JIM CAUSLEY AND FRIENDS – I Am The Song (WildGoose Records WGS420CD)

I Am The SongYoung Jim Causley returns once more to the writing of his distinguished relative, Charles. I Am The Song, unlike the serious and sometimes mysterious Cyprus Well, is a collection of poetry written for children. As you might suppose many of the songs are quite short and Jim crams twenty-one of them onto the record. Equally, you might suppose that the poems are funny to the point of silliness and to an extent you would be correct but there are dark moments and the humour sometimes conceals a serious point.

The set opens with ‘Python On Piccolo’, a song about animals forming a band and typical of the surreal images in some of Charles’ poetry also represented by ‘Good Morning Mrs Croco-Do-Dile’, ‘Tabitha Tupper’ and ‘Mrs McPhee’. Next comes a bit of social observation in the shape of ‘Newlyn Buildings’ although the line “who had the top apartment no-one ever seemed to know” adds a frisson of mystery. ‘Here We Go Round The Roundhouse’ is a calendar song that will creep into the club repertoire before long I have no doubt.

Of the darker songs, ‘Lord Lovelace’ leads the way followed by ‘Lady Jane Grey’ and ‘A Mermaid At Zennor’, although Charles steers clear of being too explicit about the fate of the titular lady in the former or the churchwarden’s son in the latter. My personal favourite is ‘I Saw A Jolly Hunter’ which will make children laugh but says a lot about Charles’ views.

Jim’s accordion arrangements provide an appropriately jolly West Country lilt to the poems but he is exceptionally generous to his friends, notably Becki Driscoll and Nick Wyke, Keith Kendrick and Sylvia Needham and Mick Ryan who take a share of the lead vocals. Nick manages the most excruciatingly perfect flat notes on ‘The Money Came In’. Other players include Jeff Gillett who provides most of the finger-picked guitar, Matt Norman who plays various banjos and Mary Humphries and Anahata.

Charles Causley said that he could never decide which poems were for children and which for adults and this collection will prove that. The standard omission is ‘Timothy Winter’ which was included in the children’s collection but only because Jim recorded it on Cyprus Well. Buy this for the kids just before they grow out of nursery rhymes or buy it for yourselves because you’ll enjoy it too.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.jimcausley.co.uk

HARROW FAIR – Call To Arms (Roaring Girl RGO14)

Call To ArmsComprising Miranda Mulholland, violinist with Great Lake Swimmers, and Andrew Penner, Harrow Fair are a Canadian duo who first began working together as part of a Toronto theatre company and who take their name from an Ontario county fair. They both sing, while she plays violin and percussion and he does everything else, everything on Call To Arms including drums, guitar, banjo and assorted keyboards. They describe their music as an amalgam of early country, rock n roll and garage rock, opening number ‘Hangnail’ amply demonstrating their penchant for an urgent, echoey gothic stomp with pounding percussion and scraping fiddle. By contrast, ‘Told A Lie To My Heart’ is all a spare, percussive brooding mountain music adaptation of the old Hank Williams number while ‘I Will Be Your Man’ is a scurrying call and response thumping rusty blues with shaker, bass drum and rimshot percussion, the title refrain somehow sounding more like a threat than a declaration of love.

The melodically simple ‘Held Tight’ is a little different in that, Penner singing lead, it adopts a Celtic folk hue, gradually swelling towards the close, but then it’s back to grungey business with Penner growling and Mulholland getting sassy for the kick drum propelled title track boogie with pulsing fiddle and throbbing bass. At which point they decide to throw in a field recording titled ‘Harrow Fair Pig Auction’ which is exactly that, 82 seconds of two auctioneers selling some porkies while the pair provide distorted backing. It may have seemed like a good idea after a few drinks, but it’s unlikely anyone’s ever going to play it twice, at least not on purpose.

Getting back on track, ‘How Cold’ creeps up quietly and slowly, eventually announcing itself as a traditional sounding folk number with Mulholland on near acapella hymnal lead before the atmospheric, resonant backing builds behind her. It’s a transfixing number, headily reminiscent in sound and tone of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song To A Siren’.

They keep things mournful for the brooding bass and violin led dark folk ‘Emmaline’ (originally featured on her 2014 solo album), a brief fiddle and synth hissing instrumental, ‘The Hunt’, bridging the path to the prog-rock blues riffery of ‘Bite The Way’ with Penner’s distorted mixed back vocals, a number you could imagine being on Jack White’s mix tape. After this, it ends on a more tranquil note with ‘Been There Ways’, the pair sharing vocals while Mulholland provides a Celtic fiddle vibe to an overall lysergic folk ambience that may well have a touch of the Velvets to its DNA.

The actual Harrow Fair is a big thing in Essex County, the titular duo are likely to attract visitors from a far wider radius.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.harrowfair.ca

‘Told A Lie To My Heart’ – live:

DONALD BLACK – Bho M’ Chridhe (own label DB05CD)

Bho m' ChridheScottish Celtic harmonica might seem like something of a niche market and that’s what I thought at first – but wait. Bho M’ Chridhe translates as From My Heart and that is exactly where this music comes from. The tunes come from all over Scotland and even further afield and feature tunes from Donald’s old friends and musical partners, some played by relatives of the composers, and a fiddle made by his great-uncle.

You know what harmonica sounds like, right? Forget all that – actually there are a few bars of train blues on ‘The Highland Express’, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. Harmonicas are free reed instruments like concertinas, accordions and many others and Donald treats them as such. Oddly enough, the bagpipes are not free reeds but several times I looked to see who was cheating by playing pipes. To put it simply, he is a virtuoso and though fans of blues harp and jazz players will point to their heroes in Donald Black’s hands the harmonica will sit up and beg. Not because of speed, although the second set ‘Pipe Reels’ could raise blisters, but because of flexibility and feel and an understanding of what the instrument can do.

Styles range from the old-fashioned dance band sound of ‘2/4 Marches’ and ‘Highland Schottishe’ to beautiful haunting slow airs like ‘Cumha Mhic Criomain’ and ‘Jimmy Mo Mhile Stòr’ through ‘Gaelic Melodies’, jigs, reels, polkas and waltzes. Donald has a fine cast of supporting musicians: melodeons, accordions, fiddles and keyboards and players include Runrig’s Malcolm Jones, Blazin’ Fiddler Alan Henderson and Skerryvore’s Alec Dalglish who plays the most beautiful electric guitar on Blair Douglas’ ‘New Island Waltz’.

So Bho M’ Chridhe isn’t a solo album in the strictest sense nor is it an academic performance of tunes. It is varied, beautiful, exciting and a whole lot of fun.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://donald-black.com/

This is an old film but it really shows off Donald’s playing of a slow air, ‘The Cuckoo’:

JANET DOWD – Home (Blue Cow Records)

HomeAlthough Janet Dowd writes songs, and there are three of her own compositions on Home, her particular forte is in covering other writers. Her subjects are mostly Irish and an album like this will serve to introduce British audiences to some new songs, but she also encompasses Scotland and Australia and unless you are a particular fan of the writers involved these too may be songs you haven’t heard before.

The album opens with Eric Bogle’s ‘All The Fine Young Men’ which has been covered quite frequently (but good luck finding Eric’s original these days). It features producer Donogh Hennessy on guitars, keyboards and programming with strings from Niamh Varien Barry. Janet’s strong, clear voice does full justice to a song that should be rated alongside ‘No Man’s Land’.

Irish songwriters have a sentimental streak and Tommy Sands indulged his on ‘County Down’, a song of the auld country calling the expatriate home. It features Alan Doherty on whistle and Colin Henry’s Dobro, an instrument which appears several more times. Quite why a resonator guitar should suit celtic songs so well, I can’t say, but it just does. The theme of home, and not being there, returns in Dougie MacLean’s ‘Garden Valley’, Janet’s own ‘Westport Town’ and, supremely, Brendan Graham’s ‘My Land’.

The second Australian represented here is The Waifs’ Josh Cunningham whose ‘Lighthouse’ actually has someone coming home and happy to be doing so. Another highlight I must mention is the traditional ‘Súil A Rúin’ which again features Niamh Varien Barry and Pauline Scanlon’s backing vocals.

Home manages to combine the simplicity of emotion in both writing and singing with arrangements that are always interesting without being too clever or overwhelming the songs. Beautifully done.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.janetdowd.com

THE TWISTED TWENTY – The Twisted Twenty (Penny Fiddle Records)

Twisted TwentyThe Twisted Twenty are a septet of string players whom I suspect to be proper musicians. What makes then unique is their use of baroque instruments and their research in music of the 17th and 18th century. So what? I hear you say. Well, instruments of the period have a distinctively different timbre from modern instruments and when you have three fiddles, cello, double bass and cittern all of the period you have a very special sound. And before you start reading the sleeve notes and arguing, the bodhran probably originated in the 17th century in Ireland but the form is undoubtedly much older.

The material here is what we would call “traditional” but The Twisted Twenty go deeper. Five of the tunes come from James Oswald, court composer to George III, including his setting of one of two songs, Burns’ ‘John Anderson, My Jo’ and the saucy ‘She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked’, which I obviously missed when Blazin’ Fiddles recorded it. The other song is ‘The Three Ravens’, a setting by Thomas Ravenscroft who apparently collected ‘Three Blind Mice’.

An oddity is ‘Arthur McBride’ arranged as an instrumental by the band’s electronics specialist, Alexis Bennett. The modern sounds are restricted to some deep rumblings and the, presumably sampled, sounds of the sea. Lucia Capellaro’s cello gets a big part here.

The Twisted Twenty’s debut is enjoyable although rather short at only eight tracks. There are a couple of hidden minutes at the end, though. I thought I told you to stop this sort of thing.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: https://www.thetwistedtwenty.com/

‘Fáilte Na Míosa’

LIANNE HALL – The Caretaker (Market Square MSMCD182)

CaretakerLianne Hall used to be a punk. She was a member of Witchknot but I rather think that she was punk in the way that The Stranglers were; embracing the ethos but having rather superior musical skills. She’s originally from Peterborough and lived in Brighton before moving to Berlin. After her punk days she was into alt-folk and electronica and The Caretaker is her fourth solo album. I tell you all this because it goes some way to explaining the style and autobiographical nature of this album. It’s not a record that you’re necessarily going to get on first hearing.

The album title and the song ‘The Last Song Of The Caretaker’ stem from Lianne’s last days in Brighton when she was caretaker of the West Hill Hall and occasionally gigged there. It contains some wonderfully matter-of-fact lines about sweeping the floors and locking up before leaving for the last time. She says that she “used to be a pillar of my community”. ‘Amp On Fire’ is another true story – who’d be a musician?

The underlying theme of the record is transition and the courage it takes to change your life. The Caretaker was recorded in Berlin in as few takes as possible with lots of percussion, keyboards and electric guitars; not played in a rock style but echoing, bell-like notes. The recording was strictly analogue except for the CD transfer but it is suggested that the best way to hear it is on vinyl. The other two guitarists are Felix Müller and co-producer Alexander Paulick with drums and percussion courtesy of Sebastian Vogel and Nolan Churn and between them all they produce a wonderfully spacey sound, hypnotic in places that is epitomised in the closing song ‘The Ocean Is Broken’.

From my first hearing of Lianne a few weeks ago, I knew I was going to like her music and I was right.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the LIANNE HALL – The Caretaker link 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.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: www.liannehall.com

Teaser video: