DAN HARTLAND – Great Novels (own label DH004)

Great NovelsIn many ways Great Novels is a companion piece to the Amit Dattani solo debut, both of them hailing from Birmingham and sharing a love of folk, blues and country, indeed opening number ‘Leaving Sodom’, a song about learning to let go (“If you hang on to what you have or used to be, then the only thing you get is further into debt with history”) echoes the fingerpicked country blues of Dattani’s album, although the instrumentation is more expansive (drums, harmonica) with a slightly jazzier tinge. In their alter egos, they also co-present the fortnightly roots-based 50 Miles of Elbow Room on BrumRadio.

Shading the Americana with homegrown hues, he has a warm, relaxed and slightly reedy warble vocal style, ‘Canton’ with its simple repeated guitar pattern and a lyric about how “we’ve both learned to show only our best sides – people prefer you to glow”, suggesting a melding of Paul Simon and Gerry Colvin, his songs equally literate and thoughtful.

Produced by fellow local musician Chris Tye, the spacious, airy arrangements gently massaged with understated synths, it’s a generally reflective and laid back affair, though, having said that, ‘In The Ranks’ has a more driving, bluesy groove, pushed along by Dan Todd’s cello, Gary Doidge’s viola and handclaps percussion as he sings about a relationship pecking order and how “I’ve got nowhere to be except cooling my feet until you next find you’re free.”

The songs linked by themes of community and communion, it hits a country stride on the brushed drums waltz of doomed relationship number ‘The Usual Mistake’ (“She spent all her time knowing that she wasn’t growing any way but out”) while Todd’s cello again bolsters the strummed and fingerpicked notes and rumbling drums for ‘Loved & Lonely’ , another broken relationship song, which, I’d venture to suggest, has a bit of a Lou Reed influence about it.

The title track, the shortest at just over two minutes, takes on fingerpicked talking country blues as he sings how “Great novels have been written in this way poring over every hour in a single day”, a playfully musing apology to a lover for why he’s never written a love song, concluding that “what fills my every minute doesn’t fill my ever line… so I’ll sing about the absence of one.”

With its nimble fingerpicking and a more falsetto touch to the vocals, ‘Flowers Of Youth’, a reflection on a relationship that meant less in hindsight than it did at the time, grazes in the same musical fields before drummer Becky Davis lights the blue touch paper and it bursts into an urgent flurry of skiffle-like fireworks that just lacks the washboard to add the final touch.

Sandwiched in-between, Marko Miletic providing the upright bass backbone, ‘British Columbia Calls’, a bitter-coated leaving and recriminations song (“You keep on wreaking the same old revenge”) with its reference to Cassandra who, gifted with prophecy, was cursed that no one would believe her, brings the tempo back down to a bluesy slouch, ‘Stray’ (“If asked your destination you say anywhere that ain’t homebound”) sustaining the regret-grained balladeering.

With synthesised brass, the penultimate number, ‘Passing St Mary’s’, a reflection on rose-tinted memories of our past and a blindness to the present, its title a reference to a local hospice, is a lovely rippling guitar melody with Celtic tones which, gathering to head on the back of Joel Stevens drums and swirling guitars, is dedicated to the late Paul Murphy, the Irish-born, Birmingham-based poet, singer and actor who founded the city’s influential Songwriter’s Café and was a founder member of and vocalist with the Destroyers.

It all ends with the slow bluesy sprawl of ‘5/7’, a song about the factory working week and the community of those who work the production line there “with nothing to show but their family and friends. A quality product to profit the men at the top” and how, at the end of it all, while all that’s left is a stone column “inscribed of the ones who didn’t survive”, there’s pride taken in a job well done. Something Hartland is also well justified in feeling.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.danhartland.com

‘Loved&Lonely’ – official video:

LUCIA COMNES – Held In The Arms (Delfina DR386-LC09)

Held In The ArmsHer fifth album and only the second to feature all original material, Held In The Arms, Comnes’ follow-up to 2015’s Love, Hope & Tyranny, again produced in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and sometime co-writer Gawain Mathews, is another Americana package of folk, blues and country, this time with songs centred around the theme of ‘things that nurture’ – friends, family, nature and women – as emblemised by the embracing arms design of the cover.

‘Winter in the Mountains’ kicks things off in suitably sprightly style, Comnes on fiddle and Rob Hooper providing the brushed drums, evoking Dolly Parton on a song about going home for Christmas, the shuffling rhythm taking a midsection break for a slower semi-spoken passage before the fiddle sparks it off again. Mathews on mandolin and the other number to be propelled by Hooper’s kit, ‘On The Farm’, the lyrics of which provide the album title, is another bouncy bluegrass tinted track, written for a friend who founded the Big Mesa organic vegetable farm in Bolinas, California.

The tempo slows for ‘Grace’, co-writer Robert Mitchell on guitar, a Nashville country celebration of gathering round the kitchen table, building bridges, swapping conversations and linking arms to give blessings. There’s a touch of Grappelli fiddle to go with the Spanish guitar and saloon piano on the portrait sketch of the fantasising enigmatic ‘Lady Tamarind’ and if there’s a hint of ‘Dance Me To The End of Love’ to the melody, Cohen colours are more noticeable (‘Suzanne’ to be specific) on the slow waltzing ‘Matilde’, another character sketch, here of childhood and the passing years.

From children to four legged friends, ‘Good Hands’ in a jaunty, fiddle-driven Appalachian country number about caring for and connections with various horses, taking things down again for another slow waltz in the poignant ‘Side By Side’, a song about sisterhood bonds and the walls that can sometimes come between. One of three written with Mathews, the female friendship-themed ‘Mirabelle’ is more of a rock track, driven by punchy drums and electric guitars with Comnes giving it a descending la la la la refrain.

Although perhaps not entirely politically correct, unless you’re Donald Trump’s sons, with Mathews on Dobro and accordion it’s back to family for the backwoods folksy feel of ‘The Hunter’, the story of an uncle growing from a child hunting rabbits with his father and wild deer to a grown man hunting the plains of Namibia.

Another reaching-out, friendship-themed number, ‘I’m With You’ has an itchy, almost sultry samba flavour, albeit with a couple of folksy fiddle interjections, while the Appalachian rooted ‘Song For Mama’ is a self-explanatory daughter-mother love letter and ‘Morning Star’, which features fiddle, dobro and Kyle Caprista on drums, comes in blended shades of Southern country soul and mountain folk.

It ends with the slow march swaying ‘The Sleeping Lady’s Daughter’, another mother-daughter love song, except here the mother’s bosom is the land of her childhood and the song a celebration of the simple joys of watching the sun rise and fall over the redwood hills and blankets of mist, riding the swell of the tide to the call of the quail. In her bio it says her songs seek to reconnect people with nature and their own roots; let them give you a big hug.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.luciacomnes.com

‘Grace’ – live:

MIRIAM COOKE – Freefalling (First Night)

FreefallingA former fashion model turned archaeologist, actress, broadcaster, folk singer and, er baboon stylist, raised in an Irish farming community, Cooke trades in a very British acoustic folk pop with a voice that’s earned her comparisons to the young Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, Kate Bush and Sandy Denny, her songs exploring both the darkness and the light of contemporary life, variously shaded by harp, flute and cello with co-producer Nick Pynn variously on 5 string violin, mountain dulcimer and mandocello.

It opens with the title track which offers a musing on the state of the nation as, to a diametrically opposed gentle acoustic finger-picking melody, coloured by banjo, she sings “Food banks and bedroom tax, what century are we in?” although she’s already answered the rhetorical question in the opening lines about how “Mother’s in the bedroom, she’s praying to the wall, father’s on the Xbox, son learns women from his porn.” It’s the best song not written by Tom Petty to feature a chorus with the words free falling.

With a slightly jazzy, almost Brubeck guitar pattern etched out with a cello and violin that occasionally jitteringly swoop in from the background and then recede, ‘Picking the Roses’ has a more positive tone in its line about whirling about in glee to dance the blackness free, even if the flowers picked in the morn are withered by nightfall. A similar sentiment informs the crystal clean mood and dreamy melody of ‘Pack Your Bags’ about moving on as life’s seasons change, keeping the wind at your back and not looking around.

Things take a musical diversion on the breezy acoustic pop of ‘Raise Your Hands’ with its handclaps-like percussive undercurrent, the upbeat nature of music and the lyrics chiming as she sings about basically giving a finger to the adversities and “When life gets busy, blurred, disjointed, shackle led, breathe in, breathe out take stock of what will make you laugh instead.” Or, put another way, “Climb a local peak, sod the height.”

Breathily sung, accompanied by Evie Whittingham’s darkly stained cello as her voice soars, another defiant number about living life even in the midst of sorrow, ‘An Apple A Day’ is also unabashedly romantic in the confession that “I live, I breathe, I’m wedded to you. So that when I awake for a moment I shake with the bliss and the memory of you.”

Riding a gently dappled melody with Cooke on tinkling piano and Phil Ward (who also co-produced) on double bass, ‘Hello My Friend’ is, to quote Edith Piaf, about having no regrets when stars don’t align or shine, and not dwelling on “a love that failed to bloom, a song that had no tune.” That said, however, the tender and lovely, ‘Bring Me With You’ (the melody puts me in mind of the Ray Charles classic ‘You Don’t Know Me’) is an emotional contradiction to such advice, a song about begging a lover not to go (“My skin crawls with shame, but you, oh, you remain unswayed”) with its violin-coated chorus refrain “Bring me with you when you leave.”

Holly McCready on flute and Helen Ashworth behind the shimmering harp, it ends with the album’s only narrative, ‘The Sea’, Rachel Ede’s mournful violin complementing the bittersweet story of a woman who leaves her husband and children behind to find a new life, a new home, a new man, a new self and of the wounds left in her wake, of “unopened letters hidden in a box, birthday presents stacked up in blocks” and, it is hinted, their need to find her again.

These may not be the sort of stadium anthems that, as she puts it, make you want to “Raise your hands in the air and sing out”, but they will touch you in the quieter spaces of your heart.

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.miriamcookeofficial.com

‘Bring Me With You’ – official video:

GERI VAN ESSEN – A New Hiding Place (own label)

A New Hiding PlaceComing to folk music by way of children’s choirs in the Netherlands, now based in East London, van Essen is gifted with a gentle, pure at times slightly quivering vocal that, on occasion, reminds me of Kate McGarrigle. A New Hiding Place, her debut album (she released a single recording of the ‘Ninety-Third Psalm’ in 2012), is an eight-track collection that combines both self-penned and traditional American folk songs, the first five being all her own material.

It opens with the simple, nature imagery-steeped ‘Sister Song’, featuring Rachel Finegan on trumpet with van Essen on slightly discordant piano and repeated guitar notes, taking a lyrically domestic turn for the acoustic strum of ‘The House’, a stay awhile love song that sees Finegan’s muted trumpet making a reappearance for the final fade. The final words mention the kitchen table and that, in turn, becomes the focus of the dreamily romantic reverie of ‘Kitchen Table Conversation’. It’s another number built around a minimal repeated guitar pattern, as indeed is the bucolic ‘Song About The Moon’, although here set to a waltz tempo, the last of the original contributions being the slow swaying melancholia-tinged ‘Bluebells’ about a love too hesitant and shy, its “confidence gone with the herd”, Finegan’s trumpet augmented by Keren Lloyd on whistle and deep resonant harmonies from Kerry Yong.

The first of the traditional material, featuring egg shaker ‘The Weary Soul’ is van Essen’s arrangement of The Sacred Harp tune, the words about meeting again on Canaan’s shore written in 1803 by John Granade and set to music by J.T. White in 1844. Slightly more familiar will be ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, another song of going home to the maker, this time crossing the River Jordan, that regularly features in the recorded canon, van Essen’s suitably moody arrangement featuring dark desert stormcloud electric guitar from Jim Moreton.

It ends with the title track, the words, a reference to a line in Isaiah, taken from an old Negro spiritual about sinners finding deliverance in giving up themselves to God, van Essen setting them to music etched out on guitar and piano.

It doesn’t stretch itself musically and some may find the sparse settings a touch samey, but there’s a beguiling sense of bruised innocence and spirituality within it that, if you surrender to its simple charms, will draw you into its embrace.

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.gerivanessen.com

‘Song About The Moon’ – official video:

FALSE LIGHTS – Harmonograph (Wreckord Label FL003)

HarmonographThe second crop of fruit from the joint project between Sam Carter and Jim Moray brings in Stuart Provan on drums and adds Archie Churchill-Moss’s melodeon to Tom Moore’s violin with Barnaby Stradling on bass.

As with their Salvor debut, it’s rooted in traditional folk songs given a contemporary and often off-kilter treatment with contemporary resonance, case in point being album opener ‘Babylon’ which, opening with a radio broadcast sample, takes the shapenote hymn by the scruff of its neck and lurches into a driving rock drum beat bulked up with electric guitars and brass, the “Babylon’s falling” chorus refrain chiming with its described reaction to current British and US politics.

The drums and guitar solo may lean to the heavier side of folk rock, but there remains a definite traditional air to the 19th century transportation ballad, ‘Black Velvet Band’, set to a new, moody and slow-paced six minute plus tune by Moray that’s a far cry from the familiar rousing Dubliners’ version, the verse melody leeching off the similarly-themed ‘The Whitby Lad’.

The Roud collection also provides the source for ‘William Glenn’, Carter taking nasally lead on a nautical tale of mutiny, superstition and the crew casting overboard the captain they deemed responsible for the storms, a rousing, urgent shanty-founded interpretation learned from Nic Jones with the addition of new lines based on Tony Rose’s version as ‘Sir William Gower’.

Written by Moore, ‘The Ombudsman’ provides an instrumental break, violin naturally to the fore over a dampened bass drum thump, the initial nervy African-textured guitar work giving way to fierce, almost prog-folk riffs, the fury subsiding for the leaving song ‘Far In Distant Lands’, another shapenote hymnal, taken from The Southern Harmony 1854 as ‘328 Missionary Farewell’, it’s timely echoes of the migrant crisis delivered over a wheezing drone and a tinkling repeated keys pattern, building to a climax with wind effects before its final ebbing way.

It’s back to sea for the album’s lengthiest number, ‘Captain Kidd’, the Roud broadside about the legendary alleged pirate who was executed in politically controversial circumstances in 1701, the tune based on ‘159 Wondrous Love’ from The Sacred Harp, starting out in acoustic mode with Moray’s vocals accompanied by fiddle and drone before erupting around the two minute mark into steady-paced but full-blooded electric folk rock.

Another folk standard ballad, ‘Murder In The Red Barn’, the Suffolk-set true story of how Maria Marten was shot dead by her lover William Corder who was subsequently tracked down, found guilty and hung in 1828, events also giving rise to a popular melodrama and something of a local tourist industry, with even part of Corder’s scalp, ear attached, being displayed in Oxford Street. Unusually sung from Corder’s viewpoint, it’s set to a folk rock combination of ‘129 Heavenly Amor’ and ‘146 Hallelujah’, two tunes by shapenote composer William Walker that appear in The Sacred Harp, and featuring an almost Byrdsian jangling guitar solo. A fine companion piece to ‘The Murder Of Maria Marten’ recorded in 1971 by Shirley Collins and The Albion Band.

Featuring in both the Child and Roud collections, ‘Serving Man Become A Queen’ gets a sweeping rework, barreling along on both a newly written Moray tune and a borrowing from The New York Trader as it moves from high velocity drums-driven urgency to a slower passages with a brief touch of almost Bach organ.

The penultimate track and another nautical tale, here about one of three Scottish brothers who turned to piracy to support himself and his siblings, ‘Henry Martin’ begins with clattering African-styled percussion from Laurence Hung before Provan’s drums and glowering electric guitar take control, the number venturing into almost improvisational jazz rock territory towards the end. It ends in suitably jaunty form with melodeon akimbo and fiddle surging for ‘Drink Old England Dry’, a song originally written in response to Napoleon’s boastful threats to invade and drink the country dry, the French subsequently variously substituted by the Germans and Russians, but here reworked to tone down any pro-Brexit sentiments with Moray and Carter trading the new verses and joining together on the suitably rowdy, glasses raised chorus.

Invented in 1844 by Scottish mathematician Hugh Blackburn, a harmonograph is a mechanical device that uses two balanced swinging pendulums to draw geometric pictures, two different but equal forces working in perfect harmony to create a complex whole. What better metaphor for the musical symbiosis of False Lights could you ask!

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.

Artists’ website: www.falselights.co.uk

‘William Glenn’ – official video:

THE LYNNeS – Heartbreak Song For The Radio (The LYNNEs Records TLR 2018-01)

Heartbreak SongAlthough they’ve shared a stage several times and written songs together over the past ten years, fellow Canadians Lynne Miles and Lynne Hanson haven’t actually recorded together. That oversight’s rectified with this debut album, Heartbreak Song For The Radio, one that plays to their shared strengths in, as the title suggests, heartbreak Americana.

The core tracks and most of the vocal and acoustic parts recorded live off the floor direct to tape, the ten co-writes kick off with the steady drum beat-driven ‘Cold Front’, a song about emotional distance (“leaving is easy it’s the staying that’s hard”) that features a searing electric guitar solo from Kevin Breit who features throughout. A more familiar country approach arrives with the close harmony ‘Cost So Much’, a number about bruised heart regret that features the memorable refrain “wouldn’t have gone and paid my dues if I knew was gonna cost so much”.

There’s a definite touch of The Carpenters to the dreamy pop smoothed title track with Miles taking lead before the infectious ‘Recipe For Disaster’ with its lyrically matching opposites (“you got the sugar and I got the salt”) brings it back to twangy country with the mid-tempo ‘Don’t Look Down’ featuring Breit on guitar and mandolin and rumbling drums and effective hollow crackling percussion work by Peter Von Althan taking the pace down again.

Brushed drums take ‘Dark Waltz’ around the dancefloor to the sad songs of love lost (“no wedding dress, no fancy shoes”), but then there’s a decided switch of mood and tempo with the swampy rocking groove of ‘Halfway To Happy’ (“I’m a moss without a stone”) that sounds like something from the vintage days of the Everly Brothers’ rockabilly canon. Keeping the comparisons coming, ‘Blue Tattoo’ can’t help but prompt references to Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, though there’s some Chris Isaak in there too.

It ends with the two fists of the uncluttered acoustic folksiness of ‘Blame It On The Devil’, the pair trading verses on a song that reminds that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and “it’s only walking through the fire that you learn just who you are”, and Keith Glass’s baritone guitar prominent, the dark swirls of the closing ‘Heavy Lifting’ as Hanson sings “I’m tired of falling for cowboys in the dark”.

Individually, both Lynnes are formidable forces in contemporary country, together they just might be unstoppable.

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.

Artists’ website: www.thelynnes.com

‘Recipe For Disaster’ – official video: