THE MOONBEAMS – This Land (Moonbeam Records MBR003)

This LandThe Moonbeams band forms the core of The Moonbeam Collective, a multi-platform arts community based in the Yorkshire Dales. This Land, the band’s third album, is once again rooted in that landscape, linking up past and present, rural and industrial.

Apart from the closing song – a jaunty lunge at the traditional ‘The Yorkshire Tup’ in praise of Swaledale sheep – all the songs on this album are the band’s original compositions.

The hammer and brass intro to ‘The Flags Beneath Our Feet’ followed by the whirl of whistles on ‘This Land’ make a promising start. The lively ‘Gathering Day’ counts up sheep whilst ‘Ginny Bickerdyke’ turns out not to have been the local “witch” of many childhood rumours and dares. The banjo intro to ‘Syke As Thee’ prefaces an old-time love song – with a surprising electric guitar break towards the end. And if it’s surprises you’re after, have a listen to ‘Slow Down’ where spacious, dub guitar underpins Nick Cave-like semi-spoken vocals in a tribute to slow living. (The suggestion to “take a slow train” did induce a wry smile as Greater Anglia’s finest crawled through the Hertfordshire countryside: it wasn’t at all relaxing).

The core band members have been supplemented by different musicians and instruments on each album to date, and this one is no exception. Instrumentally, there are some interesting things going on, with shades of country, pulses of reggae-influenced syncopation, blasts of electric guitar and even a small brass section. Jen Haines’s smoky, earthy viola frequently resonates with mediaeval tones, and Mark Fletcher’s whistles occasionally stray into folk-horror territory, as on the oddly creepy ‘My Girl From The North Country’. This eclectic, often quite raw-sounding, mix insinuates itself into the spaces between the words.

For it is a wordy album, with a strong storytelling urge and some skill in evoking particular scenes and moods. The free-flowing lyrics, though, can threaten to overwhelm verse and melodic integrity. Occasionally undershooting the available rhythm, they more often lean towards the over-stuffed and squeezed in. A rather limited range in the vocals also, over the duration of the album, creates a generally dampening effect on the melody line, and on some otherwise interesting and diverse material.

Su O’Brien

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Artists’ website: www.themoonbeamcollective.co.uk

KELLY OLIVER – This Land (Folkstock FSR 14 004)

Kelly OliverReturning from Brazil determined to pursue her ambition of becoming a professional musician, Stevenage-based Oliver has had a busy and fruitful year. Since playing her first folk club gig in June 2013, she’s opened for such acts as The Urban Folk Quartet, Gilmore & Roberts and Dave Swarbrick, played numerous festivals, Cambridge included, released an EP and won a Help Musicians UK Emerging Excellence Award. Now comes her debut album, a simple, uncluttered affair predominantly constructed around her guitar playing and occasional harmonica that bears witness to her traditional influences (she’s been often likened to Annie Briggs) as well as her songwriting prowess on a largely self-penned set, drawn, the blurb says, from her Irish grandparents and “a dose of indignation”.

It’s one of her own that gets the ball rolling with ‘The Witch of Walkern’, an acoustic strummed number that mine the folk tradition of tales about women falsely condemned for witchcraft, though here, as in the titular case of Jane Wenham, a Hertfordshire woman whose 1712 ordeal is claimed to have been the last witch trial in the UK , the accused secures her pardon.

The perversion of justice is also at the heart of the bluesy, harmonica blowing ‘Mr Officer’, a song about witnessing a murder built around a repeated line, as she declares “that boy you have taken in is not the guilty man you seek” while righteous anger burns through ‘Off To The Market’, a familiarly traditional styled tune that addresses the cruel trade in human organs, guns, animal hides and horns, and girls abducted to be sold into prostitution.

She spins engaging stories, though most are haunted by dark shadows; the light, shimmering melody of ‘Grandpa Was A Stoker’, on which Swarbrick contributes fiddle, conceals a lyric about the hardship of life in a ship’s engine room that drove men mad, ‘Playing With Sand’, on which she harmonises with herself, talks of a prejudiced education system that assumed Irish immigrants to be ignorant and in ‘Diamond Girl’, a lovely rippling, descending chords ballad on which Luke Jackson provides harmonies, although the girl could do no wrong in her devoted lover’s eyes, she proves less forgiving of his mistakes. An a capella version is also hidden away at the end of the album.

There are, however, some patches of light. Although in the steady strummed ‘Dear Daughter’, the father refuses to let his daughter follow her lover to America, he does so because he won’t let her waste her life on a banished ne’er do who “shamed the girls and .. stole from all around’ and ‘only wants a wife to keep him from the cells’” And, while the gentle ‘A Gush Of Wind’ documents, rather like some Victorian ballad, how a milling family falls on hard times with the baby dying, being made homeless and the father accused of theft, they retain faith in prayer to deliver then which, in the ambiguous final line, seems to have been finally answered.

The remaining two numbers are non-originals, the first a crystal pure reading of the traditional ballad ‘Mary And The Soldier’ and the second, on which Sunjay Brayne provides guitar accompaniment, a heart-aching stripped down version of Dougie Maclean’s much-covered ‘Caledonia’ that makes me recant my desire never to hear it again.

With a full tour almost completed and featuring on November’s anti-war charities fundraiser cover of Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ by folk supergroup Armistice Pals, alongside such leading folk names as Judy Dyble, While & Matthews, Reg Meuross, Dave Swarbrick, Christine Collister, Johnny Coppin, Merry Hell and Edwina Hayes, it’s been a remarkable year for Oliver. On the evidence so far, that’s just the tip of what promises to be a very big iceberg.

Mike Davies

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 banner link below 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.

‘Diamond Girl’ – the official video featuring Luke Jackson