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!
Both a sublime solo song for Sandy Denny and here a more rocked up version for Fairport Convention, either way it is a gorgeous song and whether left to their own devices or placed within a band Denny’s voice is outstanding. It probably isn’t cool to admit it in these days of edge and cool but both Denny and Karen Carpenter possessed voices that have never been beaten, in this scribes humble opinion.
When you hear the term “holiday music” what springs to mind depends on which part of the world you are from and what your cultural heritage sounds like. With this in mind Greg Herriges has collected together music which goes beyond the Holly and The Ivy of the western Christmas traditions and recorded, reworked and in some cases composed his own music which reflects the sounds of festivals, revels and holiday celebration across the globe.
The skill of such an enterprise is to come across with authenticity, that you are revelling in the music with the spirit and joy for which it was intended rather than being merely a dusty academic, collecting and cataloguing for anthropological reasons rather than musical. And as he flits from Basque to Balinese traditions, from Catalan to Chinese song and from Hebrew to Ukrainian heritages he never once sounds anything other than at one with the music. A glorious celebration of world music and a reminder that however much we talk about the global village, the world is indeed still a large, fascinating and beguiling place full of rich rewards and musical marvellousness.
Throughout history, creative minds have always responded to injustice or outrage in their own way – Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica immediately springs to mind – and music is a powerful platform to air one’s own feelings on certain subjects.
Music can be political but at the same time still needs to be heard, so getting the balance between getting the message heard and remaining entertaining is tricky but this tightrope is expertly handled with Vanessa Peters’ 11thstudio album. She tackles broad subjects like politics and growing violence but also brings the listener into her more private world, sharing her self-doubts and fears.
But don’t worry, this isn’t a tubthumping political ride, it’s a creative mind writing about the world around her.
Like most solid albums the songs grow and evolve the more you hear them, and the result is something very homely and comforting but something that also has the intelligence to keep you on your toes knowing that dark times are just around the corner.
Peters’ voice is surprising resilient, not the strongest, but it sits just as happily in the softer moments as well as the rockier songs and her delivery is honest and invites the listener to come along for the journey, it’s a voice that you want to listen to.
The album’s opener, ‘Get Started’ is a gentle kick in the pants and a call to arms, yes things aren’t always buttercups and crumpets but we have a hand in our own path so make a choice and stick to it, no matter what stands in the way. This positivity runs throughout the album, even when she is laying her fears bare on ‘Fight’, it is quickly followed by ‘Lucky’, another slice of positivity. ‘The Riddle’ sounds like the best Radiohead song that Radiohead didn’t write, it has the acoustic guitar, the dreamy melody and distorted effects that the Oxford band produced during the 90’s.
The title track acts as an intersection midway through the album, announcing a slight change to atmosphere and, interestingly, the album seems to get better as it goes along, three of the final four songs are wonderfully up-tempo and reinforce what a strong and varied songwriter Peters is. ‘Carnival Barker’ is an almost humorous metaphor for the current American president and the sideshow that surrounds him (reminding me a little of the Talking Head track ‘Democratic Circus) and ‘Trolls’ rattles along before a return to more familiar ground in the albums closer, ‘What You Can’t Outrun’.
In this world of commentators, bloggers, vloggers and whoever else people listen to now it’s clear that songwriters are still powerful voices and I’m yet to think of a reason not to listen to this one.
Folk music has wandered down some interesting pathways of late. Like any genre it needs to move with the times and although there are always going to be the “folk police” – normally a bearded guy called Brian in a June Tabor tour shirt – trying to dictate what is and isn’t folk music, change, or at least evolution is inevitable. In recent times folk music has been seduced by the indie chic and Camden cool of the likes of Mumford and the Whale and more latterly emerging names such as Brona McVittie and Rowan Coupland have shown that there is a shimmering dream-pop inspired route for it to take.
But sometimes I miss the more fun, the more story telling, less mystical, the more lyrically accessible and often slightly wonky approach to the genre. If you feel the same, that you want to enjoy the songwriting rather than the soundscaping or how zeitgeisting, faddy or fashionable a record is then Nature Makes Amazing Shapes will be just what you are looking for. Because it deliberately isn’t trying to fit in and be on trend, it can cover a lot of ground and of course if you are never in fashion how can you ever be out of fashion?
Reverse is a strange, almost lullaby slice of innocent folk meets world pop, Jezebel is a jaunty confessional built on infectious bass grooves and This Sweet Delusion is a spacious plea whose simple lines leave McCambridge’s strident vocals the focal point. Just Said No is more in keeping with what you might expect from the folk tag, musically straight-forward, lyrically poignant and designed to have you singing along before the first chorus is even over and Hooligan reminds me of the ragged and roots musical machinations of The Violent Femmes, not a point of reference I get to break out very often but I’m always pleased when I do.
It’s a great album, on reflection it might not even really be a folk album after all. It’s more than that, its musical scope may touch base there more often than not but it also skirts world music, singer-songwriter stylings, warped post-punk and indie music. And of course anyone seeming to channel the spirit of Jonathan Richman, at least in approach and attitude, is exactly what music, not just folk music, needs right now.
Brian is going to hate it which is exactly why you should buy it!
When you read that a song has been inspired by the beauty of meditation it is quite natural to have formed some preconceptions as to what sort of music is likely to follow. Something dreamlike, transient, gentle and built along simple lines perhaps? And whilst Candle in the Sea is indeed all of those things, it is as far removed from the wispy, twee, new age expectations that have already formed unbidden in your mind.
Imagine if Johnny Cash, in one of his rarer lighter moods had written something to help you to sleep and you would be nearer the mark. An engaging acoustic riff and a soulful voice are almost the whole story, just some extra guitar textures and a simple beat later on, but definitely a song drawn from the book of “less is more” and it is the space and atmosphere that makes it such an effective song. And what is more, every instrument you hear on the song is played by the man himself. how cool is that? Soothing and sultry, gentle and gorgeous. It’s healthy to have your expectations quashed from time to time, especially when what does so also greatly exceeds them.
Gregory Alan Isakov’s new song, ‘Dark, Dark, Dark,’ has just premiered publicly. Of the album, Billboard proclaims, “The 12-song set wound up sounding more characteristically ruminative…blending a gentle spaciousness with dusky atmospheres and carefully nuanced textures.”
‘Dark, Dark, Dark’ is the third track unveiled from Isakov’s anticipated new album, ‘Evening Machines’. The release, his first in partnership with Dualtone Records, is due October 5th and is now available for pre-order.
The album’s previous single, ‘Caves,’ was recently featured at Paste, who called it, “Enchanting…Essential to the song’s boundary-less feeling is the enchanting vocal layering—the layers reach out in every direction to create the sense that they extend forever, but you are still somehow at the center of it all.” The first single, ‘Chemicals,’ which surpassed 3.8 million streams this week, has garnered critical acclaim from Rolling Stone, who praise, “[the song] unfolds at a gentle pace…[it] is the sound of befuddlement turned into beauty.” PopMatters furthers, “‘Chemicals’ is a penetrating narrative that explores the complexity of the human condition. It’s almost overwhelming to ponder what the rest of the album will reveal.” Earlier this month, Isakov was the subject of an Inc. story on balancing both his career as a musician and working his own farm, see the full interview here.
Recorded at a converted barn studio located on Isakov’s three-acre farm in Boulder County, CO, the twelve-track album was self-produced and mixed by Tucker Martine (Neko Case, The Decemberists) and Andrew Berlin (Descendents, Rise Against).
Of the record—his fourth full-length studio album and first in five years—Isakov comments, “I’d work really hard into the night. A lot of times I would find myself in the light of all these VU meters and the tape machine glow, so that’s where the title came from. I recorded mostly at night, when I wasn’t working in the gardens. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or winter, morning or afternoon, this music always feels like evening to me.”
All with Joe Purdy
November 20th—Brussels, Belgium—Orangerie Botanique
November 21st—Hamburg, Germany—Uebel & Gefaehrlich
November 23rd—Oslo, Norway—John Dee
November 24th—Stockholm, Sweden—Nalen
November 25th—Copenhagen, Denmark—VEGA
November 27th—Amsterdam, Netherlands—Paradiso
November 28th—Groningen, Netherlands—De Oosterport
November 29th—Berlin, Germany—Passionkirche Kreuzberg
November 30th—Cologne, Germany—Gloria
December 1st—Zurich, Switzerland—Mascotte
December 2nd—Paris, France—La Maroquinerie
December 4th—London, UK—O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
December 5th—Bristol, UK—SWX
December 7th—Dublin, Ireland—Academy
December 8th—Glasgow, Scotland—Saint Luke’s
December 9th—Manchester, UK—Academy 3
My knowledge of folk is limited, I find it hard to listen to the British working-class stories of toil, trouble and industry, but I admire and respect the roots of the genre. The instruments; acoustic and organic, the lyrics; heartfelt and honest and the genres popularity grows by the week.
What Colorado-based singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov has delivered here is poignant and interesting, it’s recognisable but immediately it feels an evolution from what folk, particularly in this country, is. I find there to be such a fine line between American Folk and Country music that the two often intertwine, which, if you’re a fan of either genre is great news because the songs on Evening Machines will keep you interested and engaged. But alongside the pedal steel, banjo and all manner of percussion sits keyboards, electronic drums and electric guitar.
Songs written against a backdrop of vast space and farming communities (Isakov shares his time as a musician with being a farmer). This is the type of music that evokes images of sitting on the front porch on a summer’s evening with your sweetheart alongside you, overlooking a lake as the sun sets and the stars emerge over the pine trees. Evening Machines is a perfect tonic to the hustle and bustle of modern life and presents an opportunity to stop and listen.
The songs are arranged thoughtfully and with care and slowly they creep into your mind. From the album’s opener ‘Berth’ (a song about immigration) through the wonderful ‘Dark, Dark, Dark’ to the personal closer ‘Wings In All Black’ the album manages to hold on to the listener and calmly guide you through a world of characters and layered music.
As I wrote before, my knowledge of folk is limited, but if this is where folk is heading I’ll buy a ticket and take my seat.
Gregory Alan Isakov is touring the UK from 4thto 9thDecember with shows in London, Bristol, Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester.
Stock in the Bauhaus name is riding high at the moment. With one half of the band currently working as Poptone and David J undertaking an extensive world tour with Pete Murphy as we speak, it is certainly the perfect time to re-release J’s sophomore solo album, a record which he describes as “ a personal pastoral favourite” and one “that really set the tone for all my future solo endeavours.” And pastoral is indeed a great word to use even if it is hardly one that you would associate with either Bauhaus or Love and Rockets, the band that he would shortly form.
Crocodile Tears is certainly of its time, it sounds of its mid 80’s birthplace both in style and production but like any album which stays in the collective consciousness long enough to be labelled classic, iconic or influential, and this has been called all this and more, it has survived and transcended fad and fashion. Like black and white movies, favourite shirts and old photographs there is a hint of nostalgia to the songs found here from the point of the listener, how could there not be but also enough time has passed that a whole new generation can engage with it without the baggage that it carries. But you only have to listen to how ahead of its time songs such as Light and Shade are to see why it has survived. I could name 5 modern alt-country bands who would kill to have that on their resume.
Songs wander from the classic singer songwriter such as the folky Justine to the smooth soulful lines of the title track, the Lilac Time-esque fey-pop jaunt of Too Clever By Half to the shimmering sixties vibes of Slip The Rope. It is a vast departure from his earlier, darker band days but to many people, myself included, it was destined for more spins around the house than the more challenging Bauhaus back catalogue. And for those who found this an unexpected departure at the time, hindsight now tells us that a reunion with Daniel Ash in the form of Love and Rockets and all the glitz and glamour, punch and panache which that entailed was just around the corner.
After such a long time of writing music reviews you sort of get an inkling, a first impression before even listening to the music of an album as it falls out of the review pile and under the pen whether it is going to be merely another day at the office or it will end up as the latest addition to your own record collection. Okay, the name White Robot might sound a bit rock or dance but anyone calling their album The Belligerent North Star has my interest piqued immediately. I also like tasteful artwork, spacious music, genre-splicing, graceful harmonies, ambient vibes, female vocals and music which looks forward to new horizons rather than past glories.
In fact if I wrote a list of all the features that would make for the perfect album for me, this not only ticks them all but throws in a few that I hadn’t even thought of. Don’t you just love it when an album comes out of nowhere and knocks you to the floor with its strange beauty? To say that this is merely a folk album would be to grossly understate what’s going on here although restrained rootsy sounds, ambient folk and hushed country lilts certainly beat at its heart. Paranoid Rose is a perfect example of where they verve off from convention, a hazy, cosmic country piece but the strange drifting electronica sign-posts things to come.
And the strangeness fully arrives with James, a strange homage to James Earl Jones, or perhaps a band in joke, it doesn’t really matter, enigmatic is also on the list. Moving from haunted folk to alt-rock, it throws around some fleeting funky brass and then returns to the musical delicacy as if nothing has happened requiring the listener to suddenly ask “did I just imagine those strange interludes.” And that, perhaps more than anything explains the beautiful oddness that inherits the music. For the most part it is happy to follow dusty folk paths and gothic country routes but there is also a wonderful thread of musical lunacy that weaves its way through the otherwise gorgeous music. But it is these purposeful imperfections, these unique inclusions which give the music its own personality. Without them it is Lisa Hannigan, with them it is PJ Harvey making a folk album after a night on the red wine listening to her Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits albums back to back.
The Belligerent North Star has to be a contender for my favourite album to come my way this year, and made all the sweeter by the fact that it was totally unexpected. A gorgeous blend of beguiling beauty and odd quirks, of vocal grace and disarming charm, of understatement and unexpected outbursts. If this album were a woman I’d propose to her right here, right now.
Even before you get to the music, I’m already in Arthur Rivers corner. Why? Because people don’t write titles like that any more. Unnecessarily long, deeply poetic, wonderfully elemental. In an era of the short and concise, the bland and the direct, the cheap and the disposable, even the title jumps out at me. Anything that sounds as if it may have been found buried deep in a Waterboys back catalogue is fine by me.
So you put the record on…or the virtual equivalent of the sacred and much anticipated needle drop… and you find that the poise and poeticism also beats at the heart of the music within. A lilting folk ballad, a spacious roots statement, one that is dressed up beyond its simple guitar lines and gentle but resonant voice with the merest of sonic detail. Some extra guitar texture, some hazy slide or steel washing around in the middle distance and just a dash of dreamlike cosmic harmonies and Rivers has built a song that is brilliant in its transience.
Transient because rather than filling the available space with sound he merely uses it to frame the silence that was there already, rather like how a water colour artist uses the white of the canvas as part of the finished effect. For every note there is the anticipation of the next making it somehow more powerful, for ever word there is the pause between that adds an unhurried air of mystery.
The beauty of such a song is compared with most of the music being thrown at the discerning listener today, it’s a song where almost nothing happens, which might seem like a detriment but if you chose just the right slices of nothing to balance the critical emptiness, then you can, rather than fill spaces, merely encapsulate them and use them as fundamental building blocks in your sound. In doing so Rivers builds atmosphere, anticipation, restraint and a strange primal beauty. His brand of near emptiness is not merely a lack of sonics, rather it is the gentle use of sound to shape the underlying beauty of the natural world. It is something sensed rather than heard and something more often that not buried under a band’s music in their rush to prove that they can offer something better than the unrivalled grace of a universe as old as time itself. Not this time.
Music that breathes in time with the world around it…how cool is that?
All manner of musical genres and bi-genres end up in the pile of cd’s I get to look through and review, anything from folk or acoustic singer/songwriter to various offerings from rock, indie and punk but occasionally something turns up that stops you in your tracks and makes you think or (in this case) say out loud “what do we have here?”
The album cover alone was enough for me to want to know a little more about this curious little package of musical mysteries.
First things first though I should warn you that this is not a genre or style of music for everyone, I’m still undecided if it’s a style of music for me, and I can see that this will only appeal to a certain slice of the general public but if you want something a little different in your cd collection, this isn’t a bad contender.
The style of music is traditional Yiddish folk and it’s presently perfectly from Canadian musician Josh ‘Socalled’ Dolgin, who has spent years producing hip-hop and quietly exploring and collecting music from his own Yiddish culture.
I confess that this is the first time I’ve ever heard anything Yiddish outside of various films soundtracks but give it a chance and you’ll be treated to a style of music that is haunting, beautiful and holds within it centuries of persecution, pain but also the celebration of being alive.
The music is expertly played by long-time collaborators the Kaiser Quartett, that bring a certain gravity to the recordings with warm, timbered tones from their instruments, add to this the authentic vocal delivery of Socalled and you’ve got a powerful combination. I think the best compliment I can give to this album is that it could have been recorded during any decade of the last hundred years, it feels so steeped in its history and so authentically recorded that you feel transported to an era of horse drawn carts and the turbulent times of the last century.
Powerful, beguiling, haunting and uplifting all at the same time.
There are a few odd and almost indefinable generic terms in music, handles used mainly by lazy journalists, like myself, to easily box music, the draw lines of demarcation in an effort to say it is one thing or another. Of all of them the worst is the term “world music”…music that is representative of a culture or a place and therefore meaning something different to every one who hears the word. But maybe world music is actually something else all together…maybe it isn’t music from one part of the planet or another but music which is built from various sounds garnered from all corners of the globe…corners of a globe? Well, you know what I mean.
The fact that Ajay was born in India, lives in Switzerland, that he weaves pieces of pop with rock, blends of eastern instrumentation and western folk traditions, loose psychedelia with rigid structured grooves, plunders the past just as much as he looks to the future, means that he is the perfect world citizen to be able to truly create this new world genre. A genre where east meets west, where worlds collide, where occident dances with orient.
Forget About Yesterday sums up his ability to cross genres and borders perfectly, tabla beats and wailing blues harmonicas, pastel hippy-pop warmth and a looping funky groove beating at its heart and Ordinary Memory sounds as if R.E.M. relocated to the outskirts of Bangalore at the end of the nineties. There are straighter Americana infused songs such as All Your Thoughts, a real end of the night bar room sing-along and the wonderfully named My Wallet is a House of Cards is a stomping blues-rocker.
The real charm of the album is that even though it covers a lot of ground stylistically, just compare the late-night jazz vibes of Grooving In Paris with the retro-folk-pop of While I’m Standing Here, it has a cohesive quality, each song, no matter where it leans generically feels like a necessary part of the whole album. I’ve tried to avoid using the B word, but it has the same sort of breath-taking diversity and exploratory nature as the later Beatles album and for once I feel that such a comparison is no mere rhetoric or hyperbole, Little Boat really is a gem of an album.
So, maybe this is a new genre, more likely it is an acknowledgement that genres don’t really exist or if they do they are a hinderance to musicians creativity rather than a guide. Whatever the answer, Little Boat is an album everyone should hear…today…right now…go and buy it this instant, you’ll thank me later. You will….
Last time Amilia passed our way she was celebrating the joys of the Christmas holiday season in suitably buoyant and bubbly mood. This time out she offers up a gorgeous piece of ethereal country music, a song which seems to drift past your consciousness rather than engage the listener with anything more direct. Harlan is a simple song, gentle lyrics paint poetic reflections and the rhythms of the acoustic guitar are only minimally embellished by additional musical textures.
But like most simple songs it has the ability to be more effective than a more intricate rival. It is wonderfully open, direct and through the nostalgic and reflective lyrical imagery she presents a song that remains both fantastically compelling yet brilliantly vague. The simplicity of the music forces you to focus on Amilia’s vocals, not that you would have missed them, a combination of hushed late night tones and crystal clear delivery, drifting yet poignant.
Understanding what a song needs is a skill in its own right, knowing what to leave out requires an even more astute musical mind. Thankfully Amilia K. Spicer understands the power of understatement and Harlan is the perfect example of musical restraint making for a more compelling song.
I’m struggling to start this review, I’ve written a bunch of opening sentences, but nothing really allows me to get into it the way I would like so I’m going to go for the blunt approach; Will Lawton and Weasel Howlett are a piano and drums duo from Malmesbury and they’ve released an album called Fossils of the Mind and it’s bloody good!
The album fearlessly dips its foot pedals into folk, jazz, drum and bass and a smattering of indie, all served up with intelligent piano playing, intricate drum patterns and a husky voice that suits the words perfectly.
Don’t be daunted by the limited instruments on display here, it’s all a ruse, there are no empty spaces or lack of imagination. The album is in no rush, the songs are good enough to keep you interested and it knows that although it takes its time it will get under your skin eventually. You’re immediately challenged by the theory of comedian and radio presenter Robin Ince that when humans die we not only leave behind our physical remains but also our ponderings in the form of diaries, notes, stories and written words that could be described as the fossils of the mind that gives the album its name.
It’s an interesting concept and the music is beautifully arranged around it, actually the music is beautiful throughout, it’s a very neat, tight and full album taking influences from World Music, which is unsurprising given that the album was recorded at Real World Studios near Bath which is something of a mecca for world music given its connections to Peter Gabriel and the Womad festival.
Percussion and the intricate little extra details play a huge part in this albums success, the blackbird’s song on ‘Dharma’, the curious pitch playing slightly under the radar on ‘Panacea’ and the subtle voices on ‘Golden Ratio’ successfully take the listener to another level.
At times the duo reminds me of Manchester jazz trio Go-Go Penguin, the music is just as dramatic, calm, powerful, quiet and all manner of things in between. The music switches from the drum and strings driven ‘Release’ to the folk flavoured ‘Peace’ without missing a beat and the final song ‘Sleep’ feels like a welcome return home after a walk along a desolate beach. Maybe that is the character of the album, it feels like a journey where you can be alone with your thoughts, where you can make sense of nature, society, who you are and what you leave behind when you go, pretty big things to have in your head but this is a pretty good soundtrack to have while you’re doing it.
The album is available online from Supermarine Music or, locally, from Sound Knowledge in Marlborough.
Those with their ear close to the grass roots end of the music spectrum, the place where jobbing troubadours and sonic dreamers wander with little concern for fame and fortune, have long been aware of the potency and potential of both David Celia and Marla for many years. One an expert in pop melodies and wry observation, the other a painter of rootys soundscapes and drifting folk eloquence, separate they are both great to say the least, together they become something much more the sum of those, already admirable parts.
Daydreamers is a document. A document of a long distant relationship, of the touring life, of their hopes for their own future as well as those for the world around them. It is also a document of the sound of the 60’s folk revival but one seen less through rose tinted retrospectcles and rather through the timeless and cyclical nature that music is beholden too.
The title track is built around a wonderful, innocent wide eyed hippy ethic which is sadly to often missing from our current dark and cynical age, Follow Me is a gentle piece of drifting acoustica, one that Crosby Stills and Nash would have, okay not quite killed for but may have given you a hard and unnerving stare, and Warming Words is a gorgeous slice of lilting country-pop. It is also an open and unabashed love letter to each other, I Am Her Man and Lover of Mine seeing the two of them trading their feelings for each other but doing so in a way that swerves the obvious or the mawkish and lands perfectly in the realms of timeless classic.
Musically it may look to the past for its references but in all other respect it is a forward thinking album, one that is graceful and celebratory, gentle, wonderfully open and honest and grafted with genuine affection both for each other and the music that they fashion to that end. How joyously refreshing.
It’s nice to know that in this age of meticulous studio production, where even the smallest amount of natural talent can go a long way with the right engineer and the right box of tricks, that some people are still making albums in much more honest ways. Tony Rose’s solo album is just such a musical beast with the main body of the tracks being laid down live in a single session. Best known as a member of globe-trotting folksters Two Dollar Bash, Tony finally decided that it was time to put his own album out and so a small bunch of musical cohorts were gathered, tracks were recorded and Medicine Tunes was born.
Unsurprisingly the musical paths that Tony explores on this debut outing are not too far removed from his main musical concerns and indeed many of the people who have walked with him down those roads, Mark Mulholland and Stéphane Doucerain from Two Dollar Bash/Impure Thoughts as well as long time collaborators Geir Voie and Sean Condron, appear here too.
What Tony Rose revels in is good, solid, unfussy roots tunes, songs that embrace the deft and dexterous side of the genre, mandolins and banjos lend a country lilt when needed, others such as Pieter’s Song come on like a good old British pub folk singalong. There is room for Tex-Mex campfire songs with the appropriately named South of The Border, Lost in The Valley blends in some Celtic melancholic poeticism and Song of The Angels is a lovely, emotive piece of sweeping balladry.
Tony has always kept busy, wandering around Europe and North America, playing gigs and releasing albums with a succession of renowned bands so I guess that is excusable that he has only just got around to releasing an album under his own name. I just hope that he finds time to do it again sooner rather than later.
Maybe language gets in the way, maybe the process of sharing experiences looses something when you start to define it, describe it, nail it down. So maybe meeting a random stranger, finding that you don’t speak each others language but then spending time together on a road trip is the perfect way to explore the world. It’s what Gypsyfinger’s Victoria Coghlan did and this song is a tribute to her new found friend and fellow explorer.
It is a folk song with a pop make over, it tips its hat to 70’s stalwarts and 90’s pop alternatives (Sixpence None the Richer spring to mind here) and the commercial end of the current wave of folkies who are finding new ways and new genres to fuse their music with. It’s a deft and delicate piece, one built of chiming and clean sonic lines and euphoric energy and as tributes to friends go, it is nothing short of perfect.
Odetta will perform at The Islington, London on 24th September. She’s also just announced a string of European shows in support of Micheal Nau & The Mighty Thread*.
‘Old Rockhounds Never Die’ is a bonanza of beautiful contradictions: intimate yet fiercely internationalist, spiritual and yet tangible, sweet and also sexy. It convenes with the ghosts of the past while marching relentlessly forwards
Drawn from experiences as far-flung as riding a train from San Francisco to Chicago with an old-style, rootin’-tootin’ cowboy for company (‘Cowboy Song’), to experiencing the intense natural beauty of Icelandic waterfalls (‘Dettifoss’), it’s a record that taps into the musical traditions of the past while being a collection of songs about living in the moment.
Tuesday 18 September – Kantine am Berghain – Berlin, DE * – TICKETS
Wednesday 19 September – Loppen – Copenhagen, DK * – TICKETS
Friday 21 September – Ekko – Utrecht, DK * – TICKETS
Thursday 27 September – Le Pop Up du Label – Paris, FR * – TICKETS
Saturday 29 September – East Side Tavern – Dublin, IR – TICKETS
Raised by pioneering parents on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, NYC, Odetta’s milieu was a “colourful culture of artistry,” that included early exposure to community activism, renegade film screenings, poetry readings and trips to CBGB’s. Inchoate punk and hip hop were aural wallpaper, as were the 45s spinning in the household jukebox featuring her dad’s extensive collection of soul and afrobeat records, as well as her Appalachian mother’s classic country selections. A classically trained violinist with a penchant for back-porch banjo, Odetta combines these variegated sounds of her childhood with her personal passion for folk music and the musicological legacy of Alan Lomax. Lomax is writ large on ‘Old Rockhounds…’ at least in spirit anyway. Odetta plays all the instruments on this and her debut ‘222’.
If asked to name an exquisite songwriter, we could all roll a bunch of names off without hesitation. Questioned to name a brilliant performer and again we could do so with ease. If pushed for someone who plays with a timeless roots sound yet is still pushing those generic boundaries forward and we might find that to be a more difficult task, yet with a bit of thought we could probably all think of one or two. But if asked to name an artist who manages to tick all of those boxes and you are suddenly in difficult territory. There can’t be many artists able to excel in all those areas, who can be found in that small part of the Venn Diagram where all of these skills are present but Thea Hopkins is certain one of that select club.
Love Come Down is a collection of six songs which wander the American landscape, folk, blues and country rooted tunes that embrace social commentary, love balladry, universal truths and personal reflections. Add to that Thea’s evocative voice and an often wistfully melancholic but never overtly sad touch, jazz textures and lilting acoustica and you have an amazing suite of songs.
Almost Upon a Time is a gorgeous folk ballad, timeless, heartfelt and restrained, Mississippi River, Mississippi Town is a shimmering slice of country, one that eschews the Nashville template and makes more left-field and progressive choices and the title track is a wonderfully understated dreamscape using space and atmosphere as much as the instruments to get the job done. I would say that this is a future classic in the making but then again, why wait?