JAMIE MACDONALD & CHRISTIAN GAMAUF – The Pipe Slang (own label JMCG01)

PIpe SlangJamie and Christian met on the Isle Of Uist and, having participated in a cultural exchange in Asturias and paid their dues at small gigs, eventually making it to Celtic Connections, they started work on their debut album, The Pipe Slang. The title tune is an old reel but be careful if you Google it – you’ll learn more than you needed to know. Jamie plays fiddle and Christian performs on a variety of pipes. They keep it very simple, with just a guitar or piano continuo added to most tracks with Jack McRobbie (guitar) and Adam Young (piano) sharing arranging credits.

Much of the material is traditional in spirit, but in Scotland the tradition is an on-going process so here you’ll find tunes by James Scott Skinner and Pipe Major Donald Macleod – both legends in Scottish music. Although they keep coming back to the Hebrides, Jamie and Christian spread their net wide with tunes from Asturias and several by the late Jerry Holland, who is clearly a favourite – Adam is also from Cape Breton.

The exceptions to the pattern are the well-known waulking song ‘Mo Nighean Donn à Cornaig’ and ‘Iorram Nan Itheach’, a rowing song from Tiree with a melody by Donald Shaw. These are sung by Jamie’s sister Anna Rachel who also plays clarsach and add a contrast to what is an album dominated by pipes. ‘The Step Dancer Reels’ are augmented by the feet of Sophie Stephenson, another unexpected variation. I’m convinced that several tunes were chosen just for their titles: ‘The Highlandman Kissed His Mother’ and ‘The Boy’s Lament For His Dragon’, for example, not forgetting Scott Skinner’s ‘So I‘m Off With The Good St. Nicholas Boat’. But what do I know?

There is some fine playing here and I found that The Pipe Slang benefits from speakers with a good bass response to bring out the undercurrents.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.pipeslang.com

‘Asturian’ – official video:

LUCY WARD – Pretty Warnings (Betty Beetroot BETTY03)

Pretty WarningsHaving been finally converted to Ward with her last album, I Dreamt I Was A Bird, I was unsure whether that was a one-off or if her follow-up would keep me on the path. Well, feathered friends again in evidence, with the opening, ‘Silver Morning’, Helga Ragnarsdottir on electric piano, a spare sketch of walking in the early dawn that treats a sense of wanderlust, any uncertainties were instantly dispelled.

Stu Hanna co-producing with Stewart MacLachlan, who also, respectively, provide guitars/keys and drums, it’s a mostly mellow and meditative affair, the title succinctly summing up its musical and thematic intent, mixing four traditional numbers bookended with self-penned originals. Breathily sung and etched on a repeated guitar pattern with Claire Bostock on cello, ‘Cold Caller’ moves back a few hours to a moon-lit evening of rain and wind and, bolstered by rumbling waves of drums and gathering psychedelic swirls of electric guitar, a witchily-atmospheric song of love (obsessive and possibly delusional) confessed to the night.

Daylight returns with ‘Sunshine Child’, Anna Esslemont on violin, for another delicate acoustic love in rapture number with lyrics scattering images of butterfly kisses, laughter, a dancing soul and sweet smelling blossoms and she sings “for a lifetime and beyond I’ll be singing our song”, though one suspects the golden haired Samson identified here may be more symbolic than actual.

The four traditional numbers are gathered together, opening with a near seven-minute, initially unaccompanied reading of ‘Bill Norrie’, the tragic tale of a jealous man killing the titular lad he suspects is his wife’s lover only to learn he’s actually her son, Ward Derbyshire-accented vowels subsequently joined by Ragnarsdottir’s suitably sparse and forlorn piano notes.

Sticking with murder ballads, ‘Maria Martin’ is her arrangement of the much-covered ‘Murder In The Red Barn’, Ward inspirationally recasting it as a hypnotically slow lurching blues carried on brushed drums, Sam Pegg’s droningly doomy upright bass and, as the horror is unfolded, cold shivers of keys and violin.

Another cautionary tale follows with the equally familiar ‘Fair & Tender Ladies’, again given a sparse, darkling ambience, dressed in atmospheric nocturnal robes with double tracked vocals, the persistent keyboard drone augmented by meditative acoustic guitar. For the last of the four, ‘Mari Fach’, Ward takes the tune of the lilting Welsh ballad ‘Mari Fach Fy Nghariad’, stripping it back and slowing it down considerably, and adds her own words for the tragic tale of a teenage girl made pregnant by a false lover who gives birth, kills the baby and then is hanged, “all alone”, from a willow tree “down by a Greenwoodsidey-o”.

The album closes with two further Ward originals, the gently waltzing ‘Lazy Day’ restores the sun in distracted, strings-washed thoughts of staying in bed to “dream my days away” rather than getting up and facing a day “bursting with intentions that never find their way.” The final number, backed by harmonium drone and minimal piano notes, has Ward showing her vocal flexibility, delicately swooping and soaring through ‘The Sweetest Flowers’ as she ends on an upbeat lullaby note, dusk drawing in, slumber making eyes heavy, sleep’s reveries and fantasies awaiting, a life “rich with possibility” and a “love that can’t be torn asunder” but “will bloom forever.” Take heed.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.lucywardsings.com

‘The Trapper And The Furrier’ – live at the Isle Of Wight Festival:

Adrian McNally talks to Dave Freak about The Unthanks and Molly Drake

Molly Drake
Photograph by Sarah Mason

The songs of Molly Drake have been slowly seeping into public consciousness for the best part of a decade. There was a fleeting glimpse of her home recordings on the Nick Drake-and-co compilation Family Tree in 2007, followed by an album of her home recordings in 2013. Tracey Thorn and Eliza Carthy are among the artists who’ve since recorded cover versions, but it’s arguably The Unthanks’ The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake which really pushes Molly into the spotlight.

Released last year as the fourth in The Unthanks’ ongoing Diversions series, the project (spread over two albums, the second billed as Extras) was created with the direct input of Molly’s daughter, actress Gabrielle Drake, and has been described by the band as some of their best work.

For many, Molly – who passed away in 1993 – has been simply the mother of treasured songwriter Nick Drake whose reputation, based on three previously obscure (though now ridiculously popular) albums, continues to grow. And while her influence on Nick has been acknowledged, the arrival of the private demos tell us she was more than a footnote, but an equally rare and impressive talent in her own right.

“Certainly I think that an element of Gabrielle’s motivation to release her mother’s music was to show the world that her brother, the troubled troubadour, who we are often encouraged to think was born into a stuffy upper middle class English family, with parents who didn’t understand him, in fact had a mother with as much emotional introspection and poetic articulacy as he,” says The Unthanks Adrian McNally. “We can see now that Nick was from a close and loving family, with inspiration and talent passed down.”

When it came to arranging Molly’s starkly recorded material the band explored two approaches.

“On some songs, we have been quite faithful and sympathetic. With others, we have created totally different chordal and arrangement structures, retaining Molly’s story, sentiments and tune, but removing the vernacular of the time she wrote them in, to present them in a way that hopefully shows the quality of the song as being completely independent of the music of the time,” says McNally.

“Some of the creativity that produced those results was born out of necessity. As a piano player, I do not have Molly’s chops. I am not versed in the styles and ornamentations of her day. In most cases, my starting point, which is a common one in The Unthanks, was to get Rachel or Becky to do an iPhone recording of themselves singing a Molly song unaccompanied. I work to that only, so I am free from and not influenced by the song’s original chords and voicings, which often results in a completely different sounding song – because of course, a melody can be given a totally different emotion resonance, if it is set to different chords or rhythms.

“Only in instances where that route proves to be a dead end, do I then go to Molly’s originals.

“This is not a hard and fast rule. There are some instances when just through listening, a decision is made to remain faithful, or that an alternative idea is instantly recognised.

“In all cases, it is the song that comes first,” he stresses. “If we rework, it’s because we can see another way of capturing or putting a different spin on the sentiment of the song, or if we don’t, it’s because we cannot see a better way of expressing the sentiment of the song.

Touring the album last year, McNally and the band were touched by the way audiences connected with the material.

“The show is very subtly lit, so it was more possible than normal, to see faces in the audience, and quite how many tears were being shed!” he says.

“Molly’s writing is the very essence of bittersweet. In defence of her mother’s leanings towards darkness, Gabrielle has said of her mother that ‘happiness was something she understood profoundly – the more so, because she was so conscious of its opposite – sorrow.

“It’s the understanding and acceptance of both as part of life that brings about the condition of yearning that is equal parts hopeful and melancholic, and it’s the equality between beauty and tragedy that breaks our hearts, I feel.”

And while the songs have been the main focus for many, as The Unthanks’ album rightly pointed out, there’s also Molly’s poems too, which were recorded for the project by Gabrielle.

“It’s not just the songs. Her poetry too, through Gabrielle’s performances, is incredibly effecting. Every one of Gabrielle’s performances caused a strong emotional reaction in me on first listen, be that tears or laughter – both of which were caused by the same ingredient – beauty.

“Molly’s messages are profound, but the joy I feel is towards the brilliance and precision with which the truth of that message is articulated. The success of any art should ultimately be judged on how successful the artist has been in conveying what they intended to.

“On those terms, Molly’s writing is amongst the best I’ve ever heard.”

Dave Freak

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The Unthanks perform The Songs Of Molly Drake at Lunar Festival (26-29 July 2018) in Tanworth-In-Arden, Warwickshire (the home of the Drake family) on Friday 27 July 2018. Other artists appearing at the festival include Goldfrapp, The Stranglers, Amadou and Mariam, Songhoy Blues, and Jane Weaver.

For more information, see: lunarfestival.co.uk

Promo video:

PARKER MILLSAP – Other Arrangements (OkraHoma OKRA004CD)

Other ArrangementsThree albums in, two of which have topped the US Americana charts, the Oklahoma singer-songwriter is expanding his musical horizons and looking to broaden his audience. As such, while there’s still country at the core, his latest outing, Other Arrangements, is a rockier and poppier affair. It’s also his first to use electric instruments.

It kicks off in crunchy form with the steady driving drum beat and snarly guitar riffs and chords of ‘Fine Line’ as he lays out the down and dirty side with “honey I don’t bite, I’m just a little bloodthirsty” before switching style and mood for a mingling of Celtic and Southern soul on ‘Your Water’ with Daniel Foulks on fiddle and then again for the simple acoustic folksy fingerpicking of ‘Singing To Me’, soul hints seeping in on the chorus, Millsap also offering wordless falsetto crooning refrain.

The title track, about realigning a relationship, also nods to Southern R&B influences, the song again rolling on guitar riff rails while driven by a punchy beat and chugging rhythm the gospel shaded poppily rousing ‘Let A Little Light’ In offers a reminder to lighten up once in while (Not every day is a fight to win“). Another number built for big arenas, there another nod to his gospel roots on the ‘Coming On’, especially in the female backing vocals who get their own handclaps backed spotlight as the song builds to its climax,

Things are slower and bluesier on the gutsily growled ‘Tell Me’ as he sings how “I’ve got a scar from bleeding for you”, ‘She’ bringing on a musically lighter shade of blue and a touch of a Randy Newman/Harry Nillson crossover with some playful percussive notes, dreamy melodic refrains and violin and horns.

Underlining the musical variety herein powering along on drums and riffery, ‘Some People’ tickles blues and rock with a power pop swagger reminiscent of early Cheap Trick and, in parts, Tom Petty. That same retro-styled musical exuberance is evident in spades on ‘Gotta Get To You’, a chugging acoustic riff providing the spine around which his raspy vocals and the drums and electric guitars flex their muscles.

The remaining two numbers nod to a more musically reflective and simple mood. The lyrics and rhymes may be a touch doggerel (“We were lying down, our bodies were bound”), but featuring a bridge of quixotic strings, the optimistic, upbeat ‘Good Night’ basks in the blissful afterglow of love while album closer, ‘Come Back When You Can’t Stay’, written by and featuring a duetting Jillette Johnson, is an achingly tender song about love without complications that makes not making a commitment seem unexpectedly romantic.

If you come to this expecting another helping of Red Dirt Americana with songs about religion, preacher and small towns, then you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Hopefully, you’ll find it a decidedly pleasant one.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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Artist’s website: www.parkermillsap.com

‘Your Water’ – live:

THE MOONBEAMS – This Land (Moonbeam Records MBR003)

This LandThe Moonbeams band forms the core of The Moonbeam Collective, a multi-platform arts community based in the Yorkshire Dales. This Land, the band’s third album, is once again rooted in that landscape, linking up past and present, rural and industrial.

Apart from the closing song – a jaunty lunge at the traditional ‘The Yorkshire Tup’ in praise of Swaledale sheep – all the songs on this album are the band’s original compositions.

The hammer and brass intro to ‘The Flags Beneath Our Feet’ followed by the whirl of whistles on ‘This Land’ make a promising start. The lively ‘Gathering Day’ counts up sheep whilst ‘Ginny Bickerdyke’ turns out not to have been the local “witch” of many childhood rumours and dares. The banjo intro to ‘Syke As Thee’ prefaces an old-time love song – with a surprising electric guitar break towards the end. And if it’s surprises you’re after, have a listen to ‘Slow Down’ where spacious, dub guitar underpins Nick Cave-like semi-spoken vocals in a tribute to slow living. (The suggestion to “take a slow train” did induce a wry smile as Greater Anglia’s finest crawled through the Hertfordshire countryside: it wasn’t at all relaxing).

The core band members have been supplemented by different musicians and instruments on each album to date, and this one is no exception. Instrumentally, there are some interesting things going on, with shades of country, pulses of reggae-influenced syncopation, blasts of electric guitar and even a small brass section. Jen Haines’s smoky, earthy viola frequently resonates with mediaeval tones, and Mark Fletcher’s whistles occasionally stray into folk-horror territory, as on the oddly creepy ‘My Girl From The North Country’. This eclectic, often quite raw-sounding, mix insinuates itself into the spaces between the words.

For it is a wordy album, with a strong storytelling urge and some skill in evoking particular scenes and moods. The free-flowing lyrics, though, can threaten to overwhelm verse and melodic integrity. Occasionally undershooting the available rhythm, they more often lean towards the over-stuffed and squeezed in. A rather limited range in the vocals also, over the duration of the album, creates a generally dampening effect on the melody line, and on some otherwise interesting and diverse material.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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Artists’ website: www.themoonbeamcollective.co.uk

HECTOR GILCHRIST – Gleanings (WildGoose WGS426CD)

GleaningsHector Gilchrist, as you will quickly discover, comes from Ayrshire but is much travelled. To misuse a common phrase, however: you can take the man out of Scotland but you can’t take Scotland out of the man. There is someone like Hector in just about every folk club: always welcome, able to produce a set at a moment’s notice. They may not be stars but some can elevate themselves above their apparently humble status. Gleanings is a collection of traditional and contemporary songs that might seem typical except for Hector’s skill in finding a previously unconsidered piece.

He begins with the lovely ‘Baltic Street’. It’s a tale of love and self-sacrifice with words by Violet Jacob and a melody by Carole Prior and I guess it’s unique to Hector. It slips easily into ‘How Many Rivers’, Robert Burns’ ‘A Rosebud By My Early Walk’ and Steve Knightly’s ‘Exile’. By now, the album is feeling rather downbeat and I’m hoping for something rather more lively. Although a guitarist himself, Hector only plays on one track, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, and leaves most of the work to Bob Wood. Also supporting him are Carol Anderson on fiddle and the myriad talents of Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer. Moira Craig takes the second vocal lines – I’m not going to belittle her contribution by referring to “backing vocals”. You’ll note that all of them are regular visitors to WildGoose studios.

The liveliness begins with ‘A Waukrife Minnie’ – a night visiting song of the sexual encounter not the supernatural sort – with Carol throwing in a fiddle tune at the end. ‘My Ain Countrie’ is a wistful song of exile and then comes the first of those unconsidered pieces. ‘The Stag’ was written by Angelo Brandaurdie, an Italian composer, songwriter and Renaissance music specialist. It’s an oddly philosophical piece in which the titular beast urges the writer, a hunter, to use every part of his body instead of just taking a trophy. Whether the hunter actually kills the animal is not recorded. After ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ things cheer up again with ‘The Gallowa’ Hills’ and then comes the second unexpected gem. Janis Ian’s ‘When Angel Cry’ is a real downer, written at the height of the AIDS crisis. Vicki and Jonny provide the accompaniment with all the delicacy you’d expect.

Gleanings is an album reminiscent of a time when singers didn’t overthink things. It’s a collection of songs that Hector likes and enjoys performing which is where we all came in. That’s not a veiled criticism; I’d not heard ten of these sixteen songs before proving that there is always something new to discover.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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’s website: http://hectorgilchrist.co.uk/

‘Baltic Street’: