THE STRAY BIRDS – Best Medicine (Yep Roc YEP-2408)

Stray Birds 2Music is the best medicine I sell.” How can you resist a sentiment like that? It’s the hook of the title track of the second album from The Stray Birds, a song that also links Beatles and bones in the same sentence, and if that doesn’t strike a chord you should get back to X Factor and leave this page to the grown-ups.

The Stray Birds are Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven, and Charlie Muench from Lancaster, Pennsylvania who have been steeped in music since their days together in the school orchestra. They have distilled their musical influences into an evocative Americana which succeeds in holding a modern point of view. The first lines of ‘San Antonio’, for example, paint a picture of dusty streets under the desert sun but it’s really about travelling and isolation – or, at least, that’s what it says to me. There are two traditional songs: a powerful ‘Pallet’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Shoe’, neither are versions I’m familiar with which adds to the interest and both serve to touch base with the band’s roots. In truth, most of their songs do that with a carefully crafted line or two. ‘The Bells’ could have come from The Band’s brown album – I can hear Levon singing it in my head.

Musically, The Stray Birds are pretty phenomenal. All three have powerful lead voices – apparently this is the first album on which double bass man Charlie sings lead – which can also slot into harmonies. Maya plays fiddle, banjo and guitar and Oliver plays fiddle, mandolin and guitar, including a rather tasty-looking resonator and the whole thing just works. I can’t help thinking that if Peter, Paul and Mary had sounded like this the history of popular would have been radically different.

If you’re in the UK you’ve missed the chance to hear them live this year but they work a heavy tour schedule and we can hope that they will be back in 2015. And get this: they actively encourage audiences to tape (or digital?) their shows. I’m up for that.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click 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.

Artists’ website: http://www.thestraybirds.com/

SUNJAY – Sunjay (New Mountain Music)

SunjayBorn in Derby and now living in Stourbridge, Sunjay Brayne has apparently been playing guitar since he was four. Still only 20, this is his second studio album (there’s also a live one) and he’s a regular on the folk and acoustic circuit. Having caught one of his sets, I can testify to his accomplished playing and warm, singing style and can well understand the comparisons to a young Ralph McTell. Indeed, Brayne’s influences are very much rooted in the late 60s and early 70s folk scenes of the UK and America, something evident from the choice of covers that comprise the bulk of his album.

Here you’ll find faithful readings of James Taylor’s ‘Close Your Eyes’, Jim Croce’s uptempo blues swing ‘You Don’t Mess Around With Jim’, a fiddle, cello, banjo and mandolin arrangement ‘Going Down The Road’ by folk cult figure Mary McCaslin and Tom Rush classic ‘No Regrets’ (with some nicely understated fiddle from Katriona Gilmore) as well as the slightly more recent ‘Memphis In The Meantime’ by John Hiatt (though it could do with more grit) and Mark Knopfler’s ‘Sailing To Philadelphia’ with its cello contribution from Sarah Smout. He also offers his own arrangement of traditional blues rag ‘Drop Down Mama’, though, as with the a capella handclap and stomp reading of Buskin and Batteau’s ‘A Folk Singer Earns Every Dime’, his voice and delivery simply lack the experience and depth to give them real conviction.

The two remaining numbers are originals, the album opening with ‘London Road’, a song about homelessness written by producer, manager, label owner and erstwhile Bushbury Mountain Daredevils frontman, Eddy Morton, and featuring Dan Walsh on banjo while ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’ is a wistful self-penned acoustic end of relationship folk blues ballad. Accompanied by Gilmore, it’s a lovely number, beautifully delivered, that makes you wish there were more of his own songs rather than relying on familiar tunes that may earn gig rapport, but which don’t really work in his favour on disc in terms of reaching a wider market. Hopefully, next time round, there’ll be more of his own material and although he could perhaps do with a little more seasoning to his voice to add a little occasional edge, he’s an accomplished player with a relaxed engaging style and I look forward to seeing him develop.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click 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.

Artist’s website: www.sunjay.tv

Sunjay sings John Martyn:

An Evening With Kris Kristofferson The Pilgrim Ch 77 (Virgin)

An Evening With Kris Kristofferson The PilgrimWhat it says on the box, this is a double CD live recording of the singer-songwriter legend’s sold-out show at London’s Union Chapel on September 26, 2013. Although slightly gummy at times, his croaky, sandpapery voice has worn better than many of his generation of singers and, presented here with just acoustic guitar accompaniment, it has the comfortable feel of a well-worn pair of shoes. It’s fair to say that Kristofferson’s best known, most successful songs are those from his early years, so it’s little surprise to find the set here leans heavily on the first two albums, Kristofferson (all bar two) and The Silver-Tongued Devil And I, with such classics as ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, ‘Jody & The Kid’, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’, ‘For The Good Times’, ‘Why Me’ and ‘Silver-Tongued Devil’. There’s even the inclusion of ‘Sabre And The Rose’, a number from 1978’s Easter Island, that’s rarely been featured in his live shows.

Later work gets a sprinkling of representation with the likes of set opener ‘Shipwrecked In The 80s’, ‘They Killed Him’, ‘Closer To The Bone’ and the title track from his, then, latest release, Feeling Mortal. With little chat between numbers and a brief thank you at the end of them, it’s a no-frills set that captures the experience down to playing the wrong harmonica and mid-song cough, but, delivered with honesty and grace, the rapturous applause is amply deserved.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click 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.

Artist’s website: www.kriskristofferson.com

An old song but a recent live performance in Nashville.

DAVE McGRAW and MANDY FER Maritime Reviewed

DAVE McGRAW and MANDY FER Maritime ReviewedFollowing solo releases, the pair made their duo debut two years back with Seed Of A Pine, a collection of acoustic folk, country and blues that underlined their storyteller approach, his folksy approach and dusty vocal balancing her lighter soprano and the bluesier, sometimes jazzy, textures of her guitar work. Although there’s a little more focus on them as a duo rather than debut’s fuller band sound, recorded in their forest home in northwest Washington with Po’Girl producer Zach Goheen behind the desk and featuring the rhythm section of Andrew Lauher and Christopher Merrill with Mike Grigoni on lap steel and Sasha Von Dassow on cello, the follow-up doesn’t ring any particular changes in terms of style for form, each again making their own contributions as well as a couple of co-writes.

The album opens with ‘Helicopter’, Jerome Holloway adding harmonies behind McGraw’s lead on a moodily fingerpicked, bluesy number with an early hours feel before Fer takes over on ‘Compass’, a folk blues about constant travelling and yearning for home. Recalling a visit to Amsterdam, and namechecking both Anne Frank and Rembrandt, ‘Carillon’ keeps the mood hushed, Fer providing counterpoint to McGraw’s lead while Von Dassow’s cello provides the foundation, as does ‘Could Be Ghosts’, another of Fer’s life on the road songs, Grigoni’s lap steel enhancing the melancholic feel. If Fer’s songs concern the restless spirit, McGraw’s songs are more about being back home, his lyrics veined with images of nature, as with ‘Morning Song’ with its lines about sturdy fenceposts and alder trees or on the bluesy, edgy rhythm of ‘How The Sea’ where he sings about the mountains calling him back home and the smoke from his chimney.

If you’re looking for variety of mood and tempo, this is probably not the place to seek. While ‘Rain On The Rosemary’ and ‘Silence’ may feature the ebb and flow of brooding electric guitar, briefly gathering pace on the latter, nothing rises much above a prowl or pulse, the dynamics and tension restrained like brittle nerves on things like the sparse fingerpicked ‘Dark Dark Woods’, the tightly leashed electric folk-rock ‘Tide Moon Ship Horn’ with Fer’s cascading vocals and its vaguely trad air, and the quietly rippling ‘Conspiracy of Ravens’, a philosophical acceptance of life’s sorrow and seed.

If you’re looking for something to soundtrack those quiet hours and introspective reflections, this is the musical equivalent of the moon on the tides.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click 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.

Artists’ website: www.daveandmandymusic.com

STEEL THREADS – Live EP (own label)

STLiveAfter two studio albums folk-rock duo Steel Threads release a seven-track live EP, a record that they believe best represents their real sound. Four of the songs can be found on their debut album, Timing Is Everything, two come from For Those Who Are Left, and one, ‘Over Before You Begun’, is new.

If you haven’t encountered the band before, Neil Wardleworth plays guitar and does most of the writing and lead vocals and Laura Wilcockson plays fiddle and sings harmony. In the studio Neil also plays bass drum and they employ a bass player. He keeps the drum for live performances. For this set, they have eschewed their more delicate songs apart from the new composition which is gorgeous. ‘Let The Wind Blow’ starts out with great restraint but picks up the power and its ending is quite stunning with Laura’s mournful violin matching Neil’s impassioned vocals.

The record opens with ‘Nothing To Hide’ and ‘Last Nights Love’ from the first album. Neil and Laura have left just enough of the applause and chat in to remind us that this is a live recording. The sound is very powerful but clean and it was only on the fourth or fifth play that I realised that Neil sounds a bit like Mark Chadwick on ‘It Goes On’. In fact, a stripped-down Levellers is not a bad comparison.

Dai Jeffries

 

POLICE DOG HOGAN – Westward Ho! (Union Music Store UMS007)

PDH3Westward Ho! is the third album by Police Dog Hogan – or “the band that I’m in” if you’re a regular reader of Tim Dowling’s Guardian Weekend column. Dowling downplays his band in the cause of humour, making it sound like it’s him and a couple of mates from the pub continually amazed that they’ve got a gig. In fact, Police Dog Hogan is an accomplished seven-piece band – or eight if you count trumpeter Emily Norris who is pretty much a fixture.

They play an English style of Americana with a solid foundation of bass, drums and guitar topped with banjo, fiddle, mandolin and accordion. The Englishness comes from literate lyrics and the subject matter. ‘A Man Needs A Shed’ wouldn’t mean much in the mid-west until you explain that British houses don’t have vast basements, the one bit of transatlantic culture that I actually envy. PDH have also created that great rarity, a song based on an English place name that works: ‘Crackington’ is a tiny coastal village in Cornwall. They pull off the same trick with ‘West Country Boy’ which cites both Ilfracombe and Fowey.

The album kicks off with ‘Thunderheads’, a rags to rags story sung by James Studholme in the style that Johnny Cash would have adopted had he come from Berkshire. It’s a classic piece of country-rock and it’s followed by ‘One Size Fits All’ and you’re in a roadhouse just outside Memphis listening to songs of heartache and drinking one too many beers.

‘Buffalo’ is in the style of a lost song from 19th century America and I was half convinced that it was authentic, which shows how good the writing is. “I made up songs out of snake-oil and pain” sings James in ‘From The Land Of Miracles’ and, you know, he really does. You might get the impression that I rather like this album and you’d be right. It’s one I could happily keep on repeat and they come by very rarely.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of an album (in CD or Vinyl format), download one or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click 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.

Artists’ website: http://www.policedoghogan.com/

The official ‘Thunderheads’ video: