Some reviews that we weren't able to fit into Stirrings 173...
Cheerygroove Records CHEERY006
This is Findlay Napier‘s second solo album – I reviewed his first VIP, in Stirrings 162 – and is an 11-track love song to the city of the title. He keeps the arrangements simple, just voice and guitar with the occasional addition of Boo Hewardine – who co-wrote three of the six original songs with Findlay – on high strung guitar and piano, and Donna Maciocia on backing vocals.
Of the covers I particularly enjoyed his bossa nova treatment of Michael Marra’s King Kong’s Visit To Glasgow, Clark and McDougal’s Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice (a fine version, although really there’s only Hamish Imlach and then everybody else), and Buchanan and Bell’s A Walk Across The Rooftops (I thought The Blue Nile were uncoverable, but this is outstanding).
Most notable of Findlay’s own contributions are Young Goths In The Necropolis – more than a hint of Don McLean here – and There’s More To Building Ships, a well balanced mix of justifiable pride and social comment. Recommended.
THE BARA BARA BAND
THE SEEDS INSIDE (THE GRAPES UPON THE VINE)
Singaround Records Sing06
London-based folk-roots quartet The Bara Bara Band have been around for close on seven years, releasing two sparky and quite idiosyncratic EPs before going all out on a full-length album (Escape From Clinch Mountain) in 2015, which kick-started their now-trademark mixture of original compositions and enterprisingly-reworked traditional material. Over the years, the remarkably consistent lineup – Ruth Jacob on banjo, bass, tin whistle and harmonica, Rupert Browne on guitar and bass, Will Dobson on drums and Boris Ming on violin – has evolved into a distinctive ensemble that blends the quirkier side of alt-folk with elements of Appalachian old-time, and nowhere is this better illustrated than on The Seeds Inside.
The apparent contradiction of “new contained within the old” is perhaps best exemplified by the band’s take on What Put the Blood, a confident and unusual rendition where the outcome of the tale comes with a grim inevitability after following through different interpretive stages, whereby Rupert’s chilling, precisely enunciated staccato vocal is accompanied first by a pounding drum tattoo then by a loping but still unsettling irregularly-metred rhythmic charge with fuller instrumental backing and introducing a fiery fiddle solo along the way. A track like this wouldn’t have been out of place in a late-'60s psych-folk-cum-folk-rock context, while on the other hand it’s harder to imagine album opener Mists Of Time being recorded in that era, not least in its lyric’s contemporary concept, but also since its musical marriage of plucking old-time banjo and oriental-sounding fiddle riffing also feels (paradoxically) more “modern” (few bands outside of the likes of American roots outfit Kaleidoscope were doing this kind of thing at the time).
By an interesting coincidence, both tracks I’ve namechecked so far draw to their close in a cappella vocal mode; the Bara Baras’ version of The Barley And The Rye is also entirely a cappella, coming full circle with a whispered delivery for the repeat of the first verse fading into the ether. The Bara Bara Band’s vocal delivery is a feature that grabs one’s attention, with an expressive insistence that cleverly moulds with the narrative. It might sometimes recall Stick In The Wheel, but only in the determinedly “local English” aspect, being altogether less raw and untutored – interestingly, the band lists SITW among their influences (along with the ISB, Derroll Adams, Shirley Collins, Rattle On The Stovepipe and Alasdair Roberts: an impressive and revealing list). Quite often during the course of a song the instruments will pull away and leave the vocal exposed for a line or two, as on More And More, a sardonic commentary on capitalism and greed. Indeed, most of the band’s original songs confront desperately contemporary subject matter: Telling Me I Should Know rails against the bombardment of information and misinformation; the plaintive All Look The Same pleads for empathy with refugees by making direct reference to the camps at Calais; and the rollicking On The M25 takes a wry look at one’s progress along that notorious thoroughfare.
On the more positive side, Plimsoll (an arrangement of a broadside) celebrates the achievements of the politician Samuel Plimsoll, who successfully canvassed for better safety on cargo ships, while Wandle is an affectingly lyrical reminiscence centred on the South London river close to the band’s home turf. The album is rounded out with an instrumental romp through Paddy On The Turnpike. In general, a sense of distinct rhythmic adventurousness and drive also characterises the Bara Bara Band’s music, yet there’s a warmly contoured edge to the percussion that propels rather than smothers. The uncredited bonus track’s a rousingly ramshackle feelgood rendition of All For Me Grog.
It’s not always easy to tease out the lyrics from the instrumental backdrops, where there’s often more happening than immediately meets the ear – so you may need to listen harder. But it’s worth getting into, and if you’re looking for a richly inventive alt-folk outfit embracing both contemporary and traditional sensibilities, then the Bara Bara Band collective is for you.
MAIREAREAD GREEN & MIKE VASS
A DAY A MONTH
Buie Records BUIECD04
This album’s title refers to the single day which Mairearad (Annie Massie, the Poozies) and Mike (Malinky) set aside each month to meet and play music together. Although they are both acclaimed composers in their own right, this album is a paean to their deep love and knowledge of traditional music from the Scottish Highlands. Many of the tunes from here have been sourced from books such as the Gesto Collection of Highland Music, the Atholle and Highland Collections and the Moidart Collection. Mike Vass’s controlled, understated fiddling and Mairearad’s punchy accordion make a delight of Gaelic reels, dramatic jigs and beautiful airs. Sometimes backed with deft and tasteful percussion or ambient touches, this is an elegant and warm collection based on the simplest of concepts: friends sharing the pleasure of music together.
THE STRANGE BLUE DREAMS
Holy Smokes Records HSR006
This Glaswegian combo, long used to being go-to players in that city’s underground roots music scene, are – judging from the music they produce for their debut album – true aficionados of the weirder type of old-school high-fidelity pop of the early ’60s where rockabilly met surf music, cheesy beat instrumentals and swinging Tin Pan Alley through filters as diverse as Joe Meek, Roy Orbison, Duke Ellington, doo-wop and gothic country. The band probably scores highest when their parallel-universe-style otherworldly eccentric-eclectic creativity is afforded fullest DIY rein, as on Twilight Zone, the strangely chirpy Ballad Of The Sun And The Moon with its crooning vocal and whistlesome twang, and Jungle Drums which brings in Hot Club and tribal rock’n’roll. There’s a punning yet unpredictable inevitability about the meanderings of tracks such as Lyrebird. Overall the album possesses a strong immediacy commensurate with the upfront radioplay sensibility of the music that inspired it, but some tracks (like Up To The Stars, I’m Falling) seem less punchily recorded than others.
The main drawback with The Strange Blue Dreams, though, is that a number of the album’s eleven tracks (all originals by singer/guitarist Dave Addison) grab your attention and start off great but seem almost to run out of ideas before they decide to call it a day at just over two minutes; likewise, others take off on fab hooks and riffs but the ensuing song melodies don’t quite measure up and the results seem destined to be consigned to the “file under honourably cult” category of which Cramps Jukebox compilations are made. Even so, you can’t deny that these five guys all have a real ear for the weird side, they have the musicianship to carry it off and no stylistic boundaries are considered impassable. Maybe that’s their Achilles heel, for, although they audibly pay respectful and enthusiastic homage to the era they evoke, there’s sometimes a curiously hollow aura to their effusive inventiveness. Or then again, maybe that’s the point of it all.
ANARCHY AND LOVE
Laburnam Bridge Records LABAN040
He writes songs, he sings, and he plays guitars (acoustic and electric). He’s good to very good at all of the above. There are 12 tracks – Rocket To The Moon, Calum and Rory Macdonald’s opener (think Paul Simon/shuffle beat/Graceland) and Robert Burns’ A Man’s A Man, the closer, the only covers. The three instrumentals - two on acoustic 12-string and the third on acoustic 6-string guitars – are slightly Giltrapian and none the worse for that.
When You Love finds him in McTell mode, Benderlich Stone at his most celtic – fine fiddle (Hannah Fischer) and low whistle (Johnathon Potts) – and sentimental on River In The Rain. On a couple of songs, Anarchy And Love and Dying Of Democracy, Adrian speaks some of the lyrics. I know that this is supposed to emphasise/dramatise their importance but for me it does just the opposite, destroying the mood that he has taken such pains to establish (this also goes for the two covers).
Overall, on the cusp of well worth a listen or three/recommended.
SMALL BROWN BIRDS
Azalea City Recordings ACCD-1701
For anyone not in the know, Zoe Mulford is an American songwriter living in the North of England. Known and held in high esteem for her clawhammer banjo style and guitar playing, she has a quality which has had some reaching for the Joan Baez comparison. One she won’t scoff at for sure.
Small Brown Birds is an album whose aim is to search for the joy in the midst of hard times. Sound like a familiar theme? Without wanting to wade even tentatively into any politically deep and treacherous waters, it’s a commendable idea and boy do we need some happiness in our lives as the world wobbles on its unstable axis. Wintery themes are addressed with compassion and honesty, travelling a road that brings hope as the Winter turns towards Spring.
At the heart of Small Brown Birds is a collaboration with English fiddler and member of Stockport’s Pilgrim’s Way, Tom Kitching, who also contributes mandolin in the core band that includes Sam McEvoy’s cajon and Ken Prendergast on upright bass.
Zoe’s fifth album finds her crossing the music of Appalachia and the good old American Songbook with the good old British Isles traditions. And The Beatles. Not an unpleasant surprise at all to hear her banjo skills applied to McCartney’s Blackbird. She also addresses the topical –The President Sang Amazing Grace, her touching story of the 2015 AME church shooting and President Obama’s eulogy for the slain. Possibly due to the content and the sympathetic take, a song that emerges as a highlight, maybe THE highlight, of the set.
Highly evocative is the phrase that springs to mind as the set starts to become engrained. Snow On The Junkyard and Back Door Key ever so melancholy as February Thunder drifts into more ominous territory with some lovely bluegrassy fiddle. Aside from her own original work, she also covers Jack Herrick’s The Queen Of Skye – a glance through the lyrics might suggest some element of sea shantiness about it, a hearty chorus taken at a more sedate pace.
A run of live appearances are already set for 2018, so maybe head north to Bradford or dig out the passports to cross the Pennines where Zoe seems in great demand in some of the folk clubs of the north west. In the meantime, Small Brown Birds is an enchanting listen to be going on with.
LAURA CORTESE & THE DANCE CARDS
Compass Records, no cat. no.
San Francisco-born and now Boston, Mass.-based singer and fiddle player Laura (her surname is pronounced Cor-tay-zee by the way) made quite an impression with her debut CD Into The Dark back in 2013, which was notable for a singer-songwriter album in deploying bowed string textures rather than strummed guitars. There was a slightly dreamy, transparent yet opulent aura to her music, which, though folk-based, owed more to classical and new-age in its expressive accompaniment to her plaintive vocal delivery and enigmatic lyrics.
Laura’s latest CD finds her backed by three fellow-musicians The Dance Cards (fiddler Jenna Moynihan, cellist Valerie Thompson and bassist Natalie Bohrn) with some keyboard contributions from producer Sam Kassirer. He conjures an elegant soundscape to clothe Laura’s songs, which (in line with the album title) for much of the time veers closer to sunshine pop than folk or old-time yet might also be coined ambient Americana. Opening track The Low Hum is little more than an extended series of arpeggios, and the ensuing title track ideally reflects its sunny west-coast image; Stockholm seems to transport us to a chirpy mid-'70s Abba-land, and the programmed-beat-driven Pace Myself is a seductively savvy hit single in all but name.
Laura’s vocal qualities are to the fore on the album generally, and she also commands similarly accomplished harmonies from her Dance Cards throughout. The production makes quite a bit of use of synthesisers and slightly exotic instrumental timbres such as glass harmonica, toy piano and marimba, which detract from the eloquence of the string playing and obscure the impact of Laura’s lyrics somewhat. Thus the result—and the drawback – is that for too much of the time the overall sound of the CD is cloying and somewhat sugary, with little sense of the rootsiness that drove her inspirations on the earlier album (except perhaps on the one traditional number, Swing And Turn/Jubilee). The closing track, a cover of Taylor Ashton’s song If You Hear Me, is a case in point in that respect. However, there are some far more satisfying adventures earlier on the disc, with Jenna’s banjo playing an unexpected delight on a handful of songs and, best of all, the creative multi-string episodes of the ambitious Hold On which make this track the album highlight. Overall, though, a disappointment and an unfortunate case of over-production.
Hobgoblin Records HOBCD1016
Pete McClelland is a member of The Blackthorn Band, ThingumaJig, and Montana Rain, and performs solo on his Turn Of The Tide sea song project. On this, his first solo project, recorded in Shoreham by Sea and Nashville, he is joined by a group of more than competent musicians – The Nashville guys in particular effortlessly providing an authentic Country feel to the whole CD (the eleven songs on offer here were inspired, in part, by a series of road trips made with wife Mannie).
On the opener, The Appalachian Way, I found Pete’s voice a tad tentative; subsequently it became, by turns, strained, too far back in the mix, and on occasion just plain embarrassing.
CAPTSAIN GLEN'S COMFORT
Pons Aelius Music PACD002
Pons Aelius is a young purely instrumental six-piece formed in Newcastle, who take on board a keen infusion of Scots sensibility – this dual-heritage is reflected in their choice of name, taken from a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. Pons Aelius won the prestigious Celtic Connections Danny Kyle Award in 2015, and have since fast gained a reputation for satisfying and involving live performance, the measure of which is ably captured by Mattie Foulds and Stuart Hamilton on their debut CD. The band comprises Bevan Morris (double bass), Callum Younger (percussion), Alasdair Paul (guitar, bouzouki), Jordan Aikin (Highland bagpipes, whistles), Sam Partridge (concert timber flutes) and Tom Kimber (tenor banjo, mandolin) and what immediately strikes the listener is the lightness of texture in the full band sound, the lack of overkill in the spacious arrangements: a quality that enables the more delicate instrumental colours (mandolin and flute especially) to penetrate – and in many instances take a genuine leading role in the music. This has been labelled post-trad, in that it melds age-old tune traditions with a fresh and unhurried, gently expansive gait that’s far removed from the breakneck impress-at-all-costs ethos of the modern-day sessioners and not in any way devoid of technique.
Each of the disc’s eight tracks takes the form of a skilful, considered exploration of a tune – or pair or set of tunes. These are in the main original compositions by band members which build noticeably on traditional forms yet with a cool and somehow liberating vibe and an admirable restraint that stems from listening to each other and the resultant blend of dynamics. It’s not often you hear the mighty Highland pipes played as sensitively as here, too, so listeners won’t be in danger of being deafened and miss out on the delicious colours of the other instruments. These are well utilised for both melody and support, and the mood varies from intricate jigs to pastoral flute pieces, pipe lament to funky mandolin reel, often within the same track. The feet will tap, sure, but the ears will prickle with delight too; you can’t help but get involved.
Deeper Waters Records DWRCD05
Saline Grace are – together with guest drummer Chinaski – Ines Hoffman on bass and husband Ricardo on everything else including words and music, arrangements and production.
I like the music – overall probably Moriccone meets Tornados (remember Telstar?) is as good a description as any – but there are only two instrumental tracks and other than the titles (Autumn Night, The Dream And The Wings, Blacksmith’s Fire. Sapphire Blue, The Silvery Cross, The Cyclone Of Our Seasons, Down By The Banks Of Oder River, and Driftwood) I’ve no idea what the songs are about, as apart from the odd line or phrase the vocals are lost in the reverb. A lyric sheet would have been nice.