VARIOUS ARTISTS – Songs of Separation (Navigator NAVIGATOR094P)

Songs of SeparationAn ambitious project, this is the brainchild of double-bassist Jenny Hill who, in the period running up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, found herself frequently on the road away from her Scottish home. As such, and being English, she was struck by the different messages being directed at and from the two nations and decided to address the notion of separation through a musical project. Recruiting Eliza Carthy, Hannah James, Hannah Read, Hazel Askew, Jenn Butterworth, Karine Polwart, Kate Young, Mary Macmaster and Rowan Rheingans, a posse of female folkies from both Scotland and England, they holed up on Isle of Eigg last June to write, rehearse and record (in just six days) what would eventually become this album, its theme of separation embracing the personal, political, social and cultural as well as touching on matters of family, gender, communication, supernatural, home, work, identity and the land.

Polwart taking the lead vocal, it opens with a reading of the traditional number, ‘Echo Mocks The Corncrake’, an appropriate choice given that Eigg is one of this migratory bird’s remaining habitats, its distinctive call introducing the track and echoed in the percussive beats, the lyrics about the separation of two lovers serving as a metaphor for the rural depopulation of the Highlands during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s a robust treatment involving harp, scraping strings bass, double bass and a rousing wordless vocal refrain.

The album continues in traditional mode with Read’s bluegrass-tinged arrangement of Burns’ ‘It Was A’ For Our Rightfu’ King’, a gently yearning melody picked out her acoustic guitar and completed by harp and banjo, followed by the equality and love themed ‘The Poor Man’s Lamentation’ with its urgent rhythm, swirling violins and a capella ending. Further birdsong and the sound of a storm heralds the wholly massed a capella lament ‘Sad The Climbing’ (or, since it’s sung in Gaelic, ‘Trom An Direadh’), recorded live, like the album’s other a capella number, ‘Unst Boat Song’, in Eigg’s acoustically striking Cathedral Cave, itself not far from the site of a 1577 massacre of the MacDonald population by the MacLeods of Harris upon which the lyrics treat.

Driven by choppy percussive arrangement and gathering to a chanted climax, things remain in Scottish Gaelic for the near six-minute ‘Muladach Mi ‘s Mi Air M’aineoil’ (‘Sad Am I And In A Strange Place’), a call-and-response waulking song about a woman and her two daughters being separated from their people and their home.

In contrast to the bulk of the album, ‘Cleaning The Stones’ is an original number (a fish’s love song) penned by Eliza Carthy. Opening with a chamber folk arrangement, it waltzes dreamily on wings of plucked strings and harp arpeggios like something from the music halls. A little more birdsong, and it’s a journey way back in time and to the far reaches of the Shetlands for ‘Unst Boat Song’, a prayer for the safe return of fisherman sung on the original Norn with Polwart taking lead.

Sung by Hazel Askew with the others providing harmonies, the lullabying music hall tune of ‘London Lights’ may be more familiar as ‘Just Before The Battle Mother’, an American Civil War song written by George Root, the lyrics here about the destitution fate of abandoned single mothers. Heading into the final stretch, the harp shimmering ballad ‘Sea King’ is a handclap backed intricate setting by Kate Young of a poem by 19th century Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger, a variation on the selkie myth about a woman who, years after being transformed into a mermaid, returns to shore, human again, only to find she has now has no home on either land and the sea.

Lady Maisery’s Rowan Rheingans steps up for another original, the strings-swathed ‘Soil And Soul’, a song inspired by both the hills known as The Old Woman of the Moors on the Isle of Lewis and the translation of the Gaelic for Eigg, The Island of the Big Women (a reference to the 7th century female Pict warriors sent to rid the island of Christianity-peddling monks), while the title (and the theme) stems from a book by Scottish environmental campaigner Alastair McIntosh.

Concerned with separation and loss as a result of conflict, personal or otherwise, ‘Over The Border’ weaves together a number of traditional tunes and a collective original, among them ‘The Flowers of Knaresborough Forest’, ‘Blue Bonnets Over the Border’ and pipe lament ‘The Floo’ers of The Forest’, plucked harp and Indian harmonium drone giving way to shared vocals by Polwart and Carthy before the ensemble joins in and violins, guitars and percussion lift the tempo for a rousing dance reel and the optimistic refrain of ‘the gates and the borders will all fade away’.

Finally, Robert Frost’s classic poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ provides the inspiration for’ Rheingans’ ‘Road Less Travelled’, her vocals joined by Polwart and Young (who also lent a lyric hand) on an suitably banjo-dappled accompaniment behind which, recorded in the open air, birds trill and the wind blows as they exhort “lay your cares and troubles down” and “sing your own way home”.

There’s no better way to end this than by quoting Hill’s words in the booklet:

Songs of Separation is an ‘SoS’, reminding us that this connection between people, and between people and place, is the key to overcoming the challenges we face, both in our communities and in this fragile world of which we are temporary custodians.” Come together, right now.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Website: http://www.songsofseparation.co.uk/

Cathedral Cove:

Rachel Hamer Band record debut album

Rachel Hamer Band record debut album EFDSS Grace Smith Graeme Armstrong Graeme Miles Martyn Wyndham-Read Mike Nicholson Rachel Hamer Rachel Hamer Band Robin Dale Sam Partridge The Keelers The Unthanks The Wilsons The Young'uns

A Newcastle folk band with strong links to Teesside is set to record its first album, thanks to a bursary in memory of one of the North East’s most acclaimed songwriters.

The Rachel Hamer Band has been named as the latest recipient of the award made by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) and the award winning band The Unthanks in memory of Middlesbrough songwriter Graeme Miles who died in 2013.

This is the second memorial bursary, worth £1,200, to be given. The scheme is administered by EFDSS and supported by The Unthanks through fundraising concerts.
Continue reading Rachel Hamer Band record debut album

MERRY HELL – A Grand Night Out (Focal Media)

MERRY HELL A Grand Night OutThree albums to the good and a growing reputation, Merry Hell, have seen fit to release a live DVD. Having seen the band perform live and reviewed their last excellent album The Ghost In Our House and other stories…, I slipped the DVD into the player with some anticipation. I was not disappointed.

The selection of songs come from across the three albums and with exception of the elusive ‘No Money’, which I have yet to catch live, all my favourites are in evidence.

The first thing that hit me was the high quality of the sound recording. I actually wondered, initially, if the track was overdubbed, but could see after a few minutes that it was the actual live soundtrack. The performance starts a little restrained and then eases into more comfortable delivery. Not unusual for any live show.

So, what we have here is Merry Hell moving from jig, to light folk to Celtic rock and all colours between. Top of the list, for me: ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After’, ‘There’s A Ghost In Our House’, ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ and ‘BLINK… and You Miss It’. Although, I am sure you will all have your own favourites if you are a fan. If you have never heard any of Merry Hell’s music you really are missing out on some damn fine folk/folk rock.

Not seen Merry Hell live? Well, here is the next best thing. Support the band, buy the DVD and have a Grand Night In.

Ron D Bowes

If you would like to order a copy of the DVD then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need via the folking store as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘The Baker’s Daughter’:

Ray Cooper – Palace Of Tears

Ray Cooper makes rare London appearance
Photograph by Günther Wolffe

Ray Cooper states:

It is a bittersweet album about living and working in Northern Europe over the last quarter century. I tried to avoid nostalgia but many songs deal with the past and how is can never be reclaimed. The sound of the album is placed firmly in Northern Europe too, with the addition of Swedish musicians and some songs that reference Scotland, Sweden and my roots. All of this seen through the prism of the Swedish winter as I look out from my studio.

Ray Cooper is an independent singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist currently living in Sweden. His first solo album Tales of Love War And Death By Hanging was released in 2010. The second album, Palace Of Tears was released in August 2014 in Europe and September in the UK.

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Born of a Scottish mother and an English father, Ray Cooper grew up in England and started to play in bands when he was 16. Moving between rock, punk, pop and world music, and working as a singer, bass guitar player and cellist, he finally hooked up with Oysterband in 1988 and began a long exploration into his own roots. Moving to Sweden in 2000, Cooper continued playing with Oysterband, eventually touring in 27 countries and recording 19 albums. In 2012 they won 3 awards from BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for best group, best album and best traditional track and were dubbed by FROOTS magazine as one of the 3 ‘Icons of Folk’. Despite their success, Cooper took the decision to leave the band and go solo in February 2013 and has since been touring Europe extensively.

Tales of Love War and Death by Hanging has a strongly historical theme and was recorded in a small log cabin in Sweden. The sound is simple but at times evokes a much bigger scale. Citing influences such as T-Bone Burnett, Ennio Morricone, Johnny Cash and June Tabor, Cooper played cello, guitar, harmonium, mandolin, mandola, harmonica and kantele to accompany his songs. His second album Palace Of Tears is more of a singer songwriter album but retains a distinct nordic flavour with the inclusion of Swedish fiddles and the Finnish kantele which runs like a seam throughout the album.

It’s about my experiences of living and working in northern Europe over the last quarter century. I define myself as a northern European now, rather than being Scottish.

Artist’s website: http://www.raycooper.org/

VARIOUS ARTISTS – The Journey Continues (Fellside FECD272)

VARIOUS ARTISTS The Journey ContinuesPaul Adams’ Fellside Recordings has been doing its thing for forty years now. That includes giving young artists an early break, reissuing long-deleted albums and putting together collaborations like Song Links. The label celebrates with this triple-CD compilation – at a very attractive price given the number of rarities and lost gems it contains. As Paul explains in his notes, this set follows on from the 30th anniversary set, Landmarks, and concentrates, although not exclusively, on the last ten years.

Fittingly, the set opens with an unreleased track from the label’s longest serving member, Bram Taylor, one that is particularly affecting given the recent death of its writer, Andy M Stewart. ‘The Valley Of Strathmore’ is the sort of music that Fellside built its reputation on – good folk music, sung well with no messing about. Later tracks will suggest that some messing about now goes on but that’s the way times change.

The first disc features more of the same: A.L.Lloyd’s ‘Rambling Sailor’, Wendy Weatherbury’s uncompromisingly Scottish ‘Wars O’Germanie’, ‘The Gardener’ from Grace Notes and Rachel Newton & Lillian Kinsman-Blake’s ‘Bonnie Lassie’. In contrast there is the stomping ‘Jungle Queen’ from The Maerlock Big Band, folk-rock from The Queensberry Rules and Elbow Jane and the mischievous ‘Madeleine’ by Frankie Armstrong. That covers the first twenty tracks.

The second disc concentrates on new artists who have joined the label over the last decade intermixed with some old faces who have dropped in or returned to the fold – the sequencing seems a bit arbitrary at times. The first track is ‘A Beggar’ by Ewan McLennan, one of the best new voices on the scene. Other new arrivals featured include 422, Pilgrims’ Way, James Findlay and Joe Tilston with Hughie Jones, Hedy West, Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick and Peter Bellamy amongst the oldies. For variety there are also two tracks from albums released on the jazz label, Lake, by The Jake Leg Jug Band and Hot Fingers – both come from the folk/jazz interface and are great fun.

Finally we have “A bit of a detour” – tracks that predate the decade under consideration. This is a real nostalgia-fest as many of the source albums are long deleted and there are voices that we won’t hear again in this world: John Rennard, Bobby Eaglesham, Barry Skinner and Dave Brady. The absolute highlight is a magnificent version of ‘The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow’ by Janet Russell but there are delights at every turn.

For your (not very much) money you get fifty-seven varied tracks, copious notes by Paul Adams and a complete list of the Fellside recordings – when you’ve collected them all let me know.

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Dai Jeffries

Label website: www.fellside.com

RUNRIG – The Story (Ridge RR078)

RUNRIG The StoryThree years on from celebrating their 40th anniversary (they began life in 1973 as a trio, The Run Rig Dance Band), the Hebridean folk rock outfit have decided to call it a day, bringing down the curtain with a farewell tour and one final studio album, their 14th.

I remember first encountering them back in 1985 with the release of Heartland and, in particular, its accompanying single ‘Dance Called America’. This was followed by The Cutter And The Clan and, while it stalled outside the Top 40, it did yield the only Scottish Gaelic language song to chart in the UK Top 20 in the shape of ‘An Ubhal as Àirde’. Things took off on a national scale with 1989’s ‘Searchlight’ which reached number 11 and positively exploded in the early 90s when The Big Wheel and Amazing Things soared to  number 4 and number 2 respectively.

I caught them live on several occasions, one memorable gig being at a local university where they had the room going crazy for their rocked up version of ‘Loch Lomond’, always a live favourite. They struck me as a Celtic Folk Rock answer to U2 with their passionate vocals, pounding drums and ringing guitars. But then, in the mid-80s, the bubble burst. Mara stalled outside the Top 20, and, in 1997, singer Donnie Munro left to pursue a career in politics, to be replaced by Nova Scotia’s Bruce Guthro. The follow-up, In Search of Angels scraped into the Top 30 but The Stamping Ground, the first album of the new millennium failed to dent the Top 50. I have to confess that, while there were still occasional flashes, I felt the band had lost its spark. Proterra, recorded in collaboration with Paul Mounsey, failed to register in the Top 100 and their last album, Everything You See, too often sounded like it was just going through the motions.

However, for their final outing they have, as producer and keyboard player Brian Hurren says, tapped into the primal essence of the band, giving it a nostalgic feel that, compounded with orchestral flourishes from the Prague Philharmonic, rekindles those glory days like a phoenix from the flames, sounding like a band at its peak rather than one retiring. As ever, there’s a mix of English and Gaelic, as in the title track opener which, sung by founding member Rory MacDonald, begins low key in Gaelic before switching to English as it launches into a trademark anthemic chorus and lyrics that bear testament to the strong connection between the land, the culture and the people that has always been at the band’s heart.

With a swirling, atmospheric intro and sax embellishments ‘Onar’ (Gaelic for alone) picks up the baton for another surging, nature-themed track with a background of tribal grunts, then it’s into the six-minute ‘Rise And Fall’, a low key ballad with a dawn mist swirl of keyboards and military snare that again speaks of memory and endurance.

Hurren’s brief piano interlude, ‘Elegy’, gives way to the gently rippling ‘Every Beating Heart’, a hymn to love with the title line delivered like a choral refrain, and, sharing the same heart and with yet more nature imagery of seeds and saplings, the pointedly-titled anthemic reflective ‘The Years We Shared’. Indeed, as might be expected, reflection of things past looms large as a theme, and it’s there again on the organ-couched ‘When The Beauty’ with its windswept guitar and melancholic brass, the song ending with a coda of Guthro singing unaccompanied in Gaelic.

Things get slightly funkier with ’18th July’ (“the day when love was leaving”), a midtempo march beat rhythm and bluesy reverb guitars driving the solidarity-themed lyric along with a rousing ‘can we ever stop believing’ chorus that wouldn’t feel out of place on a vintage Journey album.

While the title track is partly sung in Gaelic, ‘An-Duigh Ghabh Mi Cuairt’ goes all the way and, while I have no idea what it’s about (hopefully finished copies will have a lyric sheet) the emotion in its yearning delivery needs no translation.

Revisiting their ceilidh origins, ‘The Place Where The Rivers Run’ brings on accordion, pipes, snare and acoustic guitars for a nostalgic dance tune that looks back over “the treasure in 40 years“, recalling stripping the willow, loading up the van and home driving through the night. The curtain falls in grand style as the Prague Philharmonic step up to the mark for the spiritual ‘Somewhere’ with its cosmic panorama, intimations of mortality and talk of immortal souls, and it’s hard not to feel a lump in the throat as Guthro sings “can’t bear to leave this path of years” and how “somewhere in the dark I’ll find you, somewhere in the light I’ll meet you again“. Until then, slàinte mhath.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: http://www.runrig.co.uk/

‘The Story’ – official video: