I still tend to think of Bella Hardy as one of the bright young things of folk music but she has already done more than enough to justify Postcards & Pocketbooks, a double-CD retrospective, all the tracks remastered by Ian Carter. Bella is an old-style fiddle-singer, a 21st century songwriter and just about everything between. She can bring power to traditional songs and weave old themes into new songs and you can never be sure where her muse will lead her next.
The first disc opens with ‘Learning To Let Go’ from her poppy album, Hey Sammy, built on the pounding drums of John Blease. It sounds like the song of someone still seeking a way forward and if it’s autobiographical then that might explain Bella’s frequent changes of approach. That’s followed by the almost traditional ‘Whisky You’re The Devil’ and her award-winning ‘The Herring Girl’. This could be a traditional song or, at least, a traditional story but there is not hiding its provenance. You might expect ‘Sylvie Sovay’ to be traditional but here again Bella just takes the names and the germ of the theme and works them into something very new.
‘Maying Song’ and ‘The Seventh Girl’ are largely old songs and the first half ends with the first of two unreleased tracks, the gorgeously pure ‘Sheep Crook & Black Dog’.
The second disc opens with a new version of ‘Three Black Feathers’, the song that first made her name. Here it’s pared back to a simple guitar accompaniment by Sam Carter and the experience of nine years is obvious in Bella’s voice. Sam is there again on a new version of ‘Time Wanders On’ and the second previously unreleased song, ‘Tequila Moon’. Other standout tracks in the half are ‘True Hearted Girl’ – a robust version of ‘When I Was On Horseback’ – ‘Walk It With You’ with vocals by Kris Drever and the marvellous ‘Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier’.
The set ends almost where it began with ‘Redemption’ from Hey Sammy followed by the closing ‘Tequila Moon’ based on a chunky guitar part. I’ve heard most of Bella’s albums but Postcards & Pocketbooks succeeds in giving a different overview of her career – a mix-tape that entertains and makes you think a little more deeply about what you’re hearing.
As soon as I started to play Hurry The Jug I was struck by an indefinable warmth in the music that immediately made me feel at home. The trio are based in Sligo where Declan Folan and Shane McGowan grew up – Leonard Barry is from Kerry, which is the other end of the country but not to worry – and their repertoire reflects not just the traditions of South Sligo but their familiarity with those traditions.
The second striking thing, right from the opening track ‘Hurry The Jug/The Pullet Wants The Cock’, was the richness and smoothness of Leonard’s piping. The Uilleann pipes, in expert hands, can do things that neither the Scottish pipes nor the Northumbrian small pipes can do and here we have something of a masterclass. Most of the tunes are traditional but hidden away are the names of Joe Liddy and Tommy Peoples. Leonard and Declan swap lead roles and sometimes take a solo or near-solo. I would have liked to hear Shane have a bigger share of the spotlight but the guitar isn’t a major player in Irish traditional music. I thought that it might happen with ‘The Garavogue/Graf Spey/The Hare’s Paw’ but the fiddle rushes in before he really got under way. The same happens with Declan’s lovely composition, ‘The Carousel’, but this time it’s Leonard’s whistle that jumps in.
The only piece that I’m sort of familiar with is ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ played here as a set dance but there are some really jolly tunes here, notably a couple of barndances, ‘Kitty Shand’s/Bill O’Malley’s’, and the jigs, ‘Father Quinn’s Favourite/The Humours Of Rahey/The Shoemaker’s Fancy’, but the whole set is a splendid affair.
Glasgow’s Doghouse Roses’ album We Are Made Of Light oozes Americana, but it still lingers with the taste of a great Old Chub Scottish ale.
‘All My Days’ rides on a simple guitar as Iona Macdonald’s voice echoes the beauty and swaddling cloth comfort of Linda Thompson and Natalie Merchant. The tune gently strolls a tightrope for a while, and then makes a soft landing on just about any moon. It’s a lovely lullaby of a song.
Paul Tasker enters with harmony vocals and an always clever guitar. The up-tempo ‘Arsenic’ adds that deeper dimension. Oh—a banjo plucks the melody of ‘Elegy For A Seaside Town’ while the voices harmonize an irresistible chorus. This is just simple charm.
Things stay with an acoustic vibe. Of course, ‘The Fermi Paradox’ gazes at the stars in our Milky Way. As Hamlet sort of asked, “To be, or not to be (an Extra-Terrestrial), that is the question”. This tune is downhome perfection with banjo and Neil Allan’s percussion. And then, the song (with an effortless blues stride) morphs into Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ from their brilliant Then Play On album. And it’s a really nice musical dance step that ties this record to all the great British and Scottish players who have revered American roots. The Beatles mirrored Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and The Everly Brothers. And then greats like John Martyn, Michael Chapman, Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, and John Renbourn all touched folky blues. Really, We Are Made Of Light just foxtrots next to The Pentangle’s Reflection.
Then ‘Low’ recalls the folk yearning of Richard and Linda Thompson in their Bright Lights heyday. That’s great company to keep.
Now, ‘First Of April’ bleeds with acoustic soul. Iona’s vocals step gently between graveyard memories. And Paul’s acoustic guitar etches names on those stones. Ditto for “One More For The Road’, with is four-square acoustic tip in any waitress’ good mid-America service jar. Odd, in Scotland’s North Berwick, I once ordered an egg role, thinking the obvious Chinese take-a-way, but was served an egg between two buns. It was a lovely meal. This record is something like that: It’s an unsuspected bonny lunch.
The album’s plot thickens with the final songs. ‘The Reckoning’ is epic stuff with an urgent vocal, dramatic percussion, a webbed acoustic guitar, and dynamic strings. The song really does cut through menacing clouds. But, thankfully, ‘Rise & Fall’ floats with a quiet reprieve just before the storm. Ah, but ‘Why We Fight’ makes that rain fall. And it falls with a heavy melodic deluge, with the violin sawing through the dense damp air. Then, thankfully, ‘Years’ is a reprieve. It’s a life jacket. It’s a buoyant and melodic finale (with sweeping violin) of a quick acoustic moment caught in a sepia melody.
Doghouse Roses, all the way from Glasgow, have touched the music of the great American Redwood trees, and just like those trees who tangle their roots, this music fuses two traditions, with simple melodies, homey instruments, blest vocals, and the shared taste of that (American-brewed and my favorite) Old Chub Scottish ale.
John Richards is credited on his new CD Bring Back The Spring as “John Richards, Songwriter”. And it is indeed quite possible that you have never heard John himself or the many bands with which he has been associated. But there is a good chance you know songs of his through versions recorded by Robin Dransfield, Downes and Beer, Mike Silver, Fairport Convention and other luminaries. Nevertheless, he seems to work tirelessly around the West Midlands despite his intention, announced some years ago, to concentrate on songwriting rather than continuing to gig with the full John Richards Band. Bring Back The Spring reflects his intention to leave behind as few uncompleted songs as possible, and a good thing too. His own vocals, guitar and bouzouki are augmented by a galaxy of fine musicians and singers, including daughter Emma Jones, Mike Silver, Phil Beer, and Paul Downes, and other longstanding collaborators such as Jim Sutton.
Here’s the track list:
‘Tutchen The Jed’ (touching the dead) is a bizarre murder ballad based on superstitions of murderers who were identified by a corpse that bled in their presence (cruentation).
‘Hallsands’ tells the story of a Devon village virtually destroyed by excessive dredging in order to provide sand and gravel for the naval dockyard at Keyham. Very effectively sung by Emma Jones.
‘Look In Their Eyes’ was co-written with Mike Silver, and is an excellent song about immigration and false promises. “They came when invited to make a new start / and find a new life for their children.“
‘Yellows & Blues’ includes the line that gives the CD its title: it’s a contemplative song with a typically singworthy chorus.
‘Young Thomas’ is an absorbing story song about an instance of therianthropy – people who can change into animals (or vice versa). Phil Beer’s fiddle solo towards the end of the song is particularly effective.
‘Never Trouble Trouble’ is a rather classy number with a blues feel.
‘Threadbare Coats’ was also co-written with Mike Silver and contemplates chilling issues of trial by the media and exploitation of the victim.
‘No Blacks, No Irish & No Dogs’ is the final song in this collection co-written with Mike Silver, and addresses the issue of ongoing prejudice with individual stories. I imagine the man from Arkansas in the first verse was Bill Broonzy.
‘Mary Stone’s Waltz’ / ‘The Marigolds’ Waltz’. The waltz that follows this story song was written by Jim Sutton.
‘Cats Eyes & Stars’ is a story song with a distinctive acoustic rock and roll feel.
Despite its funereal subject ‘The Ballad Of An Ordinary Man’ actually has a rather uplifting chorus. I like it a lot.
‘Mrs. Allcock’s Millionaire’ has an attractive melody and makes a good point about not being a “would-be millionaire“.
The lengthy ‘The Unknown Soldier’ / ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ strays into Eric Bogle/Bill Caddick country with its reflections on the Great War, and is a creditable addition to that body of work.
It doesn’t seem to be John’s way to name names, but ‘A Bitter Thing’ is clearly about Alan Turing and “the prejudice of fools“. A very effective song.
‘Billy Shaw’ makes a trenchant political point about war and how people with good intentions are exploited for military purposes – “we went to war on a lie” – and makes a fine end to the album.
Bill Caddick regarded John Richards as “One of our finest writers and singers.” The vocals here by John and Emma are never less than pleasant, and there is indeed quality song-writing here, in some ways reminiscent of Caddick himself, with stories old and new. I can only hope that John has enough songs in him not yet written to lure him back into the studio at some point. But if not, Bring Back The Spring is still a creditable end to his recording career. Certainly I’m glad to have finally become acquainted with his music.
“Delightfully dark” is how I’d describe Neighbours And Sisters, the second album by Brighton collective, Bird In The Belly. I haven’t yet heard their debut, The Crowing, but I expect to rectify that very soon. The group comprises Laura Ward and Adam Ronchetti, aka Hickory Signals, multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor who also produced and Jinnwoo or Ben Webb as I believe we can now begin to call him. If you’ve heard Jinnwoo before you’ll know he has a voice like no other and Laura has one of the few female voices that can stand with him. Put them together and the result is quite remarkable.
Most of the songs are, or were, traditional. Ward and Jinnwoo each wrote one and another comes from a Great War song. I say “were” because the titles have been changed, new music has been written, and the words adapted from the original sources. But it doesn’t matter. These songs have been disinterred from manuscripts in library stacks and give a new lease of life.
The album opens with doom-laden drones: a combination of Adam’s shruti and Tom’s organ at a guess, before Laura’s voice comes in. The song, called ‘Robin And Starling’ by Bird In The Belly was originally a Victorian ballad and the new arrangement maintains the right feel. Other songs encompass death, rape, prostitution, execution and homosexuality so ‘Robin And Starling’ is just about the most upbeat track in the set. Actually, Laura’s song ‘Bees’, enumerating superstitions surrounding beekeeper, is mostly uplifting except for the bit about cutting off butterflies’ heads. The other original song, which closes the set, is Jinnwoo’s ’45 George Street’, about the last two men to be executed for sodomy in this country.
The arrangements succeed in being spare and complex at the same time with Laura’s flute and Tom’s violin providing the principal decoration. That said, they can build up a big sound as they do on ‘New Gate Stone’. I really like Neighbours And Sisters: it appeals to my temperament.
Committed To The Fire was actually released earlier this year, but somehow slipped under the radar; however, albums of such quality should not be allowed to pass undiscovered. A former Page 3 model and actress, despite a musical family background Orpington-born Buirski (and appearing on Top Of The Pops as one of the Page Three Girls in 1977 singing ‘Hold On To Love’), didn’t take up music as a career until she was 30, prompted in part by a chance encounter with Leonard Cohen four years earlier. Although she had previously released two singles, ‘Angel’ as Felicity in 1979 and ‘4 O’Clock In America’ as Felicity Burski in 1981, I first came across her with her 1987 debut, Repairs & Alterations, an album streaked with Cohen resonances, notably on ‘Travelling Home’, and was hooked. It would, however be 12 years before the follow-up, Interior Design (on which the debut’s title track finally surfaced) and it’s only now, following a serious car crash in 2009, that the third of what is planned as a four disc project, Wayfarer – One Woman’s Journey From Illusion To Light (the fourth, as yet undated, will be titled Home), finally arrives, her classically influenced melodies given a country tinge and the spirit of Cohen again hovering.
Recorded with just producer Michael Klein on bass, guitars and percussion and Ian Stewart on keyboards, the thirteen tracks pay testament to her faith and spirituality as they explore various facets and dimensions of love, our relationship with the world in which we live and, well, modern art.
It opens with ‘Collision Of Desire’, a catchy uptempo dobro strum as she sings “I want love and you want lust…You want excitement I want trust”, the theme of love filtered through doubt and uncertainty on the lovely folksy fingerpicked ‘Blow The Dandelion’, a he loves me, he loves me not number that calls Baez to mind as she ponders “is love just a game of chance?Is it written in the stars/On number plates of cars?”
Following the tempo of the title, coloured by synthesised string, ‘The Vampire Waltz’ again addresses the conundrum of knowing whether the new love we have found is real or something we imagine and then try and create and how “when we are cursed with a fixed idea/It’s amazing how many apparitions appear”.
The focus shifts to social commentary with the soaringly sung guitar jangle of ‘Sweet Charity’, initially addressing the allure of charity shops (“Retail therapy for the relatively poor”) but then transitioning into lyrics about how “money won’t find a cure for the cancer in our soul” and that, while charity may salve consciences, “we need to meet each other’s need/With love that’s full”.
It’s not the only track that turns the lens on the wider world. Tinged with touches of Townes van Zandt, the breezy fingerpicked ‘Up Where The Eagles Fly’ is an ecological plea to give the planet a little love and give future generations a chance to live and that “when my body lies dead in the cold dark earth/The only measure of my worth/Will be not what I took but what I gave”. Ostensibly the Cohen-echoing sway of ‘Modern Art’ appears a satirical critique of the patronisation and acquisition of art for financial gain as she sings “Herald the new religion”, but the track works at a deeper level about greed and trading in the human heart, where we “Frame the human spirit/Then hang it on the wall/Make ‘em dance while you call the tune/Make the infinite small” with “Babylon’s whores on the gain”.
Arguably, though, the best of these comes with ‘Who Will Guard The Dog?’ a song about feeling lost, “an outcast separated from my soul”, and the fear of the darkness and the void, with its image of a house barred and shuttered, overgrown with thorns where “the dog is still in chains/Though there’s nothing left to guard/She’s gnawed through the bone of her being alone/And barks at an empty yard” as its ends on a series of questions (“Who will make it better?Who will make it right?”) as it builds to the title’s final line.
Returning to love and relationships, ‘I Will Do Nothing For You’ is surely one of the best end of romance songs about holding on to self-worth ever written, opening with “I won’t paid the town red/Just because I’m blue/And I won’t be unfaithful/Just ‘cos you’re untrue” concluding that “When all our future lies in our past/Stillness breaks the pattern/Doing nothing breaks the cast”.
Accompanied by a quietly rippling guitar, ‘Let It Be For Love’ would be a highlight were it for not only including the word ‘ubiquitous’ in the opening line, but managing to also talk about “Trompe-l’oiel on a massive scale”, the fact that it continues to reveal itself as another prayer for a world of compassion and kindness and that “we’ll always have the choice/Of heaven or hell” merely adds to the scale.
She continues with ‘Nothing To Declare’, another song touched with the soul of Cohen that alludes to the Second Coming. Not to bring “salvation in my pockets” or “redemption up my sleeve”, but Love with “everything revealed” because (recalling an earlier lyric about the blind leading the blind) “there would be no point/In trying to hide it any longer/There was never anything concealed”.
Continuing to channel early Leonard, ‘The Mutual Sigh’ waltzes through a song about the battle of the sexes, its origins stretching back to the Garden of Eden, as men and women are “marching daily into battle/Still wounded by this great divide” in a call for equality with, as she puts in on the sleeve notes “the free man and woman …holding hands either side of their sacred throne”.
She ends with two songs drawing on the imagery of fire, redemption, salvation and rebirth, first up being the lilting ‘Like A Phoenix’ with its lyric about not being imprisoned by anger and pain, but to “let it lovingly teach you/Not become your ball and chain” so you can “rise from the ashes like a phoenix with wings” and you “Don’t let the love of your life be a dream”.
Finally comes the simple fingerpicked yet anthemic title track, about surrendering yourself to the hands of whatever god or faith you hold to be true, to be brought home, to trust not question, to reach within and find the power to seek and find forgiveness and to ascend reborn and transformed in the spiritual, emotional and personal flames.
A magnificent and quietly inspirational album, both a personal testament and a rallying cry to find light and hope in the darkness. Next time, let the trumpets announce its arrival a little.