Some reviews that we weren't able to fit into Stirrings 175...
DANCING WITH THE BEAST
Gretchen’s Nashville superstar status is reinforced and rewarded with a fairly lengthy UK tour during May, June and August (albeit not quite entering the Stirrings catchment, the closest being Leeds), and with her crucial new album which is released to coincide with the tour. Its songs both inhabit a distinct feminist space and put female characters to the fore, but the women’s stories are very accessible and in no way either grandstanding or exclusive.
Context of personal situation is everything to the women being portrayed, whether it's reflecting ruefully on the passing of time (Arguing With Ghosts) or adolescent insecurities (The Boy From Rye), or the effect of change on place and scenery (Truckstop Angel, The Show, Wichita), or the ephemerality of life (Disappearing Act), or the need to just keep a low profile for a while (Lowlands, Lay Low) as a survival strategy. As voiced in the entirely apt Maya Angelou quotation on the package – "Still, I rise" – the key quality of resilience shines through in the women Gretchen portrays, their ability to do whatever they have to do just to stand up in a world built to hold them down. There's a lot of trouble in women's lives, but there's also a degree of hope, as she shows on the touching album closer Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea, simply done with just a pump organ for backing; that song arose out of a dream she had of her mother (who passed away in late 2015).
The atmospheric musical settings prove just perfect for realising the intensity of thought and expression within Gretchen's songs; her select support crew includes Will Kimbrough, Barry Walsh and co-producer Doug Lancio, so quality is assured. This compelling new set surely keeps her at the forefront of the contemporary songwriting scene.
NOW THAT I'M OLDER
Own label, no cat. no.
When someone publishes their own novel, it is referred to as vanity publishing. Now that it is so easy to record and release your own music and given the state of the music industry generally, I'm not sure that this term should really apply, however…
When I first started to go to folk clubs in the early/mid '70s, this is the kind of music that was often on offer, and even then, to my ears, it sounded rather old-fashioned and not my cup of tea at all. At first listen, I thought that it sounded like a group of musicians who used to play together a long time ago and who had then got back together to re-live old times and recorded themselves for the fun of it. Then I read the cover notes, and lo and behold!
One oddity – when played on a CD player that shows track names etc. the title of the album comes up in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS: made me feel like it was shouting at me!
A selection of thirteen tracks with vocals and most of the "standard" folk instrumentation, it is well-enough played and produced (although the accordion is a little too forward in the mix for my taste). The vocals are in a very formal style, giving an overall feel of The White Heather Club, for those with long memories. There is nothing wrong with this of course, and for those who are fans of very trad trad, it'll go down well, no doubt. As I say, just not my cup of tea.
THE GOOD EARTH
Melonstone Records MLNR002
Since his last album, A Yard Of Ale, which I reviewed in Stirrings 156, singer/songwriter Stuart has moved from London To Aberdeenshire – he uses two of Scotland's finest fiddlers, Jonny Hardie and Carol Anderson to good effect on this new, 13 track, CD – and although he is long gone from his native Hull just now and then there's the very vaguest hint of Mike Waterson in his voice: no bad thing.
Stuart still writes a good song – worthy of particular note are the opener Born In A Blizzard (fiddle and guitar, Dylan/Appalachian feel), Dead End Road Signs ('60s/'70s Moody Blues mellotron strings) and Baltimore (piracy on the Irish Sea) – but for me the standout track is his setting of the lyrics Come Where The Willows Are Weeping, un-credited, found in an old copy of Minstrel Melodies.
I also loved the sole instrumental, The Watershed/Bonny Lass Of Kemnay, the combination of fiddle and dulcimer giving it an unexpected, Scandinavian leaning. Recommended.
LAMB, MULHOLLAND, GALWAY
MUSIC IN THE GLEN
Own label, BCD01
This CD of eleven tracks is a debut album featuring wind, reeds and rhythm. The trio was forged from a relationship of twenty years playing together since Conor Lamb (uilleann pipes, whistles) visited Brendan Mullholland (flute) for his first tin whistle lesson. The pair have joined forces with Deirdre Galway (guitar). They draw on their northern heritage in Counties Antrim and Down to play old and new tunes in the traditional idiom. As Kevin Crawford the flute player in Lúnasa has said, "They have that all important ingredient – respect, " and, despite having the ability to play storming reels like The Bothy Band did, they treat airs and laments with delicacy and feeling and pay due acknowledgement to the older players from whom much of their repertoire derives. They are also are joined on several tracks by guest musicians Christine Galway (piano), Neil Martin (cello), Dónal O'Connor (keyboard), Fintan Mullholland (snare drum), Dermot Moynagh (bodhrán). The excellent recording and mixing was by Dónal O'Connor at RedBox Studios, Belfast. They thank the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for support and also many friends and family.
The instruments are beautifully balanced, the pipes never dominate and the guitar is subtly played, sometimes only gently picked. The instruments weave round each other and take the lead as necessary. The tracks are very varied, and after a belting opening set of four old and new reels the second track is The Wounded Hussar, a widely played air (here in waltz time) and attributed to O'Carolan. A song dated 1813 tells of a woman searching the battlefield for her lover. The tune,also known as Captain O'Kane, predates the lyrics and dates to the 1690s. Jigs and slides are also played and there is a lament played on the pipes, Lament for Limerick, which is hauntingly accompanied on piano and cello. That tune was taken down at a harp festival of old traditional players in Belfast by Edward Bunting in 1792 as the old Gaelic order was vanishing. A set of barndances follow, which sound like hop step hornpipes and were composed by Belfast piper Patrick Davey. The Lark In The Morning is a four-part jig played as a duet of pipes and flute. A flute set continues with a hornpipe learned from Frankie Gavin, The Golden Eagle. This is followed by a reel by Charlie Lennon, Around the Room And Mind the Dresser, an injunction to dancers in crowded kitchen set dances. The final set is Farewell To Whisky, the air of a song, followed by the well-known slow reel The Maids of Mitchelstown with the final tune the flowing Clare Reel from the Petrie Collection of 1855.
The CD is a superb mix of old and new compositions and gives a flavour of Northern music from Ireland at the present time. I recommend it highly.
PAUL WALKER & KAREN PFEIFFER
THE WHOLE CHARADE
Crazy Moose Records CM03
From the outset, it's obvious that here we have a very accomplished team, folks who know exactly what they're about and how to do it all properly. Paul and Karen are an Anglo-German duo who already have a healthy following in the Potteries/Staffordshire/Cheshire area; clearly they feel it's time for the next-stage marketing push, for their third CD arrives in style, lavishly and uniquely packaged (complete with images of head-and-shoulders sculptures of the happy couple), brilliantly recorded (produced by Scott Ralph) and accompanied by a long list of tour dates.
Paul and Karen have developed a highly proficient and assured joint performing style, with a clear commitment to engage and entertain their audience (in that respect there's a definite kinship with Cloudstreet and, nearer home, Winter-Wilson). Paul's guitar work is attractive and individual in character, complementing his own singing style and blending nicely with Karen's clear, gently attention-grabbing voice. She sings powerfully, with an occasional (yet undistracting) trace of a German accent – but leaves us in no doubt that she completely understands what she's singing about, as much as she shares with Paul an appreciation of the approved concept and methods of harmony. They also make a keen writing team, and the album showcases six of their well-crafted original compositions, which cover a good range of topics with both insight and affection. Two of the highlights, which here are billed as the CD's bonus tracks, turn out to be re-recordings of earlier songs from the duo's canon, more fully scored with strings and brass and extra vocal layers.
For the remainder of the disc, Karen and Paul tread the boards of the mainstream folk stages with a selection of covers of suitably genial folky crowd-pleasers – courtesy of Brian Bedford (What's The Use Of Wings?), Dougie Maclean (Caledonia), and the repertoire of Christy Moore (Peter Hames' Ordinary Man and Johnny Duhan's The Voyage). These are both respectful and a couple of notches above respectable (although Paul's prone to a touch of over-emphasis here and there). Finally, the album proper is bookended by two separated verses of The Lark In The Clear Air, sung beautifully and a cappella by Karen, and prefaced by a tinkling music-box. (But why? their rationale completely defeats me…)
Yet here's the rub: for in the final analysis, I can't escape the feeling that I'm missing another dimension, since I'm neither lifted up into the heights nor taken deep into the depths by what I hear. Perhaps it's also that I'd have welcomed a less "safe", more adventurous choice of covers? But there's no doubting that Paul and Karen are a class act, and this CD is a consciously well-managed showcase for their talents.
LIGHT THE EVENING FIRE
Own label, no cat. no.
This project took six years to complete – there was no PR with the CD and the website appears to be at a very early stage of development so I'm relying on folkradio.co.uk and the album sleeve for background info – and features singer and musician Greg McDonald, who wrote eight of the ten songs; the other two are traditional offerings, Bows Of London (arranged by Martin Carthy and featuring just fiddle and voices, which works out fine), and The Sweet Trinity (arranged by Greg himself, whose upbeat treatment I found more than a little at odds with the gravity – no pun intended – of the subject matter).
The overall sound is very polished, no surprise with Steve Knightley, Miranda Sykes and Phil Beer (who also co-produced with Greg) involved. The standout track for me was Hope Point, a tragic love song with a hook that could land a Great White – though with at least 40% of the 8 mins.55 secs devoted to an extended outro I had begun to forget it towards the end – and I also enjoyed the dobro and acoustic guitar-driven Little Blue Pills (the misuse of steroids) and the closer, Bright Sparks, tracing the value of protest from John Ball through the Anti-Slavery movement to the Suffragettes. Somewhere between worth a listen or three and recommended.
THE OFTEN HERD
THE OFTEN HERD
Own label TOHCD01
This eponymous six-track EP provides but a brief showcase for the talents of guitarist Rupert Hughes, mandolinist Evan Rhodri Davies, fiddler Niles Krieger and bassist Sam Quintana – collectively known as The Often Herd, and based in Newcastle. Their music is best described as home-grown contemporary bluegrass, brought to your ears with an intimate, charismatic live-in-the-studio vibe where the key quality is one of relaxed excitement. These guys sure know the bluegrass idiom, and play to the manner born, best demonstrated perhaps on a tasty (well paced but unhurried) arrangement of the traditional tune Cattle In The Cane, where deftness and gentle dynamism combine with proven instrumental chops. Aside from a sparky treatment of the traditional old-time hoedown Sail Away, and a straightforward cover of Dylan's You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, the remaining three numbers are original compositions (two by Hughes and one by Davies), for whose simple sentiments easy-going bluegrass picking proves a natural backdrop. In this context, the band are quoted thus: "We just write what comes naturally to us and arrange it using the textures we have at our disposal", and I can find no better way of conveying the attraction of their songs, even while it's less easy to separate them from the image of comforting ubiquity that their chosen name conjures.
Often Herd in the sense of comfortingly familiar, then – and none the worse for it – but the herd mentality may also entail a certain measure of conformity and resultant loss of individuality. Even so, there's no reason why they shouldn't appeal to bluegrass specialists while also providing a way in for a non-bluegrass audience.
Own label NHCDAW001
Northern Ireland singer Niall Hanna (guitars, bouzouki, bass) is more than adequately supported on this, his debut, album by brother Ciaran (concertina, whistles), Rachel McGarrity (fiddle, vocals), Dermot Moynagh (bodhran, percussion) and Dunal O'Connor (piano, keyboards), who is also credited with engineering and mixing duties, and co-producing and arranging with Niall.
Niall is an accomplished musician and a fine singer, at times putting me in mind of the great Paul Brady, particularly in his phrasing and use of ornamentation, though a little softer and more rounded in timbre.
There are nine songs on offer here, seven of them traditional, and although I know some of them from other singers versions – Banks Of The Bann, The Rambling Irishman (some excellent doubled whistles and guitar fills from the brothers here) and The Granemore Hare (fiddle and whistle breaks and doubled unison vocals in places) – I would have great difficulty in singling out Niall's two contributions – the title track, and Sweet Lough Neagh (extolling the virtues of Niall's native Derrytresk in County Tyrone) – if they weren't credited, so closely do they dovetail in to the rest of the album.
YI also particularly enjoyed the concertina and fiddle-driven Castle Kelley's Set, the sole instrumental track. Highly recommended.
THE LONESOME ACE STRING BAND
WHEN THE SUN COMES UP
Own label, no cat. no.
Less a full-blown string band than a trio, in fact – step forward Chris Coole (banjo, guitar), John Showman (fiddle) and Max Heineman (bass), three Canadians whose common bond is a deep love for old-time tradition – and it shows in the easy togetherness in their music. When an album opens with a couple of minutes' worth of joyous, swinging fiddle'n'banjo with a solid thumpin' bass line, it might be reasonable to expect something of a good-time is gonna be there to be had. But in this case, the tune fades out and ushers in a more pensive rumination (O'Grady Road, one of the album's many band originals). This typifies the trio's predilection for the more spiritual and redemptive side of the music, where characters are brought to life in song to confront "mortality, impossible choices and the relentless pressures of change". The band's fresh retelling of the tale of Pretty Boy Floyd also illustrates their stance.
There's a healthy air of real excitement around the instrumental cuts, especially the American Refugee/Winnebago Man set, but for some reason the vocal tracks feel more restrained, the expression and playing both more measured. In the end, the impact is dulled by a certain level pace for the majority of the tracks, and the covers (Never Again, Wayward Wind) don't really catch fire. Proving, I guess, that sympathy and accomplishment ain't everything, however vibrant and committed the playing and singing generally. Somehow, I feel, The Lonesome Ace String Band promise more than they deliver; I was disappointed that their impact was not more lasting.