THE BROTHERS BRIGGS – The Brothers Briggs (All Made Up Records, AMU0010)

Brothers BriggsThis self-titled album by The Brothers Briggs drops in like the soundtrack to a long-lost folk horror film. There’s that delicious sense of the indefinably off-kilter, a queasy disorientation counterpointed by earthy and sweet vocal harmonies.

There’s a real sense of rootedness in the music, yet this selection of traditional tunes is set against strange and dislocating soundscapes that create something quite fresh and surprising. Starting out life as a project to celebrate folk singer Martyn Briggs’ 70th birthday (the father of the eponymous brothers), it has evolved into an unusual and original work most deserving of a wider audience.

Martyn Briggs himself appears in what starts off as a fairly straightforward-sounding version of ‘Maid On The Shore’. But he’s soon joined by an atmospheric wave of washy sound that periodically threatens to overwhelm the vocals entirely, and a mid-point break featuring only the creaking of a ship. It’s disorienting and splendid: a fine example of what the brothers achieve on this album.

Reprising one of dad’s songs, the brothers take on ‘The Painful Plough’, even largely reproducing The Singing Tradition’s vocal arrangements. The cadences of a mediaeval-sounding chant sit alongside rhythmic drum beats and what sounds like a clattering of morris men’s sticks.

Opening song, ‘Bitter Withy’ also takes up this overtly percussive style, with its primitive kettle drum, backed by trumpets, ramping up the moody drama. ‘The Hunter’ gathers speed ominously galloping to a close, while whooshy psychedelic electronics and wonky chords make the sickly sweetness of the vocal of ‘Sandy Daw’ seem horribly oppressive.

Old standard ‘Barbary Allen’ gains a Ry Cooder-ish slide guitar and some intriguing pizzicato that really shouldn’t work at all with this otherwise a capella tale of heartbreak and death, but totally do.

‘Soul Cake’ is an insistent, menacing chant, set against a bony rattle (think Saint-Saëns ‘Danse Macabre’) building to a frenetically atmospheric frenzy of guitars and electronic blips before it just, well, stops. Don’t look behind you…

The album winds up with the phlegmatic ‘When Fortune Turns The Wheel’, perhaps the “straightest” song delivery here, moving through clear changes of mood from bitterness to acceptance.

The Brothers Briggs, Tom, Edward and Alex, have close and well-matched harmonies and solidly pleasing solo voices, as well as a creative ear for arrangements. This first album by them feels like a breath of fresh air, not gimmicky but genuinely something darkly original and I find myself really wanting to hear more.

Su O’Brien

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 BROTHERS BRIGGS – The Brothers Briggs 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 website: https://www.facebook.com/thebrothersbriggs/

‘Soul Cake’:

‘Fanfare’ – silly but pleasing:

CANNY FETTLE – Still Gannin’ Canny (Canny Fettle Records CANNYCD001)

Still Gannin' CannyYou know the kind of friendships where you don’t see one another for ages, yet when you next meet up, you just pick up right where you left off, like you’d never been away? Well, that’s the sound of Still Gannin’ Canny, right there.

It might be some 30 years since Canny Fettle last released an album, but it could just as well have been a week ago. There’s such an easy meshing of the musical talents, a comfortable way of playing together that simply shines through. The trio of Bobs Morton and Diehl, plus Gerry Murphy produce a rich, warm yet roomy sound that producer, Ian Stephenson, has captured superbly, ensuring each element has enough room to breathe and be heard clearly.

There’s a deliberate absence of technical whizz-bangs and gizmos, just an attempt to set down the tracks with honesty, care and respect. Accompaniments by Jane Diehl, Grace Smith, George Unthank, Peter Wood and Ian Stephenson add meaningful, subtle embellishments, including clogging, to the songs and tune sets.

And yet, there is something distinctly redolent of yesteryear here – and it’s not just the cover art’s very pleasing shade of 1970s mustard. There’s a certain quality to the band’s delivery of songs like ‘Old Miner’, ‘Happy Sam’ and the woozy fairground waltz of ‘Ashton Mashers’, that unleash something very Proustian, to these ears at least, taking me back to various dialect songs that fringed my Lancashire childhood.

The informative, extensive liner notes explain much more about the song choices, so I’m not going to regurgitate them here, only to say that they are very well worth the read.

This fine collection of music from Scotland, the North East and North West sounds as if it’s always been there, perhaps in a corner of our collective memories, just waiting for us to return and listen again. That it’s all a brand-new work somehow makes it even more remarkable. Still Gannin’ Canny has a timeless quality that fully deserves “instant classic” status.

Su O’Brien

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 CANNY FETTLE – Still Gannin’ Canny 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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Artists’ website: http://www.cannyfettle.com

KATE & RAPHAËL – Les Objets Trouvés (own label DECYOU01)

Les Objets Trouvés From the first unsettling notes, it’s clear that Les Objets Trouvés isn’t going to sit down quietly and play nice. Opening with the sort of filmic crescendo that normally accompanies the reveal of the serial killer, ‘Caterpillar’ then swoops coolly along with Kate Young’s aerobatic vocalising over Raphaël Decoster’s sashaying accordion.

The pairing of Decoster and Young is an intriguing meeting of innovative artistic minds as visual as they are musical. Consequently, each track is highly evocative, offering sidelong glimpses into other possible worlds as the listener drifts by. Delicate layers of sounds are built up to create subtleties of texture and shade that absolutely reward repeated attention.

Take the final track, ‘Semaphore Sauvage’, for instance. This eerie auditory folk horror short sits slightly apart from the rest of the album, separated by an extra-long silence from the preceding tracks. Its exaggerated sustained notes, uneasy chant-like vocalisation and what might be a crackling fire lend it a wild, haunting air that lingers long after the album’s finished.

‘Grey Blanket’ is another track making full use of natural sounds to form a sonic landscape. Its birdsong, rustling leaves and a distant storm are set against the bouncing spiccato of the violin bow onto the strings before the accordion rolls gently in.

‘Mushrooms On The Moon’ and ‘Swimmings Of The Head’ (also the title of Young’s stunning Kate In The Kettle project first album) are both deliciously rhythmic and swirling pieces, although each has its own distinct tempo and mood. On both, Decoster’s accordion breathes audibly – disconcertingly like an extra person in the room. It’s a feature of his playing on many of these songs that is at once deeply intimate and also slightly unnerving.

Elsewhere, ‘Tanz Tanz Tanz’ begins with a Kraftwerk-y vocal loop, over which a fluid violin and perky staccato accordion bursts weave their delirious, well, dance. Sólheimajökull is an Icelandic glacier waltz, culiminating in a shuddering whirl, with the added brass section lending an air of the big top – it’s Fellini’s La Strada on ice. ‘Million Dollars’ surface choppiness is finely counterpointed by a languid lingering over the accompanying notes.

About a minute into ‘Woolyboy & The Crying Mountain’, there seems to be some rhythmic nod to the Kate In The Kettle track ‘Green And Gold’. There’s also some unmistakeably French style accordion in there right before a vocal marker indicates a change of pace, to a lively tune culminating in a flurry of ricochet strings. The point is, there’s so much going on here, so many constantly shifting tiny details making up the whole, that – like Alice falling down the rabbit hole – it’s quite hard to do more than snatch at passing details in order to try to describe this remarkable album.

‘Jardin De Pamplemousse’ is an engagingly traditional style tune, but all the tracks on this album are original compositions, apart from the duo’s take on ‘Cutty Wren’. Yet, somehow, the pair play as though these tunes, these interactions between their instruments and Young’s voice have always existed, so totally natural do they seem. It’s an album that manages to be both utterly extraordinary and deeply familiar at the same time. Here is a collaboration that has paid off most handsomely, with these two highly original artists breathing life into a unique and beautiful set of songs.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: https://www.facebook.com/kateandraphael/

‘Tanz Tanz Tanz’ – official video:

THE AUGUST LIST – Ramshackle Tabernacle (Ubiquity Project Records)

Ramshackle TabernacleSifting through a batch of CDs recently, one stood out from the rest as quite different and unexpected. It turned out to be Ramshackle Tabernacle by The August List.

Unfamiliar with The August List, I did my usual online trawl to find out more. Their first album, 2014’s O Hinterland, was well-received, even earning them a comparison to The White Stripes. The reason for that might be evident in their stripped-back, low-fi driving blues songs, like ‘Forty-Rod of Lightnin’’ on that album, but it would appear that they’ve now moved on a bit.

Ramshackle Tabernacle presents a much fuller sound that is more exploratory and makes use of the recording studio to diversify their sound. Less homespun rawness and more crafted, there’s a distinctly band-like feel to it.

Starting in with an exotic jumble of disorienting chants, Old Rip launches into a slow, menacing blues, led by Martin Child’s slightly processed vocals, which only add to a sense of dislocation. One of the album’s recurring themes is absence – whether through sleep like Rip Van Winkle, social withdrawal like James Lucas, or in the sad tale of disillusioned songwriter Connie Converse who simply upped and disappeared. So, it’s no wonder that the band has worked on creating sympathetic sonic atmospheres with scratchily tense violins, jangly guitars and, yes, stylophone solos.

It’s hard to believe that, apparently, initially Kerraleigh Child didn’t think she could sing. Yet her voice is mesmerising: by turns waifish or banshee – somewhere between Hope Sandoval’s dazed breathiness and PJ Harvey at her most primal. The dreamy ‘Where Has All The Fire Gone?’ even sounds a bit like Mazzy Star, with its softly fuzzy mixing and ethereal vocal. Contrast that with the feral wail over a wall of guitar at the end of ‘Wilderness’, a love song of an exceptional kind that can send shivers up the spine.

‘Palace In The Rock’ treads an indie-ish path, but there’s a more traditional alt.country sound in the tight harmonies and well-balanced voices of ‘I Am The Teeth’, a song with its strangely predatory lyric of ‘I am the teeth, and you are the feast’.

Closing with ‘The Ballad Of James Lucas And Betty Dupree’, with its rousing and even – hush, gentle listener – slightly sweary crowd-chorus, the fade-out laughter lets us know it’s all been good fun really. Hasn’t it?

Even at their most seductive melodically, there’s a sense of something dark about the lyrics and arrangements that leaves a vague, unsettling feeling that piques my interest. Americana is not always my thing, but this pair have created an original sound that’s just off-beat enough to reel me in and keep me hooked.

Su O’Brien

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 AUGUST LIST – Ramshackle Tabernacle 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 website: https://www.facebook.com/theaugustlistmusic/

‘Old Rip’ – official video:

THE UNTHANKS – Diversions Volume 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake / Extras (RabbleRouser Music RRM016/RRM017)

Diversions 4For this, their fourth volume of Diversions, the Unthanks have chosen The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake. Inspired by hearing the limited release 2012 CD of her works (a set of songs, accompanied by a booklet of poetry) and spurred on by a pre-existing love of her son Nick’s works, hindsight suggests there was a kind of inevitability to this project.

Molly Drake’s songs often offer poignant, emotional insights into some of the darker recesses of the human psyche. In my view, the songs generally work much better than the poems. Sometimes the poetry feels rather stiff, straining to perform within the chosen verse metre. Perhaps age has tarnished some of the phrases. The songs seem to give her more freedom, allowing her flashes of brilliance in observations, in the way she describes a feeling or a situation.

Of course, The Unthanks aren’t the only artists to have responded to Molly Drake. Eliza and Martin Carthy’s 2014 version of ‘Happiness’ featured a special live appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, by Gabrielle Drake, the stalwart custodian of her family’s legacy. The difference between their version and the one on this album is intriguing. The Carthys’ version seems more robust, whereas The Unthanks leave the song’s fragility nakedly exposed.

This album, too, features Gabrielle Drake, here reciting her mother’s lyrics. Look out for her – be quick! – at the final gig of the current tour at London’s Barbican Centre on 28 May. This will be her first live performance together with the band, as the recordings were all done separately.

Molly Drake’s song recordings were usually quite short and accompanied only by herself on piano. Recorded by her husband, at his insistence, they were not intended for public consumption and aren’t of studio quality. In fact, they can often sound decidedly quaint to modern ears, but they offer some delicately lovely melodies and quirky insights into dark recesses of the human psyche. But that’s not all and, as The Unthanks are at pains to explain, there is a dry humour and an unexpected optimism in many of the songs.

From this relatively raw material, Adrian McNally has done his usual stunning job of creating atmospheric, ethereal arrangements, either working with the original melodies or creating new and sympathetic ones. Becky and Rachel deliver their seemingly effortless yet otherworldly vocal performances with tenderness and care, supported by the other able musicians in the band.

‘Woods In May’ has been slowed down and made spookier; the added clarinet on ‘How Wild The Wind Blows’ emphasises the song’s wistfulness and ‘Soft Shelled Crabs’ – never recorded by Molly but given a delightful arrangement based on Gabrielle’s memories of her mother singing it – might, in our unkinder world nowadays, be retitled “snowflakes”.

‘I Remember’ seems like a wry take on ‘I Remember It Well’ from the musical, Gigi with its two souls not quite as united as they might like to imagine. ‘Never Pine For The Old Love’ is simply sound advice and quite a few of the songs deliver similar words of wisdom. By contrast, poems like ‘Night Is My Friend’ or ‘Two Worlds’ seem very raw, grief-riven and hollow-eyed, but their honesty is indisputable.

The Unthanks have delivered a beautiful album (and a half if you count the Extras – and you really should). It feels like a fragile thing, eggshell-delicate, something to treasure and keep for best.

Su O’Brien

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 DIVERSIONS VOL4 THE SONGS AND POEMS OF MOLLY DRAKE 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 website: http://www.the-unthanks.com

Promo video:

THE UNTHANKS Live at Vicar Street, Dublin (25 May 2017)

Unthanks Live

The dark stage is bedecked with an array of lamps (of the standard and table varieties), interspersed with rattan chairs. The grand piano and elegantly wrought music stands suggest a more genteel era of afternoon tea dances – if you overlook the modern paraphernalia of cables and microphones.

The voice of Gabrielle Drake reading her mother’s poem ‘Time’ penetrates the gloom and is followed by a recording of Molly Drake herself, singing the engagingly humorous and self-referential ‘Funny Little Tune’. Without any preamble, The Unthanks launch straight into ‘What Can A Song Do To You’, as good an evocation of the power of memory as any.

In fact, not a word is spoken to the audience until around two-thirds of the way through the first set. Wisely, the band focuses on allowing these songs and poems to speak for themselves. When they do finally break the wall, it’s mainly to reassure us that they’ve now got “the cheery songs” out of the way.

It’s true that this album, the Molly Drake oeuvre, isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, and this is as introspective a set as they come, with more shade than light. Literally as well as figuratively: the set is deliberately kept low-lit throughout. As Molly Drake said, “The happy and enduring things do not evoke or provoke poetry”.

But these clouds do have silver linings. There is lightness and dry wit in the observations of life. There’s even a little optimism. ‘Never Pine For The Old Love’ is fine advice, as is ‘Dream Your Dreams’. ‘Poor Mum’ is a call to break the confines of a societal label. What’s more, the projections of stills and archive footage of Molly Drake encourage us view her as a person: a wife, a mother and – most of all – a woman of style and humour.

The set consists entirely of the ‘Diversions Volume 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake’ album (plus the 8-track ‘Extras’), thoughtfully re-ordered to evoke different moods in the audience. The darkest part of the set is at the start, with a gentle lightening of mood as the show progresses. There’s no adornment from their back catalogue, nothing to break the spell. And a spell is cast, the crowd seeming to hold its breath while Rachel and Becky sing their impeccable harmonies. Although they always seem transported somewhere else entirely when they sing, they are still delightfully grounded performers, briskly and unfussily brushing off a couple of minor fluffs to delighted applause.

The only non-Molly Drake song of the evening is Becky’s encore cover of Nick Drake’sRiver Man, followed by Rachel taking lead on ‘Dream Your Dreams’. A brief reprise of this song leaves us with the image of Molly Drake smiling and raising a glass to us all in the final frame.

Having been reverentially silent during the songs, the crowd delivers a standing ovation for the band at the end, and one richly deserved for such a beautifully realised performance of an eclectic set.

Su O’Brien

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 DIVERSIONS VOL4 THE SONGS AND POEMS OF MOLLY DRAKE 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 website: http://www.the-unthanks.com