JACOB & DRINKWATER – This Old River (Polyphonic Life Records PRCD001)

This Old RiverFollowing on from the Devon duo’s debut EP and 2016’s Live At Hope Hall, singer/guitarist Tobias Ben Jacob and Lukas Drinkwater (everything else) now release their first studio album, a collection of nine self-penned songs and their arrangement of one traditional number that weaves a melancholic mood but, as Cohen put it, with cracks where the light gets in.

Indeed, that’s exactly how it starts with ‘Song Of The Sun’, a melodically cascading dawn chorus as Jacob sings about how “the light pours in upon our golden slumbers”, waking to a new day amid the rhythms of the ancient English landscape, the lyric drawing on the folklore motif of the sleeping giant.

The title track strikes a note of nostalgia, Jacob recounting over Drinkwater’s piano notes and acoustic guitar, how, in 1934, the Lancashire town of Walton-le-Dale was witness to an aeronautical display by Royal Flying Corps veteran Sir Alan Cobham’s flying circus, a jumping off memory to ride the time stream and recall the Lancashire cotton mills and their smoky chimneys, an image of industrialisation offset by lines that speak of breezes blowing through cornfields, of corncrakes and willow warblers singing as the song becomes a lament for the loss of such halcyon days to the march of technology.

The mood of reverie continues into romantic realms on ‘Real Love’, which, caressed by a bowed double bass, is both a yearning to find the grail the title offers and an openhearted pledge of devotion (“I’ll treat you right no matter what you heard/I’ll be someone you can believe in”) and offering a haven in troubled times (“you come to me with wounded wings/Lost and broken hearted/In golden light come gather all your dreams around me/We’ll be alright”).

In stark contrast, again with double bass as its pulse, ‘There’s A Shadow On The Sun’, Drinkwater also providing harmonies, was written after reading accounts of life in war-torn Syria sung in the voice of a man whose wife was taken from him in a bombing raid (“I held her hand I watched her die”), his heart, like thousands of others in the war torn country, consumed by darkness, leaving him and the Syrian people, to paraphrase Cohen, “a thousand sorrows deep.”

There’s a great sadness in this world”, sings Jacob resignedly in the closing refrain, leading appositely to ‘Nottamun Town’, a medieval English folk song, given a stark, funeral march arrangement (reminding that Dylan borrowed the melody for ‘Masters Of War’) with icy piano trills and reworked and additional lyrics to enhance its anti-war sentiments, the reference to longboats possibly a nod to the fact that, following their invasion of East Anglia, Vikings likely established a settlement in what would become Nottinghamshire.

Coming up the years, set to a ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ circling bass line, ‘Imagined Letter #4’ pairs a note to a lost love (“I rarely talk about you to my friends/Last week I thought I saw you coming down the stairs/How the heart sinks even as it bends”) with a commentary on increasing social alienation (“Everyone here seems so self-absorbed”) and the changing face of London (“they’re closing down the units and the old café/Sold them all to new millionaires…And nobody at the top seems to care”), Jacob’s lament echoing Elizabeth Smart (or maybe Ashley Hutchings) in the line “By Liverpool Street Station I sat down and wept.

But while “Maybe romance is dead as a theme these days”, there’s yet a glimmer of hope (“I still have my suitors so I must be lovable”) and even though “Time is the eternal boat/That carries all our dreams away”, he still calls to stand “weary wings unfurled”, “exercise the voluntary muscles of the heart” and, conjuring Dylan Thomas, to “oppose those dying days/Don’t let your spark burn away”.

Thematically channelling Steve Winwood, crooned over acoustic guitar and double bass, ‘Higher Love’ continues the album’s positive trajectory away from the darkness (“seven days in a line/Each one came to pass a little better than the last”) for, although “the heart is a fragile thing”, “we rise with the morning sun…distil the life and sing”.

Graced with the line “the air it quivered like the tuning fork of all creation”, opening with whistling behind the acoustic guitar notes, the summery, sun-drenched ‘Iridescent Light’, its choppy rhythm and vocals conjuring Paul Simon, is an untrammelled celebration of life (“I woke up laughing madly and I don’t know why”) with the dawn unfolding as a “symphony of murmuration/An undulation fluttering through the sky” , of optimism (“I said that this could be the day our plans all come together”) even in the face of depression (“I asked you if you’d be alright/You said I don’t know if I ever will”).

Given the Simon echoes here, it’s perhaps no accident that, while their pacings are completely different, slowly unfurling on Spanish guitar and double bass, ‘Polaroid’ kind of plays as their answer to ‘Kodachrome’ in its reference to photographs as memories, the song also a nod to the healing power of music (“I wanted you to know/The song you wrote it helped me out when I was low”) and, once again, drawing on the image of new dawns (“I awoke, kissed my sleeping wife/And fell into the open arms of this life”).

For all the gloom, despondency, pain and loss that cast their shadows, ultimately the album serves a reminder that, as the bowed bass and piano-accompanied, hymnal-like closing track with its oohing backing vocals says, ‘It’s Still A Beautiful World’ and that, while we may be exiles on life’s weary road, poor wayfarers and disaffected refugees, we still have the capacity to “listen for the ocean in the shell”, to balance “a pocket full of heartbreak” with “a headful of heaven”, to find comfort and refuge in another’s love, to feel the joy of a newborn child and know that while empires may pass away, “the sun will rise just like it did today.” Throw back the curtains and let this album illuminate the chambers of your soul.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.jacobanddrinkwater.com

‘It’s Still A Beautiful World’ – live:

HOLY MOLY AND THE CRACKERS – Take A Bite (Pink Lane Records)

Take A BiteHoly Moly & The Crackers release Take A Bite on April 5th. Sometimes it brings a smile to your face to see a band grow and develop – for me, this is one of those bands. “All roads lead to the stage. It boils down into one manic, riotous party. That’s where we connect with the audience and with each other and that’s what we’re all about,” says the band’s Conrad Bird. I saw them a couple of times a few years ago playing local halls when a friend put them on as part of Nottinghamshire’s Village Ventures events. In a live performance, Holy Moly don’t half give an exuberant concert.

They are now a six piece band – fiddle, guitar/electric guitar, trumpet, accordion, bass and drums with an energetic sound – “foot-stomping folk pop” is their description. Take A Bite is Holy Moly and the Crackers’ third album and it moves them on from their folk/blues/indie origins to more mainstream music.

There’s a diversity of songs on the album from the massively up tempo ’Sister’ or ‘All I Got Is You’ – which you can hear in the video below – to the slower beauty of ‘I’d Give It All’. Holy Moly and the Crackers began in Newcastle in 2011 as “little more than a laugh” but over the years have kept their energy and become more than a bunch of mates playing together, their playing honed in the old-fashioned way by years of touring and it gives the album much of the dynamism and strength of their live performances.

They describe Take A Bite in words reminiscent of a graduation or the end of an apprenticeship: “We’ve arrived at a place here, with this album, where we can start the journey that we want to be on”. Certainly this album raises the bar. They are on tour from April 4th – 21st, mainly in the North and Scotland, and in places with a great musical history – the Welly, the Musician, the Greystones et al.

It’s a couple of years since I’ve seen the band but if you like the liveliness of ‘All I Got Is You’ you can see there’s more than a fair chance you’ll have a good night if you can get to see them live.

Mike Wistow

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‘All I Got Is You’ – official video:

SIR SILENCE & LADY HUSH – It’s Time She Said (Hushland Creative HUSHCD06)

It's Time She SaidThe third collaborative album by Bill and Rachel Taylor-Beales under their musical partnership name trawls some thirty-five years for what they call balladeering ‘dystopian maladies’, musings on time and existing within it, penned across the decades in places as diverse as Melbourne and Nottingham and finally coming home to roost.

Drawing on shared and individual influences, David Bowie and Tom Waits included, Bill on vocals and Rachel providing back-ups as well as sax, it ranges across musical textures, embracing baroque folk, blues, jazz and narcotic rock shapes, opening with the heady, atmospheric title track which, with its mantra like refrain, dazedly moves from a musical fug to the pealing finale.

Wrapping dissonant guitar notes around a 60s psychedelic pop melody ‘Seaside Town’ draws a picture of autumn years romance and memories before late night sax wails over the keyboard mists of ‘Old Blind Jack’ with its evocative chorus of “Tonight I’ll tame the dragon/All fiery orange and blue/I tattoo my arm to try and keep warm/And I do it just for you”.

The slurred ghost of Lou Reed hovers over the self-imposed isolation of the musically skeletal ‘How Many Times’ (“How many times do I have to tell you not to walk so close by my side?”), the images of emotional dislocation (Rachel echoing “it’s not unusual – to be alone”) percolating through the heavy-lidded, druggy sluggishness of ‘Heaven’.

Moving to a slow, weary sway, ‘Living On Concrete’ stems from Bill’s work as a socially engaged artist and creative practitioner wherein he uses music and portraiture to interact with people looking to find a voice and tell their story. Specifically, it was inspired by conversations with residents in a children’s hospice, hence the theme of mortality that pervades the lyrics as he sings about a woman whose “body was broken/Before she was born” who says she’s going “Some place better than here”, just sooner than she’d like.

Etched out on hymnal piano, the softly sung, somnolent ‘Neptune Didn’t Rise’ (“what’s a god supposed to do when the Devil is always new?”) has a gospel feel, reinforced by Rachel’s backing vocals, shifting to the musical box intro of the sparsely arranged, similarly spiritual musical colours of ‘Lay Down’, Rachel taking over the vocals for the play out lines “Gonna’ sink all the boats in the harbour now/You can dive, you can dive right in”.

Another musically pensive number, picked out on single piano notes and ambient backing, ‘Running Home’ (which reminded me a little of Procul Harum) is another example of Bill’s often impressionistic and evocative lyrics (“Ladies sit, mirrors on their laps/Waiting for the fine dust to fall/And the ladies sit wiping from their lips/Fine powdered sugar from the sky”), before things come to a close with the five and a half-minute splendour of the apocalyptic ‘Sometime Later’ which, opening with radio static, air raid siren, crackling beats and piano, has Bill, live from the Armageddon Broadcasting Company, providing the spoken narrative introduction before Rachel steps into the vocal spotlight for the chorus on a song namechecking and celebrating the musical legacy of Dylan, Waits, Joplin, Denny, Patti Smith and Gillian Welch and remembering “their kind words and wisdom” before the tower of song finally crumbles into the sea.

An album that requires you to sit down and let it soak in, it repays the time you spend. And, on top of which, all proceeds will go towards funding Picture Me, a project partnership between Hushland Portraits and Ty Hafan, a Welsh children’s hospice, to provide free portraits to the children’s family members.

Mike Davies

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

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Artists’ website: www.hushlandcreative.com/sir-silence

‘It’s Time She Said’:

DAVID GRAY – Gold In A Brass Age (IHT Records)

Gold In A Brass AgeDavid Gray released his new album, Gold In A Brass Age, last week – his first album of new material in four years and his eleventh in a career that has now spanned 25 years. The album is currently number 21 in the Album Chart and a single, ‘The Sapling’, has been released. From the video of the single, below, you can hear that Gray’s voice is as compelling as it was twenty years ago when he part-ruled both album and singles charts. It’s neither urgent, nor whispered nor gravelled but has elements of all these and draws you inexorably into the songs.

Gray describes creating the new album, “I was keen to get away from narrative. Instead of writing melodies, I looked for phrases with a natural cadence, so that the rhythm began with the words. I reimagined where a song might spring from and what form it could take”. As an album, this approach works well, the sophistication of the production blending the songs together, though, it does mean that – apart from the delight of ‘The Sapling’ – the individuality of songs can be lost to the coherence of the album whole.

On her live album Joni Mitchell talks about how early work continues to live on because the performing arts are different from painting (“Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man’ “). In a review of a new album, how far should Gray’s earlier work be mentioned as it stands like a dragon in the gate to anything that follows? Perhaps in relation to his touring? Gold In A Brass Age is supported by a UK and Ireland tour, from March 15th to April 6th, and I can imagine the rich sound of this album working well in these larger venues. I’ve just flicked between the new album and some of Gray’s songs from White Ladder – ‘The Sapling’ in particular stands comparison but other tracks won’t be out of place. Scroll down on Gray’s website and you can find the tour details.

In thinking about the wider arts, it’s worth saying that the album cover is rather striking. Gray sought out a tattoo artist (London Boy) and the gold/black artwork (above) shows an Emperor moth with the London skyline captured in its wingspan. If you look out other tracks from the album on YouTube – ‘A Tight Ship’ or ‘Watching the Waves’, say – you’ll find the artwork has also been turned into elegant videos.

How to sum up? Gold In A Brass Age is a mature album by a notable artist which I’ve enjoyed listening to. It’s rather classy – but that, of course, might just be the point being made by the album’s title.

Mike Wistow

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

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‘The Sapling’ – official video:

SARAH-JANE SUMMERS – Owerset (Eighth Nerve 8Nerve004)

OwersetI was in a melancholy mood when I sat down to listen to Owerset, not uncommon as I contemplate the growing futility of Man’s existence. The opening track, ‘Gall-Ghàidheil’, really didn’t help but fortunately I only had a blunt pair of scissors to hand. Sarah-Jane Summers is a Scottish fiddle player based in Norway, which goes a long way to explain her musical style, variously described as “traditional”, “classical” and “improvisational”. Owerset was commissioned for Celtic Connections 2018 and all the music was written by Summers. She eschews the hardingfele and some of the other esoteric instruments she employs for an ensemble with leanings towards jazz – Hayden Powell’s trumpet being a major part of the sound. There would seem to be more sounds than the listed instruments account for so I suspect a fair amount of digital manipulation has gone on.

The theme of the commission was words that have moved from Scandinavian languages to Scots and sometimes English. You can learn a great deal about etymology from the sleeve notes: Skegg means beard, Spey means to prophesy or a kind of elf and handfasting as a form of marriage was legal in Scotland until 1939. The opening track, which translates as ‘Norse-Gaels’ is a mini-suite about the settling of Hebridean islands by Vikings. Its mournful violin beginning, underpinned by Morten Kvam’s bowed double bass, gradually expands with the melody dominant moving into a brief cacophony of sound before the fiddle goes off in a new direction and the piece ends with a very short double bass figure.

‘Flit’ opens with electric guitar by one of Sarah-Jane’s regular musical accomplices, Juhani Silvola and he and the fiddle trade lead roles in a piece that sums up the concept of flight perfectly. ‘Fitakaleerie’, led initially by Leif Ottosson’s accordion is apparently the Norse equivalent of the hand jive although you also have hold an ale-cog while performing it. ‘Gate’ begins with the strangest sounds on the album.

The title track comes in two parts: the first in the style of a Swedish polska and the second in more orthodox Scottish style. This mixture of Norse and Scottish, ancient and modern, runs through the album which is exceptionally fine – possibly Sarah-Jane’s best work.

Dai Jeffries

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Aritist’s website: www.sarah-janesummers.com

‘Owerset’ – live at Celtic Connections:

ASTRALINGUA – Safe Passage (Midnight Lamp)

Safe PassageA self-described nomadic space-folk duo, multi-instrumentalist and composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and his backing vocalist wife Anne Rose have, over the course of recent critically well-received singles, built a healthy anticipation for this, their debut album, variously recorded in the Sierra Nevadas, the Mojave desert and France. Navigating a cosmic pathway between psychedelia, folk, progressive and classical, and complemented by instrumentation that includes flutes, violin, cello and double bass with Chris Hillman on mandolin, they declare it to be a statement on mortality, isolation and transitioning between worlds.

It open with their first two singles, ‘Plunge’ and ‘Visitor’, the former, a chamber arrangement driven by pulsing cello sets a nervy rhythm reflecting anxiety and anticipation of inevitable, inexorable change as Joseph sings “into the falls we go to whatever waits below/holding our heads up high/it’s a good day to die!”. Written and recorded in a Mojave cabin, ‘Visitor’, by contrast, is a more meditative, sparser piece of pastoral psych-folk, the simple acoustic guitar flecked with flute and bolstered by double bass, Anne having referenced the story of the Pied Piper in regards to the ambiguous intent of the song’s narrator as they softly purr “come with me my weary child, cold and all alone/put your little hand in mine and I will take you home”.

The tumbling, circling notes of an acoustic guitar provide the framework for ‘Sweet Dreams’, cello and flute complementing Joseph’s use of musical box piano notes and cajon for a lilting, sunnily pastoral languorous sway and lyrics that hint at dreams (or perhaps even suicide) as a way to reconnect with life’s lost magic.

It’s followed by the first of the instrumentals, ‘The Nimble Men’, a dissonant, ambient swirl enfolding flute and cello that sounds like it could be used in one of the dark enchantments of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ shading into the most recent single, the softly sung, otherworldly ‘Space Blues’, which again speaks of isolation and feeling adrift in (echoing Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’) conjuring the image of an astronaut “staring through a polished glass” at the stars, feeling empty and cold and missing his home and asking “how much have i sacrificed for curiosity?”.

‘Phantoms’ is another instrumental, a stark, sombre piano piece that shades into plucked violin, melancholic cello and disorienting, discordant sound effects like harpies at a bacchanalia. Opening what sounds like the chimes of Big Ben and proceeding on a repeated piano note drone ‘NSA’ returns to space but with an even more disturbing lyric as, bridged by a pulsing strings interlude, Joseph sings in sweetly conspiratorial tones “I know your secret/this whole time I’ve been watching you… I know what you want and I’ve got what you need/I’ve got everything that’s burning in your mind”.

By way of something different, Joseph draws on his love of William Blake for a setting of his poem about the destructive nature of envy and anger, ‘A Poison Tree’, a playful arrangement featuring trilling twin mandolins and cello that evokes European folk music, a cautionary tale to be sung in some Balkan tavern as the sun sets.

A meditation on the transitory nature of existence when “all of the things you hold so dear can in an instant disappear”, ‘Fallen’ opens with the sound of a musical box being wound up, a five minute lullaby about mortality, the arbitrary nature of death and how, drawing ion nature’s cycles, winter can draw in on relationships and beliefs leaving you high and dry as “all of the things you hold so true can make the coldest bed for you”.

Again echoing that crossing from one world to another realm, drawing on Arthurian myth, ‘Passage To Avalon’ is the third and final instrumental, a suitably dreamy, classical influenced piece featuring violin, fiddle, double bass and wordless vocals that conjures the serenity of passing over, serving as an appropriate prelude to the album’s thematically-linked seven-minute parting track, ‘The Troubled Road’. Evocative of The Flaming Lips and featuring bansuri (Indian flute), double bass, cello and FX, it’s a psychedelic cosmic spiritual with the narrator singing about weariness with the world, of being “tired of carrying this load”, ready to rest his aching bones as death closes in and he calls for Charon to ferry him across the river to the promised land.

For an album that predominantly deals with isolation, alienation, loss and death, it’s surprisingly uplifting and beguiling in its contemplation of the passage to the beyond. In Latin their name would mean the language of the stars, and this is a stellar debut indeed.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.astralingua.com

‘Space Blues’ – official video: