JOE HENRY—The Gospel According To Water (Earmusic)

The Gospel According To WaterJoe Henry’s The Gospel According To Water is an acoustic, melodic, and eclectic warm root that wraps its deep soul around very vital American folk music.

Let’s face it: Ray Davies summarized modern existence when he wrote in ‘Lola’, “It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”. And let’s also say that the world has become even more “mixed up, muddled up, and shook up” since he wrote those words a long time ago.

But this album is a wise and quiet eye, a warm eye smack dab in the middle of any hurricane. It’s a record that plants a stake and sings a pretty good truth that simply glances at all the simple stuff of life and magnifies its importance.

Vincent Van Gogh did the same thing.

Ditto for Bruce Springsteen.

This is stripped down Joe Henry. He’s made countless albums with a voice crying from the poetic wilderness, and occasionally, has strayed from a simple folk ethos. Ornette Coleman, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Van Dyke Parks have graced his records. But this one is just Joe (and a few friends adding piano and guitar with son Levon Henry on slowly-danced sax and clarinet) still crying, this time, from an acoustic forest.

The opening tune, ‘Famine Walk,’ is strummed sincerity. Joe sings, “I looked deep within my blood” with a weary Dustbowl voice, while the melody can inflate what Gordon Lightfoot once called, “a few good secondhand dreams”.

The title tune sings like really decent scripture. There’s a beautiful line that touches testament truth, and talks of a place “where the faithful bring their baskets down and set their children free”. Perhaps, that’s beyond modern GPS navigation.

It’s just a thought, but Joe Henry’s music has always been decent scripture. He elevates the common into metaphorical significance. In his song ‘Odetta’ (from the album Reverie) he once posed the question, “Whose chickens are those in my yard?” I still wonder about that. His lyrics conjure a post-Minotaur labyrinth, a quiet place to wander endlessly, and find, to quote The Band’s song ‘Whispering Pines’, that “the lost are found”.

Ahh – the songs cut a continuous furrow into the dark American soil. ‘Mule’ carves a melody out of tough Midwest sod. It’s a song that balances the space between ethereal dreams and the crashed reality of “trampled beauty” and “silence deep as sound”. ‘Orson Welles’ is slow with a deliberate sax. It’s patient with deliberate sax. Again, it deals with the struggle of duality, as Joe sings, “You provide the terms of my surrender and I’ll provide the war. There are more acoustic revelations. ‘Green Of The Afternoon’ is plucked and urgent, with a nod to Paul McCarthy’s ‘Blackbird’. And ‘In Time For Tomorrow’ has sublime backing voices that sing, “all the stars that fall as one”, and evokes the warmth of a campfire under a dark night sky.

Now, as stated, The Gospel According To Water, with its sparse instrumentation, is quite different from previous albums. All the songs reflect into each other and produce a continuous meditation, that from time to time, pauses to take another breath, and then dives back, as Joe said, “deep within my blood”.

‘The Fact Of Love’ is that breath of soulful and tough folk music.

Yes, in a very American way, this music touches the desolate beauty of (the great) Richard Thompson. ‘Book Of Common Prayer’ echoes the depth and pathos of ‘Poor Ditching Boy’. That’s high praise. The same is true for ‘Bloom,’ which also mirrors the melodic quality of a nice Dylan tune. This is archetypal stuff that people once drew on cave walls. ‘Gates Of The Cemetery #2’, again, sings doom and gloom and then resurrection, And it’s a bluesy acoustic resurrection, which may well be the best kind of return.

‘Salt And Sugar’ “waltzes in a circle” and gazes at the stony bones of life.

The wonderfully titled ‘General Tzu Names The Planets For His Children’ simply submits to the universe.

The final song, ‘Choir Boy’, returns to the Gospel theme of the record. It’s all a bit like the best of (the previously mentioned) Bob Dylan and The Band, who chicken scratched tunes from the blood, sweat, and turf of America.

This album bleeds salvation. It sings a Congregational hymn. It gambles on a Mississippi river boat. It lives in a sod house. Walt Whitman once wrote, ‘I Hear America Singing’. This album just contributes to that acoustic poetic choir.

Bill Golembeski

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

‘In Time For Tomorrow’ – official video:

THE MANIACS – The Maniacs (own label)

The ManiacsIf there is a band more miss-named than The Maniacs then I’ve yet to discover them, although those who know him will testify that Paul Hutchinson can be quite eccentric. Paul has spent many years working with old tunes from all over the country and this album may be the culmination of his sterling efforts. The ten pieces here come from three 18th century tune books which have been newly published as 60 Country Dance Tunes For The Year 1786 – 1800. To avoid further confusion; one volume is from 1786 and two are from 1800.

Paul, as you must know, plays accordion and he’s joined here by Seona Pritchard on violin and viola, cellist Gill Redmond and Paul’s partner in the Pagoda Project, Karen Wimhurst, on clarinets. The music was recorded live in an old Dorset church and would make a fine accompaniment to reading some Thomas Hardy.

Paul says that this album is dance music to listen to because it isn’t simply two As and two Bs four times through. So the opening track, ‘Admiral Mitchel’s Reel’, begins with slow and stately accordion and clarinet until, about half-way through, it bursts into a more familiar danceable rhythm. ‘Hopeless Love’, is set up in the same way, this time opening with cello before bursting out at about the ninety second mark. Your favourite track might depend on what sets your toes tapping; for me it’s ‘Jackson’s Dream/Jackson’s Nightmare’.

The arrangements employ a great deal of improvisation but it’s not clear how much was worked out in advance. I have to say, though, that you can’t make an arrangement like ‘Roodulum’ up as you go along. As to the band’s name, it actually comes from a tune, ‘The Maniac’, which is paired here with ‘The Loon’.  It could have been worse, I suppose.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.paulhutchinsonmusic.co.uk

No video from The Maniacs available yet but here’s Paul and Sheona with ‘Jul’:

THURSDAY’S BAND – Chittagong Tattoo (CRLP018)

Chittagong TattooI think this is very good. Thursday’s Band released Chittagong Tattoo, their second full album, in November. Sometimes, you go to watch a live band and get the sense, “Ooh, they’ve got something.” I’ve not seen Thursday’s Band play live, but I’d rather like to. Chittagong Tattoo seems ‘to have something’.

There’s no official video, but there’s a couple of tracks from the new album on YouTube: ‘Granny Mean’, a rehearsal video (and more of which later) and ‘Les Cigales d’Avignon’, which I’ve linked to because it captures the band playing live. It seems to have been recorded in a café/pub, on one of those cramped stages (well, space at the end of the room) that you get – and I think it captures the feel the CD gives of a band playing folk music that is a little different, good, interacts well with the audience and, just generally, ‘has got something’.

So why? There’s something at the heart of folk music that: means you feel close to it i.e. you could imagine yourself in that room, on that ‘stage’ even, joining in; has tunes that you can sing along with, maybe even feel you’ve known the music all your life even when the songs are brand new; has lyrics that are a tad more sophisticated than ‘bop-shoo-whoo-wop’ or ‘moon/June; and just generally puts you close to the players – physically they’re not on a distant stage, in skill and equipment they’re better than you but recognisably similar, the stories capture a part of your life or the edges of your thinking. Chittagong Tattoo has most of this and the video of ‘Les Cigales d’Avignon’ suggests the rest is there in live performance.

There are nine songs on the album and the band have written all of them, essentially modern folk music but with additional influences from country, Cajun and a flicker of rock. ‘Granny Mean’ is stunning. It’s quietly finger-picked, violin in the background, a rising chorus, and lyrics which capture the many emotions of someone with dementia. It is told in the first person, capturing both the fog of the mind and the clarity to know what is happening. It works. It shouldn’t but it really does.

The band describe ‘Let The Fire Die Back’ as “a narrative hinted at”. There are only ten lines, five of them are the refrain “She’s not coming home” and the other five are images of aloneness. The song is driven by violin and the interplay between male and female vocal. You pick up the story in the gaps between the images – and you want to join in that refrain.

‘Leavings’ opens the album. It has a ‘joining-in chorus’, lovely interplay between the instruments as they hand the lead briefly from one to the other and a final verse that that brings light to darkness. ‘Difficult Man’ is a delightfully human song about the songwriter’s father, growing up in Cape Town and understanding the influences that, clearly, made him a difficult man.

There’s also a much wider internationalism to this album. ‘In The City’, sung mostly in French, is described as “a Suffolk Cajun song”; ‘Ravensbruck’ is a song about the women in Ravensbruck labour camp. ‘Les Cigales d’Avignon’ captures a trip to France in search of ancestors. The album ends with ‘The Chittagong Tattoo’, a powerful title track, flowing guitar picking which drives a song about the dismantling of large ships in Chittagong. The consequent deaths and injuries are personalised. The title is the name for welding burns that the workers get.

From what I can gather Thursday’s Band are mostly playing in the Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, East Anglia region. Feels like you might want to see if you can get them to your folk club.

Mike Wistow

Artists’ website: https://www.thursdaysband.co.uk

‘Les Cigales d’Avignon’ – live:

THE MILK CARTON KIDS – The Only Ones (MCKR001)

The Only OnesThe Milk Carton Kids released The Only Ones on December 6th. This is the band’s fifth studio album since they first came to prominence in 2011 with Prologue. After the full band sound of their previous album All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do the duo return to the simpler acoustic sound with which they made their name initially. At twenty-six minutes and just seven songs, The Only Ones is somewhere between an EP and a full-length album

‘My Name is Ana’ is probably my favourite track. The details are imprecise – a refugee? A fugitive? An escapee from a violent situation? – but the playing and vocals are the duo at their best and the imprecision adds to the sense of fear:

My name is Ana/You might have read about me
I live in the attic with my family

I leave the lights off/So nobody can see
I sleep with my shoes on, ‘case they come for me…..

I can see the neon lights/And the masked men
And the riot lines/I can read the warning signs

‘I’ll Be Gone’ is also a style that any of their fans will recognise, lead acoustic guitar and a catchy tune on a leaving/freedom song from the first verse, “I ain’t one for leaving/But if you treat me wrong/I’ll be gone/Gone before the sun goes down” to the last, “Death might be waiting/But it better get some wings/I’ll be flying/Riding on the wind”.

The video link below is to the title track, ‘The Only Ones’, the two guitars playing off each other, one strummed, one picked, and the two voices harmonising nicely. After receiving multiple awards in their own right, including a Grammy nomination, they’re probably tired of references to Simon and Garfunkel; if you’ve not heard the band, though, it’s that kind of sound – and as the video shows, their singing and playing are expert.

The Milk Carton Kids are on tour in the UK between January 23rd and 29th, including a visit to Celtic Connections in Glasgow on the 27th.

Mike Wistow

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

‘The Only Ones’ – official video:

PAULA WOLFE – White Dots (Sinb Records SIB0318CD)

White DotsHer first new album in a decade (Lemon, Staring and Find are being remastered for a 2020 reissue), during which time she built her own studio, completed a PhD in Music Production and Gender and published Women In The Studio: Creativity, Control and Gender In Popular Music Sound Production, White Dots finds the Dublin born multi-hyphenate in excellent form with a cocktail of pop, folksy, jazz and stage musicals. At times vocally echoing Kate Bush, she crafts story-led songs that have seen her likened to Carole King and Nora Jones though I’m more inclined to line her with Ray Davies and Vinny Peculiar in the way she channels observations, both wryly humorous and pointedly serious, into her lyrics to capture a perspective that I’ve previously described as akin to Mike Leigh. Many feel like play scripts in waiting.

Interpolating the refrain from The Hollies’ ‘Jennifer Eccles’, her new collection kicks off with the light, upbeat ‘Cherrington Road’, an early childhood memory of “Sitting on a swing, singing up to the sky”, her mother in the kitchen boiling potatoes, prompting a song (the lyrics more accurately a poem) about how children carry the memories of their parents and that “when it comes to the end all you’ve got is where you came from”, reflecting how there is “No child/when I’m gone to pass on to her own” and with “No child to remember my smell, to retell the tales I had to tell” she turns them into words and a tune “like a prisoner scratching obscenities on a prison wall”. Evocative of perhaps Laurie Lee in its reminiscences of an idyllic childhood, it talks about her and her mother dancing to Engelbert Humperdinck and of her father cycling home from work, asking if they watched Andy Pandy before repeating the lament.

The intro nodding to The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’, second up is ‘Georgia Blue’, a song inspired by a train journey taken to London to interview Florence and the Machine’s Isabella Summers while researching her book. Her return trip was delayed when the driver didn’t turn up, Wolfe transmuting the experience into the story of Joseph, a cross-dressing train driver who, overcome by the mundanity of English greyness, decides instead to dress up the nines and remember “what it’s like to feel beautiful/What it feels like to light up a room, to take some glamour from the gloom”.

‘Follow’ follows, a rumbling rhythm and programming nagging behind the piano and strings on a song about getting away from it all, “pain all packed up in a rucksack… Things I don’t need I leave behind in the van”, walking in the isolation of the mountains and sketching the dynamics of a supportive relationship in the simple lines “I steam ahead, you still lead/I follow …As the days unfold and my story is told, you listen, you lead. I follow”.

Relationships unravelling inform several numbers. Featuring flute, sax and strings, ‘Traces’ begins with “You tell me conspiratorially about your latest affair, with no mention or care for her” and how she’s “the foil to avoid, your just-in-case date” to distract any suspicions on the part of the lover’s partner, ending with “Arrogance sublime,you suggest he’s more my kind”, while on ‘Bonnie’, although she’s “longed a lifetime not to feel I have to leave”, the narrator brings a wilted love affair to a close because “I can’t keep you in my heart when we are apart/no memory of tender love to hold me in the dark”.

In contrast, ‘It Could Be’ offers a vignette of a lonely bachelor looking for love, logging on to a dating site hoping for “a message to lighten the day”, finding none “but he’ll make the best of things anyway”, Wolfe capturing the quintessence of the singleton in a world of others relationships as she sings “He’s so understanding when friends don’t call/he knows it gets harder for them to fit him in when they’ve got kids” and yet remains optimistic (“I’ve got this far and I’ve still got hair”) that maybe love might yet be out here, perhaps meeting another lonely soul “looking for love as you walk down the aisle of the supermarket, Sunday morning shopping for one”. After all, as the semi-spoken ‘Magic’ puts it, after you’ve thrown it all away and realised what loss can bring, “Just when you think that good enough really is good enough, something fresh and new comes”.

Returning to storytelling, ‘Caravan Man’ again transforms real experience, here someone she saw on a French campsite, into a portrait of an outsider “sitting by your caravan all day” watching passing travellers “pegging out their lives in tidy piles”as she wonders who he is and what he’s waiting for.

Likewise, spanning France and Mexico City, featuring piano, simple strummed guitar and warm trumpet, ‘Paris Metro paints a picture of two buskers from South America playing their brass instruments outside the station on a Sunday morning while a world away “the night is lit up by flames of fire blown from the mouth of a boy while his friend tries to clean the taxi driver’s windscreen”, musing, as a musician and performer, on how “there’s not a lot between us”.

Returning to break-ups, the Randy Newmanesque title track brings the album to a close in crushing despair, the white dots the stains of tears dried on her glasses as the woman sits heartbroken in the car park after her unfaithful lover’s lies killed “whatever love lingered still” in a hotel room “Lying to my face about your affair, crying at the thought of my leaving you there in the house meant to be the start of all our dreams”.

But, while the songs speak of sadness and loss, of isolation and loneliness, moments lost or never seized, ultimately White Dots is suffused with elements of hope and affirmation, most firmly embedded in the bossa nova inclined and its declaration of undying love. Like Joseph, Wolfe offers rays of light beyond the darkness, and with her songs, her children, she’s “gonna paint these grey skies red”.

Mike Davies

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

‘When’ – live:

ELAINE LENNON – Elaine Lennon (LSR001CD)

Elaine LennonElaine Lennon releases her debut album on January 24th. Unless you knew the background, you wouldn’t know it was a debut album. Findlay Napier has produced it, the songs – almost all written by Lennon – are engaging, and Lennon’s voice is enthralling. The background is that Lennon’s lifelong passion had been music. When the youngest of her two children went to school in 2018, she sat down to work out whether she could be a professional musician. In less than two years, she has been named as “one to watch” by the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International and is about to release the self-titled album, Elaine Lennon.

Lennon’s vocals and piano are at the core of the album, with the band adding a nicely judged depth without being intrusive. My favourite track is ‘Fear (Breakup Song)’ which is delicately played and merges the images of relationship break up into a lyric about fighting and defeating Fear, as affirmative (for the Sci-Fi buffs) as Frank Herbert’s Litany Against Fear. It’s also a great tune, beautifully sung.

The link below is to ‘Trouble’ where you can hear for yourself the interplay between piano and vocal, in this case for a lyric about being in trouble because “love was not in my plan”. Lennon’s website has more detail on the origins of the song. Elsewhere ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ both rises to the glories of love which can “make you fly above the clouds” and also captures the ruefulness of “Only love can softly pull the seams apart/Only love can break your heart”. There’s a tenderness to the vocal which is simply delightful. ‘You and Me’ feels like it’s from the same song-writing seam, this time the unchallenged contentment of being in love.

The only cover on the album is “She’s Got You”, the Hank Cochran masterpiece which was a hit for Patsy Cline in the early 60’s. Lennon’s version is less country, but doesn’t half tug at the heartstrings; it’s a great cover which makes the song sound bang up to date despite its nearly sixty years age.

The album will be launched on January 20th at The Glad Café as part of Celtic Connections. From what I’ve heard on this album and what I’ve flicked through on YouTube of Lennon’s live performances, if you’re up in Glasgow it will be worth your while finding time for this.

Mike Wistow

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

‘Trouble’ – official video: