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Chris & Siobhan Nelson, Early Birds (self-released, 2010)

The independent music scene is a wonderful place, and in particular that element of the scene which is nurtured and supported by our wonderful network of folk clubs. Southport-based Chris & Siobhan Nelson are very much an integral part of that scene, and their latest release is brimming with the kind of unpretentious warmth that one simply won’t find in the music of the more mainstream, media-savvy folk world. Early Birds has a rare and unrelenting beauty, that can be mostly attributed to the meticulous tenderness of Siobhan’s utterly adorable voice, recalling a younger Joan Baez. However, this is very much a partnership, and if Siobhan’s voice assumes the starring role, it’s Chris’ solid and diverse musicianship that weaves a wonderful backdrop against which Siobhan can glisten, playing fiddle, guitar and mandolin, amongst others.

The magic is most apparent when the understated backdrop of a gently plucked guitar and subtly bowed fiddle allow plenty of room for Siobhan’s fluent vocals to flood your senses. The subdued majesty of the string-drenched title track, where Siobhan’s commanding performance is only momentarily eclipsed by the delicate birdsong that opens and closes the song is one such example, and quite possibly the most bewitching performance that the folk scene will produce this year. Their cover of Dougie MacLean’s “Not Lie Down” is equally captivating, adding much feeling to MacLean’s winsome contemplations.

The Nelsons’ old friend, Barry Wake, contributes a couple of songs that do much to reinforce his position as a writing force to be reckoned with. The robust working class rhetoric of “Four Hours’ Work” brings a Ewan MacColl-like originality, yet equally holds the potential to seamlessly filter its way into the tradition. Wake’s second contribution adopts a more reflective position, pondering over life’s journey: “there’ll be regrets, and times to forget, but always there’s a road that you can choose.”

There is an accomplished selection of traditional material here too, impeccably illuminated by the Nelsons’ masterful musical poise, ranging from the bawdy “Ratcliffe Highway,” to the stately elegance of “The Loyal Lover,” and the circumspect narrative of “New York Trader.”

That our folk scene can quietly turn out such understated beauty, in the absence of vacuous media hype, gives hope to genuine lovers of music that the true beauty of art will ultimately prevail; that the cream of our music scene will always rise quietly and effortlessly to the top. Early Birds undoubtedly deserves to be jostling politely amongst the upper echelons of more commercial releases, and could certainly teach many of these pretenders a thing or two about
integrity and humility. You really should buy Early Birds: bask in its quiet splendour, luxuriate in its shimmering allure… simply enjoy it, because it is simply enjoyable.

Artist links: http://www.chrisandsiobhan.co.uk/

Mike Wilson

WEST OF EDEN – A Celtic Christmas (Zebra Art Records ZAR852)

Ah, a hearty goodwill to all men (and women)…and spreading the word with this gently evocative offering are Sweden’s Celtic influenced West Of Eden. Now, without wishing to detract from the skills of the band as a whole (they exploit fiddle, guitars, accordion, bouzouki, percussion and piano extremely well) the album relies predominantly on the strength of Martin Schaub’s production. By combining elements of ‘folk’ with a modern twist the band are not averse to encompass tastes that appeal to a wider demographic and in this instance they are joined by the Haga Motet Choir on several ‘live’ tracks with suitably seasonal fare including “The Wexford Carol”, “In The Bleak Midwinter” and a buoyant “I Saw Three Ships”. It will come as no surprise to those that have read my ramblings before that this is my favourite time of the year and having become something of an avid hoarder of Christmas albums this recording will nestle nicely in my collection. www.westofeden.com PETE FYFE

FLYING TOADS – In Stitches (Own Label)

FLYING TOADS – In StitchesWhat’s in a name…well, quite a lot actually and I don’t know where the Celtic influenced Flying Toads acquired theirs but (to me at least) they haven’t done themselves any favours as the title is neither descriptive nor flattering. Having said that, never judge a book by its cover as looks can be deceptive. This Sussex based quartet sparkle with the energy of an early Planxty although possibly lacking in their Irish counterparts finesse and without wishing to sound churlish there’s nothing wrong in the presentation it’s just that in general it’s a little rough around the edges. OK, so maybe there’s nothing to laugh about with “In Stitches” featuring as it does well rounded performances from all concerned including Val Marciandi on vocals and concertina, Brian Hirst (cittern/fiddle & guitar), Keith Whiddon (tenor banjo/bouzouki & backing vocals) and the Uillean pipes/flute/whistle and Northumbrian pipes of Erik Faithfull. Bringing to mind memories of the 70s when bands such as Oisin and the acoustic version of Stockton’s Wing were making a name for themselves The Flying Toads nestle comfortably in the category ‘goodtime Celtic’ and include trusted tune sets such as the traditional “Banish Misfortune/Battering Ram/Geese In The Bog/Boys Of Ballymote” and “Out On The Ocean” performed with ‘balls’ – which is just the way I like it. Likewise, Val’s vocals are clear and concise without the need of fragility as so often seems to be the case with a lot of traditional singers these days. Aided in the recording by ex-Battlefield member Alistair Russell (now based in Sussex himself) this proves a fine representation of the band and I look forward to future releases. www.flyingtoads.co.uk PETE FYFE

CHRIS DE BURGH – Moonfleet & Other Stories (Ferryman Records Ferry444P)

In much the same way that Robert Louis Stevenson captured the imagination with his ‘boys own’ adventures “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped”, John Meade Faulkner created the 1758 based smugglers tale “Moonfleet”. Indeed this piece of fiction makes as interesting a backdrop as either of Stevenson’s offerings (both of which subsequently became musicals in their own right) and form the major part of this recording. Ever the storyteller, Chris De Burgh’s fascination with his subject matter is obvious from the opening track by introducing the sounds of rushing surf followed by no less than the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra setting up the story with the grandiose harp led “Moonfleet Overture”. As is the case in most folk-rock operas there is narrative interjection peppered throughout the album provided by fellow musician Chris Porter’s thespian vowels and the ‘folk’ instrumentation of Geoffrey Richardson on viola, banjo, mandolin and whistle who comes into his own on the fiddle driven “The Escape”. Creating a sound-scape that vividly brings to mind the story’s rustic setting proves no obstacle for De Burgh who after all is steeped in the art of theatrics and even the visual image conjured by the CD booklet proves testament to that. I suppose that comparisons may be drawn to Jeff Wayne’s adaptation of “War Of The Worlds” or Alan Parson’s “Tales Of Mystery And Imagination” but I for one (being of that generation that loved rock operas) am ready to embrace any project that employs a full-on production and trust me, there’s plenty of that showmanship on display here. With a cheery reference to “Drunken Sailor” included on the track “Have A Care” Chris nails his ‘folk’ colours firmly to the mast and if you don’t mind the odd bit of plagiarism will bring a wry smile to your face. There’s plenty on offer and, if you hadn’t guessed it already I’m sold on this album and couldn’t recommend it more highly. Christmas has come early…what a cracker! More info from www.cdeb.com PETE FYFE

SARAH JAROSZ – Song Up In Her Head (Sugar Hill Records SUG CD 4049)

Sarah Jarosz was a new name to me when I first heard this stunning record played during the interval of a Martin Simpson gig. For those that care about these things, I suppose this is more of a Country album than ‘folk’ (there we go…pigeonholing again) but it still doesn’t detract from it being an astonishing piece of work whichever the side of the fence you’re on. I was also intrigued to find that Jarosz was not only a powerful vocalist but also a highly talented multi-instrumentalist with an arsenal of mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo and piano at her disposal. Not bad when you take into account her age (and I don’t really wish to appear ageist about these things) of just nineteen! With a backing band including Jerry Douglas (slide guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and ex-Nickel Creek mandolin master Chris Thile you can see she moves in illustrious circles. Youthfulness to one side, this lady certainly has a mature head on her shoulders and a poetic way of writing that will draw the listener into a world that makes you feel she has plenty yet to offer. In one of her songs “Edge Of A Dream” she would lead you to believe that she is insecure of her surroundings as an adolescent. This, she clearly is not as the maturity of the lyric makes abundantly clear. This is the kind of album I can see being used as the soundtrack to teenage-based TV series such as Dawson’s Creek or Smallville and will I am sure pave the way for a brilliant future. www.sarahjarosz.com PETE FYFE

The Be Good Tanyas’ Frazey Ford Returns With Her Debut Album Obadiah

Frazey Ford, lead singer with acclaimed Canadian trio The Be Good Tanyas released her debut solo album Obadiah on July 19th on Nettwerk records. Obadiah combines Frazey’s gorgeous sultry vocals, which helped define the Tanyas’ sound, with her ever growing love for soul music, adding a rich fullness to the 13 tracks on her debut. UK Tour planned for October. “There was so much change in the air—all the things that people get really excited about in the ’60s. My parents were on the run from the Vietnam War and had escaped into communes in Canada where my sister and I were born. It was a crazy, adventurous time for everybody.” Frazey Ford describes that era as “a time that had no definition,” yet its effect on her family defined so much of who she became, both as an artist and a person. Whether it was her family’s emigration to Canada in the ’70s (where Frazey was born) or exploring Asia with her mother and sister in the ’80s, Ford is a soul well traveled. Best known throughout the last 10 years as a member of the critically acclaimed Vancouver trio The Be Good Tanyas, Ford is now ready to tell her own story with a solo album she describes as being “moved by motherhood, earth and land.” Obadiah is a collection of songs hand-carved by the hardships and exaltations of life, and stained with the rich colors of soul and folk music that fueled artists like Joni Mitchell, Ann Peebles, Neil Young, and Donny Hathaway. After a period of stillness, it’s the sound of Ford finding herself once again. “I began to write just for the joy of it,” says Ford, reflecting on the past few years. “I realized that I was just me, and for the first time I understood that was enough. A lot of this album is coming out of healing that I’ve done. The knowledge that in all grief there is joy, and in all joy there is grief.”

Recorded during a blissful Vancouver summer at the studio of co-producer and multi-instrumentalist John Raham, Obadiah came to life with the help of an intimate assembly of guests. Trish Klein of The Be Good Tanyas lay down yards of velvety smooth electric guitar, while next-door neighbor Caroline Ballhorn, contributed vocals to “Gospel Song” and “Hey Little Mama.” Ford’s landlord even dropped in to play keyboards, as Cuban style chords go back and forth with warm Wurlitzer licks on the playful “Like You Better.” By putting her faith in an assortment of capable companions, Ford let the songs unfold naturally, embracing the little experiments and happy accidents that give the album so much character. “Not being in a band allowed me to feel less worried about things working out in a certain way,” she admits. “I felt a lot of trust with the direction people were going in, and they added a lot of their own feel.” In that way, Obadiah plays out like a fireside conversation with an old friend; rich with stories about love, loss and life that unravel at their own colorful pace. The gospel influence of Al Green and the soulful testifying of Otis Redding bleed through on the opening “If You Gonna Go,” while Ford’s vocals are delicately stacked like teacups over handclaps and kalimbas on the joyous “Bird Of Paradise.” On “Lay Down With You,” the reverb tails of Klein’s guitar hang in the air like fireflies while Ford asks her lover to “take me out to the slowpoke, buy me a rum and a Coke and help me forget myself.” Sweet and smoky like blackstrap molasses, “Blue Streak Mama” pours out slow with a mix of new soul and blues. If you listen closely, you can hear Ford call out the shifts between verse and chorus. It’s a subtlety that speaks volumes about the breezy, uncomplicated way in which Obadiah came together. No laborious pre-production and no spit-shined overdubs. Just good friends, good instruments, and reels of two-inch tape on which to capture it all. “That’s the only way I know how to record,” says Ford of the sessions. “To me it’s easier. You have fewer decisions to make if you know you just have to get it right in that moment. I like that pressure and that immediacy.” A true storyteller with a voice that defies comparison, Ford’s greatest talent is her ability to inhabit completely the mind of her song’s protagonists. On “Firecracker,” she’s a hard-drinking, deal making son-of-a-gun that talks to angels with a wry smile. On “Gospel Song,” she looks back on her family life through the eyes of country preacher. It’s a gift she attributes to her journey through motherhood. “As soon as you’re caring for another human being, you’re outside of yourself,” says Ford. “You think about things in the long term. You perceive yourself as a foundation for someone else’s existence. That experience affected my songwriting to the point where it just felt like I had removed myself from being myself. I suddenly felt this ability to zoom out and feel people’s lives and then sing that story. I hadn’t done that before.” Perhaps the most stunning and heartfelt example of this can be found on “Lost Together,” a song that speaks to the heart of the baby boom generation. Its cathartic poetry is written from the perspective of a mother looking back on her life, and features Ford’s mother’s harmonies right alongside her own: “Oh were we lost together, you know we were side by side losing everything. We were just a pair of kids. Oh, the stupid things we did. In the madness they were callin’ the revolution.” Though in many ways Ford’s journey is just beginning, Obadiah is a lasting testament to a life fully lived, whether it be her own or that of a character from her songbook. “What are the words I want to give people?” asks Ford. “What are the messages I want to leave about the story of my life? About recovery and healing?” She pauses for a moment, as if to reflect on each of the 13 songs, then continues with a smile “I feel good about the messages that came through.”

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 banner link below 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.

Artist links: www.facebook.com/frazeyford –  www.twitter.com/frazeyford