VARIOUS ARTISTS – Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James (Sylvan Songs Records)

Strange AngelsTaking its name in part from a James song, Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James reworks thirteen well- and lesser-known James songs in homage to his lasting influence on not just the blues, but far beyond.

To do justice to the roll-call of first-rate musicians appearing on this album would leave little room for discussing the music itself. Suffice to say, stellar names from soul, country, rock and pop feature large. Even the notional “house band”, Elmore’s Latest Broomdusters (an update of James’s own band name), consists of hugely respected musicians including producer/drummer Marco Giovino. Special mention here goes to Rudy Copeland whose mighty Hammond sound provides a meaty punchline to many of the tracks.

Wisely, perhaps, no-one tries to emulate the shimmering metallic thrust of James himself, and these covers are largely indebted to his influence on later blues rock. The resulting tracks are, broadly speaking, much heavier sounding, with plenty of what the Buzzcocks used to refer to as “tricky guitar solo(s)”.

Elayna Boynton sets the pace with a galloping take on ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’, followed up by soul legend Bettye Lavette’s lived-in ‘Person To Person’. A briskly rollicking trot through ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ by country singer Rodney Crowell is followed by the unmistakeable grunt “Huh, yeah” as Tom Jones powers through ‘Done Somebody Wrong’. ‘Mean Mistreatin’ Mama’ is a triple-bill of Warren Haynes, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Mickey Raphael’s storming harmonica.

Deborah Bonham’s ‘Dust My Broom’ unfortunately somehow manages to lose that classic raw slide guitar wailing riff under a country rock beat, although Jamey Johnson’s ‘It Hurts Me Too’ keeps the bar room piano firmly on tap.

‘Strange Angel’ (singular: as listed on the promo CD) brings together the stunning sibling harmonies of Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer over a long, slow, jazzy beat embellished with more of that Hammond sound, plus a fat, gritty guitar riff, all underpinned with a twanging county steel.

Triple Grammy award winner, Keb Mo’, lends an almost fairground-ride motion to ‘Look On Yonder Wall’, with maybe just a soupçon of the Grange Hill theme. In contrast, Mollie Marriott delivers an impassioned vocal on ‘My Bleeding Heart’, bringing real pathos to lines like “People, people, you know what it means to be left alone”.

The ringing phone that opens Chuck E Weiss’s take on ‘Hawaiian Boogie’ is followed by the most gorgeous dirty, fuzzed out guitar, with just a taste of New Orleans. Weiss said of his choice, “After careful consideration the vocal work for Elmore was too perfect for me to touch… So I chose my favourite instrumental!!!”

Perhaps the most radical interpretation here sees Addi McDaniel’s smooth lounge vocal smouldering over a slouchy, loose gypsy fiddle-led blues with touches of banjo and a Spanish-inflected guitar. Then the house band winds up proceedings with ‘Bobby’s Rock’, another scuzzy, fuzzy rendition, with that driving Hammond in place of the sax of the original.

And if all of this collected talent offering updates on some classic songs is not enough of a feel-good factor, profits from the album go to benefit two US charities. C’mon, what’s not to like?
Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.elmorejamesstrangeangels.com

Rodney Crowell – ‘Shake Your Money Maker’:

CIRCUMNAVIGATE – When Worlds Collide (Own Label)

When Worlds CollideThe members of Circumnavigate are from Sandvika, Norway and from London, so it’s not unnatural that this band has a particular interest in making music about the meeting of cultures, communities and people. When Worlds Collide, a twelve-track Kickstarter-funded project, is the band’s debut outing, although they have been a functioning ensemble for some time.

This is an ambitious album, debut or no, with its extravagantly lush arrangement and production. Glossy, shiny tracks based on piano or guitar lines are heavily layered with delicate strings as an angelic chorus of backing vocals insinuate their way through and muted, jazzy trumpets provide subtle punctuation.

It’s an album that cries out to be heard via a decent music system to get the full benefit of the production. Compressing the audio (via laptop speakers for instance) can make it seem a bit squashed together and, unfortunately, it’s slightly too easy to let this rich curtain of sound sloosh politely around in the background. That’s a shame, because there are some terrific songs and musicians at work here.

Singer Sigrid Zeiner-Gundersen has a cool, crystalline voice that soars with an easy precision through its soprano range. Occasionally, her vocal style is slightly reminiscent of Bella Hardy – certainly no bad thing.

Lyrics are clear and audible, tending to frankness (“You used to piss me off” from the upbeat sibling love song ‘Back In The Day’) mixed with a touch of new age (“It is what it is now” advice for dealing with the commitment-phobe in ‘Breathe Slow’).

After repeated listens, any slight lingering reservations about this album really come down to what comes across as an excess of production. It’s a matter of personal taste, ultimately, but a less smoothly processed sound might allow the emotional heart of the band to surface more readily. Obviously, the band aims to create a specific ambience and soundscape, but dialling back at the mixing desk and allowing more of the songs’ individual identities to break through would be very welcome.
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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Artist website: www.circumnavigatemusic.com

The single ‘Secret’ – official video:

ALESSIO BONDÌ – Sfardo (Malintenti Dischi/800 Records 800aMLT/001)

ÌSfadoSfardo, a Sicilian dialect word meaning “strain”, is the debut album from singer-songwriter Alessio Bondì. It reveals a wide range of influences, like the rap-inflected pattering groove of ‘Vucciria’ with its homage to young men drinking and hanging tough in Palermo’s marketplace. Elsewhere, Latin charango breezes along with the cantering rat-a-tat percussion of lead single and opening track, ‘Di Cu Si’, with its nostalgic recollection of childhood games (including the classic, “got your nose”).

While it’s not strictly necessary to understand the lyrics, as the emotions are quite apparent through the delivery of the songs, the accompanying booklet is so informative that it would be a shame to overlook it. Its translations and explanatory notes fully bring to life Bondì’s delicious word play and imagery.

These songs of the joys and pains of life are full of inventive rhymes and rhythms, slipping effortlessly between realism and metaphor. In ‘Granni Granni’, for example, the child is creating both a physical and psychological safe place (calling to mind the shed in the film “Adult Life Skills”). Imagery of the sea in ‘In Funn’o Mare’ is woven through with metaphors of life, death and love. The gentle ‘Un Pisci Rintr’a To Panza’ is a multi-layered contemplation of the bond between mother and child, the purity of pre-birth innocence and the inevitable mortality.

Bondì’s guitar playing is another mainstay of the album, mirroring the emotional lyrical intensity in its pacing and sensitivity. He moves fluidly between the intimacy and immediacy of ‘Rimmillu Ru’Voti’, a love song recorded straight to tape, and the moodier ‘Wild Rosalia’ or the angsty wail of the title song. There’s a jazzier feel to ‘Iccati Sangu’, sitting loosely against an increasingly vehement vocal. In total contrast is the rolling guitar bounce of ‘Es Mi Mai’ with its euphoric “yee-ha” refrain.

This is a truly delightful album, full of compelling imagery. It offers up a wealth of musical flavours, delicately and thoughtfully arranged. From the greyness of a British winter, these ten songs bring a very welcome splash of light and warmth, with the promise of summer to come.
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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Artist’s website: www.alessiobondi.com

‘Granni Granni’ – official video:

ROSS AINSLIE – Sanctuary (Great White Records, GWR005CD)

SanctuaryIf there’s a more intensely personal album release this year than Ross Ainslie’s third album, Sanctuary, it would be hard to find. It’s a conceptual piece, a celebration of five sober years – no mean feat in the musician’s world, where it’s always pub o’clock somewhere.

Ainslie’s well-known as a champion of the broader context of Scottish instruments and for his work with musicians of an international background, such as India Alba, amongst very many others. So, it’s no surprise that the musical influences here are equally wide-ranging, with its eastern palette of sounds embracing a distinctly Scottish heart.

He’s also keen on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, apparently, and aimed to produce in ‘Sanctuary’ a similar kind of conceptual soundscape. So, don’t put it on shuffle. Listen to the complex, layered sounds as a continual flow, as intended, and it will repay in spades.

The titles of the twelve tracks on the album (and surely this number is no coincidence?) indicate key milestones, signposts along a determined route, with the calming, beautiful opener ‘Inner Sanctuary’ perhaps the heart and soul of the album. A gently shushing shoreline is overlaid with a tender, swooping elegiac fiddle (a stunning performance by Greg Lawson throughout) with Ainslie managing to extract the inner Scot from the bamboo tones of the Indian bansuri.

Finding a personal retreat has been essential for Ainslie, and he’s found it in his music: his mastery of his instruments is simply outstanding. Whistles brightly dance in ‘Protect Yourself’ and ‘Cloud Surfing’, then are overlaid by frenetic piping in ‘Road To Recovery’, which races along over a choppy guitar and tabla zing. On ‘Surroundings’, his breathing just audible beneath the seamless phrasing of this complex theme, is a reminder of Ainslie’s skilled control – and not just of his flying fingers.

Each musician makes a vital contribution to the flow of the overall sound, each layer builds up into a cohesive whole. There are so many wonderful and talented musicians playing here, but Damien O’Kane’s fierce banjo deserves mention, as a perfect foil for the complex celtic knot of whistles on ‘Happy Place’ and the exuberant highland pipes of ‘Let The Wild Ones Roam’. Tabla player Zakir Hussain and Soumik Datta on sarod lend Indian overtones to the juddering, descending motif of ‘Home In Another Dimension’, a surprisingly rocky track coming after the delicate eastern influences of ‘Beautiful Mysteries’.

The final piece, ‘Escaping Gravity’ an atmospheric poem with a vaguely oriental feel, expresses the conscious choice of sobriety. Its final phrase “Escaping gravity in my inner sanctuary” loops us right back to the album’s beginning, and reminds us that this is a set of mantras to be repeated every day. It’s what “one day at a time” means.

This album’s genesis is as inspiring as its form is delightful. It has a maturity, mellowness and a sense of peace, but it’s also a testament to some real personal grit. Learning to be with yourself and accepting yourself, flaws and all, is no mean feat. Turning such a challenging experience into a warm, accessible piece of music is altogether another level of amazing.

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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Artist website: www.rossainslie.com

Album sampler:

THE NOVEL IDEAS – The Novel Ideas (own label)

Novel IdeasTake a quartet of friends from Massachusetts, a clutch of guitars and a pedal steel, set them to work on their four-part harmonies, simmer gently for around 5 years and, voilà, it’s The Novel Ideas. Although this new, self-titled album is not their first, it does seem to represent a significant point in the development of their sound.

The band has spent a couple of years honing and perfecting the songs on this album, including reworking a couple of tracks from earlier releases. With the addition of guest musicians, producer Rick Parker and Grammy-winner Ryan Freeland mixing, it’s clear that The Novel Ideas are now very confidently planting their musical feet.

Self-described as earnest, emotional and harmony-driven, with a side order of sadness, they make songs that are small, personal and often focused on the interior world. Three of the band, Daniel Radin, Sarah Grella and Danny Hoshino are songwriters, each taking turns leading on vocals, with James Parkington on bass and vocals making up the foursome. A potential disadvantage of having three songwriters so heavily reliant on the first person singular pronoun, is that so much “I” can get rather tiring.

‘Farm’ is the one track that takes a more traditional third person storytelling approach. A bleak tale of a failed farm is offset against a cheery uptempo country melody. But the payoff is in the farmer’s departing wife telling him “you’ll be fine”, her blunt optimism tying up music and lyrics.

‘The Blue Between Us’ is an unusual, touching lament of separation and homesickness. Even where love has been found in a new place, “Sometimes it takes where you are not, Just to remember where you’re from”.

Relationship torments feature large in many of the songs. ‘Dena’ is a conversation with the male vocal guiltily subdued and answered strongly and clearly by Grella who asserts “it was never your fault and I don’t blame you”. Through repetition, this can start to sound like protesting too much, but she’s adamant she wants to talk, so there’s a glimmer of hope here, too.

Though the lead on each track is not explicitly flagged up, it seems that it’s Radin taking the lead on ‘I’ll Try’, where he’s struggling to pick himself up without tumbling into self-pity, “Oh, damn, I’m feeling lonesome again”. Grella, on ‘I’m Not Waiting’ is more impatient, brusque almost, fearlessly considering moving on. Hoshino’s slightly more raspy vocal on ‘Broken Glass’ is another dissection of a relationship “When all our hopes and all our dreams crack like broken glass, So will we see it through when the fractured truth says it was not meant to last?”. It can start to feel as though some of these narratives might all be one story, only viewed from different angles

In an interview, the band members agreed that final song ‘I Was Not Around’ best represented them as a unit. It was the first song of hers that Grella shared with the band and sang lead on and although it’s been through many iterations and refinements, this song of guilt and remorse – “You asked me to save you from yourself, but I was not around” – retains a pathos and melancholy all of its own.

Together, this foursome deliver a pleasing combination of voices and instrumentation: a deceptively gentle Americana touched by the plaintive sting of pedal steel.

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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Artist website: www.thenovelideas.com

‘Lost On The Road’ live:

PEATBOG FAERIES – Live@25 (Peatbog Records CDBOG008)

Live@25The Peatbog Faeries new album, Live@25 is only their second foray into live recording in their long career, the other being 2009’s Live. As the title indicates, this return to the live format is a celebration of the band’s quarter-century anniversary – an impressive longevity by any standards.

Recorded at the Hebridean Celtic Festival in Stornoway and at Much Marcle, Herefordshire, the album largely consists of tracks from their two most recent studio albums, Blackhouse and Dust.

It’s an album light on between-songs chatter, but long on music. A live recording can be a tricky beast to pull off. We are assured “All our tracks are one take” and we can hear the crowd’s evident enthusiasm. But, it’s almost as if they’ve had their volume turned down slightly, which can make a difference to a format that relies, at least in part, on the energy of the crowd to capture the gig atmosphere.

As with most live albums, the tracks are given a bit more heft and general welly than their studio album counterparts, but this doesn’t detract from the skill or intricacy of the musicianship.

‘The Ranch’ particularly rocks out, getting all down and dirty with a great big Hammond-organ-style splash in the second minute and a grinding bassline, while a tune like ‘Shifting Peat And Feet’ really showcases the complex interplay between the instruments and band members.

It’s the effortless, endlessly versatile marriage of traditional instruments with electronica and global influences that marks out the Faeries’ unique style and makes them such a crowd favourite on the festival circuit.

Club music lovers will find beats, loops and grooves aplenty from the soothing to the insanely scratchy. The boy-racer-at-traffic-lights “um-chick-um-chick” beat of ‘Strictly Sambuca’ here assumes a rattly, rusty-castanet quality before whooshing off somewhere rather more gently trippy. The already jangly, edgy ‘Spider’s’ acquires a wild Donna Summer-ish Hi-NRG disco thang (so sorry) before dallying with a bit of Krautrock rhythm.

‘Jakes On A Plane’ (their song titles are often hilariously awful puns – reason enough to love them!) slows the energy down to an ambient Celtic trance while ‘Marx Terrace’ has a spacey, spangly electro groove under the churn of fiddle and whistle. ‘The Naughty Step’ marries a deeply funky bassline with a skittish whistle, whereas the addition of a lyrical piano part on ‘Fishing At Orbost’ lends a surprisingly forceful gravitas to the band’s sound.

The last two band tracks come from the Stornoway recordings, with the complexity of ‘Folk Police’ followed by new work, ‘The Humours Of Ardnamurchan’ notable for featuring a vocal, a female vocal no less, albeit apparently pre-programmed and pushed down the mix a bit. So is this a one-off experiment or an interesting new departure in style? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Wrapping up the album, the unashamedly sentimental Callum Kennedy track ‘The Skyline Of Skye’ is as sweetly touching as it is incongruous: a tender tribute to the island landscape that helped form this extraordinary, genre-trashing, outward-looking band. Here’s to the next 25 years!

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.peatbogfaeries.com

‘Folk Police’ live: