The idea of a travelling musician is one of romance and adventure, of endless experiences from visiting new towns, meeting new people, writing new songs and then moving on for the next instalment of adventure.
It’s often interesting to read the press release for albums that fall into my paws, sometimes the description that has been put forward is at odds with the finished product that finds itself booming out of my speakers. Descriptions like ‘life-affirming’, ‘game changing’, ‘powerhouse’ and ‘the next great act’ accompany these albums so it’s sometimes wise to ignore the blurb and just judge for yourself.
Songwriting is the perfect vehicle for telling stories, a form able to blend poeticism, dynamic, drama, emotion and everything else need to spin a good yarn. But rarely has the music of a singer-songwriter covered such an epic slice of history. Essentially a tribute to his father, his life and the events that he lived through, Ordinary Giants is so much more.
It must be difficult selling a foreign-language album into the already saturated market of English-speaking releases, sure we all like an occasional ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘Despasito’ to shake it up, but on the whole English-speaking music fans like English speaking bands. So, to combat this, the music has to be good. Duke Ellington once said, “there are two kinds of music, the good and the other kind”, this is true, and it’s also true that good music will always find an audience, so if you feel your record collection is lacking a Sicillian singer-songwriter who produces music that is tricky to categorise, then look no further than Alessio Bondi.
There is something wonderfully Gilliam-esque about the video that accompanies Angus McOg‘s Laika, that same strange, surreal cut and paste style that used to break up the sketches of Monty Python’s Flying Circus all those years ago. But there is nothing absurd or throwaway about the music that it represents. Five years on from previous album Arnaut, Laika acts as a taste of follow up album Beginners, set for release in January next year.
See, this is exactly what I have been talking about for years. Folk music and indie music make the perfect match, the deft and delicate delivery of the former and the cool and polished sound of the latter make an exquisite musical hook up. But a practical on too. If folk is going to stay relevant and Indie music interesting such musical marriages are essential. But this is no clumsy marriage of convenience, I Think I Saw You on the Street is the gorgeous off-spring of two good looking generic parents – the practical and solid folk father, the gracious and the charming hipster mother.
The Southern states of America have always been reflected, and promoted, as where the honest, God-fearing folk of America live. The vast farmland for Texan beef, the arid desert land of Nevada and the communities based on industry and hard work.
Of course every story has a dark side; for every farmer there is a greedy developer, Nevada is dominated by Las Vegas and industry changes, often leaving communities isolated when the big companies move on.
There are so many classic hallmarks and cleverly nostalgic moments to be found on Two that it is hard not to think that you have not been listening to John Lindsay’s album for decades. You can’t help but think that these songs exist on a well worn vinyl pressing, call a battered card sleeve home and both alphabetically and generically have the likes of John Martyn and Van Morrison for neighbours in a well-loved music collection.
Minnesota native Annie Fitzgerald has done something that not many female singer-songwriters are doing, and that is produce an album that is tender, thoughtful and emotional but deliver these songs with some oomph!
Most of us are suckers for a good love song but the path she’s chosen to present this type of song is supported by drums, bass, guitar and her voice (which will draw comparison to Tori Amos, Delores O’Rhiordan and Dido) and the songs feel so much stronger because of it. Don’t get me wrong, the opportunity to hear a singer stripped-back so the tale and the emotion is revealed is fine but if you have the talent and chance to bring a variation, perhaps that should be taken.
You can see why none other than Joan Armatrading took a shine to this young artist when she saw him busking. It’s easy to hear the ghost-echoes of classic singer-songwriters and 60’s folk revival icons between the notes and words. It’s isn’t hard to become captivated by such a straight forward yet beguiling slice of timeless acoustica.
The idea of just another young female artist folk-popping her way to chart success with an acoustic guitar and a chilled and minimalist tune might have collective eyes rolling and audible sighs of “here we go again”. Maybe it is a style that has been overdone of late, perhaps but rarely has it been done this well. For every hundred such artists using the format as a short cut to celebrity status you find one that really understands the genre and Charlotte Grayson, for all her small amount of years, understands it explicitly.
Occasionally an album comes along that delivers surprise and delight in equal measure, at times exciting and energetic and at other times brilliant and bonkers. Yves Lambert Trio’s ‘Tentation’ is anything but normal and definitely not what one would expect from a French-language folk album.
For all folks recent evolutions, its dalliances with indie chic, its wandering of shimmering dreamscape pathways, its pop hook-ups, there is something to be said for the traditional sound. Of course the art of keeping things both true to the genre and relevant for modern audiences is to walk that fine line between familiarity and freshness and that is exactly what The Trials of Cato do. And do so effortlessly.
For every few hundred singer-songwriters who thinks its enough to buy a wide-brimmed hat, grow a week’s stubble, slip into some black jeans with professionally distressed knees and rattle off a few James Bay inspired ballads, you come across people like Chris McEvoy who are really exploring what the format has to offer. The very term singer-songwriter might be a much maligned label these days but Be Still My Heart reminds us of classic writers such as John Martyn or Roy Harper who wove warm and sophisticated musical strands into exquisite albums.
As someone who deals with generic descriptions on an almost hourly basis, I am usually fairly cynical of them. You see that a band who have elected to use the term “cinematic indie” and you know that that is just wishful thinking and they are probably going to sound like the tracks that Oasis never pursued beyond demo recordings. So I see the term Celtic Soul/Country Swing and I’m thinking if this lives up to the expectation of such a combination I will eat my hat!
For someone who grew up around both traditional folk music and the dreamscaping post punk machinations of the 80’s, Parabola West is the logical and latest point on a musical journey through the sweet spots of my record collection. It links back to the likes of Kate Bush and Bat For Lashes and also rubs shoulders with a whole host of indie musicians fusing roots music with more pop accessible sounds and just as many dyed in the wool folkies working out ways of keeping their genre relevant, fresh and perhaps even lucrative.
The Krickets make music at a point where the Old World mets the New, where European folk meets country music, where Americana meets ethereality, where heaven bound harmonies join with traditional sounds and where delicacy meets drive. They work with familiar forms for sure but as always it “ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” And boy, the way that they do it is mesmerising. They call their deft musical blend “swamp-folk” and whilst it does sometimes run along the sultry and primal lines that such a name infers, it feels slightly self-self-deprecating for such rich and glorious music. Their previous release, Spanish Moss Sirens may have been closer to such a label but RedBird is built of more delicate and intricate stuff and the result is a rather elegant Americana sound.
With over 7,000 kilometres of coastline, it’s little surprise that music from the Canadian province of Nova Scotia is heavily influenced by the sea. This music is called ‘East Coast’ and represents the styles of music hailing from the Atlantic coast of Canada, bluntly put it’s a blend of maritime-folk with a heavy dose of Celtic-influenced sea shanties with tales of sailors, sea journeys and celebrating a safe return.
Occasionally an album comes along that, as soon as the first note plays, you instantly know you’re going to like it. It’s a rare thing but another reason why we love listening to new music; to make new discoveries and, hopefully, share these with others.
‘Deep Snow’ is the unassuming album from Simon Lynge and covers subjects such as birth, life, the environmental impact and fragility of life, death and all things in-between but it never feels preachy or negative. There is a character to the songs that allow them to flow from one to another without any feeling out of place or misguided.
Much has been written of the music lore of the Mississippi Delta. Less so The Thames Delta, an equally mercurial and mythical place and one that seems to have a strange ability to draw itinerant musicians from all over the old world and the new to its colder, murky environs. Musicians such as Bob Collum, who hails from Tulsa but who has called the Essex hinterland home for many years now. It is to be expected I guess. Take a age old global port add the influx of cultural music that goes with such industry, not to mention a thriving folk circuit and a home grown pub scene which re-invented American rock and blues for the pre-punk UK market and the seeds for a sort of global Americana musical garden were not only sown but have been constantly well watered.
There is a real skill to being able to make music that simultaneously sounds like you have been listening to it all of your life but also the newest, freshest music to waft through the airwaves and it is a skill that Ed Hale appears to possess in no small amount. I guess it is what happens when you combine a wonderful musical imagination with a template that has served songwriters so well for the past 50 years. But just because someone takes the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix out approach” that doesn’t mean that they can’t give it a fresh lick of paint, re-shape, refine, have fun with and add new and exciting sonic detail to it. And that again is something that Ed Hale revels in. So For Real is definitely a case of evolution rather than revolution.
Summer Flowers kicks things off majestically, a veritable heatwave of retro-pop vibes, a flex of rock muscle and some wonderfully psychedelic moves and it is these corner stones that define the album’s personality. But this isn’t plunder, plagiarism or pastiche, for all its backward glance to past glories, songs such as Gimme Some Rock ’n’ Roll chime in tune with bands such as Flaming Lips or Wasuremono as readily as it does anything from previous generations.
Elton John once sang “sad songs say so much” and it’s probably safe to say that we all have a sad song in our list of all-time favourite songs, those are the songs we are often drawn to, we can sympathise, empathise and relate to these moments of emotional outpouring. We find comfort knowing some rich, famous singer in LA shares the exact same emotions that we do.
Michelle Lewis’s album has more than its fair share of sad songs, but they are mostly delivered with an optimistic outlook, yes, she’s been hurt but she’s still here and not only has she learnt from those heartbreaks she’s managed to channel it into songs and it’s pretty uplifting in parts.
They say that in life – and in music – timing is everything, and within ‘The Darkness Between the Leaves’ comes the feeling that we’re leaving summer and entering into the changing season of autumn, which, as I write this, we are.
The album opens with the words “the nights are getting colder, the summer birds are gone, the days are getting shorter…” and this feeling of the passing of time runs throughout this wonderful album.
Alba Griot Ensemble (Alba being the Gaelic name for Scotland and Griot roughly meaning a storyteller, musician or poet) is a clever hybrid of Celtic folk and blues played with traditional instruments of the West African country of Mali and is difficult to categorise. Fans of World Music will no doubt have in their collection more difficult styles of music to pigeon hole but those who follow more commercial styles will struggle to pin it down.
This isn’t the heavy rhythmic music that Paul Simon or David Byrne used in the 80’s, these are finely layered pieces which take on both genres without sounding like either is unwelcome at the table. We have acoustic guitar and double bass from typical folk music sitting side by side with a stringed lute-like instrument called a Ngoni, African percussion and subtle vocals.
The ngoni has a reputation for being able to be played fast, it features heavily especially on the instrumental ‘Horonia’ and shows its speed on ‘Shadow Queen’, it sounds lovely here and bridges the gap between African and Celtic music and sounds at home when the band move into blues and jazz territory.
There is a variation in the music that is welcomed and shows the ability of the band to stretch its legs into other styles of music, this keeps the listener interested because each song delivers a new flavour. ‘Long Way Home’ is one of three songs I keep returning to, it’s possibly the most straight forward track on the album yet it has a percussion and rhythm that remains enjoyable and accessible, ‘Blurred Visions’ with a melody similar to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ flies by at 5mins long before we end the album with ‘North Wind’. A mighty nine minutes in length, it gives the band, in particular the rhythm section, the chance to jam and groove until the album comes to an end. This song closes the album like the sunset closes the day. Great stuff.
It’s reassuring to find Arthur Rivers exactly where I left him last time, kicking off the album with the previously encountered single You’re the Ocean Waves, You’re the Sea. And although this gentle and wonderfully wonky folk creation gives you a hint at the soft textures and delicate treatments that make up the rest of the album, this is more a vague signpost rather than a road map. It would, of course, be perfectly lovely to follow such pre-designated folk paths pretty much knowing where you are going but instead the album wanders any number of rootsy routes and world music byways. As a famous man once said, it is better to travel well than to arrive and Beyond Sunsets and Rainbows is definitely about the journey. Armed with a vague sense of direction and a sense of musical adventure you head off wide eyed into his music.
Lead You Home takes us past cosmic country bars, You & Me is haunted with the mournful sound of gothic Mariachi, We Remain The Same wanders the bayou’s and backwaters of the Deep South to blend a gospel spiritual with a work gang chant and Heal Your Pain is a suitable soothing infectious pop-folk song. One of the most telling lines on the album is when Arthur sings “Let’s start a fire” and where many would follow that up with some rabble rousing rhetoric, he merely suggests that the “Dance around it remembering the past.” This is an album of intimate reflection, soul-searching and personal nostalgia something that comes as a welcome change of pace in a world where big seems to be regarded as better.
The clever pay off here is that many people mixing up folk, country, sweeping string sections, banjos and the like often produce some sort of nu-country or dream state folk music, something that seems to lose its rigidity and sense of direction, but not Arthur Rivers. For all the soft edges to the music, its gentle textures and subtle musical weaves it is inherent with melody and memorability. The basic structures are rigid and accessible, it is just that he is so adept at knowing just what needs to go into the song to make it work that you end up with a set of songs that do everything they need with the minimum of fuss.
Rather than resort to studio tricks, over-playing, solo’s and similar showboating, instead the lyrics remain the focal point offering emotion, remembrance, love and connection, and rather than merely trying to get feet tapping along is designed to to do nothing less than get the very soul dancing.
In a musical world that seems ever more dictated by fad and fashion, driven by bluster and bombast, concerned with big statements and immediate responses, it is reassuring to know that there are still artists unaffected by such concerns. Lucy Kitchen is everything that the usual modern approach is not. Her songs are deft and delicate, built on clean-limbed and gentle lines and embellished with only the absolutely essential sonic details. Beats are minimal, textures subtly woven and the music feels nothing more than gossamer and smoke-like layers skilfully interlaced to maintain a musical weightlessness.
That may sound like some ethereal dreampoppery, where music is swapped out for atmospherics, but that isn’t what is going on here. Sun to My Moon is an album of songs that are perfectly formed, balanced and melodic, it’s just that in their perfection they require little else to bring them to the listener. Conciseness is next to godliness perhaps! And all this room leaves her fragile and fragrant vocals front and centre to be better appreciated, better absorbed, to remain the focal point of the album.
Having only encountered Lucy as a solo act, the way that these songs have been recorded with a full band shows a wonderful understanding as to how best to serve them. Rather than driving them to new heights the extra instrumentation serves merely to capture their heart. Songs such as Hollow and Searching For Land are brilliant examples of the less is more philosophy with each player finding their way to the essence of the song and underlining it.
Lovers in Blue strip things back to the barest essentials, Charis is reminiscent of Suzanne Vega which is a pretty high accolade in my book and Lovers and Sorrow carries the same melancholic air that you find in Damien Rice’s groundbreaking O. You had me at cello! But despite my comparisons, a bad journalistic habit, there is more here that is original than reminiscent, much more. Sun To My Moon is a gorgeous collection, one which proves beyond doubt that when you write such beguiling and gorgeous songs they can easily stand, and indeed deftly dance, on their own two delicate feet.
Stick the label “twisted neo-folk’ on something and I’m in. It already ticks three important elements for me. Folk music, or at least that music which beats at the heart of your particular cultural traditions, is where music begins. Someone much older and wiser than me quite rightly pointed out that “all music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” Well, quite. Neo, because even the most tried and tested of genres have to move on. Twisted because, well, expectations are there to be dodged. And in this case that box is ticked or not depending on your view of what twisted is, not that it really matters.
For what Young Waters have created here is an album of songs very much rooted in traditional sounds, sounds that are deft and delicate, spacious and emotive, harmonious and intricate but which manages to update those traditions whilst using the very same building blocks. Arrangements follow unexpected twists (there you go) and turns, the lyrics are often deep and exploratory and the whole affair feels less reverential, less tied to the sounds of the past but more like a new chapter written in the same sonic handwriting.
Twisted might imply a mad overhaul of the folk sound, strange gene-splicing in night time music laboratories and wild genre-hopping. But the twists are more supple and subtle than that and act to steer things through interesting waters rather than let things run wild. The result is a charming blend of familiar sounds used to new ends, of soft and gentle string washes, of a creeping darkness filling the space between crisp and clear acoustica, of exquisite harmonies, of the family silver getting buffed up for a new batch of visitors. Twisted? Perhaps not so much. Gorgeous, well-crafted, dexterous and awe-inspiring? Absolutely!
On an increasingly packed shelf of roots music stands an artist who is quietly going about his business, blending and blurring the lines between country, folk and blues and playing shows all over the place, and picking up friends and followers as he goes.
If you’re a follower of Mark Harrison, or keep an eye on roots music in general, I won’t be telling you anything new here, you’ve already had the scoop and it’s I who is the late comer, but for those who stumble upon the cd cover and think “that looks interesting” or have heard his music on Radio 2 or perhaps wandered past an acoustic stage at a festival and heard a song or two by him, read on…
The Panoramic View is Mark’s sixth album and is a wonderful dip into nostalgia, these songs could have been written sixty years ago but the great success is how these songs also feel and sound contemporary. The opening track title, ‘One Small Suitcase’, sums up the feeling of the album in three words, these are songs to accompany a railroad trip, sat on an old wooden crate, passing the fields of Idaho, watching the miles and hours drift by with nothing but the stories and imagery that Harrison effortlessly seems to conjure.
Harrison encourages the listener to go on the journey, pack that small suitcase, get on board that train and visit the father surrounded by children, the heart broken man wronged by his woman, the legendary railroad worker and the man living on a farm scratching a living and trying to avoid temptation and passing on his words of wisdom to the upcoming generation. I guess this is a metaphor for what Harrison is trying to do, a blues man at heart, he is repeating and retelling the music of the blues, so it can hopefully find a home among the pop tunes and short-lived celebrity acts. But if you’re hoping for screaming guitar solos, look elsewhere because this is subtle story telling that clings on by it’s nails long after the song has finished.
There are acoustic songs like ‘House Full of Children’, ‘Ragged’ and ‘John The Chinaman’ but there is a growly earthy centre that is found in the superb ‘Hooker’s Song’. Obviously none of this can be done alone, Harrison surrounds himself with some fine musicians, bringing the different tones to life with ease. One thing that particularly stood out was the brass work of Paul Tkachenko, hearing a tuba being played on any record puts me in mind of the silver bands of Northern England, yet hearing it here, on an album so obviously American-inspired allows these stories to feel more relevant to me somehow.
So, like I said earlier, if you have heard Mark Harrison before, I’m probably telling you nothing new here, the songs are good, the music is good and this is what you’ve come to expect from a musician writing and delivering this level of music, but if this is your first visit, you’re in for a treat.
This album was described to me as electro-acoustic folk, sounds interesting enough, and two genres that could sit quiet nicely together, and they do. The songs are acoustic based but given a little extra atmosphere and ‘body’ with the electric treatment and, often, it works.
The songs sit nicely on the periphery of the subjects they tackle, often being the observer and posing questions – particularly on ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ where we’re asked to describe our world to visiting aliens – about human nature. He tackles personal issues such as dating as a middle-aged man, the effects of prescription drugs on your outlook on life and trying to ignore those voices in your head that seem to add caution to every decision and prevent us from doing things.
I think the best place to start with DK1’s album is the voice; singer/songwriter/musician/ producer Daniel Kent has a voice like Marmite, some will like it, others won’t. It’s a gentle, fractured, soft voice but won’t be for everyone.
Music wise the album covers folk but also takes in gyspy jazz and straight forward acoustic songwriter fare, the album starts well, ‘Itty Bitty Sh**y Committee’ is a strong opener, ‘Skinny Jeans’ takes a humorous look at modern day dating and ‘Bump’ sounds like a track from 90’s band St. Etienne, not a bad selection considering at this point the album is only five songs in.
There seems to be a deep well of talent around at the moment, blurring the borders of genres and challenging the listener to do something more than simply to listen, DK1 does just that.
Coulds and Shoulds is released on 1stOctober on F&G Records.
Although it seems that summer may have only just disappeared and we have all the Autumnal delights to get through yet, plans are already being made for the Christmas holiday season. Katie Garibaldi may be the first Christmas song to land on the review pile but I think it is going to take some beating. As part of her Home Sweet Christmas album Safe and Warm mixes her already well established roots credentials with more devotional gospel vibes the result is the perfect match of seasonal and timeless.
Whilst many will be releasing songs which are either dry and formulaic or silly and sentimental, Garibaldi mixes the right about of delicacy and grace with clever sonic choices and deft composition. The layered harmonies are exquisite, the space in the song allows her own soft but effective main vocal to have room to soar, with the instrumentation only framing and embroidering the song rather than driving it any more than is necessary.
A seasonal song that you can play all year round? Absolutely!