MEGAN HENWOOD – River (Dharma Records DHARMACD30)

RiverThe third album by singer-songwriter Megan Henwood, River, is due for release on 27th October 2017. And it demonstrates the evolving talent and maturity of a singer who had already made considerable impression in 2009, when she and her brother Joe won Radio 2’s Young Folk Award, and a writer whose storytelling is supported by fine melodies and solid musicianship. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly folky album (which isn’t a criticism), however.

The songs are all written by Megan, who also plays acoustic and electric guitars here, while cellist Matthew Forbes and bassist Pete Thomas, long associated with her work, are once more strongly featured on this album. The early promotional copy I have doesn’t include details of these or other personnel, though the press release tells me that the CD was produced by Tom Excell, and the unexpected but very effective trumpet on ‘Fresh Water’ is by Jonny Enser. There’s no lyric sheet at this point, either, which always strikes me as being a shame when the words are as good as this. It also means that when I cite lyrics in this review, I may be inaccurate, so I apologise in advance for any accidental mondegreens, but her wordsmithing is too good not to try to quote.

Here’s a track-by-track listing:

  1. ‘Join The Dots’ uses a classic ballad structure, moving between a gentle verse to a dramatic chorus that reminded me a little too much melodically of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (sorry!).
  2. ‘Fresh Water’ lies a little closer to a fuzzy line between alt-folk and modern country with its acoustic fingerpicking. A very pretty love story –”I’ve got a thirsty heart and your love is like fresh water … to me” – with some perfectly judged double-tracking on the chorus.
  3. Megan’s song about Oxford, ‘The Dolly’, has the barest touch of Joni Mitchell-ish head register in the first verse, but also makes good use of her distinctive lower register. Great lyric, and the chorus has a nice bass line running in parallel to the vocal.
  4. The lyrics to ‘Seventh’ are a little more diffuse: the story is more difficult to follow, but the impact of the song is undeniable. Some nice touches of organ, too. As in one or two other places, the percussion seems a little too far forward here and there, though the suggestion of a ticking clock – I guess that’s a wood block – does suit the theme of the song. And perhaps it’s just an artefact of my elderly stereo.
  5. The wordless middle section to ‘Apples’ is a little overextended for my taste, but I like the combination of lyric and melody very much.
  6. ‘House On The Hill’ is a song about the scariness of romantic involvement – “I’m not afraid of the dark/but I’m afraid of you leaving“. The combination of the underlying electric guitar and strings is particularly atmospheric.
  7. The multi-tracking on parts of ‘Rainbows’ is a little denser, almost reminiscent in places of the Carpenters.
  8. ‘Peace Be The Alien’ includes some of my favourite lines: “From my follicles/down to my fingertips” and “Turn it down/headful of decibels“. Yes, “life’s too loud” but this song is definitely worth turning up the volume a bit.
  9. ‘Oh Brother’ explores the complexities of a sibling relationship. Autobiographical, perhaps, if it matters. A fine song, anyway.
  10. ‘Used To Be So Kind’ seems to pick up the theme of unkindness and being the firstborn child from the previous song. Some nice, slightly jazzy chord changes later in the song.
  11. ‘The Craftsman’ is probably my favourite Henwood song at the moment, and perhaps the folkiest. Just voice and acoustic guitar. Lovely.
  12. ‘L’Appel Du Vide’ is a French expression meaning “the call of the void”, similar to what Poe called ‘The Imp of the Perverse’: the sudden urge to do something harmful to oneself or to others. The song begins with an acapella section building into close harmonies, then develops the theme with some slightly eerie instrumental backing to match the disquieting lyric – “L’Appel du Vide I believe you’ve been haunting me/gather up all of my sins/siren won’t leave, she just sits here and sings to me/when will the finish begin?” Its understated drama makes for an unforgettable end to the album.

I tend to feel uneasy when I invoke the names of other artists in a review: all I’ll say on this occasion is that while Megan Henwood doesn’t sound too much like Mary Chapin Carpenter or Janis Ian – for a start, there’s something very English (in a very non-chauvinist way) about her use of language – but if you like the work of either of those artists (or maybe of Stevie Nicks), I’m pretty sure you’ll like Megan’s. It’s lyrically rich storytelling, melodically varied, imaginatively scored and sung with an unassuming, unforced range and fluidity. It’s certainly an album I’ll be listening to again, and I’ll be taking a look at her earlier recordings. Does that make me officially a fan?

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the MEGAN HENWOOD – River 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.

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Artist’s website: www.meganhenwood.com

‘The Dolly’ live:

CHILLI WILLI AND THE RED HOT PEPPERS – Real Sharp (Last LMCD204)

Real SharpWay back in 1972, Martin Stone and Philip Lithman, reunited as a duo following the former’s stint with blues acts Savoy Brown and Mighty Baby and the latter’s time with The Residents in San Francisco, signed to Revelation Records and recorded Kings Of The Robot Rhythm under their new name. For the sessions they enlisted singer Jo Ann Kelly and Nick Lowe, Billy Rankin and Bob Andrews from Brinsley Schwarz. Looking to go out on the road, they then added Paul Bailey, Paul Riley and Pete Thomas, the latter three creating the line up that, alongside Stone and Lithman, would go on to record Bongos Over Balham in 1974, Kelly being joined on backing vocals by both Jacqui McShee and Carol Grimes. The following year, unable to make a go of things, despite playing some 400 gigs, the band broke up.

However, they left behind a legacy as being not just one of the pioneers of the British pub rock scene but, alongside Brinsley Schwarz, one of the first British acts to draw on what we today call Americana. Over the years they have, however, rather faded from memory, so this double CD anthology is a welcome reminder of what was and should have been.

It contains the band’s two albums in their entirety along with a generous selection of bonus recordings, some demos, some unreleased and some from the 1996 I’ll Be Home compilation. The debut album announced their country blues intentions with ‘Living Out Of My Suitcase’ and the self-referencing ‘The Ballad of Chilli Willi’, throwing in some jugband with ‘Astrella From The Astral Plane’, ragtime country on ‘Nashville Rag’ and Lithman’s one-minute frenzied bluegrass instrumental ‘Fiddle Dee’. Save for a couple of traditional blues arrangements, ‘Window Pane’ and ‘Get Your Gauge Up Let Your Love Come Down’, the material was all written by the duo, either together or Lithman alone, although the accompanying Chalk Farm demos (imploding sessions overseen by and featuring Mike Nesmith, who remains uncredited) extended selections to covers of both Jesse Winchester (‘Midnight Bus’) and the Barry/Greenwich number ‘I Wanna Love Her So Bad’.

Also among them is a version of Louis Jordan classic ‘Choo Choo Ch’Boogie’, a slicker version of which provided the opening track for Bongos, an early production credit for engineer Ron Nevison who would go on to produce Survivor, Heart and Kiss. It also featured polished, more fleshed out versions of several of the other demos, including the scampering ‘Truck Driving Girl’, ‘Jungle Song’, ‘Desert Island Woman’ and the Winchester number, Among the new material, ‘Fiddle Diddle’ afforded another showcase for Lithman’s fiddle skills while PC Bailey provided sax on both Stone’s rollicking arrangement of the traditional blues ‘Just Like The Devil’ and Lithman’s rousing rock n rolling nod to Chuck Berry homage closer ‘9-5 Songwriting Man’.

The second disc’s bonus tracks include country romping studio outtake ‘I’ll Be Home’ featuring pedal steel legend Red Rhodes, a live radio broadcast of Robert Johnson’s ‘Walkin’ Blues’, five live recordings from either the Roundhouse or Kilburn State among them Doug Kershaw’s ‘Papa and Mama Had Love’, Carl Perkins’ ‘Boppin’ The Blues’, Carl Montgomery’s seminal trucker song ‘Six Days On The Road’ and, another fiddle showcase, ‘Fire On The Mountain’, the remaining two cuts, both covers, being demos recorded at Dave Robinson’s studio above the Hope and Anchor, Johnny Guitar Watson’s parping sax blues dance floor strutter ‘Posin’ Yeah’ and Chuck Bowers’ 1955 78rpm Western Swing B-side, ‘Pinball Boogie’.

Accompanied by a booklet that reproduces the original albums and features rare photos, artwork by Barney Bubbles and sleeve notes by Paul Riley, it’s a fine salute to a band which laid the foundations for the British country boom we’re now experiencing.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the CHILLI WILLI AND THE RED HOT PEPPERS – Real Sharp 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.

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Live videos weren’t the thing back in the early 70s but here’s a promo film:

LUCINDA WILLIAMS – Down Where The Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)

Lucinda-WilliamsIn launching her own label at 61, Williams clearly hasn’t gone for any half-measures. Her first album in four years, this is a 20 track double set that clocks in at around two hours without a single hint of filler. With guitarist Greg Leisz a constant presence and Elvis Costello’s rhythm section (Pete Thomas, Davey Faragher) featuring on most of the tracks, the musicians also variously include Ian McLagan on keyboards, bassist Bob Glaub, Bill Frisell and Doug Pettibone on guitars and Gia Ciambotti on back-ups, along with a couple of special guests we’ll get to later.

The album takes its title from the final two lines of the opening track, ‘Compassion’, an adaptation of the poem by her father, Miller Williams, (and previously used on the inside cover of 2007’s West) as, accompanied by sparse acoustic guitar, she delivers its plea for empathy in a world wearied, dry gravel husk that makes Marianne Faithfull sound like Ellie Goulding. But then, she jabs you in the heart with a needle full of adrenaline, turning on the amps and bringing in the band for ‘Protection’, the sort of tremolo driven Southern country blues rock strutter of which Mick Jagger could only dream, before the steady rhythmic groove and catchy chorus of ‘Burning Bridges’, a song about a self-destructive friend, and the chiming, country-rock ‘East Side Of Town’ with its echoes of early Eagles and Jackson Browne and a lyric that, harking back to her father’s poem, addresses the complacent “mister do-good” politicians who make deals and promises, but who look not listen and have “no empathy in your eyes”.

Never one to shrink from socio-political comment, she strikes out again on ‘West Memphis’, her distinctive Southern slur drawled over a swamp-funk groove featuring Tony Joe White on guitar and harmonica, which (like the recent Colin Firth film, Devil’s Knot) addresses the 1993 miscarriage of justice that saw three teenagers convicted of the murder of three young boys, eventually released (but never cleared) after 18 years when new forensic evidence emerged. Sung from the perspective of Jessie Misskelley, who was coerced into a false confession, the lyrics chillingly note “that’s the way we do things in West Memphis.”

From the political, the focus shifts to the personal with ‘Cold Day In Hell’, a slow blues waltz kiss-off to a faithless ex, quite possibly the same one she’s addressing in the equally mid-tempo, soulful ‘Big Mess’ over on disc 2, both numbers featuring blistering guitar from Val McCallum. Meanwhile, it’s back to the Southern rock strut for the first disc’s closing sequence with ‘Foolishness’, McLagan on piano and Leisz on lap steel as she rejects all the liars and fear-mongers in her life declaring “what I do in my own time is none of your business and all of mine”.

From here, it’s into the brushed drums of the abandoned protagonist trying to track down her missing ‘next of kin’ in the Patsy Cline infused ‘Wrong Number’, a distant thematic cousin to ‘Return To Sender’, while ‘Stand Right By Each Other’ offers an almost reverse image, a determination to see things through together set to warm rolling, organ backed Memphis country soul that perfectly fits her honey and grit voice. But, if that keeps a grip on optimism, the album ends on a note of pessimistic resignation as Jakob Dylan joins her on harmonies for the mid-tempo honky-tonk shuffle ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a song that dates back to her time living in Nashville.

Switch discs and the fire’s back, kicking off with the swaggering swampy near six minute ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, Tony Joe White duelling with Leisz while Patrick Warren lays down the organ as Williams turns travelling preacher to warn of approaching fire and brimstone. But, if that’s apocalyptic, the mood switches again for the soulful (hints of Dobie Gray) slow swaying ‘When I Look At The World’ where “all its glory” makes up for the litany of disappointments and hard times. She’s equally positive on ‘Walk On’, a fairly straight-ahead country-rock number where she tells the woman in the lyrics (the lead singer in the band as it happens) to hang on in there because she has the strength to see things through. That same message about how pain is part of the hard won wisdom of the heart informs the magnificent slow waltzing ‘Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)’.

The power of positive thinking is there too in the snaking, swampy steamrollering groove of ‘Everything But The Truth’, Stuart Mathis and Leisz providing gutsy electric guitar as, back in preacher mode, she says “God put the firewood there, but you gotta light it yourself.”

Love lost, love received and love in the balance respectively inform the final three self-penned numbers, ‘This Old Heartache’ a pedal steel streaked old school honky tonker, ‘Stowaway In Your Heart’ an equally country guitar twanged chugger with Patrick Warren on chamberlin, and the give me another chance ‘One More Day’ adding Wurlitzer and a horns section to the mix to conjure up thoughts of slow burn Penn and Oldham.

The collection ends with the solitary cover, a close on 10 minute blissfully serene version of J.J.Cale’s ‘Magnolia’, Butch Norton on brushes with Frisell and Leisz’s guitars providing an understated, laid-back head massage as, in a sultry reverie, Williams smokily purrs “you’re the best I ever had” before intoning the title over and over Van Morrison-style as the band briefly wind down before firing up one more time for the playout.

After a four year silence, she’s returned, re-energised and in towering form with an album focused around emotional conflict and the ebbs and flows of the heart, one that both accepts the dark and embraces the light, to emerge strong in both spirit and bone. A late, but quite possibly unbeatable contender for country album of the year, and with news that the follow up is done and dusted, recorded during the same sessions and featuring a cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, she may already have next year’s sorted too.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link 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 website: www.lucindawilliams.com

Nicole Maguire – WHAT YOU REALLY MEAN

Nicole MaguireNicole Maguire has been determined to sing since childhood, she’s been writing songs since she was 12 and at just 15 was gigging, playing opening slots for anyone who’d let her. In addition to her musical gifts Nicole Maguire has been blessed with dedication and determination. This means she now finds herself, still in her mid 20s, with admirers including Paul Brady, Nanci Griffiths & Damien Dempsey and a self-funded album produced by Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney). The band on the album includes Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ drummer, Pete Thomas; Crosby Stills & Nash’s bass player Bob Glaub and Val McCallum, guitarist for Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams.  Vonda Shepard, the award-winning singer from Ally McBeal, handled backing vocals, with Grammy award-winning engineer David Boucher assisting Mitchell Froom.  Nicole recalls that there was an incredible energy and momentum to the sessions. “We did it all live. We just went in and played it till we loved it and then we stopped. I hoped to create something that in twenty years I could be completely proud of. I think I did that”. Continue reading Nicole Maguire – WHAT YOU REALLY MEAN