsy electric music with a strong acoustic base, formats taking in the classy 12-bar western saga Poor Johnny (neat electric sitar solo), the gritty-but-fun blues-rocker Dirty Little Secret, the slinky southern-roots tale Raising Hurricanes (tasty dobro work), the chiming, tender-but-tough Chrissie Hynde stride of Little By Little (nice mando solo) and the edgy shuffle of Time For Thunder (killer guitar solo from Billy Buckley).
Richard Curran's spirited, sinuous violin work provides a link from the latter song into Side Two (after you hear the actual side-turnover being made!). Here, string textures feature more prominently, culminating in the glorious fulsomely-orchestrated sound of the eight-minute finale Fresco. In between, Song For Drowning Sailors dwells in the realm of traditional folk ballad as might be interpreted by a contemporary troubadour; Postcard From Paris is a skipping mando-jig-time invocation of that city; William Of The Desert depicts a strange vision with a slightly undersold air that's rather reminiscent of Sandy Denny; Haunted By A Stranger is a masterly linked two-part opus that presents a pair of failed lovers' contrasted perspectives on their experience, while the aforementioned Fresco conjures a fragile, dreamily beautiful, exotic soundscape that can't fail to melt your eardrums time and again.
The adopted "two-sides-of-vinyl format" idea may not be the best method of introducing her music to a new listener, but on the other hand taken as a whole it still manages to embrace all the trademarks of Angie's stylish, effortlessly genre-crossing "English Americana", and there's plenty of her fine songwriting showcased within. Angie herself is on splendid form, and her band (the abovementioned Messrs. Curran and Buckley with bassist Ollie Collins and drummer Tim Franks) do a fantastic job and are brilliantly cleanly engineered by Alan Gregson. The booklet's artsome attractiveness is only mildly spoilt by the unfortunate blending-into-the-background of some of the lyrics. But finally, the only thing I don't quite get is the specific relevance of the album's title, taken from a line in W.B. Yeats' poem Among School Children.
David Kidman January 2013
Angie's fourth album, Tales Of Light And Darkness, came out almost three years ago and gained considerable airplay (notably on Bob Harris's show) as well as a great critical reception. The eagerly awaited followup, with a similarly nocturnal title, continues this exceptional singer-songwriter's established tradition of atmospheric, brilliantly crafted writing that ranges over a wide gamut of Americana, folk and blues, faithfully and cleanly recorded. Just as Tales… was like Road part 2, so Meanwhile… is like Tales… part 2 in many ways, but importantly it also represents a significant (further) step forward in terms of stretching the already wide envelope - one might say (extending the metaphor), out to "large letter" size on the album's awesome, cinemascope finale The Weeping Wood, a powerful epic folk-ballad-legend with a big production (string orchestra competing with western-style twang guitars) that Angie manages to keep under admirably tight rein.
If anything, the musical content of this new batch of songs is even more varied than on previous albums, with Angie's versatile voice equally adept at conveying forlorn heartbreak, determined resignation, gritty resolve and compelling storytelling troubadour. Disc opener On The Eve, with Angie's building emotional response bolstered by Hammond organ and whining steel guitar, is a classic, a classy act that's real hard to follow, but stick in there through the album's heady parade of changing moods and you'll not be disappointed. In swift succession we experience the eerie folk-tale of The Fiery Lake, set to a deceptively gentle lapping rhythm, and the brooding, ominous nature of a relationship (Slip Away From Me). Then there's Hunting The Wolf, a slinky, creepy werewolf saga couched in gris-gris rhythms and howling wah-wah guitars - another triumph of atmosphere-building - which is immediately capped (and completely contrasted) by the delicate, tender love song If I Was with its beautifully understated accompaniment, the latter quality being much in evidence also on the desperate steel-soaked weepie After The Lights Have Gone.
Maybe, just maybe the album's perkier "relief points" (the carefree swinging wave-motions of Deep Blue Sea, and the Mystery-Train blues-rockabilly shuffle of I Hear That Locomotive) don't hit home as much for me, but they're better than fillers and assuredly, idiomatically done. As is the canny Hey Lazarus! (which sounds so authentic you might think it traditional, but like all the songs here it's a joint composition between Angie and Paul Mason). Once again, Angie's in abundantly fine voice herself, and makes fullest and most effective use of her superb support crew (violinist Richard Curran, guitarist/dobro ace Steve Buckley and bassist Ollie Collins, with this time Tim Franks and Sophie Hastings sharing percussion duties) and brings in guests B.J. Cole and Alan Gregson on a couple of songs apiece.
The digipack is attractive, the enclosed booklet's a thing of beauty (aside from a couple of sections of the lyrics disappearing into a reader-unfriendly sunset). Yes, Meanwhile... is a really haunting, impressive new addition to Angie's recorded output, one that's definitely set to be a fixture in my CD player.
David Kidman January 2009
Angie's already regarded by many as one of this country's finest female singer-songwriters, yet although her three previous albums gained increasing numbers of plaudits and significantly healthy airplay (Bob Harris being her most recent radio champion) she's still not yet quite made it into the wider consciousness of the nation. Tales Of Light And Darkness, her fourth album, is a work of considerable maturity and ought by rights to gain her that recognition. Although Angie's music still falls between readily-pigeonholeable stools, as it were, that shouldn't count against her as each successive album brings another different element of her musical personality out into the forefront. Angie moves easily between gentle folky rootsy Americana and more aggressive country-blues, even hinting at bluesy-rock, and virtually all points in between, and equally plausible in any of these idioms. In many ways, Tales ... is like Road part two in many respects, with the superb playing of violinist Richard Curran common to both albums. On Tales ... Angie's trusty backing crew also includes Steve Buckley (electric guitar, dobro, lap steel), Ollie Collins (basses) and Tim Franks (drums), who together stretch out almost leisurely fashion to create an at times monumental backdrop for Angie's stories, each of which is a strong creation with its own separate identity. Once again all the songs were co-written with Paul Mason, displaying the high level of intelligence and literacy (both musical and lyrical) that we've come to associate with Angie's work. Some (like Fool's Gold and Down On Zero Street) embody a Dylanesque sense of narrative sweep, whereas Rose Of Sharon evokes Steinbeckian visions of the dispossessed. Some other songs have overtones of Joni Mitchell perhaps, with their homing in on altogether more personal journeys of love, loss and redemption; many, like Letters From Home, are highly reflective and steeped in the restless sense of a necessary moving-on that's very much tempered with realism. There are darker moments too, like Ravens, where the lover's desperation is conveyed with a rather Poe-esque severe beauty of imagery, and Premonition Blues with its looser feel and its old-timey, homespun philosophy of resignation. Columbus For A Day, perhaps the most personal statement of all, deals simply and poignantly with the death of a close friend. Throughout this range of emotions, Angie's voice proves ideally expressive, displaying a deep, worldly, gritty toughness with a distinctly tender edge - she's been compared to Lucinda Williams, but I think Angie's expressive potential is probably more akin to that of Julie Miller. So here's another impressive, highly assured set from Angie, housed in a neat and attractive digipack - high production and presentation values rule as before!
Angie's name isn't at all well-known outside the north-west, but all that ought by rights to change now, for there's an incredible sense of assurance and mature accomplishment about her current work that's obvious right from the outset on this, her second CD; it turns out that she's got more than 15 years' experience on the music scene (8 years of busking/festivals, followed by a mix of solo performances and fronting a band). Her first album (A Certain Kind Of Distance) was released a couple of years ago; it was a solo effort - just Angie, her exciting, feisty voice and her acoustic guitar, and though displaying distinct influences in performing styles (vocally, Joan Armatrading and Bonnie Raitt, instrumentally John Martyn), she nevertheless demonstrated considerable individuality here and in her songwriting. This new release, though recognisably the work of the same artist, is quite different, not only in that it's less overtly bluesy.
Firstly, it consists entirely of her own songs, which indicates that Angie's defiantly growing in confidence. Secondly, Angie's here taken the opportunity to record with musicians from the aforementioned Manchester scene - Mike Isaac (who works with Lyrica) on fretless bass is particularly good, then there's Chris Mannis (ex-Swing Out Sister, now with Apitos) on percussion, also drummer Tim Franks, Graham Clark on violin and Rebecca Maunders on cello, and keyboardist Bill Roberts. Though from different musical arenas, they work together really well, and the instrumentation is well-considered and never unduly dominant, providing perfectly controlled settings for Angie's grittily expressive voice and doing her songs (the "hidden stories" to which the title neatly alludes) true justice.
A lot of thought has gone into the arrangements, which cleverly vary texture and effect from the jazzy organ-bop optimism of Notes From Underground to the darker, more introspective, even mournful mood of the last few tracks like A Thousand Tales (where the string instruments bring in a delicate eastern modal feel that's really attractive) and the deceptively simple, deliciously chamber-textured Waltz (which isn't quite!), whereas the swooping violin lines on From A Blue Plains View rather reminded me of Dylan circa Desire. Angie quite reasonably acknowledges a debt to Joni Mitchell (Hissing/Hejira period), but nowhere does her own outstanding writing sound in the slightest bit imitative. Angie's music is hard to pigeonhole, nor would I wish to do so; just get hold of this uncommonly fine album right away.
Ooh, am I glad to see this one finally make it to CD! It's one of those records which can justifiably be regarded as a great lost folk album, a highly treasurable artefact that has for so long been a vital yet missing piece in the wondrous and kaleidoscopic musical jigsaw of late-60s UK folk music activities. Clive Palmer, of course, was more than just a founder member of the Incredible String Band; he's been accurately dubbed "the all-round maverick genius of the British folk scene", after all.
When the three members of the ISB embarked separately on their sojourns in 1966, Clive decided not to rejoin Robin and Mike due to what might best be described as converging musical interests, and when the following year he was approached by independent producer Peter Eden to record a solo record, Banjoland was the result. Its tracklisting was unusually eclectic - unexpectedly so, even to an admirer of Clive's work - and focused on many of the older songs and pieces in Clive's repertoire. In the largely radical-experimental musical climate of the time, Banjoland can be seen as determinedly unfashionable, whimsical, old-fashioned even; in it grooves there was no evidence of the contemporaneous psychedelic revolution - which was the principal reason why record labels fought shy of it, and thus why it never saw the light of day at the time! Defiantly uncommercial, and taking its cue from the delightful virtuoso romp Niggertown on the first ISB album, Banjoland's predominant musical texture is (inevitably) solo banjo, and its 13 tracks deliciously and unpredictably intersperse a number of such pieces (traditional in origin, but not necessarily from the English tradition) with music-hall songs (Boy In The Gallery), a couple of songs learnt from old 78s by Irish tenor John McCormack (I Hear You Calling Me, Ma-Koush-La) and songs that Clive recalled from his schooldays (Stories Of Jesus, Smiling Through).
There's also a brace of folk carols (eg Coventry Carol) which give the lie to the oft-held view that a banjo can't do sensitive! It's a feast alright, with interest enhanced even further by the presence of Wizz Jones on guitar on a handful of the tracks, whereas Stories Of Jesus is also blessed with a moving string quartet arrangement by jazzer Michael Gibbs. This splendid CD issue contains the whole of the original Banjoland album, plus four bonus tracks: two from a Country Meets Folk radio session with Wizz, and two recorded informally at Wizz's house around the same time as the album recording. Banjoland just has to be one of this year's key reissues, not least because its contents so effortlessly demonstrate the virtue of simplicity and unpretentiousness in music-making; as Wizz himself opines in his booklet note, Clive "has all the technique you could ask for, but the trick is having it and not using it".www.incrediblestringband.com
David Kidman, July 2006
Clive Palmer - All Roads Lead To Land (Unique Gravity)
Clive was, along with Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, an original member of the Incredible String Band. That much most of you will know. And since leaving the band right after their first album release (1965), he's embarked on a series of often strange and esoteric projects which reflected his various enthusiasms (Clive's Original Band, the Famous Jug Band, various collaborations with Pete Berryman and so on), sometimes living the life of a virtual recluse until he returned to these shores – and the recording arena – a short few years ago with a fine duo album with Robin (At The Pure Fountain), since which he has joined the re-formed incarnation of the ISB, to which he (unlike Robin, sadly) still belongs to this day. Many, myself included, are glad to have Clive back on the performing and recording scene, and a new solo album, All Roads Lead To Land, is the latest fruit of his musical labours. On it Clive gives us an almost completely solo set that really does reflect, in a glowing and sympathetic recording, his consistently endearing musical personality. Naturally his trusty banjo looms large in the sound-picture, chugging along reliably (and with characteristic gentle insistency) on (mostly self-penned) material that typically ranges far and wide, from Famous Jug Band (a remake of O For Summer, on which he's reunited with original FJB colleagues Johnson, Berryman and Bartlett) to the darker-hued eerie String-Bandom of Sands Of Time and a timely, relaxed revisit to the latter-day nostalgic whimsy of Paris (with musical guests including tenor sax, accordion and double-bass, and even fiddle courtesy of good old Robin W). There's also a take on Vaughan Williams' setting of William Barnes' poem Linden Lea that displays a fine degree of simple poignancy (even if vocally Clive's not quite up to the task), while the handful of instrumental tracks bring a sensitivity that's perhaps not automatically associated with banjo players (check out Clive's version of Gershwin's Embraceable You for instance, or Broken Dreams whose fragmented poetic phrasing uncannily puts me in mind of the "Chinese banjo" interlude on the epic White Bird from the ISB's wondrous Changing Horses album). Clive also varies the texture by giving his home-made Northumbrian pipes a solitary but welcome airing, to provide an accompanying drone for the wordless Breizh (which seems to share an aural kinship with much of the post-Palmer ISB's celebrated Be Glad film soundtrack). Maybe at over six minutes Baby Sing The Blues outstays its welcome a tad, but generally speaking on All Roads Lead To Land, what you hear is what you get – an admirably honest no-frills testament to an ever-intriguing musical mind whose undeniable charm draws you in at once and keeps you engaged throughout this CD's 51-minute span. In other words, then, Clive's pocket's not empty yet, baby!…
Clive Palmer - All Roads Lead To Land (Unique Gravity)
Old fogies and unreconstructed hippies will, of course, recall that banjo player Palmer was the other founding member of the Incredible String Band way back in 1965 before taking off for India. Returning a few years later he formed the brief lived Famous Jug Band and then the imaginatively named Clive's Original Band with whom he released three albums. Adopting a low profile for the next two decades, he resurfaced at the end of the millennium to reunite with Robin Williamson for a couple of gigs and the At The Pure Fountain album. A spate of reformed ISB gigs followed before Williamson dropped out leaving Palmer and Heron to carry the flag. Meanwhile, he's found time to put together this solo self-penned affair that also sees Williamson providing fiddle of on the wistfully reflective Paris and his former FSB colleagues on the opening banjo plucked lament O For Summer.
His laconic voice a rich loamy thing of ploughman's honesty and hedgerow charm, the music's basically stripped back old school folk with occasional mountain bluegrass colourings. Otherwise, the lyric free Breizh adopts an Eastern gone Celtic drone, You Were Meant For Me (not the Herman's Hermits number) could have strayed in off a Leon Redbone album with Big City Blues harking to roads long dusty before Guthrie travelled them and Baby Sing The Blues a laid back strummed hammock, back porch and rocking chair affair.
Being a banjo philistine I have to admit not quite getting the charms of some of the instrumentals, Dans La Campagne sounding like he's practising the scales and Lament For Shelly something I'd have assumed was a recording of him tuning up. Buffs will obviously be rather more ecstatic. That aside though, this is all together rather fine.
Discovered by Clint Boon of Inspiral Carpets who released her debut on his own label, the Yorkshire singer-songwriter is back with her sophomore release. It's a more wide ranging affair than Into The Spotlight, featuring members of Lamb on double bass, cello, drums and electric bass while Palmer takes on classical guitar, accordion, harmonium, chimes, and piano duties for a set of songs that run from the intimate In To You and Homefair Blues to the relatively more full-blooded arrangements of the shuffling Blue Sky and tinklingly countrified uptempo In Your Company.
Her soothing, plaintive voice still evokes thoughts of Melanie and the folksily romantic songs remain rooted in exploring the ups and downs of relationships and self-confidence, their textures firmly influenced by the fact she wrote them in a reflective mood while living on the coast. Taking its cue from the title, the album has a gentle lapping quality, rippling, ebbing and flowing through sometimes uncertain emotions, searching for that sense of security, solace and belonging that informs Harbour of Refuge and the shimmeringly lovely closing track, Resting Ground.
Ideally, the likes of Terease, Morning Love and the back porch strumming hymnal Some Deadly Sin should be listened to with a chilled white wine by your side as you sit outside in the early morning salty tanged air, letting the fresh breeze of dawn brush your hair and the smell of lilac curl into your senses, but what the hell, it still sounds great in the living room too.
Mike Davies, June 2006
Elaine Palmer - Into The Spotlight (Booney Tunes)
The Yorkshire singer-songwriter's unintended debut album (it was supposed to be just a demo session) may have been produced by Inspiral Carpets man Clint Boon and released on his own label, but don't expect her to sound like them. Rather, recorded in just one take (and in one instance the first time she'd played the song in ages), here is a muscularly emotive voice and musical style often reminiscent of Melanie (with a touch of Michelle Shocked perhaps) dealing in intimate, introspective but snarly songs that deal with the struggles with self-confidence and the harder, uglier sides of love and relationships.
Simple yet sensitive arrangements for guitar and the occasional moody cello afford a darkling folk feel to her work, occasionally tinged with hints of late night smoky jazz and shades of Brel. Tender and angry, often at the same time, the songs repay attention (and since she apparently doesn't write her lyrics down you'll have to if you want to prise out their themes) as she delivers such dazzling heart-mapping numbers as Sometimes, Love and Lies, Deja Vu and her stunning seven minute live highlight Space Girls. She's little known yet, but take note this is one of the most exciting new talents to emerge since Thea Gilmore applied for work experience.
Considering the utterly unmistakable quality of Tom's singing voice, I'm immediately wondering why I'd not encountered him previously, and why it should now take a high-profile CD (the inaugural release on Phil Beer's new record label) for his name to be getting spread around widely - something he's evidently deserved for some time.
Tom's background story turns out to be an unusual one, in that he trained as a chef before taking up singing and songwriting full-time. Early on, he formed a four-piece band, played in a duo and plied his trade back and forth between South West and South East coasts before meeting Phil at the Cambridge Folk Festival in the 90s, since which time Tom and Phil recorded an album together (1995) and continued their friendship through into Tom's guest appearance with Show Of Hands at the Royal Albert Hall last year. Now settled once again in the West Country, and with this excellent CD under his belt, Tom's all set to achieve wider appreciation of his considerable talents.
The cover photo gives a good and accurate measure of the man - Tom almost looks like he might be a third member of Show Of Hands, but most of all he's a big man with a big musical personality. His gravelly and deeply, powerfully resonant voice is an extraordinary instrument, and his guitar playing is emphatically no second-string, accomplished and satisfying in its own right. Those latter-named qualities characterise the whole project, in fact - and although they might be taken as given with any record that so heavily features the expert musicianship and acute production skills of that good Mr. Beer, it's still Tom's individual musical and songwriting voice that (quite rightly) grants the album its most distinctive signature.
Tom's voice is very definitely individual, and although its tonal quality at times approximates that of Mr Waits a closer comparison to my mind is the intense soulfulness of John Martyn combined with the rootsy bluesy sensibility of Ry Cooder and a touch of Mark Knopfler or Ben Harper, but often with a folkier bent than either of the latter. This eponymous album sets out Tom's stall very persuasively, with a diverse collection of songs that movingly explore time-honoured themes from the human condition such as trust (Static On The Line), friendship (Standing Strong, Something You Said, Correspondence), war (Blood In The Dirt), and the lure of both home and away (Beacon Cove and Home are supremely evocative in their different ways). There's also a true-story-in-song about one man's resilience and persistence in the face of adversity (Dakka Dan). Only the funky workout That Thing seems a bit of a throwaway, and it rather outstays its welcome for me (it's more obviously a live showstopper) - the remainder of the CD's eleven self-penned songs are fine examples indeed.
Tom also treats us to two cover versions, and his album-closer rendition of Borderline (John Hiatt/Ry Cooder) is both outstanding and seriously sublime. Borderline features some exceptional slide guitar work from Phil B, who also contributes virtuoso fiddle, dobro, Spanish guitar, lau, mandocello, etc throughout the record. Miranda Sykes excels on double bass on four tracks, and there are nicely-turned cameo appearances from Steve Knightley (cuatro on two tracks), Jackie Oates (viola on Something You Said) and Tom's daughter Holly (backing vocals on Beacon Cove).
This is a very handsome album, chock-full of great - and often very moving - songs and some great, and really characterful, singing; with its top-class production and ultra-attractive digipack presentation it should gain Tom much acclaim and a place amongst the "must-sees" when he tours (the sooner the better as far as I'm concerned!).
David Kidman March 2008
This was the kind-of-sequel to Tony's 1967 BBC documentary All My Loving, which set out to contextualise popular music in a completely new way, principally in viewing it as an art-form and thus to be taken seriously. And as is often the case with sequels, All You Need Is Love was even more ambitious in scope too. It's hardly dated, and constitutes a true landmark both as a documentary and for the presentation of music history, made by a supremely knowledgeable director at his peak. Made in 1976 and eventually broadcast (on ITV, of all places!) in fourteen hour-long episodes, it presented a pretty exhaustive history of popular music from its origins right up to the then-present-day (essentially, the mid-1970s), and its range and quality of insights, together with its tremendous sense of style, accomplished technicality and breathtaking unity of vision, all qualify it for the term groundbreaking - in anyone's book. Clearly it was a mammoth undertaking, one that programme makers (and commissioners) would be hard pushed to get off the ground today, so it's even more a subject for rejoicing that the series has finally been released in its glorious entirety on DVD (a five-disc slip-cased set).
All You Need Is Love was also a pioneering work in that it took a refreshingly global view of the origins of popular music and unashamedly embraced other cultures than western European to celebrate and expound the great diversity of those origins and their relationship to each other. It also examined, with an often stark realism and definite percipiency, the struggle of individual creative talents within popular music to survive and transcend the demands of an increasingly capricious and avaricious industry. This can, and here invariably does, make sobering viewing, of course.. Entire individual episodes were dedicated to specific genres or musical forms such as ragtime, jazz, blues, vaudeville and music hall, Tin Pan Alley, the musical, swing, R&B, country, protest song, rock'n'roll, "sour rock" (an interestingly opinionated one that!) and glitter rock, with (inevitably) one episode devoted exclusively to the Beatles and their influence. Only the (necessarily) decidedly speculative "Imagine: New Directions" final episode can now with hindsight be seen to ring significantly less than true - but that was only to be expected from the standpoint of 1976, when it appears it could not be envisaged that punk was literally waiting to pounce, just around the corner of the block as it were.
I would need a full page just to itemise even a fraction of the many fascinating insights that accrue from the fairly extensive interview segments and soundbite-reminiscences within these programmes, so many of whose contributors having since passed on into legend (as have many of the anecdotes). But what's equally important is that the linking commentary, though not always taking the form of a linear narrative, always manages to be incisive (and academically erudite without being either patronising or condescending), the editing is razor-sharp and the musical illustrations well chosen (unusually for a broad, historically-oriented series, these are lengthier performances, either extended or complete selections. The only instances where this practice does neither the music nor the series' central thesis no favours are the sequences of rock'n'roll greats captured on film long past their prime and sounding frankly uninspired in then-contemporary performances.
Viewing the series again after 30 years (well, I recall missing around a third of the episodes at the time due to an on-the-blink student TV set!), I did find one or two of the episodes relatively rudimentary in terms of the amount of subject knowledge we've all accumulated since then (but then the more you learn the more you realise there is to learn!). Of course, some of Tony's statements are contentious or provocative, and there are a few occasions where any pop enthusiast will feel that Tony is blatantly missing the point, or else drawing the wrong conclusions. For after all, it could be argued, there was virtually an entire "alternative" or parallel history of popular music which could have been drawn on but which for Tony was either unknown or unheard - or deemed worthy of ignoring if it didn't quite fit with his thesis (which is something academics have a habit of doing!). His complete omission of even a mention of some (to my mind) quite key figures in pop history (Joe Meek for a start) is both questionable and yet understandable in the circumstances. And maybe, just maybe I'm imagining it, but the place of some of the era's most influential musicians (eg Dylan) in the scheme of things seems a touch underplayed, as does the folk revival (protest movements aside) - but then I'm biased, you'd say.
Even so, and in spite of the considerable (even laughable) predictive flaws in its concluding episode, All You Need Is Love remains compulsive viewing thirty years on. I couldn't in all honesty say that this intellectual marathon never palls, but much of it certainly repays repeat viewings. Importantly, though, it retains its original power to enthral and entertain - and how! On which count it must be judged an essential acquisition for the library of anyone seriously interested in popular music culture: no exaggeration.
David Kidman October 2008
David Kidman December 2007
Papa Noel & Papi Oviedo – Bana Congo (Tumi Records) or is it Baba
At first, it sounds a fairly crazy idea to put together a Congolese guitarist and a Cuban trés player. Then again, we're not talking any old guitarist. Papa Noel was the mainstay for 20 years behind the legendary Franco And TPOK Jazz. Neither is Papi Oviedo a slouch. He's been acknowledged as the foremost trés player in the world. But, Congo meets Cuba? Not a mad idea but an obvious pairing when you consider how the Caribbean and Africa have cross-fertilised each other's music over the years.
The rolling title track, Bana Congo has an African feel to it but the following Kin Havene has a strong Cuban sound albeit the harmonising is African in flavour. Indeed, it's written by Papa Noel. So, that cross-fertilisation continues. I could sit and break out the various parts but the point here is that we're hearing two master musicians whipping up a real Afro-Cuban rhythm delight. So often, these meetings sound rather contrived as if they've never even met in the studio…and, sometimes, that's the case. However, there is a wonderful chemistry here that makes this a rather special recording. They're out and about in the summer with a large band but get this CD if you can't get to see them.
This is master songwriter George's eighth CD of original compositions in not quite that exact number of years, and it's another stunner – although as always some of the songs may take a time to make their mark and reveal their true stature. With the aid of a handful of excellent and exceedingly versatile fellow-musicians (Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer, Paul Sartin, Pete Flood, the Tindall Family), George again paints thought-provoking and gently compelling pictures of our life and uncertain times, perceptively and unsentimentally observing with a keen eye for internal and external detail.
The unifying theme of this latest collection is that of multiple perspectives, each of which can be seen to have its own validity; this approach can come into play in all manner of life experiences: from love to war, from street life to country life, from international politics to personal trials. And so George steers us engagingly from an appreciative hymn-like consideration of the Miracle Of Life to genially ponder the conundrum of Serendipity and more bitterly celebrate life's Handmedowns, then moves into the realms of social observation (Street Life, Love Of A Sort, Hills Above The City) before focusing in on the effects of cultural differences and baggage (Daniel And Ayse) and needless war (Azadeh, Thieves Of Innocence). Arguably the strongest item on this collection, however, is Life's Dreams/Kite Flying, a poignant "envelope" of two linked songs reflecting from different stages of a life. George hasn't neglected his Greek heritage either, for the most ambitious track, Erotokritos, is a translation-cum-paraphrase of an excerpt from the traditional Cretan epic poem of that name concerning the parting of lovers (this is accessible rather than esoteric, I hasten to add, and its only drawback for some might be its decidedly-non-toe-tapping 17/8 time-signature!).
Throughout the CD, George's singing is better than ever, and his playing - particularly on the twelve-string guitar - both accomplished and mellifluous, while the musical settings are increasingly imaginative, utilising piano, violin, oboe, cor anglais, nyckelharpa, accordion, whistle, double bass and percussion (albeit selectively deployed). I must declare a small personal involvement in this CD (including acting in an advisory capacity at an early stage in the songs' composition) but on subsequently donning the magic cloak of impartiality I feel that the end result is one of George's most musically satisfying albums to date, even though it might not contain quite the usual quota of catchy choruses (that's not a complaint, just an observation). For that reason, Looking Both Ways may not be the album to introduce George's fine body of work to the first-time listener (except on a selective basis perhaps), but it does provide a good spread of the musical and thematic diversity of his output as well as a convincing ongoing statement of his personal integrity and deep-rooted humanity. Not to underestimate the aforementioned contributions from George's fellow-musicians who clearly hold him in great regard. And finally, a mention for the attractive and intelligently realised artwork.
David Kidman November 2009
George began his songwriting career only as recently as 2001, but, over 180 songs later, his craft still continues to develop apace. With album number seven (his first for WildGoose), George's status as enviably prolific singer-songwriter hasn't dimmed one iota, and neither has the basically consistent quality of his output. In many ways, though, Life's Eyes is still very much quintessential George, for, like its predecessors, Life's Eyes showcases George's acute powers of observation, his right-on commonsense worldview, anger and compassion and essential humanity, all expressed in confidently colloquial language and musically shot through with the delightful winding contours of his by now unmistakeable melodies and guitar riffs. But George also cleverly rings the changes on this new record, with an increasingly adventurous approach to form and structure in particular. Here, the spiritual and musical pull of (An Emigrant's) Rebetiko (quite literally, "where Father Thames flows into the Mediterranean"), is considerable; that particular song, together with Tsamiko, shows George making increasing use of the piquant flavours and rhythms of the music of his native Greece, taking further confident steps out of the folk comfort-zone and into the realm of his own brand of world-music - yet entirely credibly, and without ever frightening the horses. On the remainder of the songs, George once again rides the emotional seesaw of modern-day living with absolute conviction, from caustic attacks on present-day society and attitudes (Another Day, Upwind Of Me) to wry and quirky slices-of-life (the experimental, intriguingly antiphonal Rush Hour) and poignantly many-faceted lyrical sketches (Late Spring). And once again George proves strong on heart-rending reminiscences where the personal is so expertly given a universal dimension (Regrets, written following the death of his father, and the unbelievably touching For A Friend). In truth, every song has something to commend it; but such is the impressive diversity of idioms that George essays in his quest for ideal musical settings, that there's almost bound to be, for any given listener, one song on the album which doesn't quite "do it" for him/her: in my case, I'll admit, it's Rozellas, a chirpy cha-cha-cha number evoking affectionate memories of those beautiful Australian birds (although this track is already garnering plenty of radio airplay so whaddoIknow?!). On the performance side, George has never sounded better, his already distinctive singing voice having matured from its diffident, even on occasion slightly fussy beginnings on albums one and two into a gloriously expressive vehicle that his superbly intricate and intrinsically musical guitar playing (six-and twelve-string) ideally counterpoints: as too does the supporting playing of his "Los Marbles" (sic!) colleagues Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer, who present a subtly enhancing and ever-engaging musical backdrop (it's no coincidence that these two excellent young musicians are proving to be rather a mainstay of WildGoose output of late, and much in demand!). There are so many gorgeous details to discover: pithy lyric bites, felicitous twists and turns of phrase and melody, subtle aspects of instrumentation. This new disc is both a brave step and a proud achievement for George and his collaborators - and special mention for the extremely attractive artwork (by Hilary Bix) and George's excellent liner notes, all entirely typical of his careful attention to detail. Life's Eyes may at first seem to be something of a departure for this fairly "traditionally-slanted" label, but you only need to think back to its recordings of Mick Ryan, whose own original songs are already becoming regarded as "of the tradition", and the logic of George's appearance on WildGoose will become clear. George is an intelligent and unfailingly perceptive songwriter whose music genuinely sounds like none other's and deserves your close attention.
David Kidman March 2008
2004 was a significant year for Shropshire born Pare. He quit his job in Sheffield, ended a relationship, sold his house and moved to China to become a teacher. A year later, he was travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express with a bunch of conscripts returning home after two years military service and looking to swim in a sea of vodka. What threatened to be a volatile situation was defused when Pare swapped a bottle of vodka for a battered guitar and sang a few songs. Spurred on by the prospect of hours on end staring out at the bleak Russian countryside, he started to write, putting down rough demos on his MP3 player. Eventually back home, having been robbed of everything save that player, he decided to turn the songs into a properly recorded mini album. This is the result, a six track collection of melancholic songs seasoned by experience, simply arranged for guitar, keyboards, cello and handclaps and sung in a warmly burnished voice reminiscent of Roddy Frame and Stephen Duffy.
It opens with Exorcism, a gorgeously melodic beautifully desperate song about his decision to uproot and change his life ("I'm tired of the bottom, I'm coming up") while both the slow waltzing Shoot To Win and the gently cascading melody of Looking At Me deal with love's self-delusions with the sort of disarming grace James Blunt can only dream of.
A guitar that sounds like dripping icicles intros Afterglow, a wearily wistful remembrance of love and lust stained with the dust of regret then it's on to the soft burr cello that announces Losing My Touch, a sad realisation that a relationship has run its course and things have to end in order to begin again ("what can I say, I'm not in love with you but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt me too"), which, with harmonies from Jemima Grace, is both the album's highlight and one of the most heartbreaking songs you'll hear.
Finally, the softly strummed You've Got Your Work Cut Out sees Pare moving on, opening his heart to new love while realising things might still not work out. It may not be an original story, but honest and affecting it's one few won't relate to and, crafted with everyman lyrics and lilting melodies it marks Pare as a singer-songwriter of real note. All he needs is for someone to get behind him on the radio and he's going to become a major new star. Check out his MySpace for a bonus extra track, My Lover.
Mike Davies February 2007
Hailing from Chiswick with a countrified suburban England sound that paints mental musical pictures of sunlight streaming over rain-washed early Sunday morning terrace streets, you'll detect influences that range from Ray Davies and Richard Hawley to The Smiths (bittersweet love song Booby-Trapped Bouquet actually references Meat Is Murder) and Lilac Time.
That there's a banjo dappled slow swaying song named for 70s detective series Petrocelli gives you a good idea of where their nostalgia roots lie, and that sepia tinted wooziness enfolds several numbers here, most memorably so on the lush headiness of Sand Apple, the lyrically barbed waltz-time Can't Weigh The Rain, the tick tocking pop of (Time For The) Time Of Your Life and a lap steel and warm brass keening Cold Comfort Falls. Lyrically, musically and vocally, the latter are almost dead ringers for the very best of Gerry Colvin, which, given he rates in my book as one of this country's finest - and most overlooked - songwriters and purveyors of bruised romantic melancholy, is no mean feat. This is one parish newsletter you owe it to yourself to read thoroughly.
Mike Davies April 2009
On first acquaintance, well till near halfway through track 1 maybe, I'm thinking here's yet another band of confident youngsters with heaps of obvious energy and a taste for automatic eclecticism - but hey, don't let's yawn too soon, this outfit are different, quite possibly unique. It's immediately apparent that they've got an unusual degree of musical maturity as well as the confidence and attitude, and intense degree of talent, that's almost a given when there be award-winners in their ranks. Style-wise, their music is a folk-Celtic-bluegrass-oldtime hybrid that doesn't quite recall any particular antecedents except perhaps approximating a more earthy version of Nickel Creek. They're absolutely teeming with ideas, and happily mix and match styles and ideas in a very winning manner. In spite of the name, PBSC is only a three-piece, but they make a big sound with just fiddle, mandolin or guitar, and bodhrán. The dynamic fiddle player is Shetlander Ross Couper, who as a member of Bodega won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards not all that long ago. Mandolin and guitar duties - and the sturdy vocals too - are taken by a Canadian, Aidan Curran, a founder member of The Rock Island Ramblers among other things. And the bodhrán is played in an incredibly energetic bhangra style (yes, that has to be heard to be believed!) by Will Lang. If that combination doesn't point to something genre-defying, then I don't know what does!… for although the trio's musical adventures share their different traditions and straddle the generic boundaries, the band never sits on the fence (or the bench for that matter). They strike a healthy balance between tune-sets and songs here; most of the former turn out to be band originals, and creative ones at that, while the latter consist of a fun John Hiatt cover, versions of The Cuckoo and Little Sadie, and a song of Aidan's about his grandfather. Aidan's singing is commendably individual and mature, and leagues away from the "youngster playing at being adult" that you tend to get in some of the less experienced young bands. I mentioned the big sound, but the trio are augmented occasionally too, by Eliza Carthy on three tracks (including the delightful hidden track), and Simon Robinson (cello) and Tom Wright (various odds and ends). For any new band, Sit On This would I'm sure be considered a damned fine first effort, for it makes a big impression musically while conveying the sense of almost unbridled fun the musicians are having in the process. It's slightly disconcerting that the cover displays the track titles in random (as opposed to actual sequence) order, otherwise I've no complaints with this abundantly lively, genuinely exhilarating disc.
David Kidman June 2007
Although Humble Beginnings is being marketed as his debut album, it actually feels significantly more accomplished than yer usual debut (and certainly not humble!) – not surprising when you learn that this East Yorkshire (Bridlington) -based singer-songwriter has already chalked up close on eight years playing in rock bands, notably The Trailers, while more recently he's appeared in a solo capacity doing some well-received live sessions for BBC Radio Humberside.
Musically, Ben's ambit is best described as retro-romantic pop-punk with a strong acoustic base, a styling with which he's clearly very much at home. There are a myriad of post-punk and indie inspitations that I can't quite pinpoint, while there's something in the persistent catchiness of Ben's music that smacks of Buzzcocks too… At the same time, Ben admits to being much inspired by GreenDay, and one can certainly hear their influence, mostly on the opening cut Close Your Eyes (and later on the breezier fantasy of Imaginary Girl). And yet, Ben's vocal approach is probably more reminiscent of Elvis Costello than Billie Joe Armstrong, especially in the appealing directness with which he addresses his listeners on matters of common interest like love and life, his world-view being always shot through with realism.
Ben openly admits it's a very "heart-on-sleeve" way of expressing himself, and the honest, open nature of his lyrics is well reflected in a really eye-catching tattoo-like cover design. The precision of his vocal delivery is given exact foil by the well-developed, creative yet simple instrumental settings (these are all Ben's own work, right down to playing every instrument himself, while he's also solely responsible for the conscious studio production – even though he prefers to play live in stripped-down format/mode). I really like the edgy-yet-plaintive quality of Ben's songs, where the anxiousness of the issues depicted (like the relationships) is mirrored in the slightly twisted chord progressions and some interesting turns of melody, all of which factors contribute to a perhaps unexpectedly upbeat overall impression and keep you on your emotional toes.
Even the more conventionally idiomatic musical gestures of No Cure For Broken Hearts ring true (except perhaps for the treated-vocal effect Ben brings in at the close of each verse). Often, too, Ben's inner confusion surfaces in an intriguingly cluttered instrumental backdrop, which reveals telling – and initially unsuspected – detail on close listening (Things Will Never Change is a good example of this).
Almost all of the ten songs here have a high memorability quotient, and I feel even the more mundane examples may yet shine after being worked on a bit; that doesn't mean the set's a rough diamond, or that Ben's talent is unpolished, but more that his enthusiasm to get this album out there might have got the better of him just a little bit. And at 32 minutes I guess it could have done with being a little longer. Even so, Humble Beginnings proves a confident and not altogether unassuming album that's well worth getting your head around.
David Kidman December 2010
Graham Parker - Deepcut To Nowhere (Evangeline)
It's indicative of the undervalued esteem with which he's held in the UK that even after the recent glowing reviews for the retrospective reissues this, his first for the label (though he's still with Razor and Tie, who released The Mona Lisa's Sister, Struck By Lightning and 12 Haunted Episodes, in the US) has been summarily ignored and under promoted. His first studio album in a while, it's largely business as usual with his Costello/Dylan sore throat growl, that sinewy Stones r&b swagger and the angry, cynical, misanthropic nature of his lyrical passion.
With a pessimistic Dark Days that namechecks the political tensions between India and Pakistan opening proceedings, the mood's quickly set with images of nature letting rip, the rain flooding down through I'll Never Play Jacksonville Again (did he have a bad gig there or what?) and storms raging across the East Coast in If It Ever Stops Rainin'. The sun rarely shines in Graham Parker's universe. There's a definite touch of Bukowski's gutters and losers in the characters that occupy songs like Cheap Chipped Black Nails and Socks n Sandals (a slob's love song), which with Tough On Clothes, a parent's lament on his kid's garment terrorism, finds him in the haberdashery imagery dept. Harmonica blowing, Syphilis & Religion is a pretty much self-explanatory (and let's face it hardly novel) attack on Christianity's missionary colonialism, but things fare better when he's drawing from the personal (if not necessarily autobiographical) well. The countrified Blue Horizon takes a look back at where he came from and the different roads old friends travelled, a fiesta rhythmed High Horse finds him having another hard time with women while It Takes A Village Idiot ("why can't a woman be more like a man instead of complicated?") owns up to an ineptitude in the battle of the sexes. If he's as grumpy and chauvinistic hell to live with as his songs suggest, no wonder he's making albums about failed relationships and townsfolk who'd like to see him skewered.
It's been some time since I reviewed Ian's album Inside and he's been off reconnecting with his blues roots in the USA along with Aynsley Lister, amongst other things. Where I Belong is the culmination of two years worth of finding himself and a re-evaluation of his blues and soul heroes in addition to those influences of a less bluesy origin. The eponymous title track is a mid-paced R&B opener and its repeating theme is a good base to start from. He has already shown that he has matured both as a songwriter and musician. Your Love Is My Home has a cool BB King style opening and this sophisticated, blues influenced, soul flecked feast is a treat to the ears. Parker shows that he can get down and dirty on the medium paced rocker, Until You Show Me. This has gritty vocals, via voice box, and a powerful guitar solo and they contribute to a well written, excellently performed song. Coming Home has the surprise inclusion of flugelhorn and has Parker on acoustic guitar. This is a slow burner and suits his now distinctive vocal that sets him apart from the rest of the field. A special mention has to be made for the on-form drummer, Wayne Proctor. Waste My Days is a little bit of boogie and will get the crowd going with its great sing-along chorus.
Sweet Singing Sirens is an excellent example of Parker's particular form of song writing and this chugging R&B rocker has some great harmonica licks from Dave Jenkins in addition to some screaming guitar from Parker. He finally turns to the blues, albeit 60s British blues, for Love So Cold. His voice is so suited to this and it rocks. It's raunchy, moody and mean and provides some of his best guitar work. We're now in full flow as Parker cranks it up for Before Our Eyes. This is an out and out rocker and he should make no apologies for that. The sophisticated Don't Hold Back would be great for a small, intimate venue, especially with Parkers emotional vocal. It's back to the rock arena for another chugger; the blues influenced You Could Say. This has more blues elements than most of the other tracks and is a good old foot stomper. He finishes with Told My Girl To Go Away, which flits between acoustic and electric but the acoustic slide is well worth waiting for. Wayne Proctor is again excellent and Parker saves one of his strongest vocals for the finale. The whole thing builds up into a top class blues rocker and is a fine way to end the album. There's something here for most people and I'm sure that Ian Parker will win many new fans with it.
David Blue March 2007
Ian Parker - Inside (Ruf Records)
The opener She Cries has modern drum beats, crisp guitar a sultry vocal and sets the scene for the rest of the album. With a backing band of ex-Robert Plant Band drummer Andy Edwards, former Aynsley Lister Band bassist Steve Amadeo and long time sidekick Morg Morgan on keyboards Parker serves up 13 self written songs covering a number of styles.
Misfits And Fools has a great blues riff to it and is one of my favourite tracks. The chorus sends shivers up my spine. The pared down Burden Pain is one that will tug at your heartstrings with lyrics such as 'Some things in life are too painful to mention'. Funny How is funky and laid back in the extreme with another blues riff in the background.
There's a western feel to Sometimes I Wonder and this is a song that suits Parkers voice but would also suit a voice such as Jon Bon Jovi. Scared To Lose This Love is a classy acoustic led offering whereas The Love I Have has an R&B groove to it. Z Madness is the shortest track on the album at just over a minute and is a small showcase of Parkers excellent guitar work. It leads wonderfully into my favourite ballad, Dear Lord - no superlatives here, just a great song.
Feeling Whole Again is the first true blues song on the album and confirms this bands versatility. There's a feeling of Richard Marx on Meant To Be and I'm sure that when others hear Parkers songs then he'll be in demand as a songwriter as well as an artist in his own right.
The penultimate Awake At Night is another emotion-laden song (get the lighters out) that slows the pace right down. You'd expect a high-powered finish but Parker surprises yet again by going out with another excellent ballad in Everything And More. This flirts with being slushy but he manages to pull it off but only with the Derrin Nauendorf style guitar flurries.
I'm glad to have heard Ian Parker and I'm sure you will be too. Unfortunately I missed him on his recent trip to Glasgow but maybe next time.
Hailing from the West Country but now based in Birmingham, Parks has been slowly making a name for herself in jazz circles, both with her own ensembles and as a featured performer with the MYJO as well as singing with Latin soul funk outfit Kanopus. This is her solo album, bringing to bear influences that range from Carole King to Ella Fitzgerald for a set of chill out jazz (Star, Change Is Made), creamy late night
singer-songwriter soul of the Sade variety (Same Old Story), blues (Moral of the Story), torch (You've Changed) and slouching beats slinky gospel funk (Pass Me By). She even does an early hours lush and languid cover of Bjork's Joga, from Homogenic.
Lyrically astute in its meditations on 'the human condition' (read, relationships) in the 21st century and apparently part improvised, it suffers from some generic first album faults such as a sense of restraint where you'd want her to give a little more emotional blood (the 38 second Moral of the Story shows she can get gutsy), but there's no getting away from the evocative voice and the depth and quality of her material and arrangements.
Mike Davies, April 2006
Accompanying himself here on National steel (resonator) and 12-string guitars and (just occasionally) banjo, Charlie's a master of the understated, at least on first (or superficial) acquaintance with his music. It's simple, it's rural, and sure it's inhabited by the spirit of those Harry Smith anthology records alright, for his (self-penned) songs have that stamp of primitive authenticity that marks him out as no mere latter-day revivalist or retro glory-seeker. I realise only too well tho', that that very description is just recycling the received quotes I started out with, but it's as good a way into his world as any – even tho' there's lots more to the man and his music. Roustabout contains just three tracks which are Charlie's own arrangements of traditional pieces, but almost any of the rest could easily have been taken straight out of deepest tradition. Primitive and lo-fi Charlie's music may be (and this album was even recorded in plain mono!), but the level of white-heat creativity and sheer commitment is intense and immediate. Roustabout is a truly remarkable set, which takes us all through that rural landscape in a dusty truck, stopping off along the way to let a few other musicians play along when they feel like it… there's some delicious washboard and other (more eccentric) percussion from Mikkel Beckmen on four of the tracks and Dave Hundreiser plays harmonica on a couple, while Emily Parr adds her plangent vocal to Walk Around My Bedside.
Standout cuts featuring Charlie solo are the stark opener Don't Send Your Child To War, the desperately bleak Midnight Has Come And Gone, the somewhat Fred McDowell-like Warmin' By The Devil's Fire and the rustic gospel Come Along And See, while tucked in among those gems is a wondrous, eerily impressionistic instrumental sketch Adrift In Lake Superior At Sunrise, on which it sounds as though Charlie is bowing his guitar with chopsticks. Even the more conventional-sounding country-blues tracks have much of interest. Charlie's been a real discovery for me, and I can't recommend him strongly enough.
Charlie's next UK tour starts early next month, but only takes in Ireland, London, Coventry, Bristol and Dorset - shame!
David Kidman August 2009
Siobhan Parr - Repeat To Fade (IRL)
She's finally gotten round to her own album, with the exception of her unadorned vocally soaring live cover of Tim Buckley's Buzzin' Fly a totally self-penned affair that reveals she has the writing chops to match a voice that's been variously compared to Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.
Embracing twangy alt country, soul, blues and backwoods folk, it's an impressively confident and accomplished first outing, songs like the honey and bourbon Lose My Dress (where those Joni tones wade deep in muddy creek waters), Too Much To Ask, the organ driven Any Other Way, a rolling and tumbling Ripped At The Seams and the world weary piano accompanied country slow ballad The Joker all bespeaking life seasonings or Loretta Lynn proportions.
Another Love suggests she could easily crack the Lucinda Williams crossover market if she felt the desire, but it's the bottle bruised blues of the funkily sleazed and slouched do right Woman I Am, the swaggering R&B veined Piece of Me and off the shoulder choppy Joplin soul of On The Move that likely most represent her heart and intentions. For which we and alcohol suppliers the world over should be truly appreciative.
Pitch And Toss, labelled "a 2-CD collection of the best-known songs of Bernie Parry", is a set which has been lovingly compiled by Bernie himself, probably as much in order to afford an opportunity for him to look back on and revisit key songs from his long career as to present to the listener an overview of that career. If you're already familiar with Bernie's work, then you'll know most if not all of the 30 tracks here – but four of his finest songs appear on this set in newly (2009) re-recorded versions that in all cases score points over the original recordings (the underrated Oh You and The Arms Of Spring in particular I feel).
The first disc "pitches" you in with all or most of the songs you'd expect him to perform in a typical live set, including those for which he's most celebrated (Man Of The Earth, Jack Of Hawthorn, The Village Fool, Davy, The Harper, etc. – all inevitable and mandatory choices but nevertheless welcome) alongside some more recently-composed favourites like Ride The '61. Disc 2 then expands the selection by "tossing" together a roughly equivalent number of songs (well, including one instrumental theme) that Bernie himself views as among his best, e.g. The Pedlar's Road, A Merry Dance, The Sailor's Earring and the early classic Green And Peaceful Ocean.
You'll be likely to agree with me, though, that while Bernie has undoubtedly done his own œuvre keen justice in assembling what in essence amounts to a true "best-of" collection, there are at the same time plenty more songs that would very probably equally qualify for inclusion (and in so doing stretch the set to three discs!). If, however, you've never or rarely tasted the delights of Bernie's distinctive and distinguished songwriting, then here's the place from which to embark on an exploration, for definite. It forms a persuasive demonstration not only of the excellence of Bernie's songwriting but also of his (more undersung) instrumental versatility (he modestly, if casually lumps it all under the term "plays everything" when crediting the majority of the tracks!).
Over the course of the two hours plus playing time, you'll find Bernie's music incredibly consistent as regards both quality and style of writing and performance, and though not every selection will be to everyone's taste you'll be hard pressed to find a weak one anywhere on these well-filled discs.
David Kidman August 2009
A decidedly strange record, this. For a start, ponder this: how can you have - or write, for that matter - "songs without a purpose"? But this is Johnny's second album, so there must still be a purpose to the writing. Although Johnny himself is of the view that his songs "proudly resolve nothing", so we're back where we started. Or are we? - for, laying that conundrum aside, how do we approach Johnny's music? What confronts our ears is a soundscape that owes quite a bit to the avant-garde mavericks, minimalists and iconoclasts, with prominent colourings of piano, bass and cello; occasionally you'll hear sax, trumpet, guitar, percussion and/or a string quartet, and (interestingly) a female (trained-soprano) voice, pushing through the gloomy texture with shafts of dark light. The songs themselves are initially hard to comment on without reference to the booklet (which thankfully gives the lyrics in full), but the writing seems to match the musical settings rather well, being at once darkly elegant in their poetry and distinctly disturbing to digest, their menacing, unsettling mood not entirely assuaged by the smoother undercurrents that ripple reassuringly through the textures. The big stumbling block for the listener, I suspect, will be not the confusing and often queasily imprecise nature of the songs' emotional climate but Johnny's vocal delivery. This, more than anything else, immediately seems to come perilously close to being a pastiche Tom Waits, for listening to Johnny's singing voice is rather like catching your ears on the sound of roughest sandpaper that has a bad sore throat whispering "sweet nothings" or croaking desperate confidences into your ear (and sometimes it'll appear as painful for the singer himself as it is for you to listen to). Beyond a couple of tracks, it'll either get too uncomfortable for you to bear any longer, or else you'll be able to accept it as the norm and any other singer thereafter will sound naff and artificial. Actually, I rather warmed to Johnny's style, tho' I'll admit I do really have to be in the right mood to listen to it and I own up that I expect to be in a minority there. Johnny's music is both unusual and challenging, and his uncompromising musical vision can be quite stimulating; the listener needs to keep an open pair of ears and embrace all manner of possible avenues (and some of it is frustrating rather in the manner of a soundtrack to one of those elliptical art-movies of a particularly obscure nature). Such is the breadth of Johnny's expressive devices that on pieces like the extended Little Prayer No 5 there are successive instrumental passages that could've come out of Richard Strauss and Michael Nyman, then again there are bits that recall the richer pomp of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, and others that take klezmer and Kurt Weill and turn it inside out. And as for the "purpose" we started out pondering, well why worry? maybe we should just let Johnny's music stand as enigmatic (like much of the best music that's come down from all ages and eras!)?
David Kidman April 2007
Gram Parsons -Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels (Rhino)
Devotee looking to upgrade those time worn vinyl albums or tired of scouring the racks for non existent CD versions of obscure tracks or maybe new to the game and looking for a crash course in the man who, steeped as much in trad country as rock n roll, gospel and soul, invented country rock and proved a seminal influence on many of the current practitioners of Americana? Then this is your box set.
Tidily tying in with the recent Grand Theft Parsons film about how his body was stolen to be cremated in his favourite Joshua Tree location, this two disc set and exhaustive accompany booklet documenting his life and all the featured songs is, while not definitive- nothing from early outfit The Shilos notwithstanding and a selective culling of his assorted albums - about as essential a collection of the Cosmic Cowboy as you are going to get.
Working its way chronologically, it begins with six tracks from the International Submarine Band's Safe At Home, among them of course Luxury Liner, the single B side that would later turn up as the title track of former singing partner Emmylou Harris's album. The first of the rarities lies here too with a previously unreleased and long unheard one take four track recording of Marty Robbins hit Knee Deep In The Blues.
From here it's on through The Byrds and a five cut sample from Sweetheart of the Rodeo that features Hickory Wind, the song that would become his signature tune and eventually find its way on to his solo Grievous Angels album, Then comes various memories of his time with the Flying Burrito Brothers; the groundbreaking Gilded Palace of Sin with aching cover of Dark End of the Street and classic road song Wheels included, Burrito Deluxe (during which time he'd hit the rock n roll diva road and would be eventually fired, but still sporting a splendid cover of Wild Horses, Gram once a contender to replace Brian Jones in the Stones), and two tracks from the live Close Up The Honky Tonks, Sing Me Back Home and the Bee Gees To Love Somebody.
On then - teamed with Emmylou - its the turn of the solo albums, the legendary GP, Live 1973 and the posthumous Grievous Angel, a golden vault of classics among them We'll Sweep Out The Ashes in The Morning, The New Soft Shoe, Brass Buttons, Ooh Las Vegas and the immortal Return of the Grievous Angel (here in a remix version), In My Hour of Darkness (the only Parsons/Harris co-write and featuring Linda Ronstadt on backing) and arguably the quintessential duet of Love Hurts. Three tracks (all covers) from the odds and sods Sleepless Nights collection of Gram and Burritos tracks round things off, a haunting timeless reminder of a man who may never have found the commercial success he deserved when he was alive but who, in the legend that grew following his young death, changed the face of American music.
Frontman with US Rails and one half of Parsons Thibaud, Germany based Parsons has also carved an extensive solo career. This, his first studio recording since 2008's Heavens Above, also marks his debut for his own newly formed label, having left Blue Rose (to which he's still signed in his other guises) to find an audience beyond their specialist Americana base.
He doesn't seem to be looking too hard through since, while you can hear elements of blues and gospel creeping in, there's no great stylistic difference between the songs here and those on the previous album or Falling before it. Not that I'd have it any other way.
Working with his touring band, Sven Hansen (drums), Freddi Lubitz (bass), and Ross Bellenoit (electric guitars) he recorded it live, with no overdubs, in his old hometown of Philadelphia, giving it an organic all the time in the world feel and allowing the musicians to improvise if the song's mood inspired them. Part written in Paris and part during winter in a small cabin on the North Sea coast of North Germany, his songs of love and loss, hope and despair, again fuse personal experience and storytelling.
He has a warm, distinctive and comforting baritone with a slight husky catch that does emotional ache exceptionally well and again reminds me of early Bruce Cockburn but also of Glen Campbell, Warren Zevon and the young Neil Diamond. At the end of the day, though, his voice is strong enough not to need comparisons.
He opens with Harbinger that provides the album title and which, as does the second track, Runway, counts the cost of relationships and a life lived between airports. Their relaxed, fluid grooves set the prevailing rhythmic tone, but the band rocks it up too. Cruel Hard World drives along on a melody that conjures Dire Straits, Spiritual has an urgent blues boogie lope with train whistle guitar wails and Design For Life's a brooding instrumental with electric guitar storms buried deep in the background behind the sparse percussion.
There's not a weak track here, though soulful slow dancing tender love song More with its swelling crescendo, the 50s border country flavoured Color Of Love (I could imagine Conway Twitty having done this), and the soft shuffling Float with its musical echoes of Fields of Gold (this album's Don Williams moment) are certainly among the strongest.
The two most striking numbers, however, are also the rockiest. A ringing acoustic guitar meeting between Springsteen, Diamond and The Hooters, Roman & Michael relates the true story of a gay couple who were early victims of the AIDS epidemic and which calls the government to account for its lack of commitment to finding a cure. And, Parson's speaking the lines like a cross between Johnny Cash and Tom Russell against a desert moan melody that sounds not unlike Money For Nothing, Broken Vows takes its lyric from an anonymous Gaelic poem translated by Irish dramatist and W.B. Yeats associate, Lady Gregory which James Joyce devotees will recognise as featured in John Huston's film version of The Dead.
I'm not sure this is going to find the wider audience he's seeking, but anyone with even the slightest interest in roots rock really should have a copy in their collection.
Mike Davies November 2011
Partly recorded in Paris and partly in his native Philadelphia, this is apparently his seventh album. The other six have totally passed me by, but this could well be the start of a new musical love affair. Vocally and stylistically, he variously reminds me of Bruce Cockburn (Shades of Grey), James Taylor (Children In The Sun), Iain Matthews (Sky Boys), Don McLean (Sympathy) while Sky Boys harks to CSN&Y. He's a storyteller of note, too. The opening REM influenced Heaven's Above finds an oil worker 'on a rig up in Plaquemine' when Katrina strikes New Orleans, making his way home to find his family and reflecting on the chaos but also the courage that greets him. Sitting On Top Of The World (which features guest vocals from Elliott Murphy) sketches a portrait of a woman drawn to the dark side trying to find happiness, while Dume Room is a bluesy, organ and percussion driven number about a LA drifter 'diggin ditches with Pedro y Fred', enjoying the beach 'when nobody's there'.
Nursing grief over the death of his father and what seems to have been the end of a relationship, melancholy, loneliness, loss and battered hope vein songs like Shades of Grey, Anyone's stark acoustic duet with Emiliana Zeitlyn, Children Of The Sun, the country keening Falling and I Saw You's heartache of finding the one you love in someone else's arms. And yet, as the gently skipping Tell Me Hello (where he sounds like a younger Don Williams) shows, there's a light seeping through that makes this an album of calming assurance rather than fretful despair.
Mike Davies December 2008
One of the finest Irish singers of the present day, Niamh has never produced anything approaching a bad album, but this brilliant new collection eclipses even her own high standards I feel. Niamh's singing of traditional material has always been remarkable in its combination of unerring poise and shading and an intrinsic tonal beauty, and here she turns her unflappable technique to the wholly natural interpretation of songs by contemporary writers alongside just three from traditional sources. It's a brave and percipient collection, a connoisseur's choice definitely, taking in excellent writers like Kieran Halpin (the title track), David Olney, Linda Thompson and Alistair Hulett (there's no fewer than three of Ali's songs here, I'm glad to note). Ron Kavanagh's The Men That God Made Mad is capped with a particularly poignant air composed by Niamh's regular guitar accompanist Graham Dunne, who on this occasion entirely appropriately gets joint billing with Niamh on the spine of this CD. Graham provides some markedly empathic, delicately virtuosic and exceedingly well-judged accompaniment on nylon-strung guitar (admirably faultless without being in any way soulless), with a selective handful of other musicians (Dennis Cahill, Liz Knowles, John Williams and Larry Grey) and occasional harmony vocalist Kat Eggleston providing extra fine texturings. Niamh herself gives us some magnificent, darkly thoughtful interpretations of "ancient tales of love and war". Two of these, in fact, were even completely new to me: Maria Dunn's impressively chilling (if brief) The Peddler, and the heartbreaking soldier's tale John Condon (credited to Laird/Starrett/McRory). Of the album's many gems, though, Olney's 1917, Linda's No Telling and Alistair's He Fades Away are probably the highlights for me, ostensibly understated but oh so very tellingly expressed and with musical settings (largely the inspired work of Graham and Dennis) that are a model of sparse perfection. The quickening of pace for Nancy Whiskey and Blue Murder doesn't necessarily impart or imply any lightening of mood, but you can't ever complain of over-sombreness. And to be fair, you can't ever say that the whole album's a work of unrelieved depression, for Graham not unreasonably is afforded two tracks to himself of more jaunty demeanour (one with Dennis's bouzouki in tow), in a spirit of true equality to balance Niamh's two solo unaccompanied tracks. Although the mood and subject matter of the songs may seem for the most part distinctly on the depressing side, this is actually a wonderful album that oozes an attractively sweet melancholy yet without a trace of cloying sentimentality or pretty-pretty arrangement; the luxurious sombreness of tone in which they're sung by Niamh proves wholly captivating. With its strangely uplifting air of sadness and musing, this stark yet sublime set proves to be one of the finest song albums to be released so far this year, of that there is absolutely no doubt.
David Kidman August 2006
Two years ago, Niamh released an album (In My Prime) that was so sublimely beautiful I felt she'd probably never surpass it, but I've lived with the follow-up, Heart's Desire, for a month or so now and I've not yet tired of its abundant charms. By and large, Niamh has retained the pared-down approach that worked so well on her two previous albums, again paying considerable dividends for the listener. That is, the listener who is prepared to listen, to create a quiet space and be properly attentive, for this is not flashy music-making that dazzles the ear right away– Niamh's skill is in a communicative directness of a different kind. She makes her point by means of a totally natural command of phrasing that springs from the songs themselves and not from any artificial meaning imposed externally onto the words for the sole purpose of projecting the singer's personality. The opening track – an heart-stopping unaccompanied version of My Lagan Love – is a perfect example of Niamh's artistry, with spectacularly pure tone, faultless inflection and real delicacy of expression. Two further songs are performed unaccompanied, and prove to be highlights within an album of high points – actually, three if you count Niamh's arrangement of Brokenhearted I'll Wander (aka Bonnie Light Horseman), where her own voice is joined on the chorus by those of Terry Coyne and Tony Gibbons.
It's only right that the album's focus is well and truly on Niamh's glorious voice, but her choice of instrumental accompanists is a vital factor in the total success of the album. Guitarist Graham Dunne has been Niamh's accompanist for a few years now, and his playing (on both nylon- and steel-strung guitars) is exemplary in its very unintrusiveness and subtlety, succinctly matching Niamh's singing in perceptive control and poise. With Graham's playing, weight is given sparingly but tellingly to each and every note and chord yet with a curiously free, improvisatory feel that leads you through the development of each song afresh each time. In recognition of Graham's talent, Niamh allows him two instrumental tracks (the set of jigs is even his own composition), on which he duets with fellow guitarist Dennis Cahill (the album's producer) in highly musical performances, demonstrating his unerring sense of rhythm and forward momentum in tandem with an apparently effortless virtuosity. Niamh's own choice of material is faultless as ever, although I was especially taken with Sweet Inniscarra, also Done With Bonaparte, where she sets Mark Knopfler's lyric to a traditional air (Valentia Island) that she heard played by Seamus Ennis, and Francis Fahy's poignant but economic Tide Full In (with Josephine Marsh's accordion the sole accompaniment). Another unsurpassable album from Niamh? – only time will tell!
Dolly Parton - Those Were The Days (EMI)
After really loving Dolly's last few back-to-basics releases, I at first found the concept of this new one more than mildly incongruous. Yet to be honest, although it has its awkward moments, it's not as ill-fitting as it sounds. What Dolly's done here is to use her award-winning bluegrass sound and style as the springboard for a set of "Dolly-ized" renditions of what she terms "era-defining songs", all but one emanating from the 60s and 70s. Clearly the sentiments of these songs still arouse and excite Dolly, for on the best of these, like Blowin' In The Wind and Cat Stevens' Where Do The Children Play?, Dolly gives beautifully passionate performances with sympathetic and well-judged bluegrassy backings, bringing the songs' messages to the forefront without posturing or making them seem dated in any way (as an album-full of covers of even the very finest of songs is in danger of doing). And it's a nice touch to bring in the writers of the songs as special guests, as with Kris Kristofferson (Me And Bobby McGee, Tommy James (Crimson And Clover) and Yusuf Islam – or else other artistes particularly associated with the songs, as on Turn Turn Turn (Roger McGuinn) and Both Sides Now (Judy Collins). Nickel Creek do a splendid job on the Dylan cover, while that ol' Kristofferson classic gets an almost Joplinesque (Janis I mean, not Scott!) ball-buster of a performance from Dolly. I also really liked Dolly's treatment of The Cruel War (with Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and Mindy Smith), and her duet with Keith Urban on The Twelfth Of Never is an unexpectedly energetic uptempo highlight. The only fly in the ointment has to be on the (thank goodness relatively few) tracks where Dolly overindulges and opts for a wide-screen approach that she goes astray I feel. For instance, the title track (never one of my favourite songs!) ruins a reasonable enough cover treatment by playing up the Cossack Vodka advert angle, importing the Moscow Circus (!) and drowning the song in unnecessary drunken-crowd effects and suchlike. I also find her cast-of-thousands showtime take on Imagine just a touch glutinous. But at other times, any additional orchestration is employed respectfully. So all in all, this feisty, fiery collection does Dolly proud, being shot through with ample sincerity and artistry; there ain't many artistes that could've carried such a project off with such verve.
Dolly Parton - Halos and Horns (Sanctuary)
Continuing to mine the bluegrass heritage that marked her artistic rebirth with Hungry Again and continued through The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow, this latest collection came together fast, laid down in Knoxville with a mix of Nashville friends, pickers from Dollywood and other musicians from 'up home' virtually as soon as she'd written them.
Although Dagger Through The Heart has been hailed as an instant bluegrass classic, some of the strongest songs here have been gestating in notebooks for a while; the hillbilly waltzing title track which provides the album's saints and sinners thematic keynote has been around as a title for a couple of years, gospel hand-clapper John Daniel (recorded here with the Kingdom Heirs quartet) pre-dates Jolene while the aching Not For Me dates back to her feelings arriving in Nashville in 1964 and feeling the loneliest girl in the world. Fans will also recognise Shattered Image and What A Heartache as acoustic makeovers of songs originally recorded back in 74 and 86 respectively.
Of the newly minted numbers, two spring directly from her response to the events of 9/11, the sparse apocalyptic Raven Dove with its prayer for a world of peace and Hello God a call for help in a time of emotional and spiritual trauma. Also among the new material you'll find If Only, a terribly sad slow waltz originally intended for Mae West movie, and the striking These Old Bones, a slice of southern gothic about a crazed old Appalachian soothsayer and a reunion with the narrator daughter taken from her, sung in the voices of both characters an coming together to duet for the finale.
What'll get the press attention though are her two covers. Bread's If gets perked up in much the same way as Ray Stevens did Misty only bluegrass style and, to these ears at least, really should have been left well alone. And, for the closer, Led Zep's Stairway To Heaven, a wholly acoustic version that introduces banjo and choir but stays faithful to the arrangement and melody and which summons up an evocative feel of moss hung swampy everglades, wooden shacks and wild eyed child-women in denim dungarees and bare feet. Robert Plant has apparently delivered a glowing character reference and that should be enough to sway any jury.
I know that it's been out for a little while but I feel duty bound to tell you that, without question, Dolly Parton is going through something of a purple patch. Ignored by the major labels, she releases her second album on the small but trustworthy Sugar Hill records (licensed in the UK to Sanctuary Records). Like it's predecessor, "Little Sparrow" allows Dolly to get back to her bluegrass roots in some of the best musical company that can be had for this style of music. Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton and various others make such sweet music that even the much abused "I Get A Kick Out Of You" gets a re-working that sounds great. Mind you to mention just this track would be an injustice as Dolly is still writing great songs. For example, the title track kicks off the CD with a plaintive vocal that makes you realise why she's so great. More of her compositions follow such as "My Blue Tears" with Alison Krauss whilst the latter joins in with a wonderful version of "A Tender Lie". Heading towards the end of the CD, Altan join in for a version of "In The Sweet By And By" which ranks amongst the best you'll hear and, then, join her on another fine composition, "Down From Dover". As the lady herself says she's 'a perfect mountain angel'.
Jeff's best known as one half of that redoubtable Stoke-based duo His Worship & the Pig, but this solo venture is a special project, a kind of song-cycle which relates in song the (fictional) stories of three young men (a ploughboy, a potter and a rake) who are recruited into the 64th Regiment Of Foot (2nd Staffordshire Regiment) during the Napoleonic Wars. Jeff provided the music and Denzil Dudley the words; it was originally dates from 1979, and was performed around the North Staffordshire area (and on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1982) by six singers (plus instrumentalists) from Ray Johnson's Stoke Original Theatre company. The version you hear on this CD is an adaptation by Jeff (of The Rake's Tale) for solo performance with guitar accompaniment, and it's a testament to the power of the writing that it stands up very well indeed in this form. It comprises nine well-crafted songs which chart the rake's "progress" through the system, from his joyful paean to "a nicely wasted life", resisting the sergeant's bold rallying-call, then being reluctantly recruited (of course!). There's a Call To Arms and a jaunty Marching Song, followed by stirring accounts of the Battle and the rake's Execution, with a commentary on heroism and valour in between. Each song does its job well in evoking a snapshot and/or propelling the narrative forward, and Jeff's catchy melodies and memorable choruses ensure that our interest never flags; and his solid guitar work well matches the songs' structures and the shape and import of the lyrics. The whole cycle is a considerable success, in fact.
David Kidman 2007
This masterly Dublin-based supergroup enters its third decade, albeit with another change in personnel – the departure of button accordion player Jackie Daly (though he takes his farewell in style by leaving his mark in the shape of storming contributions to the final two sets on this new disc). So that leaves Patrick Street as Kevin Burke (fiddle), John Carty (fiddle, flute, banjo), Ged Foley (guitar) and Andy Irvine (mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, harmonica), with Andy taking most of the vocal duties (there's one honourable exception - see below). Lest you think that Jackie's departure leaves a yawning gap, well sure enough the blend is different, it's bound to be, but the flute and banjo contributions of the band's most recent recruit John enhance and add a different complexion to the sound when they appear. And the total sound-picture can be every bit as full and persuasive - just take a listen to tracks like the Happy To Meet... set of jigs and the track 7 set of Sligo reels, both of which feature some joyous twin-fiddling and nifty complementary mando-work that refuses to draw attention to itself. The rather haunting slow air/jig Seanamhac Tube Station - composed and played by John himself - makes for one disc highlight, and for another Ged brings his own intuitive interpretive powers to bear on an unusually contoured new version of The Galway Shawl (I loved Andy's mando-embellishments here too). Kevin's personal contribution to the repertoire is a fine original hornpipe (The Long Acre). Excellent though all four musicians are here, Ged in particular seems to be on great form at the moment, and as time goes by I appreciate the special qualities of his artistry more. Then again, I don't think I've heard Andy sing better than on The Rich Irish Lady here, a reading which stands out for its unrivalled eloquent poignancy. And another of the glories of this disc is its enviably relaxed production, capturing brilliantly the easy camaraderie (brimming right over into the ears of the listener) with which these four accomplished performers come together to make music. After decades in the business, they've nothing to prove, and so they can just get on down and deliver - which they sure do, no problem.
David Kidman December 2007
As far as I can count, this is the Irish supergroup's eighth album release, on which the distinctive charms of the now-familiar, winning line-up (Andy Irvine, Ged Foley, Kevin Burke and Jackie Daly) are preserved undiminished. But as always, there's more to say beyond stating the obvious, and each successive album yields new riches to spice up what might easily in lesser hands have deteriorated into little more than a formula. In the case of Street Life, it's probably true to say that the principal differences come courtesy of the various guest contributions, notably the brass arrangements of TV and film composer Cal Scott on three tracks, which lend the ensemble a warm timbre that's unusual to encounter in this repertoire (I also liked Gay Dalzell's harmony vocals on these tracks, by the way). Another highlight is provided by the playing of celebrated oldtime fiddler Bruce Molsky and banjoist Matt McElroy on Down In Matewan and the ensuing Lost Indian tune (track 5). Steve Cooney and Bernie Cau also lend their instrumental skills to a set of reels (track 3).
But I wouldn't want to give the impression that the remaining tracks exude an air of predictability - far from it, for the band's choice of songs and tunes is as faultless as ever. Among the five songs here, it's good to hear a worthy version of Hugh MacDonald's Diamantina Drover (to efface the memories of rather too many indifferent club floor-spot renditions!), while I also enjoyed Andy's fresh interpretation of Green Grows The Laurel (which he may have learnt from Al O'Donnell), using the tune more often associated with Once I Had A Sweetheart. The tune-sets are as always exemplary, both in execution and recording quality, although there seems to have been an excessive use of reverb on just one of the four (yes, four) different studio sessions that make up this album. With little apparent effort, then, Street Life maintains the high standard set by the band's previous work, and if their current tour reaches anywhere near you then get along and see this vibrant line-up live!
Songwriting workshops have earned her considerable respect in the States among fellow writers and performers, not least Beth Nielsen Chapman who, having become both friend and mentor, invited her to join her on stage at the 2009 Cambridge Folk Festival and sing harmonies on three tracks for her upcoming new album, the serendipitously titled EP Exclusive.
Chapman's described Patterson's voice as 'velvet and air', and there's a definite touch of her own timbre though you may also hear aspects of Eva Cassidy, Julie Gold, Iris DeMent and a strong hint of Mindy Smith. But forget drawing comparisons, Patterson's tender warmth and crystal clear purity is something you could listen to for hours, drifting you into the night with her melancholic caresses.
You can hear the Irish lilt in her music, an Americana smoothie of folk, country and bluegrass that provides the tide on which flow her songs of both losing and finding love, uncertain relationships, self-discovery, faith and, on Precious Cargo, the anxieties of a pregnant woman as her fisherman lover sets out to sea.
A minor criticism would be that, while It's Easy's love flushed giddiness at embarking on a new relationship, picks up the tempo slightly, the pacing tends to remain the same throughout and perhaps next time a little more variation might not go amiss.
However, such is the consistent strength and emotional investment of her writing and performance, that it's hard to single out individual numbers from the dozen finely crafted songs here. The title track, a song about waiting for her heart to be filled (by God rather than a lover), the quiet humility and resolve of Still Learning (inspired by the words of Michelangelo), and Falling Hard And Fast's gentle country jog are all likely to prove someone's personal favourite.
Mine though would have to be the bittersweet loveliness of Do I Ever Cross Your Mind where, backed by aching pedal steel and brushed drums and sounding not unlike a young Kathy Mattea, she takes the familiar tale of a woman wistfully remembering the man who left her for another and sets it in a Willie Nelson concert where Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, You Were Always On My Mind and Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground bring both hurt and consolation. Anyone who's ever moped to their own choice of heartache song, will know exactly how it feels.
Her name (pronounced I-lee, since you ask) is Gallic for 'ray of sunshine'. Let her light up your life.
Mike Davies December 2009
Patterson, Jordan, Dipper – Flat Earth (WildGoose)
A triple-barrelled nomenclature which may confound rather than enlighten. James Patterson and Ralph Jordan may be known to some of you through their work as the duo Silas and later (with Mick Ryan and John Burge) as Crows. And then, so the story goes, PJD was born when they encountered and collaborated with fiddler John Dipper at Whitby Folk Week in 2000. This CD, their début release, is subtitled "music in the English tradition", which some may find misleading since only around half of the selections therein are truly traditional in origin. No matter, for the subtitle need not be taken entirely literally, and can just as adequately reflect the revival tenets.
Now, I've lived with this album for a few months now, and delayed reviewing it because I've been trying to make up my mind! I like much of it a lot, yet still find myself curiously indifferent to some tracks. One consistent thread running through the whole album, though, is that the musicianship and singing is of a very high quality indeed. James takes the lead vocal duties; he's a singer of considerable maturity, directly expressive yet also capable of plenty of internal subtlety without resorting to undue ornamentation. What at first glance appears a fairly spartan instrumental roster (guitar/bouzouki/cittern, concertina/s, fiddle and occasional extras) is managed skilfully so that it imparts a generously rich (yet well-contrasted) sound to the proceedings, and this deceptive opulence is reinforced by the presence of Mary Humphreys' partner Anahata on cello on some tracks. The enterprising nature of the instrumental arrangements tends by and large to be mirrored in the treatments of the songs themselves, and indeed in the very choice of material – though, as I've hinted, I have minor reservations as to whether some of the individual treatments actually work to the best advantage of the songs.
But to the successes – a superbly controlled Captain's Apprentice, a fulsome, swaggering version of Mike Waterson's Working Chap, and the closing Long Odds/Flat Earth, on which a Derbyshire dance tune sets the scene for Bill Caddick's potent "urban legend". The two Ewan MacColl songs work well too, given as they are in what might be regarded the "less familiar" versions – Manchester Rambler in the refreshing John Tams "transformation", The Father's Song as learnt from Dick Gaughan. And two other choices prove particularly intriguing – Flanders & Swann's elegiac Slow Train and Pete Morton's Maybe Nothing's Spoken. So, on balance, this release is worth your serious attention – though bear in mind that it may take a time to grow on you.
Paul Andrew Ulysses Lamb, or P-A-U-L as he likes to be known, is a Detroit native and his second album is as tough as the city of his birth. It begins with, funnily enough, And So It Begins which is a short intro into the high impact Our Bullets Will Be Fairytales. I reviewed his first album and I think that he has gone for an all over heavier sound this time around. There is a lot going on in this song but it all comes together very well. The grinding I Ain't Givin' You Up continues with the heavy vibes and Martyred Eyes confirms his transfer over to the heavy side of rock. This has guitar overload and best played loud. I Will Never Tell is a wall of sound, a real rockers tune so get the air guitars out and dust them down. The eponymous title track gives us a slight respite from the aural assault but the subject matter makes for a strange ballad. However, his guitar work is still on the highest level.
Detroit Is On Fire is just as powerful as the only other song I know about Detroit. That's Detroit Rock City by Kiss and P-A-U-L shows that Detroit is still a rock city. He might not get the same exposure as Kiss but he certainly can generate the same power. Mercy Kissin' is very ZZ Top and I love it!! Grinding, thumping rock at its best. At The Revolution has a short burst of acoustic slide to begin with before taking us off to the now customary grinding loud rock of Rattlesnakes And Butterflies. Diamonds For Gold has nothing too much to get excited about although it does pick up towards the end. Behind The Brothel is an interesting title. There is a big bass line from Paul Randolph and some added woodwind. This, plus the funky guitar gives us a break from the heavy stuff. It's over 6 minutes and at times it seems a bit too long. What it does do is it shows his versatlilty and the singalong chorus, "hey hey, come out and play" is a different proposition to most of the album.
This is a cracking second album and there is even more to come from P-A-U-L in the future.
David Blue April 2010
Bostonian Ellis Paul is considered a key songwriter of our age, and recognised as such equally by his fellow musicians and his fans. He's rather prolific, having made eleven albums so far, and his songs are typically both keenly observational and appealingly melodic. However, even after listening to the 34 tracks on this new compilation, which cover stages of Ellis's songwriting development and recording output from 1992 right through to the present, it's still not easy to point to any specific characteristics that determine an Ellis Paul song or make it what it is. Having said that, Essentials probably contains just that - and will form a good primer and an open door that if left ajar will gain entry to several hours of quality songwriting. Every one of the songs here is well crafted, most of them reliably hooking the listener while it's there on the player, yet not every song fully engages or stays in the memory thereafter. It could be that Ellis covers more bases than the average singer/songwriter, from full-blown folky Americana through to affecting pop song - and he does so better than many, albeit a touch self-consciously smoothly middle-of-the-road in the latter category for some tastes. And he's a better singer than some give him credit for, with a very healthy vocal range and an attractive tone. Whatever your verdict though, Essentials is definitely likely to introduce you to some fine songs of whose existence you'd not hitherto realised. Amongst such, Essentials naturally includes 1992's Conversation With A Ghost (an important song in that it got folks coming to see Ellis in the first place), as well as representative tracks from Translucent Soul, The Speed Of Trees and other choice albums. As Ellis himself explains in his liner notes, many of the songs on this collection are ones he specially likes to perform, while others are re-recordings or recent live versions of songs already available on record, and still others are new songs previously unrecorded or unreleased. For these alone, Ellis's fans are sure to want this excellent-value (2½ hours) two-disc set, whereas the non-converted are still likely to find at least something of interest therein and those completely new to Ellis's work may well consider it a useful starting-point for further investigation: it does its job on all these counts, then, but although there are several tracks that I like a lot I'm not entirely sold on Ellis's style yetawhile.
David Kidman March 2007
The titular digits are all over this, the British singer songwriter's follow-up to 2003's equally literate Scissors In My Pocket. They're present in the eponymous love song (which references both King Lear and TS Eliot) as she sings how 'with my hand outstretched I read your scars from head to toe', they're there on This One I Made For You, a bittersweet song of sorrow to a baby whose 'tiny heart flutters between my fingers and thumbs' twinned with images of motherhood and war in a place 'made of blood and bones'.
And they surface again on the closing track, Matilda, a chilling folksy piano metaphorical murder ballad sung from the perspective of the title character wiggling her toes, waiting to be found under the stones.
It's a companion piece to the preceding The Woods, a leafy Hansel and Gretel inspired eyewitness account of lost, murdered, children who 'lie blanketed beneath the mouldering leaves' in the dank countryside.
The motif of dead or disappearing children stems from the fact Paulusma suffered two miscarriages in the time between albums, painfully yet poetically recorded on the dust-coated sway of Day One as, evocative of Victoria Williams with her country tinged little girl vocals, she sadly notes 'all the seeds that I sow, though I try, they won't grow', the song full of images of her body as barren land. The good news is she gave birth to a baby daughter (born on her own birthday) during the recording of the album.
Elsewhere she treats on domestic violence and forced sex on the bluesy rumble of Ready Or Not, offers forgiveness on the slow rocking Back To The Start, and celebrates the dizzy joy of love with almost childish abandon with Where I'm Coming From and its surging right here, right now chorus.
Perhaps the most striking cut though is the opening Godgrudge which explores middle-eastern religious and political conflict to a drone-like backing, weighty guitar riffs and rimshots that sound like you're listening to the feed in from another track.
A lot more electric than her debut, taking her beyond its folksy Joni Mitchell comparisons into references points now more likely to include Beth Gibbons and Aimee Mann, this deserves a very big hand.
Mike Davies July 2007
Polly Paulusama - Scissors In My Pocket (One Little Indian)
Cambridge English grad (spot those literary refs and quotes in the lyrics!), former Ben & Jason backing singer and sometime member of Assembly, the improv outfit that also includes Beth Orton, Paulusama's building an enviable word of mouth reputaion following support slots to the likes of Cara Dillon, Gary Jules and Jamie Cullum. Her debut album will only serve to add to the groundswell.
Confessional stuff built around strong melodies, playful literate wordplay and her breathily low, slightly smoky vocals, it harks to such influences as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Sheryl Crow, Orton, Katherine Williams, Victoria Williams, Stephen Duffy and, on bluesier moments such as One Day even a less raw Joplin while the rhythm section (electric and upright bass) and her own occasional piano work inject jazz inflections into the arrangements.
There's brass and string in there too, giving extra rich textures and emotional resonance to such breezy, sometimes dark tinted English pastoral songs as I Was Made To Love You, Over The Hill, She Moves In Secret Ways and Something To Remember Me By.
There's poignant shivers to be felt on the undoubtedly deeply personal Perfect 4/4 as she details someone hooked up to drips and monitors in a hospital bed while fragile insecurity ripples through the bluesy Anywhere From Here but it's the way she captures the giddy whirl of being caught up in love and life on the acoustic strummed Carry Me Home and gloriously folk pop waltzing debut single Dark Side (shades of Fairground Attraction here) that really shows you just how brightly her star is about to glow.
A vehicle for London based singer-songwriter James Hibbins, the line up varies from solo to quartet depending on requirements but mostly works as a duo with multi-instrumentalist Bernard Hoskins. Resurfacing on disc after a seven year gap, here he's also joined by co-producer David Booth on percussion and keyboards with Nick Anderson sitting in on bass (and providing the gatefold sleeve photo) for the relatively uptempo spiky love song You Won't Know.
For the most part the template is acoustic guitar dominated English pastoral folk that will inevitably recall the early days of Fairport and Matthews Southern Comfort rather more than, as the press release suggests, Band on the Run era Wings and Elliott Smith.
The songs are a mix of self-penned and traditional, although he does also expand or rewrite the latter, case in point being the opening Rambling Boys, an old folk number which, set to the tune of The Maids of Mourne Shore, inspired Yeats' Down By The Sally Gardens, and to which Hibbins brings an extra verse.
Likewise Death & The Lady for which, lyrics taken from the 1959 edition of Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs, he provides a new tune while Spencer is an updating of Spencer The Rover with a new airy melody and a lyric that now talks of politicians' 'prittle prattling stories' and refers to 9/11 with only the final verse retaining anything from the original.
Best known for Sandy Denny's recording on Liege and Lief, there's many variants of Matty Groves, the Child Ballad tale of a nobleman's wife seducing her husband' servant, but this is the first time I've ever found it so formally titled as Matthew Groves. Hibbert keeps the violin part but gives the tune a slight blues flavour with Booth on harpsichord and drone.
The bulk of the original material forms the middle of the album, although he happily admits that North Country Town is 'reclaimed' from Dylan by changing the tune and the words he didn't lift from the traditional song. Another (ghost story?) love song, albeit one that takes a defiant stand against spinners of swindles, wagers of false war, and sirens of profit, Old Dust & Patchouli has a similar uplifting feel while, suggesting Ralph McTell could also be an influence, the title track is a tender snapshot of two lovers meeting in a bus station cafe'.
The slow waltzing Valentine's Day enlists jazz greats Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ella Fitgerald, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker for a reminiscence of past love, the line about 'characters changed, dates rearranged all in the cause of a better punchline' a sly acknowledgement of the storyteller's art of not letting facts get in the way of a good yarn.
The album ends with another trad tune, a multi-tracked if somewhat unnecessarily echoey a capella reading of Irish lament The Parting Glass, a fine send off for an album that grows on you the more you listen. Hopefully, it won't be another seven years before the next.
Mike Davies November 2011
Bill Payne - Cielo Norte (Red Tomato)
Mike Weintroub comments on legendary Little Feat Keyboard Player Bill Payne's Long Awaited Solo Release. Mike is a UK member of the Little Feat international discussion group Hoy-Hoy.
Ahoy hoy. Out of lurk mode to comment on the beautiful CD by Bill Payne. I received it last week and the first thought that came to mind as I listened was "this must be what a bird feels like, when it leaves the cage and spreads its wings".
Track 1 is my favourite so far, because as the notes say it was the antecedent to Just Another Sunday (another favourite). I just wish there were a few more extended "melodies" entwined within the brilliant improvisations. I like to hum along or know what's coming and I'm finding that hard with this disc. Maybe a few more plays are needed at different times of the day and in other situations. Music can be like that for me.
"I've waited forever to do this," Bill Payne says of his long-overdue first solo album. Payne, who co-founded Little Feat with the late, great Lowell George 35 years ago, has been Little Feat's keyboardist – and its pilot – throughout the band's existence, writing and singing such beloved classics as "Oh Atlanta," "Day or Night," "Time Loves a Hero" and "Gringo," while "steering a ship that was rudderless," as he puts it.
Ernie Payne - Coercion Street (Black and Tan Records B&T019)
Any record that starts with the lyrics 'feed 'em garbage' is going to get my attention. He's also been recently feted on the Kershaw and Peel programmes and you can understand the attraction after just a few moments of this record. There's a maturity that oozes out of that opening track, 'Curse Of Hamm', both lyrically and musically. Indeed, you don't have to look at the grey haired Payne on the front of the sleeve to know that this guy has been around the block a few times. He's a blues come soul come folk player of the ilk of one of Kershaw's other 'finds', Ted Hawkins. Not only that, he can write a good song too. In fact, he's said to have spent a number of years as one of those hired songwriters in LA.
Second track in, 'Mother's Uncle' has one of those spoken intros that I'm a sucker for before Ernie brings in some bluesy slide guitar and sings a delightful song about a favourite uncle. The title track follows by which time you should be convinced to dig into your pockets for your cash. I was slightly thrown by the T-Rex riff which opens 'Nothing Wrong With Texas (That Leaving Won't Fix) and I continued to be bemused by its blues boogie feel. That aside, I think you'll find that Ernie's smoky voice will hit the mark for you. No health hazard warnings required here. It's pure nectar.
I Just Want To Spend Some Time With You is a pedal steel laden honky tonker that weds Dylan, a melodic dash of Everybody's Talking and Gram Parsons, prison song Seven Years a fiddle scraping two step waltz while Come Down Easy reprises his Dylan-like nasal delivery with a swampy blues slope and the simple guitar and piano backed Until Morning filters Leonard Cohen through Ray Lamontagne and a hint of Chimes of Freedom.
These are the standouts, but the remaining numbers aren't exactly also rans; with its ooohing backing chorus, sorrowful guitar and mandolin When Summer Has Passed has a similar feel to Knocking On Heaven's Door, You Just Can't Hurt Me Anymore is a harp wailing train rhythm blues, while Walk By My Side shows off his fingerpicking skills. You'll want to hear these bright lights tonight.
Mike Davies June 2009
If you like a punchy, sweet-Southern-soulful take on contemporary electric blues with a touch of boogie topped with West-side Chicago-style guitar, then this new set of 13 choice cuts is unlikely to disappoint. Jackie proves himself master of the game indeed on ten sturdy original compositions (all co-written by Mr Payne with Messrs Edmonson, Singletary, Green and Otis from his band), but the three covers - fresh arrangements of songs by Brook Benton, Don Robey & Vernon Morrison and Cropper & Floyd - arguably fare just as well. Playing and singing is predictedly hot, not much else need be said - if this is your bag you won't go wrong in grabbing a copy.
David Kidman June 2007
Incredibly, this veteran singer-songwriter is now turning 70 - yet he shows no signs of slowing down, as a continuing string of awards, and now this new album, proves. Tom has always specialised in love songs of one sort or another, many also exhibiting a keen political conscience, and these two strands are prominently on display on this aptly titled, reflective new disc, Comedians And Angels. As is Tom's warm-voiced expression of universal sentiments couched in an equally universally accessible style. This latter trait has perhaps led to Tom being underrated or taken for granted, but the very act of coming up with a new studio album of high quality every few years can only do his profile considerable good.
Tom's always had such a tremendous gift for crafting songs, a gift that is timeless and (in the nicest sense) old-fashioned, and the 15 songs contained on this CD are no letdown. Six of them are brand new compositions, the remainder fresh takes on older material (newly re-recorded) which only serve to highlight the consistency of Tom's writing over 40 years. The current set pays tribute to lovers "real or merely imagined", a broad category which embraces fellow musicians and activists and of course members of Tom's own family. Tom naturally includes several touching tributes to his wife Midge (to whom the disc is dedicated) - Reason To Be, Home To Me, I Like The Way You Look, You Are Love (with its unmistakeable echoes of My Lady's A Flying Dove), The First Song Is For You (if ever a song were quintessential Paxton!), etc - but the glory of all these songs, of course, is the universality of their sentiments and expression.
The disc opens with the stirring gospelly anthem (Tom dubs it a hymn) How Beautiful Upon The Mountain which celebrates the idealism of political activism, and closes on the title track, which provides a melancholy but loving reminiscence of Tom's former contemporaries on the early Greenwich Village folk scene. The wistful A Long Way From Your Mountain provides another gently judged highlight, although Tom's paean to his daughters (Jennifer And Kate), while duly affectionate, perhaps strikes a slightly too simplistic note with its over-obvious rhyming. Here, as on all the selections, the musical backing is in the gentle tried-and-trusty light folk-flavoured-country mould, and the supporting musicianship is first-rate: no wonder when you discover the involvement of such session luminaries as Mark Howard, Tim Crouch, Al Perkins, and backing vocals that emanate from no less talents than (among others) Nanci Griffith, Barry & Holly Tashian and frequent Tom P producer Jim Rooney. A very nice album that's relaxing and genial yet thoughtful, and absolutely archetypal Paxton: reason enough to celebrate, I'd say.
David Kidman January 2008
This is Tom's first new "adult" studio album since 1994 (not counting the duo album with Anne Hills, Under American Skies, that came out a couple of years ago). His career spans over four decades and over 40 album releases, and you'd be easily forgiven for thinking he'd be bound to have run out of ideas after all that time. You couldn't be wrong though, for on the evidence of Looking For The Moon, his gift for writing simple, heartfelt songs is undiminished. And as always, that timeless, effortlessly easy rollin' style conceals the depth of emotion and passionate concern in the lyrics. The musical idiom is gently melodic and thus in a sense quite old-fashioned, but that's not a criticism, more of a statement of reference. There are thirteen new songs here, covering themes of personal importance to Tom which also prove to be of continuing universal relevance that transcends mere momentary topicality. That even applies to the album's most overtly topical song, its closing track The Bravest, which pays poignant tribute to the firemen who risked their lives to rescue people at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11; an early version of this excellent song had already achieved fame and widespread currency via the power of the Internet even before Tom had the chance to record it for this album! Elsewhere, the themes Tom tackles range over modern life experiences and the "inevitable but insidious march of progress", and Tom explores in plain and unaffected language the effect this has on the ordinary citizen. The depth of genuine feeling and understanding is acute and tangible, though Tom has the gift of conveying this with a sure control of emotional expression. Having said that, Homebound Train is almost too painfully real in its depiction of a young boy coping with his father's death, and it's one song I find hard to revisit too soon. Tom's supporting musicians are well chosen – ex-Burrito Al Perkins' dobro and Pete Wasner's piano form a distinctively soft-grained complement to Tom's own understated guitar picking, and there's some lovely harmony vocals from Nanci Griffith (particularly on Early Snow) and Anne Hills. The whole affair is given a fittingly unassuming yet characterful production by Jim Rooney. Welcome back Tom!
Tom and Anne are two well-loved and highly respected figures on the American folk scene; they first met when Anne sang harmonies on Tom's Up And Up album in the late 70s; they subsequently went on to record quite a bit together, and formed a short-lived trio (The Best Of Friends) with Tom's producer Bob Gibson. Under American Skies, though, is their first joint album as such, and it's a deeply affecting collaboration which addresses issues of concern with absolute integrity and in a way that's often emotionally charged yet nowhere overwrought.
Their “own compositions”, though, are in a minority here, only four having been written by Tom and two by Anne. Taking these first, I must be honest in that I find some of these very much of the “worthy but old-fashioned” school of social-conscience folksong, where the musical settings are more twee than their subject matter might demand – the opener (Tom's There Goes The Mountain) being a typical example. Tom's 1993 song Getting' Up Early, however, is given a fresh new reading by Anne, and Anne also brings a depth and poignancy to the more personal concerns of Pandora's Box that's hard to resist. Anne's Shadow Crossin' The Land is attractive too in its disarming simplicity. The title track, a joint composition, packs a more powerful emotional punch with its tale of child beating and condemnation of American “justice”.
The covers that make up the rest of the album are well managed, Richard Fariña's Birmingham Sunday and Kate Wolf's Links In The Chain (with a verse added by Tom) probably being the pick of the bunch. The final track (Tom and Bob's joint composition And Lovin' You) is a 1984 radio recording of the Best Of Friends, blending comfortably and well. The instrumental backings are kept simple, which adds to the album's overall listenability, though I still can't escape the feeling of slight discomfort with the overly soft-edged, time-warp quality of much of the material.
In some quarters, first reaction to this project has been groans of indifference or incredulity, for in print it may look a distinctly unprepossessing – even risky – proposition. It's most accurately described as a recording and touring collaboration between the worlds of folk and hip-hop; but these two musical worlds, as PBS6 founder member Will Lang is keen to point out, are less far apart than might be thought, in fact having a very close kinship in that both "genres" are truly music of the people: music that tells stories and sends messages.
In its knock-you-back vibrancy, the forward-looking and often bewilderingly busy music of PBS6 draws a distinct and conscious (though not self-conscious) lineage from traditional folksong and balladry, on through the "voices of the people" and the literal actuality of the MacColl-Parker Radio Ballads and straight on into the strong "message-culture" of rap. Folk-fusion experiments such as The Imagined Village (in particular) and other eclectic musical adventures courtesy of the likes of Ian King, Under One Sky, Afro-Celt Sound System, Jim Moray and Eliza Carthy – all these have paved the way in some measure for the invigorating – and surprisingly natural – experiments of PBS6.
Will Lang is best known as the enterprising "bhangra-bodhránist"-cum-master-percussionist with Park Bench Social Club (whose scintillating album Sit On This so impressed me when it was unleashed almost three years ago), but he's also proved crossover-cred by working with Nitin Sawhney in recent times. For PBS6, his latest ambitious project, Will has recruited five fellow-musicians with a keen and established reputation for pushing the envelope of their particular musical genre: these range from "Box On" young folk accordionist Shona Kipling, multi-disciplined guitarist/vocalist/producer Tom Wright and Northumbrian jazz singer Tessa Smith through to "human beatbox" Jason Singh and versatile message-rapper/MC Crystalize. And on the outfit's eponymous debut full-lengther, there's often so much going on that it's hard to make sense of it all on just one or two plays – let alone determine who's audibly involved, at any rate beyond the obvious suspects.
Preparations for the album involved travel to Australia to conduct interviews with people from a wide spectrum of ages and experiences, and soundbite-extracts from their verbal accounts are interleaved with the music and the messages of the rapper. This device forms a prominent feature of several of the album's tracks where historical research into cultural identity has provided a lynchpin and connection: these intriguing cross-references include the reminiscences of refugees and landowners, and even the story of a woman who emigrated to the Australian Newcastle from Tyneside in 1951(on Our Story). Footprints unites the communities across the world by incorporating verses from Waters Of Tyne, and Byker Hill is a contemporary view of the traditional song inspired by MC Crystalize's own tour of the mining regions mentioned in the song.
To illustrate the theme of different communities travelling from place to place and being dispersed or displaced, PBS6 present us with a compelling update of Ewan MacColl's Moving-On Song (which features chorus singing taken from recordings of prison inmates and a school choir), while elsewhere their defiantly individual take on tradition revisits Blind Fiddler (a punchy, pounding tour-de-force) and a couple of session-style instrumental tracks that, while not exactly shocking, manage to retain the freshness of the new. Throughout, the method of PBS6's expression is both intelligent and considered, a factor which entirely counters the oft-held view among more traditionally-minded folk fans that hip-hop and rap is merely trashy.
Although one or two tracks (eg Craic On) present a fairly undiluted funk-rap picture, for the most part PBS6 can be heard to deliver, not least by virtue of their outstanding musicianship, a canny example of the concept of evolving tradition where the various ostensibly disparate musical and multicultural elements are proved to be not so strange bedfellows in a stunning and thoroughly listenable mix which is both highly coherent and surprisingly complementary.
David Kidman April 2010
Guitarist Amos Garrett says of this album that it is Peach meets The Band and, with Garth Hudson on keyboards, sax and accordion, it is no surprise. These two are just the tip of the iceberg of star performers who help back up Peach on this, her third recording for Blues Rock Records. The sultry vocal and laid back beat on Lie Down are the tasters that lead you into an album of undoubted quality. Come Up And See Me Sometime is more upbeat and you can take what you want out of the lyrics - well, what did you expect from a track with this title? Seriously though, there's nothing too bawdy here and there's some excellent guitar work from the aforementioned Mr Garrett.
There's a big B.B. King orchestral start to Someone Else Is Steppin' In, the Denise LaSalle song, and it is a precursor to one of the strongest tracks on the album. Love You shows an earthy edge to Peach's voice and there's an almost primeval quality to the song. Rick Vito chips in some fine slide guitar. Things slow down with the ballad Beyond My Wildest Dream and although it is pleasant enough I feel that the song is a bit out of place on this album.
Things get rolling along again with the R&B mover Won't Be Long and the title track shuffles along nicely with some great interaction between Peach and Taj Mahal. There's a real Bonnie Raitt influence on Dance With Me Henry and no wonder, Raitt's producer Marty Grebb, who also plays piano and keyboards throughout the set, produces the album. The blues based Starin' You In The Face drifts into an excellent soul song and brings you possibly the best vocal work on the album. The soul feeling continues with The Cure For You with the excellent sax of Mindi Abair. Spot the printing mistake here; this track is not listed on the rear credits. The horn section are on form for Might Have Been A Move Or Two and the final tracks show Peach's versatility. Big Back Beat does exactly what it says on the tin and gives you a rocking blues and the album ends the way it started with the sultry I Must Be In A Good Place Now, which is a return to the Bonnie Raitt feel.
The album is called The Real Thing and believe me, Peach most certainly is.
Born in Hull, Newton is a 59 year old former Premier League football referee who's officiated four times at Wembley Stadium, including Manchester v Liverpool, and Real Madrid at the Bernabau. In February of 2007 he won £260,000 on Sky Sports Soccer AM's Buy A Player promotion. £250,000 of that went to help Hull sign Caleb Folan. The rest he spent making this album. It's not his first. In fact he's apparently made 60 of them. Though this is the first to be engineered by Pink Floyd's former knob twiddler Andy Jackson.
Perhaps inevitably, with its mix of pub rock, blues and country it's a better story than it is a record, but with Pearson's voice sounding more like that of a twenty year old than someone pushing 60 it is worth a listen. Sunset Rider sounds a lot like T Rex had Marc Bolan been a country-rock gunslinger (though apparently the main theme's derived from an old gospel tune by Reverend Gary Davis), Too Many Stars has a vintage Lindisfarne flavour while Lemon Light features sitar by producer Joe Read and underlines Pearson's own eastern philosophical leanings.
The lyrics variously talk about Lennon, Ghandi, Einstein, Isaac Newton, saving tigers and taking chances to be the best you can while the instrumental break on the Morricone-like Angel of the South is apparently a tribute to Joe Meek. all of which suggests he's perhaps a bit of an old 60s hippie. Which is probably the audience to which he'll most appeal. This isn't going to make him a star, and that's not the point since he really only records because he enjoys writing the songs, but it won't get him called offside either.
Mike Davies April 2008
Another album, another change in lineup for the groundbreaking Scottish fusion outfit, and this time round the all-purpose claim that personnel changes have revitalised the group dynamic has even more credence than usual. This applies especially in the case of newly recruited fiddle player Peter Tickell, who replaces Adam Sutherland; Peter's penchant for experimental fiddle effects is placed at the service of his musicianship and keen respect for his roots in the tradition.
What one might term the "customary" Peatbog sound-world, with its stirring piping and whistle lines soaring above the spacey, often freakily beat-ridden tunes, is of course retained, but without the hint of formula that might formerly have been creeping in, for the overall soundscape is now at once more relaxed (without lapsing into a torpor) and more energised and cutting-edge (without being in any way unlistenable). Track 2 (The Naughty Step) and Track 3 (Dun Beag), both compositions by the band's pipes supremo Peter Morrison, show almost opposite ends of this approach across the divide of the tempo spectrum, whereas Track 4 (Spiegel And Nongo), a jointly-penned Peter Tickell and his predecessor, brings together the rave and electronica strands of the band's activity under one six-minute roof, and Passport Panic is a loosely programmatic tune of Peter T's that after a cool start jitters along in unison with multiple whistles and a jazzy backbeat. While the same man's funky, driven Ascent Of Conival does indeed somehow manage to conjure up the dubiously energetic boot-rough, gritty, stony pleasures of the climb, and the more considered pictorialism of Fishing At Orbost is not lost in the mists of its Skye soundscape.
In the freshness of the band's latest incarnation, it seems that, having now taken the blowsy brass gestures and augmentations of their last (2007) studio album and the 2009 live set as far as they can musically progress them (having got them out of their system, if you like!), the Faeries are now exploring the possibilities of the six-piece in more depth and certainly with considerable intelligence and creativity. They still employ trombone and sax players for the occasional blow, but their contributions are more tightly controlled (generally as solo passages), and thus much more effective. There had also been moments on past albums when the band became victims of its own looseness and both texture and invention seemed to be meandering a touch during the course of some tracks, but the band seems now to be able to pack more interest – and musical events – into a typical six-minute timespan without it seeming unduly episodic. But hey, they still know how to party, as Room 215 seems keen to demonstrate!
At the end of the day, Dust is a thrilling record, with a strong, immediate presence that has plenty of body balanced by excellent internal definition. The disc has given me consistent listening pleasure in the weeks since it arrived, and I get the feeling it may well turn out to be the band's most satisfying record yet.
David Kidman August 2011
The Isle Of Skye's arguably most renowned folk-fusion exponents have twice scooped the Live Act Of The Year title at the Scottish Traditional Music Awards (in 2005 and 2008) – and no wonder, for on the evidence of the heavily exciting performances culled from two different locations on their 2008 tour (Edinburgh and Durham) for this, their first actual live album, it's really easy to hear why. They're masters of heady allure and potent atmosphere, while at the same time their sheer bravado, presence and energy, twinned with absolutely brilliant musicianship, fair blow any audience away. The aforementioned 2008 tour capitalised on the runaway success of the Faeries' fifth studio album, the previous year's What Men Deserve To Love; this introduced a four-piece brass section ("the Wayward Boys", but which I'm tempted to dub The Average Black Cuillin Band!) into the outfit's already seriously cutting-edge mix of traditional Celtic folk dance with jazz, funk, salsa and trance beats.
Here on this tremendous live album the whole ensemble provides an unforgettable and totally immediate "compleat rave experience". Inevitably perhaps, for much of the time it's now less trance-led and more dance-led, with the jazz-funk element more prominent, while there's also more scope for wild improvisational soloing, especially from Adam Sutherland's fiddle. The album opens with an archetypal Peatbogs workout, The Anthropologist, whereby recognisably traditional melodies and tune-shapes on whistles and fiddle are transmogrified through boldly rocking, syncopated riffing into a true rave extravaganza that breaks down all possible barriers of age and genre. The quintessential Faeries' spacey heavy-bagpipe skirling and reeling of, say, Wacko King Hako is given a funky new makeover, and the generously hectic vibe of Kevin O'Neill Of Rutherglen and Folk Police both audibly whip the crowd into a footloose frenzy. The jazzy swagger of The Invergarry Blues, the blowsy funk of Friend Of Crazy Joe, the motoring disco mood of The Locks N Rocks Reel: all these are an integral part of the Peatbogs patchwork and invigorating to the last beat: almost as exhausting to listen to as being right there on the dance floor yourself. There are moments of chillout repose too of course, here represented by Decisions, Decisions and Caberdrone (the latter containing some especially fine sax playing). And in between, just past the midway point, there's the epic near-eighteen-minute Dancing Feet Set, which despite containing its lion's share of solos, is euphoria personified and near brings everything in the house down!
On what must be one of the most truthful-sounding live albums released, we get over 75 glorious minutes of prime "rock-the-hoose" experience, every strand captured unerringly in a brilliantly well-balanced recording. This really is unmissable.
David Kidman July 2009
This is the fifth album from arguably Skye's most celebrated cutting-edge folk-dance-fusion outfit, and "rocks the hoose" in the best Faeries tradition. Its title's taken from Derek Cooper's seminal treatise on Skye, and though the import of the paragraph preceding that phrase resonates with more than a grain of truth I'm not entirely sure of its significance in relation to the music within. But let's not trouble ourselves with that just now, I'm sure it will come to me in due course! What's important is that for this new offering, the Faeries can be heard to continue along their merry tramping way much as before, so their predictably exciting mix of traditional folk dance and roots music with jazz, hip-hop, funk and trance beats still provides its share of ecstatic experiences. The novelty hasn't yet worn off: when the brilliance of the skirling pipes cuts through, it never fails to produce a glorious frisson, and the cool grooves of the Orb-like sections still have the power to captivate.
This time, though, the principal "adventure" element seems to be concentrated on the increased use of a three-piece brass section to augment, and integrate within, the group dynamic. It brings an almost cinematic sweep in the big-band vibe of its contributions to tracks like Friend Of Crazy Joe, and the AWB-style riffing of Still Drunk In The Morning provides a new dimension to the Faeries sound, whereas it's less successful I feel on The Invergarry Blues which is altogether more mundane, more like one of those blowsy, brassy (and ultimately aimless) Jools Holland jams. But that track's the exception I find, as elsewhere the excitement the Faeries generate in full flight can be heard proudly and defiantly unadulterated, even when in more deliberately chillout mode as on the initially more reposeful reel that forms the basis for the sound-portrait Ramasaig, also on Jason's Famous Banjo. And the overwhelming onslaught of Dr. Gig powerfully conveys the full-on rush of adrenalin musicians are known to get just before going on stage that "postpones any known ailment".
The bulk of the composing credit on this new album falls to piper/whistle player Peter Morrison, with three pieces by fiddler Adam Sutherland making up the numbers; two of these, as I've already remarked, seem more consciously centred on a more conventional riff structure than Peter's, but that's not necessarily a disbenefit when the disc's finale Nyup motors along so strongly on a storming, heavy-duty backbeat, and Sudden Dilemma builds interestingly from its chanted Afro-style vocal intro to altogether more typical Faeries jiggery with creative horn interjections. Yes, this all adds up to another fine record from the Faeries, tho' it may need more time spent getting to know its contours and thus repay more careful listening than earlier efforts due to the greater part-intricacy of some of the arrangements.
David Kidman July 2007
During 40 years of playing guitar and writing songs, Phil has received much acclaim but wider recognition has eluded him. So far he's recorded six solo albums - of which the last, 2006's Welcome To My World, impressed me with its pleasingly individual character and overall strength of expression.
Over the years, Phil's also enjoyed some non-solo work with his band Virtual Biscuit, a combo with as many as six different and fluid lineups. Here, though, Virtual Biscuit is to all intents and purposes a duo: Phil on vocals and guitars in collaboration with electric violin player Tracey Simmons, whose input forms a crucial element in the whole picture. Phil last worked with Tracey in the band some nine years ago, and the dozen songs comprising this album have had a long wait to be recorded. They were written with Tracey's performance in mind, between 2000 and 2008, and have now been brought together since they have a dark element in common - hence the Dark And Digestible tag. Digestible they certainly are, with a rich full sound, flowing melodies and accessible sentiments. And yet the sheer brightness of the overall sound-world Phil inhabits sometimes serves to play down the darker side of the lyrics.
Subject-wise, his songs encompass life and love in the main, with productive forays into myth and legend (The Calling Of The Stones), protest (Get On The Move), social comment (It's A Shame), sometimes (as in The Queen Of My Dreams) creatively combining elements of these, and usually thoughtfully expressed in a forthright and precise manner (if at times a touch simplistic). Backings are very distinctive, with Phil's use of two 12-string electro-acoustic guitars in two similar open-tuning styles giving a signature sound that's intense and full-bodied (almost to a fault), and the fulsome-toned nature of Tracey's wondrously flowing violin lines and associated effects can make Phil's own strummed rhythms sound a touch relentless (and too many of the tracks start from a similar basic rhythmic template).
Phil makes intelligent use of the complementary instrumental textures to give an attractive degree of variety, however, and it's also good that his vocals are balanced sufficiently forward to offset the richness of those backdrops where necessary (although sometimes he doesn't quite succeed, and the music draws your attention away from the lyrics). The most satisfying tracks, and those where the various elements seem to complement each other best - principally by being given room to breathe - are probably The Calling Of The Stones, The Clairvoyant, The Writing On The Wall and At The Ball.
Sure, the CD is an independent, home-produced venture, and the presentation is thus necessarily basic, but it would've been helpful to have the lyrics available on Phil's website at least, in order to enable us to get to know Phil's world better. And I'm not quite sold on Phil's categorisation of his music into a new genre of folk-rock which he calls "urban folk" (in many people's books, that term still belongs to the adventures of Pete Morton, Roger Wilson & Simon Edwards). Whatever, though, it's definitely digestible. So you just need to take the music as it comes and form your own response - always the best way.
David Kidman February 2010
PC Green & The Traffic Lights - British Blues @ At A Pub Near You
The great British Blues scene is alive and well in hundreds of pubs and back rooms around the country. Blues is a medium where many young guitarists hone their chops and older connoisseurs of the tradition cover the classics, in opposition to Sky TV football and noisy drinkers in the bar.
On 2 September 2000 Net Rhythms was out and about in Brighton, specifically at the Connaught, Hove, to see PC Green and The Traffic Lights: Rory Cameron and Steve Fairhead, on guitars, backed by a midi sequencer in the absence of the loose affiliation of musicians who regularly join the band, and very good they were too.
On this particular Saturday the music was a top-of-the-class mix of Chicago Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, and favourites (Van Morrison, Little Feat, Eddie Floyd, Robert Parker, the great Stax songwriter William Bell and more). Harmonica and lead vocals from Rory, and really tasty guitars, electric, semi-acoustic, and slide from Steve (lately of Steve Ellis's reformed but in abeyance, Love Affair) would have had me bopping if I hadn't been secretly taping the gig!
You need bands like this in your life - and they are there. Take a look.
Linked to Universal but now releasing through her own label, Chicagoan Peacock is in muscular form with an album that harks back to the classic female singer-songwriter days of the 70s. Songs recorded in one takes, it moves between the simple Janis Ian goes to Broadway piano balladry of Time, soaring soft rock Different From The Rest and the gently dappled pop of Baby Come Back to the southern soul roots of Runaway Day, piano jazzy waltzing Only A Memory and the big swelling album climax If You Could Only see Your Eyes.
Over 14 tracks, there's possibly a little too much emotional bruising about failed relationships and it might, arguably have benefited from being trimmed back to a round dozen, but her voice never palls and the arrangements never overwhelm the material. Whether there's a breakout track here remains to be seen, but anyone with an ear already attuned to Carole King or Beth Nielson-Chapman won't be disappointed.
Mike Davies November 2006
Welcome To My World is indeed a gently welcoming offering, which presents a pleasing and heartfelt 39-minute sequence of eight songs and two instrumental pieces, all Phil's own work and generally dedicated to love. That means romantic in the old-fashioned sense, then, yet - luckily - not sentimental in any negative sense. A more-than-incidental glory of this record is that evidently a lot of care has been lavished on the arrangements, which sound admirably clear and properly acoustic yet at the same time satisfyingly rich-toned - and yes, genuinely beautiful. Phil claims that "vocals and harmonies have been individually tailored to suit each song", and this is definitely apparent - this attentiveness pays off handsomely and Phil's devotion to his craft mirrors that for the love of his life that's conveyed in his lyrics. It's obvious that he's lived directly through the experiences he depicts in order to do so with such simple conviction. There's also an impressive degree of precision in Phil's expression, both vocally and musically, lyrically and instrumentally; he also has a good command of melody, with the knack of holding one's interest throughout the various twists and turns of a song. These are contemplative and contented without being complacent, also gently inspirational (and inspired) without descending into pretentiousness. Perhaps one or two of the individual songs (like Lonely Man) would appear to profess to explore their sentiments deeper than they do, and perhaps at times their simplicity could be seen to verge on the naïvely idealistic, but at least they don't end up merely trite and bland, as could all too easily happen with such material. All in all, this is a charmingly intimate release that hopefully indicates the direction Phil's to take in his music. It's also Phil's first all-fingerstyle album out of a total of six releases since 1996, and I hope it won't be his last.
David Kidman August 2006
Vinny Peculiar - Whatever Happened To Vinny Peculiar (Shadrack and Duxbury)
His family know him as Alan Wilkes, but under his musical pseudonym the Ross-on-Wye based Ray Davies joins the likes of Stephen Duffy, Jarvis Cocker, Billy Bragg, Chris Difford and Morrissey as one of the few distinctively English voices in contemporary music, even if he does have a clear fondness for old school country in his melodies and occasional inflections.
Babybird is probably the nearest comparison (though you might add Badly Drawn Boy if you subtract the Springsteen) and he does a nice line in self-deprecating deadpan humour that's seen him dubbed a musical answer to Tony Hancock for his witty vignettes of everyday small town life and characters.
Not the official follow-up to Growing Up With Vinny Peculiar, this is a collection of out takes, obscurities and alternate versions that have stockpiled between 1989 and 2003. Laced with trademark ruminations on life, love, failure and, on the bitter Showcase Time and Big Star's ironic cabaret pop, fame, it's far more than some shelf-clearing exercise.
Favourite Boy-Girl Song brings Bolan and the Super Furries together over a warm shandy, Jesus Stole My Girlfriend is a witty variation on the love triangle ("we go to bed but we don't make love because her thoughts are lost to the one above") while the stripped down acoustic Big Grey Hospital is an altogether more serious look at "lives destroyed by institutions", sharing thematic concerns with the spare How Come The Revolution and the spangly rock operatic Operation.
Elsewhere Slow Television is a bluesy slow pulse that borrows Bowie's Five Years drum beat (and the singer's slur) for a scalpel sharp dissection of a tacky medium as life metaphor while Uno Disco is the song that could have saved Pulp's career and Working Class Escape the number that would have put a golden sheen on This is Hardcore. But then most artists would kill to be able to come up with material Vinny keeps in his also ran drawer.
Bob's one of those iconic figures from the early-70s folk revival, a veritable folk pioneer whose recorded legacy may be relatively small but it's definitely important and influential in several ways. Firstly in respect of his adventurous and groundbreaking work with the electric-folk band Mr Fox, who, though for the most part resolutely guitar-less (and inspired as much by the Velvet Underground as by folk music!), used a fascinatingly wide tonal palette to express their songs which were inspired by, or re-invented/re-created, the indigenous music of the Yorkshire Dales, unbelievably evocative and timeless. But Bob's developing songwriting skills still found an outlet after the demise of Mr Fox, first in his duo work with then-wife Carole and subsequently in a series of concept or themed projects and solo albums. Most of these have remained obstinately locked away in the vaults for the best part of three decades, and Sanctuary are now to be heartily congratulated on making available again Bob's complete output for the Transatlantic label between 1973 and 1975. This comprises the entire contents of Bob's landmark albums The Shipbuilder and Ancient Maps and his eponymous joint album with Nick Strutt, which in this lavish and gorgeously lengthy (79 minutes per disc) two-disc set come topped up with a mouth-watering array of bonus tracks that include both sides of the rare single Werewolf Of Old Chapeltown, along with a whole host of previously unreleased recordings from those years including some album outtakes, John Peel radio session tracks and a long-thought-lost studio recording of the Bones Suite made some time in the late 70s. Bob's unique talent for musical storytelling and conjuring macabre and poignant landscapes and tales is well to the fore in the various suites and song-cycles here, all of which are well overdue for exhumation. Only a smidgen of dated countryish musical arrangement on a few of the songs betrays their temporal origins, for the actual writing is strikingly original, highly literate and incredibly creative (albeit decidedly idiosyncratic on occasion), sparkling darkly with the unbridled potency of genius loci and perceptive observation. After the 70s, Bob didn't get to record again until his 1996 Rhiannon release, the epic The Last Wolf, although even since his relocation to northern Scotland in 1990 he's continued to work in the fields of storytelling and music education. This is an essential re-release, furnished with superbly informative notes in the best Sanctuary tradition (and by the way, complete lyrics are also available now, at www.firekeeper.com). Well, we now have the complete Mr Fox recordings available again in a handsome Castle edition, so now please can someone arrange for the re-release of the missing piece of the Bob Pegg discography (the lone duo album he made with Carole, It Came From The Mountains)??
David Kidman March 2007
No apology necessary from this stellar partnership! Peggy and PJ had combined forces during Fairport's winter 2006 tour, when PJ was the opening solo act, and their union proved such fun that they're taking time out from their main bands for a "Night Off With Peggy & PJ" tour, which kicks off in mid-March and continues into the summer.
Well, a lot of mileage is covered in the album's too-brief 43 minutes, befitting the duo's "combined 77 glorious years (!) as professional musicians". That means some affectionate covers of "blasts from the past" from the annals of both pop and roots-rock, nestling strangely comfortably alongside a series of tributes to Sandy Denny, a couple of typically nifty instrumentals, and - bringing it all back home to the present-day - a trio of superb new songs by PJ himself which form suitably cynical, nay caustic putdowns of contemporary life. Taking these first, the title track (already familiar from its punchy rendition on the latest Fairport album) is an inspired and masterly little opus that takes the Catholics' tardiness in doing the correct thing and expands the analogy into all manner of delightful folk-cultural directions, and all couched in an insidiously catchy Lowell-George-meets-Angel-Delight musical setting. Bread And Circuses is a wonderful rant against the media set to a lithe "roll over Bert Lloyd" paraphrase of the familiar Sovay tune (a touch of the Duncan McFarlanes there methinks!). And the "poundstretching" opener, Everything's Made In China, is another rant, this time against cheap'n'nasty products.
The "Sandy tribute" section of the album is gorgeous, with an appealingly sensitive PJ cover of her Bushes And Briars, followed by two revisits of tracks that were highlights of Peggy's mid-80s Cocktail Cowboy album: Song for Sandy (though I think it's done a touch too briskly here), and best of all, a sublime, ringing, harmony-rich take on Steve Ashley's The Journeymen. The two original Pegg instrumentals, Bankruptured and Peggy's Pub, are both revisits too, but the new arrangements are fresh-minted and, like the rest of this album, brilliantly light-textured rather than heavy-handed, reminding us of just how skilful these two string-merchants are. Last but not least, then, the covers: the Band's King Harvest is an unexpected choice, and as unexpected a success, emphasising the song's funky rootsiness, while Mark Knopfler's homage Donegan's Gone is bathed in a warm glow of natural nostalgia. James Wood's Linseed Memories is a bit of a novelty number, a recent composition fondly recalling that quintessentially English experience (I say, chaps, howzat for a bit of gentle Ray Davies-style whimsy?!). And so into the Tardis to travel further back in time for the final two cuts: acoustic surf-rock rules with a trilling, pared-down take on the Chantays' Pipeline, and that perennial Buddy Holly/Paul Anka classic It Doesn't Matter Anymore is given a persuasive bluegrassy chug.
Yes, this is a definitely feelgood, good-humoured album (though not without its serious undercurrents), full of excellent musicianship and cheeky little knowing, nostalgic instrumental references (all the way from morris to the Beatles). All performed with a consummate ease yet retaining the seriousness of purpose that goes with the knowledge and enjoyment of doing a thoroughly professional job - and well. I love it - and I'm sure you will too!
David Kidman February 2007
Pellumair - Summer Storm (Tugboat)
The duo Pellumair was formed in 2003 by two mates from Southampton, Jaymie Caplen and Tom Stanton; they'd previously worked together in the 90s, but this is their first recording as far as I can tell, certainly so since being signed to Rough Trade's Tugboat label. The album's title is rather apt actually, evoking the overall sound and milieu in an at first unpredictable manner befitting that meteorological phenomenon. In the end, though, it makes its impact in a subtle way, not with its bang but with its gentler whimper of oblique seductiveness. This may explain why it took me several plays before I felt fully connected with the lads' musical vision. For it's presented as a vivid 42-minute sequence of 11 songs, each replete with drifting, swirling guitars, wherein predominantly acoustic strumming and chiming, floating vocals are interspersed with cathartic, ecstatic (and stormy) explosions of full-pelt, full-on electric/distorted fuzz guitar. OK, heard on a few tracks in succession this all sounds great!... And there were moments when I was transported back to the heady days (and sounds) of Jesus And Mary Chain and Mazzy Star... But I do, however, harbour a reservation, a vague sense of disquiet, which stems from the feeling that the dominant minimalist texture and mode of interplay between the guitars and voices (in whichever mode) is in the final analysis a little too all-purposely applied to make for sufficient contrast between many of the individual songs, with the net result that their specific identity is lost; perhaps the duo need to develop or vary their playing technique more beyond mere strumming to achieve a more lasting impression (I feel sure they're capable of more). Occasionally, too, the heavier outbursts threaten to submerge, nay overwhelm, the surprising delicacy of the angst-ridden lyrics, to their detriment. Perhaps tracks like Seventy (where there's a limited employment of additional instrumental texturing from piano, Ebow and/or percussion) and In Pieces (where an attempt is made to vary the usual alternation of basic textural elements) come off best. But in the end I still think the whole of Summer Storm's worth hearing - and persevering with - and I do still get a strong feeling that Pellumair's next album may well be quite stunning. (Stop Press: just after completing this review, I learnt that the duo had split up… shame!)
An emerging resplendently-bearded Canadian singer-songwriter of the troubadour persuasion, this is Penner's third album but only the first to receive a fairly wide release. Written during a six month tour across the States, born in alleys, streets and cheap motels, his acoustic based contemplative songs deal with the loneliness of the road, the need to feel wanted, redemption, the economic divide and loss.
Featuring banjo and guitar, opening track All Of Yesterday vocally calls to mind the gruff dusty nasal tones of John Prine while the melody line harks to early Steve Earle and, along with a goodly hint of Townes Van Zandt, those are the influences that dominate throughout.
The spirit of Prine's brand of Americana looms particularly large over She's In My Head and the slow waltzing title track, though Thirteen, sung in the voice of a condemned man doing time (in both a physical and emotional prison), takes a more soulful tone, Penner tapping out the rhythm on the guitar box, as does the Earle-like bluesy Roam, in which a guy with 12 dollars to his name contemplates robbing a bank.
He creates real characters and spins strong stories; the weariness of Too Tired To Pray, Once A Soldier's pedal steel kissed reflective loss and regret and Tired Of This Town where you can almost hear the creaks of a soul weighed down by its burdens.
After all this, it's a relief when he lets some light through the cracks on the final three tracks; the gospel tinted folk blues of If You Love Somebody, Peace Of Mind's spare, euphonium caressed tribute to the untold stories of the unknown heroes who make up the world, living life on their own, and the simple love song that is You Are Gold.
He visits the UK for gigs through May and June, you'd be doing yourself a favour to try and make one of them.
Mike Davies March 2010
This is the debut release from the Coventry-based female acappella trio that's a kind of offshoot of the mixed four-piece Ninepenny Marl (whose album Simple Gifts I reviewed here a couple of years back), in the sense that the latter ensemble's Linda Dickson is one-third of Pennyroyal – the other two members being Sue Dixon (who, as Sue Swan, once sang in the Hudson Swan Band) and Fiona Lindsay-Coulson. The three all attended Coventry Folk Club and the Warwickshire Singers' Circle, and discovered a common desire to explore the possibilities of just female voices sounding together acappella; First collects together their own arrangements of 19 songs, a varied bunch which reflect their demonstrable love of singing and traditional music, while not closing the door to the occasional contemporary composition (including The Call, jointly penned by Linda and Diane Lindsay). Although the disc has been recorded in a studio, it succeeds well in conveying an as-you-would-hear-them-live feel and the infectious enthusiasm for singing together which all three ladies clearly share. Especially when compared with a mixed-voice group, some listeners will feel there's insufficient tonal contrast between the three voices - although I would say that close listening reaps rewards here - and to be fair, a whole CD of three female voices in strict unadulterated acappella mode may well be considered too even-toned, esoteric and unyielding. And listeners may well feel that compared to, say, Craig: Morgan: Robson or Grace Notes, the three individual voices comprising Pennyroyal aren't in the same class either in distinctiveness of timbre or specific blend. This is despite the fact that much of Pennyroyal's close-harmony work is both interesting and genuinely engaging. I'm not altogether sure that songs like After The Goldrush and Dougie MacLean's Solid Ground completely lend themselves to the Pennyroyal approach, but they get points for trying - and making a decent job of it; whereas I'm still not won over by the ladies' treatment of Blue Bleezin' Blind Drunk, which seems over-mannered. And it does come across that Pennyroyal enjoy what they do and have plenty of ideas even though not all of their material is equally stimulating (some of the lighter traditional love-songs are a touch too "glee-club"), they do unearth some unusual variants and make sensible decisions. In summary, although I personally find the music and performances on this disc both worthwhile and appealing, the tonal range of the three voices and the manner of their blending can still appear a touch unvaried, and can perhaps best be appreciated in smaller doses than a continuous 57-minute CD.
David Kidman May 2009
It's all of eight years since Jacqui's last album release, the expansive full-band excursion into Feoffee's Lands, and the long silence since then has enabled Jacqui to reconsider her approach to ten songs she's enjoyed playing over the years, four of these (including Once I Had A Sweetheart and The House Carpenter) being traditional songs that have been in her repertoire in previous incarnations of Pentangle.
The full band has been scaled down drastically for this latest project. Supported simply by just two trusted musicians – percussionist Gerry Conway and guitarist Alan Thomson - Jacqui's peerless singing voice glides beautifully and effortlessly through refreshing, gently expressive new takes on familiar material; and yet familiarity never breeds contempt, for Jacqui's respect for her sources is always very much apparent in the loving way with which she caresses and moulds her phrasing. This is perhaps most especially noticeable on the songs which are given a more jazzy (in the sense of smoky late-night club) feel, like Willow Weep For Me, Turn Your Money Green and most especially the breathy standard We'll Be Together Again. But no amount of emotional power is sacrificed by this approach, and an altogether different dimension is brought to more traditionally-inclined repertoire like The House Carpenter (less mystical now, perhaps, but equally compelling in its new guise and not underplaying the sense of developing drama in the narrative), a cautiously animated Nottamun Town and a kinda slow-poke take on Will the Circle Be Unbroken (which now encompasses something of a chunky Ry Cooder vibe).
The magically intimate and creatively restrained nature of Gerry and Alan's accompaniments is miraculous, deft and responsive while fully supportive of the demands of both the material and, so crucially, of Jacqui's unfolding vocal interpretations. Here, Take Three provide an absolute model of how to bring something fresh and special to time-worn material, this is a record of exquisite performances, the stuff of which sweet dreams are made indeed. There's nowt not to like.
www.pentangle.infoDavid Kidman June 2013
With the re-formed original Pentangle shortly to be touring again for a limited period, this may not seem to be the most appropriate time to revisit last summer's reissue of the final two albums from the late-period, reconstituted (1984-94) era of the band - but what the hell, they deserve reappraisal, for they've often inevitably been overlooked, overshadowed by the seminal early records. During the group's final incarnation, lasting from 1989 till 1994, original members Jacqui McShee and Bert Jansch were joined by guitarist Peter Kirtley (ex-Alan Price and Radiator), bassist Nigel Portman-Smith (Magna Carta) and stalwart folk-rock drummer Gerry Conway, and their combined sound was both distinctive and stylish - and not lacking in energy or inventiveness with regard to approaching their chosen material. One More Road was the second release by that lineup (the less satisfactory first, Think Of Tomorrow, still awaits reissue I believe); recorded at a residential studio, the sessions were both relaxed and productive, and the eventual product was both exciting and satisfying. Some numbers (like Travelling Solo and the relatively unremarkable title track) embodied a slightly rockier feel, and Peter's composition Endless Sky was bordering on country-Americana, but all the while the characteristically light and airy texture of classic Pentangle was effortlessly retained in the sensibly creative arrangements. Notable among these were the spirited new treatment of the traditional Oxford City (with some especially piquant electric guitar work from Peter) and a jig-like syncopated version of High Germany (with former short-term Pentangler Mike Piggott guesting on violin and Paul Brennan on whistle). Bert turned in a really good Lily Of The West, and there was a lovely new extended take on Willie Of Winsbury, while two further compositions - Hey Hey Soldier and Somali - were directly inspired by contemporary news events, the latter's sombre images illogically given a breezy synthy African township setting that doesn't really convince. It might seem an unusually eclectic ragbag of material overall, but in the end it hung together surprisingly well. Live 1994 was the band's swansong: compiled from tapes of the band's German tour of that year, it ranged temporally from early Pentangle repertoire classics like When I Was In My Prime and Bramble Briar (aka Bruton Town), a typically exciting Yarrow and a timely revisit of the perennial Cruel Sister, to a particularly fine syncopated Sally Free And Easy, Bert's solo instrumental Kingfisher (given a beguiling band treatment) and the swinging Kirtley number Meat On The Bone which by then had become a live set favourite. The overall impression given by this live album was of a band who, far from merely trading on past glories, still had plenty to offer, so it was a shame that this was to be the lineup's last record. As far as the present reissue goes, this is in every way a superlative package, up to the usual Hux house standard: it has comprehensive, well-informed booklet notes including band interview commentaries and song lyrics for One More Road, and excellent digitally remastered sound.
David Kidman June 2008
David Kidman September 2007
June 29th, 1968, The Pentangle played a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Previously only available on vinyl, this magical performance has now been released on CD, with 7 extra tracks from the concert resulting in a 75 minute epic. Quite simply, this is some of the finest acoustic folk/jazz influenced music that you will ever hear, and should be regarded as a national treasure. Highlights include Danny Thompson's tour de force solo 'Haitian Fight Song', 'So Early in the Spring' - a beautiful solo version by Jacqui McShee, and a cracking version of 'Bruton Town'. The extra tracks are excellent, especially 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' and 'Waltz'. And there's more....
This is a 2 CD set, the second being studio recordings of such fine songs as 'Sovey', 'The Trees they do grow High', 'In Your Mind' and the exceptional 'Three Part Thing', plus 4 extra rare offerings. Without doubt, the rerelease of the year, and a snip at £12. Get it!!
Three years back, the Pennsylvania born singer-songwriter emerged with the provocatively and timely titled Christmas In Fallujah, an album that generally addressed a disillusionment with America, from foreign policy to urban planning. He returns now to further develop his theme with the first of three CDs which, over the course of some 50 songs, will ambitiously trace the history of American culture and music.
The first out of the gate contains 17 tracks that take a broad sweep from 1492 to 1940, from the advent of electricity to the piling up of nuclear waste. However the alt-country guitar ringing Trail Of Tears also extends its reflections on blind jingoism from the Civil War to the jungles of Vietnam and the roadsides of Iraq and it's fair to say that, with lines about conquering savages in the name of Christianity, Columbus Day is as much about Bush's view of the Middle East as it is about the taking of the New World.
Musically, while rooted in an Americana bedrock, he covers a fair few bases, from the mellow folksy strum of Can't Go Home, a fiddle hewn early REM like Rockefellers and the old tyme mandolin and banjo driven bluegrass of instrumentals Appomattox and Lewis And Clark Homecoming to the muddy water slide guitar blues Riverbank Blues, a rockabilly shuck n jive Primates Swinging, the Zep crunching Dam in the River of Life and, the yearning John Prine style waltzing Paperback Romance and its tale of a wallflower orphan and a bullied stutterer finding love together.
Given the sheer number of tracks involved, inevitably some work better than others and, while solid enough you're less likely to return to, say, Wood And Wire and The Sheep And The Goats than you are the Byrdsian Can't Come Back or the Dylan-like Stranger In The Glass. But, taken as a whole it's an impressive and thoughtful project that leaves you eagerly anticipating the issues and genres that lie in store with Vols 2 and 3.
Mike Davies March 2008
The first bite. The title track opens the album as Pepper wryly adopts the persona of a disillusioned soldier serving in Iraq, supposedly bringing the gift of freedom in his sack, talking how it's not Santa coming down the chimney in a blinding light, how Uncle Sam's naughty and nice list often gets the names wrong and how everything's been torn down to serve the interests of those with the rebuilding contracts. Imagine Barry Sadler's Ballad of the Green Berets, then flip it on its head.
With a vaguely Dylan/Earle nasal vocal and a musical framework that takes jangly Americana folk rock as its centre and goes off at punk and bluegrass tangents, the Pennsylvania born Baptist raised Pepper keeps up the protest themes pretty much throughout, the snarling punk of M-16 mixing up single-minded defence contractors and the way kids are indoctrinated into violence with war toys, the moody Armageddon For Sale (with its reference to Genesis and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway) noting how freedom is often used as a blind for other agendas, and the organ and pedal steel slow waltzing Why? telling of the grieving mother of a dead soldier.
It's not all about war though, Pepper's concerns embrace social and personal issues too. The cruising guitar rock Interstate Highway addresses how consumer culture drives the American Dream, the jerky rocking Stranded laments the state of contemporary American architecture and urban planning, while Back To 1999 is a sad country rolling portrait of a worker surrounded by his 'souvenirs of failure and despair', fallen into booze soaked decline after losing his money in the Enron scandal and made redundant when the factory relocated to a cheaper work force in Mexico.
Disillusion rears its head again on Deceived, using a child's discovery that Santa doesn't exist and mom and dad lied as an image of how we're constantly fed bull about the Yellow Brick Road. And there's relationships heartache too with the angry rejected lover in the uptempo rocking Christmas Tree and the much more forlorn poignancy of the keening Bethelem, PA.
The album's rounded out with a fierce punk bluegrassed cover of Woody's This Land Is Your Land in the manner of Jason & The Scorchers and The Pogues, a lovely instrumental banjo, mandolin and fiddle reading of the traditional Soldier's Joy and the hidden bonus Plastic Illuminated Snowman, a bluesy number about a survivor of Hiroshima and a Japan 'basked in the glow of American fallout.' Unlikely to rival Slade, Bing or Wham in the list of Christmas musical favourites, even so it's a welcome alternative voice to the usual chestnuts roasting by the open fire.
Mike Davies November 2006
Peppercorn - Barefoot (Full On)
There was once a band called Him who played a rather fine brand of FM rock, the sort of stuff that would shift by the truckload if it was American. However, they were a bunch of dreadlocked rastas and the British music industry just couldn't get its head round what they saw as an unmarketable paradox. Thankfully A&R perceptions of ethnic musical stereotyping have experienced a rainbow nation shift since then. So you'd expect them to regard female kick ass attitude acoustic guitar driven folk-rock a la Alanis, Shania, and Sheryl delivered by a London based British rastafarian black singer-songwriter born in the Western Sahara, raised through hard times by a single mother and forging her sound in New York City as a gift from the gods.
Unfortunately not. Originally signed to BMG, this was released two years ago under the title Free Love and promptly buried. Thankfully more enlightened ears have rescued it from oblivion, reissuing it with two extra tracks, a lilting Sweetest Inspiration and an acoustic version of Karma along with a couple of videos to give her the exposure and promotion she deserves.
"I don't think Madonna would drop to her knees just cos some skeezer said please' she sings on Nice To You, instantly earning comparison to You Oughta Know in the girls can talk up front about sex too stakes. As Brutal and I Care in particular show, she's not musically too far away from the reference points either. Imagine Tracy Chapman singing If God Were One Of Us with a London twang and you're on the right lines.
Relationships form the backbone of her songs, a stark emotional honesty informing lines like "I'm brutally in love with your children even though you won't let me have them" and the defiantly self-assertive Bowing To Convention. But it moves beyond the beer fuelled confessionals and PMT anger of her counterparts to also embrace the title track's string arrangement piano ballad lament for the dismantling of post-colonial Africa "by bullies from the west' and Sweet One's beats grooving tribute to her mother. Like the swaggeringly joyful Barefoot And Dirty Jeans and the radio friendly massive American hit if there's any justice anthemic single Hyperventilating, the album comes loaded with instantly familiar melodies, big chorus hooks and a copious amount of wit, served up with a massive dose of self-assurance and not a little tigerish sexuality. A real spice girl.
Jazz, that's what this is. You know, the classic small, modern band line-up of clever drumming, grinding bass, intricate keyboard and soaring freeform sax.
However there's more to this album than just that - the inspiration comes from English folk melodies, mainly from East Anglia, but given a radical reworking. But these guys know what they are doing - after all the keyboard player is Huw Warren, the sax player is Martin Lockheart, and the bassist is Dudly Phillips - all who have played with June Tabor, both live and on various CDs. Drummer Martin France provides an excellent foundation to the twelve tracks on this CD, and the addition of Pamela Thorby's recorder on four of them provides an extra musical dimension.
This is an album of great musicianship, and certainly one for those of us who wish to broaden their musical horizons.
Al Perkins - Triple Play
There are times when a glance at a musician's CV is as revealing as listening to their music.
For instance, from the time that Texan Al Perkins left the US Army Reserves and joined Shiloh, he has been pretty much constantly at the top of his chosen profession.
In 1972 he joined the Flying Burrito Brothers, when the band split he, and Chris Hillman, joined the legendary Manassas, led by Stephen Stills. When Stills eventually decided to concentrate full time on CSN, Perkins went on to join the Souther, Hillman, Furay Band. He then turned his hand to producing while still touring with ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith and McGuinn and Hillman.
As a session musician he played on The Eagles' On The Border, before joining Dolly Parton and moving to Nashville. In Nashville he was reunited with Emmylou Harris, having previously worked with her and played on the two Gram Parson's solo albums. Just to complete what is an impressive career to date, he played on the sessions for Exile On Main Street.
So why the potted This Is Your Life? Well, it proves two things; firstly Al Perkins doesn't just work with anyone and secondly the greatest names in popular music choose to work with Al Perkins. Triple Play shows just why.
Almost unbelievably, this is the first solo album to feature his own music and, freed from the constraints of being a musical 'gun for hire', albeit the best one, he has spread his wings and made the most of the opportunity.
Cuttin Loose/Buckaroo seems a pretty good way to kick things off. The track acts as a guitar masterclass and an introduction that ensures everyone's paying attention for a journey that takes you through the personal musical life of a musician who can justifiably say 'seen it, done it'.
Having established his credentials Perkins doesn't labour the point that he's a virtuoso. Triple Play is remarkably light on guitar solos, the playing provides the fuel for the music.
When he does express himself, as he does on Hambone Boogie, it's subtle and necessary as is the superb live cameo Foggy Mountain Rock. Triple Play features the music that the man grew up with. Coming from Texas, it's hardly news that a Buddy Holly influence surfaces but I'm Gonna Love You Too comes on a direct and affectionate route from Lubbock.
The influences of the South are never far from the surface, Sweet Susannah, for one, is hot slice of spicy and exotic Cajun. Likewise the blues were never going to be ignored and Big Boss Man and a blistering version of Robert Johnson's Crossroads, recorded in Glasgow with Kevin Montgomery and the Road Trippers, show that Perkins has the blues in his soul as well as his fingers.
Because Triple Play is a baseball term, the album is split into 'The Innings' and 'Extra Innings' and 'Extra Innings' begins with Just Before Dawn a light but hugely emotional instrumental. The song is so unstructured and spontaneous. It's as if Perkins was just picking at the guitar, lost in his thoughts, completely unaware that anyone was there, much less recording the moment.
Undoubtedly there would be a feeling of being shortchanged had the album followed a narrow path. The only limits on musicians like Al Perkins are their own imagination and talent and that leads us to Sweet Georgia Brown, on which he plays jazz guitar that would surely have had Django Rheinhardt smiling.
Although Triple Play is incontrovertible proof of his greatness, the essence of Al Perkins is much simpler and found in Because He Lives. As an expression of faith it is honest and direct, Perkins may well put the song in the hands of a Dianne Palmer, a truly wonderful singer, but the belief is his.
Although it may well be unbelievable that Perkins hasn't committed his own music to record before, the benefit is that Triple Play has a lifetime's experience lavished on it. Not only will Al Perkins make you smile while listening to his music, he will make you smile tomorrow as well.
The name of his band as well as the album title, this is the follow up to Perkins' solo debut, Ash Wednesday, an album shaped by the death of both his father, actor Anthony, from AIDS, and his mother, photographer Berry Berenson, who was aboard one of the planes that hit the World Trade Centre.
Now working with the multi-instrumentalist three piece Dearland (Brigham Brough upright bass, saxophone; Wyndham Boylan-Garnett pump organ, harmonium, trombone; Nick Kinsey drums, percussion, banjo, clarinet). although you'll still find death and ghosts he's moved on emotionally and musically, for a far more energised, rougher edged sound, forged from honing the songs out on the road.
The opening Shampoo, complete with what sounds like sampled siren and streetnoise intro, is a chunky slice of altrock folk with wailing harmonica, lurching rhythms and skewed lyrics that riff on Yellow Is The Colour Of My True Love's Hair, but then it's into the three minutes of late 50s pop Hey where he sounds like Jonathan Richman channelling Buddy Holly.
There's plenty of variety. Chains, Chains, Chains is bluesy acoustic folk gospel with New Oreans marching band style brass, Hours Last Stand a swing low Tom Waits -like slow lurch, I'll Be Arriving is organ led clanking junkyard blues while the 123 Goodbye sounds like a stew of Loudon, the ISB, Jonathan Richman, Hawaiian campfire folk and a shaker hymn and How's Forever Been Baby slow march waltz could be a cousin of Cohen's So Long, Marianne.
Lyrically, it's no less sombre and melancholic than Ash Wednesday with lines like "black is the colour of a strangled rainbow... exactly the colour of my blood...", "little suicides, 'sall that's left of me" and "I love you more in death than I could in life". I Heard Your Voice In Dresden conjures memories of the WWII firebombing while images of loss and death pop up everywhere. When, on Doomsday, he sings "in all my wildest dreams it never once was seen that doomsday would fall anywhere near Tuesday", you remember that both his parents died on a Tuesday.
And yet, as with most of the numbers here, the music refuses to wallow in misery. Taking its cue from a celebration of the dead rather than a mourning, it's a glorious drunken roll of a number with parping New Orleans street jazz horns and carnival romping rhythm as he declares "I don't plan to die" as the revelry reaches a rowdy climax. The album's like experiencing Dia de Los Muertos and a wake rolled into one, a sad but ultimately uplifting catharsis.
Mike Davies April 2009
Let's get the facts out of the way first. His dad was Psycho star Anthony Perkins, his mother Vogue photographer Berry Berenson, the former dying of an AIDS-related illness, the latter being aboard one of the 9/11 planes.
Understandably, their singer-songwriter son's folk-rock debut album is shadowed by songs of loss, death, memory and sadness. But, half penned before his mother's death and half after, it's a fine melancholy as, at times sounding not unlike a tremulous Loudon Wainwright fronting The Handsome Family, he muses on finality and mortality on things like the six and a half minute title track, strings finally sweeping in over the steady rim shot percussion, and the broken waltz of Emile's Vietnam In The Sky as he muses 'do you ever wonder where you go when you die?'
The simple acoustic lament It's A Sad World After All, keening album closer Good Friday with its churchy harmonium, and the drunken lurch The Night & The Liquor keep the mournful introspection upfront, but it's not all so sombre.
The opening While You Were Sleeping (the most obvious Wainwright comparison) is a bittersweet reverie of childhood and mothers, the desert night gypsy folk moods give All The Night Without Love a lift while the jaunty la la la-ing May Day is a cheery tear stained stomp and the crooning torch-folk Moon Woman II dreamily floats on thoughts of love, albeit forbidden as he sings 'my shadow hungers for you but we must not ever meet'.
An album that seeps deeper inside the more you hear it, it's a heartwrenching debut. Let's just hope Perkins doesn't have to go through similar shattering tragedies in order to make a second.
Mike Davies July 2007
93 year old Pinetop Perkins is one of the last remaining golden generation bluesmen. This 60 minute documentary, narrated by Chuck Dodson, tells his story and shows what a great showman he is. He was born Joe Willie Perkins in Belzoni, Mississippi on the Honey Island Plantation, hence the DVD's title. His parents split up when he was young and he left home at the age of 16 after a particularly bad beating from his grandmother. After a very short Gospel career he met guitarist Robert Nighthawk and started playing with him, in between making moonshine and working on cotton farms. Around this time he started calling himself Pinetop, after Clarence Pinetop Smith. He continued to work in the cotton fields, playing guitar and piano at night before he met another who would be a long time colleague, guitarist Earl Hooker. Pinetop's next adventure came in 1941 when Robert Nighthawk invited him to play with him on the King Biscuit radio show. This was the first show to feature live blues and led to Sonny Boy Williamson asking him to join his band, The King Biscuit Entertainers, in 1943.
Other notable achievements include teaching Ike Turner how to play piano. The DVD also features some live footage that shows the he, even in his advanced years, can still belt out a tune. His career has not been without its lows, one of which was when a chorus girl attacked him with a knife, severing a tendon in his left arm and nearly ended his career. There were no black hospitals and he had to depend on the radio station owner and sponsor to take him to be treated. Perkins says that his left arm don't work too well ever since.
At the end of the 40s he was back with Nighthawk and Earl Hooker. He moved up to Memphis and then Cairo, Illinois in 1949. Cairo was midway between the Delta and Chicago and became an important staging post for blues musicians. Pinetop worked as a car mechanic during the day and played piano at night. By 1950, Nighthawk had moved on to Chicago and invited Pinetop to record with him. Again, he was unlucky with injuries and ruptured his eardrum one night when sitting too close to Hooker's amplifier – his hearing went down to 50%. He went on to play in Ike Turner's band and even had to fill in on drums occasionally. Perkins moved back to Cairo in 1953 before going up to Memphis to record at the legendary Sun Studios. It was there that he recorded one of his most famous songs, Pinetop's Boogie Woogie. He was off on his travels again in the late 50s and his latest destination was St Louis where he joined Johnny O'Neill and The Houndogs. He finally made it to Chicago during the 1960s blues boom and it was here that he had his most fortuitous meeting. In 1969, Otis Spann left the Muddy Waters Band to go solo and Waters asked Pinetop to replace him. Despite a lasting friendship with Waters, Pinetop left with the rest of the band to form The Legendary Blues Band. Unfortunately, Waters died 3 years later and Perkins says that the reason was that the band had left him.
Perkins finally went solo and released his first album in 1988. he tells of his raucous whisky drinking days and how he gave it up at the ripe old age of 82 when he could not be bothered being arrested every time he stepped out his front door anymore. It all worked because he became a Grammy nominee and won a Lifetime Achievement award in 2005. By then, he had made his final, so far, move to Austin and was given the keys to the city on his 92nd birthday.
Apart from the great concert footage, one of the enduring memories is that of Pinetop being driven up to McDonalds in his Rolls Royce and ordering 2 double cheeseburgers and 4 apple pies. Seemingly, that is all he regularly eats. There are many interviews where some of the best blues musicians give their memories of Pinetop. Those interviewed were Sam Carr (Robert Nighthawk's son), Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith, Bubba Sullivan, Ike Turner, Bobby Rush, Dr John, Lonnie Brooks, Mitch Woods, Paul Oscher, Hubert Sumlin, Taj Mahal, Ann Rabson, Marcia Ball, Kim Wilson, Koko Taylor, Bernard Allison and Eddie Clearwater.
Pinetop Perkins is one of the greatest bluesmen ever and a man of great humility. His answer to the final question of 'if you weren't a musician, what would you be doing' was that he did not know what he would be doing, probably in the poor house. Also included is a bonus 10 track CD with some of his greatest songs. This DVD package is a must for those interested in blues history.
David Blue July 2007
"Northern Banjo represents an new kind of ensemble sound for clawhammer-style banjo playing", states the liner. It's a new project whereby Ken - an acknowledged master of the banjo and fingerstyle guitar (and author of several highly-regarded books on folk instrumental skills) - has arranged fiddle tunes from specifically Northern - i.e., Atlantic Canadian (especially Prince Edward Island) - and Celtic traditions for his chosen instruments.
Ken's an acclaimed exponent of the melodic clawhammer style of banjo playing, one which hitherto had been primarily regarded as an accompanimental rather than solo/lead function. Given the album's title, it's expected that the banjo will take centre stage, and so it does, although Ken's individual, powerful and greatly musical playing is distinguished by gently crafted, expertly moulded and naturally flowing melodic lines rather than being a mere showcase for breakneck showy picking. Every track's a delight, but Track 6 (Road To Mexico, the album's only original composition) is arguably the most convincing demonstration of just how subtly this can be managed in a bluegrass context, wherein Ken and his accompanying musicians bring out the syncopations in an unexpected and intriguing way.
On most of the album, Ken's backed by the guitar of Ken Brown and the bass of David Woodhead, with the addition of a fiddle part on several cuts (either accompanying or in duet with the banjo part, and nicely managed with the exception of some occasional dubious tuning on one track) and even a fuller Irish-session-style ensemble on a further four. The pairing of uillean pipes and Cape Breton-style fiddling on the closing track makes for an inspired finale to the album. Ken's own expert and typically scintillating playing is rightly the focus, though, and is probably best described as deft, quietly breathtaking and enviably relaxed; his very special skills lie in knowing just where to place the accents in order to preserve the intrinsic rhythmic character of the tunes, and in realising how fast not to take the music!
That the whole album proves listenable right through from beginning to end in one sitting is in itself a tribute to the care with which it has been programmed; the ensemble pieces are thrown into relief by the juxtaposition of three solo tracks on which Ken demonstrates his flair for fingerstyle guitar, the two Scottish sets being particularly noteworthy (although I found the enforced fade of track 13 a minor irritation). The whole package is supplemented by detailed notes on the sources for the tunes, and it all adds up to a joyous and refreshingly different instrumental release that's highly recommendable.
Delivered in Pernice's soft tones (interestingly his spoken voice is a lot smokier), it's an eclectic country and 60s retro coloured collection that ranges from the contemporary alt-folk indie of Plush's Found A Little Baby and Sebadoh's Soul and Fire through Del Shannon's I Go To Pieces and a part spoken lounge organ soul and twangy guitar reading of James and Bobby Purify's I'm Your Puppet to Todd Rundgren's Hello It's Me (a song keyed to the hero's epiphany) and, bizarrely, a whispery strummed Chim Chim Cheroo from Mary Poppins!
An unassuming but warmly engaging laid back affair, there's not a bad choice throughout but the standouts would have to be the slightly Velvets sounding version of Tom T. Hall's How I Got To Memphis, a faithful Sweetheart of the Rodeo styled take on Sammy John's 1975 country million seller Chevy Van and, keeping the Byrds influences in flight, a gorgeous burred jangle cover of The Dream Syndicate's Tell Me When It's Over. I can't comment on the novel, but the soundtrack's a real page turner.
Mike Davies September 2009
The Pernice Brothers - Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont)
The sound of summer breezes wafting across beaches or through pines, Joe Pernice's voice conjures the sort of American innocence you always associate with a youthful pre-drugs Brian Wilson, as glorious as the fireworks exploding on the cover of his latest album. "Come away with me and begin something we can understand," he sings as the opening wide-eyed wonder of The Weakest Shade of Blue spills over into upbeat joyfulness. Don't be fooled.
Like his hero. Morrissey, Joe's glass is more often half empty than half full. Sweltering summers may be great for the tan but they also bring the dead grass candle and prayer for rain of Water Ban with the first hints that this isn't going to be an album of hands holding romance. And before you know it you're being assailed by the likes of the very Smithsy One Foot In The Grave, Waiting For The Universe and Blinded By The Stars where relationships are either ending, waiting to end or simply stuck in stasis. Suddenly those upbeat melodies, buzzing guitars, power chords and dreamy harmonies take on a more ironic hue. Still, if you're going to be depressed, melancholic or, as on Number two, downright bitter, you may as well do it to echoes of the Cure or New Order that bounce off the walls of Sometimes I Remember, the Neil Young shades that paint How To Live Aloneor the Morrissey brushed tenderness that laps around Judy, a song that takes a tv broadcast of The Wizard of Oz and filters it through Pernice's wistful self-pitying croon to emotional absence. It's a lovely misery.
Brian's latest record is a fabulous hour-long collection of nowt but Child Ballads - And yes, I do mean fabulous. Shove aside your preconceptions (and misconceptions) right away, then, for this is one of the most genuinely entertaining folk albums I've heard in a long time. Child Ballads, entertaining? - well, that word can encompass almost any listener reaction, from thought-provoking to musically stimulating to laugh-out-loud and all points in between, and that's what we get here, sure enough, on a selection that ranges from the epic to the concise, the tragic to the comic.
It helps enormously, of course, to have as your guide to this sometimes impenetrable or obscure material such a strong and able performer as Brian, who's not only a consummate musician (squeezebox, guitar, you name it!) and excellent singer but also a thorough and committed researcher with a keen eye for detail and an uncommon amount of good sense and taste. Brian's always been fascinated by the ballad corpus buried within tradition, of which those amassed by Francis J. Child from other collections together form the first comprehensive canon. But Child only published words to the ballads and not tunes, so Brian has always had his work cut out - and it's a tribute to his empathy with the material that he always comes out presenting a suitable and credible performing version.
The widely-held stereotype of a Child Ballad (20 or more arcane, unintelligible and/or interminable verses of doom, gloom, blood, death and destruction, all sung to a tedious monotone) is a blatant misconception: in Brian's sure hands, these ballads are always - and I mean always – lively, interesting and compelling, for he possesses a great ability to make sense of the wayward, inconsistent, often fragmentary (and sometimes even risible) texts and render them singable.
Each of his song-based albums to date has included at least one of the "big" ballads, and although in each case Brian's version has swiftly come to be regarded as one of the finest on the market he's carried on developing these organically in his live sets. On this new collection Brian turns in eminently persuasive treatments of oft-misunderstood (and you might think too-well-trodden) material, each ballad imbued with a vitality and immediacy that reflects what Brian views as the ballads' continuing relevance in their depiction of the human condition. The disc contains intelligently realised versions of Lord Randal, Green Broom (The Broomfield Hill) and All Alone And Lonely (The Cruel Mother), alongside - as gleeful "humour quotient" - The Farmer's Curst Wife and Brian's own hilarious "biker hill" update of Six Nights Drunk.
Brian also revisits False Foodrage (which he first recorded on his LP The Seeds Of Time some 15 years ago) and now settles on an even jauntier tune for The Golden Vanity! Brian's found a brilliantly eerie tune for the sinister Lucy (Wan), but the biggest "find" of the disc has to be the dramatic if obscure tale of Sir Aldingar, for which - in the absence of any "established" source version within the sung tradition - Brian has composed his own tune. This, like a couple of the other ballads, relies on just Brian's own guitar for accompaniment, and Brian sings two (The Demon Lover and Georgie) unaccompanied (and superbly well too), whereas the aural tapestry on the remainder is both wonderfully varied and continually satisfying. For instance, there's a jolly old-timey setting for Sailor's Song (aka The Mermaid) featuring Nancy Kerr on fiddle and Bonz on banjo; these two miscreants appear variously elsewhere too, along with Gordon Tyrrall, Loraine Baker and Brian's wife Margaret (herself a fine singer). But the CD's crowning glory is arguably the full-on rock-band treatment of The Three Ravens that Brian concocts for the disc's grand finale - now pass me that air guitar!!! The Ballads are certainly no trial to listen to, and the whole disc must be counted a resounding triumph!
David Kidman May 2008
Brian's first solo release since 1998's (mostly instrumental) Beast In The Box sees him returning to plough the fruitful furrows of traditional song, in his characteristically vital and thorough manner. Brian's rightly feted for maintaining a serious (though in no way humourless) interest in, appreciation of and response to, the tradition, notably as observed through the work of English source singers such as Harry Cox, Walter Pardon and Pop Maynard. Brian's own energetic performances invariably carry his own individual stamp and authority, while also vividly conveying his acute and ingrained sense of continuity with the past (hence the lineage of the title). He does this by cutting deep to the core of the songs and ballads he's chosen, as he demonstrates grippingly on such material as (the now-satisfyingly-complete Young Hunting and Polly On The Shore.
This new recording balances Brian's powerful song readings with sets of tunes played on melodeon or concertina; many of these are Brian's own compositions, and positively ooze life and spirit too, whether at fast or slow tempo (two contrasted highlights are the reflective Garden Off The Green and the pair of 3/2 double hornpipes, a Peters speciality!). On some tracks Brian's own ebullient musical personality is selectively enhanced and complemented by the vivacious and often (but not exclusively) bright-toned fiddling of guest musician Nancy Kerr. There's occasional judicious use of multi-tracking too, and on the Welsh tune-set, Brian adds mandolin to his usual instrumental complement. Yes, Brian never disappoints, and here he's produced another fine album fully consistent with the integrity of his musical vision.
2010 was a turbulent year of highs and lows for Peters. The Gulf of Mexico oil-spill happened on her Florida cottage doorstep, a long time friend committed suicide, her adopted hometown of Nashville had its worst ever flood, she finally married partner and pianist Barry Walsh and her son revealed he was transgender. All of which fed into what, spurred by a fearless need to confront life and its raw truths, is her most personal and finest album to date.
It opens with the slurred cello, viola and violin backed title track, a dark, bluesy survivor's anthem about not just rolling with the punches but realising that whatever the pain it means you're still out there . It's followed by another test of faith through ordeal number with the yearningly beautiful St. Francis, a number which, co-penned by Tom Russell, musically recalls John Prine's Hello In There and features Kim Richey on heavenly backing vocals.
"Who are we without the thrill," she asks on The Matador, a Townes Van Zandt-like ballad which, the narrator drawn to both fighter and the bull, again underscores the prevalent theme of how a life without risk is no life at all and how that which doesn't kill you (here, faithless women, alcohol, abusive father) makes you stronger.
She reworks the idea to even stronger effect on the uptempo barroom country rock of Woman On The Wheel where, switching the scene from bullring to circus, she takes the image of a knife-throwing act and the potential for 'a real bad day at the amusement park' to reinforce the risks life throws at us, or. she puts it, "you wouldn't wanna be me but you need me just the same, to remind you what you stand to lose and what you stand to gain."
But the song's also a metaphor about relationships, "another highwire act gone wrong", a theme also addressed on the slow swaying Natural Disaster where she parallels environmental and relationship catastrophes ("we tore through each other like an avalanche") and Camille, a number co-written with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, which to a late night jazzy piano, brushed drums and mournful trumpet accompaniment, details a life sunk into one night stands and empty affairs ("like last night's mascara") where "you feel like a drink and you drink so you don't have to feel".
There's a line here about daughters paying for the sins of the father, and the achingly sad Five Minutes also hinges on history repeating itself in the finely detailed story of a working single mother wary of entering into another relationship while her heart's still owned by her ex and whose teenage daughter's making the same mistakes.
Most moving, however, is Idlewild, where, reminiscent of Janis Ian, she takes a childhood memory of the night of Kennedy's assassination, sitting in the back seat of the car and overhearing the cracks in her parents' unravelling marriage and moves on to reflect on America's loss of innocence in the late 60s ("we shoot our presidents, we shoot the commies and the niggers and the Viet Cong"), concluding "we think we're walking on the moon but we are dancing in the dark".
Elsewhere, string section groudning the mood again, Paradise Found is slow funky blues about, well, sex actually with such erotic imagery as 'nectar's in the blossom and the bee's in the hive' while reflective closing track Little World does at least find a little solace in the 'big and lonely world', taking refuge and finding earthly comforts in the domestic contentment of 'two spoons in a kitchen drawer, a dance on a hardwood floor.'
However, to these ears at least, the stand out track has to be Dark Angel, the most 'country' number in the set and, featuring Will Kimbrough on resonator guitar, a classic Emmylou and Gram style anthemic duet with Rodney Crowell (who also officiated at the wedding) where they sing 'and if there is no hereafter and there is only here, life is still a beautiful disaster" and "if it's all for show let the show begin." The standing ovation starts here.
Mike Davies February 2012
Understated and rich in character with musical contributions from Mark Halllam and Al Perkins on lap steel, accordionist Joel Guzman and former Waylon Jennings keyboardist Barry Walsh (who composed the scene setting instrumental opener North Platte), the choice of covers is both inspired and, save for perhaps the classic cowboy lament Old Paint, unpredictable. Relatively best known will be Townes Van Zandt's reflective Snowin' On Raton, here sounding like something sung round a civil war campfire on the eve of battle. Otherwise, while the writers may be familiar, the songs are almost certainly less so. Dylan, for example, provides Billy 4, a number surely only his most dedicated fans will know hails from the soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid and here given a border cantina makeover. Likewise, Ian Tyson is represented by Blue Mountains of Mexico with Guzman's evocative accordion, while, from hills to rolling plains, there's Mary McCaslin's bone-weary homesick Prairie In The Sky and Jennifer Warnes' self-descriptively titled Prairie Melancholy.
As covered by Bonnie Raitt, Nan O'Byrne's booze and barroom swayer Sweet & Shiny Eyes offers a relatively uptempo note, but otherwise musical mood and subject matter lean to the downbeat, with hard times and foreclosures recalled to a tinkling piano on Stephanie Davis' Wolves, love betrayed nurses revenge fantasies on If I Had A Gun and Tom Dundee's country rolling These Cowboys Born Out Of Their Time serves as lament for and eulogy to an obsolete past and the living anachronisms trying to keep it from fading forever. Call it Raising Dust.www.gretchenpeters.com
Mike Davies July 2009
Following on from career encapsulating live album Trio, inspired by the courageous honesty of writers like Joan Didion, the twice Grammy nominated New York born singer-songwriter's fourth studio outing is a deeply personal set of songs birthed in her divorce from her husband, manager and producer after 23 years. It's a journey to self-rediscovery that begins with the wistful frustrations and withered dreams of Ghost ("There was a girl who used to live here but you let her beauty go unnoticed") and ends on bittersweet opening farewell ("we are strangers in the making") that is To Say Goodbye.
As you might imagine, there's plenty of emotional conflict here. The sadness of a relationship gone cold hovers around Breakfast In Our House and the jazzy Thirsty while Summer People is heavy with weariness ("I think I'm callin it quits I think I've had enough) and Jezebel swings between self-accusation and happiness.
But then these are balanced by the untrammelled joy of finding new love in The Way You Move Me and the storysong Lady Of The House, while Sunday Morning just kicks off its shoes and basks in the simple contentment of soaking up the sounds and sights of your neighbourhood and England Blues is a simple song of the redeye, the road, making music and stealing a little sweet time in a Tyneside hotel room.
Poignant, uncluttered, and affectingly honest, it may not quite match the strengths of Halcyon, still her most potent collection of songs to date, but, complete with a melancholic cover of Rat Pack chestnut One For My Baby, it remains an essential reminder of her still inexplicably often overlooked talent as a performer as well as a writer.
Mike Davies January 2008
Gretchen Peters - Halcyon (Curb)
You might not know the name, but, covered as they have been by such names as Bryan Adams (loads) Martina McBride (the award winning Independence Day) and Shania Twain Dance With The One That Brought You), you've probably heard her songs. She also collaborated with Adams for the soundtrack of the animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmarron, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Here I Am. But nobody sings her songs like she does, so it's a pity that, thanks to record label disasters, she's not been as prolific as she might on the album front.
It's been almost four years since her last outing but now finally comes her third release and again the Nanci Griffiths and Dolly Parton influences are evident, most notably on the opening Tomorrow Morning with its won't beat me down sentiment, while the similarly themed standout Blessing On Disguise (co-penned with Adams) with its hacienda guitar recalls the best of Emmylou Harris with a melody that Springsteen might have written.
It's not the most upbeat collection of stories. Lovers leaving inform The Aviator's Song (which at times sounds curiously like Mandy) where she twins the image of a pilot being shot down with a lover falling out of her life and the laid back jazz lounge country of A Cool Goodbye. And it's not just broken hearts. The wistful, piano tinkling This Used To Be My Town is a tale of a twelve year old's rape and murder sung by the victim and, introed by a Roy Bittan-like piano phrase, Germanstown (another Springsteenish narrative) sketches out a Friday night gone bad and lovers on the lam to the county line.
And yet for the most part, while achingly melancholic, it's an ultimately uplifting album about rising above the rubble of life and relationships. The scuffed Lou Reed shuffle of the talk-sing Imogene is a touching song of simple faith that sometimes the slot machine comes up cherries, Drowning In You, a plaintive acoustic number with accordion backing that breaks out into a blues guitar bridge, sees her find the strength to keep her head above the water of a bad romance, Museum details the 'joy and strife' of pinning the pain to the art it creates and If Heaven is about death then it's a death faced with acceptance and the hope that the world to come only has the best bits of the one we leave behind.
Ultimately, it's about acknowledging what's lost and what strengths remain, beautifully encapsulated in the near Baptist hymnal Child of Mine where a mother regrets no longer being able to 'fight your dragons' but affirms the love that still runs deeper than oceans. Pretty much assured a place in the year's best of lists and with a live album due in a few months time, hopefully the name will soon be a whole lot more familiar.
She has a literary bent too, populating her poetic, imagery-rippled songs with references to myth, the Bible and even the Wizard Of Oz. The first three tracks, the lilting Good News, jaunty acoustic rock The War and a plangent The Next Big Bang are all inspired by characters from the Odyssey (as noted in the title parentheses) while exploring lost relationships, longing and anti-war sentiments. They also come with deep personal elements that touch on either a sense of being adrift and public antipathy to her music. "I sing by songs in a minor key but it don't seem to do any good", run the lyrics to Good News where, self-confidence battered, she adds "I've never been much good at this job but it's the only place I call home."
More direct is the Lucinda-ish country rolling Austin, I Made A Mess which reflects on not making it with lines like "I tried to carve out my own little place I followed the rules til I was blue in the face but someone else always had the last word."
Likewise, many of the numbers talk of falling apart (Saint Anthony, Just Down), missing in action or failed relationships (First Lesson with its 9/11 images, The Grammar of A Sinking Ship), being tied to the past (the Crow catchy Drowning In Amsterdam) and lost opportunities (Okay From Now On where she wistfully talks of mothers walking 'little pig-tailed girls in winter coats" to school).
But, these are balanced by the determination keep going ("I swear I won't give up this time", she sings on yearning acoustic ballad A Million Little Rock"), still clinging to childhood beliefs that a prince will come to save her (Coming To Meet Me). And, of course, there's the title track itself where she notes that "there are no pills left to swallow, the bitterest part's gone down....I am packing up the postcards and getting out of town" which is at once self-recrimination ("I forgot to fix myself and it was me who fell apart") and self-encouragement. Odysseus, after all, did finally return home to Penelope and, if she continues to write songs and make music as bittersweet, affecting, tuneful and intelligent as this, then she too should finally find her Ithaca.
Mike Davies July 2009
Here's a delicious album of proper unadulterated English country dance music played by five musicians totally steeped in the style and the tradition. Musicians who have distinguished pedigrees in the field, and buckets of experience of performing this music not only in sessions but also both at actual dances and on festival stages around the country. A brief namecheck to whet the appetite then: Rod Stradling (Old Swan Band, Oak, Edward II and ECBB), Martin Brinsford (Old Swan Band, Brass Monkey), Fran Wade and Kevin Bown (both Dalriada, Grand Union) and Mike Pinder (Flying Clouds, Grey Eagle); the first three also appeared with world-folk supergroup Tiger Moth. With truly seasoned folks like that involved - folks who've been immersed in this music for ages and are completely at ease with playing it - you just know this is going to be the real thing, authentic to the last and very probably as good a listen as it would be to step the floor to. You can see from the above personnel listing, then, that Phoenix have a bold and interesting instrumental complement to start with: melodeon, harmonica, two fiddles and a genuine "vamp" piano (a Broadwood upright no less!), with two tracks featuring a double-bass and one of these (a well-sprung set incorporating two Scan Tester stepdances) a banjo-mandolin. The Phoenix band sound is an individual one amongst dance bands, certainly. It may be quite fulsome, and the rhythms strictly regular, but there's not a hint of the quaint reserved rum-ti-tum you encounter with some lesser dance bands, but instead some brilliantly agile, and decidedly fiery, forthright and driven playing that I'd defy you not to want to get up and whatever to; just skip (prance, hop, etc) straight to track 14 (the Paganini's Hornpipe set) and you'll hear what I mean in an instant. Then go right back to track 1 and get on down! After The Fire presents a veritable parade of material mixing old and newer sources; many of the pieces are unlikely to be over-familiar, nay known at all, even to English country dance enthusiasts (some of it's not even English in origin, but so what?). Phoenix play the music straight, and they have no truck with modern-fangled fusions or needless syncopations - but they need no gimmicks, devices or special pleading, for their gutsy delivery has a presence and sense of pacing that enables them to savour the melodies and rhythms on their own terms. No exaggeration - it's enough to convert the unbelievers, that well-played country dance music can be seriously entertaining in its own right. The only (tiny) possible reservation I might have about this CD (and then only sometimes) is that at an abundantly generous 75 minutes, even such a consistent and glorious surfeit of excellently-played dance music might not readily be taken all in one sitting (or do I mean moving about on your feet? - probably both, probably either!). At just a tenner, though, you can't go wrong.
David Kidman June 2007
You'll recall that Amy, along with Beth Case, formed the Philadelphia alt-country duo She-Haw, which split around three years back. I'd wondered what became of Amy, but rest assured, here she is still peddling her own brand of original-but-timeless-sounding heartbreak-backporch songs. Although its title credit might ostensibly term it a "band" effort, this is actually Amy's solo record, and it's definitely her own musical character that informs the whole affair - a sober, lovelorn delicacy that's consistent almost to a fault but which is undoubtedly intensely appealing if you're in the right mood, and has a potent atmosphere all its own. Instrumentation is commendably sparse, with quiet banjo counterpointing Amy's own gentle guitar and invariably backed by hushed, brushed drumming. The heartfelt pleas of Amy's songs, notably Ring Your Bells, Ashes and the title track, are truly charming in their lonesome yearning and general despondency. The problem for some listeners may well be the album's implacable uniformity of tempo, a slow drawl, that besets virtually every song in the set, even the album's lone cover (a strangely apt rendition of Stephen Foster's My Old Kentucky Home, set to a completely new, and singularly forlorn, tune by Amy); the relatively uptempo Cotton provides a welcome lift halfway through. It may therefore be best for each song to be listened to individually, in splendid isolation, for maximum impact. But hopeless? nah! For having said that, I personally find Amy's music irresistible and could listen to her songs continuously for a somewhat longer timespan than the disc's comparatively ungenerous 34 minutes allows: so can we have more next time Amy, please!
David Kidman April 2008
One thing you don't turn to Picott for is to get cheered up. This, his seventh and heavily autobiographical albums, is full of blue collar stories about industrial decline, economic slumps, busted dreams, broken relationships, tormented hard living men, being trapped living your father's life, disillusion and desperation.
Thankfully, he dresses these up with strong melodies and narratives, delivered with a gritty voice fuelled by passion and stained by life. Three songs are co-written with regular collaborator, Slaid Cleaves; the title track's memoir of his welder father, Rust Belt Field's stark portrait of Detroit, its auto factories closed and production hived off to cheaper climes in Mexico and China, and Black T-Shirt where, expelled from school, it's protagonist sees crime as the only way out.
It's a theme echoed in the bluesy Southern groove of 410 where, laid off from the tyre plant and told to think outside the box, the guy sets up self-employed with a truck, a sawn off shotgun and a hold-all.
Work is at the heart of the Prine-like Sheetrock Hangar too, a job (applying plasterboard or similar to interior walls) Picott himself once held down, but as if it wasn't bad enough that 'things ain't been the same since the Mexicans came' now the stilts he needs for work have been stolen from the back of his truck.
Breaks don't come easy if at all in Picott's songs, but there is tenderness lurking behind the bruises here. Caressed by Amanda Shires' fiddle, the gentle Your Father's Tattoo is a son's moving reminiscence of his father and the things he knew and never knew about him while Still I Want You Bad with its Will Kimbrough guitar and twangy bass solo refuses to let go of love and desire despite the drinking, the fights and the broken promises.
The album ends on the Springsteen-esque When My Running Is Through as he sings 'when I leave this world I'll be leaving all I have here with you'. This album alone is a worthy legacy to inherit.
Mike Davies August 2011
The fate of this collaboration rests firmly on the ability of Rod Picott and Amanda Shires to bring together two distinct voices and make them work as one.
Anyone familiar with the music of Maine singer/songwriter Rod Picott from his stunning debut Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues, will be slightly surprised with the more introspective and even subdued musician on Sew Your Heart With Wires. He has channeled his considerable talents into making this a true collaborative effort.
Perhaps less well known, West Texas's Amanda Shires is already a respected fiddle player and singer in her own right and throughout her fragile voice entwines itself around the solidity provided by Picott.
Sew Your Heat With Wires is a celebration of the enduring beauty and power of true folk music, every track is built on the strength of its story. There is no heed paid to the commercial benefits of staging a 'performance', at times the album is so natural, it feels like the recordings happened without the pair's knowledge. In staying true to the unquenchable folk spirit, the pair have made Sew Your Heat With Wires, an album of completely original songs, infinitely more appealing than any album callously aimed at a mass market.
Sew Your Heat With Wires develops into one of the gentlest, most hypnotic and romantic albums you'll be lucky to come across. The subtlety and love lavished on songs like Shake and Cry will envelop you completely, it makes a seemingly simple love song irresistible.
But even amongst the musical spells that Picott and Shires cast over Sew Your Heart With Wires, the fiddle playing of Amada Shires shines like a jewel in the crown. If ever an instrument came sepia tinted it is the fiddle of Amanda Shires, with it she reinforces the album's credentials as an American folk classic.
Sew Your Heart With Wires is one of those humble albums that has nothing to be humble about. Neither Picott nor Shires have allowed anything garish or crass to obscure the poetry of a song like Salida. The common thread in all 10 songs (it's rare for an album to be too short but this is one) is that both musicians get to the honest, sometimes bitter, truth of each song. So while Little Darlin' and Mean Little Girl (Ruby) are presented as heartwarming pieces of country, the reality is altogether different. As with any folk music worthy of the name, there is a dark side, it may be easy on the ear but Sew Your Heart With Wires requires and demands your full attention and understanding.
Ultimately, you'll find yourself happily lost in the deep emotional well that Rod Picott and Amanda Shires have created . Whether it's the nostalgic feel, the depths the wonderfully written songs reach, or the fact that this is two great talents with little between them and their audience, there is something about Sew Your Hearts With Wires that makes it an unforgettable, heart lifting joy.
Michael Mee February 2009
I just hope that Rod Picott is able to smile at life's little ironies or, better still, write more songs about them. The universal and warranted praise that has followed him since Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues burst through in 2000, must have him wondering where the mansion and Lear jet are hidden. However, those who have been lucky enough to follow the fortunes of this superb singer-songwriter will have formed the opinion that he is more interested in making the kind of music that buries its way into your soul, than sitting with accountants.
Throughout his career, Rod Picott has written 'life' songs and Summerbirds is no different. They're not florid or fancy but every lyric has a meaning well beyond just rhyming with its predecessor. But perhaps the one thing that raises Rod Picott above the 'herd' is that every song has a heart, it may be broken sometimes, it may even be down on its luck, but its there and it beats strong.
Since he exorcised the demons with the passion of Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues, Rod Picott has definitely mellowed and Summerbirds is his most reflective and focussed album to date. When he fixes his sights on a subject, he takes careful aim and never misses but he sounds a little more content and accepting of the misfortunes that befall us all.
While Summerbirds is a beautifully subtle and layered album, full of honest emotion, old habits die hard and he can't resist kick-starting it with a bit of rock 'n' roll and Jealous Stars is vintage Picott rock, energetic without being theatrical, fun but still retaining the intelligent writing that is his trademark. Birds Won't Fly eases the album back a little but he is too canny a performer and too astute a songwriter to let Summerbirds drift, Just Like Love and Something In Spanish are love songs but they are real love songs and that's a vital difference. It could just as easily be you or I in the middle of them, Picott is an 'everyman' musician.
While he'ss an accomplished performer Rod Picott is an infinitely superior storyteller, the language he uses is straight talking and direct, Hand Me Down for one gets on with job of telling its story. With a slightly rough-edged voice emphasising that he truly believes what he is singing, Picott will never be one of life's slick crooners. His songs are slices of his world good and bad, but it takes a rare insight to be able to soul search quite as deeply as Sinners Prayer, while Trouble Girl creates a feeling of longing that hangs long in the air, the poet is never very far away from a Rod Picott song.
In common with the very best singer songwriters, Picott leaves the impression that he is using his music to gather up his own memories, on Just Like Home he sounds as if he's in another gentler world, it is stunning moment on a fantastic album.
Put simply, Rod Picott writes songs and then sings them without fuss or fanfare. But there are songs, there are great songs and then there are the kind that Rod Picott writes. When you listen to Summerbirds you've been given something tangible, something you can almost reach and touch.
Michael Mee August 2007
Rod Picott - Girl from Arkansas (Welding Rod Music)
But, with the exception of the swampy blues Wrecking Ball, the musical framework's far more subdued, more in keeping with the downbeat, melancholic material. The wistfully sad hand me downs and no hopes title track sets the mood, No Love In This Town, the Guy Clarke-like back porcher Gun Shy Dog with its dobro figure and the bluesy Gone all deal with love lost while the coal-hammer rhythmed Big Mean Men addresses misguided masculinity and the circle of abuse and the closing The Last Goodbye simply seeps desperation.
It's not all so wracked in misery, the quietly strummed Down To The Bone may talk of good times blown away, a life of rain washing away summer beauty and of mockingbirds flown, but at its heart is a touchingly plaintive declaration of enduring steadfastmess while That's Where My Baby Lives prizes "all the love a broken heart can give" over material wealth.
Pillowfish is a York-based duo fast becoming familiar faces at the region's folk clubs and acoustic venues. It was in the inauspicious setting of the fRoots internet noticeboard, apparently, that Tom Drinkwater (bouzouki, guitar), veteran of countless folkyish groups in NZ and the US, met Helen Bell (violin, viola), veteran of several young-folky groups in England including Niblik and the award-finalists Ola; and their musical partnership has never looked back since! They both delight in – indeed, share – eclectic (if obscure) predilections and preoccupations, and their musical personalities also turn out to be highly complementary. However, I'm not sure that the bare biographical preamble tells you much about their actual music... which isn't at all easy to describe. Perhaps the first thing you notice about Pillowfish is the duo's immediate, and markedly individual, presence, for nobody else on the current scene sounds quite like them. Their special musical identity is due as much to their confident and upfront playing style as to Tom's quite upfront vocal presence and delivery (his distinctively astringent, precise singing voice may polarise listeners' reactions as it's perhaps a bit of an acquired taste). Instrumentally Pillowfish are very assured indeed, and know intuitively how to manage the texture between the contrasting timbres, each of which is rich and appealing (Tom's "zouk" is a 10-string model by the way, and has a wonderfully full, ringing tone); the duo balance works really well as backdrop for Tom's singing voice while also giving a satisfying blend on the two instrumental tracks (sets of rather intriguing tunes composed by Helen, invariably using irregular metres and notable for not going where the listener might expect!). I just love the way Helen weaves her delicate yet supportive melodic counterpoint round Tom's busy and deft zouk playing, always ingeniously configured to make the best out of the musical argument. And that applies equally to the songs; these (comprising nine of the eleven tracks) are all self-penned: seven by Tom (one with words by Sadie Curlett, who also provided the cover photos for the CD by the way) and the remaining two by Helen. Tom's songs especially can seem tumblingly wordy, a mite thorny, even slightly inaccessible at first acquaintance, and certainly cryptic; after all, they're the creations of a defiantly bohemian wordsmith who feels no need to compromise his manifesto or artistic vision. I don't have the space to discuss their content here, but suffice to say they're the product of a lively and intelligent mind with deep and sensible convictions, wide interests and keen observational skills; this complexity of thought, coupled with the effect of the sometimes mildly disorientating uneven bar-lengths and unusual melodic motifs, means that the listener needs to concentrate… not at all a bad thing I say! This may explain the curious impression (an observation rather than a criticism!) that Tom's songs often seem to last longer (and yield less immediate pleasure) in live performance than listening to them on disc – where even after many playthroughs I'm still finding new and rewarding insights. The only song that jars on repeated play is Move Your Money, whose scratchy-jokey setting rather overplays – and detracts from – the thrust of the lyric. As for musical and folk-cultural reference points, well: think the more whimsical side of Dylan, Incredible String Band, Roy Harper, Al Stewart, Dave Moss, acoustic Jethro Tull, the late-60s wyrd-folk scene). Pillowfish are amazing: eclectic, very individual and very talented - and I assure you, they're not going away!
David Kidman January 2007
Rock's newest confessional singer, trumpets the promo blurb for this debut by the County Cork based Vienna born single mother singer-songwriter who got signed to the label after Peter Gabriel fell in love with a track she recorded with the Afro Celt Sound System. Naturally you instantly get into Alanis comparisons mode, but from the first moment you hear Ms Kollars' warbling vibrato while she may cite Edie Brickell as one of her influences and the press release would like to make you think Patti Smith, the most obvious point of vocal reference can be Melanie.
Lyrically it's an autobiographical spillages with songs about her marriage break-up (I Loved The Way), her fairground worker dad (Josephine), her daughter (Bring Me A Biscuit), the Austrian government's lack of support for artists (The Tower) and all other manner of struggles, heartbreak, poverty, saviours and sinners. Kick off track I Loved The Way aside, there's nothing that suggests her acoustic based material is going to take the world by storm but the longer you let the songs and her emotional catch seep into the blood stream the more you suspect that the edge of honesty and uplift is slowly going to win a growing legion of committed admirers.
"I am nothing, but sometimes the angels whisper in my ear," sings Pettis on I Am Nothing, a slow loping reggae rhythmed plaintive cry from a humble soul (inspired by obscure journeyman songwriter Don Dunaway) that calls to mind fellow Christian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Certainly the lines "spread-eagled on a cross beam..nailed like a thief" on You Did That For Me specifically refers to Christ's sacrifice, but you don't have to be a believer to embrace Pettis. Whatever your faith or lack of it, his songs movingly address the human condition with universal application.
The spare, acoustic That Kind of Love may well be rooted in feelings of being unworthy in the face of divine love "that humbles and inspires", but it also touches on both a father's humility in the face of a child's unconditional love and the 'greater love' of laying down your life for another. Likewise, while the lilting Hallelujah Song's lines about being 'touched by grace' and seeing the light is a devotional, it's about his wife rather than his God.
Things open with a stirring cover of Mark Heard's Nothing But The Wind, another Cockburn-sounding number about a lost soul and man's insignificance and impermanence in the big picture. Driven by organ, banjo, and slide guitar, it, the smoulderingly bluesy Lion's Eye and a slow burn funked cover of Jesse Winchester's Talk Memphis mark the album's only 'rock' persuasions while Pettis digs into his blusy folk portfolio for an earthy reading of Woody's Pastures of Plenty.
The other numbers, however, all shade to more stripped back reflective musical moods. There's the dappled border country shadings of Veracruz as he recalls a past lover, the achingly moving Farewell, written about his great great great grandmother, a New England 'maiden of 16...bound for a marriage my father made to a man who is twice my age", and To Dance, a fiddle waltzing celebration of the joy and liberation you can find in just gliding around the floor, limbs "in a language spoken in three quarter time." Finally, he closes with the simple acoustic guitar accompanied Something For The Pain, dedicated to his wife it's a love song for troubled times, "a world of freed Barrabbuses where nuns carry guns to protect themselves from rape", that catches you by the heart as his voice cracks over the lines "the wind that blows the candles out well it also fans this flame".
Nine albums down the line, it seems unlikely that Pettis is ever going to find the wider audience he deserves, but as long as he keeps making outstanding music like this he'll never want for devoted admirers.
Mike Davies February 2009
Pierce Pettis - Great Big World (Compass)
Other than the vibe created by recording the bedrock tracks live in the studio, it sounds a natural successor to 2001's State of Grace, Pettis's travels across the Americana musical landscape embracing much the same musical textures. In the interim, however, there's been a a fourth addition to the clan, prompting the appearance of a new parent song in the shape of the simple acoustic title track where he partly recall Bruce Cockburn.
Frequently reflective in mood (listen to You're Gonna Need This Memory), there's other family themed material here too; a song about a father's concerns, Black Sheep Boy is dedicated to son George, the closing Song of Songs, a gorgeous bluesy-folk throaty-voiced love's pledge, is for wife Michele while the plaintive dust-throated Alabama 1959 (shades of Guy Clarke) is a home movie of childhood, family memories and the dawning of civil rights.
Elsewhere the joy-infused bluegrassy Rodeo Around the World celebrates a couple of old friends who turned up at his door 25 years after they'd eloped; Leonardo embraces Pettis's twin themes of alienation and grace in a bluesily moody talk-sung portrait of the artist and his mysteries; Cracker Jack Ring (another Clarke-like number) is a feelgood redneck love song about a guy who sells his truck to buy his girl an engagement ring; Shady Grove a disarming throwaway second cousin to The Beatles' Blackbird and, inspired by a painting by recovering alcoholic Fred Folsem, the slow rocking Anybody's Girl sketches a metaphorical barroom of desperate losers yearning for the stripper who's emotionally always out of reach. The usual balance of self-penned and co-writes, as always he's included a number by the late Mark Heard, the opening Another Day In Limbo, a poetic prescient lament and prayer for lost times, lost souls and a lost nation. In short then, a Great Big World class album.
Pierce Pettis - State of Grace (Compass)
He may not be exactly a household name but any self-respecting roots fan should be familiar with the Alabama singer-songwriter, if only for the fact he's had his songs covered by Dar Williams and Garth Brooks.
This is his sixth album since launching a solo career back in 87, his third for Compass after three acclaimed but commercially overlooked releases on Windham Hill. Thematically it's something of a homecoming in its evocation of Southern life, ranging from the Spanish moss, Confederate graveyard and Rebel flag that haunt Georgia Moon to the rural simple joys of A Mountaineer Is Always Free and the landscape snapshots of Little River Canyon where the "girls would lie on terry cloth and bake" or the twilight hills of Moontown. He even kicks up a stonking cover of Dylan's Down In The Flood.
With a husky catch in the voice that at times recalls Mickey Newbury (especially so on Georgia Moon and the Southern and proud of it strummed title track), Pettis ranges across the acoustic Americana musical map with bluegrass, Appalachian gospel, rhythm and blues, trad folk and country rock n roll, never less than evocative in his etching of emotions and the sense of hope and self-resolve that underpins many of the songs here. As usual he's included a song by his late friend Mark Heard (Rise From The Ruins), while collaborators this time round include co-writers Tom Kimmel and Clive Gregson, guest musos Tim O'Brien, Gordon Kennedy and Alison Brown, and, providing the cover artwork, American primitive artist and fellow Alabama boy Howard Finster. Amazing Grace indeed.
There's been a long gap since Tom's second solo album, 2002's The Last DJ, and there are signs that Highway Companion might be marking the end of an era, for Tom's just announced his retirement from touring. But hey, let's hope that it doesn't mark his retirement from recording too, for it's another typically fine set of songs, all self-penned, that takes Tom's trademark craftsmanship into a new philosophical setting as he contemplates the mysteries of time and what it does to us. From the pensive, Dylanesque Down South to the almost resigned Saving Grace, the enigmatic Night Driver to the ostensible denial of Turn This Car Around, Tom reluctantly accepts that there is after all no going back, while in Damaged By Love it's all conveyed most achingly and confirmed on the album's (swansong?) finale Goodbye Golden Rose. Throughout this new set, Tom explores in simple language and with uncompromising honesty the often uncomfortable truths of our very existence and conduct, and in doing so gives us much to think about amongst all those catchy hooks and radio-friendly melodies. There's plenty of his signature Rickenbacker jangle too, here set into context credibly by Jeff Lynne's proven production skills and the generous backing contributions of Lynne himself and the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell. The team has a really good sense of just when to hold back on the texture and when to let those guitars ring out for best effect; but whatever, anything that's rock and roll's still fine by me!
David Kidman July 2006
This release sneaked out around nine months ago, and now I've finally managed to catch up with it I'm ashamed it's taken so long to bring it to your attention. Georgia-born with a New York upbringing, Madeleine first made the headlines in 1996 with her debut album Dreamland, where her stunning vocal performance led to her being compared (and not idly!) to Billie Holiday, whose songs were among those she covered so memorably. The followup Careless Love came along after an interminable eight years' interval, and found Madeleine embracing an even more diverse roster of songwriters; two further albums of (mostly) covers ensued fairly swiftly. Now comes the fifth - Bare Bones - which, although further cementing the productive working relationship between Madeleine and producer Larry Klein, rings the changes by this time presenting a entire sequence of songs in whose composition Madeleine herself has been heavily (or in one case exclusively) involved. And it really does feel as though Madeleine has come into her own here, with an uncanny gift for conveying first-hand feelings and experiences and an even greater vocal confidence emerging to voice and support her own thoughts and ideas on the time-honoured matters of love, loss and desire. What a presence she has - deep and brooding (and at times gorgeously husky), totally in control, with a firm and assured command of both tone and line.
The bare bones of the record's title surely refer to the uncluttered, unfussy nature of the backings rather than any perceived leanness of, or deficiency in, emotional content or expression. But then again, those unassumingly rich, quietly plush settings suit Madeleine's special brand of vocalising right down to the ground. Stylistically, the smoky tenor of the grooves brings with it hints of Nat King Cole and Fats Waller as much as female legends such as Ella Fitzgerald. Madeleine's as silken-smooth as the very finest of jazz vocalists, yet her articulation is distinct and precise, the excellent recording bringing out every last nuance and understated vocal gesture.
Madeleine's languid, cooingly sensuous jazz-inflected delivery belies an almost unfathomably deep understanding of the experiences and feelings she's relating. There's a slightly stealthy Joni-mode tread in the confessional feel of River Of Tears and the title track, while the shifting-sands mood of Damn The Circumstance hits all the harder for its being cocooned in a softly etched instrumental setting. The almost playful Steely-Dan-style gentle funk of You Can't Do Me provides a tasty interlude just before the painfully acute observations of Love And Treachery, and the seriously beautiful folkiness of I Must Be Saved complements the tender pictorial delicacy of the evocative Our Lady Of Pigalle. Homeless Happiness uses a repetitive gymnopédie-like guitar figure to counterpoint Madeleine's carefree mood, while To Love You All Over Again shuffles along casually and contentedly notwithstanding its mournful violin part.
The versatile support crew utilises available resources to perfection, not a note or shading wasted: Larry Klein contributes bass within a sensitively-judged little ensemble that also includes Dean Parks, Jim Beard, Vinnie Colaiuta, Larry Goldings and Carla Kihlstedt. Yes, Madeleine is simply delectable.
David Kidman December 2009
That's Josh Peyton, a real Rev from Indiana, on slide guitar and vocals and his Big Damn Band comprises wife Breezy on washboard and cousin Aaron Persinger on drums and five gallon bucket.
Meeting the missus when he had surgery to remove scar tissue on his hand that left him unable to hold the guitar in a fretting position, she introduced him to the Squirrel Nut Zippers and he introduced her to the delta blues of Charlie Patton and Bukka White and his brother Jayme (who was the trio's drummer until last year) had grown up playing.
When the bandages came off, Peyton found a new flexibility to his hand that meant he could now play fingerstyle like his blues heroes.
Which brings us up to this, their third album, a collection of rowdy hillbilly country blues featuring gargling Southern gravel vocals and wild foot stomping tunes. Bottleneck guitar sparks flying off breakneck numbers like Born Bred Corn Fed, Clap Your Hands, The Train Song accordion punk bluegrass thrash Two Bottles of Wine, and the quite bonkers Shortnin' Bread style crowd rouser Ft. Wayne Zoo defying anyone to not get on their feet and leaping round the room.
They do allow a breather or two. Sounding a lot like a traditional field song, and driven by rootsy slide, Miss Sarah is one of the less frantic numbers, but even when they start out slow, as on In A Holler Over There with its military snare drum beat by the time they get to the end they just have to let rip.
Like Just Getting By, that's a protest number about rural America's economic collapse while Everything's Raising follows a similar tack, pointing the finger at banks, corporate crooks and congressmen, but generally speaking issue based lyrics are the exception. Indeed, there's a lot of roguish fun here. Rosebud's barn dance sway may conceal a poignant tale of time apart from home and your loved ones, but still finds space to observe he's older now than at the start of the song, while Clap Your Hand mostly consists of the line 'I'm bad and you know it'. And what can you say about "my brother stole a chicken from the Ft. Wayne Zoo.... Ft Wayne Zoo's got Chickens ... and all the chickens go Cock A Doodle Dee, Cock a Doodle Doo'? Resistance is futile, just dip your jug in the still and give that front porch a workover.
Mike Davies October 2010
This band was originally formed as a studio band to record behind Taj Mahal, but they quickly gained a profile in their own right performing at major blues and jazz festivals throughout the world. Guitarists Johnny Lee Schell and Denny Freemen, keyboard player Mike Finnigan, horn players Joe Sublett and Danny Leonard, bassist Larry Fulcher and drummer Tony Braunagel – they're all accomplished musicians in their own right, but when teamed up together they make a big enough splash to make you sit up and take notice. Running through the gamut of modern blues-style compositions, while taking in hints of flavours from Cuban to soul to gospel along the way, the 14 cuts making up Out Of The Shadows are reliably performed and exciting enough, if not setting any special originality quotient, though you can't say commitment's absent from their forthright and lively renditions of material by Lowell Fulson, Henry Glover, Harry Johnson, Chuck Berry, Jimmy McCracklin and Sonny Thompson. Workmanlike and pleasing.
David Kidman June 2007
It was roughly this time last year, with the release of her third album, The Promise, that I first discovered West. It seems to be around the same time that she and Phelps got together when he played with her on the tour to promote the album. Things obviously clicked, each realising they'd found their true musical partner and deciding to fuse the solo careers into a single duo.
Their first steps together was originally announced as a six track EP, recorded live from the floor at Skywalker Sound, the studio on George Lucas' ranch. However, between then and the UK release, two extra numbers have found their way onboard, recorded in Holland for a Dutch radio show, bumping it up to album status.
Not looking to create an discord in the musical household, but it would seem to be West who's the dominant partner here. Phelps is best known as a blues singer whose work encompasses shades of jazz and folk, whereas West's background as been in country-bluegrass. Her last album may have shown jazzier colours but this acoustic collaboration with Phelps is firmly grounded in the folkier roots and Appalachian influences she's favoured. Notably, she's the one that counts the songs in and while they sing in harmony, her voice is generally more prominent. Aside from two covers of numbers by Halfgrass' Joe Tomaselli (the folk blues Horseback In My Dreams which showcases Phelps' finger-picking and, from Amsterdam, the gently rolling Amelia), she also provides all the songs.
With a strong 60s folk flavour to the sound, they remind me more of Ian & Sylvia (listen to the masterful Road To No Compromise) rather than, say Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and material like Mother To Child or Lily Ann wouldn't sound out of place nestling among recordings by the likes of the Kingston Trio.
There's some excellent guitar work here, notably so on the bluesy strums of Whisky Poet, the complex cross-pollinating acoustic blues patterns of the trad-folk influenced Lady Luck and the arpeggios of the early Paul Simon-esque River's Fool. But everything here bristles with an assured mastery of their craft and the electricity that comes when two talents chime in perfect harmony.
Mike Davies September 2010
Kelly Joe's latest record is an entirely solo, exclusively instrumental offering that both reflects on his life and experiences and expands his personal musical envelope. In the latter context, you must therefore expect more than a modicum of comparatively uneasy listening within a genre-defying musical landscape that's impossible to pin down. Sure, you may think you're in for a slightly uncomfortable ride, but it turns out an intensely invigorating one nevertheless. Here Kelly Joe effectively deconstructs the humble guitar which he so clearly loves and respects; he brings to his time-honoured delta blues sensibility a strong dose of avant-garde acoustic jazz playing. That means lashings of unusual tunings, weird atonal-sounding slide effects, limpidly executed percussive noodlings and even brief passages of improv in the spirit of Ornette Coleman and the free-jazzers. I hear Kelly Joe closer to Henry Kaiser and especially John Fahey here - check out the severely twisted old-time of Hometown With Melody, or the seductive rambling freestyle ragtime of Hattie's Hat, for starters - or the shades of Leo Kottke on East To Kansas. On pieces like American Exchange Hotel and the rippling fingerstyle of Blue Daughter Tattoo, just when you think you know where a snatch of melody might be going, Kelly Joe throws in weird progressions and off-kilter notes that toss the rug out from under you - but in a thoroughly enchanting and stimulating way. The Jenny Spin seems at first acquaintance a structureless ramble with tinkling bells, but on repeated play it acquires an almost hallucinatory Garcia-like logic. Kelly Joe's got a clever way with titles too, for several tracks verge on the onomatopoeic: for instance, Blowing Dust 40 Miles really does sound just like that! Putting it as simply as I can, Kelly Joe's technique is stunning: the sounds he produces from a "mere" guitar (whether six- or twelve-string or lap-slide) are more extraordinary than ever. I'm firmly convinced he's surpassed even his own lofty playing standards on this new record, which I can only describe as a masterpiece of innovative and inspirational musicianship represented in magnificently skewed delicacy and proudly wayward beauty.
David Kidman April 2009
Polly Phillips - No Relation (Koala Music)
Hailing from Doncaster, now based in Edinburgh she used to be a back up singer for the Revillos now she's a singer-songwriter in her own right. This is her second self-funded album and pretty much an acoustic affair that underlines musical influences that draw on psychedelia veined 60s pop and the sort of jazz-blues folk that Millicent Martin used to favour on The Frost Report. Mercifully she largely keeps away from the fey Sally Oldfieldisms (though you'll find those shared Eastern rhythm fascinations here and there) this may suggest and while the fragile, breathy voice can get a bit wearisome over the course of an entire album, repeated plays have wormed several songs into my brain. Despite a lack of a proper melody, I'm particularly fond of the dreamy Liar with its coy opening line "I like boys that look like girls You like girls that look like boys It's not the same.", the urgent Dance With The Devil's swipe at the music business, The Wee Girl with its well observed and slightly disturbing picture of dawning female sexuality, and, most of all the opening A Sharp Breath, a sharp, cynical response to male sexism that reduces women to the 'sum of these body parts' delivered with a tumbling melody and chorus hook.
Sam Phillips - A Boot And A Shoe (Nonesuch)
The latest from the erstwhile Mrs T Bone Burnett (he still handles production) takes a slow burn into the blood but its stripped back fairground jazzy gypsy pop soul is hard to shake once it takes a hold. Torchy and old world European (she's been described as a cocktail of Kurt Weill, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello though the opening One Night points to kd lang) with the ambience of late night New York nights she weaves her poetic but playful images of broken hearts, exposed nerves and wounded love through sparsely but evocatively arranged (basic bass, drums, guitar with string section augmentation) melodies and seductive honeyed smoke vocals.
The clumping wheezy backing to the backporch revivalist hued instrumental (there are lyrics but no vocals) Hole In My Pocket and its spiritually themed continuance One Day Late surely owes a debt to Burnett's work on O Brother while Draw Man is a lazy country blues shuffling lope as refreshing as a mint julep and All Night underscores the old cellar jazz moods.
Keeping the songs trim and short (few venture past the three minute mark), highlights tumble over each other while listening to the percussively sultry Red Silk 5 with Marc Ribot's seductive guitar middle eight, the strings- laced waltzingly gorgeous Reflecting Light that could have come from the 40s, I Wanted To Be Alone with its tango hints and the cabaret cheek to cheek I Dreamed I Stopped Dreaming reveal just how strongly dance rhythms and references (fancy footwork to go with the title) inform the album's overall mood and structure.
If you want to quibble some of the songs are a touch too similar in the tunes department but when the beguilingly wonderful results fit so comfortably you'd be foolish not to try them on for size.
Let me introduce you to one of rock's greatest mysteries, a truly unsung hero. Shawn, born in Texas in 1943, is still little more than a name to most music fans, yet he's unquestionably one of the most talented and genuinely innovative of the musicians to have arisen out of the Southern California and Greenwich Village scenes of the early 60s; in fact, the compass of his personal and highly eclectic brand of creativity has touched upon, and directly inspired, all manner of musical circles. His early CV includes key collaborations with Tim Hardin and Donovan (he co-wrote much of, and played sitar on, the latter's Sunshine Superman album), and with the assistance of Paul Buckmaster recorded his long-gestating masterwork Trilogy, which was fated never to see the light of day in its intended form. At The BBC is a long-overdue collection of BBC radio performances featuring Shawn; it presents three separate sessions recorded between 1971 and 1974, which demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt Shawn's incredible versatility and prowess as an astonishingly expert guitarist (indeed multi-instrumentalist), gifted composer and pretty amazing (and highly individual) singer. The 1971 session tracks alone are the stuff of legend: nothing short of stunningly original. Four are just Shawn and his acoustic guitar: two are intense, unadorned versions of Trilogy material that only (eventually) surfaced on the two Contribution albums, while the brooding, epic Spring Wind was completely transformed by the time it appeared on the Collaboration LP. The Telecaster-bedecked Salty Tears is an epic of a different kind, showcasing the unbelievable flexibility of Shawn's voice in harmonising with his equally unbelievable guitar lines. The 1973 (Bob Harris) session for the most part has Shawn backed by a fiery three-piece band (Tony Walmsley, Peter Robinson and Barry DeSouza – in effect, Quatermass), on snappy and at times distinctly funk-edged arrangements of tracks from the Collaboration, Contribution and Faces albums, all capped by a star (virtually solo) turn on Dream Queen. Finally, the 1974 (John Peel) session, on which bassist Johnny Gustafson replaced Tony W, featured some seriously electrifying, and even more energetically funky, jazz-rockery on jittery workouts that prefigured Spaced and Shawn's other late-70s musical excursions into that field. No wonder Bill Graham described Shawn as "the best-kept secret in the music business", and the excellent booklet notes (by Nigel Cross) illuminate our perception of Shawn's talent no end. You owe it to yourself to investigate these intriguing recordings.
David Kidman April 2009
Phish - Round Room (Elektra)
After a two year hiatus of side-projects and some 16 live albums, the band decided to regroup and get back in the studio. Not for long though. It took just four days to put together his 12 track reminder of why they were first declared the Grateful Dead's natural heirs. Reared on jam sessions, they're as loose as tight can get, but the time away seems to have seasoned their relaxed sloppiness (they left in the fluffs) with the maturity of age, singer Trey Anastasio's voice sounding warmer than ever, the band just slipping easy into the grooves as licks drip from the guitars like sweet molasses.
The opening 11 minute Pebbles and Marbles initially seems an initial departure with its dominant keyboard driven skittering intro, then in comes Anastasio and it's business as usual from hereon. Well almost, the title track adding Graceland African colours to the overall vibes that stew together country, jazz and funk (listen to the choppy jam Seven Below or 46 Days with its evocation of The Band) while Anastasio eases his way through lyrics that wander from the joyous Round Room to the loneliness that hangs upon Anything But Me (very Lambchop at times) and Waves. Mexican Cousin is an ode to tequila and self-pity ("Am I in bed or in a hearse? The things you tell me about myself can't make me feel any worse"), Walls of the Cave a hymn to the permanence of art (I think) while the bluesy Mock Song is about, well, God knows since it's basically self-confessed gibberish. "I need a new way to express myself," he sings on the spare, rumbling Thunderhead. Not for the time being he doesn't.
The Pines is (are) an indie-roots duo comprising David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsay, originally hailing from Iowa and now based in Minneapolis; Tremolo, their third album (and second for Red House) has been produced by Benson's father Bo (who happens to be Greg Brown's sideman and producer). The Pines' music oozes atmosphere, with its congenial mystery contained in earthy but slightly ghostly vocals offset by tellingly deft, singularly spectral gestures on acoustic and electric guitars.
All the album's songs bar two are self-penned; both David and Benson are warmly compelling, if at times enigmatic songwriters inhabiting the folk-blues end of the Americana spectrum, with Benson generally taking charge of the more bittersweet and heartfelt ballads like Heart And Bones and Meadows Of Dawn, David the more charged and bluesier material (Shine On Moon, Pray And Tell). Their style is honest and direct, as befits their vocal approach: David's aching, quivering vibrato-rich delivery (the tremolo of the disc's title?) complements Benson's no less earnest but perhaps more subdued smoky emotiveness. The musical settings suit the voices down to the ground, with true poise and a keen subtlety the order of the day; the duo's own guitar intricacies are generously yet selectively embellished with supremely tasty ornamentation from J.T. Bates (drums), James Buckley (bass) and – keeping it in the family! – Bo Ramsay (guitars, keyboards) and Benson's brother Alex (keyboards).
Right from the opening track (Pray And Tell), which is characterised by an insistent, cleanly contoured rhythm that drives its gentle electricity into your consciousness punctuated by hi-hat, through to the dreamy, shimmersome Neil Young-style love-song of the finale Shiny Shoes, this is a consistently mesmerising record. Even the two covers, Spider John Koerner's Skipper And His Wife and John Hurt's Spike Driver Blues - placed right after each other, just past the disc's midway point - dovetail well with the laid-back immediacy of David and Benson's own songwriting, although the drifting instrumental Avenue Of The Saints seems to have little function beyond that of a pleasant interlude.
But it's perhaps the disc's twin peaks of creativity - the weary Dylanesque tread of Lonely Tremolo Blues, with its perversely comforting mood of spooky alienation, and the softly melancholy ruminations of Behind The Time – that together best seem to sum up what The Pines are all about. You'll be mesmerised too, no doubt, when the duo tour the UK next month.
David Kidman October 2010
The very name Pinkerton's Assorted Colours (brainchild of the flamboyant Reg Calvert, needless to say) evokes rather typically the candy-coated confections of its age - 1966 - and was certainly an improvement on the Liberators, the original handle for this popular Midlands beat combo. After charting with their very first post-name-change single (Mirror, Mirror, which prominently featured the ethereal strumming of an amplified autoharp) and not doing so badly with the follow-up (Don't Stop Loving Me Baby), it was very much a case of diminishing returns for the band, even when a further name change, to the Flying Machine, together with the inevitable personnel fluctuations following a change in producer (over to the charmed Tony Macaulay) brought them both a stream of good-sounding records and a certain measure of hippie-cred. Lack of mainstream commercial or critical success was not necessarily reflected in any noticeable downturn in quality of their recordings as far as I can ascertain, for the band remained inventive throughout and created quite a few rather underrated pop nuggets during their brief career. The B-side of that second single (Will Ya?) has an energy that wouldn't have disgraced the Stones, while 1967'sMum And Dad (the band's first single for Pye) should by rights have charted but was, strangely, denied airplay by the BBC. As could almost any of the subsequent singles - but competition was fierce and they suffered a series of unfortunate promotional miscalculations (like other artists rushing out covers of songs they were due to release - the old familiar story), although they did achieve unexpected chart success in the States in 1969 with Smile A Little Smile For Me. But in Britain at that time, a healthy degree of airplay was almost always the determining factor, and without Reg's influence, the band were in effect sunk, even though their last few singles, earmarking a heavier-sounding direction that was obviously due to more direct group input, had been endorsed by key figures at Radio One. The contents of this two-disc compilation are identical to that issued on Sequel seven years ago, but all the tracks have been digitally remastered and re-sequenced into a more logical running order, making this issue a more viable proposition all round. Disc One contains the dozen original singles with their B-sides, whereas Disc Two concentrates on album tracks, demos and rarities (including alternate takes of those first hit singles). This new reissue comes complete with lavish Castle full-colour foldout insert.
Pinmonkey - Pinmonkey (Gravity)
A rising young name on the Nashville circuit, the largely acoustic four piece, three-part harmony outfit with lead vocals courtesy tremolo tenor Michael Reynolds aren't exactly brining anything new to the country scene, but they have an infectious energy and their fusion of influences that embrace bluegrass,. pop and 70s country rock is channelled through a bunch of strong song choices. It's easy to trace their lineage back to the trinity of Poco, Eagles and Pure Prairie League, and (with guest showings from both Al Perkins and Rusty Young themselves) the band certainly do their legacies justice on the Reynolds-penned southern gospel mortality meditation Jar of Clay and very Desperado-era meets Tom Petty sounding The Longest Road.
I'm not convinced by their twangy bluegrass coloured version of Cyndi Lauper's I Drove All Night (Roy Orbison's remains definitive), but they fare better elsewhere totally reinventing 1997 Sugar Ray hit Fly, teaming with Dolly Parton for a heartrending cover of her 1976 song Falling Out Of Love With Me and even tearing up the tracks with Mavis Staples's gospel rocking Stay With Us. The killer though has to be Augusta, an Eagles-like rootsy, dust-stained emotive ballad about a defeated loser that appeared on their self-released debut and now makes a welcome reappearance with added Ricky Scaggs. I can't say I go a bundle on the band's name (inspired by a Simpsons episode where Homer dreams of working in a bowling alley apparently) , but if you ever see it over your local high street honky tonk it's one you really shouldn't ignore.
Here, but three short years after their previous (seventh) CD Seven Seas, the excellent Seattle duo continue their lifelong voyage through the waters of the maritime music repertoire with their latest CD, which is dedicated to the memory of Felicia's father who sailed the seven seas for most of his life. It's a spirited new collection of songs and tunes, performed with all the duo's customary verve and vibrant musicianship, striking vocal harmonies and of course their trademark sparkling and distinctive instrumentation (guitar, hurdy-gurdy, fiddle, whistles). Most of the songs on the disc were "discovered" by the duo on recent trips to the UK and thus are likely to be quite familiar to English folk audiences - though not necessarily in the form they're given on this disc (William and Felicia are noted for their arranging skills as well as their careful and thorough research). First there's a pair of contemporary songs on the trawling theme: Linda Kelly's poignant Northern Tide (which is, deservedly, attracting a lot of attention of late including a fine cover by Grace Notes on their own latest CD of that title) – to which here is appended an Irish jig (and it works!) - and John Conolly's nostalgic look back at The Trawling Trade. These are well complemented by a brace of shanties which are thoughtfully performed with instrumental accompaniment: Mother Dinah, a less-often-heard capstan shanty from the pages of Hugill, and a version of Fire Down Below, acquired from the scholarly Bob Walser, which here casts a rather different, moodier complexion on the lyric from the usual and provides a neat counterpart to the Pint & Dale version of Jack Tar Ashore. Charles Dibdin's song Tom Bowling is a welcome addition to the set, one we don't hear often, but although its decorative (18th century) melody line isn't easy to bring off Felicia and William do so creditably. There's also a handful of traditional sea songs given unusual treatments - including a driven, "liberty-taking" (their words not mine!) take on Go From My Window and an intentionally epic rendition of the forebitter The Dreadnaught (often associated with the singing of Louis Killen) which is mildly compromised by an intermittent surfeit of sea-sound atmospherics. And there's the old warhorse Rolling Down To Old Maui, which Pint & Dale give a quite refreshing quasi-calypso (and almost rocky) treatment befitting its recreational status. On reflection, I do feel the arranged "performance-harmony" nature of the duo's acappella on The Handsome Cabin Boy becomes just a trifle wearing after first hearing, but it's still very well managed. The two instrumental tracks present delicious renditions of traditional French tunes. All told, The Set Of The Sail is an ideal and natural sequel to the duo's previous records, which certainly won't disappoint their fans while doubtless winning more than a few new converts to their committed, musically and intellectually stimulating - and uniquely spicy - brand of music-making.
David Kidman November 2007
Suddenly, without any advance warning, in through the narrow channel of my mailbox sails a small packet bearing this latest instalment of the spirited Seattle duo's lifelong voyage through the vast waters of the maritime repertoire. Fans of William and Felicia will be pleased that this latest recording springs no surprises and that their usual method of presenting this repertoire remains basically unaltered - i.e., a handful of prime examples taken from the ever-expanding corpus of recent (and hitherto relatively uncharted) songs on a nautical theme, which are interspersed with a goodly sprinkling of typically refreshing, often unusual, lively new treatments of traditional sea shanties, where you'll also find the odd cheery tune gets pressganged into service too (ostensibly to provide relief from the high "body count" of sinking ships and death!). The shanties range from modern favourites Cheerily Man and Wild Goose Shanty to the ear-catching fragment Oh Mary, Come Down. The contemporary songs on this new offering are either in a thoughtful, contemplative vein (Tim Laycock's Heaven's A Bar) or commemorative mode (Alan Maslen's The Mary Stanford Of Rye, a stirring true story from the annals of the RNLI), while there's also William's own setting of The Packet Rat, an evocative piece of verse from poetess Cicely Fox Smith. Accompaniments follow the trusty Pint & Dale pattern - invariably a strong guitar strumming behind hurdy gurdy or whistle, with occasional keyboard, here also sometimes augmented by vocals and/or fiddle and/or percussion from Tania Opland and Mike Freeman. The backing for the moving litany Lost (from the pens of our own Ron Baxter and Ross Campbell) is intriguing (guitar strings caused to resonate by singing or blowing across them - although the added presence of a kind of continuous wind-machine effect is rather distracting). Studio production is well handled by that ever-reliable artisan Brian Bedford. Yes, album number seven sees (clever, eh?!) William and Felicia on typically exciting form once again.
Pipedown is a young four-piece that were formed almost ten years ago by piper Lee Moore with guitarist Steve Reid, mandolinist Axel Campbell and percussionist Stevie Fivey. They brought out their first CD only three years ago, and it was a vital, fresh debut that promised greater things but satisfied on its own count for its combination of relaxed joie-de-vivre and technical accomplishment displayed on a canny choice of sometimes potentially tricky material. Roag (partly named after the western-Skye recording-location) is the band's second CD, and it sure lives up to the high standard set by the first. Again the lads aren't afraid to try out a variety of sources, and although this time round the original compositions (by the likes of Martyn Bennett, Allan MacDonald, Mark Saul, Gordon Duncan, Terry Tully and Liz Carroll) are in the majority, there's still a healthy sprinkling of traditional tunes (reels to pibroch), but no Breton stuff this time round and only one unnamed Bulgarian tune (introducing the Eyebrows set). What I specially like about Pipedown is that they take that word as their motto almost - the pipes don't dominate the texture (they're not allowed to!), nor do they get swamped by the combined efforts of the three other players. Whether it's the Highland or small pipes that lead the melody, the balance is kept perfectly in check and the result is highly musical in absolutely every respect. I suspect that success is probably as much to do with the clarity of the recording and the exceptionally fine engineering (by the Phat Controller himself, Iain Copeland) as with the brilliantly empathic playing of the four musicians themselves. But you can hear the latter shine through on every track: pieces that specially appealed to me include the occasions where the pipes are in tight consort with the mandolin (eg The Yodler, and the sparkling Back Of The Moon set), also the Brendan Murphy set (of jigs, mostly by Don Bradford) that benefits from a restless kit-percussion that sets rhythms off against each other as well as against the melody line. And whilst The Hellbound Train shuffles its snare along the track most infectiously, it's more often the djembe that provides the enticing percussive focus, giving an exotic yet thrusting backbone to the music. If you think you wouldn't enjoy any band led by a piper, then one listen to this fine CD should banish that prejudice; whatever your expectations from a pipes-guitar-mandolin-percussion lineup, prepare to be both gently surprised and highly invigorated at the lively yet eminently thoughtful expression of this unusual instrumental complement. The evocative cover shot of a fiery skyscape over Macleod's Tables is by no means the only attraction of this brilliant disc.
David Kidman January 2008
Formed in 1998, Pipedown is a four-piece that - logically enough - features a piper as an integral force within the group sound. Integral certainly, but not exclusively or to the detriment of the other elements, it's all kept in perspective. And no wonder that the band won the Open Stage Award at 2001's Celtic Connections Festival. Lee Moore's the aforesaid piper; he's from Co. Tyrone, but plays bagpipes, small pipes and whistles here on a selection of pieces drawing not only on both Scottish and Irish traditions but also on Bulgarian and Breton sources. Recent compositions are also interlaced with the traditional ones to good effect, and the finale of the disc turns out to be a slip-jig from the pen of Hamish Moore that usually brings the house down at Pipedown's live gigs. Lee's three Scots cohorts - Axel Campbell (mandolin, mandola), Steve Reid (guitar) and Steve Fivey (percussion) play vitally at all times, but they make especially light work of the tricky time-signatures of the opening set (The Rebel) and Conrad The Bulgarian. Perhaps there's more emphasis on the drive and forward momentum than on light and shade, and the majority of the 12 selections are fairly fast-paced, but it's not as insistent or relentless as it might sound and there certainly proves to be more than sufficient tonal and mood contrast to satisfy the listener. The penultimate set fuses a brief pibroch-style treatment of the air The Last Of The Tinkers with a couple of reels and Axel's own composition Pig On A Leash, where his mandolin gets to take centre stage. A healthy degree of creative syncopation is used here too, as earlier on the set of Hornpipes (track 7) and later on The Silver Mower set (track 11). Innovation and tradition hand in hand with top-class musicianship throughout - what more could ye want?
Think Peatbog Faeries but with a more overt funky-electric-rock vibe, and you're halfway towards getting a handle on Pipedreams. The band started life in early 2003 as the Jimi McRae Band, formed by piper Jimi along with Kirsty Anderson (electric violin), Iain McKinna (bass, guitar, keyboards) and Dave Haswell (percussion). You can hear at a stroke that Jimi's roots are both in traditional pipe music and in rock, for he plays the pipes (a custom-built "big set" of Highland pipes) almost like a lead guitar at times – and with brightness, power and finesse in roughly equal measure. His main aim is to present the music of the pipes to a wholly new audience who might not otherwise be exposed to its delights, in an exciting and highly enjoyable performance framework. This entails "rocking up" the pibroch or the strathspey in the case of the more obviously Celtic-based numbers, and elsewhere skirling across and through an intelligent yet accessible driving prog-rock soundscape that has elements of East Of Eden, High Tide and Curved Air (yet doesn't really sound like any of those). Waiting For The Up shows how expressive a funky mid-tempo workout can get, while Battlegroove Shuffle adapts a medley which Jimi had originally recorded a few years back with Senegalese musicians. Urban Warriors deliberately sets pipes and violin in a different context from the usual format, wherein the parts cross over and interweave before soloing out, whereas the album closes on a real showstopper with the vibrant psychedelic strut of Power Tripper. Instrumentally, the quartet are well matched, although it's fair to say that Kirsty's contributions are a highlight, for her violin lines harmonise well with Jimi's pipes; she also treats us to some suitably ethereal vocal on Heaven And Hell (I've just learned that here she'd uncannily replicated the original idea of sampling a Bulgarian choir!). On occasions there's a sense of formula creeping in perhaps, mainly in the rhythm section, and the synthy-cinemascope ambience of Dream Pilot is less satisfying than the harder-edged adventures of, say, the title track or Urban Warriors, but there's enough invention and variety of texture and approach to keep us interested, and while some of the sounds Jimi coaxes out of his pipes are extraordinary you don't ever begrudge him the luxury of the use of a set of electric pipes or a wah-wah pedal on a few of the tracks!
David Kidman, June 2006
Piroth is the collective name for the two sisters Nina and Johanna Piroth, who grew up in Stockholm then moved to Berlin, where they're now based. With the aid of (for the most part) just an acoustic guitar and their uncannily empathic "fairy dust" vocal harmonies, they make gently floaty, melodic folk-pop which, though quite distinctive in its own right, then tends to pass in and out of your consciousness quite pleasingly in small doses during the course of the record. Occasionally they allow a smidgen of percussion or a bass guitar or chiming glockenspiel or sound samples into their songs, as on Meetings With Meanings - this provides a good example of their arty, cryptically philosophical or slightly surreal lyrics, which need a bit of thought and effort on your behalf. If you're seeking a ready comparison from closer to home, then Piroth may sometimes come across as a kind of euro-Ember, though without the same level of instrumental expertise or feel for direction I'm bound to say, sadly - for generally speaking, their songs stubbornly refuse to go anywhere, which is a shame since I feel there's latent potential beneath the pretty, dressy surface of their music.
David Kidman December 2008
To date, each Pirt - father and son - has gained a formidable reputation in his own field. Graham's best known as a member of the much-respected folk group Cockersdale (for the past 20 years), although he's a pleasing and refreshingly unmannered solo singer in his own right, with a sweetness yet lightness of tone that belies his emotional commitment and deep understanding of the words. Sam, on the other hand, is an immensely accomplished accordion player: his big break came as a member of 422 (1999 BBC Young Folk Award winners), but more recently he's formed an ultra-dynamic duo, The Hut People, with The Beautiful South's Gary Hammond. Musically, Graham and Sam complement each other very well, yet they've performed surprisingly few gigs as a duo. I'm glad, therefore, that they've managed to get together on record, and here they present a canny selection of songs from Graham's native north-east, interspersed with some tunes both self-penned (by Sam) and from other countries. The songs have been carefully chosen, with some well-travelled "household names" (Dol-li-a, Here's The Tender Comin', Dance Ti' Thee Daddy, Blow The Wind Southerly, Lavender's Blue) thrown into relief by the less usual fare, the more "specialist" items like the classic ballad of The Laidley Worm O' Spindleston Haugh. Around half of the songs are done unaccompanied, and the intimate recording accurately and sympathetically captures the essence of Graham's vocal talent. He also turns in exceptional performances of Ed Pickford's heartfelt Ee Aye I Cud Hew, the resigned Sair Fyeld Hinny (a song with a decidedly strange compass!), closing the album most fittingly with a stunning rendition of Terry Conway's noble, stirring anthem Fareweel Regality (recently given welcome exposure by the Winterset). Sam is an outstanding young instrumentalist who's not only blessed with an admirable degree of dexterity but also can appear demonically possessed with an infectious (sometimes very audible!) bounce to the rhythms he conjures. On this disc, however, it's the thoughtful side of Sam's playing that really comes into its own, especially on Auld Fisher's Farewell To The Coquet: this is a beautiful tune by any standards, but here it's made rendered even more poignant by the pure sensitivity and expressive range of Sam's embellishment. You might expect the restricted canvas of voice and accordion might wear thin over 70 minutes, but it doesn't feel lacking in any way; this proves a satisfyingly well-balanced disc.
David Kidman February 2009
Gene Pitney - Love Grows (Castle)
There have been numerous compilations of Gene's recordings over the years, the best of which is probably Sanctuary's two-disc Ultimate Collection. That set will remain so, I think, for this new thematic anthology – good though it is – does nothing to supplant it. It concentrates on 24 tracks each featuring the word "love" in its title, and while there's not really a weak track here it's seemingly little more than a marketing challenge. Until you dig deeper, and realise that as well as including good examples of the celebrated mid-60s "signature ballads" like Looking Through The Eyes Of Love and Nobody Needs Your Love, the CD runs the gamut of Gene's output outwith the 60s into the 70s and contains quite a few album tracks and other rarities which aren't currently available on other CDs. Favourites of mine from this collection include Gene's perfectly creditable self-penned 1961 chart debut single I Wanna Love My Life Away and some sturdy proto-Motown sounds on a 1967 cover of Stop! In The Name Of Love. All told, this is a very reasonable collection that presents Gene the love-torn balladeer, he of the unmistakeable voice, in archetypally strong form (less histrionic than he's often painted, I find now) on a sensible mix of ballads and more uptempo material with good, solid, powerful arrangements.
As well as performing in a duo with Steve Dawes and in the four-piece maritime group Four 'n' Aft, Helen's a commanding solo singer in her own right, with a pure and precise delivery (you can hear every word), wholly confident, assured phrasing and a full, even tone. Harbours is only Helen's second solo record (there was a cassette, Following On, some 15 years ago), but it's evidently something she's been meaning to get round to doing for ages, for it contains many of her favourite songs, the majority being of traditional origin (the exceptions come from the pens of Gordon Bok, Utah Phillips and Sydney Carter). Half of the 14 are performed unaccompanied; the remainder feature the redoubtable Steve (singing and/or playing guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, harmonica or accordion), while Helen picks up her own guitar to accompany just two. It's immediately obvious from hearing just a few bars or lines of text that Helen derives enormous pleasure from the act of singing and from the communicating of the stories, yet also treats her chosen sources with great respect. She's a natural storyteller, as her epic, fiery interpretation of Young Hunting (Child Ballad #68) demonstrates: impassioned and yet considered, the flow of the narrative credibly weighted throughout its lengthy span. Helen has a natural way with a ballad, and there are some more instances of this aptitude elsewhere on this disc. Her researches have turned up some intriguing variants, of which I specially liked that of Sweet William (from the singing of Sue Percy).You might feel that Helen's smooth, rounded delivery isn't ideally rough and rugged for Goodnight-Loving Trail, but she's clearly in tune with the essence of the song and I like the degree of wistfulness she brings to it. I'm also pleased to find here two contrasting examples of Helen's own powerful songwriting craft: Harbour, a touching, heartfelt and genuine tribute to friendship, and the dramatic Twilight Zone (a striking and memorable account of a strange dream).The recording has a close presence comparable to that of Helen's singing voice, but at times is a touch unnaturally close-miked, which makes her attack sound a mite fierce. That potential drawback aside, Harbours is a truthful and believable record which represents both Helen's distinctive, appealingly intense vocal personality and her excellent taste in material. Helen's friendly, honest booklet notes credit her sources and influences (Tony Rose inevitably looms large) and put her philosophy and achievement into due perspective.
David Kidman March 2007
Yes, finally! We thought them immortal, but after 40 years the legendary Plainsong are definitely calling it a day. Having played their final UK dates they've only two nights in Japan left (next month), then that will be that. But what a history! Two of its four current members - Iain Matthews and Andy Roberts - were founders of the original incarnation, which in 1972 made a great impact with the In Search Of Amelia Earhart LP; 20 years later, Iain and Andy re-formed the band with new members Julian Dawson and Mark Griffiths, who have remained in the lineup to the present day.
Fat Lady Singing is their sixth - and absolutely final -– CD release. Recorded live in the studio back in 2003, it not only documents highpoints in the band's career up to that point, but also heavily features the band's then-current release Pangolins, which itself was a very fine record. As you'd expect, these live renditions are polished but not sterile, accomplished but not auto-pilot. Everything is in its place, and yet there's also that quietly dynamic edge of immediacy that comes with live performance when you've got musicians of this calibre working closely together.
Much as I love the Pangolins tracks, I also welcomed the chance to revisit early, more folkier-Americana-styled material like Yo-Yo Man, Raider, Old Man At The Mill and Charlie, and it was interesting to hear the band tackle Iain's Tigers Will Survive outtake Guiding Light (something of a lost classic if ever there was one). Oh, and there's a really nice version of the old Fairport (Full House) chestnut Sloth (without any hint of predictable or extended workout!). The songwriting credits for this swansong set are shared just about equally between Iain, Andy and Julian, and the selection cannily covers all the relevant bases.
Finally, the presentation of this release is fittingly lavish too, with sensibly-perspectived essay, biog notes, song notes and credits and plenty of photos, all excellently reproduced. It may by now be all over 'cos the fat lady's singing, but at least you'll have half-a-dozen Plainsong albums to treasure, and this one ensures they go out on a true high.
David Kidman September 2012
The latest album by this rejuvenated five-piece is so much more than you might expect from a brief consideration of its title (which could be seen as a merely succinct, if clever anagrammatic reshuffle of the key elements). It's also a difficult album to review, because I really can't find anything to criticise. It sounds great, contains some excellent playing and singing (solo and harmony vocals alike), and uniformly fine writing. The musical personalities of the individual participants (Iain Matthews, Andy Roberts, Mark Griffiths, Julian Dawson and Andy Metcalfe) are brought out well yet neither subjugated nor unduly dominant at any time during the course of the album's 46 minutes and 12 tracks. The rich accomplishments of the various elements in the mix - for example, Julian's prominent harmonica playing, Andy R's sundry stringed instruments - are a continuous marvel to behold. Tucked in amongst the superb individual and joint compositions, the set features two surprising covers - Poor Moon (the old Canned Heat number) and Sloth (yes, the Fairport chestnut), both of which emerge credibly and at sufficient distance from the originals to count as eminently worthwhile essays - and Like A Cat, a curious little song of unknown provenance. Ever supremely classy and accessible, Plainsong quietly and unfussily continue to provide musical satisfaction on a very high plane with this new release, which I can't praise highly enough.
With Patty Griffin stepping into Alison Krauss' shoes, the rest of the band line up as Marco Giovino on percussion, Byron House on bass, Darrell Scott providing guitar, pedal steel, accordion, banjo and mandolin and, recruited from the Raising Sand touring band, Buddy Miller on guitar.
That this is going to be a slightly different animal is obvious from the opening track, a rumbling guitar blues cover of Los Lobos number Angel Dance featuring mandolin and with a jerky Native American tribal feel to the rhythm, one that manifests itself again on the choppy percussion of Even This Shall Pass Away, a Zep-meets Stones blues setting of the poem by 19th Century New York newspaper editor, poet and abolitionist, Theodore Tilton.
The blues are to the fore again on the jangling acoustic dobro-driven Central Two-O-Nine, a Plant/Miller composition that comes on like a hybrid of Oh Brother and Led Zep III, and veering to the gospel for the traditional spiritual Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down with its spooked mandolin and Plant's bluesy wail.
On the country side of things, twangy guitar intros a cover of Richard Thompson's House of Cards, Griffin providing harmony while ringing mandolin rolls the tune along, The Only Sound That Matters is a gentler brushed drums and pedal steel stroll and Harm's Swift Way a jangling cover of Townes Van Zandt by way of Steve Earle twangy reverb guitar.
There's a country vein too on the hushed, breathy psychedelic slowcore of the six minute Silver Rider, the first of two numbers by drone rockers Low; Griffin's harmonies, the surges of minimal dark reverb guitar chords and desert night atmospherics inspiring Plant to slip into his most liquid, warmly seductive vocals.
He remains in the groove for the second Low tune, Monkey, except he cranks up the whispered sexual tension to such a molten level you can almost hear him licking his lips as the words snake out while rumbling guitar and drums provide a sonic incense to perfume Plant and Griffin's repeated 'tonight you will be mine' mantra.
Elswhere, there's a nod to The Beatles with the 60s r&b pop of You Can't Buy My Love (the album's answer to Gone Gone Gone) with its surf drums and homage to Harrison's guitar work while I'm Falling In Love Again is a waltzing cover of the Kelly Brothers doo wop 60s soul nugget, here enfolded with swooning pedal steel.
Which just leaves the Appalachian banjo flecked Cindy I'll Marry You Someday, a retitling of the North Carolina folk tune known as either Cindy or Get Along Home Cindy that employs both traditional verses and, as far as I can tell, a couple of new ones.
There's nothing to rival Please Read The Letter this time but, while unlikely to repeat the phenomenal success of Raising Sand, there's no dip in the quality level and the album provides such a listening kick the band couldn't have asked for a more appropriate name.
Mike Davies August 2010
While folk music in its myriad variations has always been a major part of Plant's musical repertoire, both as part of Led Zep and solo, he's never really been seen as a big country fan. So, on paper at least, a collaboration with the queen of bluegrass sounds an unlikely proposition. In practice, however, this gets a straight pass to the album of the year lists.
The pair apparently met seven years ago and Plant indicated he wouldn't mind working with her one day. Nothing more was said about the idea until he rang up to ask her to take part in the 2004 Leadbelly tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even so, it was still a couple of more years after performing Where Did You Sleep Last Night together that they finally enlisted T Bone Burnett as producer and knuckled down to actually record some tracks.
Although they both had input, it was Burnett who was largely instrumental in choosing the material, from blues to country to rockabilly (a joyous cover of the Evs' Gone, Gone, Gone) and folk, pitching each songs more normally associated with the other's traditions, Plant taking on Doc Watson country with Your Long Journey, Krauss digging the Delta for Little Milton's Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson.
Recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles with musicians that include Mike Seeger, Jay Bellerose, Dennis Crouch, Norman Blake, and Tom Waits regular Marc Ribot, the pair not only inspire each to lofty vocal heights (Plant has never sounded so pure and smooth) but provide a catalyst that fuses their separate traditions into an intoxicating new sound. Burnett often puts the emphasis on the groove, heard to fabulous effect on the Plant featured swampy blues of Naomi Neville's Fortune Teller, the spooked gypsy Appalachian to Krauss' reading of the Waits/Brennan number Trampled Rose, and the harmonised feline prowling Rich Woman and the dark curling loveliness of the obscure Killing The Blues.
It's an album chockful of highlights, but it would be remiss not to spotlight on the brushed aching beauty of the two Gene Clark songs, Polly Come Home and the keening Through The Morning, Through The Night, Krauss's knockout slow kletzmer reading of Sam Phillips' Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us and Townes Van Zandt's Nothin' where Led Zep folk blues is wed to Krauss' violin storms.
And yes, that is the same Please Read The Letter that Plant did with Jimmy Page on their 1999 Walking Into Clarksdale album, here recast into a burnished country blues that fully justifies every and any new Gram/Emmylou or Lee and Nancy comparison their pairing and the album will receive.
Mike Davies October 2007
The cynics will expect nothing but the latter from a rock legend of comparable vintage making yet another comeback, but Robert's shown his cred consistently over the past few years with his excursions into world music. In any case, any Zeppelinesque echoes in the playing, arrangements or song construction are idiomatic rather than deliberate pastiche. Robert's vocal work is still very strong too; naturally it's deeper-toned with age but he's lost none of his characteristic way of phrasing and he shows he can still be a force to be reckoned with even without taking into consideration any other aspects of his musicianship or his songwriting. As for the later, well you can take comfort in Robert's own self-deprecating description of the lyrics ("statements from a man who thought he had nothing left to say")!
His Strange Sensation band is a grand one indeed, as on Dreamland comprising skilled musos from a wide range of fairly contemporary musical fields and genres - drummer Clive Beamer (Roni Size, Portishead), guitarists Justin Adams (Jah Wobble, Sinead O'Connor) and Skin Tyson (Cast), bassist Billy Fuller (Fuzz Against Junk), keyboardist John Baggott (Massive Attack), The opening cut, Another Tribe, sets things off purposefully, with a stomping Summertime Blues/Apache riff positively thundered out on a Moroccan bendir drum that introduces middle-eastern string sounds swooping across Robert's delicate, ornamented and grandly evocative vocal line. The fade at just over three minutes comes as a shock (as does a premature fade on many of the tracks, incidentally - shame!), but a thumping Levee Breaks drumbeat gives us no respite as it introduces the bluesy Shine It All Around; towards the end of the album, the blues-boogie groove is used creatively on Let The Four Winds Blow and the title track too. A twisted, purposefully irregular-sided Four Sticks-rhythm with rock'n'roll cadences brings further excitement on Freedom Fries. Gentler acoustic textures usher in the lyrical standout All The King's Horses, while The Enchanter waxes exotic, brooding moodily to sullen breakbeats blown in from the Sahara. There's Kinks-style whimsical pastoral beauty on Dancing In Heaven, before it's back to the oddly-angled-riff territory for Somebody Knocking. It grinds, it grips like a vice and just won't let you go. Just like the whole disc in fact.
The Mighty Rearranger has delivered a mighty album that's far better than one has the right to expect from a faded rock legend - except that Robert's anything but the embodiment of that cliché; it's brilliant, and it will last, of that I'm sure.
Robert Plant - Dreamland (Mercury)
Teamed with another new band, Strange Sensation, its members trawled from alumni of Portishead, Cure, Sinead O'Connor as well as his own Page & Plant collaboration, Percy's reached back into his past for his first solo album in nine years to mix up new material with interpretations of numbers by his favourite songwriters in a folk-blues-psychedelic rock hybrid with Middle Eastern and Asian tones he's described as somewhere between John Fahey, The Flaming Lips and The Electric Prunes.
There's no mistaking who it is, but while the wailing folk-blues and fluttering humid guitar he's been doing for decades may be instantly recognisable, there's still an air of freshness all over the album as he brings his personal takes to Dylan's One More Cup Of Coffee (a song he makes sound like some trad death ballad), Tim Buckley's Song To The Siren (very spooked with BJ Cole's pedal steel), Jesse Colin Young's Darkness Darkness (sounding not unlike HP Lovecraft), a lengthy seven minute work out on Hey Joe (once demoed by Band of Joy), a deconstruction of Arthur Crudup's Train Fare Blues retitled Win My Train Fare Home and incorporating elements from John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and another Crudupclassic, and Morning Dew. Best though is a clattering rework of Bukka White's Funny In My Mind (I Believe I'm Fixin' To Die) with what sounds like a Middle Eastern hurdy gurdy and a bruised, fragile reading of Skip's Song by Moby Grape's Skip Spence.
Along with the covers there's three original numbers, a spiky wailing Last Time I Saw Her, Red Dress with its plangent reverb slide guitar and nod to Bo Diddley rhythms that harks back to classic Zep blues and the closing Dirt In A Hole, a swampy rocker with psychedelic phased vocal and guitars that sounds like it's been plucked from some modern film noir soundtrack.
The year 2004 will definitely be remembered for the re-assembling of Irish supergroup Planxty for a series of just twelve concerts during January and February, ten of which took place in Vicar Street, Dublin. Although these were this group's first live performances for over twenty years, they were by all accounts momentous in both legendary import and artistic quality. And judging from the hour or so of music taken from these concerts which is enshrined on this CD, the extravagant claims are wholly justified. It's a live album for those who normally shun live albums, in fact. Nostalgically revisiting past glories might have been on the personal agenda for some attendees of the concerts, but for the musicians it seemed less important than the bringing-together of great musicianship in the spirit of the craic. Dónal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Liam O'Flynn and Christy Moore reunited - an ear-watering prospect, you'll agree, yet it all turned out even more spectacularly than expectations might have predicted; the booklet note describes the occasion as one of "seamless realignment" between the participants, and that phrase just can't be bettered. The verve and delicacy of the individual instrumental contributions is remarkable in its understated expertise, and the natural chemistry between the four players absolutely undiminished. The whole set's replete with archetypal Planxty stylistic hallmarks, such as the tripping bouzouki-mandolin combination set off into the stratosphere by Liam's precision piping or ethereal whistle playing, yet even if you know what to expect in that regard you'll always experience a frisson when the ensemble takes flight (as so often it does), even on repeated plays (and that's not always a feature of live album performances). Then there's Christy's majestic, gently insistent vocalising that gets straight to the heart of a song (as on the epic Little Musgrave, which must be one of the finest ever renditions of that classic ballad). And of course the set wouldn't be complete or representative without an example of the Planxty experimentalism in their innovative coupling of a song from the tradition with a nimble Balkan-inspired tune (The Blacksmith and Black Smithereens)! But the whole set is breathtaking in the extreme. Not a dry eye in the house, I suspect, during Andy's lament The West Coast Of Clare. And what an atmosphere is captured by the fantastic recording - with the delighted yells and cheers of an ultra-appreciative, perennially smiling audience for once not getting in the way of this humble listener's own appreciation here at home. If I had my time again, I'd be putting everything aside for a seat at one of those reunited Planxty concerts - they were obviously That Special! But thank goodness for this CD at least (but why oh why couldn't it have been a double?!)…
John's amazing guitar playing has featured on some all-time great records - for instance many by Van Morrison (including Moondance and Domino) - and he's been a regular member of Chip Taylor's recording and touring band for many years. Incredibly, he's never got round to recording his own instrumental album, and only after much badgering by Chip himself, it appears, had he agreed to get something together. And oh I wish I could say it's an unqualified success that does John and his skills full justice - but honest, I can't. Not because John's playing is in any way below-par or lacklustre - far from it; it's always great to hear a real master of so many styles, from serious twang to slide and folk-acoustic, Tex-Mex to edgy rockabilly, and on top of his game. And the album's title even affectionately evokes those classic John Fahey album titles. No - what screws up the album for me is that John seems to have let the engineers and arrangers have their head in a surfeit of overdubs and guest contributions.
Some truly excellent solo work from John - on what are exclusively his own compositions, either solo or co-written with Chip - is compromised by getting swamped by obtrusive studio effects and gimmicks. I can understand John and Chip wishing to invoke the spirit of Duane Eddy or Joe Meek (say) on atmospherics: that's fine for a few seconds of intro, maybe, here and there, but the idea mostly overstays its welcome here, the main exception being Runnin' With The Dogs where the spoken samples do make a meaningful contribution to the overall track. The disc's few "straight" (ie. unadulterated) instrumental cuts are by far the most satisfying: The Highlander's Blues, I Will Be Standing (some beautiful guest fiddle from Carrie Rodriguez on this one) and the John Fahey-like miniature Suite 35. Then again, Tribute is very pleasing (it does replicate the Joe Meek spirit without recourse to sonic gimmicks, but even here the imported chat sequence palls with repetition), while Song For The Quiet One almost gets away with it, being a gorgeous dreamy piece for electric guitar and sitar that's spoilt by just a few seconds' interpolation of speech midway through and near the end. The raunchy Texas Sexy Ways is a bit like one of those "dishonorable failure" B-sides with crowd vocals, stuff that folks like Sandy Nelson used to get away with back in the old days of makeweight instrumental 45s. But the spoken "mood" narrative on In Memory Of Zapata, the kid's chorus on Child Heroes, the overkill of sound-effects on Train Wreck, all these seem misjudgements: unnecessary distractions that get in the way of some very fine playing which should have remained the focus of the record.
David Kidman July 2007
I should have written a review long ago but Lucky Dog stayed on 'repeat' whilst I attempted to do justice to a diverse and compelling collection of songs and guitar styles from musician's musician John Platania on this, his debut album. I got caught up with his voice - husky, cracked and confidential - and his guitar (electric and acoustic) - fingerpicking, an aching twang and sumptuous slide - as they journeyed through Rock, R&Bo Diddley, Country and Blues territory.
The songs are all interpreted, arranged and produced by master-axeman Platania and written by Elwood H. Smith (who plays mandolin on Fire ...). There are twelve memorable songs and one instrumental, revealing a breadth of emotion, conflict and quirkiness which I found hypnotic . Whispers of death (I Do Believe); bruised life (I Can Stand Alone, It Ain't Gonna Cost You), powerful tales of tragedy (Fire In Arkansas, Little Nazi Boy), and a kind of happy affirmation (Lucky Dog, Numero Uno). The Dog motif keeps re-occurring: the penultimate track Black Dog & Bad Luck; the album title; artwork and label name!
Platania's spent years as guitarist with Van Morrison (from Moondance to Philosophers Stone), Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Judy Collins, Don McLean, Natalie Merchant and is now touring with old friend Chip (Wild Thing/Angel of the Morning)Taylor.
If you've a not heard of John Platania before, now is the time to discover him for yourself - either on tour with Chip or on CD.
Sue Cavendish August 2002
The London-based twosome Playing Rapunzel is described on their press handout as "an energetic folk duo who share, in powerful harmony, songs of story and myth". It comprises Mich Sampson and Marilisa Valtazanou, two indubitably talented ladies of varying multinational background.
Their particular brand of folk, however, is - on the evidence of this disc - less of a grass-roots-folk steeped in tradition and more a distinctly cultured-sounding brew of unusual influences. The "health warning", then, is that more traditionally-inclined folkies will thus be likely to find their music too refined. This would, I feel, be an unjust, hasty and unwarranted dismissal, for there's an abundance of both beauty and emotion in the performances, and in the songs they've chosen to perform: these really positive qualities should not be ignored, rather encouraged.
The first, and immediately noticeable, hallmark of Playing Rapunzel's music is the ladies' tremendous voices: supremely strong and confident, wonderfully clear in both diction and timbre, and tending to be technique-driven (Mich is classically-trained) with a greatly accomplished utilisation of harmonies and parts. The second indicative Playing Rapunzel feature is that - unusually for an act tagged as "folk" - their music is predominantly piano-accompanied, with only intermittent use of guitar (and then generally in a subservient role), topped out by occasional harp, cello, flute or recorder (all played expertly by Marilisa).
The songs themselves form an intriguing and diverse (and particularly well-chosen) selection, most of them rather little-known even within contemporary folk circles; and all of them are quality compositions. I particularly liked Mich's own Ingo (modestly placed at the end of the disc), as well as Mina's Song (by Zander Nyrond), and Dave Weingart's The River - none of which I'd heard before - and Playing Rapunzel's finely moulded take on the late Dave Carter's Tanglewood Tree. The duo also turns in inspired renditions of the lesser-known and truly lovely Steve Knightley song Seven Days and Stan Rogers' brilliantly poignant Lies. And I much appreciate the contrast provided by The Beat Of Drums, a kind of mystical invocation piece on which Mich and Marilisa are joined by the duo Divine Strumpet and percussionist Tim Walker to impart an altogether broader sound-palette. Towards the middle of the disc, two consecutive items are drawn from tradition: an unexpectedly successful, theatrical take on As I Roved Out (which is not always known by that title!), and a florid and idiomatic Sholem (which is derived from a Yiddish source).
All in all, I find this an endearing and enchanting disc (although I'm aware that others may at first listen deem it too cultured, even precious, for their tastes), and - to take the title imagery to its logical conclusion - it is surely one which is worth any novice diving backwards off the parapet to sample, for once tasted, its delights are decidedly invigorating. Go on - take the plunge!
David Kidman October 2009
Plumb - Beautiful Lumps of Coal (Curb)
Known to the neighbours as Tiffany Arbuckle Lee, Plumb's not an entirely new addition to the ranks of Morisette derivatives, arriving from the Christian rock circuit where she used to front a band of the same name. The follow up to their candycoatedwaterdrops this is her first solo album proper and, given the exposure, should secure her firmly on the ladder to adult pop-rock success among those whose listening collection encompasses the like of The Corrs, Alanis, Michelle Branch and, on the other side of the gender fence, Matchbox Twenty and Fountains of Wayne.
By which you'll gather she favours big rock guitar anthems with major chords and soaring choruses, a manifesto laid down from the opening Free and proceeding with growing persuasion through Sink n' Swim and the ebb and crash Boys Don't Cry.
She's got the writing chops too, with songs that variously address love pulling you through tough times, abuse (haunting piano ballad Nice, Naive and Beautiful), emotional neglect, and, on Taken (a tribute to one her husband's ex girlfriend who drowned in a swimming tragedy) and Unnoticed, those everyday inspirational folk, the lumps of coal, who change life simply by being there. Plumb could easily take a vertical hold on your CD player.
On the face of it, there can't be much to this record can there? For it's best described as an unapologetic - and uncompromising - exploration of a whole load of traditional Scottish and Irish session tunes, by just a solo mandolin, bare and exposed to the elements, with no melodic or harmonic props whatsoever, the only accompaniment being courtesy of a single percussionist. But when you learn that the percussionist is Luke's fellow-Shoogler James Mackintosh, you get a hint of the musical fireworks that can be generated by this sparky combination. And there's no way you can get bored with that ostensibly restricted palette during the full 51 minutes of this disc, such is the intense musical creativity on display.
Luke's avowed intention was to record "an album of live traditional music where the mandolin could be heard in its own right as a lead instrument", and sure nuff that's what you get, but with that extra dimension imparted by James's ultra-nifty syncopations which are like a solo in their own way but by listening closely each successive play reveals further delicious subtleties and nuances, cross-rhythms and fills that are both supremely inventive and naturally realised. At the same time, you'd maybe not realise the mandolin's capacity for expressiveness, but in this comparatively exposed setting it really comes into its own, and although the blinding virtuoso element of Luke's playing will always take my breath away there's also ample considered yet spontaneous musicality in his note-spinning, a quality that's at once boosted and emphasised by James's totally brill cross-currents of symbiotic syncopation. James rings the changes during each tune-set too, by employing various timbres ranging from snare and kit to bodhrán, clay pot and more ethnic instrumentation.
It's impossible to resist moving (or trying to coordinate!) several parts of the body during the disc's animatedly jazzier moments such as the Drunken Landlady set or the gleeful quartet of reels at track 9. And then, when James moves to one side and Luke performs entirely solo (on O'Carolan's Receipt and Battle Of The Somme), the air is momentarily stilled with the magic of the notes ringing true.
This is a proud disc, one that gives as much pleasure in the listening as no doubt it gave in the making. It certainly espouses the admirable notion of reappraising the tonal and expressive capabilities of the humble mandolin. And not only in notion but also in engineering terms (bravo, Calum Malcolm!) can this disc be regarded splendid.
David Kidman January 2010
Born in New Brunswick, raised in Alberta and steeped in the music of Simon & Garfunkel, Beach Boys and Dylan, throaty voiced Plume's been around a while making jangly rebel rousing guitar rock that tends to call to mind Jason & The Scorchers, REM and Tom Petty. He's not changed the blueprint here, kicking up the dust from the start with the chugging Birmingham, 3am and the cranked high One Of Those Days.
He does slow with Lock It Up, the bluesy Anna Fall and acoustic Dancing On The Wind, but it's the numbers that makes you want to buy a soft top and head out to find some 100 mile highway that really drive the album along, hammering the steering wheel and belting out the chorus along to Somewhere Under the Rainbow, Fall Down Day and the honky tonk line-dancing friendly If I Had My Way.
Mike Davies, February 2006
This is a puzzling disc on more than one count. Firstly, it's billed as an EP, yet its nine tracks last for a total of just over 33 minutes - so at least that means it qualifies for review on the NetRhythms pages! Secondly, its musical direction at times appears a mite confused, flirting with bluegrass, soul, pop and Americana along the way. And thirdly, as regards the name itself: Larkin Poe is a recent rebranding-cum-renaming for Rebecca and Megan Lovell, two of the three Lovell Sisters, whose name you've probably come across on a pair of well-received albums (2006's When Forever Rolls Around and 2009's Time To Grow) which followed Rebecca's landslide winning of the mandolin prize at 2006's Merlefest (at age 15!) and a hectic bout of touring, all the while being hailed as heirs to the Dixie Chicks. Now, following the third sister (Jessica)'s decision to take a break from music, and joined by three Knoxville-based musicians, Mike Seal, Daniel Kimbro and Chad Melton (on guitar, bass and drums respectively), Rebecca and Megan have become Larkin Poe (taking the name of their great-great-great grandfather).
The sisters' bluegrass heritage surfaces most prominently on the first track, Long Hard Fall, which chugs in nicely for an opener. After which, their music starts to drift away from its roots into a seemingly random exploration of other viable territories, some more successfully than others. We Intertwine takes us into the realm of Krauss-ian romance (a little over-wrought in the vocal stakes perhaps, but redeemed by some imaginative touches of scoring); the pacey Burglary then cooks and simmers nicely (if a little simplistically lyric-wise). There's a touch of contemporary bluegrass, albeit much filtered through a pop sensibility, on the genially appealing To Myself, which further features the well-coordinated vocal harmony work which has become a trademark of the Sisters. But Shadows Of Ourselves, although managing to sidestep pretentiousness and sentimentality in its quest for self-examination, really seems to call for a meatier musical setting. The Principle Of Silver Lining tries hard to be earthy and funky, and almost makes it in the credibility stakes through the tasty build of its five-minute span (and a fine guitar solo).
But as the album progresses I find myself losing both interest and patience with its mercurial nature, and almost half of the tracks just don't grab me overmuch, even on further plays. Ball And Chain marries a new-country sensibility with an increasingly catchy pop backing, although the result is a trifle anodyne, while Nothin' But Air ends up being virtually just that (albeit well-sung). The final number, Fairbanks, Alaska, despite its sporting an intriguing Dead-like riff intro, doesn't develop enough musically to live up to the promise of the story it seems to be trying to tell.
I'm not writing Larkin Poe off yet by any means, but I'm not quite convinced by where they're heading. It's just that I feel there's more that should be on offer and also more potential to be tapped for these sisters and their entourage. I hear they'll be releasing a seasonally-named sequel disc very soon, to coincide with a set of UK and Irish tour dates planned for the autumn - so I guess I'll need to reserve a more considered judgement till then.
David Kidman July 2010
Their sixth studio album ( No Shame was released under the name Sofia, for fans in the know) and the second since the departure of Trish Klein and the arrival of Awna Teixeira and multi-instrumentalist Benny Sidelinger alongside co-founder Allison Russell, with understated drummer Mikey August now apparently a confirmed member (even if he doesn't figure on the promo shots), it may be business as usual for their gospel, jazz and Appalachian folk urban roots masala but the ingredients have matured nicely.
Russell takes lead on the opening track, setting the prevalent mood with the horns coated, banjo rippled warm as molasses Kathy, a song dedicated to her mother and musical inspiration, before Teixeira takes up the baton with the jazzy Montana, Russell providing back-ups and clarinet. And so proceed the alternating songwriting credits and lead vocals (though it might be interesting to hear the girls since each other's material once), moving from the country blues of When We Are Love through the in memoriam Pink Shoes, the title track's New Orleansy soul shuffle with its dobro, accordion and horn section to the banjo and glockenspiel romping Kiss Me In The Dark and Awna's accordion-waltzing Fernanda for her grandmother.
There's not a weak track here, but I would have to single out three particular highlights. With the girls alternating the verses and set to August's slow march drum beat, Western Skies is a lovely evocation of dusty old school Americana, complete with high lonesome harmonica and Sidelinger's keening dobro. Featuring the 'hand clap party' and with all four of the band collaborating on the music, the playful Maudite Guerre is band setting of 16th century French lyrics with clarinet and accordion giving it a klezmer swing.
And, closing the set, there's the Russell-penned Benediction, a gently wistful stream of consciousness reflection on love as shadows of clouds, calm after the storm, rain after the drought.
The album was funded by pre-sales to fans. If the word gets around, next time they could possibly afford to make a box set.
Mike Davies November 2010
Not that roster rearrangements have changed things a great deal, the sound still very much the self-styled urban roots fusion of gospel, jazz and old time Appalachian folk while (on Things We Believe In, especially) Teixeira and Russell's voices entwine like spanish moss and cypress trees.
With glockenspiel providing a musical box backing, gospel influence and lullaby feel, Russell's title track sets the mood before new girl Awna makes her bow on the clarinet coloured bluegrass n jazz Dig Me A Hole, then slide guitar puts in an appearance for the swampy ennui of Bloom with squeezebox and fine de siecle carnival/cabaret moods swaying along for a Randy Newmanesque Gandy Dancer.
With personal lyrics that, on songs like the husky honeyed Isobel and the folk-pop Grace, rummage through such dark thematic undergrowth as childhood trauma, emotional despair and battered hearts, it's not built for wide grins but that doesn't mean the melodies necessarily have any less spring in their step.
Gasoline is a twangy front porch slopealong, No Shame shuffles with a slow gospel blues boogie, How The Poet Goes has the musical vibe of some Western cathouse entertainer giving the cowhands the tease while the barman tinkles the ivories, One Little City slips into a sly offbeat rhythmic lurch with a cajun accordion while clarinet, bass and brushed percussion croon another jazz lounge lullaby.
Topping off the self-penned tunes with a metronomic darkling trad folk cover of Julie Miller's All My Tears, this isn't just a rekindling but, arguably, their finest album yet.
Mike Davies May 2009
Since Po' Girl's sophomore album Vagabond Lullabies just over two years ago, there's been a further slight expansion in the lineup, in that the band's become a four-piece: the existing trio of Trish Klein, Allison Russell and Diona Davies now being joined, full-time it appears, by bassist Awna Teixera who also contributes vocals (and original compositions) to the mix. So far so clear. But the exact nature of that mix is, curiously, harder to pin down than on either of the band's two previous offerings; the freshness and rustic spirit are still very much in evidence, and there are many times when I feel their music is even more beguiling than before, but there's a marginally more elusive (even exclusive) quality now that probably stems from the increasingly lazy, laid-back nature of the band's characteristic down-homeness,. Don't get me wrong: I actually like this disc a lot, perhaps even more than I expected to, but parts of it might slightly faze those who got into albums one and two very easily. The gently funky opener (Skies Of Grey) brings a more soulful angle to the fragile Po' Girl mode we know and love, but the shift in emphasis dovetails really well with Trish's signature backporch tenderness. Her Angels Of Grace is especially wonderful, creating plenty of space within the lyric for delicious vocal harmonising and some juicy clarinet filling out the basic twelve-bar structure. The title track (which ain't the old Peter Rowan/Earth Opera number by the way), is an emotionally intense Wurlitzer-backed affair, and another disc highlight. The latter's one of the disc's handful of joint or team compositions (this one from Diona and Allison), all of which fit snugly with Awna's three writing contributions (which comprise two neat little road-movie vignettes and a shuffly, jazzy Go On And Pass Me By). Generally speaking the jazzier, bluesier vibe is a more pronounced element to the Po' Girl sound on this new album, and pretty much to the fore on songs like To The Angry Evangelist, which comes complete with wild, dash-to-the-finish klezmerish fiddle solo, and the brooding Green Apples, which has a lounge-jazz trumpet solo (Shaun Brodie) tucked in there amongst the guitars and keening fiddle – coincidentally these are Allison's compositions and feature her gritty, growly lead vocal. But I'm not sure about the slight excursion into funk territory on 9 Hrs To Go, which interpolates a rap by C.R. Avery (not entirely convincingly, I feel). Po' Girl have now moved on away from traditional sources altogether, and there's also only two covers here (these being Jeremy Lindsay's 'Til It's Gone and Penny Lang's Ain't Life Sweet), both of which suit the Po' Girl style and approach right enough; these facts almost incidentally justify both the quality of, and the girls' confidence in, their own developing songwriting. And by the way, the generous (and extra-energised) bonus track The Partisan (sung partly in French) makes a pretty fine add-on too and is fast turning into another highlight. Not such a difficult third album, then, and after a hesitant initial couple of plays its persuasive mix of old-time and urban grooves sounds better and more coherent with each successive spin.
David Kidman April 2007
Po' Girl - Vagabond Lullabies (Nettwerk/EMI)
Po' Girl - Po' Girl (Diesel Motor Records)
This is their debut full-length release (an EP, Head Of Steam, appeared last year). They're really well versed in country, rockabilly, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, Motown and soul, but their music stays in none of these niches for long enough to brand them as any one of those categories. That's so often a good thing, so I'll concentrate on that angle first. The four-piece lineup includes three really good vocalists: Polly Perry, Andrew Steen and Daniel Everett, although it's the lass with the double bass who takes a lioness's share of the limelight. And rightly so, for hers is a formidable vocal talent, directly enrapturing and with just enough of a degree of lived-in roughness to thoroughly convince. Yet the two fellas don't do so bad either, and they also provide some pretty nifty harmonies.
The album's ten tracks range over so much music that's both seriously vintage and seriously timeless: Follow My Feet is a perfect example of fractured 60s mod-beat, complete with fab gear changes, while To Be A Fighter strays deep into indie-country-rock territory, the crooning Charmed gives seductive bossanova a run for its money, and The Cup And The Lip brings the sassy rock-chick to the forefront. I Would Ask is like one of those smooth-but-torchy 40s movie duets, The Rounder is like a lost Steve Miller number, Don't Trouble Trouble carefree hipster-rock'n'roll, The City And The Sailor a credible excursion into melodic Rumours-style acoustic rock and Back To Earth a delicious and charming slice of rippling country-folk to finish off the set. The bewitching slow-burner Lead Me On is probably my pick of the set, with Polly's blues-shaded, here almost Billie Holiday-like delivery really hitting the spot against a perfectly twangy backdrop with soulful trumpet embellishment (from guest Will Sully) towards the end. As in every other track, every element within the arrangement is naturally conceived and feels just right in its place.
But now here's the slight rub: the band's consummate stylistic versatility might at times feel almost as much of a curse as a blessing, for much as I admire their seemingly effortless, chameleon-like ability to slip on another musical skin almost with each successive track, even a few plays down the line I'm not quite 100% won over. Perhaps I need to see them live (they've wowed the Glastonbury stage two years in succession)? Even so, I still find myself wanting to hear more of Polly & The Billets Doux.
David Kidman August 2009
The second release in almost as many months from Karine brings the other side of her coin, so to speak, and ostensibly casts a somewhat different spell from last December's excellent album of almost exclusively traditional song, Fairest Floo'er. All of the newest album's ten songs (bar the gorgeous opening anthem The Good Years, her setting of an Edwin Morgan lyric) are original compositions by Karine, which however are not without their traditional influences, certainly in the sense that traditional often equates with roots sensibility or a deep preoccupation with, or concern for, one's roots. Karine's writing has always displayed this concern, but tempered with hope and optimism; this new set reinforces those qualities, while embracing an even more incisive edge to her commentary on such songs as Better Things. Karine's recent induction into motherhood is reflected in at least two of the album's songs: the beautifully delicate Rivers Run was written for her son, for example. Firethief is a re-recording of the overwhelmingly poignant song Karine wrote for the BBC Radio Ballad dealing with HIV/AIDS, a song which powerfully develops a traditional ballad form to express a mother's loss and desolation. The standout closing track, a compelling, atmosphere-laden parable-in-song Tongue That Cannot Lie, inspired by the legend of Thomas The Rhymer, shows Karine's acute mastery of narrative. Musically, there's an indie-like toughness about much of this album, and Karine's not afraid to utilise fuller textures with a rhythm section on occasion, as on Sorry and Painted In White. The backing is courtesy of Karine's exceptional touring band - brother Steven (guitars, banjo), with Inge Thomson (accordion), Mattie Foulds (percussion) and Kevin McGuire (double bass) - and the typically lovely packaging includes lyrics and credits.
David Kidman February 2008
Karine's one of the most outstanding singers of the moment, no argument, and each successive year of her career sees her tackling new challenges head-on. 2007 was a year of personal productivity in more ways than one, for not only did she give birth to a baby boy but she also underwent a period of great contemplation which resulted in the recording of no fewer than two new albums! The first of these to be released marks her return to the arena where she first made her mark, that of traditional song (in which respect her stints with Malinky and Battlefield Band will long be remembered).
Fairest Floo'er is a stunning demonstration of Karine's natural ability to interpret the songs of the tradition, the sheer assurance of her storytelling and her warm, direct vocal presence. On the eight songs making up this disc, Karine employs refreshingly pared-down settings that superbly enhance the intimacy of the experience her singing and the songs convey and enable her to put across the power of the imagery of these songs. In the majority of instances, Karine uses just one accompanying instrument - and on the plaintive Dowie Dens O' Yarrow and The Learig, it's not even the expected guitar but instead a piano (played wonderfully by Kim Edgar). We can hear just how much Karine's rippling guitar style complements her voice on songs like Will Ye Go To Flanders?, while her brother Steven expertly accompanies Mirk Mirk Is This Midnight Hour on classical guitar. And the recording, made with partner Mattie Foulds for the most part in the spare room of her Borders home, is both elegant and full of essential presence, really giving the force of Karine's intense musical personality. Fabulous though the first six tracks are, though, it could be argued that it's on the final two songs of the set that Karine really excels. The tragic ballad The Death Of Queen Jane, which deals directly with the dangers of childbirth, evidently revealed new personal resonances for Karine, enabling her to give an unbelievably moving performance (accompanied for the most part by only the stark drone of the shruti box); then on The Wife Of Usher's Well Karine's able to so believably convey the plight of the mother tormented by the loss of her sons (for this song alone, Stephen plays banjo and Ebow in counterpoint to Karine's guitar, and to great effect). After this, there's a bonus track, Can't Weld A Body, a song which Karine wrote jointly with Jez Lowe for the recent BBC Radio Ballads series; OK so it's not traditional, but it fits in just fine here. And you'll find that in the end it was sorely needed, for even with it included the total playing-time for the whole CD is a criminally short 37 minutes: that's going to be my only criticism of this extraordinarily fine CD.
David Kidman December 2007
Karine's Scottish folk roots background has always informed her performing and songwriting, but Scribbled In Chalk, her second solo outing, relies even less obviously on the tradition and its idiom than her award-winning Faultlines album, itself a stunningly original and classy effort firmly in the contemporary mould. This new album sees Karine's songwriting skills developing even further, showcasing her innate ability to deal with often decidedly tricky subject matter without undue posturing or sentimentality. It turns out that "truth is a story scribbled in chalk"... and Karine certainly succeeds in her aim, "more than anything else...to move people or make them think" - most often both at once, indeed. Her quietly passionate personal politics are naturally, and almost incidentally incorporated into her attractive little creations. The dichotomy between soothing and unsettling is perfectly conveyed in the music of songs like Baleerie Baloo (which commemorates Scots missionary Jane Haining), whereas the far-northern landscape is tellingly evoked in the sublime Follow The Heron (revisited from the Malinky Three Ravens album of three or four years ago). The brooding, unsettling opener, Hole In The Heart, concords with the equally unnerving elliptical allegories of I've Seen It All. Here Karine's writing conveys at once a mature acceptance of (and tolerance of) the world's foibles and a desire to influence people's attitudes and make them more aware, compassionate and tolerant themselves; musically this is often expressed by a languidly wistful and hypnotic quality that proves somewhat deceptive.
Karine's musical sensibilities extend far beyond her native Scotland, encompassing the best of alt, indie, country-folk and thoughtful rock, all influences absorbed naturally into her own writing. The potently philosophical Where The Smoke Blows embodies a sharp and defiant garage-pop vibe that could have come off an Amy Rigby album, where the very next track Holy Moses continues the theme in an altogether more resigned and languorous setting. Daisy has an element of pervasive melodic tenderness that's very strongly reminiscent of the writing of Dar Williams, while the gently truckin' vibe of Maybe There's A Road proves a telling counterpoint to the subtly hard-hitting lyric (dealing with sex-trafficking) that gets increasingly desperate as the song progresses. Even some childish delight in concocting obvious rhymes (in the charming, laid-back and catchy I'm Gonna Do It All, also available as a single complete with a delightful extra non-album track and video clip) doesn't spoil the impact of her simple truths and desires in the slightest. Musical textures are quite rich at times, with strings by the Mr McFall's Chamber quartet on a number of songs bringing a luxurious touch to the already beguiling settings on which Karine and her band (Steven Polwart, Inge Thomson, Mattie Foulds and Kevin McGuire) are occasionally augmented by Corrina Hewat, Martin Green, David Milligan and Kerry Polwart; together they make a very appealing sound, boosted by a keen production. And I've barely mentioned that utterly beautiful singing voice that Karine's blessed with - but then you know that already, right? It's truly a unique and apposite vehicle for her songs, and it helps that Karine's also got a supreme confidence in expression and vocal technique. It may sound like early days as yet, but I feel sure that the masterly Scribbled In Chalk is destined to scoop plenty of awards and end up on many a discerning listener's list of best albums of 2006.
David Kidman, March 2006
Originally released in the Spring of 2004, the Scottish singer-songwriter's solo debut (she's previously worked with both Malinky and Battlefield Band) picked up a sheaf of glowing reviews but it wasn't until she found herself with five nominations in the BBC 2 Radio 2 Folk Awards that interest really perked up, prompting a timely reissue. Having gone home with three wins, Best Album, Best Newcomer and Best Song (for The Sun's Coming Over The Hill which was actually up against another track from the album, the jazzier Only One Way), the decision to repromote was clearly prescient.
It will also hopefully expand awareness into more a mainstream audience who will appreciate the way her Celtic roots shades into Americana colours on many of the tracks and the ringing folk rock perspectives of something like Four Strong Walls or electric charged murder ballad Azalea Flower. She's been variously likened to Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris and Eddi Reader, but you can also hear elements of Linda Thompson (on the bluesy banjo powered Resolution Road) and Jean Ritchie (Waterlily) in there too. Embracing all manner of rootsy musical textures, honed into perfection by producer Rab Noakes, it seems Polwart's also incapable of writing anything less than a breathtakingly evocative, cynical yet romantic lyric. On Harder To Walk These Days Than Run she notes how she was "always impressed with how Lassie could tell the good guys from bad guys just by their smell" while you'd be hard pressed to find an image of romantic desolation than that in The Sun's Comin Over The Hill where, grieving for a dead lover, the woman in the song says "I took to whisky so I could recall the taste of his mouth." Frankly you'd have to be Sylvia Plath or John Irving to better that. Faultlines is faultless.
Jean-Luc Ponty - Electric Connection/ King Kong (Gott Discs)
Jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty is credited with being one of the first musicians to introduce amplification to the instrument (after Stuff Smith, of course), largely in response to the increasing importation of electric guitars and synths into jazz in the late 60s, and he explored the hitherto uncharted sonic terrain of the violectra in tandem with the electric violin itself. Ponty's "killer" playing technique has been compared (by Smith) to that of Coltrane, though he's perhaps latterly become most famous through his stint with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and had in fact first come to my attention much earlier, through his meeting with Frank Zappa in 1968. He guested on just one track on Zappa's landmark album Hot Rats (the final cut, It Must Be A Camel), before going into the studio to record virtually a whole album of arrangements of Zappa compositions - this being the now-legendary King Kong, which constitutes the second of the two discs reissued here by the admirable Gott Discs label. King Kong inhabits a sound-world very similar to Hot Rats (though the title track originated from Uncle Meat), with Ponty's own distinctive and highly characterful brand of virtuoso electric violin playing well to the fore. For the most part, it's using those quirky Zappa tunes (together with one of Ponty's own) as a springboard for some fairly orthodox (but still exciting) jazz-rock improvisation, on which Ponty scores plenty of points and sparks well with the fine backing band (which in addition to his regular collaborator George Duke on electric piano, includes other familiar Zappa hangers-on - tenor-sax player Ian Underwood, percussionists Gene Estes and Arthur D. Tripp III - and also Buell Neidlinger on bass), The album's pièce-de-resistance, though, is the extraordinary 22-minute composition Music For Electric Violin And Low-Budget Orchestra, on which the experimentalism is elevated to another level entirely with hints of Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse (one of Zappa's major influences), Charles Ives and the serialist composers alongside passages of cartoon-like expressionistic fervour. Fascinating and intriguing, this piece is worth the cost of the discs in its own right. Backtracking now to Electric Connection, this is the vintage-1968 album made by Ponty before his meeting with Zappa; it finds him in more mainstream territory, flexing his exuberant muscles with a taut, bluesy vigour all his own on repertoire which embraces his own fledgling compositions in various modes alongside likeable renditions of pieces like Scarborough Fair and the melancholy ballad standard Forget. Settings are mostly in the breezy post-Basie big-band style, but the music doesn't date and this is a sturdy set that wears well in its context. This pair of discs is certainly worth resurrecting.
Life's not been kind to slightly mad duo Natasha Jones and Sharon Lewis. Initially signed to WEA, their 1993 debut album got short shrift from the label, leaving a four year gap and a brace of independent singles before returning via Island and pretty much a similar fate for the sophomore release. They resurfaced a couple of years back with hard to find French label mini-album Monday Mourning, but now seem to have finally found a home where they can get their feet under the table. They've certainly been busy. Available only direct from the band (PO Box 67 Wigan, Lancs WN2 4FL), Fools Give Birth To Angels sees them exploring string quintet and hand bells while this more conventionally distributed set is a collaboration with B'ham electronic artist Brian Duffy. A progression from their work with Orbital and Ultramarine, while it obviously comes wrapped up with scuffed beats, loops, and assorted bleeping, the melodies are potent and the duo's style remains centred on their cobwebbed wood-sprite folk derivations with its pagan New Age witchery vocal colours.
Given their experiences, it's no surprise to find the songs thickly veined with themes of disappointment, broken relationships, self-worth questioning, joy on hold and attempts to cling on to hope. Listen to Empty if you want to be brought down. But at the end of the day , it's a sense of determination that pulls through, as Jones sings on Joy "I might not be strong, I might be blind but I will seek and I will find." Seems a reasonable recommendation.
So, good news then that, with Sally Barker having rejoined fellow founding members Patsy Seddon and Mary Macmaster they've resurfaced sounding as fresh as a daisy, still featuring Eilidh Shaw (who replaced Kate Rusby who originally replaced Barker) on fiddle and vocals and with new recruit Mairearad Green on accordion and pipe drone.
As with their last release, the material's very much informed by Celtic roots, a meld of the traditional, self-penned, and covers, kicking off in bluesy form with Seddon taking the (Gaelic) lead on Ho Mhorag before segueing into fiddle and squeeze box instrumental, John Stephen Of Chance Inn.
Barker contributes two numbers; the guitar and harp accompanied immigrant's tale Canada (which gives way to the trad Oh Mo Dhuthaich), and the slow waltzing romantic Two Hearts. Shaw gets to spotlight her writing and fiddling talents with Col Sig of the 2-2-6, the coda to their cover of Martin Green's rousing instrumental The Planxty Lover. And while Tweed may have departed, she's left behind Ted Morris's Christmas Coal Chase, the cascading midsection sandwiched between Billy and Carmel's 25th Wedding Anniversary and Lovely In The End to make an impressively versatile near eight minute instrumental.
The album's equally balanced between instrumentals and songs, the former also jiggingly represented by The Hen's March while the latter are also particularly well served by An Paistin Fionn (Seddon again taking lead) and two superb, a capella showcases for their combined voices and harmonies; McCusker and Tams' seasonal flavoured anti-war lament Will I See Thee More and, emphasising just how much this is a living tradition, a sprightly folk gospel reading of Laura Veirs' Black Eyed Susan. Currently out on a short tour, hopefully next year will see a much more extensive live blitz.
Mike Davies October 2009
The Poozies - Changed Days, Same Roots (Greentrax)
Now signed to the celebrated Scottish label, the latest phase of the band's ongoing evolution finds founder members Karen Tweed, Patsy Seddon and Mary MacMaster now joined by Eilidh Shaw on fiddle and vocals, leaving behind their digressions into pop and contemporary folk to rediscover their Celtic roots. Consequently the mood here is very traditional, be the songs a Swedish waltz such as Lila, Polish ballad Rosa (Patsy taking lead with the others providing harmony against a simple electro-harp), the Gaelic sung Sunny, the hornpipe of Daniel's Potatoes or even a wonderful mist and heather hushed and slowed version of Wouldn't It Be Loverly that seamlessly incorporates Tweed's own instrumental Midnight Mead. The only track to stray slightly from the trad path is their hauntingly effective rework and rearrangement of Colum Sands' Throw The Ball, a bitter, poignant song about the child victims of Belfast's strife for which they'd actually provided the backing vocals when Roy Bailey recorded it in 1997. It's a potent illustration of how, while they may have returned to their roots, they've still got one foot firmly planted in the here and now of folk.
In the places where accordion/harp-based music is talked of, the word is going around..."There's a Poozies retrospective CD..." And smiles are smiled.
Heard of them, but never heard them? Like trad-ish folk, pure female voices in harmony, the twang of the harp married to the honk of the accordion? Then find some cash, because 'Raise Your Head' won't disappoint. It's a perfect introduction to the band, being a selection from their first three CDs (and an EP). And there's some belters here, believe me. Give track one, 'The Widow', 45 seconds of your attention and you'll find yourself wanting to hear the rest of it. 45 seconds? That's where the harmonies flow in, to ornament Kate Rusby and the harps. OK, hear the rest of the song. Now turn the stereo off and go about some household task, vacuum the cat, whatever. Give it ten minutes. What tune are you humming? 'The Widow'. Try to get it out of your mind. It's not going to happen. Oh, and when you play it again, take a look at the lyrics in the cover booklet. You weren't wrong, they're rude. Ohhh, a group of female folkies who sing rude songs... I normally wake up at this point...
There are so many treasures on this CD. 'We Built Fires', wonderful harmonies and words so relevant today when people fear "That fire one day will blow this world apart". Doowop vocals greet the intro to 'The Mountaineer's Set', four tunes that will have you dancing as you wonder how fast fingers can move across harp strings without combustion. The yearning, accusing vocals on 'Honesty'... the accappela 'Another Train'... the joyful lust of 'The Company Of Women'... there simply isn't a duff track. Just pure beauty.
'Raise Your Head' won't rock your world, it will grace it.
Mark McCulloch (just off to buy everything The Poozies have recorded, ever).
He returns to the blues with a bang and a screaming guitar. The sentiment may not be too pretty on I'll Piss On Your Grave but it does reinforce his no messing style. I hope that it is a sound effect at the end!! Man Of The Blues is an average chugging blues and Money Isn't Everything is 80s style rock. The latter is pleasant enough, with seamless guitar, and I'm warming to the big guy. 2nd Avenue Shuffle is a guitar based instrumental and highlights his good range but overall is not too inspired. You Never Loved Me is a standard rock 'toon' but certainly in the higher strata of that genre. Woman In My Bed is pseudo reggae but it is his high standard of playing that shines through, no matter what style he is playing. Oh Rock N Roll You Heartless Bitch is an acoustic finish in a Meat Loaf country rock style. There are two bonus video tracks at the end that allow you to savour the full Popa Chubby experience. I'll leave you with words from the man – "All I can tell you is you need rock and roll in your soul and I am the man in control. Are you ready to rock?".
David Blue January 2008
W.C. Handy nominee for Best New Artist for 2003, Ana Popovic releases the follow up to 1999s Hush. This is a collection of blues, rock, soul and jazz played to a high standard and delivered with gusto.
The songs are split 50/50 between covers and her own compositions and it's hard to say which are better. The album opens with out and out rock in the guise of Don't Bear Down On Me (I'm Here To Steal The Show) complete with power chords and big solo. It then moves into slide guitar for Love Me Again on which her vocals come into their own - look out Bonnie Raitt.
The funky title track has Ana using her wah-wah and cry baby pedals to good effect and Change My Mind is R&B with good vocals and laid-back guitar. The Howlin' Wolf classic Sittin' On Top Of The World is given the Popovic treatment next and she turns it into a slide-fest with her loping guitar.
It takes a brave person to take on a Steely Dan song but that is just exactly what she has done on Night By Night. Not the most famous Becker and Fagen song but as I am a big Dan fan then I am very familiar with it. Ana turns in a very funky and creditable performance. The instrumental Navajo Moon is a much slower song but still has the slick guitar work.
The Delbert McClinton song Need All The Help I Can Get introduces the harmonica for a blues/R&B classic. Ana's voice is getting better and better as the album trips along. My favourite track is Fool Proof, which is a good old-fashioned blues/rock with full on, chugging guitars. Crank up the volume on this one.
Jacoy be a strange one to finish with but it leaves you chilled out with its Norah Jones hush-hush vocal and understated guitar. Ana Popovic is a rising star of world blues and Ruf Records have another gem in their stable so catch on early and enjoy.
John Power, for those who don't recognise the name, was the bass player and public face of The Las's and frontman of Cast whose album, All Change, was the biggest and fastest selling debut album in the history of Polydor Records. However, that was 13 years ago, don't you feel old, and he has now put out an album that he considers to be "the most comfortable, wind-in-my-sails recordings I've done...it's folk music, grassroots music".
He opens with Ain't No Woman, which has a rasping tone to the vocal and he certainly gets some venom into it. It is unmistakably Liverpudlian and follows on well from his La's days. Calling You Back has a homemade and bluesy feel and allows him so much freedom. American Dream has slide guitar, which re-visits the blues feel and it is lyrically strong and rustic. The title track is played in a jug band style and still has that thread of blues running through it. Distant Eyes is a different style - a more traditional folk tune this time. It is understated and brilliant - he has certainly hit a new, rich vein of form. Good Life is back to basics again - short and snappy. Fire In My Heart has him flirting with folk music again and this is a dirge in the truest sense of the word. Tombstone lifts the beat, despite the title and Cockerel Crow has a strange up and down timing. Come In The Morning has a little brass backing - a cross between colliery bands and New Orleans. It still has that easy, homemade comfortable feel and has a mixture of styles including a little yodel. Power may have just found himself another little cult niche.
David Blue March 2008
New York City bluesman Michael Murchison has been making music since the 70s, notably with the band Moonbeam, but he sure took his time releasing a solo debut (under the alias of Michael Powers). 2004's Onyx Root really excited the blues press and Radio 2's Paul Jones, and received award nominations the following year. Though influenced in particular by both Jimmy Reed and Jimi Hendrix, Michael's very much his own man, with a soulful and powerful gospel-delta take on the electric blues that encompasses an eclecticism that's perhaps unexpected from someone with as much hard-graft musical experience. Within Prodigal Son's 13 tracks, Michael presents a whole clutch of impressive original compositions, ranging stylistically from the ultra-riff-heavy Goin' Down and Wild Side to the gritty funk of White Lightning and the straightahead authentic slapped-bass rollin'-rockabilly of Lay The Hooch, whereas the fantastic title track alone is almost worth the price of admission (among other things, oh so compellingly invoking the true spirit of Hendrix without the histrionics), as are the cuts where Michael switches his electric axe for an acoustic model (he sneaks in a gentler, lovingly phrased instrumental, Compassion, towards the end of the disc). As for the covers, well Michael turns in an unsettling, menacing rendition of the Hendrix classic Voodoo Chile and a persuasive, directly expressive take on Dylan's Every Grain Of Sand, and reworks Sonny Boy Williamson's It's A Bloody Life into something really special. Arthur Lee's Signed, DC also gains a fresh lick of paint in this epic, atmosphere-laden reading from Michael, while for contrast there's the jovial washboard-scrubbin' good-time of You Got To Go Down. Finally, the album storms out with Michael's version of the standard Train Kept A-Rollin' (which 'mos' everyone got from the Yardbirds, remember? - and Michael pays his dues to Beck and Page too here). And by the way, what a fine team Michael's got himself for a backing crew - Cliff Schmitt and either Steve Shelley or James Wormworth for rhythm section, with other folks bringing occasional dobro, keyboard or whatever to the mix. Yep, this album is sensational, solid gold, one of the finest and most exciting electric-based blues albums I've heard in a long time. Little wonder Billboard said: "Michael represents the future of the blues"!...
David Kidman March 2007
Formed in the winter of 2002 to feature the songs of Evan Purcell and Michael Shinn, The Prairie Dogs are a largely acoustic aggregation, shunning electric guitars to let vocals shine. That said there are electrics on Brand New Heart largely offering tasteful melodic lead embroidery and the featured vocal harmonies are far more natural than orchestrated. Think Jayhawks not Thorns.
At the (brand new) heart of the album are the songs. Purcell and Shinn write separately and assuming that they sing their own songs, the latter has a more rootsy feel balancing Shinn's more mainstream tendency. Both, however, are skilled melody men which, as you might deduce at this point, means neither is a particularly insightful lyricist. And yet that just don't matter as the album simply feels fine. The Prairie Dogs are never going to rewrite musical history, not for them the call to the hall of fame, but they will create more than a few good moments whilst they pass amongst us. And if that sounds like feint praise, it's not really. This is the sort of CD that'll turn the local ring road into the freeway for a while; think America without the CSN hang up ... and Muskrat Love!
Graham and Eileen have been widely-respected mainstays of the folk scene since the early 70s. Their fundamental performance style hasn't changed a great deal - and nor does it need to, for it has always combined the thoroughly desirable qualities of taste and simplicity of presentation within a timeless framework and setting; and that applies whether they're performing traditional song or (occasionally) contemporary material influenced by the tradition. Theirs is a scholarly but not dull method, which achieves artistic consistency through its gentle power and welcome restraint; and neither is it lacking in expression. It's a model approach in that they research and communicate their chosen texts with respect and true understanding. As Eileen points out in her liner note, this latest CD has in effect been seven years in the making, for the duo have been busy establishing the successful Sheffield Folk Chorale among other things... so therefore it's the product of several different recording sessions - despite which it manages to maintain a classy unity all its own. Much of the material will be familiar - although not necessarily in the particular variants sourced by Graham and Eileen. Thematically, the set (which takes its title from the Dónal Og ballad) tends to major on melancholy matters ("loss, longing or impossible quests"), but the overall effect is honestly stimulating rather than depressing. Both Graham and Eileen turn in excellent vocal performances, with Eileen's crystal-clear tones and keen sense of poise perfectly complementing Graham's solid timbre and authoritative phrasing. Especially fine, as ever, is their harmony work, and with this in mind the disc also includes five examples from the short-lived reunion, a few years back, of Regal Slip, which additionally feature the exceptional voices of Sue Burgess and Ron Taylor and for me provide some of the disc's highlights. But taking the disc as a whole, of its 15 tracks I particularly like the pairing of a Machaut setting with a contemporary reworking of the courtly love theme, Graham's intriguing use of the Tallis Canon as tune for Sir Patrick Spens and his rippling ballad-style setting of the political broadside Poor Man Pays For All, the earthy estampie-like setting of Flash Lad and the madrigal-like arrangement of Dame Durden. And Bold Grenadier makes good capital of Paul Dickinson's guest fiddle contribution. Vocally speaking, my only reservation is regarding what I feel is an occasional over-use of vibrato by Eileen (especially on the first couple of songs).
Where the CD may arguably divide opinions more is in the nature of the instrumental accompaniments to some of the songs. I'd never quibble with Graham's trademark highly proficient nylon-strung guitar work (beautifully managed as ever), or his expert concertina playing, but there are times when I feel his keyboard backing is slightly too effusive (though thankfully he avoids the cheesier tones of the 80s synth). Where Graham's keyboard inventiveness pays best dividends, I believe, is on the spectral ethereality of Lover's Ghost (a touch of Pink Floyd there too perhaps amongst the orientalism?). Still, it's good to be able to welcome Graham and Eileen back to the recording fold, and no listener should be disappointed with this attractive collection of their abundantly thoughtful and sensitive treatments of traditional songs.
David Kidman May 2008
The Prayer Boat - Polichinelle (Atlantic)
Originally released on Setanta two years back, the Wicklow outfit now find themselves back on a major label for the first time since their RCA debut over a decade ago before becoming bogged down with legal disputes. For the re-issue their sophomore album loses one track, Slow Down, from the original version, but otherwise everything's present and correct, namely singer-songwriter Emmett Tinley soaringly melancholic soulful tenor and the sublime, elegiac introspective romantic songs that conjure the starry skies and morning mists of a leafy Celtic autumn. It Hurts To Lose You is an impossible aching song of break-up, balanced beautifully by the closing make-up of In My Arms Again while Paralysed and Soon The Stars Will Steer Me pull of the same trick with a lament of emotional stasis set against a hymn of hope. Imagine Simply Red before bombast, self-indulgence and ego took control, add a touch of Brian Kennedy and you're pretty much on the right road. The album title is from the French for 'an open secret', the band deserve to be much more than that.
A well seasoned country singer-songwriter from British Columbia, the album blurb suggests a feel and sound akin to the late Lee Hazlewood, Actually, with that warm, throaty vocal and easy rolling delivery he sounds much more like the UK's own Raymond Froggatt. This is actually a good thing. Having stirred legendary producer Andrew Loog Oldham out of semi-retirement, Porteous caused something of a stir when Bob Harris played his cover of the Beatles chestnut Please Please Me. Not the familiar Merseybeat classic, but restored to the original slowed down Orbison-styled ballad that Oldham remembered before George Martin had them lift the tempo.
It's not the only cover on the album, with Porteous lending his relaxed dusty croon to a laid back border cantina versions of Hungry Heart, Spanish Harlem and Sammy Cahn's smooch dancing Teach Me Tonight. I Will Follow, on the other hand, isn't the U2 number but one of several Porteous originals that, in tandem with storysong Ancient Highway, the wistfully tender Beggar's Harbour, and the emotional aching double act of Harper's Ferry and the title track, show he doesn't have to rely on the writings of others to pack his albums with strong material.
Mike Davies, Sept 2007
At the very start, back in those uncertain 90s, the music of this Bristol-based trio quite puzzled me, as much for the unexpected impact it (and their landmark album Dummy in particular) made on me as for its intrinsically enigmatic nature. It's now all of ten years since Portishead's last release (Roseland NYC Live), and while not wishing to over-closely deliberate on that lengthy hiatus it provided yet another dimension to my puzzlement. No matter now, for their return to the recording studio is very strong indeed - in one respect, just as if the clock has merely been wound forward ten years at a stroke and they've never been away, and yet over the course of that blip in the fabric of time there does seem to have been a kind of crystallisation of the majesty of their method, for this new album is somehow leaner in construction while at the same time retaining the weirdly epic scale of its predecessors (these features seem to provide an intentional parallel here with the identically-titled Soft Machine double-album of 1970 - but then again this may be a double-bluff!). Still insisting on being a thoroughly contemporary musical and artistic statement, retaining all the shock of the new, Portishead's Third is similarly adventurous and challenging, and in the end similarly absorbing - and unarguably in places more so. But at the start it takes a little longer to get into, in spite of the often relentless immediacy of its manufactured soundscapes and the questioning familiarity of their organic nature. As always with Portishead, the ostensibly glacial, sometimes well detached tone is deceptive, for (especially in Beth's intimate, yearning vocalising) it contains subtle layers of emotion that the cold impersonal electronica so easily belie. It's a record whose air of continuous ominous tension works in its favour, although on first spin some elements can seem quite disconcerting - that over-abrupt ending to the motoring first track (Silence), the equally abrupt shifts in texture and enhancement of key elements in the mix during the first handful of tracks. If you think that makes you uncomfortable though, get ready for the album's central section! Even on initial playthrough, the battering percussion footsteps and stomps of We Carry On fairly pummel you into submission, so that you're numbed into accepting without question the intense coup-de-théâtre of the strange central miniature Deep Water (a sepia print of a bygone age placed momentarily on the table before you, just a forlorn ukulele backing Beth's cracked, pained vocal) before being thrust rudely into the harsh electro-chant spotlight of Machine Gun with its discordant firing-squad harmonies from beyond the grave: a territory inhabited by the ensuing track, Small, a seriously spectral threnody that builds into an eerie crescendo before the battering-ram percussion returns to hammer our emotions home. That central sequence is as extraordinary as anything Portishead have ever done, and its cumulative effect here is tremendously powerful, believe me. Not that the remainder of the record is of any lower voltage in the satisfaction stakes... Yes, Portishead are back, in excellent fettle, and Third is a triumphant return to centre-stage that even after many plays refuses to be pushed away into the background.
David Kidman May 2008
At present Emily's name is rightly in the ascendant, for reasons that even a cursory listen to this magnificently beguiling and glamorously scary CD should make abundantly clear. In fact I'm tempted to start this review off provocatively by dubbing Emily "queen of spookyfolk" (a new genre coined by fRoots mag for the Unthanks on its latest cover)!… But no need, for this young folk songstress has already notched up a brilliant CV, from the ranks of the adventurous harmony outfit The Devil's Interval through to appearances at the Folk Roots, New Routes concerts and warm endorsements from Shirley Collins, and nowadays she's an equal partner in the trio Rubus.
Here Emily presents on her determinedly personal debut solo record a dozen songs (all but one her own original compositions) which inhabit a genuinely unique landscape, one of spine-chilling magic and strange, often rarefied beauty. She describes the album as "a collection of new songs with old bones: old stories with new skin, drawn from folktales, ballads, dreams and real life"; these are invariably relayed from a female perspective, and couched in tellingly literate imagery while often also incorporating structural elements that hark back to the traditional ballads which formed Emily's wellspring of creative inspiration. The glamoury, Emily says, is "an enchantment that may reveal beauty where before there was none; (for) those with the glamoury eye see beyond this world"; and yes, there is something distinctly supernatural at work here, a presence which is probably evoked as much by Emily's own eerie vocal delivery (at the same time almost defiantly childlike and knowingly prescient) as by the actual content of her darkly mysterious ballad-like creations which display deep and often enigmatic resonances of both the ancient and the contemporary.
Even though she utilises only a comparatively small number of accompanying instruments, and then only in sparse scorings, Emily manages to conjure an excitingly rich and yet piquant and cleanly delineated filigree texture to furnish the mystical cloak of sound in which she envelops her songs. Variously, that involves Lucy Farrell's voice and viola ("on loan" from the Unthanks tour!), "Shee-ite" Rachel Newton's harp and voice, cellos from Gabriel Waite and Bellowhead's Rachael McShane and fiddle from Hinny Pawsey, in addition to Emily's Rubus-mates Christi Andropolis (viola) and David Newey (guitar). Both in terms of music and words, Emily's songs and their settings are both harshly sensuous and intensely tactile in character, while she has an imaginative yet wholly instinctive approach to matters of phrasing, texture and structure whereby any apparent melodic non-sequiturs, structural irregularities or perceived inconsistencies are quickly seen to be keen responses to the storytelling (for there are no easy answers or tidy resolutions here). You need to keep your wits about you, and on occasion you may also find yourself significantly distracted by the sheer poetry of Emily's textual adventures... but each individual song is in actuality exquisitely formed and carefully, lovingly textured.
Many of the songs embrace the theme of metamorphosis: Bones And Feathers is a fable of skeletons turned into birds, set to an urgent, nervy guitar rhythm that's taken up and embellished by a dark splintery viola pizzicato which then picks up the bow and swoops up to the skies in layered vocalisation, whereas Tongue-Tied, a woman's incantation to free her bewitched bird-formed brothers, naturally transforms itself into a mesmerising vocal round. The sinister fairytale of Stick Stock, a busy and disturbingly insistent nursery-rhyme playground chant sung by a girl who's been transformed into a dove and baked into pies (don't ask!), is followed by Little Longing, a gloomy anti-lullaby for an unborn child made of sawdust and sackcloth that Emily remembered from a particularly vivid dream. In a kind of street-life companion-piece to Bones And Feathers, Sirens are heard to wail disturbingly in clashing harmonies from parallel universes, as they are transformed when "broken glass turns to glittering diamonds", while the acappella Three Gold Hairs is an ostensibly simple tale of rebirth given a disquietingly cryptic, tonally shapeshifting musical progression. Then, of course, transformation (here, recycling of body parts! figures large in the ballad of Two Sisters (of which Emily turns in a stark yet supremely flexible version with Rachel's rippling bardic harp for accompaniment). And earlier, two consecutive songs (Fine Silica and Grey Stone) are connected to the Selkie legend, inhabiting and evoking the creatures' airy yet claustrophobic underwater environment. Magic forms an integral part of every song here, but perhaps the weirdest alchemy of all is of a musical nature, where, on Pretty Skin, Emily gives voice to a witch's dream in a kind of distorted Portishead-electronica arrangement by Finn McNicholas.
This is a truly extraordinary disc, which at the moment (and after innumerable plays too) still has the most seriously neck-prickling quotient of any I've heard since The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. It's not comfortable listening, being uncompromisingly demanding and searching, challenging and stimulating. But it's also totally engrossing and beguiling, and try as I might, I really can't dislodge its dark delights from my mind - nor do I ever envisage my wishing to.
David Kidman February 2010
Robert Post - Robert Post (Mercury)
Norway's answer to James Blunt , Post's a singer-songwriter with a knack for penning swoonsome, dreamy and airy pop that makes you want to skip down the street with a silly grin on your face. His self-titled debut album positively overflows with sweet upbeat radio friendly hook laden songs that also call to mind the Manics (There's One Thing surely borrows from A Design For Life), Ray Davies (Got None), and, On Silence Makes Him Sick, perhaps inevitably, The Beatles.
Armed with the likes of the lilting Big Boat, broken hearter High Tide, the simple acoustic sad song Everything Is Fine, Come Away's Buckleyesque vocal swoops and the sheer jubilant rocky pop that is Newborn, it's difficult to see what's going to stop him dominating the charts in the months to come. Still, you might wonder if he's really singing "I've got mammaries after all these years.".
French-Canadian guitarist/singer/songwriter Potvin is making a bit of a name for herself in blues circles and the fact that she has attracted Grammy Award winner Colin Linden as producer for her new album speaks volumes. She opens with A Love That's Simple, a horn-laden R&B with strong vocals. Potvin fits in well with guest vocalist, John Hiatt, and this is an easy song to listen to; a great start. I Want To (Do Everything For You) is a slow, rolling blues that allows Roxanne to show her not inconsiderable guitar skills, ably backed by Colin Linden on Dobro. There's a contemporary Country feel to the plaintive Hurting Child and she goes back to a classic Country/R&B/Rock n Roll fusion. This is bouncy and Roxanne certainly attacks the vocal. The gentle and magical La Merveille is sung in French and she is backed by the wonderful Daniel Lanois.
While I Wait For You is contemporary Jazz/Blues and expertly executed. The guitar work remains understated and Colin Linden's production is classy. Your Love Keeps Working On Me is gentle R&B and although she does show her class on guitar, the song is pretty standard stuff. She remains in the R&B field for Say It before delivering a heart wrenching piano ballad on Don't Pay Attention. Sweet Thoughts Of You is barrelhouse flecked Country with some nice Dobro thrown in. Let It Feel The Way It Feels is another piano ballad but with slide guitar added this time. This could be the type of song that could make her a serious contender to the like of Bonnie Raitt. Roxanne closes off with Break Away, a high tempo version of Del Shannon's oft covered song. However, I can't see why she chose to include this given that she is such a good songwriter herself. This is possibly the weakest track on the album and an unfortunate way to end what is, in fact, a very good collection of songs.
David Blue April 2007
Brendan Power - Tradish (Tethnik Records)
Well you might at first think the title of this CD's a bit misleading, as the vast majority of the selections that harmonica player Brendan essays here are not traditional in origin – but think again, for they're original compositions in one sort-of-traditional idiom or other. And don't you dare think that a whole album of tunes led by the cheery, fruity tones of the humble mouth-organ is boring or samey – it ain't! Not only does Brendan vary the individual instrumental texture of his chosen instrument by switching between the "standard" diatonic (blues) harmonica and the more sophisticated chromatic harmonica, but he also cleverly varies the style and arrangement for virtually every one of the 15 tracks. He calls on an array of guest musicians just dropping in to do their bit, rather like in a session. The difference is that each "session" is less of a spur-of-the-moment workout captured live than a creative arrangement worked out and captured between gigs while on tour, taking advantage of a local studio and whoever happened to be in the area at the time. Considering that the recordings for this album were collected gradually over a period of eight years, Tradish manages to achieve an astonishing degree of artistic unity, even if there are one or two moments when there's a suspicion that style seems to triumph over content. But Brendan's characterful and playfully moulded phrasing is a constant delight, whether on fast or slow music (the sprightly opener The Dingle Angle contrasts with the delicately fragrant 20 Out Of 10, the earthy Real Blues Reel with the atmospheric Lorraine's Dream and the brooding closing Lament For The 21st Century). Brendan's own freshness and verve are in turn complemented by comparable qualities in the musicianship of his guests, who include master guitarists Chris Newman, Ian Carr, Gary Verberne and Stephen Cooney, as well as the ace mandolin skills of Andy Irvine (surprisingly, not on the Balkan-tinged Sweet Bulgarity but on the richly textured M1 Reel), the tenor-banjo of Gerry O'Connor and the uilleann pipes and flute of Declan Masterson. Brendan even lays aside his harmonica in favour of mandolin and mandola on Tom's Tune (one of two excellent duets with Chris Newman). Not only is he technically proficient, but his empathy with his chosen instruments (employing his own custom tunings for them) makes him a leading exponent in the field, and he once again creates a unique listening experience out of his highly personal understanding and synthesis of diverse musical styles. Greg Sheehan's percussive support is absolutely perfect too, and gives Brendan's own playing just the right degree of rhythmic lift and support. Brendan's not just a high-profile session muso, no sir! Here, his assurance and expertise go hand in hand with his musicality, and never once did I tire of the sound of the harmonica during the album's 62 minutes – quite an achievement that!
For her new album Chan Marshall decided to return to Memphis where she recorded What Would The Community Think? a decade earlier. She recruited Al Green's guitarist and co-writer Mabon Hodges and his Hi Rhythm brother and bandmate Leroy, legendary Memphis bassist Dave Smith and MG's drummer Steve Potts and together they set about interpreting her songs of love, desire and betrayal.
The result's a lazy, smokily soulful affair full of closing time shuffling beats, woozy horns, warm r&b grooves and, as on Empty Shell, the occasional ripple of creek dippin'country. Although the slowly relentless rhythm of Love and Communication closes the album amid a gathering wash of guitars, even with the choppy sexy funk of Living Proof and its hip swaying organ and horns the album never works overtime at creating a hot sweat, preferring to let it smoulder naturally around Marshall's fragile torch voice. There's a couple of misfires, notably the strings and piano laden attempt at Nina Simone and Billie H that is Where Is My Love, but as Could We ably demonstrates, this cat has definitely got the cream.
Mike Davies, February 2006
Prelude - ah, the well-loved folk/pop-harmony trio from the north-east (who comprised Ian Vardy with Irene and Brian Hume). Irene and Brian are still carrying the torch (and the name) despite the departure of Ian over 20 years ago, with the more recent recruitment of bassist Chris Ringer, but none of the original members should object to the 46 tracks on this two-disc anthology being given a renewed airing, for certainly there's nothing for them to be ashamed of! What we get here is the entire contents of the trio's three Dawn albums, plus the later Pye album and three non-album single sides: all told, an assured and classy sequence of songs, mostly joint compositions of Ian and Brian, generally in the tried-and-trusted folk-pop vein of the accessible American harmony-based soft-rock of the early-70s that stemmed from Simon & Garfunkel and the Mamas and the Papas (in this respect they differed from most of their folkie contemporaries). Their records embraced high production values, with accomplished instrumental work and sympathetic (non-cheesy) string arrangements. And of course they contained plenty of fine multi-vocal harmonies, as you'll remember from that hit title track (untypical in that it's one of only a handful of covers on the entire set!), which they'd started off singing almost by symbiosis at a bus stop in Stocksfield, apparently! As you'll hear from the rest of the set, Prelude (formerly known as Trilogy, by the way!) should not be dismissed as one-hit wonders, for the quality of their recordings - and songwriting - is high, albeit less inspired on albums 3 and 4, when they were courted for the mainstream in the mid-70s. The trio's first album, How Long Is Forever is a particularly satisfying and varied set, where the track entitled God, contrary to cringing expectations, is a gentle but powerful CSN-like meditation with some strikingly characterful guitar work. Sure, Prelude didn't quite achieve the same level of invention afterwards, despite the added presence of renowned sessioners, but they still made a respectable body of recordings that stand the test of time.
David Kidman November 2006
This new release sounds for all the world like a cash-in of the worst kind, but in truth it's not bad at all, and certainly worth a spin, especially if taken in the right (Christmas) spirit. True Elvis fans will note straightaway that the title reeks of artifice, for Elvis never actually duetted with any other artist on record: but what we have here is a series of ten tracks on which, through the miracles of modern studio technology, the voice of Elvis (taken from original recordings dating from 1957 and 1971) is indeed heard to duet (in the sense of trading lines rather than building true harmonies) with the voice of another singer. These latter-day duet partners, all female, are almost all drawn loosely from the field of country music (in its most mainstream sense), and almost without exception they acquit themselves very well indeed. Contemporary (2008) backing tracks have been added, employing some of Nashville's finest sessioners as well as the Jordanaires for a touch of extra authenticity. The most successful items are the bluesier ones: the swinging, smooching White Christmas (with Amy Grant), the laid-back opener Blue Christmas (with Martina McBride), the almost-rock'n'roll stride of Santa Claus Is Back In Town (with Wynonna Judd). Having said that, the raunchier eight-minute 12-bar workout on Merry Christmas Baby, with Gretchen Wilson's attentive mirroring of Elvis's vocal lines, seems a touch self-consciously done although musically it's built to cook. And Carrie Underwood's contribution to I'll Be Home For Christmas is a little piercing and strident for its company. But to the producers' credit, source material notwithstanding, the vast majority of the duets are less cloyingly sentimental than you might expect. It's all been done sympathetically and in a way that no Elvis fan could really have any grounds for objection. Finally, the ten duet tracks are rounded off with three bonus tracks, which are remastered and freshly-augmented versions of more of Elvis's 1971 recordings of seasonal favourites. Not exactly indispensable, then, but it could all have been lots worse.
David Kidman December 2008
Lou Pride hails from The Windy City and his voice can, quite literally, blow you away at times. His latest album for Severn Records highlights one of the best soul/blues voices around at the moment. He opens with Midnight Call which is funky R&B with horns aplenty. Lou's dusky voice sets the standard for the album and for others who may wish to follow. I don't know what Bob Marley would make of Lou's cover of Waiting In Vain and, voice apart, it's not a winner. It is, however, the only cover on the album. I Can't Hold Back is a return to the funky R&B of the opener and this is his forte. He shows a good vocal range and there's really a groove on this one. Lou ups the pace, musically, for I'm Com'un Home In The Morn'un (a remake of his 1972 Northern Soul hit) but he remains steadfastly laid back. This has a certain Robert Cray style to the lyric. Love Will Make It Alright is lightweight soul but the sentiments are laudable and the backing vocals and the horns are the highlights. I Want To Hold Your Hand is slow and soulful and Another Broken Heart is more funky R&B that shows off Lou's timeless voice.
Real Deal is one of the highlights along with Midnight Call. My only criticism is that it could have been played slightly faster. We get the blues at last on the strong and powerful Sunrise before drifting off into slow R&B on Without Your Love. However, this can only be described as standard fare. There's some more of Lou's funky R&B on I Wanna Be The Man You Want but there's nothing too much here to get excited about. He gets back on form with Layin' Eggs, a strong blues-based soul song. He maintains this strong finish to the album with Hold On To Your Dream and the constants are there, the dusky voice and the horns. This is certainly not the worst album that I've heard this year.
David Blue, June 2006
Spike Priggen - The Very Thing That You Treasure (Laughing Outlaw Records)
A frequent musical companion of Mark Mulcahy and member of more obscure bands than you can shake a stick at, the New York singer-songwriter finally gets round to making a solo album, one which not surprisingly assimilates the various musical changes he's been through over ten years of writing songs. Thus Every Broken Heart and Outtasight are the sort of jangling power pop balladry he grew up on listening to Dwight Twilley and Big Star, Alright is a tight grungey garage prowl through the muddier spectrum of Neil Young, She Used To Be My Baby is splintered heart chamber pop, What Yer Missing is spiralling Buzzcocks punk, and I'm In Love is cod Everlys meets Jonathan Richman and So Good To See You trips out of the back door with baroque psychedelia.
Being utterly honest, there's a few tracks here that friends should have taken him to one side and had a word about including, and that whiny voice can get a bit wearing after a while, but his bittersweet, self-lacerating love songs and that high combed quiff do have sufficient of a certain something to keep you with it until the end and back again.
If you remember the tail-end of the 60s, and John Peel's iconic Dandelion label, you'll doubtless remember (and with a degree of affection, with broadmindedness perhaps tempered with bewilderment) the label's first signing - the ambitious and challenging multi-media experimental folk-rock twelve-piece outfit Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, who epitomised both the intensive creativity and the excesses of the alternative/hippie culture. Although their point of galactic origin was Exeter University rather than Canterbury, they shared a certain whimsical eccentricity with the scene of the latter locality, a coincidence which became if anything more pronounced after the initial unwieldy lineup had disbanded in 1971, from out of the ashes of which a re-formed half-size (six-piece) band was to prove more manageable (albeit not anything like as inventive, having also dropped the Magic Theatre part of their name - although they retained a certain amount of theatricality in their live act). The Devon Tapes post-date the six-piece's Deram LP release Round One by around a year; they comprise a set of nine rehearsal songs, works in progress to some extent, which were pretty-basic-recorded (on two-track tape) in the latter part of 1974 by a reconstituted band that heavily featured new keyboardist Peter White (and out of the original PEMT lineup only Root Cartwright and Belinda Bourquin remained). Perhaps this was why some songs (eg Helix) sounded closer to ELP, and others (Saccharin Lady) more akin to Caravan, but the still fairly uncompromising theatrical vision of the whole PE as a unit (in a way, mirroring some of the contemporaneous Genesis/Peter Gabriel showiness) can be heard shining through these sometimes primitively rough arrangements, especially in the songs written by newly-recruited guitarist Nick Pallett. These songs clearly had considerable potential, and one can only speculate as to the glory of the finished article that remained unrealised (in the end due basically to it all being mildly out of step with then-prevailing musical trends I'd guess). These tapes have never before been released, and credit is due to Richard Jones, the band's then-bassist (currently a member of Meridian and the Climax Ceilidh Band), who has skilfully re-engineered them for our delectation. The exhumation has proved most worthwhile, and not in the slightest bit embarrassing.
David Kidman January 2010
The music of John Prine's always been special to Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, ever since his parents chose a Prine album for one of their very first two CD-to-replace-vinyl purchases. Prine's unique vocal quality, that makes you believe in everything he sings, was a clincher in securing Justin's affections, it appears, and it may be that even then the seed for a tribute album could've subconsciously been sown in his mind. As Justin says, "sometimes a tribute becomes less a salute than a mismatched group of shoot-outs", and I don't believe you could accuse this release of that failing (it even comes out on Prine's own label, and tho' we're not told whether it meets with his approval or not we must assume it tacitly does).
Justin couldn't have come up with much of a better assemblage of names to convey the essence of Prine, and by and large they succeed, even if in the final analysis they don't always make the songs their own in a way that the best of tribute renditions might. Josh Ritter's stripped-back Mexican Home comes close, while Justin Townes Earle makes a fine fist of the plaintive Far From Me (an archetypal Prine song if ever there was one) and Nickel Creek's Sara and Sean Watkins are certainly brave to tackle The Late John Garfield Blues (and pretty credibly they do too, in an intimate stripped-down arrangement); but Old Crow Medicine Show sound a touch unconvinced by the beauteous Angel From Montgomery (it's a bit straight-laced), and Deer Tick feel mismatched for the emotion of Unwed Fathers, and I feel one or two of the other artistes seem to be paying too much conscious respect to be able to immerse themselves sufficiently fully in the songs, or at least with quite the measure of humility that Justin plainly believes the songs should be offered to the public (you need to read his liner note).
It's a fine balance to need to strike, and treading too carefully is not really the answer to the lazy conundrum of Prine's art. Not even on the good-time romp Spanish Pipedream (here performed with reasonable barroom gusto by the Avett Brothers), or the playful Let's Talk Dirty In Hawaiian (which Those Darlins seem to treat with too much abandon, bordering on unthinking send-up). Having said that, the actual choice of songs is a fine one (a third of them come from Souvenirs, so it's evidently been made by a true Prine aficionado), altho' the 12-bar thrash of Daddy's Little Pumpkin is a touch routine - and there are no outright failures or blatant misjudgements within the dozen tracks. So while not all of the set will stand out there in the front rank of tribute albums, it's still a keeper for the collection.
David Kidman December 2010
John Prine - In Spite Of Ourselves (Oh Boy Records)
John Prine's commitment to traditional music and good songwriting has earned him the highest respect from fellow artists. So, when the call for assistance went out from a rather poorly Prine, a long queue of talent formed at his door. Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, Melba Montgomery, etc. etc.
The result is In Spite Of Ourselves which has John dueting with the above mentioned female talent. His husky voice being a perfect counterpoint to the sweet female vocalists who showed up for this one. Here, Iris Dement contributes to four tracks including the saucier of the tunes in 'Let's invite them over' and 'In spite of ourselves'. The latter being the only John Prine song on the record and the title track of the record. This sets the tone for an album about love requited, unrequited, stolen, unspoken, rejected, etc. Well, you get the gist.
Up to microphone steps Dolores Keane to deliver fine vocals on 'It's a cheating situation', the classic from Claude Putman/Sonny Throckmorton, as well as 'In a town this size' from the current darling of Nashville, Kieran Kane, the latter popping up to add some mandolin to the track. Dolores goes Country? You better believe it! But, then, anyone who knows their stuff will realise that Country has its roots in the Folk music taken over to the U.S., particularly, by the Irish.
Other favourites at our house are 'We must have been out of our minds' where the writer, Melba Montgomery, turns out to add her vocal which itself is a testament to her respect for Mr. Prine. Her other contribution, 'Milwaukee, here I come' also has its appeal! The sentimental touch of Fiona Prine, John's wife, dueting on 'Til a tear becomes a rose' is hard to resist for anyone with less than a stone cold heart. Finally, the closing 'Dear John (I sent your saddle home)' leaves the artist in high spirits and me hoping that he keeps seated on that saddle for some time to come.
One glance at the title of this fine new offering from Maddy and her Band, and your mind will doubtless swing into seasonal mode. But this is no Christmas cash-in, and even the literal "carol" and "hymn" content is both minimal and a long way from the mainstream and its regurgitated sentimental Victoriana. No – for instead this CD presents an enterprisingly wide-ranging anthology of settings of both sacred and secular texts by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which does a grand job in dispelling some of the preconceptions about the music of this curiously undervalued composer.
RVW was truly a man of the people, who believed that folksongs were miniature masterpieces every bit as significant as the great symphonic utterances and – much like Maddy and her band – he had a talent for accessibly combining the lofty with the grass-roots traditional and in the process creating a universal musical experience that combines a sense of adventure with respect for tradition. So you can forget the oft-peddled image of the benevolent cow looking over a gate in dreamy pastoral, for Vaughan Williams was something of a musical chameleon (as study of his extraordinary canon of symphonies will reveal), capable of embracing many musical and spiritual characteristics – from the mystical (Tallis Fantasia) to the simple folksong (Dives And Lazarus), the bucolic (Tudor Portraits) to the savage discords of the 6th Symphony.
The majority of these elements crop up in Maddy's excellent selection, which includes a number of pieces that are virtually unknown even to the Vaughan Williams aficionado (the obscure little M.E. Fuller setting The Willow Whistle, just one eight-line stanza but real perfection, where Maddy's accompanied by "pipe" – one solo recorder – is a real gem). Although Vaughan Williams was an agnostic, that doesn't exclude him from being able to express deeply devotional feeling in his music; the hymn Come Down O Love Divine (the tune of Down Ampney) is possibly the most well-loved item on the disc, and it receives a beauteous rendition from Maddy and her string consort, unsanctimonious and unsentimental (and in this performance how full of the Joy Of Living I thought…).
Although RVW wrote four original carols for the Oxford Book Of Carols in 1926, as well as the much earlier Fantasia On Christmas Carols (1912), none of this material appears on Maddy's menu. Instead, her disc opens with The Golden Carol, an anonymous 15th century Christmas Story narrative that's given an estampie-style treatment and a fulsome instrumental arrangement by the massed ranks of the Carnival Band that suits the provenance of the original text right down to the ground. The next three pieces also have a connection with the Nativity: William Morris's Snow In The Street is done as a multi-vocal number with a quasi-medieval (recorders, viol and percussion) treatment that chimes well with Vaughan Williams' modal setting, while Blake's Cradle Song and especially The Blessed Son Of God benefit from a string-rich chamber-setting (the latter, set for divided choral forces in RVW's Christmas Cantata Hodie, really gains from the Carnival Band's inspired stripped-down scoring). The second lullaby on the disc, Wither's Rocking Hymn, is no less persuasively done here with Maddy's small-scale forces. The 16th century Drinking Song (Back And Side Go Bare) – which RVW set for chorus in his Falstaffian opera Sir John In Love (and later extracted for the cantata In Windsor Forest) forms a jolly carousing interlude (although one male singer's awkward lapse into "character" falsetto at one point doesn't have the comic effect it obviously intended).
The florid Whither Must I Wander? (from the R.L. Stevenson song-cycle Songs Of Travel) is most captivatingly scored and managed, after which the disc then moves into purer folksong territory with Linden Lea. Here I was initially a touch unsure about Maddy's tentative delivery (preferring Maggie Boyle's brand of delicacy here) – and her omission of the possessive "s" (oak trees') is unfortunate (and should have been re-taken); however, I feel Maddy's interpretation comes into its own in the determined mood-change of the final verse.
The following tracks are highlights: for The Divine Image, one of the Ten Blake Songs, Maddy adheres to its original in mode and spirit by singing it unaccompanied - a triumph - and Bunyan's Woodcutter's Song (from The Pilgrim's Progress) receives an appropriately simple, honest rendition with Giles's viola taking on the role of the lark ascending.
The final section of the CD takes up a series of pieces from Vaughan Williams' English Hymnal and Songs Of Praise collections, pick of which (after Down Ampney) is the poised drama of Fierce Raged The Tempest, given a suitably pictorial, lashingly storm-tossed instrumental backdrop. The minor-key At The Name Of Jesus is a formidable, stirring creation, more like an ominous Strawhead military march than the gung-ho tune we know from childhood. The next pair of pieces are strange but beautiful; the doleful Into The Woods My Master Went, which sports some magnificent harmony singing from Maddy and the lads and a rich, imaginative backing, is balanced by the tender prayer The Night Is Come. The disc then closes on a restful and comforting note with the gentle anthem God Be With You Till We Meet Again.
This is a wonderful CD, one that's given as striking a musical unity by the high artistic quality of Maddy and the Band's interpretations of Vaughan Williams' music as by their expression of the humanitarian vision of the man himself. Form and feeling combine in these readings, with every musician playing his part in the sympathetic tapestry interwoven around Maddy's voice. There are isolated instances where the trademark bell-like clarity of that voice in one part of her register and on certain vowel-sounds in particular has a tendency to a kind of harshness, now and again lending a slightly sour tone to the expression, but these moments don't detract from the genuine understanding Maddy brings to these pieces.
The whole disc is a consummate achievement of the kind you'd imagine Vaughan Williams himself would have greatly admired, being intelligently conceived and executed entirely in the spirit of the composer, while communicating his very essence.
David Kidman December 2010
Somewhat confusingly, this disc arrived for review well before the advertised new release from Maddy's current label Park. It's actually a compilation from the (mainly classical) label Regis, which within close on an hour of playing-time gathers together material of a significantly earlier vintage (rather unhelpfully, no information is supplied in the packaging beyond the fact that the tracks have been remastered).
The menu comprises eight carols performed by Maddy and her crew, and sandwiched between those two sets of four carols we're treated to four linked themed sequences made up of carols and sundry other seasonal pieces (Advent, The Nativity, Celebration and Winter) performed by the Sneak's Noyse ensemble. On closer examination (and with some fortuitous knowledge of Maddy's back-catalogue) it would appear that the Maddy tracks are taken from the 1987 Saydisc release A Tapestry Of Carols, and sport the early Carnival Band lineup (Bill Badley, Andrew Davis, Charles Fullbrook and Andrew Watts); they present typically refreshing treatments of carols from different European traditions that have become familiar Victorian carols, all played suitably enthusiastically and entirely free of mawkish sentiment. And of course Maddy's crystalline pure voice rings out like the clearest of Yuletide bells… Particularly invigorating is the delicious jingling jazzy clarinet-and-fiddle-led romp of Angels From The Realms Of Glory, but each of the eight carols is a delight and an antidote to the usual dreary over-reverent mainstream presentations of this music (after all, it is a celebration, and should sound like it!).
The tracks from the elusive group Sneak's Noyse would appear to have been culled from their 1999 Saydisc release Christmas Now Is Drawing Near, and take the approach of the Carnival Band into a slightly more academic realm while retaining their intrinsic lustiness of performance. Excellent, energetic musicianship from the folkier end of the early music purveyors' spectrum. Repertoire is adventurous, well researched and well worth taking on board, intermingling carols with folkloric pieces from the English tradition, seasonal songs and some Playford.
Some information on personnel and instrumental complement would have been useful, not to mention admission of recording dates and sources (the fact that the disc comes at a bargain price is not sufficient excuse for these omissions). Nevertheless, a useful and desirable disc - assuming that the original releases are now no longer available.
David Kidman December 2010
Considering that Maddy's widely regarded as one of the voices of English folk music, it may come as a surprise to discover that her latest release, Seven For Old England, is actually her first traditional acoustic folk album (as such) in many a long year.
In a sense it harks back to the spirit of discovery in her groundbreaking early brace of albums with Tim Hart (the first of which, Folk Songs Of Old England Volume 1, was released all of 40 years ago), for now here the heavy mantle of monolithic Steeleye folk-rock is shed in favour of glittering light-textured acoustic arrangements which are (at least in part) also informed by Maddy's many and varied extra-Steeleye musical collaborations. Sounding wonderfully fresh-minted in both conception and execution, these settings largely partner Maddy's typically excellent singing with the guitar or bouzouki (and, in one instance, banjo) of Benji Kirkpatrick, whose energetic and all-embracing performing style has stamped his musical personality on the proceedings to such an extent that at times it seems almost as much a signature element as Maddy's voice (this impression is reinforced by the upfront balance he's accorded and the exceedingly crisp recording). This latter observation should not, however, be taken to imply any criticism either of Benji's contributions or of the actual song settings, the latter having been lovingly worked out by Maddy and Benji in collaboration with Carnival Band cohort Giles Lewin, who plays violin, viola, oud, harmonium, flute and recorder on this disc to always scintillating effect.
Also appearing at various points are John Kirkpatrick (button accordion, anglo concertina), Tony Poole (12-string guitar), Barney Morse-Brown (cello) and John Banks (medieval harp). The sixteen songs Maddy's chosen include some very well-known ones which sound particularly fine in their new clothing, but these latest settings are handsomely enterprising. Highlights come from both extremes of the emotional scale: the broodingly lyrical The Cuckoo, the simple, sparse I Heard The Banns (a masterly evocation of regret) and John Dowland's supremely melancholy (yet also quite feisty) Come Again all make for good contrast with the determined, wilful The Collier Lad, the rumbustious Trooper's Nag and, probably best of all in terms of Maddy's vocal prowess, Came Ye From Newcastle, where she manages to negotiate the tricky contours of the Playford dance tune with incredible, enviable ease. Maddy also turns in an unusually exhilarating treatment of Bold General Wolfe, a more expectedly sprightly Staines Morris and a refreshingly unadorned Trimdon Grange.
You might say the disc's true "cuckoo in the nest" is Magpie, a song which Maddy herself wrote in the late 60s but had, apparently, stayed clear of performing until now (and this, the final "official" track, is followed - after an infuriating, interminable 16 minutes of silence - by a rendition of Drink To Me Only). Maybe, just maybe I sense a slight forcing of Maddy's tone on parts of Jock Of Hazeldean, but that's an almost insignificant point when set against the unqualified triumph of the project as a whole. Yes, Maddy still weaves her own inimitable, uplifting magic on this timeless material.
I like the title of this latest offering from Maddy and her merry band, and I like the concept behind it – to ring the changes from the time-honoured treatments of seasonal material that we find recycled endlessly each year (yawn!). We can always rely on Maddy, with the Carnival Band in consort, to come up with fresh and interesting angles on celebrating Christmas, and on this latest CD she rings the changes even on that, because she eschews the usual approach of adapting the music of earlier centuries in favour of almost entirely original, contemporary material – and self-penned (ie by Carnival Band members) at that. This is a brave move, and one which pays considerable dividends, at any rate for most of the 11 (out of 14) tracks that fit this category. The remaining three are settings (or highly creative adaptations!) of early texts: for the medieval final track, Latin text is ingeniously set to a Latin chachacha rhythm (and even manages to work in a dash of Tea For Two!), while Bring Us In Good Ale is not the familiar Hart & Prior setting (from Summer Solstice) but a lusty new one by the CB's bassist Jub Davis. Ring The Bell, Watchman! is a delightful piece of Victoriana (which Maddy got from the singing of Walter Pardon) that leaves behind all the usual nautical associations. The aforementioned original songs mainly enjoy more contemporary musical backdrops than perhaps we're used to in the Carnival Band's olde-worlde soundscape. The album's highlights tend to be the more reflective pieces majoring on contemplation and wonder, notably Giles Lewin's contributions (the sombre but peaceful The Quiet Way Home and the thought-provoking Lachrimae Amoris especially), while Maddy's own timelessly optimistic The Changing Face Of Christmas and the stately prog-folk setting for the brief but telling Carol also hit the mark. The band's guitar/mandolin player Steno Vitale contributes an attractive folk-rock canter The Undefeated Sun (Steeleye would make a good job of this one too!), and the Middle Eastern touches on songs like The Gift and Blue Pearl are nicely integrated. Even the reggae rhythms of the opener Wake Up! don't strike an altogether false note, and the album's obligatory "humorous number" (Stuff, which comes complete with guest contribution from Terry Jones) doesn't wear quite as thin as it might, simply because its mild excesses aren't over-cooked. Congrats to Maddy and her band on ringing the changes so successfully; I rather like the thought of being able to return more often to this CD over the festive season when I urgently need an antidote to the usual predictable musical fare.
David Kidman December 2007
Maddy & The Girls - Under The Covers (Park)
If you're going to do a cover version then you really should try and make it your own and bring something new to the table rather than simply offer a carbon copy of the original. This collection of interpretations by Prior, Abbie Lathe and Claudia Gibson is a perfect example of how to get it right.
Treated mostly a capella with three part harmonies, it features an eclectic set of choices, few of which would be easily recognisable from their original guise. Take the opening Ka Ching, a fabulous rework of the Shania Twain irritant, transformed into an unaccompanied choral folk number that suddenly turns into a gypsy violin mazurka, or Godley & Creme's Under Your Thumb which comes with vocal beat box backing, voices counterpointing and complementing with guitar snarling away in the chorus. Then again how about the mediaeval cum Moorish take on PJ Harvey's whirling dervish Sheela Na Gig, a Christmassy carolling choir feel to Sinead O'Connor's A Perfect Indian, the tropical lilts to Sting's normally ponderous Love Is the Seventh Wave and Mark Knopfler's Postcards From Paraguay, or the intricate a capella vocal weave they bring to Chrissie Hynde's satirical Complex Person. And Keane should get down on their knees and give thanks for the trio's glorious sanctifying of their Bend & Break.
Elsewhere they turn their hand to songs by Sam Brown (Fear Of Life), Lucinda Williams (I Lost It) and The Levellers (One Way) while things are kept in the fold with Rick Kemp's rather fine Great Divide, Prior's own Slow Dance and Lathe's Get Out.
And that's not the end of it. Not only do you get the covers disc but there's also a second, Pensive, which arose as a project to explore the trio's harmonic approach and sees the voices complemented by strings, woodwinds and piano.
Strictly speaking, while Gibson provides the jazzy-blues piano ballad Melody Moon and Prior's Turning point sets words to music by Thomas Tallis, I suppose it's a covers set too. Meditative and reflective as the title implies, it embraces songs by Prior's daughter Rose Kemp (the mediaeval cum gospel Sword with its veiled political theme), John Blanchard (Finnish Song sung in, well Finnish), Tim Dalling (an elegaic setting of Louise MacNeice's Meeting point, the original to be found on Dalling's own Blossom) and a lovely, piano accompanied reading of Kristina Olsen's Truth Of A Woman.
Maddy Prior - Ballads & Candles (Park Records)
This is a live recording of the 1999 Christmas show featuring Maddy and various members of Steeleye, The Carnival Band, Maddy's band, June Tabor and Maddy's daughter Rose. The sound quality throughout is never less than exceptional as we are taken through a virtual history of the singer's career.
Track one is a solo unaccompanied version of 'The Blacksmith' - very moody - followed by the Andy Irvine arranged 'Blood and Gold' - a duet with June Tabor. Quite superb! This leads into the Dan Ar Brass tune 'Mohacs', featuring the full band, as does the next track 'The Boar's Head'. Great harmony singing and the band give it a real thump. Next a sweet sounding carol 'A Virgin Most Pure' features some lovely violin playing. 'All in the Morning' is a solo tour de force from June Tabor - simply beautiful. Exquisite harmonies next on 'Sing, Sing all Earth' - got me singing along as well, which is followed by that well known trad song 'The Doffing Mistress' - Maddy and June are clearly having a fun time by now. The mood is changed by the next song - 'Betsy Bell' a stark tale of the Plague - again beautifully performed by Maddy. 'Hind Horn' is a Child ballad, and is given a splendid run through by the full band. 'Singing the Travels' is another cracker from the Silly Sisters catalogue. The simply wonderful 'Long Shadows' is next up - what a fine song. That old Steeleye favourite 'The King' gets a good workover, and is followed by a song that was written about Maddy's daughter 'Rose'. Lovely. 'Mother and Child' features some brilliant fretless bass from Rick Kemp, and 'Alex' is another touching and powerful song.
Next a lighter moment as June and Maddy have a bit of a giggle with 'My Husband's Got No Courage in Him', but then a very dark 'Blackleg Miner' - chilling. Finally a real good old romp with 'The Padstow May Song' - brilliant!
This is a superb album, well worth adding to anyone's collection.
The promo blurb flags up the engineer, the guy who mixed it and even the studio at which it was recorded. If those are the strongest promotional hooks (and the fact there's a Lucy Wainwright Roche cover), then you have to be a bit concerned.
However, I'm immediately drawn in by the twangy Ghost Riders style guitar opening bars of Hard Times and Pronsky's dusty vibrato as she sings about what could apply to both an economic or a relationship collapse. Day Of The Dead, again with rich twang and echoey drums, those lived in nasally vocals and a melody that recalls Neil Young's Hurricane, hits the spot. The Roche cover, Mercury News, is a catchy country chugger and I really like both the closing number, Good Life, an ambling under the stars slow dancer with a lyric that consists of just two lines, and Fragile World, with its jazz flavoured guitar and slight samba rhythm as she reflects on the trail of silent sadness left behind by two lovers.
Hailing from Brooklyn, her voice is jazz trained and her pop noir country has been praised for its literate wry lyrics. However, while I've not real criticisms of her often lovely lilting airy melodies or her singing, other stand outs would include Anything But Good and the Stevie Nicks-like Special, I have to say I find the reliance on some rather predictable and insistent rhyming couplets tends to detract from the pleasures. She's much better when she employs narrative rather than rhyme, but that shouldn't stop you from getting her in your sights.
Mike Davies March 2011
Originally released back in 2007 (either 500 or 1000 copies depending which report you read) only available at gigs, this rapidly became Prophet's most collectible album. Finally receiving an official release (albeit as limited edition digipack), you may not get the hand printed sleeve but at least you don't now have to pay a small fortune to hear his recreation of Waylon Jennings' 1975 classic Dreaming My Dreams.
Recorded as a bet to prove he knew the words to all of the songs, it's a track by track cover, though one that's decidedly more Chuck than Waylon. Indeed, you might to immediately recognise opening number Are You Sure Hank Dine It This Way which, like many of the versions, is slowed down and extended, transformed from a rowdy three minute country swagger into a seven minute slow marching rhythm with a blistering guitar solo midway.
Likewise, a weary country blues take on I Recall A Gyspy Woman makes the sleepy Don Williams hit seem like Motorhead by comparison while, by contrast, High Time (You Quit Your Low Down Ways) becomes a snarling electric garage blues (with a rather unnecessary ad lib ending) and Waymore Blues is no longer a twangy chug but a Creedence like slide guitar swamp moan boogie.
Not all of it works. With its sound effects, scratchy beats, samples, and distorted vocals that consist almost solely of the repetitive delivery of the title line like some hellfire preacher rant, the psych-out The Door Is Always Open is a spectacular misfire, an acoustic bar-room ballad Let's Turn Back The Years could do without the annoying background buzz and overdubbing applause over a Tex-Mexed Bob Wills Is Still The King to echo the original's live recording was assuredly not a good idea.
However, to compensate, a fairly faithful interpretation of Dreaming My Dreams With You, a Johnny Cash-like rework of She's Looking Good and a steel weeping George and Tammy duet with Stephanie Finch taking the lead actually improves on the original version of Let's All Help The Cowboys (Sing The Blues).
Mike Davies April 2010
Opening with the Stones flavoured bluesy swagger of Sonny Liston's Blues, it then swiftly rings the changes with the fiddle backed country blues of What Can A Mother Do, a song about those who fall through the cracks that includes the brilliant line "she was unwanted in seventeen states." Then it's back to boogie for the lyrically uneasy Where The Hell Is Henry? and more Stones influence for the Southern choogling title track as, seeing visions of darkness, he sings about how "the hawk cripples the dove".
American Man ("torn like a page from the book of the damned") harks to the guitar pop of Petty and Barely Exist visits Lou Reed territory as Prophet talk-sings through another snapshot of "the border towns of death" and the living shades that haunt them, but it's not all steeped in darkness. The wry Love Won't Keep Us Apart and a live for the moment soulful Leave The Window Open, both find buckled beams of hope to cling to, imbued, like the title, with the sense that the clouds of oppression will fade and the sun shine again on a battered but unbowed people.
Mike Davies August 2009
Chuck Prophet @ The Borderline London, 20th May 2002
Another great gig at the Borderline, London. Chuck Prophet with an exceedingly hot and tight band played and drawled through a set of full-on steamy intensity to a sell-out audience to promote his new album No Other Love (New West) due for release on June 18th. The man smoulders and swaggers through songs that hot-rock, blues-groove and burn dirty little holes in your brain. Even his brooding laidback numbers slide down your spine and touch places you didn't know you had. No doubt about it No Other Love is a twisted love. Powerful stuff! And the album is his best yet. Buy, play and repeat often for full effect.
The story goes that Oysterband's Alan Prosser was rehearsing with harmonica virtuoso Brendan Power and percussionist Lucy Randall, ostensibly for the (Leicester) opening gig of 2006's Big Session 2 Festival, and they were so pleased with an impromptu recording of the rehearsal that they decided to issue it on disc. And it's an amazingly coherent 41 minutes' worth of music, one with which any established band would be very proud - so it might come as a surprise that the three hadn't previously worked together as a unit. The standard of music-making is high, fiery and committed, as is the quality of Alan's songwriting and singing (which you don't exactly get to hear such a lot of in the Oysterband context). All eleven of the songs are Alan's own compositions, but the only one that is likely to be familiar is Walkin' Down The Road With You, which appeared last year on the Oysters' mighty Meet You There – and it works just fine in this stripped-down acoustic guise. It's probably inevitable that the Nomads performances should contain plenty of bluesy inflections, given the presence of Brendan's magisterial harmonica, but these suit the songs exceeding well (check out Maybelle and How Come I Feel So Good especially). Another highlight is the sinister rap-cum-rant of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, while the more pensive, romantic side of Alan's writing comes with Something Has Got To Change (and I liked the slight eastern touches in the guitar and harmonica work here too). This "spinoff" has much to commend it and a distinctive identity all its own.
David Kidman December 2007
When popular (as opposed to pop) music lifts its eyes and raises its expectations, generally one of two things happens. It either becomes pretentious and pompous or, like Public Symphony, it gets it just right and provides a magic carpet ride. Instead of ego and bombast there is passion and heart.
Public Symphony, consisting of Dobs Vye and James Reyonlds, is another of what is becoming an increasing phenomenon, a band who first found fame online, quite ironic when you think how far back the music reaches for inspiration.
Listening to Public Symphony is rather like watching the sea, as each track builds and then crashes on to the shore, it is inexorably and swiftly, followed by another equally as beautiful but completely different. These relentless 'waves' of melody-soaked ballads eventually become mesmerising and hypnotic, you'll find yourself held in each song's gaze, like helpless prey to a snake.
With its dreamy music and intelligently intense lyrics, Public Symphony will find itself compared to Coldplay and on the eveience of Wings, Stronger and Breakthrough, that comparison is valid, the songs subtlely ebb and flow between crescendo and delicacy.
But tellingly at the fork in the road where Messrs Martin and Co chose world domination, it appears that Vye and Reynolds have chosen the harder path of discovering just where their collective talents will take them.
Michael Mee, May 2006
Cuban music is not my forte so it was with much trepidation that I started to listen to twins Alexis and Adonis Puentes. I needn't have worried, as what transpired was an album of foot-tapping, dance-inspiring holiday sunshine music.
Morumba Cubana is their debut CD but they have a rich musical background. Alexis was a child prodigy on the clave (a Cuban rhythm instrument) and played with his father's band on national television at the age of four. Both Alexis and Adonis studied guitar from the age of six with their father, Valentin Puentes, who is a noted guitarist in his own right. Ibrahim Ferrer was a frequent visitor to their house and the boys got to jam with him.
A number of names from the Cuban music scene were recruited for this album including Javier Zalba (Buena Vista Social Club) and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez (Santana, Bonnie Raitt) among others.
The more upbeat tracks such as Love Crazy and El Loco Bailarin with their trumpet breaks and the latter's strange jazz part are the better offerings although the slow ballads do not disgrace the brothers. They are obviously very accomplished musicians and I'm sure that this excellent introduction to Cuban/Latin music will not be their last recording.
David Kidman December 2007
In the beginning there was Nickel Creek, among whose ranks dwelled the indecently talented and abundantly imaginative creative musician, mandolinist Chris Thile. Upon leaving the band mid-decade, he was involved in various solo projects including the recording of a rather interesting solo album How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, then he gathered together a quintet of like-minded musicians which got named The Punch Brothers. This band's debut album Punch made a rather slowburn impression when it appeared in 2008, and its followup appeared in the racks just a few months ago with no fanfare whatsoever – apt enough for a record that works its way to the forefront of your consciousness quite undemonstratively.
Any band that includes stellar talents like Chris, fiddler Gabe Witcher and guitarist Chris Eldridge among its ranks is sure to be worth investigating anyway, and their cohorts (banjoist Noam Pikelny and bassist Paul Kowert) prove excellent bedfellows on this intoxicating and mildly disturbing brew of music that - much like the album title - is a bracing and invigorating beverage (generally thought to be rum or whiskey, antifogmatic was originally designed to stave off or cure the effects of fog and other inclement weather, we're told in the press handout).
Unlike the Punch Brothers' debut album, which centred round an ambitious four-movement composition of Chris's, Antifogmatic's ten pieces are all group collaborations, yet they're songs with quite complex structures and unusual (peculiar) harmonic, rhythmic and melodic ideas. The instrumental complement may appear to be only a minor variation on the standard bluegrass ensemble, but the musical climate is decidedly experimental, occasionally decidedly thorny in terms of structure as well as content. Beyond even newgrass, the Punch Brothers are verging closest to art-rock, towing elements of contemporary classical, blues, swing, jazz, even pop and rock alongside bluegrass, and all despite the sparsity of the textures that comes as a surprise for the latter genre. It may come across as a touch too esoteric, with its scattergun eclecticism only too apparent, and yet notwithstanding the intense virtuosity of the musicians involved, there's nothing overtly showy about the way it's utilised here.
Their dedication to their art is omnipresent but unobtrusively measured. Perhaps the closest to anything like traditional bluegrass/old-time is the skewed, clattery hoedown that heads off Rye Whiskey, but even here the genre conventions are very soon being bent out of shape to such an extent that you might at first suspect the writers must've imbibed more than is good for them (stoned on creativity?) and yet before long the weirdness begins to exude its own logic. Each of the songs takes the delicate and precisely balanced sound of the small ensemble into surprising and unexpected realms, and the result is invariably quietly compelling. The cryptic You Are employs unsettling falsettos, a twisting turning psych-folk-style violin line chops itself out to set the scene for the jagged reflections of Me And Us, the plaintively tender Alex sidles up to your ears and slinks along beside you in a grass skirt, while Missy just obliquely smoulders. There are several passages that recall the Incredible String Band circa '69 (the heavy mando-riffing and queasy vocal harmonies of Welcome Home for instance), while Next To The Trash is almost what I'd term a kinda Holy Modal Rounders moment that lurches into klezmer before delivering its laconic "punch-line".
The more I play this album, the more fun I have and the more I get out of its gleeful quirkiness and sheer unadulterated zest, while increasing my appreciation of its skilled technical communication of an uncompromising vision. Whatever all the comparisons and references, this is a uniquely stimulating record.
David Kidman October 2010
This is the latest project from wiz young mandolinist Chris Thile (he of Nickel Creek), performed along with a crack team of equally young bluegrassers Chris Eldridge (guitar), Greg Garrison (bass), Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Gabe Witcher (fiddle), all of whom were featured on Chris's How To Grow A Woman From The Ground solo album of 2006. Punch is actually a set of Chris's original compositions, the centrepiece of which is an ambitious 40-minute-long suite in four movements, The Blind Leaving The Blind: a kind of avant-garde newgrass-chamber-style string-quintet-cum-song-cycle, I guess. Its course charts the failure and breakdown of a relationship, and, like the loss of innocence it chronicles, it's bound not to be an easy ride, a thorny proposition that takes a few listens to assimilate as regards both structure and flow of musical and lyrical argument. It was written from first-hand experience, upon the breakdown of Chris's own marriage, and thus represents a kind of therapeutic catharsis; most of us have been there, and it all rings very true, the emotional roller-coaster of the experience tellingly conveyed in the skittering, often unbalanced and restless mood-swings, all viewed through the ears and eyes of the protagonist. Just when you think you know where the music's going, there'll be a disconcerting plunge into another register or key-centre. There are sweet, often quite tuneful passages, which may be offset by passages of tonal ambiguity and abrupt harmonic shifts into uncertainty and dissonance, bitter progressions and acerbic, almost Bartókian clashes - all of this being highly appropriate given the nature of the lyrics. The suite gains in expressive depth and power as it forges onward, its third movement perhaps forming its intense apogee whereby a kind of swinging bluegrass love-song is succeeded by a bluesy gospel lament, introduced by a lonesome fiddle line, which contains an extraordinarily acute musical depiction of a painful emotional state. Aside from the suite, we get three further songs and an instrumental piece, all played with stunning expertise that draws attention to the musical argument rather than the cleverness of the note-spinning being an end in itself. I'd say that this album is both a musical landmark and a masterly, profound, considered and mature artistic statement, of which Chris has every reason to be extremely proud.
David Kidman April 2009
Pura Fe - Follow Your Hearst's Desire (Music Maker)
I have to say a few words about Music Maker before I start. The Music Maker Relief Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern musical traditions gain recognition and meeting their day to day needs. This is a laudable cause as we all know too well how many blues artists have died in poverty in the past. I hope that the artists that I review have the success that they deserve.
Pura Fe (her Spanish name meaning Pure Faith) is a descendant of the Tuscarora people who are the southernmost band of the Iroquois. Her mother was from the Tuscarora and her father was from Puerto Rico so she has a very diverse musical background and translates that into this album very well. The eponymous title track is a gentle folksy opener, just piano, guitar and voice but her voice soars to fill your senses – an excellent introduction. You Still Take is bluesier than the opener. This is a very powerful and political song about her ancestry, finished off with a chant. She has a distinctive method of playing guitar – she plays it in her lap – and the effect is pleasing to the ear.
Whole World Down On Me is a great title for a blues song and she provides us with a grittier vocal here. Her vocals are flying again on Wait Till You Come Back Again which is littered with ancestral influences. Catch Me Fast has Pura Fe playing very passable slide guitar as she returns to the folk influences of the opening track. This has another very powerful and emotional vocal. The vocal gymnastics continue on The Promise Of It's Shine and her voice is so easy on the ear at times. Her music is an amalgam of many genres but she turns it into something quite unique. There are two 'bird dances' on the album, Robin Dance and Pigeon Dance, both short and Native American chants although the former certainly has some Celtic influences in there.
The best title on the album has to go to Don't Trade Your Legs For A Pair Of Wings. This is quite simply, stunning and is my favourite track. Rise Up Tuscarora Nation needs very little description and, being a Scot, I have an affinity. Her husky tones are now becoming commonplace and continue into Della Blackmore/Pick And Choose. This is blues with a Pura Fe twist and is almost acoustic rock. I haven't spoken much about her guitar playing but she is more than able here – a highlight. She returns to her roots for Going Home/Stomp Dance which starts out with a spoken blues history lesson before going into a Native American chant and dance. The closing track, Sweet Willie, is a pleasant finish and overall the album shows her to be challenging Bonnie Raitt and outshining Joss Stone.
Bobby Purify - Better To Have It (Proper)
He's a soul legend of course. Born Ben Moore, he became the second Bobby of James and Bobby Purify in 1971, replacing Robert Lee Dickey and going on to notch of a string of hits. most notably I'm Your Puppet and Shake A Tail Feather. Come the 80s, he'd left the band to pursue a gospel career under his own name. Then in 1998 he went blind and thought about giving up music. However, encouraged by Ray Charles, he decided to carry on. The result is this comeback album, his first in over ten years and one that, after forty years, reunites him with long time producing and writing collaborator Dan Penn who provided him with songs both prior to and during his time with James and Bobby.
Moore's voice in vintage warm shape and featuring the original Muscle Shoals rhythm players David Hood, Spooner Oldham and Jimmie Johnson, it's soulful R&B in the classic mould, the opening title track summoning thoughts of the great Percy Sledge and Solomon Burke.
And if you could probably live without the spoken sincerity to I'm Qualified or the rose tinted cringeworthy patriotism of Only In America, then the fat brassy self-penned What's Old To You, and the 24 carat double R&B ballad whammy of Nobody's Home and Forever Changed firmly give weight to the album's title.
It's seven years since I reviewed Co-Clare-born Kate's second CD, Dreams Of You, which I thought was overly highly rated although an attractive enough product taken in small doses. It pleases me to report that I found Independent Soul, its followup (now gaining its UK release), a more consistent set, at least in terms of Kate's own singing.
As far as the songs themselves are concerned, though, Independent Soul strikes a similar balance to its predecessor, in that Kate performs her own arrangements of some of her favourite (mostly contemporary) songs alongside five of her own compositions (co-written with Mary Fitzgerald). The Green Hills Of Clare is the disc's sole trad-arr, and this is given a breathy, slightly sentimental treatment that just about hits the right spot on the emotional spectrum. But for the most part (and this is probably just a personal thing) Kate's choice of covers is obtuse and in the end less than fulfilling. Starting with the successes: Kate sings Suspicious Minds with conviction, her delicate rendition of First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is given a lovely restrained setting, and I Fall To Pieces (a duet with Brendan Begley) is transformed into a seductive tango. But why cover Lili Marlene (hardly a "magic moment")? And U2's Bad does nothing to convince me of Kate's "bono-fide" in this repertoire, I'm afraid. And even after a few plays I'm still finding that the majority of Kate's own compositions tend to lack distinction: only the opening Chariot, with its McGarrigle-esque charm, seems to demand repeat plays, although taken in isolation it's easier to warm to individual songs. I can appreciate Kate's personal commitment, but in many cases the songs themselves are given rather more of a fighting chance by their sublime instrumental settings and some equally sublime musicianship from the likes of Steve Cooney and Jim Hornsby (guitars), Tim Eady and Brendan Begley (accordions), Martin Hayes and Winifred Horan (fiddles), Mick Kinsella (harmonica) and Tommy Hayes (percussion).
The recording gives a good perspective and clarity to the various instrumental contributions, and yet has some slightly frustrating aspects like an occasional fluffiness in tone, a tendency to close-miking of Kate's own voice to produce an excess of sibilance, and an over-reverberant aura given to the vocals on some tracks.
David Kidman June 2009
This release has been much touted in certain quarters ("No other CD has brought such an overwhelming audience response", croweth the Cowshed King), and has finally secured UK distribution via the admirable Copperplate. However, I found it unexpectedly disappointing, and at times curiously lacking in distinction, although taken in small doses, say one track at a time, it's an attractive enough product, accessible and listenable. A native of Feakle in east Clare, Kate carries an impressive pedigree, with a critically acclaimed first album (A Dream Unfolds) and hit single in the Irish charts to her credit, and live appearances alongside Dónal Lunny, Jimmy McCarthy and Tommy Fleming. Here she tackles mostly contemporary material (up to track 9, after which all is traditional) - Kieran Goss, Mary Greene, Don Stiffe, and three of Kate's own co-compositions with Mary Fitzgerald, all of which seem to suit Kate's voice well enough. Her version of Dan Seals' Lullaby is taken at a sensible pace, but I found it hard to get used to Tommy Fleming's duet vocal on this track.
I don't deny that Kate's voice has a beautiful timbre, but somehow it lacks textural and expressive variety, and at times Kate's guilty of over-using a kind of warbly vibrato that becomes mildly irritating. The instrumental backing - largely arranged and produced by guitarist Ted Ponsonby and engineer Martin O'Malley respectively - is skilled, and certainly tasteful enough in its own way, but sometimes unavoidably verges on the bland, and many tracks use an all-purpose keyboard drone that quickly becomes tiring, although it could be said that one saving grace is that the Irish linnet isn't smothered by the Galway shawl of over-production …! Martin Hayes' fiddle contribution lifts Goodbye Johnny Dear to a higher plane, and Once I Loved benefits from some nicely-managed vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, though, the effect is perhaps generally too even-tempered to take the whole album in one sitting, and this impression is accentuated by most of the songs being taken at a broadly similar (relaxed slow to medium) pace.
Darryl Purpose - A Crooked Line (Tangible Music)
With a delicately soft cracked slightly nasal voice (think James Taylor crossbred with John Prine) that belies his bearded bulk, the fourth album since the former professional blackjack player and peace activist traded gambling and protests for the troubadour circuit back in 96 further confirms his status as a singer-songwriter in the great storytelling tradition of Harry Chapin and Mickey Newbury. Working in an uncluttered acoustic narrative style, occasionally backed by string quartet, he unfolds his dusty tales of America and its disenfranchised, wanderers, dreamers and heartbroken. The album opens with California (Rutherford Hayes in the Morning), a reminiscence of the first President ever to visit the State, an historic memoir that unfolds into a passing of an era lament for the end of the reconstruction's innocence of golden lemonade and the dawn of an industrial century. A Crooked Line places itself in the mouth of a second-generation immigrant haunted by the ghosts of the past, their seed scattered from what was once a poor man's El Dorado into 'this vast expanse of laundromats and taco stands.' Another character song, Late For Dinner recounts the tale of a Vietnam veteran who, scarred by his experiences, walked out on his family but told, not in his person, but from the perspective of the wife left behind. Trailed by the album's only instrumental, Koreatown interweaves the stories of two people seeking different escapes from the oppression of LA as "the world comes crashing down."
Elsewhere I Lost A Day To The Rain is a playful number that makes mention of the only three characters in Western civilisation to be directly linked with rain (Noah, Ben Franklin, Gene Kelly), The River Where She Sleeps is a cover of banjo player Dave Carter's sunny optimism portrait with its sad sting, There Should Be Highways casts its gaze back to new frontier days and a wanderer's prophetic dream for a quicker way to go west while the album closes with I Can Get There From Here, a head held high dedication to those who took part in the 1986 Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, its string quartet arrangement embracing influences both classical and Afro-Cuban. The most poignant moment though has to be Bryant St, a hint of Paul Simon that takes Purpose into heartbreaking autobiographical territory, his journey to the 40 year old grave of the half-sister he never knew, a little girl who wandered off and drowned in a swimming pool. Like every great storyteller, Purpose cuts deep to the humanity within his listener, making his story theirs.
Darryl Purpose - Travelers' Code (Tangible Music)
With a name like Darryl Purpose you know you're going to have to stop and listen. The same with Chuck Prophet, but that's another review. Great names guys! Traveler's Code, his second album for Tangible, is superficially a sunny and melodious collection of songs, which had me instantly back to the early '70s and James Taylor, Don McLean and Harry Chapin. There are many similarities and if you like them you'll like Purpose without going any further. However, his songs are strongly narrative, and there's often a twist in the tail, like Chapin, so that you're quickly enthralled by his stories. The lovely waltz-time, 'Ring On My Hand', a duet with Lucy Kaplansky, is sure to become one of the great standard love songs. You'll be smitten.
Purpose has only been playing the US circuit for three years. Publicity notes tell us that he was once recognised as the world's top blackjack player. As a peace marcher, he crossed the US over nine months, then continued to Russia for a historic walk across the Russian heartland, which culminated in the first-ever outdoor stadium rock concert in the former Soviet Union, featuring Bonnie Raitt, Santana, James Taylor, and Purpose's band, Collective Vision. Maybe the marching is over in the literal sense but the troubadour is out there, playing fingerstyle guitar and communicating his songs, capturing audiences wherever he goes.
There is a pejorative term, 'singer-songwritery', to describe much of the emotionally sensitive, angst-ridden, windswept-conscience fare served up in small music clubs around the country. Don't think you are getting any of that with Purpose. It's delivered as a highly listenable package, beautifully produced with quality musical accompaniment, but within the words there are honest convictions and humour, and a sense of life's purpose (of course). The Travelers' Code (Follow the Light) gives us the answer, but I won't tell you what it is. Buy the album!
The renowned world music label takes a brief whistle-stop sleigh-ride through the festive musical landscape in the company of a host of fairly illustrious star performers from the rootsiest arenas of bluegrass, country and folk. This means the reasonably inevitable inclusion of tinsel-tunes favourites like Sam Bush's bluegrassed-jazzed-up Sleigh Ride and Johnny Bregar's somewhat milder, but still pleasing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, alongside appearances by Kate Rusby (Here We Come A-Wassailing), Leon Redbone (Let It Snow) and Deana Carter (Winter Wonderland). It's not quite the usual selection, thank goodness, and there are bound to be some tunes here that you've not come across before. There's cautious fun from the Christmas Jug Band (featuring Maria Muldaur and Angela Strehli) on the swinging R&B number Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, and the Brave Combo ska-tes juicily through Jolly Old St. Nick (one of three previously unreleased cuts amongst the eleven). Maybe the tracks by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Martin Sexton are a touch disposable, but Debbie Davis & Matt Perrine's "dirty Hawaiian" seasonal greeting is suitably silly, and Lars Edegran's full-on Crescent City jazzband version of Frosty The Snowman brings more than a watermelon to my gal tonight, and in the end this is a pleasing enough ho-ho-ho collection put together with a reasonable sense of enterprise and will probably light up your family Christmas and make a welcome addition to someone's stocking.
David Kidman November 2009
It feels like Putumayo has scanned the four corners of the earth to make world music truly accessible. In doing so they have opened the imagination, eyes and more importantly the ears, of those lucky enough to have come across the 'Presents' series.
The rod they have made is that it was always going to be impossible to keep raising the bar and while Putumayo Presents Quebec does what sets out to do, it's not one of the best in the collection.
Perhaps it's the narrowing of the focus. With Quebec being a French Canadian province it's natural for the music to be heavily influenced by that country. It makes it difficult for the uninitiated to latch on to and appreciate the subtle shades that undoubtedly lie within.
At the core of the album is a mix of latin rhythms and cool sophistication . It's hard not to think in pastel shades while listening to the likes of Myreille Bedard singing Il Fait Dimanche.
Albums whose lyrics are entirely foreign language, rely heavily on the spirit they can create and to its credit, 'Quebec' manages to create a sense of freedom and life but stripped of any lyrical emotional reference points, listening eventually becomes hard work.
Notable highlights include La Bottine Souriante with La Brunette Est La which proves that great folk music is universal and travels beautifully.
It feels almost churlish to criticize a collection that is as enjoyable as Putumayo Presents Quebec and in truth it's a million miles away from being a poor album. It's just that it's a little overshadowed by the inspiration provided by some of the earlier compilations.
Michael Mee August 2008
Unwittingly maybe, but Putumayo's latest collection has driven a coach and horses through the Americana genre. There we were, perfectly happy gathering everything good under the Americana umbrella, then along comes a collection that includes stunning blues, country, folk, gospel a bit of sophisticated jazz and just about everything else you could want. How can a single word possibly encapsulate all these wonders?
Truth is, the kind people at Putumayo have confirmed what most of us thought already, Americana was a bit of a flag of convenience. A place where huddled masses of musicians could find sanctuary from rampaging commercialism. All those featured make music for a living, but that's not why they do it. All have refused to sell their souls, if you can play and you believe in what you're playing then you're very welcome.
Under that criterion the likes of Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Dolly Parton etc etc are, or were, all Americana artists. Vastly talented, vastly different but all laid their souls on the line, and none of them appear here. Because, as you might expect, Putumayo has dug a little deeper and bypassed the 'front line' artists in order to bring you RobinElla, Mulehead, The Little Willies, Terri Hendrix and Ruthie Foster. While Alison Brown, Old Crow Medicine Show, Robert Earl Keen, Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, Josh Ritter and Tim O'Brien will be familiar names, they are highly respected but don't really fall into the superstar 'big hat' category. This is an album where the music is the real star.
It says on the tin, 'from Austin to Asheville, contemporary singer-songwriters explore America's rural musical roots'. and that pretty much sums it up but it doesn't do justice to the myriad of influences and shades included. It's almost impossible to reconcile the rustic beauty of RobinElla's Down The Mountain with the sophisticated charm of Eliza Lynn's Sing A New Song and the folk spirit of Ruthie Foster's Hole In My Pocket but it all works wonderfully well.
With this compilation Putumayo has done to Americana what it has already done to music gathered from around the globe, made it accessible and fun. It would have been easy for it to fall into the 'worth over entertainment' trap in an effort to expand horizons, but there is such joy running through the whole album that the end result is a hugely enjoyable listen.
Michael Mee July 2007
The magic of this album isn't derived from understanding every syllable. If anything, not knowing exactly what's being said, heightens the enjoyment. They say that being deprived of a sense makes the others more acute, perhaps the absence of lyrics leaves you free to interpret and feel the wonderful rhythms.
Released in conjunction with Women's Day (March 8th) this album features artists from around the world including the half-Icelandic, half Italian Emiliana Torinni, who was the voice behind Gollum's Song in the Twin Towers film and wrote Kylie Minogue's 'Slow' - just to confuse matters even more, she is one of the few to sing in English - Algerian Mona, Colombian Marta Gomez, Greece's Anastasia Moutsatsou and Canada's The Wailin' Jennys amongst others. It's a pretty eclectic bunch to gather under one roof.
All this could make Women Of The World sound a bit dry and a little cerebral, a bit like one of those worthy novels that lies strategically open but is never read. The truth is that you will struggle to find a warmer group of songs. Women of the World is about rhythm and melody, the rhythms lap at your feet like gentle waves, while the melodies wash over you like a tropical sea.
It is absolutely no hardship to be enveloped in the loving embrace of Cape Verde's Lura as she sings Bida Mariadu. I may be in the minority here but I have no idea where Cape Verde is or what Bida Mariadu means and I'm not minded to find out in case it breaks the spell. Likewise the flow and sway of Sekna from Algeria's Mona is concentrated. Her voices weaves around the guitar until it becomes another instrument. An instrument that brings grace and beauty to an already delicate arrangement.
The album also throws up some wonderful contrasts, the slightly cool and detached Tuca La Louna from Croatia's Tamara Obrovac is followed by the passionate Ola at Diskola sung by Anastasia Moutsatsou from Greece. Again absolutely no need to be told what's going on, just feel the emotion of the music. Almost uniquely, Women Of The World: Acoustic is as good for what it doesn't say, as much as it is for what it does.
Michael Mee March 2007
And that's just one of the 11 tracks (one more and they'd have one for each of the 12 days of Christmas covered) that have as much of a zest for life as the great city that gave them birth.
There are some of the more 'traditional' songs slipped in amongst the kaleidoscope of jazz and blues. But just the name, Big Al Carson with Lars Edegram and his Santa Claus Revelers, tells you that Santa Claus Is Coming To Town is going to be a bit different, and it is. This is an album that's built on passion and colour, there is no place for the bland or banal. I also have my doubts that when Irving Berlin wrote, and Bing Crosby sang White Christmas in Holiday Inn, that they could have imagined the wonders that John Boutte would work on that symbol of the Yuletide.
While albums of reworked classics are not ten a penny , they are hardly a rarity, so the real joy of New Orleans Christmas in particular and the 'Putumayo presents' series in general, is the discovery of the hitherto unknown. Amongst those are Papa Don Vappie's New Orleans Jazz Band and Please Come Home For Christmas, the New Birth Brass Band's Santa's Second Line, while no album with New Orleans in its title would be worth its salt without a bit of Dixieland and the Dukes of Dixieland round things off in fine style with Holiday Times In New Orleans.
There is as much a sense of style about New Orleans Christmas, as there is in simply pulling together a collection of happy music. Tthere is nothing cheap or tawdry about any of the tracks, Christmas or not, they stand tall and proud as pieces of wonderful music in their own right.
Michael Mee December 2006
Being unable to understand a single syllable of the lyrics on any track featured on Acoustic Africa brings with it a certain freedom.Instead of attempting, and largely failing to understand what a song's meaning is through the words, you can just let the vibrant rhythms and melodies wash over you. The voices become another instrument in an acoustic orchestra. Eventually the passion of the artists sees the music soar.
With their World Music releases Putumayo has demonstrated that music is a truly universal language and it's no different here. Much of the roots of Acoustic Africa can be found in European and Latin American music, which round way the cross-pollination occurred is immaterial because all genres have absorbed and incorporated them effortlessly. What Acoustic Africa does very cleverly is present the music of its artists in a natural, unfussy setting and it allows the depth of feelin that the musicians clearly share about what they do to shine through, it makes for a rich and luxurious journey.
The lack of a lyrical point of reference also means that the enjoyment comes from the feelings the music evokes, Sedejo by Angelique Kidjo (Benin) is sensual and seductive while Misahotaka Ny Akama from Madagascar grabs a hold of the spirit and hoists it high. And it's spirit that is at the core of Acoustic Africa, the songs are the product of thousands of years of evolution. The musicians, from such exotic places as Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Cape Verde, South Africa and Senegal etc. etc., have nurtured and nourished them further. It is fitting that such a diverse album should paint such a colourful musical mosaic, each piece is unique and delicately put together and make for an unforgettable experience.
Three of the artists featured, Mali's Habib Koite, Vusi Mahlasela from South Africa and Dobet Gnahore from the Ivory Coast are not only due to appear on a mouthwatering Acoustic Africa Concert CD, they will be undertaking a tour which will feature European and US dates.
Michael Mee, September 2006
The title kind of gives the game away. It accurately states that this a collection of blues songs garnered from the four corners. What it doesn't tell you is just how full of life and passion the collection is. To discover just how full, do yourself a favour and buy it.
The artists are as scattered and universal as the blues they produce. It seems to make no matter whether it's 'star names' like Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal or Spain's Big Mama and Victor Uris (by the way Big Mama has a voice to match her name), Blues Etilicos from Brazil or the Cultural Music Club of Zanzibar, they are all united in common cause. But it is an undeniably exotic experience to hear a genre most commonly associated with the drawl of the Mississippi Delta, translated into Portuguese, Spanish and a couple of languages that must remain unnamed. The constants are the spirit and sense of adventure that run through all the artists.It's also a thrill to hear well known artists like Raitt and Taj Mahal pitched alongside Mali's Habib Koite in Raitt's case and Cultural Music Club in Taj Mahal's. As you'd expect they rise to the challenge and Raitt in particular sounds inspired by it.
It would be easy to think of an album containing Mauretania's Amar Sundy as a bit of a curio, a name-dropping opportunity but far more than that, Blues Around The World proves that the blues isn't dependent on geography. All the world may well be a stage but these men and women aren't merely players, they're blues musicians in the finest sense.
Michael Mee, August 2006
Various Artists - Folk Playground (Putumayo World Music)
The 'legend' at the top of the cover of Folk Playground reads: 'Putumayo Kids Presents'. Now, if by kids they mean those who retain the capacity to find the magic in and derive pleasure from the simple, beautiful things in life, then all well and good. However, if they narrowly define kids by age, then Putumayo does itself, and the artists on this CD, a great disservice because this CD belongs to kids of all ages.
At a time when popular culture seems to be the sole preserve of the square box in the corner of the room, Folk Playground is a musical treasure trove, it's a bit like opening Pandora's Box and finding wonder and joy alongside hope. The artists on it fire the imagination instead of dulling the brain.
If you approach the songs with an open heart then they'll welcome you in. While it is an American album, some of the tracks are universal, surely every child (of whatever age) knows This Old Man, Froggie Went A-Courtin and Polly Wolly Doodle, while Michelle Shocked's version of Got No Strings comes from Disney's Pinocchio but it would work in whatever setting.
While the songs are obviously childlike they are far from childish, they are gentle and thoughtful and designed to inspire. It's All How You Look At It and Fill It Up are unashamedly sunny and optimistic, but neither is patronising or preachy and that's a fine line to walk.
But there's sense of fun about it all, Sheep from Zoe Lewis is irresistibly silly and guaranteed to make you smile and Just Kidding captures the innocence that, in a perfect world, all kids should have and all adults wish they still did.
In buttoned-up lives, where we protect ourselves with cynicism, Folk Playground makes the world a better place, it's marvellous how warm just a touch of sunshine can make you feel.
This may well have started out as an album for kids, but its intelligence, sentiments and the enjoyment derived from listening to it, make it something for us all to grab on to. Just in case you were feeling a touch self conscious about buying it, not only does Michelle Shocked appear but the great Eric Bibb is featured as well.
Michael Mee, June 2006