FRANK TURNER – Be More Kind (XtraMile Recordings/Polydor 6738173)

Be More KindThe globe-circling gigging machine and humanist that is Frank Turner might surprise some with his seventh solo studio album, Be More Kind. Fearlessly true to himself, as always, he embraces an ambitious new musical palette, while his smart, sharp lyrics display maturity in the face of an uncertain world.

The surprises start at the first track, the comforting ‘Don’t Worry’, as Turner softens out his trademark vocal-cord shredding snarl over a chilled handclap groove. It seems right to bookend the album with this and the powerful, unapologetic closing track, ‘Get It Right’.

Love, optimism and humanity abound, from the tender, and drily English, ‘Going Nowhere’, to the ticking guitar (echoes of Wreckless Eric’s ‘Whole Wide World’) of ‘There She Is’ and the sparkly, Cure-ish pop of ‘Little Changes’.

The big, jagged ‘21st Century Survival Blues’ form a romantic, apocalyptic survival plan, “When the harsh winds blow and the world gets cold, You can’t trust kindness and you can’t eat gold”. As does ‘Brave Face’, with its thrashing guitars, churning organ and gospelly chorus.

With the waspish ‘1933’ we’re back in more familiar Turner territory, its jangly thrash-pop warning of the dangers of normalising bad ideas. Speaking of which, ‘Make America Great Again’ boldly harnesses and subverts the Donald Trump campaign slogan. Witty self-deprecation, “Well I know I’m just an ignorant Englishman,… So if you’ll forgive my accent and the cheek of it, Here’s some suggestions from the special relationship” slams up against the kind of power chords and 80s synth of a John Hughes teen-movie soundtrack.

Angular guitars and funk bass morph into swirling synth choruses on ‘Blackout’, an intentionally ‘clubby’ song about power cuts. The pattering ‘Common Ground’ is a plea for rational communication, whilst his sometime tour buddy, Will Varley, provides the inspiration for the beautiful ‘The Lifeboat’.

Since first encountering Frank Turner singing and playing guitar on an unlovely landing in the Royal Festival Hall in the Campfire Punkrock days of 2006, he’s occupied a small but distinct corner of my musical affections. Sometimes frustrating, always interesting, he manages to keep his work relevant and rewarding, even if I’m not entirely sold on the whole 80s vibe.

It’s an album that grows better with each listen and one that feels like a much-needed step back from the confrontational brink. In particular, the title track, ‘Be More Kind’ with its strings and tender plucked guitar, lyrically based on ideas from Clive James and Kurt Vonnegut, is a simple manifesto for our confusing, complicated times: “In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose its mind, be more kind, my friend, try to be more kind”. Can’t really argue with that.

Su O’Brien

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‘Little Changes’ – official video:

STEPHEN HARRISON – It Starts With The Soul (Word Poem Records, WP018)

It Starts With The SoulStephen Harrison is a something of a music industry veteran. From his early days as a teen, playing in Edinburgh’s post-punk scene and the electronic experimentation that followed, through rock and out the other side, he’s arrived back at the simple pleasures of one man and his acoustic guitar. It Starts With The Soul is – deep breath – his ninth solo album and the third to feature the more stripped-down sound he’s been working on of late.

It’s an intimate collection of songs, with often rather enigmatic and downbeat lyrics accompanied – occasionally counterpointed – with Harrison’s lyrically picked guitar style. The title track opening with the bleak, “By the way there’s a weight hanging down on my soul” is set against a gentle guitar that evokes wide open skies. Repeated sung phrases reinforce the highly stylised nature of the piece.

An allegory for a broken relationship, ‘Trains’ uses the guitar to supply the train-like rhythm. ‘Folly’ contemplates environmental damage whilst ‘Iago’ considers Shakespeare’s villainously manipulative character. For a complete change of mood, ‘Show The Summer To The Spring’ is a straight-up love song, a rare flash of sunlight against the muted colours of the rest of the album.

‘The Middle Of The Morning’ will strike a chord with any poor sleeper/early riser struggling to get their ideas down, get their best work done before real life comes in to weigh down on them. As Harrison is also a painter (his artwork adorns the album covers), it’s easy to imagine parallels here between the creative pressures of songwriting and art.

Some comparison with Leonard Cohen seems inevitable as that confiding, in-your-ear baritone rumbles past, although Harrison’s voice is, on the whole, rather less substantial. Harrison takes his range a little further up sometimes, too, as demonstrated on ‘My Dream’s In My Pocket’, one of the album’s more uptempo songs.

Harrison’s vocals sometimes call to mind Jarvis Cocker, with their deeply personal, semi-spoken style and melodically, he can be slightly reminiscent of Neil Hannon: neither comparison being bad things to strive toward.

Su O’Brien

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SCOTT MATTHEWS – The Great Untold (Shedio Records)

The Great UntoldFor a man so frequently brushed with greatness, singer-songwriter Scott Matthews does not quite yet seem to be a household name. Perhaps his sixth album, The Great Untold, will change that – it certainly has a broad, genre-defying appeal.

Matthews’ CV is impressive: a 2007 Ivor Novello award-winner for his song ‘Elusive’ (take that, Arctic Monkeys!), subsequently covered by Lianne La Havas; co-writer with Robert Plant of the song ‘12 Harps’ (from the Elsewhere album), and tour support for artists like Plant and Alison Krauss, Foo Fighters, Rufus Wainwright and Bert Jansch (to whom his guitar style has been favourably compared). Any musician could consider these career-defining achievements, but Matthews seems far from content to rest on past successes. As the waltzing steely guitar and harmonica of ‘Chapters’ signs off in contemplative mood, Matthews reassures himself/us that “there’s always a song inside”.

Musically and lyrically, he’s often likened to Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley, with good reason. Melodically sure-footed, deploying many switchback twists and turns, his lyrics certainly tend to navigate the more introspective and downbeat paths of life. The title track reveals anxiety at the impending birth of his child, referenced again in the line “I’m safe in the womb, like a child” from ‘Lawless Stars’ – here’s a man with things on his mind.

Elsewhere, there are poignant vignettes of lives observed, such as the Spanish-flavour guitar and lonely piano of ‘As The Day Passes’, with its tale of “a shrine to her boy who’ll be home one day”. Lonely desperation colours ‘Song To A Wallflower’ with its bleak lyric “he’s highly flammable, you dare not strike a single match tonight”.

Matthews has stripped back his sound compared to earlier albums but even with fewer instruments on board, the production remains lushly – perhaps too much so – polished. Built on guitar, vocals, occasional piano and a light touch of muted percussion, it’s still a tight, intricate, multi-layered construct.

His guitar style is light and crystalline, his accompanying voice rich and controlled, gliding easily into its upper registers to deliver these extremely well-crafted songs. The multi-tracked accompaniments are subtle and suit the songs but, across this very fine album overall, the tonal variation could perhaps have been slightly more emphatic.

Catch Scott Matthews’ headline tour now, and also as support to Madeleine Peyroux’s silky tones on the summer leg of her UK tour.

Su O’Brien

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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SMITH AND BREWER – Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (21st April 2018)

Smith And Brewer

It’s surprisingly hard to recall, on this bright sunny Spring day, that a little over a month ago, snow and gales stopped play. Back then, I should have been reviewing Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer as part of the Cambridge Roots Festival. This afternoon comes my chance to make amends, courtesy of Anglia Ruskin University’s programme of “Lunchtime Sessions”. A mixed audience of students and civvies flow into the theatre’s darkness from the warm sunlight outside.

The artists formerly known as Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer have recently undergone a, some might say, rather overdue metamorphosis. Now appearing simply as Smith and Brewer, they proudly display the embossed guitar straps bearing their respective surnames. Yes, maybe it does sound a tiny bit like a craft ale, but it rolls off the tongue so much more easily. And I have been known to say it often when evangelising about this pair to anyone within earshot. Not normally Americana/Country’s loudest advocate, I’m utterly beguiled by this duo’s charming blend of close harmonies and melodious songs. It’s an obvious, perhaps even rather tainted comparison to make, but they’re a sort of English Simon and Garfunkel – without the relationship issues, hopefully.

Starting off with ‘Isabella’, a natural classic from their eponymous EP, they motor on through ‘Another Shade Of Blue’ and the vigorous, sassy guitar of ‘Life’s Too Short’. ‘Blow Wind Blow’, another EP track, follows after which Smith leads on a sweetly tender ode to his young son, ‘Better Than Your Father’. As a young artist in the front row makes rapid sketches of them, Brewer delivers some Spanish-tinged guitar with ‘Love You Forever’.

‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’ is another of those instant classics: but despite sounding deceptively like a chilled summer anthem, it’s lyrics are rather gloomier. It’s still not entirely an obvious choice to appear on a Dutch horror movie soundtrack, but do be sure to listen out for it, coming soon to your local Dutch cinema.

It’s not just their facility with melody and harmony; they are richly proficient guitar players too, with a cooperative style that elaborately interweaves Smith’s warmth with Brewer’s steelier tones. Mostly, they look quite relaxed, but their most “guitarry” song, ‘Julietta’ (continuing a tradition of four-syllable female name song titles), features a lengthy, fast and energetic break that illuminates the physicality beneath their playing.

The forceful, lively ‘Favourite Photograph’ follows, and they close with the angular ‘Don’t Say You Don’t Love Me’. Although time hasn’t really been allotted for an encore, such is the crowd appreciation that they return anyway to finally round off proceedings with the gently funk-inclined ‘Hold On’.

A group of students filing out say, “Well, that was really great”, and mean it. It was, really great.

Smith and Brewer’s first album is due to be released later this year.

Su O’Brien

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‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’:

ROSS & ALI – Symbiosis II (Symbiosis Records, SYMCD001)

Symbiosis IIIt was only in December that Ross Ainslie’s fantastic solo album, Sanctuary, was released, and he is back again already, this time with Ali Hutton in a very welcome second celebration of their long-standing partnership. Symbiosis II (despite sounding like the title of a particularly difficult contemporary art piece) is a logical successor to their previous album, Symbiosis, and – appropriately – clear lines of connection join the two.

Symbiosis II is dedicated to Hutton’s grandad, who is also the subject of the first tune of the set entitled ‘Grandad’s’. This reflective piece makes a worthy companion, a mirror, to the delicate music box he previously created for his grandma, on the first album’s ‘Grans’.

As with the first album, titles are thematic one-word embodiments of the tunes that lie within (and an apostrophe pedant’s heaven!). The only non-original work on the album is ‘Goretree’, a tender Tommy Peoples cover. A number of the tunes have been specifically commissioned, and are credited accordingly. Whether composed by Ainslie or Hutton, the blending of the individual tunes into a set is never less than sublimely skilful, there’s no sudden lurch, no visible join, it all flows immaculately.

Despite these echoes of the first album, Symbiosis II pushes off into new territory, playing with notional boundaries of traditional music. It’s also definitely more of a “studio” album, given the addition of sound effects and synthesisers. Storm effects on ‘Mick’s’ give way to fast, fierce piping over a dark synth undercurrent, for instance, whilst ‘Birds’ features a clever interplay of whistles and pipes to reinvent the birdsong audio of the intro.

There is some striking, often quite moody, percussion, such as on the terrific ‘Kings’ where it lends an immediacy and a specific modernity to the tune ‘Dine Like Kings’. In the second part, ‘King Of The Mountain’, Patsy Reid’s strings add a dream-like drone, quite unlike the more tense, pulsating backdrop they provide on ‘Mink’. Andrea Gobbi’s thoughtful mixing ensures that nothing becomes overwhelming and a coherent balance is maintained throughout.

The duo’s core sound (Highland pipes, cittern, whistles, guitars and banjo) becomes more richly fleshed out as a result, and they wring a staggering variety of moods from whistles and pipes: lyrical and breathy, writhing and sinuous, beefy and muscular – and every shade in between.

Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton must surely be two of the most prolific young men around in Scottish music at the moment. Working in a dizzying variety of (often award-winning) projects their output never seems to falter. Symbiosis II is another superb addition to the catalogue.

Su O’Brien

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ROGER PUGH – A Colourful Journey (Oblong Records, OBLCD079)

A Colourful JourneyIt’s a rarity to come across an artist who describes himself as “jester, minstrel, singer, songwriter, entertainer”. Step forward Leicestershire’s Roger Pugh, serving up a deeply personal memoir in his fourth solo album, A Colourful Journey. It’s an album that feels both celebratory and poignant, as he reflects on his life and work. In particular, the rocking ‘Final Arrangements’ where he fiercely berates future mourners, “don’t you come to my funeral dressed in black” has edges of both belligerence and pathos.

To be honest, though, ‘solo’ is stretching a definition quite a bit. There are16 other musicians lending their various talents to this set of songs. One of the dangers in having so many collaborators to choose from is that it becomes all too tempting to overwork the material to fit them all in. Whilst there’s quite a pretty tune at the heart of ‘Picking Ragwort’, it gets a bit muted by multiple layers of instrumentation. However, when it does come right, as in the thundering drums and skittish mandola of final tune ‘Witches Flight’, it’s a very pleasurable listen.

Pugh’s a storyteller at heart, drawing on a diverse range of musical genres – often within the same song. He’s written and performed (in Leicester Cathedral, no less) an entire folk opera, ‘A Minstrel’s Tale’, two tracks from which appear on this album: the lively, mediaeval-style capering tune ‘A Romp Through The Barley’ and the portentous prog-rock harmonies of ‘The Day Before The Hanging’.

‘The Busker’ is a familiar tale for al fresco musicians and its chirpy, singalong chorus of “Let’s drink a health to the busker” should be mandatory on chilly street corners everywhere. Elsewhere, though, things don’t go quite so well: a pleasingly sinuous fiddle part on ‘Run With The Moonlight’ (a song for his son) struggles against an ill-matched Caribbean-style syncopated percussion and the two fail to gel.

The production sound seems rather too sharp, and much more stripped-back arrangements might have served the material better. There are some satisfying melodies and entertaining lyrics, but it feels like there’s simply too much going on – too many styles, instruments and different parts competing for attention. It seems rather harsh to say so about such personal songs and an album that’s taken three years to come to fruition but, by about half-way through, it’s all starting to feel somewhat over-cooked and at risk of tipping over into pastiche.

Pugh clearly has an abundance of stories to tell and music to tell it with and the acapella ‘Down At The Billet On Boxing Day’ shows how good he can be. This song (appropriately enough, in the style of a revel or wassail) allows voices to harmonise attractively, lyrics and melody work well together without overdoing any single element. It’s the album’s most consistently successful track and plenty more like this would be most welcome.

Su O’Brien

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‘A Minstrel’s Tale’ – live: