JOSIENNE CLARKE & BEN WALKER – Seedlings All (Rough Trade RTRADCD898)

Seedlings AllIt’s long been the case that you don’t come to Clarke and Walker for background music or cheeriness. Their music is sparse but intricate and you have to work at it. It is also almost inevitably suffused with melancholia, delivered at a pace and tempo to suit the mood. But they always deliver and the effort always pays off.

That said, the opening track here is, in their terms, positively thrash, the electric guitar riding a rolling melody and even breaking out into a reflective solo on a lyric littered with images of failure and struggle, but then, having talked about looking foolish and how “no one came to see me play” (a reference to an actual gig while touring in America), there’s an unexpected last verse refusal to give in as Clarke sings “you wouldn’t trade it for all they’d offer you. You sing and play and make things for that is all that you can do”.

The album’s highly autobiographical in addressing the highs and lows of following music as a career, the costs it exacts and the precariousness off it all, and the sentiment of that final line is echoed in the last line of the next song, ‘Bells Ring’, an otherwordly ambience of tinkling bells, piano (courtesy Kit Downes) and jazzy muted brass in a song that uses the alternate rings of two bells as a metaphor for a relationship, the pull and the longing, the sweet and sad, but ultimately “all we have.”

The jazzy tones here permeate the album, particularly evident in Walker’s meditative guitar work on the hope and potential-themed title track, the smoky late night vibe of ‘Tender Heart’ built around Downes’ piano and Ruth Goller’s double bass, the weary relationship breaking apart sway Ghost Light and the classic jazz trio feel of the mortality imbued ‘Sad Day’, Clarke’s vocals taking on a breathy torch-like quality like a young, more innocent Billie Holiday.

Not that the folk colours are any thinner. The simple slow piano waltz ‘Maybe I Won’t’, a song addressing the possibility or not of motherhood, conjures the plaintive ache of Sandy Denny circa Like An Old Fashioned Waltz while the existential crisis of ‘All Is Myth’ is simple voice and guitar, gently caressed by violin in the final seconds.

But, the point is that this finds them painting using an altogether bigger canvas, flexing rather than forsaking their palette. Inspired by Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘The Calvary Cross’, ‘Things Of No Use’, one of only two co-written numbers, takes on a more expansive production with powerful drums making their presence felt behind the sax, guitars and backing vocals, while, with its wearied waltz notes, ‘Bathed In Light’ has a minimalist, retro, almost early 50s feel to it, as she returns to the musician’s nightmare that “I’ll write everyday but no one cares what I say. That I’ll stand and I’ll sing but no one will be moved to join in.” The final crushing realisation “that I’ve lost all I’ve got”, deliberately counterpoints the closing words of the opening number.

Nonetheless, it ends on a final more resolved refusnik note with the folkier strains of ‘Only Me Only’, strings, bass and piano the waves on which Clarke’s carried on an introspective songwriter’s confessional lyric about being “ever to burrow but never to hide”, of “the left of the living in suffering song” and “the scratching thorn in my side” , and how, when the dawn is done and the birds have taken wing “it’s only me singing the only one.”

Clarke says that, after the disappointing and disillusioning commercial success of the last album and the experience of playing to an empty room in Chicago, she and Walker approached this as if it might prove their last album, taking soul searching chances both musically and lyrically. Far from the end, this feels just like it’s just the beginning.

Mike Davies

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DON McLEAN – Botanical Gardens (BMG538329932)

Botanical GardensForty-seven years and 19 albums on, McLean’s name is still preceded in reviews by “American Pie singer” and for most people, he’s still probably associated with that and ‘Vincent’. Now 72, Botanical Gardens, his first (and rumouredly last studio recording) in eight years, the first for a major label since 1995 isn’t going to change that.

His voice, as you’d imagine, is more seasoned these days, at times a little on the wobbly side, but he still has the ability to gather you up while the music, a mixed brew of folk, country, blues, rock and a dash of vaudeville, offers a relaxed, melodic listen in the classic manner. The title track, a rolling country blues and gospel number, was apparently inspired by a visit to gardens near the Sydney Opera House and sets the theme of being rejuvenated by love (undoubtedly sparked by the current relationship with his 24-year-old girlfriend) that bubbles through the majority of the songs. Indeed, the title of the twangy Marty Robbins-styled country ‘The Lucky Guy’ pretty much speaks for itself while on the goodtime soft shoe shuffle ‘Ain’t She A Honey’ (slap a big band on it and it could have come from the 40s) his baby’s hot, “a ripper with a buckle and a zipper.. a looker and a steam pressure-cooker. ”

Elsewhere, the giddiness of romance – and the feeling of not quite believing his luck – is also to be found on the similarly retro jazzy swing of ‘You’ve Got Such Beautiful Eyes’, a number you could hear Willie Nelson covering, and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Your Baby’ which is, well more rocking especially on those 50s sounding guitar solos. Led by piano, there’s a laid back jazzy swing too on ‘I’ve Cried All The Tears That I Have’ with its sentiment about how “it’s better to love and to lose than decide you don’t want to live.”

But it’s not all positive and upbeat. Enrobed with swelling strings, ‘The King Of Fools’, another Willie contender, reflects on screwing up a past relationship as he sings “castles and mansions lie ruined in the sand…I lost your love, my crown and jewels”, while the musically dramatic ‘A Total Eclipse Of The Sun’ looks back to a brief encounter that left him metaphorically bleeding in the dust. The lyrics refer to meeting this heartbreaker back in a hot July and the same month is at the heart of ‘When July Comes’, a stark piano ballad with McLean in terrific voice on a lyric that brushes up against mortality. It calls to mind Brel, Aznavour and, especially, Sinatra, the latter’s influence making itself further felt in the album’s only cover, a piano and strings arrangement of Arlen and Harburg’s ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ which the Guv’nor recorded on In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.

Nor is it exclusively about matters of the heart. Another early 50s-styled piano ballad, on the surface ‘You’re All I Ever Had’ would seem to be about a constant lover, but dig a little deeper and it’s more likely about his lifetime’s love affair with music. Of a topical persuasion, while it may have been written in 2015, set to a saloon bar piano, the country swaying gospel ‘Grief and Hope’, a song about healing and looking to a better tomorrow, seems particularly pertinent in a divided Trump America. And, striking a similarly optimistic note, the other, the most country sounding number, with its echoes of Cash and Haggard, is ‘The Waving Man’, which dates back further to 2014, and is actually about one of McLean’s neighbours in Camden, Maine, wheelchair-bound veteran Kert Ingraham who, told he wasn’t allowed to smoke in his care home, took to sitting in the street outside, waving to folk as they passed by, the lyrics musing “does he wave goodbye to the life he led or does he wave hello to the life ahead?” If this really does prove McLean’s recording swansong, Botanical Gardens sees him bow out in full bloom.

Mike Davies

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THE MELLOWSHIP – You Belong With Me … (own label)

You BelongBorn, raised and still based in the West Country, when she was 23 aspiring singer-songwriter Mo Dewdney had a motorbike accident that left her paraplegic. For some years, music was no longer part of her life, but, then, after the birth of her son, she found herself playing out words and music in her head. She began putting these down on paper, began singing with a local band and, eventually, decided to try her luck by singing her own material in a capella settings. This in turn led her to link with other folk musicians from the region, such as Anthony Chipperfield, and, now, her self-released debut album, You Belong With Me… recorded in collaboration with folk luminaries Lukas Drinkwater, on guitar, bass and harmonies, and fiddler Ciaran Algar.

As their involvement might indicate, Dewdney is of a traditional persuasion, although all but one of the numbers are self-penned, her pure, clear and often yearning vocals and phrasings having earned comparisons with Judy Collins and Sandy Denny. The collection opens with the contemplative ‘shine on’ optimism of ‘Starlight’, leading to an unaccompanied introduction to ‘Marriage Bands’, a song that strikes a rather less upbeat note with its tale of a warrior spirit woman losing her independence, freedom and spirit in the chains of loveless marriage, the cycle repeating itself with her daughter in the last verse; however, buoyed up by Algar’s rustic backwoods fiddle and Drinkwater’s waltz time guitar melody, the nature imagery dressed ‘Kiss All The Stars’ has a rosier view of love’s binding power.

With Drinkwater adding drums, as per the suggestion of the title, ‘The Woad – The Last Battle of Maidens Castle’ takes on traditional ballad form, returning to warrior imagery for the story of a woad-painted tribe facing the end of their dream, the vocals adopting drone line tone, complemented by hollow plucked fiddle and a hypnotic war dance rhythm.

Underpinned by Algar’s lullabying fiddle, another celebration of love, ‘You Belong To Me’ with its dreamy chorus is a warmer affair, while, again in waltz time, ‘Grampa Sam’ sets Dewdney’s lyrics to a tune by Jim Causley in a touching tribute to an elderly gent who took her under his wing when she first moved to the country, taught her to garden, told her tales of his life’s joys and tragedies and became a grandfather to her child.

The musically upbeat mood continues with the fingerpicked jauntiness of ‘The Moment I Now’, a call to do the right thing by the planet on which she live, its love of the natural world and eco message echoed in the album’s sole cover, Drinkwater playing guitar and harmonising on Stan Rogers’s classic ‘Northwest Passage’.

It ends with again just the two of them, this time Drinkwater also adding bass, on ‘Down By The Fire’, the sound of the sea backdropping a final affirmation of finding a place and a partner with whom to share your life. With another project already in hand in collaboration with Greg Hancock, you might want to climb aboard and share yours with her.

Mike Davies

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JESS VINCENT- Lions Den (Kostenurka Records)

Lions DenThere have been a few changes in Jess Vincent’s life since the release of Shine back in 2015. She’s become vegan for a start. However, the most significant is the fact that she and her partner, Jozeph Chowles, have moved from Wiltshire to Bulgaria where, indeed, the bulk of the album was recorded, partly in the home studio from which the label name comes, and that, unlike her previous releases, all the songs here are solely Vincent’s work.

The good news, though, is that there’s been no major musical upheavals in the process, although the new environment does feed into Chowles’ arrangements, Eastern European hints surfacing here and there, such as in the Indian harmonium drone that permeates the pulsing ballad ‘Follow’, on which Vincent’s vocals are well back in the mix, although, having said that, the twang to the guitar would be more at home in Utah.

It opens on sparse, dry banjo notes with the tempo-shifting ‘The Way It Is’, bursts of guitars and percussion making their presence felt in the faster flurries, Vincent’s high pitched warbling vocals sounding especially effervescent. I’d assume the title track, a languorous number picked out on a minimalist repeated acoustic guitar phrase, a muted percussion rumble surfacing towards the end, lyrically addresses making the big move and, as she says in her notes, facing her demons.

‘Stranger’ is another relatively muted number, the vocals again held back in the mix, opening on single ukulele notes before the arrangement fleshes out and those Eastern European colours seep into the gradually gathering melody. ‘Ghosts’ shifts continents, the crooning backing vocals, harmonium and harmonica evoking sprawling mid-west landscapes over which the melody ebbs and flows. Harmonium again provides the bedrock on the gently dappled ‘Ballerina Dreams’ with its dreamy, shimmering ambience and lines about seasons changing beneath her feet, by which point you’ll have clocked that this is a generally musically reflective affair, with no rock storms lurking unexpectedly in the wings, although the steady march beat ‘Cherry Tree’ does kick the sonic level up a notch or two with its electric guitar breaks and the backwoods gospel feel to her vocals.

That same Appalachian sensibility is also evident on ‘Waiting For You’, a simple but particularly lovely number with its undulating , tinkling electric guitar notes, wheezing harmonium and music box-like melody.

Of the two remaining numbers, ‘Holiday’ takes an early hours, slow bluesy lullabying waltz approach and what could possibly be described as a narcotic Chris Isaak/David Lynch mood, while ‘Won’t Be Long’, a yearning brushed drums mortality-themed folk gospel slow shuffle, sees the album out on campfire in the pines harmonica and picked acoustic guitar notes that bundles together familiar thoughts of Iris deMent, Dolly Parton and Nanci Griffiths.

The dictionary definition of a lion’s den is a dangerous or frightening place, but there’s no need to approach this with caution, just jump right on in.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Waiting For You’ – live:

WILLOW SPRINGS – Urban Ghosts (S’quare Records SQR1)

Urban GhostsBased in Belfast, Willow Springs is essentially a vehicle for singer-songwriter Mark Crockard, Urban Ghosts supported by an assortment of fellow Irish musicians, being his debut album. An emerald-coloured Americana cocktail that shakes together Tex-Mex, Western swing and country, it’s an easy on the ear, fairly middle-of-the road affair, but that’s not intended as a criticism. Sometimes, it’s good to be able to just sit back and let an album flow over you without having to work at it. He wears his influences openly, the first number, the moody, twangsome guitar ‘I’m All Over You’, finding him sounding like Roy Orbison in his vocal tone and delivery, while on several occasions, he comes across like an Irish Willie Nelson, notably so on the waltzing piano ballad ‘It Still Hurts’, ‘Tender Lovin’ Feelin’’ and the jazzy roll of ‘Gone Southbound’ with Chris Haigh on fiddle.

Blending balladry with more uptempo numbers, with fine guitar work variously complemented with dobro, mandolin and melodic, Crockard touches on gospel notes the piano-led ‘You Saved A Drowning Man’, blows harmonica on the driving train rhythm shuffle of ‘The End Of The Pier Show’, croons Texicana pop with ‘Heart and Soul’, shades the cowboy ballad ‘Autumn Blues’ with Gaelic fiddle colours and channels Van Morrison for ‘Together We’ll Walk In Beauty’. It might not get him invited to play the trendy Americana joints, but it should ensure a warm welcome in the UK’s many Country Music clubs.

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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WILDWOOD JACK – Liberty Ship (Ramsgate)

Liberty ShipNot to be confused with Wildwood Kin, this is Adam Piggott and Jayne Freeman, a Kent-based husband and wife troubadour twosome whose music, an amalgam of folk, world and Americana and augmented on Liberty Ship by renowned drummer Liam Genockey, draws on their travels. Although they draw on traditional influences, the material is all self-penned, the album getting underway with ‘Ordinary Day’, Freeman adding ukulele and Genockey giving a percussive wash to a song about a woman about a man asking his lover why she’s dressed up so fine, blissfully unaware she’s leaving him.

Set to a simple guitar and uke arrangement, ‘The Captain And Me’ is the first of the nautical-themed numbers, part inspired by a Rembrandt painting depicting a Biblical scene it tells of a ship caught in a storm on the sea of Galilee, though, like the calm captain, there’s a far more allegorical nature to it.

Inspired by the discovery of a collection of rustic automata in the Lost Gypsy Gallery while travelling through the rugged Catlins region of the South Island of New Zealand, they were inspired to write ‘The Lost Gypsy’, a playful number about ticks and tocks and making repairs in life and relationships. Closer to home, the fingerpicked and appropriately breezy ‘Morning Star’ was born in finding a copy of The Cloud Collectors Handbook in a Suffolk bookshop, taking form of a lyric about the life of a snowflake while experiencing a Shropshire winter.

‘Just A Dreamer’ is a soft and breathily sung gentle waltzer that’s pretty much summed up by the title, after which it’s back to the briny for ‘Man Overboard’ which, taking a cue from nautical communication flags, brings Genockey back behind the kit on skittering brushed drums, for a hugely infectious ‘ecological Cajun sea shanty’ that, complete with bass thumbs and handclap snaps, is about the dangers of plundering the ocean, be it for fish, treasure or oil.

There’s two further ship-themed tracks, producer Harvey Summers sitting in on piano and accordion for the swayalong, military beat ‘Unsinkable Sam’, the first person story of the ship’s cat that survived the sinking of the Bismark and went on to join the Royal Navy aboard HMS Cossack and the Ark Royal, both of which also went to the bottom while the cat escaped unscathed. The other, obviously, is the title track, though here the vessel is more metaphorical, sailing on a journey to leave sorrows behind and start life anew, the rootsy melody somewhere between ‘Poncho & Lefty’ and Rick Nelson’s ‘Garden Party’.

By contrast, it’s the country’s inland waterways that serve as inspiration for the reflective song of love and passing years, ‘Montgomery Canal’, which runs through Powys in Eastern Wales and North West Shropshire.

Elsewhere, two real life characters provide the lyrical hub. Etched on filigree picked guitar and ukulele, ‘By The Light Of This Lantern’ recounts the tragic tale of Zuam da Leze, a talented Venetian musician who had a clavisimbalum built at great expense and travelled to England to the court of Henry VIII in the belief it would land him a position at court. Henry, however, was not impressed, dismissing him with just a few coins, da Leze hanging himself that night with his dagger-girdle. A rather more positive note’s struck with ‘Bluegrass Boy’, a circling picked tribute to the legendary Bill Monroe.

Hidden away at the end of the album is their crooning rewrite of the traditional Southern states lullaby ‘Hush Little Baby’ (sometimes known as Mockingbird, as recorded by Inez and Charlie Foxx), replacing the original’s gift with increasingly exotic (and mythical locations), the song poignantly featuring the count in and last two lines by Adam’s father, Gordon, who served as executive producer and passed away just a week after the recording.

They may not be the best known names on the folk circuit, but their Liberty Ship is a watertight vessel that will provide sure passage to all who sail her.

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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‘Bluegrass Boy’ – live: