VISION THING – When We Were Astronauts And Other Stories (own label)

AstronautsThe follow-up to last year’s Trysting Tree EP (the tracks of which all appear here), the sleeve echoing the title of David Niven’s autobiography, The Moon’s A Balloon, this is the album from the north-west quartet which, hopefully, will provide lift-off to getting the far wider acclaim they deserve.

Vocally fronted by guitarist Pete Cunliffe and Cherlene Walmsley, who share the lyric credits, with Paul Cunliffe on bass and David Windsor on violin, they’re joined on various tracks by Merry Hell’s John Kettle, who also produced much of the material and contributes both bouzouki and programmed drums.

Sung by Walmsley and anchored by Windsor’s fiddle, it opens with a Cunliffe track from the EP, ‘Silver Darlings’, a shantyish number that tells of the hardships of a small fishing community near Wick in the late 19th century faced with dwindling stocks of herrings, the silver darlings of the title, the chorus calling them to their nets.

Striking another socioeconomic note, Cunliffe takes over for ‘There Is A Seam’, the fingerpicked guitar, bass and fiddle affording a suitably moody backdrop to a song about the Lancashire coalfields during the bitter struggle between the miners and the Thatcher government in the 80s as he sings how “The pits and the people, they are the same.”

Again underscoring their ability to craft a memorable and infectious chorus, Walmsley’s ‘Twenty Thousand Feet’ takes a romantic turn for a song about the giddy feelings of falling in love and the sense of finding home. Then it’s back to a protest undercurrent for Cunliffe’s ‘Haul Away’, a fiddle-led swayalong shanty sung in the voice of a young Bridgewater lad press-ganged into taking the King’s Shilling, saving his galleon when it was attacked by Spanish ship only to drown, his tale narrated by his ghost back in the local inn.

The EP title track, penned by Cunliffe and sung by Walmsley, another brooding number, featuring Jan Hough on bodhran ‘The Trysting Tree’ draws on the tradition of how certain trees were chosen as meeting places to arrange and finalise such things as sealing truces or exchanging prisoners, the song sung in the voice of the tree, witness to historical record.

The tempo and mood take a sprightlier turn in the Walmsley-sung ‘Magic Hour’, Windsor’s fiddle accompanying her on a rainy but warm-welcoming journey round a Scotland’s Western Isles in that moment of the day when “the clouds break over the mountains/And sunlight bathes the sea.”

The airy joyfulness is short-lived, however, the track being followed by the achingly melancholic ‘All The Bonny Birds Have Flown Away’, Cunliffe on lead and Walmsley providing harmonies on an anti-war song written for the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice talking of loss, of the broken bodies and souls, and the impact of “hell and hatred” on both humans and nature.

With Windsor’s sympathetic fiddle to the fore, the echoey sung ‘Lullaby For The Forlorn’ sustains the melancholia before Walmsley’s equally mournfully-paced ‘Carry Me Down To The Shore’, also from the EP, heads back in time to sing of a Viking warrior’s thoughts as he’s carried to the ship that will be his final resting place and of the Valhalla that awaits.

The album’s longest number at over eight minutes, the suitably cosmic and atmospheric and suitably spacey title track with its nagging guitar riff, ethereal low whistle, contemplative fiddle, dreamlike vocals and choral harmonies finds Cunliffe musing on childhood games and the passing of time, and innocence, as we grow older.

It ebbs into the distance to be followed by the glorious final track, strummed guitar, keys and fiddle taking wing on ‘Murmurate (Safety In Numbers)’, a song inspired by and describing the murmurations of starlings, dancing “in the half-light of dusk/In pirouettes of trust” that, in its line “shall we gather one and all, from factory roofs and village halls, brought together in our call to sing”, delivers a metaphorical message about the strength of solidarity. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, When We Were Astronauts has its eyes on the stars and its feet on the ground, make space for it in your CD constellation.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.visionthingband.com

‘The Trysting Tree’:

BELLE PLAINE – Malice, Mercy, Grief And Wrath (own label)

MaliceSharing her name with the Minnesota city that translates as ‘beautiful prairie’. raised in a remote Saskatchewan town of just 45 people, it’s understandable that Plaine’s horizons look beyond such confines of such an existence, her new album, Malice, Mercy, Grief And Wrath, full of questioning, of the past, present and the future, exploring autobiographically-related themes of grief and loss though songs steeped in classic country influences.

A particular case in point is the twangy guitar shuffle ‘Golden Ring’, a song relating to her parents’ painful divorce after many years, Plaine actually wearing their rings, which she inherited after their deaths, on a chain round her neck in their memory. It’s preceded by the album opener, ‘For All Those Who I Love’, on which, accompanied by Ian Cameron’s pedal steel, she sings in her father’s voice of his determination to build a life for himself and his family as a farmer (“I’m gonna build the life my father was denied. I won’t live a hungry man”), only for dreams to end in regret with “But I never measured up./We had two strong babes/Who grew afraid of the man I’d become”.

The theme of the sacrifices involved in following your dreams continue into Squared Up, here in context of the travelling musician as she sings “Oh, you bring home the saddest of songs/When you’re out on the road. Heartbreak all on your sleeve/For the whole world to know/How long will you chase this dream That’s so clear from the stage?”.

She follows an acoustic slow waltzing cover of Blake Berglund’s ‘Taxes And Death And You’ with ‘Is It Cheating?’ an upbeat snare and piano driven honky tonker that, backed by fellow prairie dweller Colter Wall, shows her lyrically playful side with its chorus of “Is it cheatin’ if you don’t get laid? Is it a gig if you don’t get paid?”.

She shows her bluesier side on the darker-toned organ-backed ‘Are We Good?’ a co-write with Berglund about two lovers trying to sort out the frictions between them before returning to family history with ‘Laila Sady Johnson Wasn’t Beaten By No Train’. Reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry, it’s a brushed snare uptempo train-time shuffle, the last line of the verses echoed by the backing singers, that tells the story of how, back in 1949, while out checking on her potato patch, her grandmother was distracted by a berry crop and drove on to the railway line oblivious to the approaching train that struck her car. Now in her 80s, she clearly lived to tell the tale, the song (from whence comes the album title) morphing into a message about the miracles that let us escape life’s locomotives.

It ends back in more melancholic but hopeful pastures with the fiddle and cello-accompanied ‘Radio Dreams’, a song that counterbalances the death of her mother within five months of being diagnoses with cancer and the premature birth of her niece in the same hospital 23 days earlier. The final track is the old-school waltztime ‘Rock Bottom’, a pedal steel streaked song of wisdom about valuing what you have rather than lamenting what you never achieved, echoing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ as she sings “Once you’ve seen the bottom of the barrel/Watched your hopes fall down from the sky/You’re free from the chilling momentum/That builds in the old downhill slide” and that “If Buddha ceded earthly possessions/And Christ never wore any shoes/You could say I’m keeping good company/When my life’s all I have left to lose”. She puts the prayer in prairie.

Mike Davies

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.belleplainemusic.com

‘Golden Ring’ – official video featuring Megan Nash:

STEVIE DUNNE – Live At The Crosskeys Inn (own label SDB003)

Live At The Crosskeys InnIreland is full of fine musicians who, unlike prophets, are honoured in their own country but not so much elsewhere. Stevie Dunne is one such. With two studio albums and an American Irish Music Award to his credit he chose a rather more low-key venue to record his third. The Crosskeys Inn is located half an hour from Belfast and is a place where Stevie has played his banjo and guitar for many years. Accompanying him on this session are Brian McGrath, Cyril O’Donoghue, Gerdy Thompson and John Joe Kelly, whose driving bodhran playing holds the whole thing together.

As he launched into ‘Jim Donoghues’ I thought the sound was disappointingly thin but I’m prepared to accept that the sound man, Cormac O Kane, was still twiddling his knobs at that point. He certainly was unable to edit out the small children during the beautiful and quiet ‘Sally Gardens’. Actually Stevie makes about point of that as they are his sons and he wanted them there and, presumably, heard. After a few bars things improved immensely and the musicians got into their stride. That said, this is very much Stevie’s album and the accompanists show great restraint doing just what is required to support his playing.

Some of the tunes are Stevie’s own but the majority are traditional as in ‘I got it from the playing of so-and-so’. Of course, so-and-so probably got it from such-and-such who presumably learned it from someone else. That’s how it is with Irish music in particular – the tunes are there and musicians like Stevie keep playing them. By the time the band hit the railroad rhythm of ‘The Dog Among The Bushes/The Wisemaid’ I was convinced. This is real music played in a thatched pub in front of an appreciative audience – what more do you need?

Dai Jeffries

‘The Dog Among The Bushes/The Wisemaid’ – live on TV:

MICHELLE LEWIS – All That’s Left (own label)

All That's LeftBased in L.A., Lewis explores the softer edges of folk-pop Americana, her songs suffused with sadness and melancholy, dealing with loss and longing, delivered in her tender, plaintive tones. All That’s Left, her third album, is described as a transformative journey from regret to compassion, her words and music gently brushed here and there by cellist Cameron Stone, accordion player Nate Gonzalez and pianist Ruslan Sirota.

The hurt and confusion of loss opens the album with the lapping waves of ‘That’s What They Say’, the musical and thematic mood leaking across into the title track reflection on the ashes and aftermath of a relationship and the regret of things unsaid. She may write within a specific emotional framework, but her songs have shades and nuances that afford each their own identity. Indeed, she also takes Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’, bringing the tempo down to fully mine the despair, loneliness and the need for human companionship in its soul not always evident in the original.

Equally, built around piano, cello and fretless bass, ‘Please Don’t Go’ is not a plea to a parting lover but a poignant urging of someone at the point of giving in to death to hang on a little longer as she heartbreakingly sings “don’t listen to what he’s been telling you…this ain’t the first mistake that God has made.”

That sense of fighting against the darkness when you feel you don’t have the strength to carry on is there too on ‘Push On’, a collaboration with Robby Hecht who also duets on their co-written ‘In Love Again’, a song about looking past the bumps in the road and the things in a relationship that can drive you mad, but which “don’t seem so bad when you hold each other tight.”

There’s a very personal backdrop to ‘Scars’, a folky, lightly fingerpicked song that recounts her late grandmother’s life from a first person perspective, the loss of her first husband to a wartime plane crash, a remarriage only to lose her first born daughter to cancer and then her husband, raising their other children as a single mother only, and then in her old age, to have them move her into a care home and wait to die (“hit the light switch on your way out, there’s nothing more for me to see”). Echoing the earlier ‘How’ which contemplated finding yourself at a certain point in your life, reflecting on how you got there and wondering where you go, it’s about accepting your life with dignity and not “keeping count of all the scars”.

The album ends with the upbeat fingerpicked Jackson C. Frank-like ‘Lay On My Pillow’, echoing how a trouble shared is a trouble halved as she sings “give me your light, I’ll give you mine, stay with me darling, we’ll be fine.” As the press notes succinctly put it, the emotional heft of her songs comes from “the strength of the bond not the pain of the fracture.” All that’s left is more than enough.

Mike Davies

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: http://michellelewismusic.com/

‘Push On’ – official video:

Marianne Faithfull announces new solo album

Marianne Faithfull
Photograph by Yann Orhan

Negative Capability is the 21st album by Marianne Faithfull and the most emotionally powerful of her 54-year recording career. Facing down arthritis and bolstered by collaborators including Warren Ellis, Nick Cave, Rob Ellis, Ed Harcourt and Mark Lanegan, Negative Capability is charged with brutal honesty and autobiographical reflection as she addresses losing old friends, her loneliness living in her adopted city of Paris, and love.

Driven by her supernatural reinterpretative skills, florid lyricism, battle against the pain she lives with, and realised with her stellar group of musicians, Negative Capability is Marianne’s unflinchingly honest and relentlessly beautiful late-life masterpiece. The stark emotional heft, exquisitely framed by ornately sensitive musical backdrops can only be likened to the late-life works by Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen.

“It’s the most honest album I’ve ever made,” she says. “I’ve always tried not to reveal myself. There’s nothing like real hardship to give you some depth. I’ve had terrible accidents and I’m really damaged. It’s changed my life forever. I’m in a lot of pain and worked really hard to get strong so I can do my work. The great miracle is I was able to make this beautiful record. I really had no idea how it would turn out. I just jumped in and hoped I would be able to do it. This is all what’s happened to me since my life changed but obviously if I do something I must do it really well.

The record emphasises her unique place as a force of nature in the beating heart of modern music that started opening up after ‘Sister Morphine’ ignited her muse and was recorded by the Rolling Stones nearly fifty years ago. At that time she had enjoyed her pop career with hits such as ‘Come And Stay With Me’ and ‘This Little Bird’, before becoming the crown princess of the UK counterculture before grasping her artistic reins with the landmark Broken English in 1979.

Recorded at La Frette studio on the outskirts of Paris, Negative Capability is inexorably overshadowed by grief at losing close friends from the ‘60s such as Anita Pallenberg, Martin Stone and Cream album designer Martin Sharp. It’s produced by both Rob Ellis – the PJ Harvey producer who’s been Marianne’s collaborator for five years -and Warren Ellis from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Warren’s violin blesses songs such as ‘Misunderstanding’ and ‘Born To Live’ – her intensely moving eulogy to departed lifelong friend Anita – with the stark but lustrous autumnal beauty that makes the album.

The first single ‘The Gypsy Faerie Queen’ – inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – was co-written with Nick Cave and features his vocals and piano playing.

“It’s a little miracle,” says Marianne. “I asked Nick if he would put music to it and he wrote back saying, ‘I’m so busy.’ I said, ‘I understand, sorry to bother you.’ Then he just wrote back, ‘Thank you so much for understanding; here’s the song.’ It’s just gorgeous.”

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: http://www.mariannefaithfull.org.uk/

‘The Gypsy Faerie Queen’:

TOM PETTY AND BOB DYLAN – New York 1986 (Rox Vox RV2CD2128)

New York 1986In the mid-80s and in the midst of his own musical wasteland, Bob Dylan went down a number of different angles in a bid to rejuvenate his career. While some of these efforts were more successful than others, one of the more favourable endeavours from this time was his work with the late Tom Petty. Prior to their work with The Travelling Wilburys super group, Dylan and Petty took to the road, with the extensive True Confessions tour, beginning in February 1986. This double disc, New York 1986, released on the ‘Rox Vox’ label presents an entire concert recording, from a rainy night in Saratoga Springs, New York, from July of that year.

Opening with Dylan’s onstage entrance, it is immediately clear that this is not a recording, originally intended for release, and indeed there are several, similar cuts throughout the duration of the 32 song double album. With the backing of Petty’s Heartbreakers, the lion’s share of the set comes from Dylan, who draws from his own extensive catalogue; fusing solid gold classics, with some of his lesser remembered 1980s works.

Decent live versions of ‘I’ll Remember You’ and ‘When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky’ from 1985’s ‘Empire Burlesque’ are worth a listen, as are Tom Petty’s contributions; particularly ‘Straight Into The Darkness’, ‘Even The Losers’, ‘Spike’ and ‘Waiting’ – even if on-stage sound issues detract from the audio quality of this particular version. From the Dylan camp, there are re-workings of 60s classics; including a punchy version of ‘Positively 4th Street’, an enjoyable guitar and harmonica led rendition of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, a rock n roll styled ‘Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35’ as well as alternative, electric delivery of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. Some songs don’t translate as well however, ‘Masters Of War’, for example, doesn’t need a minute long guitar solo. What makes the recording most interesting, however, is the handful of covers, performed and confined by Dylan to his 1980s tours. ‘Unchain My Heart’ which opens the album is a good example of this, as is ‘Lonesome Town’ by Ricky Nelson which kicks off disc two – although it does take so long to start you may find yourself double checking that you actually pressed ‘play’. Renditions of Ry Cooder’s ‘Across The Borderline’ and ‘We Had It All’ (by Donny Fritts and Troy Seals) are also worthwhile inclusions.

While I do like Tom Petty, I’m generally really not a fan of mid-80s Bob, but overlooking some of this recording’s audio inconsistencies, this is actually a very enjoyable album. It is a live document of a curious partnership which failed to produce an official studio album. The song selection is relatively unusual and true to Dylan form, for better or worse, the live versions of the live standards are unique to their own time and place.

Christopher James Sheridan

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.

Don’t bother asking about a website.

‘Positively 4th Street’ live from 1986: