As is often the case in folk bands, several members take the lead vocal. This is very common I have to say, we do it in my own band, but on an album (not just this one), I feel it tends to make it sound a bit more like a random collection rather than a coherent whole. The vocalists each have their own strengths and I definitely prefer one to the others: I'm not going to tell you which one though, you'll have to listen for yourself.
I try not to just list all the tracks in a review – it's on the sleeve for all to see, but one on here I found especially captivating. It's called Red Falcon and has a treated violin section, heavily referencing the tune of Silent Night; almost sounds like an oboe, ethereal and haunting.
Summing-up then, this is well-written, well-played, well-recorded folk-rock and well worth your tracking down.
MISNER & SMITH
Scribble On The Wall Music no cat. no.
Two voices, one acoustic guitar (Sam Misner), one double bass (Megan Smith), and eight covers. That's it; all you need if you know what you're at – and these two do.
The duo's voices are pure, clean cut and work particularly well when harmonising, although both unison and solo passages are also above par. Instrumentally too they're good enough to resist being flash – egos on the back burner, keep it fairly simple and let the songs breathe.
Their choice of covers is impeccable – Paul Simon's America, Gram Parsons' Return Of The Grievous Angel, Coconut Grove (The Lovin' Spoonful), City of Dreams (Talking Heads), It Makes No Difference (The Band), Turning The Century (Dr Dog – a new one on me), and my two favourites, Neil Young's ExpectingTo Fly, and Patty Griffin's Making Pies. Highly recommended.
PLEASE SING A SONG FOR US: THE TRANSATLANTIC ANTHOLOGY
Talking Elephant TECD 400
The Humblebums? Well, "everybody knows that" for most of their existence they were a duo comprising those unlikely bedfellows Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly, a chalk-and-cheese yet also peculiarly complementary teaming that recorded for the Transatlantic label during the fecund years of 1969 and 1970. One could say too that they proceeded during that time to "open up the door" for other ostensibly unpromising collaborations. But with hindsight, as listening to this latest two-disc "complete recorded works" anthology reveals, The Humblebums had a lot going for them in spite of their different personalities. Note first, however, that The Humblebums didn't even make it onto record in their original incarnation, which was Connolly plus bluegrass-style guitarist Tam Harvey. Rafferty joined, then "three was a crowd", so Harvey quit shortly after the release of the short-lived by-then-trio's debut LP First Collection Of Merry Melodies. The set in the main favoured old-fashioned good-time-flavoured songwriting, with Connolly's rapidly-developing quirky humour in the ascendant and a few rollicking raggy/old-time covers (and even a Carter Family number) thrown in but no writing input from Rafferty. Returning to the LP after some years, however, it comes across as better than I remembered it, a not unsatisfying period-piece with a surprising charm quotient – if on some tracks almost a victim of its own "c u jimmy" impenetrability. And several of Connolly's songs of that period carried a distinct whiff of first-album ISB in their quaint whimsy.
Subsequent albums The New Humblebums and Open Up The Door explored and exploited both the commercial possibilities and awkward artistic dichotomy between Connolly's whimsical life-reflections (he reserved the broad, often irreverent humour for the stage act banter) and Rafferty's altogether more introspective songwriting, juxtaposing the two styles with an almost equitable alternation of writing credits. That The New Humblebums was a sea-change after Merry Melodies was apparent right from the opening track, which spotlit Rafferty's distinctive voice crooning gently against a chamber-orchestral backdrop reminiscent of the first Kevin Ayers album. The contrast with Connolly's writing (largely whimsical good-time, but with a couple of sensitive songs thrown in) was an uneasy compromise, but it all made for an unexpectedly satisfying listen (despite the relative unevenness of Side 2 which concluded with Connolly's mock-vaudeville Silk Pyjamas and the First World War song Good-bye-ee!). But, heard with hindsight, The New Humblebums nevertheless contained several pointers towards each participant's future writings, in particular Rafferty's somewhat McCartney-esque acute pop sensibility, which was to become even more prominent on album number three, Open Up The Door; this swopped its predecessor's soft-hued orchestrations and banjo-tinted frays for pop-rock-oriented band arrangements. Shortly after its release, frustrated by being booked into unsuitable venues by their management, the duo split, Connolly to concentrate on his increasingly lengthy between-song comedy routines and Rafferty to form Stealers Wheel (with Joe Egan) before embarking on a fully-fledged solo career.
This Talking Elephant anthology gives us not only the entire contents of the three Transatlantic LPs, but also both sides of the ill-fated 1969 single and five outtakes from the third-album sessions – all definitely worth having. But considering the intentionally comprehensive scope of this latest anthology, it's a pity that there is no accompanying booklet charting the history of The Humblebums, just a reasonable 300-word potted career overview on the inner sleeve. If you have, or can find, the (identically-titled – and actually slightly more "complete") previous two-disc reissue of the Humblebums' recordings (Sanctuary, 2006), the earlier release is to be preferred. It scores above this new Talking Elephant set by containing, in addition to the above, four further bonus radio session tracks and an excellent booklet essay. In the absence of the Sanctuary set, however, this new Talking Elephant release is an eminently recommendable purchase, for the music it anthologises is after all really rather good.
A Cure For the Curious
The Fretless TFCD004
This is another of those albums that at first glance invokes a reaction of "yeah, so what?", since it's been produced by a fortuitous teaming of award-winning young musicians, and comes proudly brim-full of brilliantly accomplished playing and inventive musicality. Solasta comprises fiddler Elisabeth Flett, cellist Hannah Thomas and guitarist Jamie Leeming, all already sought-after performers in their own right, and their debut album, while not exactly an entire "cure for the curious" in its most literal sense, certainly proves well worth investigating. It's described as "a bold reimagining of Celtic sounds, and a meeting-point between virtuosity and curiosity"; I like that tag, for it has more than the ring of truth in its economy of expression, mirroring a comparable quality in both invention and execution. For the three musicians wear their individual and collective virtuosity lightly, and play with imagination and flair, allied to a keen sense of blending of timbres, techniques and instrumental effects.
The album presents six tune-sets, two separate individual tunes and two songs. Taking the tune-sets first, these mix time-honoured contemporary material like Gordon Duncan's Pressed For Time with items from the likes of Phil Cunningham, Mairearad Green and Gavin Marwick and a sprinkling of self-penned tunes. The press release makes specific mention of "elements of classical, jazz and early music", but the sheer exhilaration of the playing transcends potential expectations from all three genres. The stand-alone tune Lost And Found, penned by Elisabeth, is a highlight, as is the evocative Whitecaps medley, which calls up playful water sprites and features wordless vocals. Closing track Port Na bPúcai takes the traditional tune of that name as a springboard for a spellbinding, atmosphere-laden improvisation.
The two songs receive particularly interesting treatments: Bedlam Boys is jittery and fittingly disturbed – and very fast! – whereas Terror Time builds hauntingly around its central cello drone. The booklet doesn't identify the lead vocalist on either song, more's the pity, but these are intelligent and provocative readings that indicate a clear propensity for creative reworking. More please!
A Cure For The Curious proves a very impressive and thought-provoking debut for this (quite literally) "luminous, bright, shining" new teaming.
LIVE FROM THE ART FARM
Own label, no cat. no.
The Fretless is a Canadian quartet of string players who play their own take on traditional music – by which I mean mostly traditional Irish tunes treated to playful, energy-fuelled, syncopated and coordinated creative arrangement. You're unlikely to have heard of any of the individual musicians – Trent Freeman, Karrnnel Sawitsky, Ben Plotnick and Eric Wright – but yeah, these guys sure can play! As anyone who caught their sets at this year's Shetland Folk Festival or Edinburgh TradFest will doubtless testify.
Listening to this album without having seen the quartet live, I might at first be tempted to single out the anchorman contribution of cellist Wright, but then again, attentive listening into the other parts reveals other driving forces at work that are equally responsive and are heard to make intriguing new clothing from relatively familiar material. Live From The Art Farm is a direct follow-on from the quartet's previous (third) record Bird's Nest, and (opening tune Macleod's Farewell aside) concentrates almost exclusively on the Irish tune repertoire, topping up only occasionally with a self-penned item by a group member. The reaction of the Upstate New York audience to the vibrancy and spontaneity of the musical adventures is as enthusiastic as the band's performances, and there's a real buzz to the occasion that's faithfully captured by the excellent, close-miked recording.
The musical landscape fairly flies by the observation window, and can sometimes seem a touch whirlwind, and (perhaps curiously) repeated listening tends to produce a repeat of that reaction, so maybe on reflection the absolute immediacy of the live experience is after all the best way to gauge the resounding success of the players' invention. But then again, there's a considerable spell cast by moments of poised comparative repose like the stately Dawning Of The Day (Fáinne Geal An Lae) or the more measured sections of The Killavil Fancy, which is also truly hard to resist. The sheer thrill of these intimate yet big-hearted explorations of traditional tunes is well to the fore throughout the album's all-too-brief 38-minute set.
THE LITTLE UNSAID
The Little Unsaid turns out to be a very apt name for a band centred round the creations of songwriter John Elliott – in the sense that in his lyrics little is left unsaid, for his songs are charged – one might say supercharged – with extreme emotional honesty. Overpoweringly so: indeed almost – though not quite – to the point of this being a barrier to their appreciation; and perilously close on occasion. So far, John has released five albums under the Little Unsaid banner, but it was only with 2017'sImagined Hymns And Chaingang Mantras that John made The Little Unsaid into a four-piece with the recruitment of drummer/programmer Tim Heymerdinger, viola player Alison D'Souza and moog and bass player Mariya Brachkova.
The enthusiastic championing of John's work by Reveal label boss Tom Rose (now the band's manager) has now resulted in the release of album number six,Selected Works, a what-it-says-on-the-tin retrospective-cum-career-to-date-primer consisting of remastered tracks carefully selected from albums 2 to 5. Unfortunately, the uninformative presentation neglects to identify the sources of individual songs, and all I can tell you is that six of the selected 15 are culled from the most recent (Imagined Hymns…) album. Also (IMHO) the band's cause isn't helped by the omission from the disc's (glossy, arty, little in the way of content) booklet of those all-important lyrics (to get which you'd have to buy the original releases, it seems).
All this notwithstanding, it's evident even from limited exposure to The Little Unsaid's music that it celebrates a sense of community built from shared joys and sorrows, through music that's often profoundly (yet illogically) moving and shot through with a shared energy that's genuinely uplifting despite the often downbeat nature of the private, even insular experiences being related. The heart-rending disc opener Day Is Golden, fast becoming Elliott's "greatest hit", deals with his suffering with – and eventual healing from – mental illness. Several other songs also advocate the rebuilding of one's life in a compassionate, creative and patient way, while acknowledging the potent sense of disconnect that modern life engenders and in the meantime allowing the ghosts in the machine to surface. John Elliott's cathartic explanatory track notes (supplied with the album's press release) prove mandatory reading, in which context the presentational shortcomings of the actual purchasable package could be viewed as even more serious deficiencies, in not doing the music sufficient justice.
Issues that are conventionally difficult to get a handle on are mirrored in suitably uneasy, yet at times strangely comforting music. The actual sound of the band is epic and unusual and certainly pushes boundaries – but it has more in common with indie-DIY and moody, slightly trippy post-punk new wave (straddling the ether in between Joy Division, Magazine, Radiohead, Peter Gabriel and Portishead, perhaps) than with confessional s/s or folk. Not a problem for me, but a potential stumbling-block for the more traditionally-inclined Stirrings readers. Having said which, though, I admit I'm seriously hooked.
ALL THAT RECKONING
Toronto's Cowboy Junkies have always occupied a special place in my musical consciousness, ever since the desolate, desperate, lonesome beauty of their 1988 Trinity Sessions album reached out to me, grabbed my heart and hooked it right in. That album truly was "like a whisper that cut through the noise". That definitive Cowboy Junkies musical signature – with slow-burning instrumental action the heartbeat behind and underneath Margo Timmins' achingly sultry, sensuous voice, onto which graceful, haunting landscape drives Michael Timmins' electric guitar in distortion-drenched lyricism… the spacious heaven of your dreams.
And here, thirty years on, the self-same team (siblings Margo, Michael and Peter Timmins with bassist/keyboardist Alan Anton) is still making totally compelling music. While other bands have always had to shout or play loud, Cowboy Junkies have always made their mark with concentrated, hushed low-volume expressiveness. The formula that sounds like it should by rights have worn stale by now is still every bit as intimate and mesmerising. This is partly because the core Cowboy Junkies sound is so unique and distinctive – it literally has no imitators – and it is seemingly capable of virtually endless reinvention; in other words, they've mastered the art of subtle and imaginative variation in expression. Also partly because lyric-wise, Michael still has plenty to say, both politically and personally (often simultaneously – the mark of an important lyricist). On All That Reckoning, Cowboy Junkies' first new studio creation since their epic four-volume Nomad sequence that ended in 2012 with The Wilderness, Michael's authentically heartfelt and hard-hitting commentaries reflect the fragility of the state of the world we live in, mirrored in the sculpted contours of melody and rhythm that rely less on conventional country, rock and Americana soloing than on the generation of pure atmosphere. The album's title song, which crops up in two different incarnations (parts 1 & 2), is a key example of Michael's special ability to use the conventions, terms and phrases of a love song a metaphor for wider human concerns and a commentary on the instability of society. Having said that, there's a cryptic, almost elusive aura to his disaffected meditations, and there's often a feeling that all is not revealed – at least immediately – and there's something else lurking within the shadows of the prose.
Also lurking with intent this time round is a kind of "altered state" feel to the instrumentation, difficult to pin down but where especially on the second half of the disc, from Sing Me A Song onwards, there's a certain cranking-up of the electrics in tandem with an increased use of subtle keyboard parts and backwards-tape shifts, all of which accentuates the feeling of quicksand under the feet all in spite of the absolute solidity of the bass line. And the final song on the album, The Possessed, departs entirely from the aforementioned Cowboy Junkies sound in featuring principally a ukulele to accompany Michael's vocal in its curiously attractive relating of an encounter with the devil (another thinly veiled allegory?). Another departure from the standard Cowboy Junkies practice is that the "additional musicians" credits for once do not include long-term collaborator Jeff Bird – instead we get guitarists Bill Dillon and Aaron Goldstein, together with James McKie on fiddle, and Jesse O'Brien on organ and piano, all of whom are sparingly used for maximum effectiveness. Cowboy Junkies ring the changes, yet remain utterly distinctive, and All That Reckoning adds up to another abnormally fine album.
Clannad – the Irish folk band formed in 1970 in Gweedore, Co. Donegal by siblings Máire, Pól and Ciarán Brennan and their twin uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan. Initially, their stock-in-trade was the wild, untrammelled purity of the traditional songs and tunes they'd grown up with or laboriously collected from local singers on their travels, performed uncluttered with a largely acoustic palette (primarily guitar, harp, flute, whistle, harmonica and bass) and relying on their own inborn musicianship rather than studio intervention or production. They made three albums during the first decade, and were a popular touring act in Germany from around 1975.
This live-in-concert recording, made by Radio Bremen in 1980, was the band's first live radio recording ever. It's a brilliant snapshot of the band at an absolute pinnacle, capturing the rugged quality of their native landscape with a remarkable purity that was never to be replicated thereafter during any part of the band's career. This was a point at which everything was about to change for the band with the arrival of Enya and her keyboards and the road to mainstream adulation was followed and embraced. So, for those who didn't get to latch onto Clannad until post-Crann Úll (Clannad's pivotal 1980 album), the unadorned acoustic purity of the band's music-making in those early years is likely to come as a revelation. There's none of the imperative to make an impression with tricky showoff note-spinning or epic washes of cinematic keyboard sound – just the relaxed, joyous artistry of five musicians completely at home with their music, whose eagerly-embraced role is to communicate the music with respect for the tradition whence it sprang and to keep their audience informed and interested.
The easy-going, natural demeanour of the rapport between the band members really brings out the beauty of the music, while the lively erudition of the song introductions – sometimes lengthy, but necessary for context – ensures the audience is as involved as the band in the stories and messages. The effortless solo and ensemble playing and naturally tight vocal harmonies are evidence of the close-knit family music-making that characterised this phase of their career. Interestingly too, the closeness born of fact of upbringing was accentuated when each of the band members stretched out into a spot of jazz improvisation (as opposed to session jamming), as on then-customary finale Nil Sé 'n Lá (on blind-listening, you might even think you were listening to Tull at one point). And I can't leave this review without spotlighting the exquisite singing and harp playing of Moya (Máire) Brennan herself – truly magnificent.
Yes, this Turas gig was as good as it got, and the previously unreleased 95-minute set enshrined on this pair of discs, which has only recently come to light, is something to be treasured. It also serves as a perfect memorial for Pádraig, who sadly died in 2016.