PETER FERGUS McCLELLAND – The Turn Of The Tide (Hobgoblin HOBCD1017)

The Turn Of The TidePete McClelland, if I may be so familiar to address him thus, has had a busy year. This is his second solo album of 2017 to sit alongside his contributions to Hobgoblin’s 40th anniversary collection. The Turn Of The Tide began as a stage show performed at Cornwall Folk Festival. It includes several well-known songs with singable choruses and went down well as you’d expect. Now it’s recorded with support from Pete’s friends and colleagues.

The album is divided into four sections but it wouldn’t matter if it were otherwise – I think it was a good excuse to get ‘Johnny Sands’ into the set. He begins with one of my favourite songs, ‘The Island Of  St Helena’, which isn’t heard anywhere near enough these days and follows that with another song from Nic Jones’ catalogue, ‘The Isle Of France’. Pete has a rich voice and isn’t afraid of showing off his impressive range which can be disconcerting when he takes a familiar tune off for a wander. His approach may be described as robust and his supporters follow his lead. That’s fine for a song like ‘Top Alex’ – about the burning of Southend pier – but sometimes it lacks a touch of subtlety.

The second section, Fishing, begins with Stan Rogers’ ‘Make And Break Harbour’ followed by Lennie Gallant’s ‘Peter’s Dream’. This is an inspired pairing mirroring the stoicism and resignation of Rogers’ fisherman with the anger of Gallant’s who finally shoots his boat full of holes. Choruses come with ‘The Herring’s Head’ and Bob Roberts’ ‘Candlelight Fisherman’ and the best song of the Rivers section is undoubtedly the country road-trip of ‘The Appalachian Way’

The album closes with Archie Fisher’s ‘Men Of Worth’. It’s not his best-known song but it wraps the project up rather neatly, exhorting both farmers and fishermen to work on the oil-rigs. It was also considered too controversial for the BBC back in the 1970s. You wouldn’t believe it.

The Turn Of The Tide has a nicely old-fashioned feel – mostly traditional with a thematic link that isn’t overemphasised. On one hand it’s an easy listen and on the other there are songs to make you think about the way the world is. I like it.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

ROB CORCORAN & THE NECESSARY EVILS – Inverse Alchemy (Sullen Link)

Inverse AlchemyThere is something instantly appealing about Rob Corcoran & The Necessary Evils’ debut album, Inverse Alchemy. Its songs are honest, relatable, lived, and the musicianship is almost without fault, making for a fantastically constructed piece of art. From the fiddle-laden, opener ‘Downtime Waltz’ to closing ballad ‘Pub On The Hill’, we are given something of a masterclass in Americana music…well, Americana with a Dublin accent.

In between these well placed bookends, several finely crafted originals stand out from the album. The sadly optimistic ‘Get To You’, the hobo dustbowl daydream that is ‘Train Song’ and the borderline blasphemous ‘What Did You Do With Joseph, Jesus?’; a number that is so catchy, its been stuck in my head, sending my Catholic guilt into overdrive.

But there are even stronger songs; ‘Black Hearted Man’, which is both an amazingly honest admission of personal shortcomings and a warning; “believing in me is gonna get you burned…” Corcoran revisits this notion of belief in ‘Tuesdays’, which sees our protagonist spending his Tuesday evenings playing to nobody, yet feels the evening to have been salvaged by returning home to a presumed lover, who not only “waited up” but “believed” in our songwriter’s “fading dream”. The record’s centrepiece however, has to be ‘Four In The Morning’ in which Basia Bartz violin and Corcoran’s lyrics intertwine to paint an instantly descriptive scene which unfolds as if it were happening before our very eyes:

It’s four in the morning, its already light,
Birds are singing farewell to the London night
A police siren woke me out of a dream
And I’m lying here in the afterglow
its slipping away, as the new light of day
Meet the murmur of late night radio…”

The subject matter for Inverse Alchemy is at times, dark, and at other times very dark, but in a weird way, it is also a very uplifting record. It is consistently well written, well played and I’m already looking forward to revisiting it again (and again) in the future. Bravo for this one.

Christopher James Sheridan

Artist’s website:

‘Black Hearted Man’:

DAVID BOTTING – Heart Beat (Haven Records)

Heart BeatHeart Beat is the debut album from singer songwriter David Botting. Hard times in life can be the inspiration for many great songs, as David certainly knows. David has been playing guitar for as long as he can remember, but started writing songs while he became unwell with heart failure after a virus and was awaiting a heart transplant. He has documented his journey through a series of eleven songs, which acted as therapy during his treatment and kept him sane. Songwriter and producer Boo Hewerdine heard David perform, and wanted to collaborate on the album project. David wants to raise public awareness about organ donation and all the proceeds of the album will be donated to the Harefield Hospitals Charity.

The whole album is simply guitar and vocal and I really like the guitar playing. David’s influences are John Martyn and Kelly Joe Phelps. The feeling of the album is mellow and the arrangements are impeccable. It’s percussive and bluesy on some tracks and melodic in others with the sound of alternate tunings.

I particularly like the first track ‘Almenalp’, about a lovely place in Switzerland.
If I said there’s another world, another place above the clouds, would you come there and walk with me?
In sun blessed higher meadows high above the crowd, come there and walk with me.”
And track ten, ‘Camino De Le Luce’.
“We were lost and we were found on the camino, only ringing bells to guide us, only footsteps there beside us.”
Both songs are about real places but everybody has their own camino and place above the clouds so these songs have a universal appeal.

David’s voice is mellow with a breathy tone and a little bit gravely. For me the vocal feels a little bit sparse next to the guitar and I would have liked to hear some female backing vocals on it to bring out the lyrics a little more and balance the intricate guitar arrangements.

Gillian McCoy

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‘Taking The Pulse’:

LUKE DANIELS – Singing Ways To Feel More Junior (Gael Records GAEL017)

Singing WaysSinging Ways To Feel More Junior by Luke Daniels, is a wonderfully eclectic collection of a dozen songs, most of which are Daniels’ originals. It goes in many different directions (occasionally at the same time) and presents shades of folk, funk, blues, jazz and Americana, and while some of the tracks have slightly more edge than others, there is a definite sense of sweetness and brightness contained throughout.

The album opens with ‘Penny In The Slot’; it’s catchy, it’s fun and it bizarrely borrows from the 2003 ‘Fast Food Song’; incorporating the less-than-immortal line “McDonalds, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut” into its lyric. Just as bizarrely, however, it works. While This Americana vibe is continued into the album’s second track (‘Only Love I’ll Leave To You’), it is the steady, danceable rhythms of ‘The House That Jack Built’ which introduce us to the album’s funkier elements. These grooves are very enjoyable, and are followed up by the beautifully delivered, (if comparatively melancholic) title track.

Following this number we are once again guided down the well-travelled Americana route through the quirkiness of the uplifting mandolin-led ‘Let’s Not Waste Another Day’ and ‘Strange Power’, before we get to the bluesy Presidential piss-take; ‘Elizabeth Trump And Sons’, one of two topically tinged numbers on the disc; with ‘Better The Devil You Know’ featuring on the album’s last quarter. Indeed, even at this late stage, we continue to hear new approaches and new experiments; the eerie but engaging soundbites which introduce ‘What Becomes Of Gilgamesh’ or the closing number, (Stevie Wonder cover) ‘Don’t You Worry About A Thing’, which boasts another tremendous vocal take, and proves the perfect conclusion to an interesting, enjoyable, if at times off the wall journey through this collection of “new songs for grown-ups.”

Christopher James Sheridan

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‘The House That Jack Built’ – official video:

ROSS AINSLIE – Sanctuary (Great White Records, GWR005CD)

SanctuaryIf there’s a more intensely personal album release this year than Ross Ainslie’s third album, Sanctuary, it would be hard to find. It’s a conceptual piece, a celebration of five sober years – no mean feat in the musician’s world, where it’s always pub o’clock somewhere.

Ainslie’s well-known as a champion of the broader context of Scottish instruments and for his work with musicians of an international background, such as India Alba, amongst very many others. So, it’s no surprise that the musical influences here are equally wide-ranging, with its eastern palette of sounds embracing a distinctly Scottish heart.

He’s also keen on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, apparently, and aimed to produce in ‘Sanctuary’ a similar kind of conceptual soundscape. So, don’t put it on shuffle. Listen to the complex, layered sounds as a continual flow, as intended, and it will repay in spades.

The titles of the twelve tracks on the album (and surely this number is no coincidence?) indicate key milestones, signposts along a determined route, with the calming, beautiful opener ‘Inner Sanctuary’ perhaps the heart and soul of the album. A gently shushing shoreline is overlaid with a tender, swooping elegiac fiddle (a stunning performance by Greg Lawson throughout) with Ainslie managing to extract the inner Scot from the bamboo tones of the Indian bansuri.

Finding a personal retreat has been essential for Ainslie, and he’s found it in his music: his mastery of his instruments is simply outstanding. Whistles brightly dance in ‘Protect Yourself’ and ‘Cloud Surfing’, then are overlaid by frenetic piping in ‘Road To Recovery’, which races along over a choppy guitar and tabla zing. On ‘Surroundings’, his breathing just audible beneath the seamless phrasing of this complex theme, is a reminder of Ainslie’s skilled control – and not just of his flying fingers.

Each musician makes a vital contribution to the flow of the overall sound, each layer builds up into a cohesive whole. There are so many wonderful and talented musicians playing here, but Damien O’Kane’s fierce banjo deserves mention, as a perfect foil for the complex celtic knot of whistles on ‘Happy Place’ and the exuberant highland pipes of ‘Let The Wild Ones Roam’. Tabla player Zakir Hussain and Soumik Datta on sarod lend Indian overtones to the juddering, descending motif of ‘Home In Another Dimension’, a surprisingly rocky track coming after the delicate eastern influences of ‘Beautiful Mysteries’.

The final piece, ‘Escaping Gravity’ an atmospheric poem with a vaguely oriental feel, expresses the conscious choice of sobriety. Its final phrase “Escaping gravity in my inner sanctuary” loops us right back to the album’s beginning, and reminds us that this is a set of mantras to be repeated every day. It’s what “one day at a time” means.

This album’s genesis is as inspiring as its form is delightful. It has a maturity, mellowness and a sense of peace, but it’s also a testament to some real personal grit. Learning to be with yourself and accepting yourself, flaws and all, is no mean feat. Turning such a challenging experience into a warm, accessible piece of music is altogether another level of amazing.

Su O’Brien

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Album sampler:

MATTHEW ROBB – Spirit In The Form (Wabisabi Music WAB 30)

Spirit In The FormMatthew Robb is a UK singer-songwriter based in Cologne in Germany. His latest release is Spirit In The Form with nine self-composed songs. He is accompanied by James Bragg, on electric guitar and harp, and Dave Murrell on bass, with other guest musicians on individual tracks. The album has the style of early Blues and American traditional music and the three musicians combine to make a sound which is extraordinarily powerful in its simplicity.

Occasionally in life I meet someone that I really like, but I’m not sure why. This album is a bit like that. I suspect it’s because there’s an authenticity to it, a capturing of some truth about life – but I don’t know Matthew Robb, so I have no idea whether or not that’s right. But: as I listen to the album, it seems like the songs have an authenticity to the spirit of the early Blues players; this isn’t a look back, these are songs which are relevant to the modern world. After the first two or three plays of the CD, I read Robb’s website which tells you that he lived wild in the Andes and the Rockies before buying the land in Germany to build his house out of reclaimed material. Just maybe, then.

Robb also performs at spoken word festivals in Europe. The video below,  the title song ‘Spirit In The Form’, gives you an idea of how much more powerful it is to hear Robb interpret his lyrics than to simply read them on the page (the CD comes with a lyric book). “There was strength in your weakness/sadness in your joy/hope in the bleakness/little girl in the boy/silence in the thunder/a void within the storm/awe behind the wonder/and spirit in the form” is OK as a piece of juxtaposition and paradox, but put the words against that spare delivery and arrangement and you have a great song reflecting on some kind of a relationship.

‘Slave Song’ intertwines old blues lines (“In my time of dyin’ “, “high water rising”) but this seems a modern slave song not a nostalgic nod to an American past. ‘Sinnerman’ is equally relevant to modern life, modern employment and the compromises people make on the edges of legality and morality. It captures the desire to end a way of life “making offers on your soul”, a desire as modern as it is historical.

And so on. The album takes us to a world which is early Blues mixed with Jacobean Tragedy, a world of “a stagnant pool of lies” in which “the devil’s on the loose” and “murder is a choice” where “it’s over the bodies lying around you raise your glasses to rejoice”. These lines are all from the challenge of ‘Where Did U Go My Friend’, but I’m reminded of scenes in The Revenger’s Tragedy. There is some hope at the end: “There’s a road that leads from your door, you’ll choose which way to go/but there’s no doubt it all comes back and you’ll reap just what you sow”. Then the band stops playing and Robb’s voice alone asks the question “Where did you go my friend”. Understated. Stark. Powerful.

Elsewhere the lyrics tell of blood on the pillow and money on the floor. But you feel the singer is looking for something else – the spirit that will bring something redeeming to the characters in the songs personally and also to the human condition. I think the sense of authenticity I have from listening to the album is because Robb really has “been around this place a thousand times before” (‘Blood on the Pillow’) and the sparse bluesy style of playing is the only one that makes sense. The album constantly has echoes of a man who is “searching for truth every step of the way” and “until then, I’m rootless but bound/but I’m doing my best to keep both feet on the ground” (‘Until Then’)

Not a comfortable album, but rather good.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website:

‘Spirit In The Form’: