Prosecco Socialist emerged late last year with a brilliant single, ‘This Dog’s Just For Christmas (Not For Life)’. It’s the second track here and not really about dogs although perhaps it is about Christmas a la mode but, like most of the Songs From Behind Bars it’s about people.
The band was founded by The Beautiful South’s Dave Rotheray with long-time collaborator Eleanor McEvoy and Mike Greaves who brings his country vibe to the trio. Dave and Eleanor are both clever songwriters with a sharp wit and are a perfect pairing. Dave’s voice is rough and gravely while Eleanor can lay on her accent when cynicism is required. The opening track is ‘The Man Who Faked His Own Life’ by Rotheray and Greaves and it’s not the only song here to leave you with more questions than answers. It’s a fine description of the man, or rather his fake persona, and we can’t know him any more than the writers can.
‘Flowers On The Stream’ is written by Dave, Eleanor and Rod Clements and is a bitter-sweet rocker that first emerged nearly ten years ago but this is the perfect vehicle for it. ‘That’s Just For The Tourists’ is one of two Rotheray/McEvoy compositions. It first appeared on I’d Rather Go Blonde and the other is ‘The Night May Still Be Young (But I Am Not)’ which comes from Love Must Be Tough. Fine songs, both of them.
It may be a cliché to say that a record doesn’t have a single poor track but here it’s true. Of the songs I haven’t heard before ‘Tijuana Nights’, ‘City Of Culture’ (surely not about Hull), ‘Silver Pennies’ and ‘Queen Of The Afternoon’ are already settling into a corner of my brain and, although this may be a coincidence, I really fancy a gin-and-tonic right now.
Twenty years to the day since their first gig, Dàimh release their seventh album, The Rough Bounds. While the title might aptly describe the burly chap gracing the cover, it actually relates to the area around West Lochaber where the band originates, “Na Garbh Chrìochan” in Gaelic.
Dàimh (meaning “kinship”) are now a six-piece, with the addition of fiddler Alasdair White to complement Gabe McVarish. The album also features Duncan Lyall (double bass), Martin O’Neill (bodhran) alongside ex-band member Calum Alex MaxMillan, Ewen Henderson and Kathleen MacInnes (backing vocals).
A lively puirt à beul trio (about chickens, Owen’s boat and picking cockles), ‘‘S Trusaidh mi na Coilleagan’ fairly bubbles along like a clear mountain stream. Followed up by ‘12th Of June’, a strong, driving pipe-led set of jigs, these two tracks make an immediately engaging opening to the album.
Sorrowful òran, ‘Tha Fadachd orm Fhìn’ features a delicate metallic sheen of percussion courtesy of guest artist Signy Jakobsdottir, well-partnered with Ellen MacDonald’s expressive vocal. MacDonald’s crystal clear voice is edged with a subtle smokiness and, aside from the liveliness of puirt à beul, the songs of love, loss and longing featured here allow her melancholy lyricism to the fore. (A witty set of icons printed alongside the song titles provides helpful clues about the subject matter: those accompanying ‘Bodach Innse Chrò’ are particularly brilliant).
The tunes mix the band’s arrangements of traditional material with their original compositions, all of which sit together extremely comfortably. New and old interweave unobtrusively. A pair of Donald MacLeod reels, an homage to one of the band’s favourite composers, makes for an interesting diversion. Here, beaty guitar and assertive fiddle provide the framework for a deftly twisting, turning interplay of pipes and whistles.
Arrangements are rich but not overloaded, with the band’s skilful, energetic playing breathing fresh vitality into the tunes. The album culminates with a haunting and lamenting instrumental version of the murderous, ‘Chì mi’n Toman’, with its eerie, lingering final pipe notes.
The Rough Bounds makes a most welcome and assured addition to the Scottish traditional music canon. From here, Dàimh are looking strong and confident as they embark on their next twenty years. Su O’Brien
It’s funny how things go but there seems to something of a resurgence in English fiddle music at the moment. Hover is Bryony’s second solo album although these are in addition to her work with The Witches Of Elswick, partner Will Hampson and The Demon Barbers. Although mostly solo, Ian Stephenson adds guitar and double bass sparingly.
Some of these tunes were collected on Bryony’s travels. ‘The Gaubeo, The Ladds Of Dance & Oaks Assembly’ came from various manuscripts but have gone back into the tradition in reinvigorated form as Bryony’s set for the Newcastle Kingsmen’s rapper dance. ‘Ladies’ Pleasure’ & Constant Billy’ were learned first hand for Bryony to play for Dog Rose Morris and I’d like to think that tunes have been passed around like this for three hundred years or so, although perhaps without the impetus of a Morris weekend. ‘Queen’s Delight & Bonnets So Blue’ came from Lionel Bacon’s book and were also put together for Dog Rose.
It’s not all straightforward Morris tunes, however. ‘Oranges In Bloom’ is Cotswold tune adapted as a slow waltz and paired with ‘The Castle Minuet’. I particularly like ‘Slingsby’s Allemand & The Spanish Spy’ which were collected from old manuscripts but, this being the 21st century, the other sources of tunes are records and websites. It does seem a bit easy when a song or a tune can be taken from the interweb without leaving the comfort of your own home. Now, when I was young… Bryony, however, is scrupulous about naming her sources so anyone wanting to learn one of these tunes has a first port of call.
That may sound cynical but I can see many young fiddlers wanting to learn some of these tunes or a band in need of a new set pouncing on this album. It is also pleasant listening on a summer’s afternoon.
No 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 acrossthe 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.
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
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I’m not sure I should be writing this review: while I’ve played guitar in many ceilidh bands over the years, I don’t claim any in-depth knowledge of the tradition from which Let’s Have Another Gan Ainm – due for digital-only release on July 1st 2018 – springs. Yet it’s such a delightful album, I can’t resist telling you the little I know about it.
First, that title. Gan Ainm simply means “no name”, and if you’ve skipped ahead to the track list below you’ll have noticed that every track includes at least one tune called Gan Ainm. This reflects the fact that Dónal Ó Conaill of Roscommon, who passed away in 2003, was a notable collector of local tunes without names, and passed them on to his family. Since his passing, the family has grown and spread to other parts of Ireland and the UK.
However, in the summer of 2017 three generations of the Ó Conaill family returned to the family home in Roscommon, along with some family friends to pay tribute to his life and legacy by recording “the best of these tunes, along with some of Dónal’s personal favourites.” And a fine collection of beautifully-played tunes it is. While it includes some well-known titles such as ‘Lord Mayo’, ‘The Blackbird’ and ‘Toss The Feathers (II)’ (the last so called to distinguish it from another reel similarly named), the unnamed jigs, reels and airs here thoroughly deserve their inclusion.
6 – ‘Girls Of Banbridge’, ‘Gallowglass’, ‘Gan Ainm’
7 – ‘The Blackbird’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Mrs Galvin’s’
8 – ‘Gan Ainm’
9 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Bunch of Green Rushes’, ‘Gan Ainm’
10 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Anthony Frowley’s’
11 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Toss the Feathers II’, ‘Gan Ainm’
Caitlín and Ùna Ó Conaill and her families and friends have done lovers of Irish traditional music an immense favour by allowing us this snapshot of a family reuniting to make delightful music, and I feel privileged to have been able to experience it. It’s good to know that while such a gathering at the family home may be a rare event, Dónal Ó Conaill’s legacy will continue to be enjoyed in the world beyond Roscommon.