DAN WEBSTER – Devil Sky (Paper Plane PPR1801)

Devil SkyDan Webster is a British singer-songwriter who has been described as the fusion of folk and country. On his fourth album, Devil Sky, much of the country influence comes from his band which includes Joshua Burnell, of whom we have spoken before, Emily Lawler on violin and Polly Bolton on mandolin who share much of the musical decoration. Dan doesn’t write country songs but sometimes they just turn out that way.

The opening track, ‘Playing Cards & Late Night Bars’, harks back to a song on his second album, catching up with the protagonists ten years on. After a folky introduction it sounds exactly like the title suggests it should and it’s followed by ‘Home Again’, a melancholy road song with a neat lyrical twist and a big arrangement. ‘Bo’ opens with unaccompanied harmony before kicking off into the first really country-sounding song. It’s actually about Dan’s son, Ben, who sings on the track and I guess that the words have a deep meaning for father and son but for the rest of us it’s a fun song.

Some of Dan’s songs have a point to make and ‘Freedom In Suburbia’ is pre-eminent among them. It might be thought a little heavy-handed but the thing is that the title is a threat rather than a celebration which is clever. There’s a great deal of sadness here: ‘Haul Away’, ‘Mary Anne’ and ‘Sand’ are all pretty miserable, beautifully performed but definitely not cheerful. ‘Joe’ is a modern take on a murder ballad with the whole process from unlawful killing to execution condensed into a week with another twist in the tale.

Dan has assembled a very fine band and his production is excellent. That said, Devil Sky, isn’t an album I’d select for a little light listening.

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).

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Artist’s website: www.danwebster.co.uk

‘Playing Cards & Late Night Bars’:

JOSHUA BURNELL – Songs From The Seasons (Misted Valley Records MVR18a)

Songs From The SeasonsIn late December 2015, quite possibly infused by a degree of festive spirits, the York folk musician (his voice not unlike Gerry Colvin) set himself the task of recording his arrangement of a different traditional folk song every week for the next twelve months reflecting the passing of the seasons. Predominantly drawn from the British tradition, but also including European selections, among them Danish ballads and Breton tunes, he created a web page blog for each song, detailing its history and the artists who had recorded and shaped it, posting his and others’ versions on his YouTube channel. Recorded with some twenty-six other musicians, they were divided, rather obviously, into Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. Of those 52, he’s whittled the selection down to 14 for this snapshot of the project, Songs From The Seasons, the majority dedicated to folk scene alumni who have served as inspiration.

It’s not chronological, the album opening in Autumn with a rewrite of ‘Two Magicians’ that gives the misogynistic narrative a female-empowerment slant and features Jack Woods on mandolin with Burnell giving it some Hammond organ stick. Staying in Autumn, the much recorded ‘Tam Lin’ unexpectedly appears here as a lively fiddle-led instrumental. It’s one of four with the equally jaunty others being ‘Behind The Haystack’, a Summer-infused quartet of tunes knocked out on, among others, accordion, bouzouki and whistle, an electric guitar and mandolin-driven ‘King Of The Fairies’ and ‘The Banshee Set’, another medley that starts off sedately with ‘Liisa Pessi’ and gathers pace through ‘The Banshee’ and ‘Farewell to Tchernobyl’ with melodeon, fiddle and auto harp in the mix, both from the Autumn collection.

Indeed, the season of mellow fruitfulness accounts for the majority of choices, the other two being a six and a half minute, slow and stately, sparsely arranged adaptation of the doomed love ballad ‘The Dowie Den Of Yarrow’, dedicated to Shelagh McDonald and featuring some bluesy Hammond work, and the equally lengthy and uncluttered ‘Reynardine The Werefox’ dedicated to and channelling the spirit of Sandy Denny who, of course, sang it on Fairport’s Liege & Lief.

Spring only gets two representations, the first seeing Burnell joined on vocals by Frances Sladen for a Martin Carthy-dedicated marching beat ‘High Germany’. The other, the power-gathering in power Irish traditional number ‘Mrs McGrath’, another ditty about soldiers off to war, here the Peninsula War of the 19th century and a young lad coming home minus his legs to a somewhat unsympathetic welcome from his ma, the recording dedicated to Bruce Springsteen and inspired by his Seeger Sessions.

Returning to Summer, this time with vocals, you get ‘Robin Hood And The Pedlar’, the Child Ballad tale of the pedlar they accost defeating both Robin Hood and Little John played on just guitar bass and mandolin. Sometimes known as ‘Gamble Gold’, it’s dedicated to Barry Dransfield who recorded it on his impossible to find eponymous 1972 album. The second, featuring a subtle arrangement of low whistle, bass, acoustic guitar, drums and Hammond is the album’s classic whaling song closer, ‘Farewell To Tarwathie’, perhaps best known from Judy Collins’ version on Whales And Nightingales, but originally recorded, as per the dedication, by Ewan McColl and A.L.Loyd for their 1956 Thar She Blows! album and revisited by the latter on his 1967 Leviathan! Ballads & Songs of the Whaling Trade.

Which leaves us with Winter, celebrated appropriately with a jazzily percussive and almost Tull-like take on ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’, Matthew Melford on double bass, dedicated to Annie Briggs who popularised it the 60s, followed in turn by a simple arrangement of ‘Lord Franklin’, the shortest number on the album at under three minutes, featuring just Burnell on rippling acoustic guitar and melancholic accordion. The remaining number, at some eight minutes, is ‘The Nightingale’, a tale drawn from Danish folk tradition of a knight, a castle and a bewitched maiden, that, in Burnell’s retelling doesn’t end happily, and set to the Scottish tune ‘Willy O Winsbury’ (which explains the Andy Irvine dedication, having recorded it with Sweeney’s Men) again featuring Sladen on harmonies with Rachel Brown’s cello adding colour to Burnell’s piano tinkles, drums and guitars building the track to a climax in a manner that calls to mind Mike Oldfield.

Disappointingly, the entire 52-strong series is no longer available in its entirety online, but, if this does well enough, perhaps Burnell could be enticed to make the other 38 (which include a version of ‘At The Harbour’ by Renaissance whose Annie Haslam provided the collection’s paintings) downloadable in their original four set form. But, if not, this sampler will see you through the year in fine fettle.

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).

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://www.joshuaburnell.co.uk/

Joshua and his band live in York:

SINGLES BAR 15 – Merry Christmas Everybody

A round-up of festive EPs and singles

Singles Bar 15It’s been a busy few months for THE CHANGING ROOM, aka Cornish duo Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain. Having released both their Names On A Wall EP for Armistice Day and the Picking Up The Pieces album, featuring mandolin and accordion, they now return for Christmas special, The Magic Of Christmas. Two of the three tracks are sung in Cornish by Kelly, opening with a lovely snowflake waltzing version of The Pretenders’ 1994 festive hit, ‘2000 Miles’ and closing with a chiming frosty air arrangement of the traditional carol ‘Silent Night’. There’s also a snatch of its melody on ‘There’s Magic In Christmas Eve’, which, sandwiched in-between, is penned by Brittain, who, singing in English, accompanies herself on piano as the song swells midway on drums and strings before a gentle fade.

its-christmas-timeIf you’re more a “Bah Humbug” sort of person JOHN CEE STANNARD’s EP, It’s Christmas Time, should be just up your street. Of course, Christmas can be a sad and lonely time for a lot of people and we shouldn’t take that lightly but the blues does seem to lend itself to the season. Black Ace’s ‘Beggin’ Santa Claus’, first recorded in 1937, is the perfect example of how low things can get while Shifty Henry’s ‘Let Me Go Home – It’s Christmas’ is a plea to whiskey to allow a barfly to get home while he still can. The other three songs are by Stannard and, starting with the title track, they get progressively happier and the closing ‘Winter Love’ is almost soppy. We reckon John’s an old softie really.

god-rest‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is a more traditional Christmas single from JOSHUA BURNELL. That said, we’re told that it’s a 15th century protest song – the protest being against the Latin dirges of the church. Joshua gives it an appropriate folk-rock vibe – he usually performs in a trio or a seven-piece band in which Hammond organ features heavily. The second track is ‘The Official Brawle’, a 16th century French dance tune taken at a tasty lick. The tune was, as you all know, co-opted by the church as ‘Ding-Dong Merrily On High’ but Joshua returns it to its original form. Good stuff.

marys-boy-child‘Mary’s Boy Child’ was originally written as a calypso so ANDREW JOHN & LISSA decided to record the backing tracks in Trinidad, adding the vocals back home in Denmark while Jime Hoke recorded his flute part in Nashville. It’s very pretty but I can’t help but I do think that an opportunity to do something really original has been missed. Turn up the steel drums and add a Caribbean choir and think on what it could be.

the-starEMILY MAE WINTERS’ single ‘The Star’ was inspired by lines from John Keats and having a star named after her as a birthday present. It doesn’t actually mention Christmas but it has a nicely seasonal feel. It’s a big, piano-driven song awash with strings. It is available only as a digital download at the moment but it will appear on Emily Mae’s debut album next spring.