MATT McGINN – Lessons Of War (own label)

Lessons Of WarInitially, moved by seeing the image of a young refugee washed up on the shore, the County Down singer-songwriter set out to write a single song about the futility of war and, over the course of three years and reaching out to musicians from war zones, that turned into an entire album exploring how conflict has affected not just the people of Northern Ireland, but people all over the world affected by conflict. That song now forms the initially strummed and gradually building instrumentation title track, ‘Lessons Of War’ (and has also led to a documentary), recorded at different locations around the world and featuring Anthony Seydu from Sierra Leone adding vocals and percussion in a call to those in charge to hear the voices of those that “have been ransomed” to their command, ending with the Citizens of the World Choir, a London based choir made up of refugees from war-torn regions, singing “as-salamu alaikum dayimann” – peace be with you.

Featuring double bass, piano and dobro, the album opens with ‘Writing On The Wall’, a litany of the harrowing impact (“families that were ransacked and left to decompose”) of the unholy alliance of warmongers and profiteers. McGinn’s voice at times recalls fellow Irishman Ben Glover who, in fact is his co-writer on the bluesy shuffle ‘I Was There’ which, featuring jazz flute and organ notes ranges from Belfast (with its references to the Catholic/Protestant divide of taig and hun) to burning crosses Montgomery and the tent city of Calais as witness to the hate “in everybody’s heart”. It’s then followed by the slow march pace of the self-explanatory ‘Refugees’ (“ghosts of who we were”), written with fellow Co. Down songwriter Brigid O’Neill and again inspired by the image of the drowned boy, with Jon Thorne on double bass, Gretchen Peters’ accordionist Barry Walsh, backing vocals by Breige McGinn and the legendary Mickey Raphael on mournful harmonica.

Co-penned with Mick Flannery with Vyvienne Long on cello and McGinn on piano accompany Ciara O’Neill’s vocals, ‘Bubblegum’ is especially rooted in “the troubles”, the lyrics inspired by the diary of a teenage girl caught between matters of the heart (“I like Johnny/Down the street//But I don’t know if he likes me”) and the hard realities of bars being blown up, curfews, soldiers on the streets and the knowing line about how “ Daddy pinned up Bobby Sands for me right next to my Madness poster”.

It’s appropriately followed by Stephen Scullion co-write ‘Child Of War’, a cello-driven (this time by Karen Porter) first person lament on “a lowly child of woe” who “can’t undo the things I’ve seen”) and from there, Yazen Ibrahim on nylon string guitar, to the plaintive acoustic ‘An Suaimhneas’ (One Day of Peace), sung in Gaelic and written with Grainne Holland.

He again cedes the microphone on ‘Lyra’, his piano and Long’s cello backing Ria Maguire on a spare song written on the morning of her funeral about Lyra McKee, the young journalist who was shot reporting on a riot in Derry, though its hope that her death might bring people to their senses proved overly optimistic.

Again given a minimal arrangement, here muted jazz piano and drums backdropping the vocals by McGinn and co-writer Ciaran Lavery, ‘The Hunt’ is another song in search of resolution (“I’ll find you and take you home”), the album ending with Porter’s cello and John McCullough on organ accompanying McGinn on the lovely folksy slow waltz ‘When Will We Learn’ calling for an end and asking how many bridges must be burned and how many more guns will speak before we listen and learn. The more songs there are like these, perhaps the nearer we might get to an answer.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.mattmcginnmusic.com

‘Bubblegum’ – live:

LETITIA VANSANT – Circadian (own label)

CircadianLetitia VanSant’s debut album Gut It To The Studs was released eighteen months ago and had several memorable tracks on it which suggested that her decision to move from secure employment to the uncertainties of a music career wasn’t that bad an idea. She releases Circadian in February.

Very delicately, ‘You Can’t Put My Fire Out’, the opening track on the album is an emotional masterpiece. The song takes you through VanSant’s journey of recovering her self-worth after a violent encounter. The lyrics take you on the journey over time from the silence of not screaming, to the emotional weight of “Too long you’ve lived inside my mind”, to the external view “You never cease to poke and prod”; …and then to recovery “I’m the one who’s speaking now/You can’t put my fire out” and the final two verses of recovery. This is pretty powerful on the page. Watch the video below and you’ll see what VanSant does with it as a song – tentative, delicate finger picking at the beginning growing through the song to hammered strumming as her self-worth is reasserted.

This is followed by the second track, ‘Tin Man’, a song about an individual or a song about masculinity? Dunno, but this too is rather good – the song’s narrator wanting to be let in emotionally to a man who won’t let her, taught by his father that “boys don’t cry” and not seeming “to understand that your pain becomes mine”. The title, ‘Tin Man’? This is also rather lovely contrasting the narrator’s question of “Am I banging on the hollow chest of man made of tin?” with the later line referencing the Wizard Of Oz “Even the Tin Man was searching for a heart”. She describes the song as: “Our culture makes it very difficult for men to be emotionally vulnerable. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, but I know what it is to be a person who loves one and wants to connect”.

The Americana style that VanSant plays is known for dissecting emotions but these two songs are sophisticated and beautifully match the music, the melody and the emotional tug of VanSant’s vocal to the lyrics.

Other highlights include ‘Most Of Our Dreams Don’t Come True’. Is the central image of losing a stillborn child an individual story or a metaphor for us all (or both)? Again, dunno – but the vocal and the playing are lovely and at its finale it’s another tale of overcoming, so that you can “stand up tall”.

‘Circadian’, the title track, was inspired by an article about light pollution and is a reflection on whether we should simplify our lives and “sing along/The music the world made before we/Drowned it out with all these machines”. The final track, ‘Rising Tide’ shows that VanSant can (country-)rock it as well – a lively end to the album, but still with a thoughtful-cum-vicious lyric about the modern world in which Wall Street money has “plans for our pockets, cigarettes for our lungs/Poison for our babies and bullets for our guns”.

Circadian is Letitia VanSant’s second album and you feel she is leaving behind the label of “emerging talent”. Just take out “emerging”, there are some rather good tracks on this album. She is on tour in the UK from Late April to early May, details on her website.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://www.letitiavansant.com/home-1

‘You Can’t Put My Fire Out’ – live:

CAVE FLOWERS – Cave Flowers (Hard Bark Records)

Cave FlowersCave Flowers’ self-titled album burns its own brand into the worn leather of alt-country rock ‘n’ roll.

And that’s a difficult thing to do.

The Eagles commercial sound didn’t help the genuine genre. Many years ago, about the time with ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ or ‘Take It To The Limit’ ruled radio air waves, I saw (the great) Neil Innes of Bonzo Dog fame, in some London pub. He played a song with perfect 4/4 time and an irresistible melody. As an American, I felt right at home. But then the tune went on and on, and quite frankly, couldn’t find its way out of Hotel California. At the ten-minute mark, I got the sarcasm. By the way, the song was called ‘Boring’.

I mean, alt country is sort of Americana’s reggae: The form has strict rules, a certain expected sound, a cowboy hat or two, and a pledge of allegiance to Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s brilliant album, Everyone Knows This Is No Where. Let’s face it: those songs like ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’ and ‘Down By The River’ are sonic pictographs graffitied on the Cavern’s rock ‘n’ roll walls.

That’s a tough act to follow.

But Cave Flowers pump blood life into the EKG of all things Americana. ‘Best Lonesome Friend’ has the big and glorious gas tank full-overdrive eyes-open road map-fast food fueled sound, like Son Volt, The Rave-Ups, Cowboy, Translator, Uncle Tupelo, and our unsung hero (and American treasure) Alejandro Escovedo. This is throttle open Jack Kerouac prose. Andy McAllister’s vocals hang on the hope for no more dust storms and vibrate like the wind against a prairie sod house.

‘Renter’s Life’ is a prayer to better times, with guitar sonics that touch the heavens. And the vocals sing a low solemn ode to old time music. This is Crazy Horse ‘Danger Bird’ stuff.

But the album has the alt country (without the rock) vibe. ‘Country Fan’ dances with lovable percussion and a barrelhouse piano. The Band’s ‘Rag Mama Rag’ comes to mind. Andy McAllister sings “My gut has a hole where all the drinking songs go”. Yeah, it’s that kind of record. ‘Midnight Movie’ has a great lyric worthy of Ray Davies’ Misfit ethos. This is such a fluid song, with whiskey vocals that anchor the song into the backstreets of sincere late-night flickered fantasy. ‘Hideaways’ is strummed with a rebellious Phil Ochs’certainty. This is dramatic country rock, with the tough beauty, perhaps, of a Lewis and Clark campfire sing-a-long. ‘Upperhand’ almost strangles in its dense folk-rock confession. But then, Henry Derek Elis’s guitar sings the song into a sublime collective ‘Mr. Soul’ bluesy orbit.

There is more music that escapes Neil Innes’ sarcasm. ‘Trick Tears’ is slow dance country purity. ‘Friendly Reminders’ answers with a quick pulse and an emotive vocal. ‘The Stranger’ continues with the equally quick folky pace and a deep memory of an electric guitar solo.

Ouch! ‘Greatest Hits’ rocks with the folky guitar spit that doesn’t want to play obvious songs to people who want to hear obvious songs.

In his own way, Neil Innes, with his satirical song, did the very same thing.

And then ‘Little Worries’ stretches passion about getting old, and well, “getting stuck” in all sorts of situations. The song is a quiet resolution to the complexities of life. Sure, it’s a tough illusion “to join me on this island”, but at least it’s an idea, an idea with the comfort of country alt rock that touches a beautiful tradition.

This album is old, and it is new; then it is old and new all over again. It rocks; then, it doesn’t rock. That’s the gist of a really nice record, a record that sings Jack Kerouac, and then manages a soft, but very melodic folk-rock alt country landing.

But, ultimately, this is an album of Cave Flowers, those oddly beautiful growths that vibrate, like brand new sonic pictographs, that will always be painted—with all the other great graffiti–on any Caverns’ forever rock ‘n’ roll wall.

Bill Golembeski

Artists’ website: https://www.facebook.com/caveflowers/

‘Best Lonesome Friend’:

GILL LANDRY – Skeleton At The Banquet (Banquet Records)

Skeleton At The BanquetGill Landry releases his fifth album, Skeleton At The Banquet, this week with a couple of launch gigs in London on January 28th and 29th. His previous solo albums have been well-received but he is probably better known as a member of the Old Crow Medicine Show from 2004 to 2014, receiving various awards including a Grammy.

The songs on Skeleton At The Banquet snuck up on me – pleasant enough on a first play but grabbing me more and more on subsequent hearings. Landry’s voice has the same kind of baritone timbre that tells you its owner has been there, seen it, survived it (Kristofferson-ish – and whatever that ‘it’ may be) and is now enough in control again of his life that he can play this back to us (Cohen-ish) in songs that beat slower than most hearts at rest. The tunes have lovely melodies and there are some great lyrics full of equivocation intermingled in them.

The link below is to ‘I Love You Too’. “I was glad to share your bed/Often for a night or two/Should have probably smiled instead/When I said that I love you” and the subsequent exploration of the relationship. It’s not romantic – a song about the potential cruelty of saying I love you – but it doesn’t half cut to one aspect at the complex heart of our relationships.

‘The Refuge Of Your Arms’ takes the equivocation in Landry’s lyrics into most lines of the song from the opening “There’s victory in surrender” or the later ”Simple truths turn complex lies” to the poetry in other lines “Hungry ghosts on crowded streets/Empty hearts tween dirty sheets” or “Thirsty souls in whisky bars” and then the yearning chorus of wanting to go from the anonymity of the streets to a place “Where I knew no harm/The sweet home I used to know/In the refuge of your arms”.

Landry describes the album as having been written “two summers ago in a small flat in a coastal village in western France. This all gave me an objectivity I didn’t even know I was looking for and led to me writing this series of reflections on the collective hallucination of America and a few love songs for good measure”. Titles like ‘Trouble Town’ and ‘Nobody’s Coming’ (“Everyone hoping they’re more than slaves”) give you a sense of Landry’s take on wider American society. My favourite of these songs is ‘The Place They Call Home’ which not only has a lovely rolling tune (with a glorious bit of mood-setting-violin from Odessa Jorgensen in a couple of places) but a lyric which is disturbing in its commentary on the American Dream.

It’s worth coming to a close with a note on the wider musicality of the album. I mentioned above the slower-than-resting-heartbeat beat of most songs – but there are also a couple of tracks with a more up-tempo feel in ‘The Wolf’ and ‘Angeline’. The album ends on ‘Portrait of Astrid (a Nocturne)’ – an instrumental which is what it says.

There are nine tracks and Skeleton at the Banquet is a fine album. After his London dates, Landry is in Holland in early February and returns to the UK for more gigs between February 11th and 19th.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: http://www.gilllandrymusic.com

‘I Love You Too’ – official video:

ANDY WHITE – Time Is A Buffalo In The Art Of War (Floating World FW046)

Time Is A Buffalo In The Art Of WarThe first time I saw Andy White he still looked like Bob Dylan circa 1966 – I think I admired his nerve. I’ve tried to keep up with him since then and there are a couple of passages in his autobiography that I still like to quote. Time Is A Buffalo In The Art Of War is his fourteenth studio album in a thirty-five year career and it’s about the things that his music has always been about. In fact, there is a quotation in the booklet that sums it up: “It’s our world and this is how I see it”.

Andy is supported by long-time associate Rod McVey on keys and saxophone, son Sebastian on drums and John Dreyfus providing strings (synthesised?) with extra brass from Kelly O’Donohue and Renn Picard. There are only nine tracks but several of them are quite long. Even when he just had an acoustic guitar Andy was a rocker at heart and here he takes the opportunity here to stretch out a bit. For all the messages in his songs he hasn’t forgotten that music is also supposed to entertain.

The first track is the eight minute ‘Last Train’ and as to what it’s about, please see above. It’s built on an insistent rhythm which I’m sure is McVey doing something clever and Andy plays guitar and bass and enjoys a workout at the end. The song is blessed with not one, but two killer hooks and provides an overview of our problems. If we don’t get on the train we’ll reach the point when ‘The Shit Hits The Fan’ and the second song poses a series of questions; where will we be? what can we do? where’s the plan?

‘Running Round In Circles’ and ‘Friday Night’ both have the vibe of nostalgia with passing references to David Bowie and Bob Dylan. Of course, there’s a lot more than that going on but “Rock and roll will never ever die”. ‘Armageddon #4’ has a rallying call amongst its despondency and ‘Fly If You Want To’ is a sort of lopsided love song. I’ll confess that I haven’t really got to the heart of the other three songs yet but each time I play the record some lines stick in my mind. The thing is; even if you don’t take in the messages first time, or at all, these are still bloody good songs and I’ll be happy when I’ve finished writing so I can just sit back and listen to them.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: https://www.andywhite.com/

‘The Shit Hits The Fan’ – official video:

FIERCE FLOWERS – Mirador (Celebration Days Records)

MiradorFierce Flowers’ Mirador is a delightful French album of folk music that travels from Paris to Americana backwoods with sepia tinged vocals, guitar, banjo, viola, and double bass. This one takes a lot of Appalachian twists and hexagonal turns. France has a wonderous history of folk music with albums from Malicorne, La Bamboche, Tri Yann, and Francis Cabrel. That’s 70’s stuff that I love. And don’t forget the great French-Canadian records by Seguin, Garolou, Le Reve Du Diable, and La Bottine Souriante, all of whom passionately embrace the distant root of The Song Of Roland.

So, imagine my surprise when the first tune, ‘Song Of The Open Road’, vibrated with banjo beauty and down-home heavenly bluegrass harmonies! My only thought was exactly the same as Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, as he accidentally discovered the (sub-atomic unstable particle) muon, and then simply said, “Who ordered that?” But, never fear. It’s a great song with a spritely gait and a wonderful vocal. Sometimes, a new meal on the menu is a pleasant surprise– if it’s deep in tradition (with a few eggs), spiced up with organic flavour, a bit of pepper, and the universal sound of a pretty good banjo.

Odd: The second (and title) song, ‘Mirador’, finds French folky history that’s sung in their native tongue. This is wonderous folk music with urgent vocals, an acoustic guitar, and an eerie viola that still mourns the death of Joan of Arc. And then ‘Tell Me No’ returns to a bluesy pulse, which, quite frankly (no pun intended) pleads with vocal harmonies, banjo pain, the muddy waters of the insistent Mississippi River, and the passion of John Lennon’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. Odd (again), ‘La Corde’ is French voiced with a melody that flows deeper down river and touches the Cajun tradition of the Bayou that sort of pleasantly saws its way through its melodic world.

True story: I was in Paris (hence the connection to the review!) years ago and entered a Tai restaurant with a Tai menu – no French, English, or (even) pictures! So, I just pointed at a few things. When my wife asked about the order, I said, “It’s anyone’s guess, but I think it’s going to be good.”

The very same thing can be said about the rest of this album. And that’s the flux of this record: Backwoods bootleg whiskey brushes the Seine’s flow, and beyond that, it’s simply wonderous folk music with haunting melodies and really nice harmonies. ‘Thorny Path’ is patient and beautiful with another spooky viola solo. This is hoodoo stuff. ‘Cette Ronde’ is a nimble-fingered guitar song that echoes the prowess of Richard Thompson’s ‘Vincent Black Lightning’ (which isn’t a bad thing at all!). ‘Deux Pierres Noires’ is a brief acapella interlude. ‘Belle Paresse’ leaves America behind, like Charles Limbourg, and land squarely in a French beer garden and sings to those who order introspective drinks. ‘Tell Me Lies’ returns to the slow sad pace of Americana country. And those harmonies weep with universal tears. ‘Scene De Danse’ switches trains (again) with a quick step that jumps the broomstick and marries all sorts of traditional melodies.

Then, ‘How To Fly’ is folk perfection with abstract lyrics, a slow groove, that beautiful banjo, a sip of that before-mentioned backwoods bootleg whiskey, and exquisite harmonies. The final song, ‘Underwear In A Letter’, is another acapella tune that is brief (again no pun intended), weird, very poignant, and makes the singer “laugh and cry”.

So, yeah, tears and laughter make great food, and this music cries and laughs. Mirador is that lucky choice on a strange menu. And to anyone who ever uttered the question, “Who ordered that?” after stumbling upon a scientific discovery of muon magnitude, I’ll simply quote my friend, Kilda Defnut, who is, of course, fluent in French, and is apt to say, whenever she confronts clever music that slakes her audio appetite, “Faire mes compliments au chef”.

Bill Golembeski

Artists’ website: www.fierceflowers.com

‘Mirador’ – live: