MATTHEW ROBB – Spirit In The Form (Wabisabi Music WAB 30)

Spirit In The FormMatthew Robb is a UK singer-songwriter based in Cologne in Germany. His latest release is Spirit In The Form with nine self-composed songs. He is accompanied by James Bragg, on electric guitar and harp, and Dave Murrell on bass, with other guest musicians on individual tracks. The album has the style of early Blues and American traditional music and the three musicians combine to make a sound which is extraordinarily powerful in its simplicity.

Occasionally in life I meet someone that I really like, but I’m not sure why. This album is a bit like that. I suspect it’s because there’s an authenticity to it, a capturing of some truth about life – but I don’t know Matthew Robb, so I have no idea whether or not that’s right. But: as I listen to the album, it seems like the songs have an authenticity to the spirit of the early Blues players; this isn’t a look back, these are songs which are relevant to the modern world. After the first two or three plays of the CD, I read Robb’s website which tells you that he lived wild in the Andes and the Rockies before buying the land in Germany to build his house out of reclaimed material. Just maybe, then.

Robb also performs at spoken word festivals in Europe. The video below,  the title song ‘Spirit In The Form’, gives you an idea of how much more powerful it is to hear Robb interpret his lyrics than to simply read them on the page (the CD comes with a lyric book). “There was strength in your weakness/sadness in your joy/hope in the bleakness/little girl in the boy/silence in the thunder/a void within the storm/awe behind the wonder/and spirit in the form” is OK as a piece of juxtaposition and paradox, but put the words against that spare delivery and arrangement and you have a great song reflecting on some kind of a relationship.

‘Slave Song’ intertwines old blues lines (“In my time of dyin’ “, “high water rising”) but this seems a modern slave song not a nostalgic nod to an American past. ‘Sinnerman’ is equally relevant to modern life, modern employment and the compromises people make on the edges of legality and morality. It captures the desire to end a way of life “making offers on your soul”, a desire as modern as it is historical.

And so on. The album takes us to a world which is early Blues mixed with Jacobean Tragedy, a world of “a stagnant pool of lies” in which “the devil’s on the loose” and “murder is a choice” where “it’s over the bodies lying around you raise your glasses to rejoice”. These lines are all from the challenge of ‘Where Did U Go My Friend’, but I’m reminded of scenes in The Revenger’s Tragedy. There is some hope at the end: “There’s a road that leads from your door, you’ll choose which way to go/but there’s no doubt it all comes back and you’ll reap just what you sow”. Then the band stops playing and Robb’s voice alone asks the question “Where did you go my friend”. Understated. Stark. Powerful.

Elsewhere the lyrics tell of blood on the pillow and money on the floor. But you feel the singer is looking for something else – the spirit that will bring something redeeming to the characters in the songs personally and also to the human condition. I think the sense of authenticity I have from listening to the album is because Robb really has “been around this place a thousand times before” (‘Blood on the Pillow’) and the sparse bluesy style of playing is the only one that makes sense. The album constantly has echoes of a man who is “searching for truth every step of the way” and “until then, I’m rootless but bound/but I’m doing my best to keep both feet on the ground” (‘Until Then’)

Not a comfortable album, but rather good.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: http://matthewrobb.com

‘Spirit In The Form’:

THE WAILIN’ JENNYS – Fifteen (True North Records TND 683)

FifteenOn January 5th 2018, The Wailin’ Jennys release their first new recording for six years. The album, Fifteen, is a celebration of a musical partnership lasting fifteen years. The trio – Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse – have brought together nine of their favourite songs and the result is 35 minutes of blissful listening, music (if the editor lets me get away with the image) as smooth as melting chocolate.

The album opens with the traditional English song ‘Old Churchyard’ which sets the tone for the album. There is a gentleness of approach, the voices harmonising perfectly, on this track set against a single viola tone, the song passing from one voice to another as it develops. The second track is Tom Petty’s gentle folk song ‘Wildflowers’ and, in The Wailin’ Jennys’ hands, it becomes an even gentler folk song sung against banjo and violin.

You can’t help but be in awe of the version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Light Of A Clear Blue Morning’ – an acapella delight which keeps the original’s sense of individual rejoicing and emotional rebirth, but which the publicity notes suggest should also be seen in a broader social context as “a call to hope in these troubled political times”.

By now I didn’t think the album could get any better….but the next two songs raise the level further still. An acapella version of Paul Simon’s ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’ is set against human percussion and the resultant sparseness makes the track even more of a gospel-tinged gem than the original – I say that having re-listened to both versions.

And then a song I’ve loved for forty years. The original of Emmylou Harris’s ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ is even more of a classic than ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’. To my mind, The Wailin’ Jennys version matches the original for its ability to tingle the spine. The notes tell you “This was another one that felt magical when it was going down”. It is just as magical listening to it.

Warren Zevon wrote ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’ at the end of his life. The song goes through a list of everyday circumstances where he suggests to his family and friends that they think of him and – obviously – keep him in their hearts. The version on Fifteen will have even tough eyes prickling. It is made all the more poignant here by the joy of living in the voices and the string arrangement in the background.

The other three tracks are Jane Siberry’s ‘The Valley’, Patty Griffin’s ‘Not Alone’ and Hank Williams’ ‘Weary Blues From Waitin’ ’ – all of them great interpretations.

All three of ‘the Jennys’ have young children and the album was, of necessity, recorded in five days “We thought a covers album would be fun to do…..it was a little nuts. We were arranging harmonies on the fly….But we just went with it, and trusted that it would all work out”.

It certainly does. It’s not five days of recording; it’s fifteen years of singing together, captured in five days. Smooth as melting chocolate.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

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

‘Light Of A Clear Blue Morning’:

DAVID NEWEY – Unfold (own label)

UnfoldDavid Newey releases Unfold on December 18th with a solo launch event in Camden followed by a full band launch in Newcastle on December 22nd. Newey is …er… new to me but it’s easy to see why previous releases in 2009 and 2012 were well-received.

Unfold follows in the same style as the earlier albums Cities And Power and Work To Rule, a style I’d broadly describe as folk – but folk with great choruses and adorned at times with a band (Newey himself) that rocks. Take the second track ‘You Seem To Be So Cold’. The title tells you all you need to know about subject matter. The song builds from the opening “Cold and heartless is what you seem to be” first to the great hook of a refrain and then to the band kicking in in parallel with the multi-faceted image “You are colder than the lake in which my sorrows drown”. Listening to the song, I’m with the singer in full relationship-gone-bad-land “You are colder than the house I cannot afford to warm”. The music, though, turns this into a song to make yourself feel better rather than a self-pitying song to make yourself feel miserable.

‘Dark Times’ similarly has a great refrain and explores a serious subject – our personal responsibility to lift the dark times from us all: “For doing nothing you have the full weight of the crime…..a sickness is raging but you will not be seen/ Complaining and stammering and ruining the dream”. ‘You Are Not Yet Here’ rocks with the lightness of the Byrds; while the title track, ‘Unfold’, has a heavier rock base to it.

The overall feel, though, is folk not rock. Newey plays all the instruments on the album except for the accordion, which is played by his wife Shona. Though there is lively electric lead on occasion, the songs are underpinned by acoustic finger picking (have a listen to the acoustic solo in ‘Mary’, for example). In the video of ‘Shooting Star’ you can see the synergy between David Newey’s acoustic guitar and Shona’s accordion playing.

Throughout the album, the lyrics are mature, the voice of a social conscience which isn’t lost in anger. ‘It Would Be Nice To Be Like You’ is a song about the divide between those who have a more comfortable life and those who struggle to heat the house. Again, the singing voice has dignity to it, not complaint. It is the voice of a man wanting to let other people know that “There is no net/and it’s a long fall to the ground/It would be nice for you to see/To just spend a little time just trying to be me.”

I think the final track, ‘Stephen Leaves’, is my favourite. Like a dark comedy, it is gently played and builds slowly the tale of a man who has lost his job after thirty-five years, “a victim of constant downsizing”. It has a twist in the tale (the darkly comic bit) as we discover the revenge he has taken on the company he worked for. Finally it opens wide out into a condemnation of the modern economy “See this is what happens/If you downsize people/If your company roster/Is just a list of names/When those names get crossed off/By someone up on high/Someone must look/And say ‘this must change’

The album was inspired by the birth of David and Shona Newey’s new born son. It’s a great gift.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below 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.

Artist’s website: https://www.davidnewey.co.uk

‘Shooting Star’ live:

JEREMY TUPLIN – I Dreamt I Was An Astronaut (Folkwit Records f0141)

AstronautJeremy Tuplin released his debut album, I Dreamt I Was An Astronaut, on September 29th and it will be launched at Paper Dress Vintage in London on October 26th. The album has been described as part of a new genre, “space-folk”, because of its “retro-futuristic feel” and blend of “electronic and synthesised sounds with acoustic and organic instruments”. It’s early days (there have been two EP’s but this is a debut album), but there are indications of a talent much better than that kind of narrow-alley-cult description suggests.

You know you’re in a different world when the opening track is called ‘Albert Einstein Song’ and the first verse, which follows the best part of a two minute introduction, is “Here’s to Albert Einstein and the vision he bestowed/To the few things I have learned and all the things I’ll never know/Like why the universe is even here/For what reason is it employed/Or how energy is neither created nor destroyed” The track then goes into an image of David Bowie’s death and a related spiritual musing that we may be part of “something bigger than you, something bigger than me”. On ‘Anybody Else’ Tuplin takes us to a similarly contemplative place while singing an unforced rhyme between hubris and this “I’m just a figment of my ego’s imagination/Must I resign myself to hubris/A twisted sense of self-entitlement and frustration/Mixed with I’ve never known anybody quite like this”.

The melodies are strong so that the lyrics don’t overwhelm them. Tuplin has a clean picking and strumming style. The songs are recorded with electronic instrumentation (the keyboard sound that gives rise to the genre description of space-folk) that moves towards orchestration and drums that give the songs a steady fullness or, in a couple of instances, turn them into something rockier. The video below, ‘Astronaut’, gives you a good feel for Tuplin’s musical locus but have a listen also to ‘Oh Youth’ for the rockier sound.

The voice is unique. There are elements of Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen in it in that Tuplin sings in deep tones, with a calm timbre of serious matters. But then there’s also a faint tinge of Jake Thackray or Viv Stanshall – just to be clear, this is a compliment. In ‘Did We Lose The Fight’, the vocal subtlety allows Tuplin to deliver lines like “A scratch mark’s nothing more than a battle scar…..I down my drink because I can’t stand this any more/Then I drink until I can’t stand any more…….I admit that I still long for those days/We don’t fight like that any more/Can it be that we’ve both got nothing left to say…. I presume we’ll be going our separate ways” and simultaneously capture the passion of a tumultuous relationship, the seriousness of it falling apart, but also a perspective, a sense that there is more to this world and that this is just two people ‘losing the fight’ (with all the complexity inherent in that phrase).

There’s some rawness on the album – given the reprise of vinyl at the moment, I’m not sure whether the crackling sound on one track is deliberate, but I assume the cough on another isn’t; the image of the puppy playing piano (‘Feel Good Hit’) will probably not appeal to many – but I’d rather have it raw than bland and these are small quibbles about a fascinating and well put together CD.

Give it a listen, it is just possible that this is the debut album of someone who is going to be filling halls and festival stages in the coming years.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below 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.

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

Following the album launch in London, Tuplin is on tour in Spain and the UK in November.

‘Astronaut’ – official video:

JAMES FREDHOLM – Love Is The Answer (Honeybee Records GmbH)

Love Is The AnswerJames Fredholm releases the singles ‘Oars’ on October 27th. It is taken from his album Love Is The Answer. The album includes not only this single but also Uncaged, a book of Fredholm’s poetry.

Fredholm grew up in Austin, Texas in the 70’s, played in local bands, recorded jingles for local businesses but then went to university and followed a successful business career. He remained interested in the arts, writing songs and poems and painting – and wondering about the road he hadn’t taken. He founded Honeybee Records in 2013 and his focus and lifestyle are now on the artistic life, describing himself as a poet first and then a musician.

And you feel this in the album. Love Is The Answer is intimate and open, acoustic-guitar-gentle. It is Lyric Poetry set to a musical accompaniment which has echoes of late 60’s and 70’s American acoustic music. I find that if I listen to the album in the car, I enjoy the melody and the style. It suits the enclosed cabin of the car in the same way that it would suit the air-conditioned chill out room in a night club. But if I listen at home, I’m much more drawn in by the words and the lines are too short, the rhymes chasing in on one another and pulling attention away from the melody. “I’m not blind/And I don’t mind/ What you do/I’ve got time/To find the answers/With you” – ‘Me And You’; “Innocent child/It was sweet for a while/And I don’t/ Want to part/From her smile/I want to please her” – ‘Anastasia’

If this is your style, both the lyrics and the poetry are available on Fredholm’s website and you can see him on a short tour at the moment until October 25th, concluding with a gig at The Packhorse in Leeds.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://jamesfredholm.com

The single ‘Oars’ – official video:

THE EVERYDAY SINNERS – Shakedown (Coll 051)

ShakedownThe lead singer is called Jack Cade, after the man who led a rebellion to end government corruption in 1450, and it’s no surprise that some of the songs on Shakedown, the new album by The Everyday Sinners, have a strong political message.

The style is vibrant, by turn driving drums, what was recently described to me as the down-and-dirty sound of a dobro, the rhythm guitar of protest songs, almost barroom keyboards and Cade’s vocal – Cash/Kristofferson meets Slipknot. You can’t help but enjoy this music. The video ‘Belly Full A Fire’, the music set against images of protest and rebellion, from the mid-80’s to the current day. The song itself “with a belly full a fire and fistful of truth” does what I’d have thought was impossible by being simultaneously reminiscent of both the Beastie Boys fighting for our right to party and the gospel-ish calling of saints coming marching in. It’s a song to follow on a protest march with the band playing from the back of a truck.

‘16 Tons’ is an obvious cover to follow on from this, the image in your head of modern foodbanks sliding naturally into the Merle Travis line of owing your soul to the company store. My favourite track, though, is ‘You Were The Ammunition’ telling how hate can be whipped up and used by politicians preaching lies and fear “If you were the flames I was the one to fan them…….If I was the gun, you were the ammunition…..If I was the lie, you were the ones who made it true

However, Cade describes the album as “I didn’t want it to end up as an album of protest, more a snapshot of life from the last ten years or so”. Alongside the songs of rebellion are personal ones, including ‘Lovin’ Kind’ about turning your life around after heartbreak “Can you see can you see what your eyes really won’t believe/you got to take the time to walk another line”. The final song, ‘Roll With Them Punches’, is based on something Cade’s grandfather used to tell him “life throws all sorts at you but you have to take it and find your way through” and showcases a gentler style both musically and in Cade’s singing, a calm and thoughtful ending to the album.

There are no tours currently planned and the album is released on vinyl and streaming services only, available from Cade’s website.

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below 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.

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

‘Belly Full A Fire’ – official video: