VINNY PECULIAR – Return Of The Native (Shadrack & Duxbury SADCD013)

Return Of The NativeAn album celebrating his return to his roots after years living in Manchester, with its heady dose of nostalgia and memories, borrowing the title from Thomas Hardy (and with a cover that sees him fork in hand to dig up old ground), Bromsgrove-born Alan Wilkes’ thirteenth album (fourteenth if you include his Parlour Flames collaboration with Bonehead) Return Of The Native is a magnificently parochial collection that really does mark him down as Worcestershire’s Ray Davies. It opens in 1974 at the height of glam rock with ‘The Grove & The Ditch’, a riff driven, feedback laced stomp about local teenage gang rivalries that references, among others, T Rex, heavy rock outfit Jameson Raid and their regular Hopwood bikers’ venue haunt, Lickey Hills pub The Forest Inn, Bromsgove café The Strand, Rocky Horror, The Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter, Donny Osmond and Tony Blackburn’s on-air meltdown over his split with Tessa Wyatt while Bowie is clearly there among the musical influences. Anyone who ever, as he puts it, got “off their tits” on pills in a Wacky Warehouse will resonate with this.

It’s off to another part of the county for the jangling, punningly titled ‘Malvern Winter Gardener’, a song about a faded rock star and the Malvern Winter Gardens, one of the top venues during the 60s, 70s and 80s, Vinny recalling seeing, among others, the likes of Budgie, Sassafras, The Clash and Eddie & The Hot Rods. By way of shift, ‘Blackpole’, another area of Worcester, spins a darkly jocular tale of a battle re-enactor who, following an unfortunate moment of realism, now haunts the re-enactment fields and his former girlfriend who, as it happens, married the undertaker.

Combining the nickname for San Francisco with a Chinese restaurant in Blackpole, ‘Golden City’ touches on depression and moving on, a subject of several of his previous songs and the calm familiar places can bring, then it’s another string of memento memoriae name checks with the album’s jauntily sunny and boisterous title track which, flitting around Bromsgrove and Droitwich starts with Rik Mayall, Chateau Impney and Dudley Zoo and references the likes of Jim Reeves, Sandy Richardson (a character in cheesy ITV soap Crossroads, since you ask), Coronation Street star Doris Speed and 70s Redditch punk outfit The Cravats alongside local colourful characters and shops.

The lovely Lilac Time-like acoustic strum of ‘A Girl From Bromsgrove Town’ provides the true story of an ill-fated schooldays romance, recalling how he turned up at college to surprise her and found her kissing the girl next door, returning thirty years later to where she grew up. Whether he knocks on the door or not, you’ll have to get the disc to find out.

Some may remember the late singer-songwriter Clifford T Ward who had hits with ‘Gaye’ and ‘Scullery’ in the early 70s. Before finding brief musical fame, he was a school teacher in Bromsgrove and, yes, one of his pupils was, briefly, a young Alan Wilkes, the quietly fingerpicked tumbling melody of ‘The Singing Schoolteacher’ being an affectionate memory of how Ward introduced him to the Romantic poets but, more crucially inspired his musical visions and how they bonded over tales of Bronco and Dandelion Records.

The musical tone sharpens a few notches with the inspirationally titled ‘Detroitwich’, which, sporting Pet Shop Boys influences (‘West End Girls’ to be specific) driven by drums and a paranoid guitar riff spins a semi-rapped fantasy about how, having got the wrong plane, Eminem (“the millionaire rapper who sampled Chas n Dave”) winds up in Droitwich (the former home of Rik Mayall, the song reminds) in a Wicker Man scenario and has to be rescued by P Diddy, stopping off for a pint at The Swan on the A38 before escaping to somewhere safer.

‘On Rainbow Hill’, a ward in Worcestershire, provides the setting for a sparsely arranged downbeat guitar and piano waltzer, the fallout from another love that could never be (“I finished with me when I finished with you”), that melancholic mood spilling across into the six-minute guitars and cellos swathed psychedelic drone ambience of ‘David Swan River Man’, a tribute to another local eccentric who feeds and cares for the local swans and ducks.

It ends gloriously with the poignant emotional cadences of ‘Game Over’, a thematic echo of ‘On Rainbow Hill’ about breaking off a relationship and moving away and then being haunted by loneliness and regrets for could have been, the lyrics specifically referencing Ian Curtis and, of course, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

You might not get most of the album’s references, but you’ll not fail to feel the universality of the emotions.

Mike Davies

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JENNIFER WARNES – Another Time, Another Place (BMG 538358052)

Another Time Another PlaceI first encountered Warnes back in 1977 with the release of her eponymously titled Arista debut fourth album, prompting me to immediately seek out its 1972 predecessor, Jennifer, (her first two albums remain impossible to find), eventually interviewing her in Birmingham when she toured with Leonard Cohen in 1979. Aside from being his live backing vocalist, she also served as his vocal arranger and sang on several of his albums, the last been 2012’s Old Ideas. It was, of course, her cover of Cohen songs on 1987’s Famous Blue Raincoat that brought her both critical acclaim and her only UK album hit, although the 80s also saw her score two Top 10 singles (and No 1s in America) with ‘Up Where We Belong’ and ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’, duets with Joe Cocker and Bill Medley from, respectively, the soundtracks of An Officer And A Gentleman and Dirty Dancing. Two further albums followed, 1992’s The Hunter and then, nine years later, The Well.

But then, following the death of her mother 2003, she lost her enthusiasm for singing and, save for guest appearances on the Cohen album and others by John Prine, Chris Hillmann and Jude Johnson, music didn’t figure on her radar. However, in 2015, she reunited with Roscoe Beck who’d produced Raincoat and began to work on new material, only to be hit by a series of devastating losses that saw two of her sisters die within the space of a week, a car accident that took the life of her manager and the deaths of a niece, a former boyfriend, her dog and, of course, Cohen.

Finally, however, her ninth album finally arrives, again, save for one track, a collection of well-judged covers, polished but never without heart and soul, that opens with a number that pays service to that accumulation of loss, a slightly slowed down and spare arrangement of Pearl Jam’s ‘Just Breathe’ featuring French horn, cello and violins that beautifully captures the acknowledgement of mortality but also the value of friendship.

She reaches further back for ‘Tomorrow Night’, a simple drums, organ and upright bass a jazz-blues arrangement (reminiscent of Bonnie Koloc’s work with Brooks Arthur) of a number recorded by Elvis for Sun back in 1962, but dating back to Lonnie Johnson’s original recording in 1948.

Coming up to the present, the achingly bittersweet ‘Once I Was Loved’, a song of years passing, love lost and yearning, is a new, previously unrecorded number by John Legend and Marcus Hummon again featuring Beck on bass along with an arrangement by the Tosca String Quartet. She returns to the Hummon well for another new song, ‘Freedom’, which, with its consciously American anthem-like melody features muted drums, a male vocal echoing the refrain and gospel styled choir.

It has a quality reminiscent of Mickey Newbury’s original version of An American Trilogy and its perhaps no coincidence that there’s an actual Newbury number included, John Ferraro brushing the drums and with Greg Leisz and Dean Parks providing pedal steel and mandolin, respectively, on a gender switched version of ‘So Sad’, a six minute musing on the ephemerality of life mortality from his Long Way Home concept album, recorded just prior to his death, Warnes bringing a soft resignation to the line “I am not in prison I am only doing time”.

It’s surely no coincidence either that, that song have referenced famous Las Vegas hotel casino The Sands that it’s followed by ‘I See Your Face Before Me’, a standard which, while recorded by many, was popularised by the version featured on In The Wee Small Hours, the massively successful 1955 album by Sands regular Frank Sinatra. Warnes’ gorgeous late night reading opens with her singing accompanied solely by Joel Guzman’s accordion before the double bass arrives followed by nylon guitar, piano and a strings, vibes and woodwinds arrangement.

Featuring Sonny Landreth guesting on resonator guitar, my favourite track is her terrific cover of ‘I Am The Big Easy’, Ray Bonneville’s love letter to the resilience of post-Katrina New Orleans, this being followed by the sole self-penned numbers, ‘The Boys And Me’, a lazing ‘going for broke’ serving of Americana coloured by accordion, lap slide, Hammon and strings as she sings “we’re Roman candles.. gonna explode like mighty diamonds across the stars”.

Again featuring resonator guitar, this time from Leisz and Parks, and with a laid back southern blues and soul groove, the song from whence the album title comes is ‘Back Where I Started’, written by Derek Trucks and fellow Allmans member Warren Haynes and featured on the 2009 Derek Trucks Band album Almost Free.

Finally, featuring Weissenborn lap slide and nylon string electric and with Mike Cross on guest vocals, she ends with a lullabyingly lovely Celtic-twilight tinged take on Mark Knopfler’s ‘Why Worry’, a melodically, gently tumbling number that appeared on Dire Straits 1985 release Brothers In Arms, bringing a serene and upbeat closure to and truly outstanding return to making music. Here’s to hoping she doesn’t stay away so long before the next.

Mike Davies

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‘Just Breathe’:


MISHAPED PEARLS – Shivelight (own label MISSHAP04)

ShivelightFour years on from Thamesis, the London septet return with an album that take its title from Gerard Manley-Hopkins’ invented word for the lances of sunlight that pierce a woodland canopy. Fronted as ever by German-born mezzosoprano Manuella Schuette with co-founded and producer Ged Flood providing the bulk of the instrumentation (including saz baglama, a sort of Turkish bouzouki) and the material, it is, once again, a beguiling skewed take on folk music. That said, Shivelight actually opens in fairly traditional mode with yet another version of the folk staple ‘The Cuckoo’, albeit with a strong percussive hypnotic march rhythm edge, Laurel Pardue on wailing fiddle and an eastern European flavour. It’s followed by yet another traditional recasting in ‘Queen May’, a hazed rework of the ‘Down In Yon Forest’ carol that gets a rippling electronica sheen, loops and a new refrain.

Chiming with the celebration of nature evinced in the album title, ‘Nature Waking’ stems from a period of post-trauma recovery for Flood, who takes breathily sung lead vocals, and, built around a nimble bluesy fingerpicked guitar riff and the clatteringly urgent drum rhythm, draws on a sense of heightened awareness of the natural world, taking on an almost improvisational feel as it gathers to a close. Massimi Troiano’s bass provided the spine for another environment-themed track, ‘Fishes’, written from a post-eco apocalypse perspective that’s bolstered by some further eastern colours from Pardue.

A different form of crisis informs ‘Jonny’s War’, an atmospheric, ethereal ambience enveloping the descending chords as electronics, Andrew Sleightholme’s piano and the soaring vocals address struggles with depression, the clock quite literally ticking away at the end.

There’s something appropriately unsettling and disturbing about ‘Jesus’ Crooked Shadow’, both in its nervy instrumentation and arrangement with its jittery Eastern European and Arabic percussive rhythmic patterns and Shuette’s operatic vocals and in lyrics which, inspired by the plight of families in children in the Middle East, talk of a “Little girl playin’ in the graveyard again…Broken souls diggin’ too many graves”, the opening “Are ô” being an African tribal chant and the chorus refrain, “Timendi causa est nescire”, taken from the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, translating as “Ignorance is the cause of fear”.

The second number on which Flood sings lead has another personal backdrop, the hypnotic pulsing, dark-cabaret styled ‘Three Cries’ being an account of his mother’s imprisonment in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison for distributing ‘Free Ireland’ leaflets in O’Connell Street, the songs melding suitably enough into ‘The Auld Triangle’, a song about how jailers gained prisoners attention by jangling a triangular-shaped iron bar written by the song written by Dicky Shannon for Brendan Beehan’s 1954 play The Quare Fellow.

The musical mood return to the east for the penultimate ‘When Summers Stood Still’, Flood playing charango and Pardue’s strings sweeping across a song inspired by Flood’s memories of childhood summers but also with an eco-warning undercurrent. That also holds true of the album’s 90-second closer, “Nursery Rhyme No.9”, a breezy ditty about the bees, flowers and birds written for a pre-school ukulele class (though played here on mandolin) that bows out with the question “Wonder what will happen to the human race?“. Quite possibly promoting “mummy, what’s an extinction event” questions over the fish fingers.

Experimental and adventurous, but still hugely accessible, you really should let its rays bring illumination to your musical woodland paths.

Mike Davies

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‘Fishes’ – official video:

MATTHEW BYRNE – Horizon Lines (own label MB060417)

Horizon LinesHailing from Newfoundland, the deep-voiced Byrne stands in the classic tradition of Canadian folk singers such as Stan Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson, his third album sure to spread his name far beyond his native shores.

Unlike those mentioned, Byrne is predominantly an interpreter of traditional song, opening here with the musically uptempo if lyrically downcast ‘Long Years Ago’, featuring tenor banjo, accordion and upright bass, a British sea song in which a bride bewails the drowning of her lover, learned from a recording by his nan, but also to be found on Shirley Collins’ 1960 album A Pinch of Salt.

A nautical theme flows through the album, moving from the sea to inland with ‘The River Driver’, a traditional number both about originating with the Newfoundland loggers, and, striking another working journey, the Celtic-tinged shantyish sailor’s lament ‘Go To Sea No More’, though, written by Con O’Brien and Ronnie Power from The Irish Descendents, this only dates back to the early 90s.

Staying in Ireland, ‘Sarah Jane’, a song of unrequited love, features just Byrne on guitar and mandolin, while, sung unaccompanied, ‘The Woods of Truagh’ is a happy ending love song set against the Irish Confederate Wars of the 1660s.

Returning to sea, the moodily arranged ‘Nancy From London’, featuring Paul Kinsman on keys and Josh Ward on upright bass, is another traditional number from the perspective of a sailor’s wife waiting for her man’s return. Yet another maritime song, slow waltzing whaling ballad ‘Farewell To Tarwathie’ has been much covered, and, with Aaron Cullis on button accordion and Scott Ring on low whistle can hold its head high among the most illustrious company.

The first of the album’s two self-penned numbers, ‘The Wedding Waltz’ is a slow swaying instrumental built around Emilia Bartellas’ fiddle and Craig Young on dobro and written for the first dance of his own wedding. The other also has a personal connection, the simple fingerpicked ‘Adelaide’ a narrative sung in the voice of one Donald Black, a former sailor who, in 1990, had written a letter to a local newspaper asking after Adelaide Byrne, a young woman with whom he’d struck up a romance when he was in harbour in St. Johns back in 1947, but with whom he later lost touch. The lady in question turned out to be the sister of Byrne’s father, Joe, who had died of tuberculosis in 1949, hence the lack of any further letters. On a particularly poignant note, as a thank you to Joe for responding, he sent the pendant Adelaide had given him reading ‘think of me’.

Joe actually makes an appearance on the album, singing and playing guitar on one of his own favourite songs, ‘Kitty Bawn O’Brien’, a lost love carousel waltzer with the singer lamenting how the aforementioned Kitty’s left Co. Tipperary to sail for Montreal, written by Nova Scotia folk singer and music historian Allister MacGillivray. Dad’s also the source of the final number, who in turn learned it from Byrne’s great uncle, one last venture out to sea for the a cappella ‘Jim Harris’, the tale of an unfortunate mishap when, in May 1934, Captain Harris mistakenly turned the wheel of his ship, the Ronald, the wrong way during a storm and ran down the Irene, a ship anchored in Paradise Sound.

He’s apparently touring the UK later in the year, on the evidence here those shows should be well worth catching.

Mike Davies

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‘Nancy From London’ – live:

TRACY GRAMMER – Low Tide (own label TGM180119)

Low TideAlthough Grammer released six albums with the late Dave Carter and a previous solo outing in 2006, this is the first on which she’s both singer and songwriter. Working with longtime guitar accompanist Jim Henry (who co-produced), drummer Lorne Entess, Paul Kochanski on bass and Chris Haynes providing keys and accordion, it offers a personal exploration of love and loss.

It opens with the thumping kick drum beat of ‘Hole’, a candid confession of not being very successful at this love thing with its lines about “shatterlings on the bedroom floor” and how the boys “run through the hole in the palm of my love”. Indeed, romantic disappointment rears its head again on the folksier ‘Daffodil Days’ featuring Grammar on violin and viola, on which the metaphorical flowers wither into “sad yellow mouths” and the garden dries up, and the moodier, glockenspiel-coloured ‘Were You Ever Here’ where “we are always here but you’re never home”.

Things are no sunnier on the r&b shaded ‘Mercy’ with Haynes keys to the fore and Henry on eBow where she’s singing about being too chicken to take the leap because she’s known how “it all falls down, down, down”, sentenced to doom by “the big black gavel judge” in your head.

It’s not all so gloom-ridden. The simply arranged, violin laced gambling-themed ‘Forty-Niner’ acknowledges “fortune is a fickle mistress” but you can still end up with a hundred bucks in your pocket, while folk country, mandolin backed album closer ‘Free’ recounts her journey beyond grief to accept “whatever comes will be okay” and the easy rolling country of “Good Life” is sung in the voice of her late father looking back on his life, with all its regrets, dreams, mistakes, lessons and joys, and deciding it was worth the ride.

Of course, not all determination to make the most of things are necessarily positive, as evidenced by ‘The Mark’, a southern bluesy rock number co-penned with Henry and Kate Cell that has Cain declaring his intention to reap seeds sown because there’s “no world to come” and “heaven’s right here”.

The first of the remaining two tracks has her revisiting the title number of her 2004 solo debut EP release, ‘The Verdant Mile’, a eulogy for Carter and her first songwriting credit, here given a punchier arrangement that eschews the original’s uptempo acoustic strum for a slightly moodier approach with glockenspiel, a persistent drumbeat and a vocal delivery reminiscent of Gretchen Peters. The other, which follows directly on, is a cover of a classic song by one of her major influences, a strings-enrobed version of Kate Bush’s gloriously optimistic and uplifting ‘Cloudbursting’, a number chosen, one assumes, to underscore her breaking free of grief and self-doubt. Ignore the ebbing associations of the album title, far from beached, this finds Grammer in full flow.

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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‘Hole’ – live:

BLAIR DUNLOP – Notes From An Island (Gilded Wings GWR005)

Notes From An IslandNo artist is going to say their latest album isn’t as good as their previous ones, but when Dunlop says he thinks Notes From An Island is his best to date, he’s not just spouting press release clichés. Again produced by Ed Harcourt, who also contributes bass, and featuring long-standing regulars Jacob Stoney on keys and drummer Fred Claridge alongside guest musicians Archie Churchill-Moss on accordion and violinists Tom Moore and Gita Langley, it strikes both personal and socio-political notes, the Island of the title a reference to both himself and post-Brexit Britain (as well as a riff on Bill Bryson’s celebrated travel memoirs). It’s also the first on which he gets to show off the virtuoso new guitar skills inspired by acquiring the new Gretsch on which most of the songs were written.

It opens with the heady, musically and metaphorically layered ‘Spices From The East’, a five-minute number that initially offers an image of two people sharing their love in cooking a meal together, folding in their spirits with the different ingredients, drinking in the aromas and sharing a plate together. However, as the music gathers from muted beginnings, so too do the lyrics take on a wider vision as they speak of the country’s colonial past and the opening up of trade routes and sea networks into Asia, generally through conflict, that continue to provide access to the titular spices. As such, it speaks of colonial guilt but also, in this troubled refugee times, a call for a masala society in which “we are coalesced whenever we dine”. Interestingly, there are several references to the East throughout the album, with mentions of Persia and the rivers of Babylon.

Dunlop’s songs and frequently veined with melancholy, and mingling the sour with the sweet and here they predominantly centre around negative experiences with bruised and broken relationships. Even so, his take can often be wry. Cases in point being the next two tracks. Taken at a measured pace with simply repeated guitar riff throughout, the organ gradually filling out the sound, ‘Feng Shui’ deals with relationship breakup and the four walls that holds the memories and “the scars from when we threw things across the room”, his mom suggesting he try Feng Shui and rearrange the furniture in the hope of doing the same with his emotions, the song extending to concern the need to redecorate your lives when the relationship wallpaper starts to peel.

More playfully, opening with Harcourt’s jangling 60s folk-rock guitar, ‘Sweet On You’, the poppiest and most commercial thing he’s ever recorded, is about, as he explained at a live show I caught, about a misguided short-lived teenage crush (“Knew you for two years and by the end of the first the writing was on the wall”) on a self-absorbed friend (the lyric is actually ambiguous as to the gender, though he notes how they “started giving time to the girl I gave my heart to”) with a nose for trouble and who, more importantly, in its memorable references to Ry Cooder, didn’t share his musical tastes, the song ending with the confession that “If I had the choice between you and your mother, I know which one I’d choose”. I’d suspect a touch of Buddy Holly influences might have been at work here.

The mood shifts to a more late night bluesy ambience for ‘I Do’, plangent piano notes, bass and a sparse drum beat underpinning a song that revisits the break up in ‘Feng Shui’, an angsty confessional of wanting to be rid of “every liar I’ve been seeing in the mirror at the end of our bed” but wracked by the thought that “I’ll never find anyone fit to hold a candle to you”. In many ways it’s very stoically British, the affair deemed “rather regrettable” and with a deliberately overwritten line in ‘If only I’d lent her my ocular system’s true appraisal of that tight fitting dress” or, to put it another way, “yes, your bum does look big in that”.

Fingerpicked acoustic guitar carries along the folksier ‘One and the Same’, the drums making an entrance midway to beef it up alongside Langley’s violin that seeks to find common ground in shared pain, his voice soaring to falsetto at the end of lines, his intricate Thompson-influenced guitar work again in evidence on the musically uncluttered ‘Within My Citadel’, another infectious melody and bout of self-analysis about going with the wind in order to have a sense of belonging, of building walls to keep from hurt and of, perhaps, prolonged adolescence as he sings about “remnants of a boyhood in disguise.”

Returning to that broken home, the need to move on but being stuck in limbo and smiling for the camera, ‘Nothing Good’ is a slow waltz ballad that paves the way for ‘Threadbare’, another number, its Fleetwood Mac melodic groove enhanced by the West Coast-like guitar pattern, organ swirls, Moore’s violin and Brooke Sharkey’s backing vocals, about love unravelling (and with another mirror reference) and the need to get back on the horse as he sings “I don’t know what love is but I know that it’s out there”.

Melodeon to the fore, ‘Green Liquor’ has a choppy percussive guitar rhythm as he returns to political commentary, the song addressing the paradox of London’s East End where the homeless seek shelter and while buildings stand empty, “earnest for the ghost of a resident”.

It’s back, then, to the fraught dynamics of love with the sparsely arranged ‘Pallet and Brush’ that uses the conceit of him sitting for a painting “coloured by all of my ills” as a relationship metaphor, “our faces disfigured/Forbidding each other to speak.” Although sharing the imagery of distance, love of a different nature shapes ‘Wed To Arms’, a post-Brexit metaphor about conflicting feelings for his country (“I am wed to her charms… but she’s wed to arms”), an island on an island, and the course on which it is set as “we sail the seas of isolation” like “the North Atlantic Drift”.

Maybe it’s that disillusionment that leads the album to end with ‘Cobalt Blue’, an intimate voice and electric guitar that looks for, if not salvation and redemption, then to at least “both go down together” as he sings of his waking freewheeling from a dream of Melbourne and of ploughing Van Dieman’s Land, the penal colony island off south eastern Australia to which convicts from Britain were transported. You know the healing may have begun when you can see the sky and not the ceiling.

Paradoxically, an album that turns it mind to personal and national isolation it may well prove the one that expands the horizons of audience awareness and appreciation far beyond his present borders.

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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‘Feng Shui’ – live: