OCCIDENTAL GYPSY – 44070 (own label)

44070Occidental Gypsy is a band that combines the ‘Gypsy Swing’ feel of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli with a range of material from other sources, notably the compositions of lead guitarist Brett Lee Feldman. Their CD 44070 (due for release in the UK on July 3rd 2017) includes three songs already associated with Reinhardt and Grappelli, one song by Scottie Kulman, and five compositions by Feldman. The other band members are Eli Bishop (strings, background vocals, and rhythm guitar on ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’); Jeremy Frantz (lead vocals, guitar); Jeff “JPhat” Feldman (bass); and Jon Chapman on percussion. The band is augmented here on some tracks by Evan Veenstra (bass) and Erick Cifuentes (percussion).

  1. ‘Gypsy Blues (She’s Back)’ was written by Scottie Kulman. I can’t altogether like the lyric or the vocal phrasing, but it’s very cleverly arranged, with ear-catching unison playing between guitar and violin in the vocal sections.
  2. The instrumental ‘A Day With Paula May’ was composed by Brett Lee Feldman, but has a very Hot Club feel with the composer in full-on Django mode in places. It features some interesting changes of mood and time signature.
  3. ‘Messalina (Lover Lamb)’ is another composition by Feldman. A very nice melody with changes reminiscent of 50s-60s guitar-oriented cool jazz. It also features some athletic bass soloing and nicely understated percussion (including a sample of Eli Bishop’s record-breaking clapping) over a riffing section. My favourite track.
  4. ‘44070: Song for Vrba’ is yet another Feldman composition. It’s a complex instrumental piece that “celebrates the story of Rudolph Vrba“. After his escape from Auschwitz in 1944, Vrba co-authored a report on the mass murders there that is credited with saving the lives of 200,000 people who would otherwise have been deported (like so many others) from Hungary. The piece has several distinct sections with echoes of Bach, Eastern Europe and even a phrase that reminded me of Dowland’s ‘Melancholy Galliard’, though I think that was probably accidental. An impressive composition and recording.
  5. ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ was composed by Isham Jones (with words by Gus Kahn, though this version is purely instrumental). The song was also recorded by Django Reinhardt with the Quintette du Hot Club de France, and this version is obviously heavily influenced by the Hot Club recordings in its choice of tempo and guitar phrasing.
  6. The next track, ‘Tears’, was actually composed by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, and is a live studio recording. While the guitar is as strongly Django-influenced here as you’d expect, this version is by no means a straight copy, not least in that the violin is far more prominent than on the best-known Hot Club recording, and the track features some nice harmonic interplay between Feldman’s guitar and Bishop’s violin. The track also includes some nicely understated pizzicato.
  7. ‘Tonight’ is another composition by Brett Lee Feldman. A somewhat jokey song with a quasi-blues verse structure and nice interplay between the violin, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar. There’s also more of Eli Bishop’s intelligent use of pizzicato.
  8. ‘Children’s March’ is also by Feldman, and described as “an apology to the children harmed during the de-segregationists march that took place in Birmingham, 1963.” That’s Birmingham, Alabama, of course, where firehoses and police dogs are said to have been used against children taking part in the ‘Children’s Crusade’. Tuned percussion at the beginning gives a suggestion of the nursery, moving into a stately duet between the violin and acoustic guitar, which is less Django-esque than elsewhere on the album.
  9. ‘Over The Rainbow’ was composed by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and was also recorded by Reinhardt and Grappelli. However, this version is more reflective and truer to the song’s movie origins, with a simple guitar and violin arrangement. It is, I guess, hard to take this approach without overdoing the schmaltz, and I can’t altogether like the touches of portamento and harmonics on the violin. There are some good moments here, but for me this is the weakest track on the CD.

If you don’t care for Gypsy Jazz with a strong dash of the Hot Club of France, this may leave you cold, though there’s a lot more to it than pastiche. In fact the use of electric guitar, bass guitar and upfront percussion takes the sound a good way beyond the ‘classic’ Hot Club sound. Certainly I look forward to seeing/hearing where Brett Lee Feldman’s eclectic compositions take them next.

David Harley

Artists’ website: www.occidentalgypsy.com

‘A Day With Paula May’ – live:

CALAN – Solomon (Sain Records SCD2749)

SolomonI was a little nervous about reviewing the CD Solomon by the Welsh band Calan, released on 14th April. After all, it’s been more decades than I care to think about since, as a student in North Wales, I picked up a few words of Cymraeg, and those few words are long gone. Fortunately, while most of the songs are sung in Welsh, the notes are in both Welsh and English, so I’m in with a chance of not getting my facts terribly wrong. Even more fortunately, there are some great sets of tunes as well as songs that feature lovely vocals and harmonies, so not understanding most of the lyrics didn’t impair my enjoyment at all.

Calan are Bethan Rhiannon (main vocals, accordion, step dancing, percussion), Patrick Rimes (fiddle, Welsh bagpipes, pibgorn, whistle, hulusi, vocals), Angharad Jenkins (fiddle, vocals), Sam Humphreys (guitar, percussion, effects, vocals), Alice French (harp, vocals). The band is augmented on this recording by Greg Sterland (saxophone), Josh Barber (trumpet), Lloyd Pierce (trombone) and Nigel Jenkins (reading an extract from his poem The Creation during the song ‘Kân’).

Track Listing:

  1. ‘Kân’ is “a patriotic song about the future of the Welsh language and culture“. If I didn’t have the review copy, I’d probably buy the CD on the strength of this song alone. Nigel Jenkins has one of those resonant Welsh voices – think Richard Burton. The chorus is based on a style of psalm chanting that used to be popular in West Wales, but don’t expect a churchy feel: here, it gives the recording added punch.
  2. The resemblance in the title ‘Ryan Jigs’ to the name of a certain Welsh football player is entirely intentional: this set of jigs is dedicated to the Welsh side, and comprises the traditional tunes ‘Crwr Da’, ‘Breuddwyd y Wrach’ (which you may know as ‘The Hag’s Dream’), ‘Y Facsen Felen’ and ‘Ffidl Ffadl’ (I love that name). And if that set doesn’t propel the team to further success, I don’t know what will.
  3. ‘#Deportationselfie’ is a set of tunes “inspired by Sam and Patrick’s adventures getting into the US” – a story of visa misadventure that attracted some attention on social media, as I recall. The individual tunes are the well-known ‘Black Joak’, plus ‘Chwi Fechgyn Glân Ffri’, ‘Ooh-Eeh, Nasty Devil’ (apparently by Patrick Rimes) and ‘Naid Dros Llannerch’.
  4. ‘Apparition’ is a Calan original in English, and while it’s “based on some entries in the diary of Edmund Jones speaking about the fairy realm in South Wales” there’s nothing twee or fey about it: it’s an excellent folk-rock-ish song.
  5. ‘Hayes and Quinn’s’ is also an original, described as “a wedding tune written for our dear American friends…” A very attractive tune and arrangement.
  6. ‘Madame Fromage’ is a set of tunes dedicated to Carrie Rimes, maker of the band’s own Calan Cheese. But there’s nothing cheesy about these tunes. ‘Madame Fromage’ is by Angharad Siân Jenkins, and Y Folantein is traditional.
  7. ‘Pe Cawn i Hon’ (If She Were Mine) is beautifully sung and accompanied by restrained and very effective electric guitar.
  8. The writer of ‘Yr Eneth Ga’dd ei Gwrthod’ (The Rejected Maiden) is unknown, though it is based on a true event of the mid-19th century: the sadness of the theme is evident even across the language barrier.
  9. ‘Synnwyr Solomon’ (The Wisdom of Solomon), a song learned from the collector/performer Meredydd Evans (Merêd), is rather less mournful, telling of a man who finds that the women of Wales are a little too feisty for him to marry.
  10. ‘Dennis, Polca!’ consists of three tunes: ‘Welsh Morris’, ‘Anastacia Riddles’ and ‘Polca Cefn Coed’. Described by the band as “a banging set” and I won’t argue with that. I’ve always felt happier sitting in the band than being out on the dance floor, but my feet haven’t tapped so much in decades.
  11. ‘Yr Hwiangerddi’ (The Lullabies) brings the pace down with a delightful set of traditional lullabies: ‘Y Lili Ymysg y Drain’ (Also known as ‘The Colour Of The Lily Amongst The Thorns’.), ‘Si Hei Lwli’, and ‘Mil Harddach’.
  12. ‘Big D’ is a “slamming” set of tunes that starts off with a clog dance. Which is a better idea than it sounds. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to finish a super CD. ’27 Club’ is written by Bethan; ‘Y Fasged Wyau’ is traditional; ‘Composition 11’ is credited to P E Rimes (I guess that’s Patrick); ‘Roaring Hornpipe’ and ‘Pibddawns Morfydd’ are both traditional.

If this is Brythonic folk-rock, I wouldn’t mind hearing quite a lot more of it.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the CALAN – Solomon 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]

Artists’ website: www.calan-band.com

‘Apparition’ – live and street-smart:

TERENCE WINCH, MICHAEL WINCH, AND JESSE WINCH – This Day Too: Music from Irish America (Free Dirt Records CTM-CD-002)

This Day TooThe CD This Day Too: Music From Irish America is very much what it says on the tin. It’s a collection of tunes and songs with a pronounced Irish accent, performed and in some cases written by musician and poet Terence Winch, his brother Jesse, and his son Michael, aided by a dozen other musicians who mostly hail from Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.

Regarding the performer credits below, I should explain that I wasn’t familiar with the use of the term ‘box’ to describe what appears to be a button accordion: my guess is that it derives from the use in Ireland of the term ‘an bosca’ (box) for a ‘one-row’ melodeon, though photographs on the CD cover show him with a two-row instrument, and the notes to ‘Cahercrea/The Ring Finger’ and ‘The Homes Of Donegal’ both mention a D/C# box’, which I’d guess to be a ‘semitone-apart’ system button accordion of a type often associated with Irish-American players in the 20th century. In any case, I’ve played safe and followed Terence’s use of ‘box’ in the rest of this review.

Track List:

  1. The album starts with a set of polkas: ‘Johnny O’Leary’s / Kilcummin Lasses / The Ballyvaughan Polka’. The first two are among the many associated with the Kerry button accordion player Johnny O’Leary, and the last was written by Terence Winch, who plays ‘box’, while Michael Winch contributes fiddle, Jesse Winch plays harmonica, Tina Eck plays flute, and Dominick Murray plays guitar. Very nicely arranged, making the best of the dynamic possibilities of instruments that come and go over the course of the set.
  2. The lyrics to ‘Lannisters’ Ball (Game Of Thrones here Song)’ were written by Terence Winch and set to the tune of ‘Lannigan’s Ball’ (but incorporating a break using ‘Brian Boru’s March’. I’ve never seen Game Of Thrones myself, so some of the humour may be lost on me, but I’ve seen enough references to the programme on social media to raise a smile anyway. Vocal and guitar honours go to Belfast’s Seamus Kennedy, with whistle from Tina, bodhrán from Jesse, and fiddle from Michael.
  3. ‘Lally’s Alley / Cat’s Tail & Gravy’ couple together an air and a hornpipe, both written and played by Terence, along with fiddle, bodhrán, guitar and flute from Michael, Jesse, Dominick and Tina.
  4. ‘Nelly, My Love, and Me’ is a song to be found in Moffat’s Minstrelsy of Ireland (1897) and P.W. Joyce’s Ancient Irish Music (1893), these words having been written by Joyce. Dominick provides lead vocal and guitar, with Madeline Waters on harmony vocal and cello, Michael on fiddle, and Terence on box.
  5. The next track is a set of reels – ‘Earl’s Chair / The Green Groves of Erin / Sailor on the Rock’ played by Michael on fiddle, Patrick Armstrong on flute, and Jesse on bodhrán, and seems to me to benefit from the sparser instrumentation.
  6. ‘Childhood Ground’ is a song written by Terence Winch about the “devastating impact” of the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway on many Bronx neighborhoods. Sensitively sung by Eileen Estes with harmony from Nita Conley Korn, with restrained accompaniment from Eileen herself (piano), Jeff Gruber (guitar) and Michael on fiddle.
  7. Terence and Jesse, along with Brendan Mulvihill on fiddle, then present a set of jigs: ‘Tommy Mulhair’s / Finish It Up / Boys of the Town’, the second of which is one of Terence’s compositions, fitting very well with the more widely-known tunes that bracket it.
  8. The reels that follow – ‘Cahercrea / The Ring Finger’ – are written by Terence Winch and Billy McComiskey respectively: Terence, Michael and Jesse are joined by Dominick on guitar and Tina on flute.
  9. The song ‘Welcome Home’, written and performed by Dominick, also features harmonies from Madeline Waters and Connor Murray, whose birth was the subject of the song. The instrumentation is augmented by Connor’s mandolin, Michael’s fiddle, and Terence’s box.
  10. The next track consists of two reels preceded by a relatively well-known hornpipe: ‘The Wonder Hornpipe / Austin Tierney’s / The Thunder Reel’.
  11. Terence’s song ‘Sinning’ is a “hymn to hedonism” is nicely sung without accompaniment by Brian Gaffney.
  12. The jigs ‘The Blooming Meadows / The Monaghan Jig’, played by Michael, Patrick, and Jesse, are fine tunes to be found in O’Neill’s Music Of Ireland.
  13. Terence’s song ‘This Day Too’ is sung by Nita, accompanying herself on piano, with harmony by Eileen, joined by Michael on fiddle and Jesse on guitar.
  14. The set of reels ‘In Memory of Michael Coleman / Hughie’s Cap / Forget Me Not’ is a showcase for Michael’s fluent fiddle, given extra impetus by Conor Hearn’s cittern-like chording on guitar. Probably my favourite track.
  15. The song ‘The Homes of Donegal’, with words written by Sean McBride to the tune more commonly known as ‘Tramps And Hawkers’ in Scotland, is at least as interesting historically as it is musically, as it begins with an informal performance from the ’60s by The Two Pats – PJ Conway and Patrick Winch – before the theme is taken up by Dominick, accompanied by Terence, Madeline (on cello and harmony vocal) and Michael on fiddle and tenor banjo.

As you’d expect, given the decades that the Winch family have represented Irish music in the US, this is a solidly-crafted collection of not-too-familiar tunes old and not-so-old, and the songs generally sit comfortably next to them. Though personally I prefer the more modern-sounding ‘This Day Too’ and ‘Childhood Ground’. (Still, I’m almost tempted to find a home for ‘Sinning’ in my repertoire, if only for the first line – “Oh when I was a young man I pursued every vice“.)

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the This Day Too: Music From Irish America 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]

RODNEY CROWELL – Close Ties (New West Records 6354)

Close TiesWhile I’ve long been aware of Rodney Crowell’s talents as a songwriter, going back at least as far as Emmylou Harris’s 1975 recording of ‘Bluebird Wine’, his songs have always reached me as interpreted by other A-listers. So I jumped at the chance to take a closer look at his album Close Ties, due for release on the 7th April. And I wasn’t disappointed.

While the number of musicians participating in one or more of these ten tracks is too large for a complete listing here, it’s worth mentioning one or two names, their presence giving some idea of the regard in which Crowell is held by his fellow musicians. Besides vocal contributions from John Paul White, Rosanne Cash and Sheryl Crow, there are instrumental contributions from Tommy Emmanuel, Steuart Smith, and Jordan Lehning (who co-produced with Kim Buie) and others.

But there are also ghostly Nashville legends walking these lyrics, such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Dennis Sanchez – could ‘Newberry’ in ‘Nashville 1972’ be Mickey Newbury? – but also survivors like Willie Nelson and Buck White. Crowell has been quoted as saying “It’s a loose concept album … and the concept is related to how you tell stories about yourself.” That may sound self-indulgent, but this is not just a personal memoir but an insider view of a somewhat alternative Nashville that has given modern music some wonderful moments. If this suggests an easy listening experience, it isn’t meant to: Crowell’s often sardonic and sometimes bitter wordplay makes few concessions to “the petty politics of bliss“. It demands (and amply repays) close attention.

Here’s the customary track-by-track listing (all tracks were written by Rodney Crowell except where noted below):

  1. Crowell has expressed a hope that “my study of the blues is starting to show up in my music.” ‘East Houston Blues’ is by no means a 12-bar, but the lyric has a hard-times lyric sung feel over a blues-y shuffle beat, benefiting from Tommy Emmanuel’s classy acoustic lead guitar.
  2. ‘Reckless’ is a slow, introspective song, with clever but understated strings behind the acoustic guitars, harmonium and minimal percussion.
  3. In contrast, ‘Life Without Susanna’ has much more of a rock feel, with a hard-edged lyric about “A self-sure bastard and a stubborn bitch/Locked in a deadly game of chess“.
  4. ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’ is closer to country rock, with excellent additional vocals from John Paul White and Roseanne Cash. The uncredited harmonica play-out is sparse yet haunting.
  5. ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ chronicles disillusion over a riff that reminds me a little of early-ish Stones, with a touch of Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ towards the end of a harsh lyric.
  6. ‘I’m Tied To Ya’ was written by Rodney Crowell and Michael McGlynn, a ballad that also features attractive vocals from Sheryl Crow.
  7. ‘Forgive Me Annabelle’ is another ballad with piano and strings predominant in the accompaniment.
  8. ‘Forty Miles From Nowhere’ is another slow song that hints at a tragic backstory – “If there’s anything that we can do rings hollow down a telephone line“.
  9. ‘Storm Warning’ was written by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr: it’s a rockier number, but maintains a mood of foreboding and very bad weather. “Ninety-five miles of twisted aftermath…
  10. The CD finishes with ‘Nashville 1972’, a look back at his arrival in “Old School Nashville“: a simple, almost folky song, though I could almost imagine Kenny Rogers singing it.

When I hear or read of a songwriter talking about poets and ‘poetic sensibility’, my first impulse is usually to turn the page or put on a different CD. But in this case, it’s not inappropriate. This isn’t the finely-tuned poetry of great literature – though Crowell can turn a phrase as neatly as any lyric writer I know – but it does have the rough-hewn passion and clear-sighted observation of the best Americana.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the RODNEY CROWELL – Close Ties 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.rodneycrowell.com

‘It Ain’t Over Yet’ – official video:

ATLANTIC UNION – Homeward (Blue Island Records BI201601)

HomewardAtlantic Union is a long-established acoustic trio from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Their third CD Homeward features a new thematic approach as well as a change of personnel since their last album, 2004’s The Whole Dance. With the departure of Andrew Lang and the arrival of Jane Ogilvie, Sally Goddard is the only member of the band remaining from its original 1997 incarnation. However, Sally’s vocals have lost none of their power and purity, and the newer faces maintain Atlantic Union’s tradition of instrumental versatility. There’s something of a shift in focus on the material, too: there’s more emphasis on original songs, and the instrumentals are airs rather than dance tunes.

Track-by-Track Listing:

  1. The theme of ‘the pull towards home’ is set from the beginning by Sally Goddard’s ‘Two Coves And A Bay’. This song about the part of Newfoundland where she’s lived for the past 30 years has an irresistible, almost Irish lilt, though Sally’s roots are actually in England. Her guitar and voice are complemented by Jane Ogilvie’s harp and Dan Rubin’s octave mandolin, dulcimer, viola and string bass.
  2. The ‘Loch Tay Boat Song’ is a beautiful tune, beautifully sung by Sally with harp accompaniment from Jane. based on one collected in 1870 and published in Songs Of The North, edited by Sir Harold Boulton, who is credited as writing the words.
  3. ‘She’s Like The Swallow’ is a Newfoundland folk song, played here without a vocal part by Jane and Dan on harp and violin respectively. The sleeve notes describe this as “an exquisite melody” and I completely agree.
  4. Dan Rubin’s ‘A Clear And Ancient Harmony’ is loosely based on Thoreau’s poem Inspiration, with a cheerful melody and Dan’s vocal and guitar augmented by Sally’s harmony and Jane’s accordion and recorder.
  5. ‘Hush, Hush’ (also known as ‘Smile In Your Sleep’) is Jim McLean’s haunting song about the Highland Clearances, set to a pipe tune version of ‘Mist Covered Mountains Of Home’. Jane’s gentle vocals are augmented by her own harp and accordion and Dan’s octave mandolin and violin to good effect.
  6. Otto Kelland’s ‘Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s’ has been described as “the unofficial anthem of Labrador and Newfoundland” and describes the emotions of a homesick sailor longing to return to small boat fishing off Newfoundland. A simple accompaniment by Dan on guitar and Jane on accordion suit Sally’s accomplished vocals to perfection. One of my favourite tracks.
  7. ‘Waltz Around The Cape’ was written by Newfoundland songwriter Jim Payne, to a sprightly waltz rhythm carried by the guitar, bouzouki, bass and accordion accompaniment.
  8. Dan’s song ‘The Singing Stone’ is loosely based on the story of Jumping Mouse as told by Hyemeyohsts Storm in Seven Arrows. Dan takes lead vocals and plays guitar, bouzouki and string bass, with additional vocals from Jane and Sandy MacDonald. Curiously, it has an almost pop-y feel, a bit like a folk-rock interpretation of a forgotten Buddy Holly song. Which is by no means a bad thing: at any rate, it’s definitely growing on me.
  9. ‘Carolan’s Dream’, sometimes known as ‘Molly McAlpin’ was written by William Connellan, though O’Carolan is said to have played it often and to have preferred it to any piece of his own. It is played here, appropriately, as a solo harp piece by Jane, and a lovely piece it is too. I’m not the first person to note that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ may owe something to this tune, but then Led Zeppelin did, in their more derivative moments, borrow some excellent material.
  10. ‘Roads Go Ever On’ is another of Dan Rubin’s songs, based on Bilbo’s song from The Hobbit. Dan takes vocal and guitar, while Jane adds harp and accordion.
  11. Bob Pegg’s ‘A Dram For The Singer’ was written about a Scottish fishing community, but sounds just as appropriate for Newfoundland. Another favourite track, beautifully sung by a double-tracked Sally and accompanied by Dan on guitar, bouzouki and string bass, and by Jane on accordion. Actually, I don’t think it would be hated here in Cornwall, either. I may have to work on that…
  12. ‘Homeward Bound’ is not Paul Simon’s dolorous song about life on the road , but a piece by Marta Keen Thompson well known in choral circles, especially as arranged for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir by Mack Wilberg, and deservedly so. Atlantic Union’s version is, unsurprising, less ambitiously arranged: just Sally’s voice, Jane’s harp and accordion, and Dan’s octave mandolin. But it works beautifully, and makes a thoughtful and satisfying end to the CD.

While a typical Atlantic Union set draws on a wide range of material from both sides of the Atlantic, in this case Canada is such a strong presence as to be almost a fourth member of the band. The result is an atmospheric, somewhat nostalgic set that manages to be both emotionally charged and uplifting. I’m looking forward to hearing where they take us next.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the ATLANTIC UNION – Homeward 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: www.atlanticunion.ca

BENJAMIN WILLIAM PIKE – A Burdensome Year (Gin House Records)

A Burdensome YearWhen I first heard of Benjamin William Pike’s latest CD A Burdensome Year (released on January 27th 2017), my interest was piqued by a suggested comparison to Michael Chapman. (That’s the folky/bluesy/jazzy singer and guitarist, not the Chinnichap chap who wrote and produced hits for the likes of Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Blondie in the 70s.) And there is a resemblance to Chapman sometimes in song structure, but mostly in Benjamin’s “gin-soaked” vocals, though the overall effect is perhaps smoother. However, Benjamin’s fluent guitar lines reminded me less of Chapman than of Jack Jackson (to whom there is also an occasional vocal resemblance) and at some points Martin Simpson. The instrumental work here is as more about providing a strong melodic basis for the songs than it is about displaying technique, though his mastery of the acoustic guitar in particular is evident.

I was also interested, after recently reviewing The Treatment Tapes EP by Rab Noakes, to find that the songs on this CD were also based on his experience of illness, hospitalization and surgery. Not that I have the least objection to people using their personal experiences directly in their music-making, and for the benefit of those who are uneasy with sad songs, let me reassure you that the general tone of this album is generally upbeat, despite the poignancy of some of the lyrics.

Personnel:

  • Benjamin William Pike: vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, pedal steel, piano, Fender Rhodes
  • Mattie Foulds: drums, percussion, backing vocals
  • Adam Richards: double bass
  • Patsy Reid: violin, viola
  1. ‘Beasts Of Burden’ is not, of course, the Rolling Stones track of almost the same name, though there’s something slightly exotic about the way he sings the modal melody and underlying guitar figure that might remind you a little of early Stones music and Brian Jones’s experimentation with Indian and North African influences. (Benjamin is, in fact, well-acquainted with Indian classical music: I’d like to hear some of his work in that area.)
  2. ‘Hand You’ve Been Dealt’ includes some somewhat Simpson-esque acoustic guitar work, and has a fatalistic lyric, and some passages that are almost orchestral. Very nice interplay between the bass and the guitar, and a catchy chorus.
  3. Benjamin describes ‘Ones To Forget’ as a country song, and the restrained steel guitar in the background does give it a country feel.
  4. The guitar in ‘Ties That Bind’ makes it sound a little folkier. Though the lyric describes “things slowly falling apart“, the up-tempo arrangement keeps it the right side of lugubrious.
  5. ‘Keep Me In Your Mind’ is one of those songs like Phil Ochs’s ‘When I’m Gone…’ and Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart For A While’ that face up to the thought of a world without the composer in it, and it’s a very attractive example of that idiom. Fortunately, it was premature.
  6. The intro to ‘Bless The Bad Days’ is similar enough to the previous song that for a minute I thought I’d fallen for a false ending, despite the spoken “1,2,3,4…” that leads into it. Once it gets going, though, it’s a song that more than deserves a place on the CD in its own right.
  7. Benjamin describes ‘Time To Lend’ as having been “swirling around my heard in the first days after my operation…This is about being short on time.” His always excellent acoustic guitar work is supported by some unostentatious but totally appropriate electric guitar.
  8. ‘Dead Man Walking’ isn’t as gloomy as the title might suggest, being about “the death and re-birth of the body and mind“.
  9. ‘Down This Road’: I love the line “If you don’t know what the hell you are doing, you’re probably doing things right” and the general message about learning from your mistakes rather than abandoning them.
  10. ‘City Living’ has an attractive tune with a between-verses acoustic guitar part somewhat reminiscent of ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’ as Martin Simpson might have played it. The song itself is more country than folk, but with its theme of a musician wanting to get back to country living, perhaps that resemblance is deliberate. In any case, it rounds off the CD nicely.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. Those vocals may or may not be gin-soaked, but they’re certainly not unmusical. They carry some very interesting songs very well. While this probably isn’t intended to be a CD focused on guitar wizardry, Benjamin’s fluent technique shines throughout, with some solid instrumental support. I would, perhaps, have ordered the tracks a little differently (especially track 6), and some of the choruses repeat lines a little more than I like personally. Nonetheless, I look forward to hearing much more from him.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.benjaminwilliampike.co.uk/

‘Beasts Of Burden’ – promo video: