DARIA KULESH & MARINA OSMAN – Firebirds (own label)

FirebirdsFirebirds was recorded by Daria and Marina for sale at gigs – although you can also buy it from their website. The fifteen tracks were recorded in single takes to get as close to their live sound as possible and they left the occasional giggle in.

Most of the tracks are traditional – or nearly traditional – Russian songs and I should explain that Daria and Marina are very popular with London’s Russian community for whom they mostly perform. The record in sequenced as a live set as far as I can judge. The opener, ‘Oy Moroz, Moroz’, is a drinking song about frost and it would be rude to suggest that these are popular Russian concerns. It’s followed by ‘I Watch The Snow’, one of Daria’s own songs, and ‘Shchdryk’, a New Year’s Eve song – think of the Mari Lwyd without the horse but with similar results for the ungenerous. That’s winter neatly dealt with.

Next up is their multi-lingual version of ‘Those Were The Days’, which was traditional once and is performed with all the fire and passion that Daria and Marina are capable of as well as much enjoyment. Is it wrong to suggest that Daria’s singing sounds more natural in Russian? I don’t know but I do feel that the words flow more comfortably. Marina is a classically trained pianist with the whole weight of Russian music behind her. Her biography is a fascinating read and I believe that if she played Tchaikovsky he’d probably lose.

My other favourites among the Russian songs are ‘Korobeiniki’ and ‘Dunya’s Ferry’, both up-tempo pieces well-suited to dramatic performance. There are three songs from Daria’s first solo album, Eternal Child: ‘The Hairdresser’ – it really is a true story – ‘Fake Wonderland’ and the lovely ‘Fata Morgana’ and the album closes with ‘Kalinka’ which seems to have been removed from its origins over the years but Daria and Marina have tried to restore it. The packaging of Firebirds is minimal but you can download notes on the Russian songs from the website and sound as knowledgeable as I pretend to be.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.daria-kulesh.co.uk/with-marina-osman/

‘Those Were The Day’ – in the studio:

OLD MAN LUEDECKE – Easy Money (True North Records TND731)

Easy MoneyThe Canadian folk artist Old Man Luedecke released his sixth album Easy Money on June 7th. Luedecke is a previous winner of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Juno awards and I suspect might get one or more nominations from this album.  He has written ten of the twelve tracks. The overwhelming sense is of an insightful songwriter who wears his profundity lightly and who is all the more acute because of it.

Luedecke has a singing voice which has a laugh not far from the surface in its intonation. Musically, the album has a strong sense of banjo and calypso; how can I put this – neither of these are creators of a mood of Wagnerian seriousness. The combined effect of all this is to create an album which is both delightfully fun and delightfully biting.

The second track, for example, has a jaunty tune and is called ‘Dad Jokes’ (which are “the death knell of the vestiges of cool”). It has a refrain “Ain’t it hard when all you want is more”. So far so amusing. But the verse in the middle is from a serious fool of a songwriter, able – like an Elizabethan jester – to be more incisive because of the musical style, jauntily delivering verses such as:

When I fell for you my love and wooed and won your hand
I gained the key for us to be in the promised land
But then came renovations and we had to pick a floor
Ain’t it hard when all you want is more”

Move over Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright III.

Most songs are in this kind of territory, but there is also room for something totally light in ‘Sardine Song’ – a calypso influenced paean to sardines (yes, really) and including homage to toast, tomato, mustard sauce etc.

The most powerful song, though, is ‘Death Of Truth’. It is at the other end of Luedecke’s spectrum, it opens with a Cohen-intonation (the song was influenced in part by Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’) and is quite simply serious. It’s a personal song about the passing of Luedecke’s father, who died a week before the inauguration of the current US administration; it’s a political song about the death of truth in our politics. Luedecke interweaves the two threads in a track which is only twenty lines long and, while being very personal about the loss of his father, is as good a critique of current politics as I’ve heard in the past year or so. With its thoughtful tune and down-played arrangement, I think this all combines into a great song.

In addition to his own songs, the album is completed by ‘Le Ciel Est Noir’ (the French version of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and the traditional song ‘The Mermaid’.

The Vancouver Folk Festival has described Luedecke as “a musical singularity to be savoured and shared”. He is on tour in the UK throughout August, predominantly at Festivals but also at Cecil Sharp House.

Mike Wistow

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‘The Death Of Truth’ – official video:

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars (Columbia)

Tucson Train Bruce Springsteen
Photo credit: Rob Demartin

Released today, Western Stars is Bruce Springsteen’s 19th studio album. A beautiful sweeping soundscape, which for me musically, conjures up the image of a rancher looking out over a large expanse of a Western dusty land. Stallions gently whicker to the sound of a transistor radio, playing sweeping Southern California pop records from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Its beautifully laid back, with themes of distance, travel, dusty highways, reflection and wanderlust. The opening track ‘Hitch Hikin’ gets under the skin of that ‘rolling stone’ spirit that Springsteen does so well, the characters that pick him up, the observations that are made along the way. Like the photos and mementos from a loved one on the dashboard or hanging from the rear-view mirror. The stories that are told on the ride, by the different faces of the drivers and the appreciation shared for the vehicle which bonds the strangers in some connected way.

‘The Wayfarer’ follows with itchy feet and a strings section to put distance between this town and the next, a tale of night travel when most are at rest, the ‘wheels hissing up the highway spinning round and round’ and dreams of moving on ‘When I go to sleep, I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head’. There is a sense of longing and looking for that ‘one that got away’ as brass heralds the call for what is longingly missing as organ fades out.

Things then pick up a pace as the clicking percussion wheels on the tracks lead in to ‘Tucson Train’ with horn section announcing its arrival. Its probably the most ‘what you would expect a Springsteen track to sound like’ one on the album but then again, Western Stars is not your typical Springsteen album which makes it special. It’s a song of regret and ‘fighting hard over nothing’ and perhaps reconciliation is in the narrative as the words ‘my baby is coming in on the Tucson Trainsuggest.

Somewhere North of Nashville’ with its stripped back feel could have fitted well on The Ghost of Old Tom Joad album as it tries to recall that misplaced melody, somewhere down that lost highway, tallying up all the things that could have been done differently or better. As I said earlier, Springsteen digs lyrically deep on this record and perhaps there is no better example than ‘Stones’. Family and relationship, emotionally delivered ‘I woke up this morning with stones in my mouth – you said those were only the lies you told me’, just fantastic, interlaced with pining Orchestral strings.

“This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”

The 13 tracks of Western Stars were recorded chiefly at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey, with additional recording in California and New York. Ron Aniello produced Western Stars with Springsteen and the album was mixed by Tom Elmhirst with contributions from more than 20 other players.

A many faceted, sublime body of work from the ‘Boss’, evoking a Nashville tinged sadness of nostalgia, mystery love, distance, the road and endless highways and cinematic open desert spaces. Its sweeping range of American themes are musically set to orchestral arrangements of strings, horns and pedal steel and grounded in themes of seclusion, community, home, hard work, family and hope. Its a real treasure to be treasured.

Darren Beech

‘Western Stars’ track listing…

  1. Hitch Hikin’
  2. The Wayfarer
  3. Tucson Train
  4. Western Stars
  5. Sleepy Joe’s Café
  6. Drive Fast (The Stuntman)
  7. Chasin’ Wild Horses
  8. Sundown
  9. Somewhere North of Nashville
  10. Stones
  11. There Goes My Miracle
  12. Hello Sunshine
  13. Moonlight Motel

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SKIPINNISH – Steer By The Stars (Skipinnish Records SKIPCD28)

Steer By The StarsSkipinnish have had a spectacular couple of years since the release of The Seventh Wave and now, as they celebrate their twentieth anniversary, they find themselves at the top of the tree in contemporary/ traditional Scottish music. Now an octet with Angus Tikka being replaced by Charlotte Printer on bass and fiddler Archie McAllister they press on with a new album, Steer By The Stars, to mark their birthday. Angus MacPhail is still at the helm as principal songwriter with Norrie MacIver on lead vocals and the twin highland bagpipes of Andrew Stevenson and Alasdair Murray. They point out that the band’s youngest member, drummer Rory Grindlay, wasn’t born when the band first got together.

The sea is never far from Skipnnish’s thoughts, either literally or metaphorically and Steer By The Stars is no exception. The anchors of the opening track, ‘Anchors Of The Soul’ are of the latter variety as the song looks to a bright future for the Gaels. The title track combines both – the singer is clearly at sea but is also thinking about the person waiting at the end of his journey. From now on we’re definitely in maritime mood. The first song in Gaelic, ‘Coire Bhreacain’, is written in shanty form and although my Gaelic doesn’t amount to much, I do know that Coire Bhreacain is the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow stretch of water off the northern tip of Jura.

Next is ‘Last Of The Hunters’, one of the big anthemic songs that Skipinnish do so well. It’s a hymn of praise for deep-sea fishermen but Angus isn’t parochial and the name-checks circle the entire British coast. This is a song they’ll be playing until the seas run try. In ‘Land Below The Waves’, Angus writes of the Western Isles and his desire to be out at sea again. It’s back to Gaelic for ‘Thar Sàil (Over The Sea)’, another big song but unless I missed the point, it’s about the ferries that ply the Minch. Although they aren’t named it has to be a nod to CalMac!

‘The Atholl Set’ is the second instrumental track – one for the festival dancers – and we’re just about back on land for ‘Wishing Well’, arranged and produced by Malcolm Jones. It’s what a colleague of ours would call a “swayalong” but I’m greedy enough to want to hear more of Malcolm’s guitar. Phil Cunningham composed ‘The Youngest Ancient Mariner’, a gentle interlude for about a third of its length until the pipes take hold of it. There is a traditional ‘Puirt Set’ next and then ‘Still We Run’ harks back to the thoughts of the opening track. ‘Goodbye’ isn’t completely self-explanatory from the title and finally the band return for a set of jigs.

It only struck me at the end that, in Steer By The Stars, Skipinnish have programmed a live set and then recorded it – with all the ebb and flow you want from a concert. There are several guests, including pupils from two schools on the first track but I should mention Jarlath Henderson, Gordon Gunn and former Runrig keyboard player, Brian Hurren. The guests blend seamlessly and like all good visitors, don’t outstay their welcome. You’ll hear a few bars of whistle or mandolin but only if you don’t let the music sweep you away.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Wishing Well’ – official video:

JOHN TAMS – The Reckoning (Topic TTSCD006)

The ReckoningThe Reckoning, John Tams’ third solo album, is the latest deluxe re-issue marking Topic Records’ 80th anniversary. Originally released in 2005, it was the last of a trio of albums that might fall into the singer-songwriter category and the culmination, as far as recording goes, of a career that now stretches back fifty years. Tams has also been an actor, composer and musical director among other roles he’s taken on over the years but is best known for his membership of Muckram Wakes, The Albion Band and Home Service.

The first thing that struck me on listening to The Reckoning again was how gentle it is. Tams is a political thinker but he doesn’t rant in song, preferring to let the ideas enter your mind by a process of osmosis. Take the opening song, ‘Written In The Book’. On the one hand it seems to be a condemnation of the false hopes of the sixties: “Lennon and McCartney have a lot to answer for” and on the other it’s an attack on Thatcherism. ‘Safe House’ is equally complex. It’s clearly about the dispossessed but are they immigrants, Travellers, or the unemployed detritus of industrial decline? Probably all three.

There are several traditional songs here – at least they were once traditional and Tams labels them as such despite the work he’s put into them. ‘Amelia’ is absolutely gorgeous: obviously in shanty form but it leaves us wondering whether it’s ‘Amelia’ who is out on the sea or her sailor who is trying to get back to her. ‘Bitter Withy’ is modernised with Graeme Taylor’s Dobro over Andy Seward’s banjo and ‘A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ is transferred to the Derbyshire and Yorkshire coalfields and 1984.

‘The Sea’ is a song cycle which includes ‘One More Day’, a song that Tams has made his own, and the amalgamation of ‘A Sailor’s Life’ with the chorus of ‘A Sailor’s Alphabet’. The last track on the original release was ‘Including Love’, a decidedly American blues decorated by Steve Dawson’s trumpet. It sounded slightly incongruous then but with the three “postscript” tracks taken from or inspired by productions of John Steinbeck works it seems more appropriate. The first of the three is the cheekily titled ‘Sweet Home Oklahoma’ and the second is ‘No Luck At All’, both featuring Taylor on second guitar. Both of these post-date the first release of The Reckoning but the final track is a gorgeous big band version of Albert E Brumley’s ‘I’ll Fly Away’ from 1990 (remember Plainsong’s version?) and among the familiar names on board you have to single out Trevor Dunford’s lead guitar playing.

If this is the last of Topic’s celebratory reissues, it’s not a bad place to stop but, you know, I can think of a dozen more candidates to continue the series.

Dai Jeffries

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Label website: www.topicrecords.co.uk

‘Amelia’ – live (from the folking archive):