THE SILVER DARLINGS – Something Of The Sound (Anklebreka Records AR0017)

Something Of The SoundSomething Of The Sound is the second album released by The Silver Darlings, following the Souls in 2011. The band are from Sheffield and have undergone various changes (having originally been more of a loose co-operative). At its heart, and the band’s songwriter, is Andy Whitehouse. Since 2016 The Silver Darlings have had a more settled line-up and this has led to Something Of The Sound, consisting of one traditional song and eight of Whitehouse’s songs.

Whitehouse has described himself in interview as “really interested in….the human capacity for optimism. It keeps us pushing on and that’s what it’s about really”. Appropriately enough, then, the album opens with ‘Almost Home’, which works both as a description of life on a returning steam ship but also metaphorically – for example in the image here of storm or safety: “it is hard to tell if that ahead is cloud or land”. There’s a down-to-earthness as well – more effective than prayers will be to touch the rail and feel the vibrations of the ship’s engines consequent on the efforts of those shoveling the coal: “Keeps the fire burning in the soul./See us safe to harbour/never more to roam/We’re almost home”.

The title track which follows is much rockier, a song about former lovers “You will never know how many hands have touched me/Some left only fingerprints, some others scars, but in their way they knew me” and asking the new lover to take him in their arms “I know you love me for my wounds”. The sounds of their future together will carry “something of the sound of how they came” (that really is the, unlaboured, lyric) “and how they went away”.

The album continues with these two styles – some gentler, some rockier. To my ear, the slower tracks have a late 60’s/early 70’s music-of-the-counter-culture style somewhere in there. The slow/fast intonation and high percussion of ‘Goldfish Girl’; the grizzled voice and backing vocals on ‘What Happened Next’; the late-night sound of ‘Cherry Blossom’ all reflect the slower, moodier style. By contrast, ‘Thrown’ and ‘Star Of The County Down’ are more upbeat – the latter song having a tempo and a lively electric lead guitar to make The Pogues’ version sound timid.

I’ve found this to be a slow-burning album, the more I’ve listened the more I like it. I’m not sure where it sits, though. It’s quite a way from traditional folk (have a look on YouTube for ‘Tinsley Tunes 1: Drunken Sailor’ if you want to see Andy Whitehouse playing solo and acoustically), but that (probably) doesn’t matter. Something Of The Sound fuses folk, jazz, rock influences into Whitehouse’s songs and the more settled line-up has a deservedly growing reputation. The band will be playing gigs later in 2018 and if they capture the feel of the album in the live performances they will be well worth going to see.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website:

THE PHIL LANGRAN BAND – The Distance (Folkwit Records f0145)

The DistanceThe Phil Langran Band have released The Distance, their fourth album. The music is based around Langran’s acoustic guitar and (predominantly) self-penned songs but brings in both a range of other acoustic instruments and some gentle electric guitar on occasion.

The songs reflect Langran’s knowledge of poetic tradition and seem like poems set to music. You can get a feel for the poetic quality of the lyrics from here: The music is similarly thoughtful – slow-paced but drawing you in if you take the time to listen. The video below shows the band playing ‘You’ve Got To Love This Road’ at the Otley Folk Festival in 2016 and the video lets you hear the band’s style – Phil Langran as lead singer and the focal point, a melodic song from the album and some pieces of individual musicianship from lead acoustic, lead electric, fretless bass and lead violin – the spotlight being handed from one to another as a jazz band would.

The overall feel is of the folk albums from the late 60’s and early 70’s that I used to have on vinyl – the point at which the folk tradition was blending acoustic and electric styles to see what worked together. Similarly, Langran’s singing voice mixes between the flatter sounds of his (East Midlands?) accent and an almost west coast American tenderness (‘The Rule Of The Heart’ for example). Until I listened to The Distance, I hadn’t thought about how it was much easier in the late 60’s/early 70’s to find albums with local voices than it is now. Have a listen to ‘Kitty Tyrell/Sky Gathering’ to hear how Langran and his band still tap into this tradition – an instrumental version of Kitty Tyrell seguing into Langran’s ‘Sky Gathering’ with its rolling folk club singing and the two songs held together by the violin leading the acoustic guitar.

Finally, the ability to write songs for people to join in with is a canny skill. There is much about this album which is understated, but as I’ve kept listening, I’ve found that I hum along to many of the songs. See what you think.

Mike Wistow

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‘Love This Road’ – live:

ANGE HARDY – Bring Back Home (Story Records STREC 1701)

Bring Back HomeAnge Hardy’s new album Bring Back Home was released on November 28th. For the past few years, she has had nominations and awards a-plenty, both for her music and most recently her radio programme, Folk Findings.

If you’ve not come across Ange Hardy before (I was surprised recently to find an acoustic music promoter who hadn’t) Bring Back Home is her sixth album and her music is in the English folk tradition. Except, of course, she’s not predominantly a singer of traditional English folk songs. On this album only two of the fourteen songs (‘Claudy Banks’ and a lovely version of ‘Waters of Tyne’) are traditional. The remainder are written by Hardy. Lyrically, musically and through the arrangements, though, they are at the heart of the tradition.

Have a listen to ‘What It Is’ for Hardy’s recognition that in chasing awards, “I’d missed the point of music! Life is far, far too short to chase goals without enjoying the journey”. The track has a beautifully poised vocal on a song that, until I read the sleeve notes, I heard as a generic lyric about life rather than the specific meaning for a writer who has now come to understand that the clubs, singers and audiences, not the awards, are “the beating heart of folk”.

Hardy’s voice absorbs the listener. On ‘Sisters Three’ the different phrasings draw you in to a folk tale about the development of good and evil in the heart of mankind, whereas on ‘Chase The Devil Down’ the vocal dances with the guitar throughout the track. On ‘The Hunter, The Prey’ her voice breathlessly pulls us into the magical world of the song, but on ‘Once I Was A Rose’ it is more acapella and more delicate. I had the CD in the car last week and my passenger, a trained singer, described the voice as “fine”. Her meaning was not, as I would use the word to mean, ‘better than good’ (though it is); she meant it in the way a maker would use the word in describing fine needlework, fine silverwork et al – deft, delicate, precise (as well as rather good).

Ange Hardy arranged and produced the album and the arrangements bring in musicians (Peter Knight, Lukas Drinkwater, Evan Carson, Alex Cumming, Jon Dyer and Lee Cuff) who enrich the songs and centre them in folk music. Similarly, the lyrics generally deal with universal themes, set in the “fictional landscape that seems to permeate many of my songs. Willow trees and streams…dense woodlands….A sense of magic and mystery surrounding complex characters; each on their own journey” [sleeve notes]. This, too, is very much a traditional folk landscape.

I’m writing this in the first week of December. As a result, I’m particularly struck by ‘What May You Do For The JAM’. When the Prime Minister expressed her concern for those who were just managing, civil servants acronymed them into the JAM. The song knows people in this world and, as well as knowing the fear of failing, has detail, “The turkey alone would be more than our savings” humanity, “And so I play Mum…..I carry on making a home full of Christmassy cheer”, and positivity, “My point is the only rock left here to build on is that of a world which has hope”. It’s as far as you can get from an acronym. Watch the video below and you’ll hear that it’s a good song as well as one which makes a human and political point. It might be too late, but if you fancy the idea, there are under three weeks to get a folk song to Number One for Christmas.

In the next couple of months there are gigs and radio shows that will help take Bring Back Home to a wider audience. That’s good, it’s a fine album.

Mike Wistow

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‘What May You Do For The JAM?”:

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:

‘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… 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

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‘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 (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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‘Shooting Star’ live: