SIMON TODD – Half Empty/Half Full (Ginger Tom Music GTM002)

Half Empty/Half FullSimon Todd’s new release Half Empty/Half Full is his second CD, following from Contracts For The Sale of Land in 2009. It’s nearly ten years, but it’s worth the wait. Half Empty/Half Full has ten strong songs, Todd has an appealing voice, which has a good range and makes well written lyrics easy to hear.

The video below is of ‘Send Her Home To Me’. Todd describes the song as “The closest I get to a love song” – in that it’s a love song from the point of view of a cuckold “if I remember it right/it was a bright clear night/ when you took her away from me”. It’s rather classy – gentle singing from an unreliable narrator so that you’re torn between thinking ‘Ah, that’s sweet’ or ‘idiot’ or ‘Might the woman not have a say in this?’ Without hitting you over the head to claim your attention, this is rather good songwriting.

‘The Last Step’ is similarly clever – a series of idioms joined into an up-tempo track and held together by the concluding line “the last step that you take you take alone.” Wisdom or cliché? It doesn’t matter, it’s a good song and it works. ‘Judas Kiss’ is similarly lively and foot tapping.

If there is a wryness to these songs, the opening and closing tracks ‘Down To The River’ and ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’ show a different side to Todd’s writing – faster paced, more raw, a raspier vocal driving them forward. There is breadth as well as depth to Todd’s writing and playing.

‘And I Get Weak’ has my favourite opening line of the year “We laughed at the Dodo/Shot it where it stood” and builds into an anthem to challenge modern priorities (for example, “we build aquariums to simulate and please/whilst pumping toxic waste into the seas”. Genius). You could easily get a crowd singing along to this. ‘Poppy Fields’, an image we no longer associate with nature but with war and death, also has some stark images, this time of Douglas Haig’s trench warfare strategy “Sacrifices under fire/Virgin boys left screaming on the wire/Staring eyes that died alone/I’m sorry but your son’s not coming home”. There’s a punch in that juxtaposition.

Todd describes the album as having come from considering similar situations from alternative perspectives. ‘Think Of Me’, for example, takes the theme of a separated couple but gives a very different view to ‘Send Her Home To Me’. It is more equable, capturing day-to-day realities and summarizes “Just think of me/Maybe I’m still here”.

Although this pairing of perspectives may have been the creative source, and has led to the title of Half Empty/Half Full. I’ve heard the album as a collection of well written individual songs which stand on their own, from a man who “places equal importance on lyrics, melody and chord structure”.

A look on Todd’s website shows a history of gigs in the USA (mainly Texas) as well as the U.K. (mainly the north east). The website doesn’t show any planned gigs at the moment – which is a pity, as this album is well worth a listen and really ought to open up Todd’s songwriting and performing to a wider audience.

Mike Wistow

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.simontodd.co.uk

‘Send Her Home To Me’ – live:

SASCHA OSBORN – Looking Out And After (THS002)

Looking Out And AfterLooking Out And After is the debut album from Sascha Osborn and it’s rather lovely. Take a look at the cover photo – soft focus greenery and a photo of the artist which is as far from power dressing as you could get. It’s a perfect visual for this album – eleven songs which build on Osborn’s eclectic background of poetry, folk, jazz, harmony singing, and some gentle playing.

Osborn’s voice is influenced by both her interest in jazz (try ‘Take A Moment’ for lovely held back vocal over a jazz influenced arrangement) and folk (try ‘Fragile’ a gentle optimistic song “Fragile we are/But together we are strong/As one we will be, as one we’ll be/Living life as one”). Mostly, though, it doesn’t help to have this album formulated, sprawling on a pin, Prufrock-style other than to give a general sense that it fits broadly into this jazz-folk, late-night-easy style with Osborn’s melodic voice leading some smooth, deftly-played songs.

It would be have been easy to overlook the lyrics, losing them in the soundscape, as I sank comfortably into the album. But the lyrics also repay more attention. ‘Tough Talking True’ contrasts the smoothness of the arrangement with images of danger “like walking cross desert sands with nothing to drink……like walking on a narrow rope in sky scraper heels” and brings the two together in the final couplet “You know I’d rather be making love to you/Than breaking up but this is what I’ve got to do”.

The video of ‘Could It Be You’ is set against a black and white film by the Thames in central London, the images matching the lyrics “But time passes by like the run of the river/There’s no boat I can sail in to free this shiver” – both of them correlatives for the singer’s emotion as she sees people walk by and wonders “could it be you” – the singing and the playing slow, minimal, holding her emotion in gentle tension (and making the words so much better than the couplet looks on the page as I write it down).

Looking Out And After is an album that’s worth sitting and listening to with no distractions. It’s a debut album, but from someone who’s paid their dues over the past 25 or so years. It’s gradually dawned on me that it’s only possible to play and sing as gently, as lazily, as this when you’re in full control of what you’re doing – and this album just is rather lovely.

Mike Wistow

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: https://saschaosborn.co.uk

‘Could It Be You’ – official video:

MIKE SPONZA – Made In The Sixties (EPOPS Music EPPS 1804)

Made In The SixtiesMike Sponza is a bluesman with a sense of adventure, some impressive collaborators and a great feel for his work. Made in the Sixties was released in the UK on November 23rd and is bold, if not audacious, in what it does.

The album has ten songs, one for each year of the sixties. Given the iconic status the decade has in both our wider cultural life and in the development of sophisticated modern music, this is some challenge. That the album pulls it off is even better. The first track ‘1960 – Made In The Sixties’ opens with drum and brass and the lyric “It was a great time for beginning” and the album closes with ‘1969 Blues For The Sixties’ in the video link below and the ending lyric, “I’m looking at my life/I see the sixties everywhere”. For all ten tracks I’ve been hooked.

Conceptually the album takes us through the decade good and bad “On the one hand the glamour and swing, and on the other, the dark and problematic side” is how Sponza describes his album. He covers the darkness of the Cuban missile crisis on ‘1962 – A Young Londoners Point Of View On Cuban Crisis’ “we didn’t even know in the far off days/Just how close it came to cancel our best decade” and JFK’s death on ‘1963 – Day Of The Assassin’; by contrast, he merges many images of the sexy sixties, most obviously a cartoon of Honey Rider on the CD and the name of Pussy Galore on the title of ‘1964 – Glamour Puss’, someone for whom “all the traffic halts”; the summer of love is treated to a Dana Gillespie vocal on ‘1967 – Good Lovin’’.

Musically the album works by keeping to a consistent style (it could have developed from, say, simple blues in 1960 to sophisticated blues in 1969 in line with the decade’s musical growth) which references the later years of the sixties – that intensely creative period, post-Revolver, Disraeli Gears, Are You Experienced et al when blues drove rock forward and combined with soul, jazz, gospel, Latin influences to move us from the black and white of early rock and roll to a more colourful soundscape as music paralleled the development of visual media.

Lyrically it’s also subtle and equivocal, the sixties are seen as both dark and glamorous. Dylan’s influence is referenced not just for his impact on lyrics but his wider musical development on ‘1965 – Even Dylan Was Turning Electric’. This is another lovely song with Eddi Reader providing vocals on a track that has an arrangement that brings to mind some of Joe Cocker’s best.

Made In The Sixties is an album I’ve really enjoyed listening to. Joe Cass’s production alludes to the style of the sixties and the tracks would grace any soundtrack from the era – just look at the video below: big house, white sports car, mini dress, shades, retro mic, 7” single, alcohol as sophistication – but this is a modern blues-based album with Sponza taking us through the decade in music which is simultaneously refined and just great fun to listen to.

Mike Wistow

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.mikesponza.com

‘1969 – Blues For The Sixties’ – official video:

GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV – Evening Machines (Dualtone Records)

Evening MachinesEvening Machines was released on October 5th, Isakov’s fifth album. Isakov is a full time farmer in Colorado, who tends to his music career in the winter (he has his studio in a barn on his farm). He has been described as an indie-folk artist. This feels like a full life – it’s difficult enough keeping a farm going, but Isakov has also sold a large number of albums (370,000), impressive for a musician who hitherto has released them only via his own label.

The music is more indie than folk – a rich sound pervades the album, a wall of sound behind the tracks which is more Elbow and Eels than Spector but nonetheless providing a unity of mood to the album. Even ‘Bullet Holes’, the track which is most obviously from the acoustic-Guthrie-tradition (‘Chemicals’ is the other one) moves from the initial sparse acoustic guitar and vocal into this wider tone as the song develops through the addition of background vocals and instrumentation.

Isakov’s vocals are understated, held back so they don’t dominate the mix on the songs – but in many ways the more powerful because of it. Have a listen to ‘Dark, dark, dark’ – “Won’t you sing me something for the dark, dark, dark” – in the link below and you’ll get a feel.

The lyrics have the same ability to hold the attention without overwhelming, a mood built by imagery. ‘Chemicals’ has a great line, “You saw her bathing in the creek/Now you’re jealous of the water” but in general Evening Machines isn’t an album of songs where you’re going to pull out individual lines. The lyrics merge into the musical sound as a whole. You can get a feel for their broader poetic quality in the following as the images build their ambiguity to the concluding title line of ‘Was I Just Another One’

Did you ever find the garden/where the doves go to bathe
did you open up your heart there/or were you quiet and afraid

did you light up every lantern/your flame whipping against the wind
or did you fall back to the alleys/with all your secrets to defend

between the cities and the temple/between the jury and the judge
gavel pounds down like thunder/that’s inside of all of us

were we kids out in the desert/or birds running cross the sun
did I stumble through your darkness/or was I just another one

Not just because of Isakov’s background (though presumably this is part of it?) it feels like you’re listening to the quieter countryman whose voice carries the room not because he dominates, but because what he says quietly is more musical and more worth listening to than the loud person trying to hold attention.

Isakov has a short tour of the UK from December 4th – 9th, details on his website.

Mike Wistow

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: https://gregoryalanisakov.com

‘Dark, Dark, Dark’ – official audio:

ANNE MARIE ALMEDAL – Lightshadow (VMP 18/012 CD)

LightshadowAnne Marie Almedal is a Norwegian singer and composer whose album, Lightshadow, is now on release. Almedal, was the lead singer of the band Velvet Belly from 1989 – 2003 and has released a number of solo albums since then, a little more folk oriented than those I’ve listened to by the band.

Lightshadow has a classy sound to it, at times almost orchestral, occasionally almost ambient in its accompaniment. Her vocals are precise – sometimes breathy, sometimes with the vocal flourishes of a show singer. To give a mixed analogy to singers better known in in the U.K., the vocals and arrangements remind me of something somewhere between Judy Collins and Kate Bush.

All but one of the songs are written by Almedal and her partner Nicholas Sillitoe. Perhaps the most easily accessible is the single, ‘Sheltering Sky’ which you can hear in the video link below, which is quite lovely – folk-pop perhaps? I also like ‘Hard Times’ with a predominantly soaring vocal against the piano and strings which then finishes quietly, strings stilled, and the lyrics “I wish I was unbreakable/ That every wound would heal/ How strong it would make me/ feel”.

Lightshadow, I suspect, will speak to those who are already fans. I’ve enjoyed listening to the album but found it a little too stylized in places. However, that probably says as much about my preference for music which is a bit more raw than this as it does about Lightshadow, because the album is well played, well produced and beautifully sung.

Mike Wistow

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.annemariealmedal.com

‘Sheltering Sky’:

Katie Spencer – in praise of live music

Katie Spencer
Photograph by Mike Wistow

Saturday night I find myself in a church in a small village. This settlement is so tiny that to describe it as a small hamlet overstates it. The best part of fifty years ago I came here on an archeological dig to see if there really had been a Roman settlement, on the edge of a river crossing now too deep and polluted for anyone to risk going in the water (though I was talking to a retired farmer last night who’d swum over in what he described as his foolish youth).

And in the church is a folk concert. Whoa – a folk concert in this place which I associate more with Roman Rome than the modern world; and also whoa – a folk concert in a church – wouldn’t have happened fifty years ago when my great aunt played the church organ in the village on the other side of the river. Even worse (albeit better for me last night) we brought our own alcohol. Fifty years ago the only red wine allowed in the place would have been for communion. The roof didn’t fall in (and see later).

Photograph by Mike Wistow

I knew nothing about the gig before – I’ll go and watch anything live and just said yes when asked to go. What a setting – as the photos show. Three sessions, two artists. Joe Clark, first on, played a mix of covers and own songs. Clever guitar playing from his adeptness in both classical and folk guitar, notably on John Martyn’s ‘May You Never’ and Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’ as well as on his own stuff.

Being this kind of venue, there’s a break to stretch the legs and catch up with people. As well as friends who were part of the group I came with, I met an old mate I played cricket with in rural and industrial Nottinghamshire more than thirty years ago in the midst of the miners’ strike and all that went with it. He’s now retired, more into jazz, but happy for his land to be used annually for a folk mini-festival.

Katie Spencer, on the link below and pictured above played two sets. Lovely voice, lovely picking. She’s from Hull, where I lived for ten years or so – a great city of the arts long before it became a (capitalised) City of Culture. If you click on the link below to Spencer’s website and flick through the videos you’ll see why I bought the CD. Mostly her own songs – I particularly liked ‘Drinking The Water’ – but including Spencer the Rover, in recognition of the tradition, the folk revival versions of the song, her own surname and the life of the travelling musician.

So, folk is live. In the break, I learnt folk isn’t just live, the money raised is going to repair the church roof (which still hadn’t fallen in). What more could you want – not just a good evening, but a good cause. Wise also – you don’t even notice you’re raising money because you are simply here enjoying yourself.

There were fewer than a hundred of us. And at venues all over the country, this kind of acoustic music is keeping folk live. For me last night a church, songs of life, stories of Hull, a catch up with old friends, memories of an archeological dig, memories of the formerly thriving pit towns and villages and memories of family long gone – and the same kind of thing is going on in pubs, clubs, halls, fields, house concerts across the country.

Within a ten mile radius of where I live, I knew of three events the same night, Boo Hewerdine in one and Daisy Chapman in the other. There may have been more?

So…in praise of live music – and many thanks to all those artists and promoters who are keeping it live.

Mike Wistow

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.

Katie Spencer ‘s website: http://www.katiespencer.net

Katie Spencer – ‘Can’t Resist The Road’ live: