TRAIL WEST – From The Sea To The City (TW Records TWO1CD)

From The Sea To The CityTrail West’s third album, From The Sea To The City finds the band contemplating the often necessary transition for islanders (Hebrideans, in this case) to big centres like Glasgow. What could have been a cue for an album of wistful nostalgia is neatly sidestepped by a band that simply does not do maudlin.

With roots firmly established in ceilidh, this band does boundless energy and big sounds. Their music contains a rich heart of danceability – toes gotta tap, after all. Deceptively, album opener, ‘Bernie’s Second Debut’ begins with calming keyboards, before quickly opening out the set into vibrantly rocking bagpipes and whistles. In a similar vein are the sparky ‘The Tayvallich Turkey’ and the vigorous jig and reel set of ‘Box And Whistle’. Only on the accordion-led ‘Mary K’s Waltz’ does the pace let up for a while.

If there’s a loose thematic link between the songs, it’s a general sense of dislocation or displacement, from the economic exile of ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’, an homage to the Irish construction worker, to the regretful Napoleonic soldier of ‘Óran An T-Saighdeir’, or ‘The Mermaid’ claiming her unfortunate sailors.

Love – won, lost and uncertain – reflects another aspect of change. The bittersweet ‘Mo Ghruaghach Dhonn’ and lamenting broadside ballad ‘Belfast Mountains’ are balanced by ‘Cast My Wish Upon The Sea’, a pacy, countryish song with a driving guitar. The slightly stalkerish narrator of ‘Take Me Home’ should back off from standing outside his lost love’s door, and take some advice from Andy M Stewart’s ‘Take Her In Your Arms’ in which dark thoughts are shrugged off in favour of learning to love well.

There are many musical moods and styles evoked across the album, showing the evolution of the band’s musical palette. Instrument prominence is smoothly and swiftly switched, giving plenty of flexibility within a cohesive whole. Expanding the band line-up has also added extra vigour and potential to their sound.

Rounding off with ‘Mo Dhùthaich’ (My Country) suggests that, however difficult it may be to leave places and people, it all helps form their essential Scottishness. The album version feels somehow both serious as well as celebratory, so it’s worth searching out a video version of it performed live. Trail West’s albums stand on their own merit, but the live experience is surely where they fully come into their own.

Su O’Brien

Artist website:

TARA BEIER – California 1970 (Red Raven)

California 1970The title, California 1970, pretty much tells you where this is coming from musically and lyrically, as the Canadian singer-songwriter and classically trained pianist (not to mention documentary filmmaker and actress) casts an eye over L.A. life through the prism of soft folk-pop filtered through Wurlitzer, pedal steel, guitars and piano.

A mini-album follow-up to 2016’s Hero & The Sage, it kicks off with a simple fingerpicked acoustic intro to ‘Forever Mine’ before musically opening out into a catchy uptempo shuffle about growing up and growing apart but still being connected.

The near six-minute’ Wild China Tree’, the longest number she’s recorded to date, shows a rockier side with the psychedelic vibe of its circling guitar line that carries with its echoes of Buffalo Springfield, the title track even rockier driven by a thumping tribal drum beat with fierce guitars building to a rowdy, violin assaulted climax with lyrics about a delusional, mentally unstable life-weary woman’s struggle to find the truth between reality and romantic fantasy.

Sandwiched in-between is the synth-backed ready to love again dreaminess of ‘See The Owl’, the final stretch beginning with ‘Prize Winner’, simple piano notes underpinning the lusher surrounding arrangement while ‘Hollywood Angel’ is a tumbling slice of cascading Wurltizer Stevie Nicks-like Americana pop. It ends with the chugging guitar riff of ‘Diana’, another rock-informed song written about a runaway she met while living in the Valley.

If, at times, her vocals and phrasing call Buffy Sainte-Marie to mind, that’s undoubtedly down to the fact that she’s one of her biggest influences, to the extent that Beier actually played her in her most recent film project, Covered, but as this collection evidences, Beier clearly has a voice of her own, one that deserves to be heard on a far wider basis.

Mike Davies

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‘Hollywood Angel’ – official video:

STEVE TILSTON – Distant Days (Riverboat Records TUGCD1117)

Distant DaysSteve Tilston has enjoyed a long career as a singer, composer and guitarist both solo and in partnerships. It seems to me that his popularity and the esteem in which he is held increases year on year which is great for a man who has worked continually at his craft for nigh on half a century. Distant Days is an acoustic celebration of that career, nineteen songs and instrumentals dating back to his first album, An Acoustic Confusion, released in 1971, all re-recorded entirely solo.

With the exception of the closing ‘The Slip Jigs And Reels’, Steve has avoided the more obvious pieces and has gone for listening pleasure over chronological accuracy. The first two songs, ‘The Road When I Was Young’ and ‘Rare Thing’ made we want to return to their source albums and hear them in context while ‘Time Has Shown Me Your Face’ made me realise that I don’t own anything like enough of Steve’s records. It’s interesting which albums he’s ignored; there’s nothing from The Reckoning, which I reckon is his best work nor from his diversion into traditional song, Of Many Hands. Apart from his first two albums, Steve concentrates on his work from the 80s and 90s convincing me that each track is there for a reason.

Of the songs that I haven’t heard before, ‘Is This The Same Boy?’ hits hard as does ‘Life Is Not Kind To The Drinking Man; which Steve says is not intended to be preachy but tells it how it is. ‘Let Your Banjo Ring’ seems rather an incongruous choice in the context of the album but I’ll not let it bother me. Three instrumentals, ‘Shinjuku’, ‘Southernhay Avenue’ and ‘Slow Air In Dropped D’, have not been released before and perhaps Steve has seized the opportunity for a little self-indulgence.

Distant Days succeeds in so many ways: it allows Steve to revisit his back catalogue in a new way; it points us to songs that perhaps we’ve forgotten or not heard before and provides excellent listening in doing so.

Dai Jeffries

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‘The Road When I Was Young’ – live on TV:

PAUL COWLEY – [Just What I Know] (Lou B Music LBM 005 2018)

Just What I KnowIn the notes that arrived with Paul Cowley’s third solo CD [Just What I Know], he explains the album’s title by quoting the Reverend Gary Davis as say “…play just what you know…

It turns out that what Paul Cowley knows is country blues, and he really does know his subject, with influences including Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt et al. This CD features eleven songs: five of them are his own, and the rest are from classic blues artists like Memphis Minnie and Furry Lewis. The CD mostly features Paul’s own guitar and slide guitar, percussion and vocals, but Pascal Ferrari contributes bass and percussion, and also mixed and mastered Paul’s original recordings.

There is a hint of a regional theme to this CD in that several of the artists whose songs are represented here were active around Memphis and/or North Mississippi in the early-ish 20th century. The main exceptions being Blind Willie McTell (who was largely active around Atlanta, Georgia) and Paul himself, who is originally from Birmingham in the UK and now lives in Brittany. While his own songs here don’t conform to a strict 8/12/16-bar or I-IV-V format, they combine blues-soaked guitar and vocal work with a sophisticated urban lyricism, informed by country blues but not dictated by a need to imitate it.

  1. ‘New Bumble Bee no2’ was one of Memphis Minnie’s most popular songs – indeed, she recorded several versions of it. Paul makes it own with some tasteful slide and a vocal that reminds me a little of Peter Green in acoustic mode.
  2. ‘I’ll Go With Her’, recorded in 1930 by Robert Wilkins, forgoes the discreet sassiness of the first track for a more funereal theme: “I’ll go with her, I’ll follow her, I will, to her buryin’ place“, though this is a bluesier song than the gospel blues of the Reverend Wilkins’ later years. In tempo and vocal delivery, this version is fairly close to the original, though with more light and shade in the guitar work.
  3. ‘Penny For Mine Penny For Yours’ is the first of Paul Cowley’s own songs, beginning with slightly jazzy guitar and moving into a smoky vocal supported by an understated but effective accompaniment including Pascal Ferrari’s sympathetic bass work. (It turns out that the sleeve notes are slightly adrift on this point: Pascal plays bass on tracks 3 and 8, not on 5 and 10.)
  4. ‘Red Fence’ is another of Paul’s own songs: a pleasantly summery sound.
  5. ‘Memphis Jug Blues’ was written by Will Shade for the Memphis Jug Band. Rather than try for a jug band feel, this version has sprightly acoustic guitar that reminds me a little of the Reverend Gary Davis, and it works very well.
  6. On Blind Willy McTell’s ‘I Got To Cross That River Of Jordan’ has a similar feel to McTell’s 12-string slide, but the slower pace, different tuning, and elaborate vocal lines, also reminded me of Blind Willie Johnson. And that’s not a bad thing either.
  7. ‘Summer Breeze’ is another Cowley song: if the title reminds you of Seal and Crofts, don’t let it trick you into expecting a similarly smooth delivery. This is far gutsier.
  8. Paul’s ‘Dollar & A Lie’ has more upfront slide: while the structure is about as simple as it gets, the combination of boogie feel and cynical lyric is attractive.
  9. ‘Hiver Dur’, the last Cowley song on the CD, paints (as you might expect from the title) a dramatic picture of a hard winter. At the moment this is my favourite track.
  10. ‘Judge Harsh Blues’ is a song by Furry Lewis, structurally not unlike Robert Wilkins’ ‘Prodigal Son’, but tells quite a different story. Paul takes it more slowly than either of the Furry Lewis versions I’ve heard, but it works very nicely.
  11. ‘Roll & Tumble’ is a version of ‘Roll And Tumble Blues’, probably first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern in 1928. Not much is known about Newbern, but the song has been recorded and reworked many times over the years, not only by other blues artists but by rock acts including Cream, Captain Beefheart, and the Grateful Dead. This stripped-down version is closer to its roots, though, enlivened by the addition of a one string diddley bow.

This is an excellent CD: good songs combining authentic blues and gritty contemporary songs with a strong blues flavour, played and sung well. I look forward to hearing what else Paul Cowley knows.

David Harley

Artist’s website:

‘Bumble Bee’ – home video:

CLANNAD – Turas 1980 (Made In Germany Music, MIG02092)

TurasOn the heels of their 1979 US tour – the longest by any Irish band back then – a five-piece Clannad fetched up in Germany having their live show recorded by Radio Bremen. Previously unbroadcast, the recently resurfaced recordings are now available as Turas 1980 (“an turas” meaning “a journey”), a twenty-track double album. Drawing on the band’s early output, the album also features some otherwise unrecorded tracks. It’s a collector’s dream.

It also represents a fascinating point in the band’s evolution. After ten years together, this Donegal family group was on the cusp of achieving unimaginable mainstream global success. Yet here they are, unaware of what’s yet to come, just happy playing to their strong German fanbase.

The live radio recording was a first for the band and Máire Brennan recalls how nervous they all were, although it doesn’t show. This is intensely powerful, rooted and earthy music with a curious timelessness. In tunes like opener ‘Turas Carolan’, the beguiling air of ‘Paddy’s Rambles Through The Fields’ or ‘The Old Couple’, there’s almost a sense of a timeslip: a sidelong glimpse revealing something ancient, raw and deep from the land.

The tracks here also lack much of the misty ethereality characteristic of some of Clannad’s later output, although the roots of it can clearly be heard in songs like ‘Siúil a Rún’ and the bell-like ‘Dúlamán’. The band’s legendary tight harmonies and Moya Brennan’s cool flowing water vocals are beautifully represented, particularly on ‘Valparaiso’ and ‘Máire Bhruinneall’.

The musical tightness and versatility of the band is evident, too. A standard like ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ may be taken at a respectful, stately pace, but an entirely different mood emerges from the looser, jazzy bass interludes of ‘Níl Sé’n Lá’ that closes the album.

As to sound quality, the music is excellent with all the band parts crisply audible and a pure clean sound. During the often drily witty between-song chat, there is some quality loss and distracting ambient noise, but it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise excellent live recording. It does repay quality audio replay, as the lossy formats don’t really do it justice.

Surviving members of Clannad were involved in bringing this album to fruition and it stands proudly both as an historical memento and a bittersweet memorial to absent friends: to founder Pádraig Duggan, as well as “father of the band” Leo Brennan. It’s a glorious and appropriate tribute.

Su O’Brien

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A selection of Clannad songs recorded in 1978:

I SEE HAWKS IN LA – Live And Never Learn (Western Seeds WSRCD-013)

Live And Never LearnHaving released a solo covers collection in 2016, lead singer Robert Waller returns to the band nest for their first album in five years. The good news is that it’s like they’ve never been away, that familiar country rock sound with its Telecaster reverb and Waller’s vocal drawl picking up seamlessly from where they left off. On the downside, there’s one or two numbers here that may have listeners pushing the skip button on subsequent plays.

However, it takes flight in fine style with album opener ‘Ballad For The Trees’, a tribal drum beat and rhythm anchoring one of their upbeat eco-themed numbers as Waller sings “Here’s a song for the Acacia/Here’s a song for honey bees/Here’s a song just for everyone writing down their dreams.” The title track’s up next, a train time chugging country rhythm driving a song about never quite managing to do the right thing (“I try so hard to do what’s right/But that won’t get me through Friday night”), good intentions shot down by barroom shortcomings, while friends turn a blind eye.

They stay on a roll with the bluesier ‘White Cross’, one of two numbers co-penned by Waller, Paul Lacques and Peter Davies from the Good Intentions, following a similar screwing up theme with lines like “Good times didn’t suit me/I had to taste the pain” and “I know the angels love me/Even though I did them wrong.”

However, then comes ‘Stoned With Melissa’, a rocking number about getting high that put me in mind of the boogie side of early Dr. Hook, singing about smoking weed and watching Trading Places on a black and white TV. Lyrically, it takes a darker swerve towards death as it slows towards the end with a more Creedence ballad musical shape and psychedelic shades, but it doesn’t really stand up to repeat plays. The same holds true for ‘King Of The Rosemead Boogie’, a ZZ Top-like track that probably burns live but doesn’t hold the attention on disc. To this list I’d also add the simply country chug ‘Stop Me’, another number that harks to self-destructive tendencies, a decent enough filler but not strong enough to leave a lasting impression as the album closer, and also ‘Spinning,’ a gossamer-fey psych-folk number about fitful dreams written and sung by drummer Victoria Jacobs but lacking in any substantial colour.

She redeems herself, however, with the playful ‘My Parka Saved Me’, a Shangri La’s pastiche recounting the true teenage years events of how, stoned after breaking up with her boyfriend, she drove out to Lake Michigan and was involved in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, saved from potentially fatal lacerations because she was wearing her brother’s parka. Backed by Danny McGough on organ, Jacobs speaks the narrative, her words then echoed in barroom twang fashion by the band along with the chorus. It’s a playful ditty that goes on to tell how, as the guy had no insurance but owned a liquor store, they sued him and she and her friends got to drink for free, at which point her and Waller’s account of things differ. It’s an amusing number but, ultimately, still a novelty track with a short-term listening lifespan.

The remaining numbers, however, all stand up: ‘Poour Me’ a country honky tonk lament about an overfondness for drink soaked in Dave Zirbel’s pedal steel; the conservation and loss themed gentle roll of ‘Planet Earth’; ‘The Last Man In Tujunga’ a country rocker with hints of CCR, the Rolling Stones (a snatch of ‘Satisfaction’) and Mike Nesmith that recounts breaking up over a mobile phone while a California wildfire flames blaze ever closer.

Two of the stronger numbers, both featuring Dave Markowitz on fiddle and accordionist Richie Lawrence, are loaded towards the end, the mid-tempo strum ‘Tearing Me In Two’ and, the other, sung and penned by producer and guitarist Paul Lacques, the ecological-rotted and Gaelic-infused shades of the slow waltzing ‘The Isolation Mountains’.

Ultimately, it’s not as consistently strong an album as the preceding Mystery Drug, but there’s still ample here to keep the ornithological fanbase happy

Mike Davies

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‘Ballad For The Trees’: