SHEILA K CAMERON – Alone On The Road (Glalell SKC1703CD)

Alone On The RoadIt’s a truth universally acknowledged (pace Jane Austen) that to really sing the blues you have to feel the blues, have to live the blues. As amply demonstrated in Alone On The Road, one of a trilogy of reissues, Sheila K Cameron is most definitely the real thing. Somewhat enigmatic, she’s an artist, a lyricist, a singer – her creative force spilling out in all directions. There’s a relentless, restless outpouring of experience, that one art form simply can’t contain.

Hers is a voice that speaks of maturity and a life lived defiantly, if not always easily. It has a natural, unforced sound with occasional displays of unexpected depth that pack a powerful emotional punch.

Comparisons have been made with Leonard Cohen and there are certainly elements of his style of speak-singing in the flattened out melancholy and resonance of her voice. On ‘When I Say You Owe Me Nothing’ her urgently barked delivery has more than a dash of Nick Cave.

Lyrically, there are so many glimpses of a real original talent on this album. Some standard blues tropes get rehashed, for sure, but always with a unique verbal twist in her original material.

Francis Speirs’ (although credited as Spiers on the album cover) harmonica provides a blistering introduction to the album and then never lets up. In fact, the spot-on accompaniments by Speirs, Geoff Allan, Brian McNeill and Brian Young are what really lift this set of songs into another class altogether, providing a versatile mood-board from the slight country tinge of ‘Mr Moon: I’m Working Against Time’ to the Doors-y fuzz of title-track “Alone On The Road’.

Vocal effects have been used to create an old-school blues atmosphere, as on the loping roll of ‘I Looked Alright This Morning’ and the slightly tinny, compressed ‘Bluebird Outside My Window’ as heard through an old horn gramophone. (This song also contains the divinely blunt put-down “she’s a selfish, self-concerned tart”). In total contrast, ‘Baby How Long’ sounds like she’s right up in your ear, so intimate is the vocal.

Sheila K Cameron is a unique artist whose work deserves a wider audience. Her songs cry out to be heard and will no doubt be reinterpreted by singers of the future. This album is a little treasure trove for lovers of the quirky, the downbeat, the blues.
Su O’Brien

Artist website: http://www.sheilakcameron.com

Sadly Sheila K Cameron’s videos are not available to us in the UK – presumably for copyright reasons. Unless you know differently.

SOPHIE RAMSAY – The Seas Between Us (own label SRAM003)

The Seas Between UsThe collection of Scots and Gaelic songs that form The Seas Between Us are largely taken from Burns (either by attribution or orgin), together with Hector Macneil’s ‘My Love’s In Germanie’ and a handful of traditional airs. From the opener, ’Ae Fond Kiss’, we are on well-trodden and familiar ground. However, whether in Gaelic or English, each song has been given thoughtful re-interpretation here. Even the over-familiarity of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has been carefully considered, rephrasing the lines to impart the meaning of those words so often bellowed semi-coherently at midnight, through a fug of alcohol.

Musically, the traditional has been supplemented by open, spacious arrangements with subtle electronic effects, that are quite deliciously and decidedly of the modern age. Occasionally reminiscent of some of Martin Green’s more recent work, here are ghostly plinking pianos, haunting horns and a fluttering flute. But – as if all that alliteration wasn’t tiring enough – there’s the over-use of echo to contend with. On individual tracks it works well enough, in particular on the layered vocals of ‘The Burning Of Auchindoun’ but, over the course of an entire album it starts to become a distraction. In contrast, however, the sudden absence of vocal reverb on ‘My Love’s In Germanie’, plus some disturbing tapping noises, contrives to create quite an effective airless and claustrophobic atmosphere.

A great deal of musical imagination has clearly been brought to bear in the production of this album. A delicate piano line in ‘By Yon Castle Wa’’ turns tensely choppy, ‘The Lea Rig’ features slow, deep, dragging strings, and ‘Bidh Clann Ulaidh’ subtle pipes propel the rhythm. ‘Bothan Àirigh Am Bràighe Raithneach’ (the album booklet helpfully provides translations of the Gaelic lyrics) features an array of eerie hee-haws, like a gently snoring donkey, while elsewhere notably on ‘The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow’, Findlay Napier lends vocal support to Sophie Ramsay’s gentle, breathy, fragile voice.

Overall, the album has a rather subdued and reflective feel. There’s a consistency of mood, perhaps at the expense of creating richer contrasts of emotional light and shade. However, it’s not at all a brash or showy album, simply one that wants to give the songs enough space to speak for themselves.
Su O’Brien

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 SOPHIE RAMSAY – The Seas Between Us 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’s website: www.sophieramsay.com

‘By Yon Castle Wa”:

PIPPA REID-FOSTER – Driftwood Harp (own label PRF2016CD)

Driftwood HarpThere’s a meditative quality to the sound of the harp, something at once hypnotic and calming. It can be a pleasure to put on the Driftwood Harp CD and simply allow the sounds to wash dreamily away, as a soothing backdrop. But, delightful as that idea is, it would be a pity not to take the time to listen carefully to the development of motifs and figures in the tune sets, all of which are delicately detailed.

Reid-Foster’s interpretive skills are very much to the fore, bringing different moods to the tunes. Whether that’s the seasonal joy of ‘Colours Of Autumn/Pip’s Jig’, with its percolating bubbling rhythm, or the wistful and tender ‘Iona, Sraid Nam Marbh’. This latter honours the street of the dead where coffins would process on their final pilgrimage from the bay to the cemetery of the holy isle. It’s a spare, stark and moving piece.

Some of the tunes are inspired by folklore or history, such as the highly evocative ‘Steam Boats On Crinan/Herring Lassies Of Argyll’, celebrating the steam puffers along the Crinan canal and the women who would prepare the fish catches they brought (also documented in Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys with Timothy West and Prunella Scales). Staccato bursts describe the pace and bustle of the work. Likewise, skittering, tumbling motifs in ‘Kintraw’ depict a small village associated with fairy abductions. Further mythical subjects are to be found in ‘The Selkie’ and ‘The Mermaid Song’, the latter’s delicate watery riffles expanding out into spare soundwashes before returning to complete the musical circle.

The tune sets are often drawn from Scottish airs. The ‘Kilmartin Set’ hops and skips nimbly through three tunes, illustrating Reid-Foster’s skill with combining and arranging both traditional and original music.

Reid-Foster’s own compositions show her evident talent and ability to move beyond the traditional to achieve a much more abstract and modern sound. ‘Elements 1’ overlays and unites the four elements (fire, earth, air, water) while ‘Deirdre In Dreams’ is every bit as dreamlike as its title suggests.

While this CD will undoubtedly make a perfect companion to any form of relaxation, listeners would be well-advised to stay mindful of the subtle details and intelligence of the music.

Su O’Brien

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 PIPPA REID-FOSTER – Driftwood Harp 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’s website: pippareidfoster.com

Here’s a snippet from Pippa’s previous album – ‘Wonderwall’:

MARTIN GREEN – Flit live

Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson
Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson

Cambridge Junction, 22 October 2016

Following its premiere at Edinburgh Festival in August 2016, Martin Green’s latest musical concept Flit, heads out on tour, starting in Cambridge. There’s a bit of a delay getting into the venue, which the staff member working the queue tells us is due to some technical issues. But, he smiles broadly, it will be well worth the wait.

It’s immediately clear that this show about migration is an ambitious undertaking that sets out to unsettle the audience. The set looms like a primitive cave of wrinkled brown paper – a flimsy and uncomfortable temporary refuge. In its midst stands an enormous 3D zoetrope with three reels. There is a human figure walking, then running. Another is a bird in flight. The third transforms from bird to human as it rotates. The reels are swapped out over the performance, using a variety of illumination techniques to showcase them in different ways (strobe haters beware). The thrum of the turning machinery lends a further dimension to the sound – it could be a ship’s engine, a lorry: the unseen machinery that migrants rely on.

Crew and band members appear without any fanfare, walking on in line, all dressed in removal men’s drab brown overalls. Apart from Becky Unthank, that is, who’s in an anonymous sacking-like dark brown dress. It’s yet another visual reminder that tonight is about movement, migration, instability and uncertainty.

Respecting the seriousness of the subject matter, the band simply get on with it. It’s a performance without any real casual chat to the audience. Audio clips are interspersed with Green’s family anecdotes, an effective blend of the universal and the personal. As he builds to a furious crescendo at the fact that the conditions that drove his grandmother from the Nazis are being repeated in the present day, there is real passion, a visceral connection that sends shivers down the spine. His howls of being “fucking angry” are set against a massive distorted tidal wave of guitar from Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai) And Adrian Utley (Portishead) – a wail of distress and rage.

The soundscape created for this project is a challenging meeting of electronica, including a percussive rack of handsaws, married with the howls and skritchings of electric guitars. Against this powerful sonic backdrop, the accordion and the sweetness of the singers’ voices seem all the more startling. Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes’s voices blend deliciously together, her huskiness a perfect foil for his smooth, rich tones. The often mantra-like repetitive lyrics form soundwashes to underscore Whiterobot’s animation which is projected behind – and sometimes even in front of – the band. Delicately beautiful, yet slightly sinister stop-frame animations of folded paper flicker, repeating the central motifs of the human form and birds in flight. Sometimes the figures meet up inside photo frames, vividly suggesting the lives and families left behind.

As it started, so it concludes, without encores or any attempt to lighten the mood. It’s not about crowd-pleasing, but about feelings. This project is meant to evoke sadness, anger, and empathy with the displaced. We need to understand the urgency of their need to migrate, leaving lives, families, homes behind them. The band simply walks away.

After a moment, Green returns briefly, but only to offer thanks to his grandmother, in the front row of tonight’s audience and the inspiration behind the Flit project.

If there’s any minor gripe, it’s the sound quality tonight. Guitars threaten to swamp some of the subtlety, audio clips seem muddy. Whether it’s teething problems, my seat’s too close to the speaker or whatever, it doesn’t really detract from the power and emotion of the performance. As we leave, we pass the staff member and tell him, yes, it was definitely worth the wait.

Su O’Brien

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 MARTIN GREEN – Flit 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]

ORDER – [VINYL]

Artist’s website: http://www.martingreenmusic.co.uk/

‘Strange Sky’ – official video:

EMILY SMITH – Songs For Christmas (White Fall Records WFRCD015)

Songs For ChristmasThe clocks have gone back, the days are shortening, so it must be time to settle down and look towards the festive season. And what better to line up on the CD player than Scottish singer/songwriter Emily Smith’s unambiguously titled Songs For Christmas album? It’s a smart, quietly eclectic mix of songs with all-round appeal that should ensure it becomes a solid seasonal favourite for years to come. Whether it’s traditional Celtic airs, well-known hymns and songs, old spirituals or the kitsch of a pop song, there’s something here to suit nearly every taste.

Carol service favourites ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ are here stripped back with subtle arrangements. The latter in particular, is kept very intimate, intriguingly punctuated by a softly distant martial percussion. ‘Silent Night’ is softened out until it’s almost a waltzing, slightly jazz-tinged lullaby. In contrast, Michael Head’s carol ‘Little Road To Bethlehem’ rocks out in lively fashion, with a skittering fiddle accompaniment.

North American influences, traditional and modern, feature strongly on the album. ‘Heard From Heaven Today’ gives a pared-back Appalachian feel to this spiritual, and ‘The Blessings Of Mary’ is swept along by sinuous fiddle and snappy guitar. Coming more up to date are Mindy Smith’s maddeningly catchy and charming ‘Santa Will Find You’, and the album closer, ‘A Life That’s Good’ (from the Nashville TV series) is a fittingly count-your-blessings wrap-up.

Naturally, the album wouldn’t be complete without a couple of traditional Scottish songs. ‘Christ Has My Hairt, Ay’ is bright and clean whilst broadside ‘The Parting Glass’ (a favourite show closer of Smith’s) is kept poignant and bittersweet, not maudlin. There’s another fine Celtic touch with the inclusion of John Doyle’s ‘Merry Christmas To All And Goodnight’.

The two songs on the album written by Smith herself are absolute (Christmas) crackers. ‘Find Hope’ sets the album off on the right foot. All the essentials of a Christmas song are here, typical seasonal landmarks picked out against the real message of hope and joy, all reflected in wistful fiddle/viola cadences. Her other song on this album, ‘Winter Song’, is similarly well-crafted, lyrically and musically. Here are all the signs of winter drawing in, the sense of the natural world shutting down and waiting for those little signs that herald the coming of spring. We hunker down with mixed feelings, we “endure” the winter and wait for it to pass..

Each song is beautifully played and sung. Jamie McClennan (fiddle, guitar, vocals), Matheu Watson (guitars, vioa) and Ross Hamilton (bass, drums, vocals) provide tight, yet relaxed accompaniments that are sympathetic and harmonious. Smith’s gloriously smooth and clear vocals effortlessly crest the band’s delicate arrangements.

This is no big whoop-it-up party album, this is the one to put on in the quiet downtimes, those reflective moments spent thinking about family, friends and those who are absent. One for the end of the night, when you say goodbyes once more. Yes, it’s sentimental – but then this is the perfect time for a bit of sentiment. It’s also soothing and calming, full of gentle hope and optimism. And we could all do with some of that.
Su O’Brien

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 Emily Smith 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’s website: http://www.emilysmith.org/

‘Heard From Heaven Today’: