Some reviews that we weren't able to fit into Stirrings 171...
The Hangman's Fee
Talking Elephant TECD369
Green Diesel is a six-piece folk-rock band hailing from Faversham, Kent, who've built up a solid reputation over the course of seven years, two albums and by all accounts a host of thrilling festival appearances. They produce a classic folk-rock powerhouse groove that's both confident and thoroughly amicable, owing something to bands like Spriguns and classic late-'70s Steeleye. And yet they build and maintain their own distinctive sound, which springs partly from their well-developed, acute and intelligent sense of instrumental balance and partly from the strong individual personalities within the lineup. Lead singer and violinist Ellen Care possesses a particularly commanding musical personality, but other band members also get the chance to shine too, yet without dominating the main textural thrust in any way. Each band member makes telling contributions to the mix without holding back the essential drive of the musical argument, and the dovetailing of the various entries, melodies and rhythms is both thoughtfully conceived and well managed. The sense of everything-in-its-place is complemented by a delightful abandon in the playing, and replay enables further concentration on the inner detail provided by multi-instrumentalists Jon Biron and Greg Ireland in counterpoint to Matt Dear's key electric guitar lines.
The band's third album brings us eight songs and two instrumental tracks. The latter are trusty medleys that deliver the goods within the approved folk-rock template, springing no surprises, okay, but pitching the energy level high enough to satisfy and making good capital out of the contrasts in the tunes. As on previous albums, the songs are mostly originals this time four by the band's main songwriter Greg Ireland and one apiece by Ellen and Matt topped up with two vintage-style trad-arrs (a spectral, haunting account of Through Lonesome Woods and a restlessly syncopated take on The White Hare). The nature of the material is for the most part dark and sinister, as befits the folklore from which Green Diesel take their inspiration; opening track The Elephant Tree (which contains the album title in its lyric) and Jenny With The Lantern dramatically reimagine folk legends, and Butcher Bird is an old-school cautionary-tale with a superbly driven momentum (incidentally, the latter is one of several tracks that point up the vocal strengths of the whole band). I also specially liked Ellen's composition I Loved My Love, which, while it initially brings to mind the traditional I Know My Love, could almost be a lost Steeleye number. Matt's composition Domovoi is a touch fish-out-of-water in this company: for all that it's an unusual and compelling song of family history, it does shift the feel of the album somewhat away from the universal-traditional-folklore of the remainder, and may prefigure a new direction for the band should they decide to pursue it on a future record. But it doesn't let the side down in any way, and the whole CD holds one's attention throughout.
Finally, mention must be made of the attractive artwork and design, brilliantly complementing the music and words within.
SONGS WORTH THE SINGING
David Kidman is a stalwart floorsinger and very erudite reviewer in local folk magazines. He is well known at folk clubs and singarounds in our region. Here is a sixteen track album of some of his favourite songs. The tracks were well recorded at The Grey Picker Studio, Bolsover by John Young with artwork by Tali Burgess.
As he writes 'I'd class myself as a song carrier, a revival singer. I'm told I sing in the traditional style,but I'm not a "traditional singer" per se, although I do sing a number of traditional songs'. There are in fact no traditional songs on this CD and they were written or adapted mainly by revival singers and writers from the post WW2 era of the folk clubs in what was accepted as a 'folk idiom'. There is no doubt that the idiom is that of some traditional songs and they have served our generation well. Even as far back as Robert Burns' Now Westlin' Winds (Song, Composed In Autumn) we have words from a prolific collector of tunes and songs from his native Ayrshire. David has chosen some excellent songs by some great writers, the majority of whom accompanied themselves on various instruments. He sings all these songs unaccompanied and has avoided chorus songs and shanties that he often sings. This can reveal the words more clearly but also the weakness or strengths of the singer.
The CD starts with songs inspired by working class life. The Factory Lad by the late lamented Bradford singer Colin Dryden was written in 1969 to a tune like The Grinder Of The Don and is a moving tale of a lad who is trapped in his job with its sparks and dust and yearns for freedom. He is determined to leave and says he will only miss his mates 'who carry on the grind'. At a time when jobs were easy to come by, this was a common attitude and Colin dropped out and went to Australia. Richard Thompson's Beeswing tells of a love for a woman who is a free spirit and will not be tied down to factory life. By contrast we have songs of community rather than personal life and here the regrets are not for lost freedom but for shared values in the face of hardship and tragedy. Coal Not Dole, by Kay Sutcliffe, Yorkshire Colliery by Ray Hearne, Morley Main by Keith Marsden and The Last Of The Widows, from the Duck Bill area of Easington Colliery in Durham, is by Jez Lowe of The Pitman Poets. All superb songs that ache for older class certainties and a yen for mucky jobs that nevertheless fed the family and paid the rent. Colin Cater's A Penny For The Ploughboys tells of the seasonal round and older agricultural customs and certainties. Roy Blackman's The Rose Is Always White is a stirring hymn to Yorkshire and a sense of unity. All these songs are very poignant in the face of another post-Thatcher period of economic and social decline and the sense of loss that has fuelled seismic political shifts and whose results we will shortly find out. There is a sea change of alignments with outcomes we can only guess at. All is changing. Rudyard Kipling's Mandalay was a popular song of imperialist and colonial days given new interest by the late Peter Bellamy, which spoke of other old certainties and changes to come. Songs rooted in a love of place and people such as a sentimental Sweet Sunny South collected by Cecil Sharp in Virginia in 1918, Follow The Heron by Karine Polwart, Davy Steele's The Last Trip Home about big Clydesdale Horses and Robin Laing's bleak Black Clothes are followed by Peggy Seeger's Love Will Linger On, which is paired with James Taylor's You Can Close Your Eyes.
It is interesting to consider what it is that happens when we take and make a song our own. It is a big claim to call oneself a 'song carrier' as is being a 'tradition bearer' and, don't get me wrong, I don't think David is on such a trip. Do we add to its beauty and power or is there a danger, as Gina le Faux said in the last issue of Stirrings, of getting in front rather than behind the song. I think David presents some great material but doesn't do enough to class as a truly effective 'traditionalist singer'. As a collection of very popular and singable songs this collection is a useful addition to the material from the folk revival and could lead people to seek out the originals. The lack of instrumental accompaniment will undoubtedly disappoint some who are not attuned to the solo voice. I personally don't think David does the songs as much justice as a skilled traditional singer would and his rather affected melodramatic style loses some of the power that resides in these songs. Maybe they haven't been around long enough and gained from repeated singing, but only time will tell. I preferred his more declamatory chorus songs such as Ploughboys and I feel he would go down well in singarounds with a supportive audience, so this is a brave effort and a labour of love, but for me the CD is more a source of words and the core tunes than a recording for sitting back and taking in at home.
Self Portrait Records SPRSK010
Simon Kempston is a Scottish singer/songwriter/guitarist new to me. He plays well and writes a few good melodies – The Canny Man, the only instrumental on this 14 track CD, being a case in point.
He is accompanied by some fine musicians – Adam Sutherland (fiddle), Bob Miller (double bass), William Archibald (bodhran) – and he overdubs his own harmony vocals. Unfortunately these are the only times I enjoyed listening to his voice; it is far too tremulous and the falsetto grates. Most of the melodies are not memorable and the lyrics – besides too often being of the introspective, navel-gazing, here's a scab lets scratch it and see what happens variety – are sometimes clumsy and seem to have been shoe-horned in. Only occasionally did I manage to persevere to the end of a song.
HOMES / LIVES
Ivy Crown Records ICR002
Harri Endersby is a young songwriter and musician who grew up in Co. Durham. She claims to have been heavily influenced by the region's thriving folk scene, but to my ears this is not immediately apparent in either her writing or her chosen musical idiom. The only occasions when any kind of pastoral-rural folk inflection surfaces are on the opening and closing tracks: Intro is a mysterious, mesmerising drone-based reflection, and The Snow is a captivating pizzicato-fiddle-backed picture with building layered vocals. Elsewhere, rather than displaying any overt or specific regional folk influence, it's the pull exerted by the concept of home with all its comforting connotations and the contrary pole of the necessary personal journey away from home, that for much of the time proves central to Harri's lyrics. The voicing of this duality is especially poignant on the album's title song, which is couched in drifting, flowing music of great beauty, whereas the musical climate on several other tracks is more akin to that of Harri's special love, Icelandic electro-folk, from which she draws an essential sense of cool spaciousness (as on Bird & Whale, which is propelled along by steady pulsing electro-beats).
Homes / Lives is her debut full-length release, and has been funded by a Kickstarter campaign. It capitalises on the success of her 2014 EP Ivy Crown, and contains ten songs written over the past two years as well as a revisit of one song from the EP (Bird & Whale). Her vocal phrasing conveys much in its economic gestures, although added (almost Roche-like) harmonies bring a richness of texture that complements the often sparse instrumental settings, which involve Rich Marsh (electric, acoustic and bass guitar) and Curtis Wayne Pierce Jnr. (drums, percussion, synth) as well as Harri herself. Songs like Laughter Lines and Hear gently entreat us to share in her concerns, and we become similarly reassured, while the urgent pleading of Stay Awhile is set to a jittery, jumpy off-beat and Flesh & Bone is distinctly trippy. Homes / Lives is both a concept and a dilemma, the former giving rise to an intriguing and disarmingly personal record, shot through with emotional honesty and thoughtful reflection as well as the comfort of cautious contentment. Even so, it may take a while to yield up its charms, albeit not due to any deficiency in expressiveness.
TOP FLOOR TAIVERS
A DELICATE GAME
TFT Records TFTR001
I saw this Scottish/English/Irish quartet perform in a folk club last year and thought "They're a good band for a folk club." And indeed they were: pristinely professional, entertaining musicians. If I ran a folk club I would book them forthwith. Now, with the help of a pledge campaign, the Taivers have released their first album. And it's just what you'd expect very pleasant. Claire Hastings provides strident and soulful (if occasionally a little shrill) lead vocals while Tina Jordan Rees' keyboards lead the melodies along with Grαinne Brady's fiddle and Heather Downie's clarsach. The songs are a mixture of traditional (a driving version of Johnnie O' Braidieslee and yet another version of the False Bride), covers of Great Masters (Leonard Cohen's Everybody Knows, Richard Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightning), as well as Findlay Napier's Princess Rosanna, Andy M. Stewart's crowdpleasing Ramblin' Rover, and a few numbers penned by group members. My favourite was the closing track, Little Men, Claire's adaptation of a nursery rhyme set to an electronic backing. This welcome departure from their usual style possibly signals a more original future direction for the band. This album ain't going to cause any major ripples, but it's a nice drop in the ocean.
Blonde On Blonde DCT16BB01
Shortstuff are a guitar and vocal blues duo – Dave Thomas and Hugh Gregory – who formed in 1974, and this is a compilation of their 1975 and 1992 recordings. They both sing and play guitar, Dave more than one, and he also contributes harmonica. They are completed by Steve Jinks (percussion, bass etc).
There is no attribution as to who does what on any of the nine tracks in the sleeve notes or accompanying PR, so all I can tell you is that one of them sounds slightly Doneganish on Johnny Cash's Hey Porter, John Mayall's Sitting In The Rain has a rock solid beat, they have J.J.Cales's laid back style down to a T on both Same Old Blues and Magnolia (plucked and overdubbed bowed bass plus duet vocals adding extra atmosphere here), and someone does an excellent Django solo on Dan Hicks O'Reilly At The Bar.
I really enjoyed this. Recommended.
ANDREW COLLINS TRIO
AND IT WAS GOOD
own label, no cat. no.
Andrew Collins is the mando-maestro behind two wonderfully-named Canadian string bands, The Foggy Hogtown Boys and the Creaking Tree String Quartet (whose music has yet to come under my radar, unfortunately). Here, though, he fronts his own trio (with Mike Mezzatesta on fiddle, mandolin and guitar and James McEleney on bass). And It Was Good is an album-length suite of eight pieces (composed by Collins himself) ostensibly depicting in music the Creation story, for which Andrew also occasionally enlists the players of The Phantasmagoria String Quartet to supply additional colour and shading to the sound-picture. The musical idiom is a cross between chambergrass and newgrass (blending of bluegrass and classical think Nickel Creek, David Grisman et al... ), characterised by deft musicianship, careful arrangement, expert control of expressive nuance and an overall attractive listenability.
The suite was inspired by the late avant-garde fiddle player Oliver Schroer, and this can be heard in the multi-layered clarity of the composed textures. Each of the suite's pieces (well, the first seven of the eight movements) is intended as a musical representation of a particular day in the Creation cycle, beginning with the seven-minute opener Light From The Darkness groping into existence and moving on through the awakening world by manner of Stars, Sun And Moon, Fish And Fowl, Everything That Creeps and finally coming to Rest before an exhilarating, highly animated final dance that celebrates life itself (the title track). It's an appealing concept, and each of the musical compositions proves nothing less than highly ingenious, so the end product is highly enjoyable (yes, it was good!). Even so, it may be that for some listeners the all-string instrumental complement may feel a touch unrelieved after a while, notwithstanding the expert, finely-tuned playing and often sublime delicacy of expression that Collins and his colleagues conjure from those strings.
INTO THE LIGHT
Probe Plus Records PROBE 74
Zinney (vocals and guitar) wrote the lyrics of all nine songs on this CD and together with Nicole Collarbone (cello), Viki Rose Goulden (vocals), Merlyn Sturt (viola) and Saul Hughes (tablas), was responsible for all the music, including the first track, Intro, which is an instrumental.
These guys were born much too late – they took me straight back to my London years, in particular the Summer of '68, the Cockpit ( a natural amphitheatre by the Serpentine), Peel doing the intros for Tyrannosaurus (before the T) Rex – just Bolan and another bloke banging a drum, then Ritchie Havens – acoustic guitar tuned to an open chord, using one finger to barré up and down the fretboard – then Sonnenberg (well, no, but they would have been a natural).
They are so much of that era – the classical Indian Raga influence (Intro especially), the 5/4 Pentanglish What Goes Round, the didge like cello drone at the start of Dancer (Zinny at his most Arthur Lee/Alone Again Or) and the compulsive chant in the closer, Better Together (Steven Stills just after the jump from Buffalo Springfield to CSN). Love the one you're with.
BURY ME NAKED
own label RC-008
I'm not keen on ready-made tags, but Worcestershire/Gloucestershire-based Roving Crows are probably best described as a Celtic folk fusion band. Over the past eight years (and slightly different successive incarnations) they've evolved an arresting sound and strong stage presence that takes Celtic folk-rock as we know it into new areas for the genre, not least in the themes and topics expressed in their lyrics.
Bury Me Naked, their third full-length album, opens with a striking "song for the native Americans" which was inspired by Dee Brown's novel Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, and continues via a series of songs about relationships (whether with people or places) New York Love Song, If I Had To Choose, Passing On The Love and reflections on the transience of life (Riverside) and the greedy flotsam and jetsam of humanity (the magnificently discordant Revolution Is Now), to finally come to rest on a swooning, widescreen cover of Jimmy McCarthy's notoriously ultra-enigmatic Ride On.
All of the album's songs bar Ride On and Riverside were penned by Roving Crows' frontman Paul O'Neill, and they espouse the band's clear-sighted environmental manifesto (as expressed and stated in the packaging) in an often intriguingly allusive manner. The musical arrangements are invariably attention-grabbing, weaving the lyrics into a rich yet quite unearthly tapestry with Caitlin Barrett's swirling fiddle high in the mix alongside Paul's guitars and a variety of inventive timbres courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Loz Shaw (bass, keyboards, guitars, clarinet, banjolina, kalimba), all underpinned by a pounding percussive groove infused with tribal and electronica elements.
Roving Crows' signature ingenuity of textures is perhaps best demonstrated on the impressive title track and the ten-minute magnum-opus Glory Bound (the latter's deliberately episodic structure keeping us on our toes), while Caitlin's more dreamy composition Riverside also shows considerable thoughtfulness in execution. Midway through the album there's a fabulous driving instrumental medley (Fire Sky) that's fair guaranteed to get you up on your feet (and keep you there!) pity it's all over and done with in four and a half minutes! After which, it feels like the CD takes a bit of a dip before the majesty of Glory Bound. Not least in that I can't get on with the plaintive meditation The Last Breath; here I feel Caitlin's sublime melody is compromised by Paul's spoken delivery of his passionate environmental commentary. The other track that doesn't quite work for me is Refugee, where the reggae beat is a too-obvious, and ultimately unconvincing, choice of groove for its simple anthem.
With Bury Me Naked, Roving Crows have delivered a record packed with presence, power and passion that is sure to further raise their profile and consolidate their healthy reputation on the wider folk stage.