BARRY NISBET – A Bright Ray Of Sunshine (Own Label, RRIG001)

Bright Ray Of SunshineShetland singer-songwriter (and sailor) Barry Nisbet’s little box of delights, A Bright Ray Of Sunshine finally reaches the top of the unruly stack by the CD player. Although released in March, this absolute treasure chest of ten songs fully deserves to receive the widest recognition.

Some expected themes – a strong sense of place, history, nature, the sea, wanderlust – feature here, but it’s very much contemporary, aware of the modern world. It’s also warm and compassionate, with Nisbet’s gentle burr adding emphasis to his thoughtful lyrics, whether about Australia’s ‘Desert Wind’ or a love letter to his home, ‘Come In The Summer Time’.

Flavours of country/Americana can be heard in Nisbet’s guitar playing, such as the restlessness of ‘Borderland’, and the gentle tumbling guitar of ‘Comfortless Cove’ where it’s meets unmistakeable Scottishness in both melody and wistful whistle.

One of two instrumental tracks, ‘Brydon & Anona’s Wedding Waltz’ is tender, evolving and building with each turn of the phrase. The second is a 2-tune set: tensely twisting fiddle and choppily strummed guitar in ‘Imperial Jig’ bridging into ‘Night Trip To London’. With its folk-rock intro, this tune quickly develops into a jazzy, discordant distillation of relentless bustle, hum and traffic noise – a fierce partner to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’.

Standout track, ‘Train To Anywhere’ might be the antecedent to Lau’s Ghosts in theme and sentiment. It is every bit as movingly powerful, with a melancholy harmonium underscoring the reluctant refugee’s core dilemma, “If I had the choice I would not knock upon your door, but my children are afraid”. A beautiful song, all the sadder for needing to be said at all.

The traditional-style ‘Hunger’s Daughter’, a haunting tale of love and starvation, has Nisbet’s vigorous fiddle playing reveal the frantic desperation left understated by the lyrics. Similarly, telling ‘Da Ballad O Da Jessie’ – the true tragedy of the sinking of the Shetland fishing fleet – in Scots, lends an emotional immediacy and rawness.

Final track, the lovely, ‘Within Sadness’ characterises Nisbet’s expressiveness in a reflective moment, “within sadness, a bright ray of sunshine”. There’s a directness, a truthfulness in this delightful collection that feels very welcome just now. Barry Nisbet will be going straight to the top of the CD pile next time, and no messing.

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).

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: https://www.facebook.com/barrynisbetmusic/

‘Borderland’ – live:

DÀIMH – The Rough Bounds (Goat Island Music, GIMCD005)

The Rough BoundsTwenty years to the day since their first gig, Dàimh release their seventh album, The Rough Bounds. While the title might aptly describe the burly chap gracing the cover, it actually relates to the area around West Lochaber where the band originates, “Na Garbh Chrìochan” in Gaelic.

Dàimh (meaning “kinship”) are now a six-piece, with the addition of fiddler Alasdair White to complement Gabe McVarish. The album also features Duncan Lyall (double bass), Martin O’Neill (bodhran) alongside ex-band member Calum Alex MaxMillan, Ewen Henderson and Kathleen MacInnes (backing vocals).

A lively puirt à beul trio (about chickens, Owen’s boat and picking cockles), ‘‘S Trusaidh mi na Coilleagan’ fairly bubbles along like a clear mountain stream. Followed up by ‘12th Of June’, a strong, driving pipe-led set of jigs, these two tracks make an immediately engaging opening to the album.

Sorrowful òran, ‘Tha Fadachd orm Fhìn’ features a delicate metallic sheen of percussion courtesy of guest artist Signy Jakobsdottir, well-partnered with Ellen MacDonald’s expressive vocal. MacDonald’s crystal clear voice is edged with a subtle smokiness and, aside from the liveliness of puirt à beul, the songs of love, loss and longing featured here allow her melancholy lyricism to the fore. (A witty set of icons printed alongside the song titles provides helpful clues about the subject matter: those accompanying ‘Bodach Innse Chrò’ are particularly brilliant).

The tunes mix the band’s arrangements of traditional material with their original compositions, all of which sit together extremely comfortably. New and old interweave unobtrusively. A pair of Donald MacLeod reels, an homage to one of the band’s favourite composers, makes for an interesting diversion. Here, beaty guitar and assertive fiddle provide the framework for a deftly twisting, turning interplay of pipes and whistles.

Arrangements are rich but not overloaded, with the band’s skilful, energetic playing breathing fresh vitality into the tunes. The album culminates with a haunting and lamenting instrumental version of the murderous, ‘Chì mi’n Toman’, with its eerie, lingering final pipe notes.

The Rough Bounds makes a most welcome and assured addition to the Scottish traditional music canon. From here, Dàimh are looking strong and confident as they embark on their next twenty years.
Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.daimh.net

‘Dhannsamaid Le Ailean’ – live:

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

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).

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.frank-turner.com

‘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

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).

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: www.stephenharrisonmusic.com

‘Trains’ – official video:

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).

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.scottmatthews.uk

Album sampler:

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

Artist website: www.smithandbrewer.com

‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’: