TOM RUSSELL – Folk Hotel (Proper PRPCD143P)

Folk HotelTom Russell releases a new studio album Folk Hotel on September 8th. Russell has been described as “The greatest living folk-country songwriter” by John Swenson in Rolling Stone. Folk Hotel is a mix of Americana, Tex-Mex, Cowboy, Folk, Blues, Poetry and Elizabethiana (I may have invented the word but have a listen to ‘The Dram House Down In Gutter Lane’). In the video below Tom Russell introduces the album: the songs, his artwork and the guest musicians. This is, of course, what a review would normally do – but in addition Russell plays snippets from this first-rate album of American songs so you can hear them instead of trying to imagine them from the written word.

So a different kind of review. Folk Hotel hits you with a cornucopia of characters. We see pictures of America: a café where the mountain lion walked in one day thirsty for water, taken down by the cops; drunken Maggie; a rancher refusing to leave his old horses; JFK as ‘Handsome Johnny’; the smell of saffron and chorizo coming through cracks in the floor; Motel rooms on the interstate; broken guitar strings and a pocket full of guitar picks because “that’s my trade sir”; Indians on the edge of this society; a ‘princess’ on the road to Santa Fe; piss-smelling beer parlours.

……and then there’s ‘Harlan Clancy’, a man who throws his TV in the river because of the commercials and bad news shows; a man who we then see sympathetically – a common man with Irish heritage, “a penchant for a drink, it don’t get in my way”, five kids, “three of whom still talk to me”; a wife; a man (“I ain’t no racist”) with a workmate with a Spanish/Mexican name “I didn’t ask to see his papers”- with whom he goes for a beer after work in a bar where they drink with a black man named Jimmy Lee More. The song also has a tremendous description of ringing the breakdown service and getting a voice in the Philippines. Russell gives us detail enough to imagine the characters’ lives behind the lyrics. Just as Dickens gave us everyday protagonists in 19th century London, treated as persons not caricatures, Russell’s songs do this for America; not the New-Adam-Frontier-America with John Ford characters who created the nation state but the modern America of the common man.

We also see Europe. The album takes us to Wales, Ireland, the A1, Copenhagen and the Faroe Isles. We meet Dylan Thomas twice. In ‘The Sparrow of Swansea’ he is found in “Brown’s Hotel/ or The Mermaid, The Three Lamps/The Boar’s Head, The Cross House/Back on around to The Worm’s Head Hotel”. The writing is vivid in its detail. Thomas is “raging with whisky /he lived out his poetry/ He did not go gentle into that good night”. We also meet Thomas as one of the residents in ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ after a record 18 shots of whisky and Caitlin’s imagined voice screaming across the ocean from Wales asking, “Is that bastard of a man dead yet?”. In ‘All On A Belfast Morning’ the characters come similarly alive: Spanish Frankie; the young mother advising her children to beware the badgers in the boggy ditch; the buskers being secretly listened to by the superior shop girls; the old men going to the corner bar; the wives at home wondering where the romance went. Later, we meet ‘Jimmy’ Joyce and ‘Billy’ Yeats as part of the Anglo-Irish literary canon in ‘The Day They Dredged The Liffey’.

Dotted amongst the stories are gems of lines, such as the image of reality and anticipation “Let us not confuse the pint with the pouring’” or this, “The road goes on and on and on/Driven by a dream wrapped in a song”.

On the physical CD there are two bonus tracks – a version of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, which Russell makes his own, and ‘Scars On His Ankles’ an extended blues about Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose scars were caused by chains from the chain gang.

Russell is a remarkable chronicler of modern America. Just as in a Dickens novel or a poem by Charles Bukowski (with whom Russell corresponded), you catch the minor characters in glimpses – black and white maybe but never a cartoon – while major characters like Harlan Clancy are fully formed, treated compassionately, with respect, seen as they would wish to see themselves – and then some.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the TOM RUSSELL – Folk Hotel link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. 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.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: http://www.tomrussell.com/index.php

Tom Russell talks about Folk Hotel:

PAUL BRADY – Unfinished Business (Proper PRPCD144P)

Unfinished BusinessOn September 8th, Paul Brady releases Unfinished Business. It features nine new compositions and two traditional folk songs. The album is Brady’s fifteenth solo album and covers a range of styles – as well as the traditional folk songs there are elements of jazz, country, Brady’s own unique folk style and, I suspect, a potentially massive hit song if he wants it to be. It sounds as though the album shouldn’t work because of the range of styles, but it does; Brady has the pedigree (a career spanning five decades and the plaudits of international folk and rock stars) and the sheer class that you can play this album many times over and hear something new each time.

The video below is of the title track, a beautifully smooth late-night-piano song which opens the album and then moves easily into the up-tempo ‘I Love You But You Love Him’, two songs which reflect on the discordance of love, the first reflective, the second wryly humorous, both of them songs of experience: “the time I said goodbye to the one who really was the one…it’s some old unfinished business from a long forgotten time” from the first and “I love Chicago blues, you love your hip-hop” one of many images of difference from the second.

‘Something to Change’ and ‘Say You Don’t Mean’ continue with the Brady and his band in up-tempo mood before slowing down a little for ‘Oceans of Time’. I’ve played the album a dozen times and this still strikes me as a potential major hit. ‘Harvest Time’ is quieter, but gives me another song in my collection with harvest in the title which I suspect will have similar longevity to the Neil Young tracks.

Brady recorded the definitive versions of ‘Arthur McBride’ and ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’ in the late 70’s. The two traditional songs on Unfinished Business are ‘The Cocks Are Crowing’ and the final track, ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender’, both of them having that under-stated perfection that comes from Brady’s mixture of technical competence and ability to inhabit the song.

Between these two songs are three more where Brady and the band continue the up-tempo style on ‘I Like How You Think’, ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ and ‘Once in a Life Time’. On an album where I could pick any of the eleven tracks as a favourite, ‘Once in a Life Time’ is the track I’ve played most – a lyric to cheer the darkest of days “Sometimes once in a life time makes up for all mistakes….real love waits its moment, real love won’t play games…..you wonder why the bells aren’t ringing/don’t you know real love’s got a whole lot of blues’’ and a chorus you can’t help but join in with.

This is Brady’s first new album for seven years and well worth the wait. It’s the album of a mature artist and songwriter – and his band – who can cover multiple genres but keep the album as a coherent whole. “Being classy isn’t a choice, it’s a lifestyle” – Anon (or so Google tells me).

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the PAUL BRADY – Unfinished Business link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. 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.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: http://www.paulbrady.com

‘Unfinished Business’ live (not the album version):

THE FOUR OF US – Sugar Island (Future FUTURECDS011)

Sugar IslandThe Four of Us have had limited exposure elsewhere in the UK but have been a major force in Irish music since 1989 when they had a massive hit with ‘Mary’. The core of the band are brothers Brendan and Declan Murphy. They beat U2 to the title of Best Irish Band in the early 90’s and have had six Top 20 albums in Ireland. Sugar Island was released there in 2016. It has a UK release date of August 20th 2017.

The album is a deliberate move away from the more electric folk sound with which they have had much of their success and a return to the acoustic sound from when they started out and created again on the Classified Personal album in 1999. In an interview with the Irish News, Brendan Murphy said, “That was the brief we set ourselves, we put rules in place for ourselves that this record would have no electric guitars and no cymbals, to create the pure sound we wanted”.

The songs themselves are largely based on growing up in Newry in Northern Ireland at the height of ‘The Troubles’ as we’ve come to describe the period. ‘Going South’ describes literally that – going south, listening to Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’, sitting with your brother in the car, leaving the checkpoint behind. The video below starts with a visual of the checkpoint but also flicks through pictures of a joyous family holiday – in the same way as the lyrics capture the then normality of the co-existence of family life and “over by the trees there’s soldiers hiding/faces painted green and black”.

The title track is a letter to ‘Jane’ about “the day I left you crying/ On the bridge at Sugar Island/ Wish that I could take it back/ But it’s way too late for that”, a gentle song looking back with regret on a teenage farewell on the bridge at Sugar Island in the centre of Newry.

The album closes with ‘Hometown on the Border’ – the stark opening of “Children with guns, fatherless sons/ Hometown on the border” building to “What you always thought was ordinary/ Really isn’t all that ordinary/ I fool myself/ Helps to keep you safe”.

Purely personally, I find the delicacy of the acoustic playing too gentle when set against the lyrics. I’ve been looking for the electric guitar and cymbals that were deliberately left off. However, although various of my friends were, I wasn’t in Ireland at the time – and I’ve been reminded that my father’s generation came home in 1946 having seen enough fighting and wanting to create a gentler world. It may just be, then, that this is exactly the right feel for the songs.

The Four of Us are on tour in Ireland during July and August.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the THE FOUR OF US – Sugar Island link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. 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.

DOWNLOAD – [CD]

Artist’s website: http://the4ofus.com

‘Going South’ – official video:

BENJAMIN FOLKE THOMAS – Acoustic Classics (Louvaio Lou006)

Acoustic ClassicsFolking.com has already announced the imminent release of Acoustic Classics by Benjamin Folke Thomas – http://folking.com/benjamin-folke-thomas-returns-with-live-album/ – with the back story to the singer’s life and an explanation that this is a ‘live’ album with a difference: it has been recorded in Folke Thomas’ living room with himself as the ‘audience’.

I have a list on the Notes App on my phone of artists I want to see/music that I want to buy and Benjamin Folke Thomas has been on the list for a while now (a Bob Harris session a couple of years ago, I think) and the album doesn’t disappoint. The feel is very definitely a house concert, mixed with (his own) whoops, cheers, laughs, shushes and applause. There are songs from his previous albums, introductions from his life and two jokes which I think are magnificent, though my family are less convinced…….

The album starts slowly with ‘I’m Alive’ and ‘Good Friend Again’ and then begins to kick into a higher gear with ‘Love Somebody’ and ‘Finn’. It stays there until finishing with the singalong of ‘Sex Addict’. As I listened, it dawned on me that every good house concert I’ve been to does just that – the steady start as you’re sitting in a space not designed for a concert, growing to the point where it clicks into place for both artist and audience. Acoustic Classics captures it perfectly.

The songs are captivating, particularly the three in the centre of the album. ‘Finn’ moves seamlessly from the tale of Abbas, the doctor from Palestine working on a meat counter missing his family, on to Finn, the singer’s communist grandfather fighting the Nazis who became a refugee, and finally to the singer’s sister who is living, by choice, in India. Three tales of movement linked by a unfulfilled desire to be with family and the closing refrain “Time flies by so fast/spend it with the people you love”. ‘Married’ is an old story of not winning the girl because of her religion – “Sin couldn’t touch the ground she walked” – but becomes a modern one because of Folke Thomas’ ability to use Facebook to see what has happened to her. It is also a reflection of how she stills touches on his happiness. ‘Copenhagen 30/6’ is a similarly reflective tale of love with a melodic chorus and contrasting lyrics “Like a chain tied around the neck/through the meltdowns you’re a rock I’m a wreck…how can someone like you love somebody like me

The album artwork is an homage to Folke Thomas’ country heroes and the album also captures elements of country music while never quite going there. The vocal on ‘I’m Alive’ edges towards Johnny Cash; in ‘Sex Addict’ Folke Thomas inhabits the negative personality that the girl and – a wonderful touch – her father now use to describe him; despite its romantic title, ‘Woman I Love’ is another self-knowing leaving song “I’ve been labeled a criminal, labeled a crook/ By the Woman I Love”.

Two years down the line from making the note that I should find out more about Benjamin Folke Thomas I’ve been lucky enough to get this album to review. It’s probably not an album for the car, the finger picking is great and the lyrics are Loudon-Wainwright-subtle, but the road noise is louder. However, listen properly to the album, as you would in a house concert, and you’ll be rewarded with a great introduction to a skilled artist..

The website below has a link to gigs in summer and autumn, beginning with Cropredy on August 11th. My surprise is that he’s playing at the Brasenose Arms, not on the main stage.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the BENJAMIN FOLKE THOMAS – Acoustic Classics link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. 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.

DOWNLOAD – [CD]

Artist’s website: https://www.benfolkethomas.com

‘Sex Addict’ – live:

ANNA COOGAN – The Lonely Cry of Space & Time (AC004)

Lonely CryThe Lonely Cry Of Space And Time by Anna Coogan was released on April 28th but I’ve only just had a copy to review. Is there a genre for Indie-Goth-Opera (IGO perhaps?) [I’d prefer IGOR – ed.]. There ought to be because I’ve no idea otherwise how to give a feel in words for the sound-experience of listening to this album. My only other option was to take you back to 1978 and first listening to The Kick Inside, that sense that no-one else is doing music like this and making it work.

Coogan is American but her music reflects the classical opera training she had at the Mozarteum University of Salzburg before she returned to America. This is her fifth ‘solo’ release – solo in inverted commas as her previous work has been collaborative and The Lonely Cry Of Space And Time is a two person effort featuring Willie B (Brian Wilson) on drums and moog bass alongside Coogan’s electric guitar and three-octave soprano vocals. Below you can listen to ‘Wishing Well’ played live where the haunting quality of Coogan’s voice against the gentle playing behind her are ‘shiver-down-the spine’ good. But then keep listening until the end for the operatic violence of ‘By Morning’ which follows, as it does on the album.

It’s an album where I’ve listened to the sound rather than the lyrics, but when you do spend time to take in the words you discover imagery and metaphors which transcend the immediacy of the song they are in: “Keep on swimming until you find the shore”, “Let the oceans rise/To the shining skies/I will burn for you”, “My eyes are wide open/But my vision is hazy”.

Coogan has a European Tour coming up in October but if you want to see her in the UK you have only three dates to choose from The Sound Lounge in South London (19th), Bovey Tracey in Devon, and Farndale in North Yorkshire – all appropriately off the beaten track and at least two of them in areas of mercurial beauty. Like this album.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://annacoogan.com/#home-section

‘Wishing Well’ – live:

THEA GILMORE – The Counterweight (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD668)

CounterweightThea Gilmore described herself like this “Some people write me off as some waily folky woman……Other people think I’m rock. In terms of an image, if you want to be cold and corporate about it, it’s hard to decide who my target market is. There isn’t one. There is no box that I can be put in” She has been described by Uncut magazine as “The best British singer-songwriter of the last ten years – and then some”. Her new album, The Counterweight is released on June 2nd.

Is it folk? Even with my fairly eclectic and inclusive categorization of folk, probably not. Is it Americana? There are shadows of Americana but Gilmore is very much a UK songwriter and they are no more than shadows. Does it matter? Not at all, this is just a damned good album from someone who can’t be put in a box.

The album has tracks which are more electric than some of Gilmore’s previous. The single ‘New’ premiered on Ken Bruce’s show and ‘Sounds Good to Me’ has been getting some airplay on Radio 2. The opening track ‘Fall Together’ has a great vocal set against a simple piano before the wider band joins in, initially gently and then strongly – the kind of territory inhabited by Annie Lennox at her best (Listen also to ‘Slow Fade to Black’ for an equally lovely vocal.) It’s a stunning opener to the album and you’d normally want to link to it after the review – but there’s an even better song.

The album was recorded during spring and summer 2016 and in between the opening and closing tracks are a number that are simultaneously timeless and linked to the specifics of last summer. ‘Reconcile’ – with a gem of a line about needing “a mortgage for your coffee”, references to instagram, and “a road ahead/there’s a watershed” – was developed as Britain voted to leave the EU; ‘Johnny Gets A Gun’ recorded on June 16th shortly after the hate crime of the Orlando nightclub shooting. The light-hearted and self-knowing optimism of ‘Another Damn Love Song’ “How did I get here/How did I find you/How did a skeptic go so wrong” with its up tempo chorus. ‘Here’s to You’ is the penultimate song, another element of redressing the balance from the blows of 2016 “Raise a glass to alchemy/another one to unity/….there’s always strength in numbers/but there’s divinity in two/here’s to lovers and here’s to you

‘The War’ provides the album with its title of The Counterweight. As Gilmore reflected on the events of the summer, they became the inspiration for this final track. Have a look at the video below on YouTube and you’ll see the references to Jo Cox MP, murdered on June 16th. But the war “isn’t out there” – the song is also about what’s inside us and what we can do ourselves.

Take a look at that box on your desk

Take a look at that heart in your chest
Take a look at those thoughts in your head
The war’s already here……….
It’s so easy to hide
Behind imagined Ironsides
Nostalgic and misty eyed
When the wolf’s at the door
In the time of hate
Throw down the counterweight
Tear up that flag and say
You’re worthy of more

Gilmore’s website notes: “The track is also possibly the mission statement of the album, a call-to-arms on the negativity and bleakness of the 2017 social terrain mesmerized by fake news and futility. The Counterweight tries to be exactly that. A redressing of the balance, a tool of pressure, an exertion of opposite force and as such, a flag of hope.”

The musical style may not be what we’ve traditionally seen as folk, but the themes are – and our times are changing.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the THEA GILMORE – The Counterweight link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. 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.

ORDER – [CD]

ORDER – [VINYL]

Artist’s website: https://theagilmore.net

‘Sounds Good To Me’ – official video: