BLAIR DUNLOP – Notes From An Island (Gilded Wings GWR005)

Notes From An IslandNo artist is going to say their latest album isn’t as good as their previous ones, but when Dunlop says he thinks Notes From An Island is his best to date, he’s not just spouting press release clichés. Again produced by Ed Harcourt, who also contributes bass, and featuring long-standing regulars Jacob Stoney on keys and drummer Fred Claridge alongside guest musicians Archie Churchill-Moss on accordion and violinists Tom Moore and Gita Langley, it strikes both personal and socio-political notes, the Island of the title a reference to both himself and post-Brexit Britain (as well as a riff on Bill Bryson’s celebrated travel memoirs). It’s also the first on which he gets to show off the virtuoso new guitar skills inspired by acquiring the new Gretsch on which most of the songs were written.

It opens with the heady, musically and metaphorically layered ‘Spices From The East’, a five-minute number that initially offers an image of two people sharing their love in cooking a meal together, folding in their spirits with the different ingredients, drinking in the aromas and sharing a plate together. However, as the music gathers from muted beginnings, so too do the lyrics take on a wider vision as they speak of the country’s colonial past and the opening up of trade routes and sea networks into Asia, generally through conflict, that continue to provide access to the titular spices. As such, it speaks of colonial guilt but also, in this troubled refugee times, a call for a masala society in which “we are coalesced whenever we dine”. Interestingly, there are several references to the East throughout the album, with mentions of Persia and the rivers of Babylon.

Dunlop’s songs and frequently veined with melancholy, and mingling the sour with the sweet and here they predominantly centre around negative experiences with bruised and broken relationships. Even so, his take can often be wry. Cases in point being the next two tracks. Taken at a measured pace with simply repeated guitar riff throughout, the organ gradually filling out the sound, ‘Feng Shui’ deals with relationship breakup and the four walls that holds the memories and “the scars from when we threw things across the room”, his mom suggesting he try Feng Shui and rearrange the furniture in the hope of doing the same with his emotions, the song extending to concern the need to redecorate your lives when the relationship wallpaper starts to peel.

More playfully, opening with Harcourt’s jangling 60s folk-rock guitar, ‘Sweet On You’, the poppiest and most commercial thing he’s ever recorded, is about, as he explained at a live show I caught, about a misguided short-lived teenage crush (“Knew you for two years and by the end of the first the writing was on the wall”) on a self-absorbed friend (the lyric is actually ambiguous as to the gender, though he notes how they “started giving time to the girl I gave my heart to”) with a nose for trouble and who, more importantly, in its memorable references to Ry Cooder, didn’t share his musical tastes, the song ending with the confession that “If I had the choice between you and your mother, I know which one I’d choose”. I’d suspect a touch of Buddy Holly influences might have been at work here.

The mood shifts to a more late night bluesy ambience for ‘I Do’, plangent piano notes, bass and a sparse drum beat underpinning a song that revisits the break up in ‘Feng Shui’, an angsty confessional of wanting to be rid of “every liar I’ve been seeing in the mirror at the end of our bed” but wracked by the thought that “I’ll never find anyone fit to hold a candle to you”. In many ways it’s very stoically British, the affair deemed “rather regrettable” and with a deliberately overwritten line in ‘If only I’d lent her my ocular system’s true appraisal of that tight fitting dress” or, to put it another way, “yes, your bum does look big in that”.

Fingerpicked acoustic guitar carries along the folksier ‘One and the Same’, the drums making an entrance midway to beef it up alongside Langley’s violin that seeks to find common ground in shared pain, his voice soaring to falsetto at the end of lines, his intricate Thompson-influenced guitar work again in evidence on the musically uncluttered ‘Within My Citadel’, another infectious melody and bout of self-analysis about going with the wind in order to have a sense of belonging, of building walls to keep from hurt and of, perhaps, prolonged adolescence as he sings about “remnants of a boyhood in disguise.”

Returning to that broken home, the need to move on but being stuck in limbo and smiling for the camera, ‘Nothing Good’ is a slow waltz ballad that paves the way for ‘Threadbare’, another number, its Fleetwood Mac melodic groove enhanced by the West Coast-like guitar pattern, organ swirls, Moore’s violin and Brooke Sharkey’s backing vocals, about love unravelling (and with another mirror reference) and the need to get back on the horse as he sings “I don’t know what love is but I know that it’s out there”.

Melodeon to the fore, ‘Green Liquor’ has a choppy percussive guitar rhythm as he returns to political commentary, the song addressing the paradox of London’s East End where the homeless seek shelter and while buildings stand empty, “earnest for the ghost of a resident”.

It’s back, then, to the fraught dynamics of love with the sparsely arranged ‘Pallet and Brush’ that uses the conceit of him sitting for a painting “coloured by all of my ills” as a relationship metaphor, “our faces disfigured/Forbidding each other to speak.” Although sharing the imagery of distance, love of a different nature shapes ‘Wed To Arms’, a post-Brexit metaphor about conflicting feelings for his country (“I am wed to her charms… but she’s wed to arms”), an island on an island, and the course on which it is set as “we sail the seas of isolation” like “the North Atlantic Drift”.

Maybe it’s that disillusionment that leads the album to end with ‘Cobalt Blue’, an intimate voice and electric guitar that looks for, if not salvation and redemption, then to at least “both go down together” as he sings of his waking freewheeling from a dream of Melbourne and of ploughing Van Dieman’s Land, the penal colony island off south eastern Australia to which convicts from Britain were transported. You know the healing may have begun when you can see the sky and not the ceiling.

Paradoxically, an album that turns it mind to personal and national isolation it may well prove the one that expands the horizons of audience awareness and appreciation far beyond his present borders.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.blairdunlop.com

‘Feng Shui’ – live:

Boo Hewerdine announces Brighton and London dates

Boo Hewerdine
Photograph by Andy Craig

Boo Hewerdine is well known as one of the greatest (and busiest) songwriter performers in the business, but incredibly, it’s been seven years since Boo released his last studio album of original material God Bless The Pretty Things (Reveal Records 2009). Not that Hewerdine has been inactive, far from it, the period has been the most productive of his career.

Boo wrote Radio Ballads for the BBC’s Olympic and recent Child Migration series. Elsewhere new songs were commissioned for art galleries and museums, including the Beneath The Dark Cloth project at the Met in New York. There has been a huge array of writing and producing with both established and upcoming artists and ‘passing something on’ to budding writers via his much loved songwriting workshops.

Boo spent three years writing a daily blog (http://boohewerdinesblogthing.blogspot.co.uk) which lead to podcast fun with that staff of The Word (RIP) and invitations to join Radio broadcasts such as The Verb (BBC Radio 3) and a moment of personal satisfaction when his work was included in the radio round up Pick Of The Week on BBC Radio 4.

A chance meeting with American guitarist Brooks Williams one snowy night in Ely lead the pair to form State Of The Union (a duo who’s sound is simple, vibrant and alive, contemporary songs wrapped up in old time blues and country soul. State of The Union have recorded and released two albums and an EP, in quick succession, live in the studio with engineer Mark Freegard, the duo appeared on BBC1 TV Andrew Marr show performing their cover of Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Rent’.

Hewerdine wrote lyrics and played on over thirty new recordings by and with other artists during the period including the acclaimed 2014 album (Vagabond) and 2015 EP (Back The Dogs) with Scottish singer Eddi Reader, Last Man Standing EP (2015) with Kris Drever of Lau and Duke Special. Reveal Records compiled the first document of his career to date with a fine Best of compilation My Name In Brackets and swiftly followed that with an album of lost recordings found in a box!  This album was Open which received five star reviews and was number five in the Telegraph Albums of The Year 2015. Last year was spent writing and producing an ambitious new double album and theatrical show for Chris Difford of Squeeze, details of which are soon to be announced. All that and Boo toured with Eddi Reader in Europe, Asia and played a series of sell out headline shows in the UK and an invite to host Boo Hewerdine & Friends songwriters circle at London’s Kings Place. There has not been a moment when Boo Hewerdine has not been working on something creative. His every day continues to be full of music and he has waited patiently to tell some older personal stories that will feature on his new May 2016 released Born EP and forthcoming Swimming In Mercury album.

Hewerdine says…

“I felt like I had to wait for the right time to tell some old stories, working on the Best of compilation My Name In Brackets and finding the Open recordings took me back a little, each song a placed me in a memory. I soon realised I had to go further and revisit the time when I was first making music. Taking the bus down to Rough Trade in London with my demo tape Julia, playing cheap guitars with broken strings.

For Swimming In Mercury and Born I have used instruments I’ve not used for years. The process has been more akin to when I was starting out in an indie band. I used my father’s old beat up piano and I wrote some songs with my son, Ben which was great. The lyrics came fast, I trusting my pen.

It blows my mind that I still have the opportunity to make music, that I have a voice and that there are people who want to hear and release it. Time is precious and this is the music that I needed to make.”

Artist’s website: http://boohewerdine.net/

TUESDAY, 19TH: BRIGHTON, Komedia 44-47 Gardner St, Brighton BN1 1UN 7.30pm Tickets from £8.00 https://www.komedia.co.uk/brighton/music/boo-hewerdine-special-guest-dan-whitehouse/

WEDNESDAY, 2Oth: LONDON, The Water Rats 328 Grays Inn Rd, Kings Cross, London WC1X 8BZ Doors 8pm Tickets https://www.musicglue.com/a-startled-chameleon/ £16.50

‘Up The Junction’ with Chris Difford:

Rowan Piggott talks about the Songhive project

Rowan Piggott

Songhive is a folksong project concerned with raising awareness of the current plight of the bees, but now it’s time to raise some money as well! We are soon to release a compilation album of Beelore and Folksong in the British Isles, all the proceeds of which will go to The Bee Cause. The following questions were answered by Rowan Piggott, the project founder.

Tell us a little about the project? Why bees?

Bees are responsible for 80% of pollination in the UK, are essential to biodiversity, and ultimately the future of humanity. Despite all this, we continue to obliterate the pollenrich plants they depend on, and our governments insist on legalising pesticides that do them harm.

Folk music has long been fraught with political dissent and attended by social change; perhaps this collection will serve to highlight how the decline of bees has entered the public consciousness. Here isn’t the place to wax lyrical, but hopefully this small project can raise some money for our friends; “the little musicians of the world”… (The King & The Hermit, 10th c. Irish Verse).

How did it start?

The project began as I noticed more and more folk artists including songs and tunes in their sets which referenced the bees… it seemed to me that almost every album I bought in the last year has had some mention of them. Who’s to say whether this was a result of the stories that reached mainstream media or the fact that folkies are generally more interested in conservation, but either way, a pattern emerged! For all the ages of man, bees have been revered & respected: honey was the nectar of the gods, bees were thought to carry human souls, every culture had important bee gods and traditions… to reach a time when we care about them so little that we’re not worried about them becoming extinct is dreadful.

You were awarded a creative bursary by EFDSS for your writing on the project?

It was great to have the backing of EFDSS and really helped give us the resources to write new material! You can hear a couple of my original songs on the compilation album (Queen & Country and Soul Wake Dirge) and I actually collaborated on nine of the eleven tracks, whether writing lyrics, playing fiddle or singing harmonies. It’s been a very exciting project to be part of and I’m looking forward to debuting some of the songs live at a gig at Cecil Sharp House on 6th June.

The Songhive Album

With tracks from Nancy Kerr, The Rheingans Sisters, Rosie Hodgson, Nick Burbridge, The Georgia Lewis Trio, Ray Chandler, Duo Keryda, The Hivemind Choir (a scratch choir put together through social media for a mournful choral contribution) and of course, project founder Rowan Piggott, it looks to be a varied and musically exciting selection from all corners of the folk scene.

Project Website: www.songhive.co.uk

Preview video:

CHRIS TAVENER – Is He Joking? (own label)

Is He Joking?Recorded live over two sold-out nights in Manchester’s Three Minute Theatre, Is He Joking?, the debut album by satirical singer-songwriter, Chris Tavener is available now on CD and DVD. Cleverly, the show begins with an internal monologue (which the live audience are privy to) as Tavener tries to get himself prepared to go on stage. This is an ongoing gag which runs throughout the evening, with this “inner voice”, consistently second guessing, distracting and sometimes “talking for” the “real” Mr Tavener. That said, this is also something that works better as a DVD joke, as it is Tavener’s visual engagement with his psyche which makes this this technique work.

“Are we ready to rock, Manchester!?” asks Tavener to an enthusiastic audience, before confessing “This is a soft song” and performing, ‘Praise Him’; his ode to former One Direction heartthrob, Harry Styles.

While his on-stage banter and seemingly off the cuff one-liners are decent, Tavener has an undeniable talent for observational “it’s funny because it’s true” humour, and this really plays into his songwriting.

‘Let’s All Go To A Festival’, for example, is a scarily accurate summary of attending a weekend-long music festival, the charmingly vulgar ‘Modern Romance’ has some pretty relatable images but perhaps no lyrical observations are as accurate as ‘Postcard Home’; a song about travelling during a gap year, which is crammed full of hilarious imagery that feels completely true to life…even if one’s own experience of gap year activity has been vicariously lived through the persistent posts of an annoying friend on social media.

Another clever write, is ‘Phoney Supremacy’, written from the point of view of Tavener’s hammed-up mistrust of iPhone users, which starts life sounding as if it could be a close-to-the-bone right wing, Daily Mail rant:

“…When you see that they’re coming over here, there’s a million more in a single year/ They speak a different language and they’re not compatible with the rest of us, they look out for their own/The government won’t make it stop/I saw one in my corner shop near home/I just don’t like the people that use iPhones.”

It’s much funnier when he does it. Believe me.

Billed as a satirical singer-songwriter, it is part of Tavener’s remit that his lyrics are the standout part of his performance, yet I feel would be doing him an injustice to overlook his musical talents; the ragtimey ‘Apocalypse Prediction’ is wonderfully fingerpicked for example and ‘Cliché Blues’ uses a very convincing, drivey blues pattern, appropriately loaded with all sorts of clichés from the blues genre; from waking up this morning, to meeting the devil at the crossroads.

In short, Mr Tavener is very good at what he does, and his excellent observations, wonderful turn of phrase and musical ability make for a very funny, very engaging and very enjoyable debut album. While there isn’t that much in the way of bonus material with either the DVD or CD (extra track on DVD and lyric book with CD), the show itself is a strong enough selling point to take a punt on this. Good stuff.

Christopher James Sheridan

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

‘Modern Romance (She’s So Drunk) – official video from 2016:

GRETCHEN PETERS – Dancing With The Beast (Scarlet Letter/Proper PRPCD148P)

Dancing With The BeastHaving enjoyed her biggest success to date with the Ben Glover co-penned southern gothic ‘Blackbirds’, it is, perhaps, not too surprising to find echoes in Dancing With The Beast. In terms of narrative, the slightly swampy ‘Wichita’, which Glover also co-wrote and which features Jerry Douglas on Dobro, is another murder ballad, this time round a mentally handicapped 12-year-old girl taking a gun to protect herself, her dysfunctional divorced mother and little sister from an abusive man as she sings “I hope I was the last thing that you saw that night in Wichita”.

More specifically, the politically pointed ‘Lowlands’ traces a similar melody to the Grammy winner’s refrain on a song written in response to the 2016 election with lyrics reflecting the sense of disquiet about a man who “lies just for the sake of lying.. sell you kerosene and call it hope.” This one’s not written with Ben Glover, but he does have three co-write credits, the first up being the album’s opening number, a three-way split with Matraca Berg, a melancholically, world weary reflective song about growing old and times changing as she sings “I get lost in my hometown, since they tore the Drive-In down”, perhaps carrying with it hints of incipient Alzheimer’s.

Throughout the album, she’s backed by Doug Lancio on guitar and synths, guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboard player Barry Walsh, bassist and John Gardner on drums, the songs populated with a variety of female characters and driven by a feminist perspective. The moods vary. On the dreamy, piano-backed ‘The Boy From Rye’, steeped in the insecurities of female adolescence, it’s one of wistful reflection on a summer romance with a boy from out of town who, “His smile knowing and ironic” divided friendships as “One by one he broke our virgin hearts/And set us one against the other”. In contrast, the more musically muscular but equally poignant ‘Life Is A Disappearing Act’ turns its gaze on a middle-aged woman who, widowed after fifty years of marriage, having lost two babies at birth and a son to the Iraq war, mentally and emotionally rather than physically, now finds herself alone, lonely and isolated, trapped in a “dark cocoon” and “crying at the kitchen sink” , “if Jesus is comin’ soon And if he is, he better make it quick”.

She turns the mirror on herself, and any touring musician, for the whisperingly sung ‘The Show’, which, accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar and piano, reflects on life on the road, “somewhere between Bend and Birmingham”, drinking hotel coffee that “tastes like kerosene”, saving up the energy for “Nineteen songs and one more night to go”.

Clearly, it can take its toll (“I clutch this guitar to my chest and wonder just what I’ll have left/When all of this hard traveling’s finally done”), especially on sustaining a relationship, and she reprises the theme on ‘Lay Low’, where, “a good three hours to Aberdeen”, she sings how “Tonight I’ll call to say hello, but your phone’s just gonna ring I know” and of the need to take some time out to recharge.

The other two Glover co-writes play back to back. Like ‘Blackbirds’, they’ve both recorded their own versions, the title track here to be found on his current Shorebound album, both swelling towards the end and featuring a nervy acoustic guitar line, but her’s without the prominent strings and the drums held back until towards the end and Kim Richey on background vocals. A song about that voice that whispers in your ear that you’re no good or you can’t do it, be it depression, a sense of insecurity or whatever, and how the best way to deal with it is to “circle round the room together /Seal this devil’s bargain with a kiss.” However, lyrics like “It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me/If anything it’s that he cares too much /It’s only that he wants the best for me /It’s only that I don’t try hard enough” also lend themselves to an interpretation of an abusive relationship that chimes with the #MeToo movement, especially given the confessional and emotionally bruised way Peters’ delivers the lines.

The second, underpinned by Walsh’s piano and again echoing Blackbirds’ melody line, is ‘Truckstop Angel’, a variation on ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ that addresses prostitution and self-respect as the character sings of being unsure if she’s predator or prey, but that “One day I’m gonna leave here /Gonna hit my lucky streak, Gonna spread my gorgeous wings and fly/Above all this concrete”.

At the end of the day, this is an album about rising above the weight and the burdens, imposed by both others and yourself, a simple humanity and moving epiphany found in the gorgeous ‘Say Grace’, Douglas on dobro and Richey on backing, taking refuge in faith or friends as the lost, the despairing, the bruised and the broken are welcomed to share in prayer at shelter by the bus station depot, the lesson of the day being “Forgive yourself for all of your mistakes You can start all over if that’s what it takes… You are not a loser, you are not a hopeless case” .

It ends with just her and a fingerpicked acoustic guitar for ‘Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea’, a song that, born of a dream about her late mother in which “she held my hand and she said, ‘You know, honey, there is love that makes a cup of tea’.” In many ways an echo of the blessing in ‘Kindness’ on Glover’s album, it’s a celebration of how, for all the big dramatic moments, of “love that moves a mountain” or “love that fights for justice knowing justice won’t be done”, sometimes the smallest, simplest human moment can be the most profound. There is sadness, there is weariness, there is trepidation, but, as the conclusion to Lowlands notes, at the end of the day there is also hope, because “We get a lot of clouds here in the lowlands /But now and then a little light gets through.” This is a beacon.

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.gretchenpeters.com

‘Disappearing Act’ – official video:

Evan Carson releases the first installment of a long story

Evan Carson

‘Shards’ is part of an ongoing story inspired by George Ocipinski and members of the various Polish Resistance Units across Europe during 1939 – 1945 now being reconstructed in music by Evan Carson.

A collaboration between musicians from the UK, Iceland and Russia blending, folk, progressive and classical elements. This particular track highlights only one small part of Evan’s grandfather’s journey through the Second World War from escaping a labour camp in Eastern Europe, to joining the French Resistance during the Allied Landings in Normandy and beyond. The purpose of this project is to fill in the gaps and bring the whole story of both his grandfather and other Poles to life. Musically, this song focuses on piano, strings and bodhran influenced by eastern European time signatures.

Evan explained a little more. “The initial idea was just for me to put out a series of tracks that used a lot of ideas that I couldn’t get away with in the other bands I work for. This particular release is all about my family and others in Poland during the second world war. It’s an ongoing story that we are still tracking down all the parts to.”

Looking to the future Evan hopes to continue telling stories and combining styles and musicians from very different scenes and genres.

“I’ve had a very close working relationship with the pianist Gleb Kolyadin and the others so I’m looking forward to finishing the rest of the story with them all. Hopefully I’ll put together a live set as soon as I can get them all in one country.”

Written by Evan Carson

Lyrics by Evan Carson and Georgia Lewis
Vocals – Georgia Lewis
Piano – Gleb Kolyadin
Strings – Karl James Pestka
Flutes – Toby Shaer
Percussion, Vocals – Evan Carson
Additional Sound Design, Production and Engineering – Joshua Franklin
Artwork – Todd Robinson
Mastered – Josh Clarke/Get Real Audio
Written and Recorded in the UK and Russia

Evan currently tours with folk acts Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys (BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Best Group Nominees), The Willows, Georgia Lewis (BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Horizon Nominee) and has also performed with Seth Lakeman.

In 2016, Evan recorded percussion for Russian duo Iamthemorning’s Lighthouse (PROG AWARDS Album of the Year 2016) and has gone on to tour with them throughout Europe and Russia.

In 2018, Evan also guested on piano virtuoso Gleb Kolyadin’s (Iamthemorning) solo album opposite drummer Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree) and Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater).

Artist’s website: www.evancarsondrums.com

There will be an EP soon but here’s a short preview: