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THE WAILIN’ JENNYS – FIFTEEN

Photo by Morten Fog

One of today’s most respected folk groups, The Wailin’ Jennys are releasing their first new recording in six years, Fifteen. This long-awaited follow-up to Bright Morning Stars finds the trio bringing their passion and stellar musicianship to a carefully curated collection of some of their favourite songs, including tracks by Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. For members Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse, Fifteen celebrates a 15-year musical partnership that has created three award-winning, Billboard-charting studio albums and one magical live recording and brought them a loyal worldwide fanbase.

Steeped in the artistry and elegance that has defined their career, Fifteen presents The Wailin’ Jennys at their very best. Opening with their stark yet exquisite rendering of ‘Old Churchyard’, sung a cappella over a single droning viola tone, the album then shifts to a gorgeous full-band acoustic version of Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’. Other highlights include their moving interpretation of Emmylou Harris’ ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, their update of Paul Simon’s ‘Loves Me Like a Rock’ (from a women’s point of view) and songs by Jane Siberry, Warren Zevon and Patty Griffin. They also do an achingly beautiful a cappella version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning’ that resonates as a call to hope in these troubled political times.

All three of the Jennys now have young children and – coupled with living in two countries and different sides of the North American continent – making the time to record has been a challenge.

“We are all mothers now, living in different cities, so we knew we couldn’t spend a month in the studio the way we used to”, Moody says. “Nicky and Heather could only be away from their boys for a week, which gave us five days! So we decided to do something that was true to our live show. Arranging other people’s songs has been something we’ve enjoyed doing since the beginning, so we thought that a covers album would be fun to do, especially given the time restraints. Even so, it was a little nuts. We were arranging harmonies on the fly… my son was just shy of three months old and I was feeding him every couple of hours… Nicky had a bad cold which made things tricky for her. But we just went with it, and trusted that it would all work out; maybe that’s the thing we’ve gotten better at as mothers.”

Produced by The Wailin’ Jennys and engineered by Joby Baker, the album also features additional musicians Richard Moody (Ruth’s brother), Sam Howard, Adrian Dolan and Adam Dobres.

NPR wrote of their last Newport Folk Fest appearance, “The Wailin’ Jennys are more than just impeccable bluegrass harmonizers; they’re also terrific bandleaders who give their traditional roots music a sense of real reverence.” It’s this respect for their craft, as well as the Wailin’ Jennys heartfelt, impeccable vocal performances, that has cemented the trio’s reputation in folk and roots music circles.

Starting as a happy accident of solo singer-songwriters getting together for a one-time-only performance at a tiny guitar shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, The Wailin’ Jennys have earned their place as one of today’s most beloved international folk groups. Founding members Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta, along with New York-based Heather Masse, continue to create some of the most exciting and exquisite music on the folk-roots scene, stepping up their musical game with each critically-lauded recording and thrilling audiences with their renowned live performances.

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the THE WAILIN’ JENNYS – FIFTEEN 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]

The Wailin’ Jennys – Fifteen – Track by Track

Some of the covers are songs we’ve had arranged for a while but haven’t had the chance to record. The others were brought to the mix for this record. They are all songs that are close to our heart for one reason or another or that feel appropriate for the times.

Old Churchyard – This is an English traditional song, evocative and otherworldly, as traditional music often is. Waterson-Carthy did a version that is very spirited, almost like a march. We took a more gentle approach.

Wildflowers – We’ve been singing this Tom Petty song for a few years and a lot of fans have asked us to record it, so we finally did. It’s just a great song, and it feels really good to sing it.

The Valley – We all think this is the most beautiful song. It is deep and compassionate…a spiritual anthem, with a touch of Jane Siberry eccentricity. Nicky brought this one to the band and suggested we trade off lead vocals. The boys dug deep in their performance. Richy added some gorgeous string parts. It was one of those things that just came together magically.

Light of a Clear Blue Morning – We were asked to arrange this song for an independent Canadian film called ‘The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom’, which featured Dolly’s music and received her stamp of approval. What can we say – we love Dolly, and this is a mammoth of a song, so we were honoured to do so.

Loves Me Like a Rock – Heather thought this would be fun to do with the Jennys, and she was right. We tend to gravitate towards the serious, so it’s good for us to lighten up once and a while. It’s a feel-good Paul Simon classic that feels ever appropriate.

Boulder to Birmingham – I have loved this song for as long as I’ve loved songs – it’s such a poignant and heartbreaking tribute to a lost love. The fact that Emmylou wrote it after Gram Parson’s death makes it all the more meaningful. I’ve always wanted to try it with the Jennys but the melody really weaves around, which can be challenging for creating harmonies. I love what we ended up with. The high part in particular ventures way out of Nicky’s normal range, but she nailed it. This was another one that felt magical when it was going down – we performed it a few times, but in the end we chose the first take.

Not Alone – Penned by the magnificent Patty Griffin and suggested by Heather, Not Alone is a tragic rendering of a life lost suddenly and a loved one left behind. Despite the gravity of the tale, it carries with it a message of deep hope and love. The haunting strains of Richard’s viola and Adam’s electric guitar make this song cut straight to the bone.

Keep Me in Your Heart – Warren Zevon wrote this song at the end of his life after battling cancer. It’s a beautiful sentiment – a piece of himself left for his family and friends, and the rest of us! Richy, Sam and Adam came up with a beautiful string arrangement in the studio and we think it really made the song come to life.

Weary Blues From Waitin’ – This Hank Williams song was one of the first songs the three of us sang together, the night we met Heather at The World Cafe in Philadelphia. We wanted to see how our voices blended, so we ducked into a public bathroom, locked the door, and sang a few songs. I’m pretty sure we asked her to join the band right then and there.

Artist web links:

www.thewailinjennys.com
www.facebook.com/thewailinjennys

THE COMPANY OF PLAYERS – Shakespeare Songs (own label)

Shakespeare SongsThe Company of Players is an assemblage of young musicians brought together at the behest of Jess Distill of Said The Maiden, in order to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 by putting together some songs related to his life and work. And one of the fruits of that collaboration is the CD Shakespeare Songs. Participants are Jess Distill (vocals, flute, Shruti box – a drone instrument somewhat like a harmonium), Hannah Elizabeth (vocals, violin), Kathy Pilkinton (vocals, clarinet, spoons, mandolin), Sam Kelly (vocals, acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion), Kelly Oliver (vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica), Lukas Drinkwater (vocals, electric guitar, double bass), Chris Cleverley (vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo), Kim Lowings (vocals, dulcimer, piano), Minnie Birch (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Daria Kulesh (vocals).

And a very interesting set it is, too. Knowing nothing of the project, I was, I suppose, expecting performances of songs that actually feature in Shakespeare plays (‘The Willow Song’, for example) or settings of his words, possibly accompanied by instruments from the period – which would have been fine by me! – but there are no lutes or viols here, and the range of material is both wider and in many cases more modern than I expected.

Track listing:

  1. ‘Black Spirits’, by Kathy Pilkinton, takes its title and lyrical content from Macbeth: specifically, Act I Scene I, and Act IV Scene I, taken verbatim from speeches by the Three Witches. It starts with minor-key, dirge-like close harmonies from Said The Maiden over an instrumental drone, then picks up the pace with percussion from Sam Kelly, while the harmonies of Jess, Hannah and Kathy are augmented by the voices of Sam, Chris, Kelly and Minnie.
  2. Minnie Birch’s ‘Up And Down’ borrows ideas and imagery from Midsummer’s Night Dream, and even the chorus is based (though not verbatim) on the words of Puck:
    Up and down, up and down,
    I will lead them up and down
    .’
    The sound, however, is very ‘modern folk’. In fact, it reminded me a little of Megan Henwood, which is certainly not a complaint. A very pretty tune.
  3. ‘Gather Round’, by Kim Lowings, draws on ideas and imagery from The Tempest. However, the expression is unashamedly modern, and would not sound out of place on Radio 2. (Hey, that’s not a criticism: I often listen to Radio 2!)
  4. While the title of Chris Cleverley’s ‘But Thinking Makes It So’ comes from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark – “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” the song seems to be a more general musing on the human condition and psychological frailty, no doubt influenced by the well-known soliloquy. Very attractive.
  5. In contrast, ‘Method In The Madness’, by Jess Distill and Kim Lowings, is clearly based on Hamlet (perhaps somewhat influenced by the Icelandic Amlóði or the Amleth of Saxo Grammaticus, somewhat less conflicted precursors of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark). It’s curious that such a dark, corpse-strewn play should attract such light music. While this doesn’t have the levity of Adam McNaughtan’s ‘Oor Hamlet’ (chanted or sung to ‘The Mason’s Apron’), its sprightly tune, married to instrumentation that would not be out of place at a bluegrass festival, could certainly be described as toe-tapping. In fact, the tune would fit nicely into that group of American songs including ‘The Roving Gambler’, ‘Poor Ellen Smith’, and ‘Going Across The Mountain’. I’m almost tempted to describe it as fun.
  6. ‘Song Of The Philomel’ is a gentle song by Kim Lowings: the slightly archaic expression in the lyrics recalls Titania’s lullaby in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Philomel is both an old name for the nightingale and a 19th-century instrument somewhat related to the violin, though Hannah’s fiddle here doesn’t have the philomel’s shrill tone.) I particularly like this track.
  7. ‘Interval’ is a brief instrumental track, not listed in the sleeve notes or lyric booklet, but its mournful, slightly dissonant tone serves very appropriately as an introduction to the next track, ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk’. Amusingly, the press release ascribes its inclusion to Midsummer’s Eve mischief-making by the Fairy Queen and her followers. However, there’s nothing light-hearted about either track.
  8. Daria Kulesh’s ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk’ draws its story, as the title suggests, from the novella Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (and the source of an opera by Shostakovich), rather than directly from Shakespeare. Darla’s dramatic delivery of a melody fittingly reminiscent of Russian folk music is almost operatic in its intensity.
    By the way, the Russian word прощай, which appears several times in the lyric, generally means something like ‘farewell’ or ‘goodbye forever’, but can also mean something like ‘forgive’, which perhaps echoes the more sympathetic portrayal of Katerina in Shostakovich’s opera. Just a thought.
  9. ‘You Needs Must Be Strangers’ takes verses from Sir Thomas More. The authorship of this play is, to say the least, complicated. But it is generally accepted that 147 lines added to the play in 1603 were contributed by Shakespeare in his own handwriting. Its meditation on the plight of the exile has an all-too-apposite resonance in the 21st century, reminding me a little of Martin Thomas’s ‘The Exile’.
  10. ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’, by Hannah Elizabeth, sets the song from As You Like It described by Touchstone as “untuneable”, though Hannah’s setting (like Thomas Morley’s long before it) disproves that description. A great tune, though the extended playout is a little overlong for my taste.
  11. The lyric to ‘Jessica’s Sonnet’ is actually not quite a sonnet, but then it isn’t by Shakespeare either, being credited to Kelly Davis, Kim Lowings and Sam Kelly. It does, however, represent the thoughts of Jessica, the daughter of The Merchant Of Venice, just before she elopes with Lorenzo. The vocals are credited to Sam and Chris, but there’s a strong female vocal there, too, plus other harmonies that seem to be from the whole Company.

This certainly isn’t the sort of music I was expecting, but I certainly can’t say I was in the least disappointed by what I heard. Good solo and harmony vocals, excellent instrumental work where technique serves the interests of the songs but never overshadow them, and some very attractive tunes. If you’re among the many people who were completely put off The Bard by unimaginative English lessons, don’t let that put you off this take on his life and work. And if you love Shakespeare but are open to alternative ‘takes’ like West Side Story you may well like this.

It’s certainly staying on my iPod.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.facebook.com/TheCompanyofPlayers

‘Method In The Madness’ – live:

KARINE POLWART – A Pocket of Wind Resistance (Hudson HUDOO5)

Wind ResistanceOriginally conceived as the musical accompaniment to her theatrical debut production of the same name in collaboration with sound designer Pippa Murphy, this now takes on independent life as an album in its own right. Inspired by watching the migration of some two thousand geese to Fara Flow, a peat bog near her Edinburgh home, and the way they took turns to create pockets of wind resistance to assist each other’s flight, Polwart embarked on a project concerning how we depend upon and help one another, not a little reinforced by having become a mother. It also serves as a warning of the dangers of isolating ourselves from others.

It opens with ‘All On A Summer’s Evening’, a sparse rendering of the traditional ‘Skippin’ Barfit Through the Heather’ accompanied by minimal glacial glockenspiel and thumb piano notes giving a drone effect that gives way to a spoken word passage describing the area around Fara Flow and introducing the narrative’s central characters, farmer and ex-soldier Will Sime and his wife, Roberta.

It flows seamlessly into the atmospheric ‘The Moor Speaks’ which, arranged for harp, drums, bass and a dense skein of backing vocals, offers a list of the many different mosses that grow here and, an indication of Roberta’s pregnancy, a refrain about “my little one” interwoven into a web of Gaelic hymn and field recordings.

Next up comes a carefree, buoyant treatment of ‘The Lark In The Clear Air’ framed with harp and rippling marimba that underscores the notion of open spaces and, from thence, to the drone-backed ‘Labouring And Resting’ with Murphy’s ambient score and Polwart’s description of the geese migration from whence comes the album title, the accompaniment capturing the sense of the wind and the sound of wings.

Backed by bass and a circling acoustic guitar psattern, the seven-minute ‘Tyrannic Man’s Dominion’ is a slight melodic reworking of ‘Now Westlin’ Winds’, Robert Burns’ ecological tract about bird shoots with their “slaughtering guns”. Whispering the introduction, backdropped by sanusula chimes, the spoken ‘Place To Rest And Mend’ builds to a military tattoo march beat and wordless chant as she pays tribute to Soutra Hospital, a charitable medieval Augustinian hospital that once stood on the edge of moor and, providing sanctuary and protection, served as a prototype of today’s NHS.

Opening with a sung lyric about motherhood against a single repeated piano note, ‘A Benediction’ gives way to a spoken narrative that describes Roberta watching Will who, in transpires, is carpeting a crib for the impending baby, Another spoken introduction about Roberta discovering a smashed swallow’s nest and the dead or dying fledglings sets the scene for the six-minute plus ‘Small Consolation’, focuses her thoughts on her own upcoming birthing, a meditation on the fragility of life giving way to the revisiting from her 2004’s Faultlines album with its echoes of Sandy Denny.

The sound of a barn owl both gives rise to the title and heralds the musically dramatic, dissonantly percussive ‘White Old Woman Of The Night’ as the contractions begin with lyrics that intermingle with Polwart’s recollections of her own troubled childbirth as it flows in the wheezing drone of medieval ballad ‘Sphagnum Mass For A Dead Queen’ (itself previously on 2007’s Fairest Floo’er as ‘The Death of Queen Jane’) about Jane Seymour’s tragic childbirth with its disorienting Latin chants and list of cures

The glacial 90-second foreshadowing of ‘Lullaby For A Lost Mother’ picks up the medieval notes with harp and birdsong counterpointing the tragedy in the voice of a child recounting the scene around Fara Flow to her departed mother, but then ‘Remember The Geese’ strikes an optimistic, uplifting not as she returns to the opening setting, drawing together and linking the threads of the metaphor and imagery as, in the spoken mid-section she warns of the weather growing darker daily and a fierce wind, reminding that we are “a human skein and we’re not going to make it on our own.”

In ‘Molly Sime’s Welcome To Salter’s Road’ the spoken narrative brings the pregnancy to a bittersweet end with Roberta’s daughter, Molly, born and the image of Will tending his wife only for her to bleed to death, she taken away by her family for burial, he taking an axe to their bed and the back room floor and throwing the wood and bloody linen on a pyre to “let the world burn.” Midway through, the final chapter of the story is interrupted with a revisiting of ‘Salter’s Road’ from 2012’s Traces, its line about the horseman’s only daughter suddenly bringing home that, for those unaware of the background, this isn’t some fiction, but the true story of one of Polwart’s former neighbours as she relates visiting the elderly Molly in hospital, on the last day of her life, with her own son. At once the project’s theme of thread that connects us is brought into heartbreaking focus and the album ends as it began, at dusk, with the moor cock calling and the sound of a heartbeat, its final words the song’s title and the album’s overarching message, ‘We Are All Bog Born’. Quite magnificent.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the KARINE POLWART – A Pocket of Wind Resistance 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.karinepolwart.com

‘Labouring And Resting’:

SAOIRSE MHÓR – Ghosts Of Tomorrow (own label)

Ghosts Of TomorrowSaoirse Mhór is an Irish singer-songwriter living and working in Germany. British and Irish folk is big there but Saoirse is barely known in England except as the frontman of Fleadh. Ghosts Of Tomorrow is his third solo studio album and he is supported by, among others, Andy Horn and Andrew Cadie of Germany’s top British folk-rock band Broom Bezzums and their regular guest vocalist Katie Doherty.

There is a vein of melancholy running through Saoirse’s songs together with a feeling for lyrics that it typically Celtic. The opener, ‘Tree Of Oak’ is a simple song laden with the despair of a man fully aware of his own failure but it’s offset in part by ‘Fanore’, a village in County Clare where our man finds refuge from his life but leaves a part of himself there. ‘The Thief’ and ‘White Birds’ make for an interesting pairing. In the first, the writer is escaping from a damaged relationship but in the second he waits for the end of winter to be reunited with his love – two very fine songs.

The author of ‘Sleeping And Working’ is at rock bottom and the song ends bitterly with “Remember…if you work harder then love and good fortune will soon come your way”. Yeah, right. The bankers figure in that song and also in ‘Hill Of Plenty’ which begins optimistically until reality intrudes on what seems to be an ideal life.

Ghosts Of Tomorrow is big on sweeping strings and backing vocals with the fiddles of Andrew Cadie and Marcus Eichenlaub often taking the lead in melodic decoration with Michael Busch’s guitar sitting alongside Saoirse’s. He may live in Germany but Saoirse hasn’t really left Ireland far behind and there is a thread of a simple rural life running through the songs. ‘The Cleggan Bay Disaster’ takes us right back there and the final track, ‘Good Friday’, is an account of that day – a reflection of Saoirse’s Catholicism, perhaps.

His albums are available as downloads from the usual sources but for a physical copy you’ll need to visit his website. It’s worth going to the trouble.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the SAOIRSE MHÓR – Ghosts Of Tomorrow 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.

DOWNLOAD – [CD]

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

Promo video:

MELROSE QUARTET – Dominion (own label MQCD03)

DominionDominion is the long-awaited second album from Melrose Quartet: Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, Jess and Richard Arrowsmith. If you haven’t heard them you should remedy that oversight as soon as possible: four voices and four instrumentalists, equally gifted with unaccompanied harmony and instrumental dexterity. And that’s before we begin to discuss songwriting.

The album is a delightfully eclectic mix of material, you know, the way people used to make albums back in the 70s. It begins, unexpectedly, with a southern Appalachian song, ‘Mariah’s Gone’ originally from Jean Ritchie. Unaccompanied, it makes an arresting statement from the outset – you are going to listen to this record. It is followed by the title track, ‘Dominion Of The Sword’, further adapted from Martin Carthy’s version with a new verse by James. You must expect some politics from the quartet but this is as heavy handed as it gets and the tunes that follow, ‘A Generous Man/Carthy’s March’ are as bright and joyful as you could wish for.

The ebb and flow continues throughout the record. Nancy Kerr’s ‘Hand Me Down’ is about the unifying effect of music and ‘’Ware Out Mother’ is a huge joke. It started out in the tradition but was probably written in its present form by Charley Yarwood and Tom Brown. Jess Arrowsmith’s ‘Anthem Of A Working Mum’ is a song that should be adopted by the tradition. Like the best writing it says a lot in a few words and leaves you to colour in the picture while Nancy’s ‘Rise No More’ is a lament for the lost steel industry told in complex metaphor. Around these we have ‘The Seeds Of Love’, Paul Davenport’s ‘Davy Cross’ and Paul Metser’s lovely ‘Good Intentions’.

Melrose Quartet could play Dominion from start to finish in a folk club and you’d go home knowing that you’d had a good night out. I don’t think that you could ask for much more than that.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the MELROSE QUARTET – Dominion 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.melrosequartet.co.uk

Melrose Quartet live at Chester Folk Festival:

Ross Ainslie announces a remarkable third album

Ross Ainslie

Ross Ainslie is one of Scotland’s finest traditional musicians and composers, playing pipes, whistles and cittern. He is renowned for his highly acclaimed solo material, and as a skilled performer and prolific collaborator who performs regularly with bands Treacherous Orchestra (of which he is a founding member), Salsa Celtica, Dougie Maclean, Ali Hutton, Charlie Mckerron, Jarlath Henderson and India Alba.

This third album from Ross brings together a lot of his influences over the years playing in such bands as Salsa Celtica and India Alba. Ross has always been a fan of Mike Oldfield’s album Tubular Bells and this album is based on the same idea and designed to be listened to like a journey. The album plays continuously from start to finish and as a bonus extra for pre-release copies you will receive the album in one track (digital format) the way it should be.

Sanctuary is a term Ross likes to use when describing what music is for him, coming up to five years sober!! Ross has been through some big changes and found ways of coping with certain situations without alcohol.

“I’ve found that I’m spending a lot of time on my own these days, being a travelling musician a lot of the social time is centred around drinking so I found it hard to be around so I would retreat to my room a lot, at first it took some time to get used to my own company but as the years have gone on I’ve found it to be a very productive and creative space, if I’m having a particularly bad day music is always the thing that will pick me up so that’s why this album is called Sanctuary”.

‘Inner Sanctuary’ is a track heavily influenced by his travels to India, it features a debut performance on Bansuri from Ross. The musicians on this album were selected very carefully and are all very comfortable in many genres, this track shows Greg Lawson playing with an Indian style.

‘Home In Another Dimension’ features one of Ross’s favourite musicians in the world, the one and only Zakir Hussain on tabla and also British/Indian Sarod maestro Soumik Datta. This track demonstrates a different style in writing for Ross with a definite Eastern flavour. ‘Let The Wild Ones Roam’ is a straight ahead rocking set of reels with the guys in their natural habitat. Damien O’Kane adds some amazing banjo to this track.

All the music on the album is composed by Ross apart from ‘Surroundings’ which was composed by Ross and Jamie Maclean.

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the Ross Ainslie 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.

DOWNLOAD – [CD]

Artist’s website: http://rossainslie.com/holding/

Here’s the album sampler: