Hampshire’s celebrated eight-piece ceilidh band returns with their fourth album of music that you don’t have to dance to…but you can if you wish. In the past I‘ve been critical of Threepenny Bit for taking things rather too speedily but with King Ahtu they have found the soft pedal which is to the benefit of the fine musicians in the band. Mustering flute, whistle, clarinet, saxophone and violin alongside the usual array of dance band instruments they have the flexibility to play just about any way they want…and do. Now about the title. I could make up some rubbish about king Ahtu of the ostriches like the band do but I won’t. I will say that I wouldn’t want to meet the ostrich that laid that monster on the cover.
The opening track, ‘Drummond Castle’ begins so quietly that I started to fiddle with connections until an almost ethereal sound began to build. The first half of this set is also the first borrowing of the album, ‘Icy Jig’ by Chris Dewhurst, with Steven Beaumont’s arrangement of ‘Drummond Castle’ bringing up the rear. The second track is ‘Sula’s’ by new drummer Ross Gordon – I say “new” but he’s been with the band since 2015 – and it’s the last thing you might expect a drummer to compose. I’m not sure what else Ross plays as he only admits to being a drummer but this tune is emblematic of Threepenny Bit’s current direction.
Most of tracks are pretty long so if you want to take around the floor to ‘Ballydesmond’ or Chris Nichols’ waltz, ‘Katie’s’, you have plenty of scope for doing so. The longest is ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ which is paired with ‘The Two Rascals’ by Paul Sartin and the arrangement from the pen of Steven Troughton is spectacularly good. He manages to play around with the melody of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ while holding on to the essentials of its character. Steven is also responsible for the arrangement of ‘Old Mother Oxford’ which is another delight.
There is no doubt that Threepenny Bit are an excellent band and any festival looking to expand its dance line-up should look no further. Meanwhile, King Ahtu is a very fine album.
Dave Arthur thought it would be a good idea to collect some of his favourite songs from the Rattle On The Stovepipe catalogue as a Christmas present for his family and friends. When it was finished the collective wisdom was that it should be released to the wide world – a very good idea as the band’s early albums are now out of print. So Someone To Love You isn’t strictly a Dave Arthur album nor is it an objective Rattle On The Stovepipe retrospective. It is, however, a very enjoyable set.
It may be significant that Dave has selected longer songs, generally the more laid-back ones, as if he wants to savour the moments. There are exceptions of course: ‘Stackolee’ rocks along as does ‘Dead Heads And Suckers’ and the trio lean forward a bit on the murder ballad, ‘Monday Morning Go To School’, ‘Black Bottom Blues’ and ‘The Devil’s In The Girl’ – a text from Devon set to the tune by Dave, appropriately interpolated with ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’.
Dave is a great believer in the dictum that a song is a living thing and has added to several of the songs. I was fascinated to note that while ‘Bill Dalton’s Wife’ has the ring of authenticity it actually began life as a poem by Hedy West’s father for which Dave wrote more verses and a tune. The only other written song is ‘Dillard Chandler’, by Dick Connette and that borrows from old songs including a favourite of mine ‘Saro Jane’ (originally by Uncle Dave Macon but who remembers the JSD Band?).
But I digress and that’s one of the side-effects of this record; it will lead you down dusty half-forgotten trails. Although Dave Arthur’s name is above the title of Someone To Love You he gives due recognition to the three musicians who have made up the band over the last decade and a half: Pete Cooper, Chris Morton and Dan Stewart. If you have all the Rattle On The Stovepipe albums you’re very lucky. If not, this is a wonderful place to start.
The New Mine is the second wonderful blast from the re-constituted Matthews Southern Comfort.
A little history: I had lost track of Iain Matthews. But Like A Radio was a seismic surprise. And this new The New Mine is a very welcome and melodic aftershock. Both albums groove with carefully arranged and then re-arranged ‘Throwaway Street Puzzle’ pieces of rock, folk, pop, and (a touch of) jazz.
The New Mine begins with a brilliant rendition of Joni Mitchell’s brilliant song, ‘Ethiopia’. The tune oozes concern for humanity. Of course, Matthews Southern Comfort’s first big single years ago was a take on Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, and the two songs compress the years into very simple plea for a more intelligent, melodic, and vital world. Iain’s voice sings with a deeper pathos than his 70’s recordings, and even touches the raw passion of Bruce Cockburn.
‘The Hands Of Time’ ups the gospel ante and conjures joyous comfort, while confronting a time “when the sleep won’t come”. This song dips into the same spring water as The Band, spring water that flows with a pure and sepia melody.
Now, Robert Palmer had a big hit song with ‘Simply Irresistible’. I think he was singing about a woman. But the same could be said of ‘Feed It’. The tune bulges with a quick melody, a lively lyric, a soulful chorus, and an (almost) 50’s hamburger joint vocal. The songs buzzes with joy, a fluid acoustic guitar solo, and a jazzy piano. Sometimes, even pop music gets to touch the heavens.
And then the album dives into deeper waters. ‘Patty’s Poetry’ has a very catchy chorus and a friendly electric guitar. The title track is bluesy, acoustic, and piano jazzy with a very modern message that seconds the motion of fellow ex-Fairport Richard Thompson’s song that warns, “We’re all working for the Pharaoh”. Then, ‘Starvation Box’ begins with ‘Battle Of Evermore’ Zep thought, but then dissolves into the tale of a Vietnam vet who “won’t go back”. Of course, they nab the guy! And a nice guitar circles the defiance and deep psychology of the song.
A little more of history: Iain sang Fairport’s ‘Meet On The Ledge’. And that song is tattooed on the soul of any British folk-rock lover. ‘Nuff said! The original Matthews Southern Comfort cut three albums of folk music that gave a big wave to west coast Americana music. Then, there was a series of (blessed) solo records, the first two on the (equally blessed) Vertigo label. He moved to Elektra. These albums were tapestries of self-penned and covered songs that, despite their near-perfect beauty, never really sold many copies. He also played in Plainsong with Andy Roberts on guitar and recorded the very great album In Search Of Amelia Earhart. Then countless labels and countless records, including albums with Elliot Murphy and David Surkamp (of Palov’s Dog fame!) proved that Iain, when singing Richard Thompson’s words, did “really mean it” way back in Fairport history.
And, by the way, fans of (the great) Gene Clark and Mason Proffit (of ‘Two Hangmen’ and ‘Eugene Pratt’ fame) will find lots to love in those early solo records.
And now he has resurrected MSC with new members Bart Jan Baartmans, Bart de Win and Eric De Vries in a band that echoes the great sound of Steely Dan or the pop-rock perfection of China Crisis. This album also cuts similar grooves with Nick Lowe’s all over the place Jesus Of Cool (known in America as Pure Pop For Now People). So, this is quite serious rock, folk, pop, and (sort of) jazz stuff.
But, as I often quote Procol Harum, “Still there’ll be more”. ‘C’mon Amigo’ is country acoustic music that hovers in harmonious west coast folk rock beauty, with banjo and accordion breaths. ’The Hole’ slows time and asks the necessary questions about the future of all we hold so dear. The chorus, again, is a melodic exclamation sing-a-long pointed truth that overwhelms cynicism and demands an answer. ‘A Secret Is Gone’ is yet another accordion pulsed tune with urgent psychological plot. If this covers some of the same catchy ethos of the before-mentioned Nick Lowe’s Pure Pop For Now People, it also sings to the Pure Pop People who enjoy good and intelligent rock music.
The final three songs stretch the album to its finish line. ‘The Sacrificial Cow’, again, returns to gospel spring waters, with the nice touch of jazz piano. ‘Inbetween’ rolls with New Orleans flavour, and recalls the easy Big Muddy flow of Bobby Charles’ classic 1972 self-titled album. And then ‘In My Next Life’ is acoustic and confessional soft passion that sits well beside Rick Danko’s take on Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ from The Band’s Moondog Matinee. It’s a really nice final thoughtful groove.
Way back a long time ago, Iain sang his song, ‘Knowing The Game’ on his Journeys From Gospel Oak album that professed, “You may be taken down, you may be written off, it’s knowing how to stay the same, knowing how to play the game”. Sure, the good stuff always “comes around again”, and this is really good stuff, stuff that knows “how to play the game” but it still tent stakes a tough soul “to stay the same”, and then manages, against a lot of odds, to create yet another Iain Matthews album of near-perfect beauty.
Always a question to wonder about – what should you do for Valentine’s Day that isn’t cheesy, superfluous or slushily romantic? How about listening to Stephanie Hatfield’s new album? Out This Fell is Hatfield’s fourth album, released in the UK on February 14th, is none of those things.
Hatfield is originally from Detroit, has a Kentucky hillbilly heritage and now lives close to nature in the South-West. Throw a few more things into the recipe – childhood singing in a Presbyterian church, youthful holidays doing everything the old fur traders did, moving to New Mexico “on her own with her cat, her snake, and her motorcycle, with no job lined up, and only $100 to her name after her first month’s rent” – and you get a sense of someone who has travelled. Listen to the album and you can hear some of the diverse influences that Hatfield has picked up along the way: some Americana, some Folk, some Indie Rock, and the odd flicker in the arrangements of things more diverse from Mexican to Opera. This jumble might make for a strange brew, but on Out This Fell Hatfield has pulled it all together into a gently creative tension.
Listen to ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ in the link below – you can hear the Americana/Indie sound in the tune and the guitar breaks; there’s a lovely lyric of loss comparing now to previous times when “[we were] Lit inside like the charges from/An electrical storm twisting to the ground”. And above all, there’s Hatfield’s voice, holding all that tension together reflectively and then teasing out the emotion with an operatic interlude.
Have a listen to the haunting ‘In Those Woods’ which includes the title lyric, another great vocal performance, an understated band and the howl of dogs as it builds to the conclusion “Deliver me an end”. ‘Not Her’ is (I think) a description of Detroit “torn down by its pride”, “vines splitting bricks” but now also “A beauty rarely seen/Pockets of resurgence”. These are songs about tough things in life, but Hatfield’s voice and the restrained arrangements and production (by Hatfield and husband/guitarist/keyboard player Bill Palmer) make them easy to listen to.
If you want a couple of tracks which are a gentler introduction to Out This Fell, try ‘Lucy’ or the rather beautiful ‘River Still Runs’ which intermingles a melodic tune to a love story with images of nature such as “Clinging to you/Like Spring comes through a winter breeze”. But the power of the album is in Hatfield’s voice backlit by a delicate band on the tough songs. She’s touring in America currently but this is well worth a listen (whether on February 14th or later in the year) – and there are tracks on here that will stay in the memory longer than most Valentine’s Days.
Fairport Convention’s Shuffle And Go is a “green and pleasant” lovely folk album that winks and waves at the past, and (to almost quote Procol Harum) it “trips the light fandango” and indeed, still “turns cartwheels ‘cross the floor”. This is wise and warm music.
Now, in his book Meet On The Ledge A History Of Fairport Convention, Patrick Humphries says that Full House’s ‘Sloth’ is “a complex narrative, the novel that Thomas Hardy always meant to write”. Well, that’s a dart to the triple twenty spot. The epic tune bleakly suggests a past that anchors its characters into an ink blot where “She’s run away, she’s run away/And she ran so bitterly” because “Now the right thing’s the wrong thing”.
The comparison is apt. Hardy’s Tess is haunted by her past, and Angel Clare and Alec return again (and again) to signpost her fate. Of course, The Mayor of Casterbridge tells the tale of Michael Henchard, he who has it all, and is dragged down by a dredged past because Elizabeth Jane really isn’t his child, and then that wedding gifted song bird dies in caged neglect. Let’s not even talk about Obscure Jude and Little Father Time! So, yeah, ‘Sloth’ touches a live wire that’s very human, very electric, and fueled with an ill-fated certainty.
But Shuffle And Go has very little to do with any unwritten Hardy novel. Truly, this album doesn’t get caught up in past glories. The band is simply comfortable in its own skin. As said, this record winks, waves, and then nods at its own history; and to quote another ageless band, Fleetwood Mac, simply chooses to Then Play On.
The first two songs are quite wonderful. ‘Don’t Reveal My Name’ is a spooky Chris Leslie penned song with Biblical references galore and smoky guitars. It’s a nice tune, with or without the Fairport tag. Oh my! ‘Cider Rain’ is folk pop perfection with the sturdy comfort of a Simon Nicol vocal.
This is good music which closely shadows their resurgent album, Myths & Heroes. ‘Good Time For A Fiddle And Bow/The Christmas Reel’ could pump up any flat tire with enough umph to dance into many more dawning miles. Oh my! (again), Simon Nicol captures the beauty of England’s public houses, places where free speech in ‘A Thousand Bars’ and sad reflections are poured to match any locally pure and melodic brew. And then there’s Leslie’s title tune ‘Shuffle And Go’, which is up-tempo with an almost Americana zydeco pulse. ‘The Year Of Fifty Nine’ is again, quick with Ric Sanders’ violin, while the lyrics mention “Sputnik”, which is a long way from John Babbacombe Lee or “sad little Matty Groves”. Ditto for the Dave Pegg’s bass bulging in Sanders’ raucous ‘Steampunkery’, as it glances with modern gusto at the ‘Dirty Linen’ of long ago.
There are light-hearted moments. ‘Linseed Memories’ is a casual stroll, and would fit into the relaxed grooves of Ralph McTell’s 1973 very fine album, Easy. ‘Jolly Springtime’ (written by James Taylor!) is a clever choral tune as various voices weave yet another “green and pleasant” moment that conjures the plaintive sound early Steeleye Span. And ‘The Byfield Steeplechase’ is timeless Fairport, with yet another epic (!) tale, in almost Morris-dance time.
Two songs touch history. ‘Moondust And Solitude’ envisions an Apollo Moon landing, with includes a radio broadcast from the time. It’s important to remember that Fairport were an essential addition to the broad and inclusive hope of the late 60’s, despite the occasional rather tragic lyric about ‘Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman’ and ‘Crazy Man Michael’. It was all part of a very nice game.
‘Moses Waits’ is the odd tune out, written (by Rob Beattie) from the point of view of a Kenyan who “waits for the tips that make up his rent”, “the union to organize”, and he thinks of “his children with their heads bowed down at school”. Then the music slides into an ethnic shuffle that touches a simple beauty that, hopefully, fulfills the pure intent of the pre-Fairport Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra. As Fairport’s signature song Meet On The Ledge still proclaims, even after all these years, “If you really mean it, it all comes round again”. It’s a brilliant tune that conjures the thought of Vin Garbutt’s very necessary song, ‘When The Oppressed Becomes Oppressor’.
The final song is a violin slow dance, ‘Precious Time’. It’s nice. It’s beautiful. But (perhaps, a gripe) Myths & Heroes also did that with ‘Jonah’s Oak’.
That said, in his old (but still optimistic) age, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in ‘Terminus’, “I trim myself to the storm of time”. Fair enough. But he also wrote, “Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime”. That’s what Shuffle And Go does because, as Emerson also said, “every wave is charmed”. And, in Fairport’s case, “every wave” is “green and pleasant” and “charmed”, thankfully, over and over again.
Hailing from Tyrone and Meath, respectively, Northern Irish duo Mark McCausland (a cousin of Lonnie Donegan, apparently) and Osin Leech have made a point of recording their albums in different cities. For After The Fire After The Rain, their sixth, they went to Brooklyn where they recruited Daniel Schlett and Tony Garnier, Dylan’s bassist and musical director for the past thirty years, as producers. Garnier also features on a double bass once owned by Charlie Mingus while other stellar contributions come from Howe Gelb, M Ward, Jolie Holland and Waterboys fiddler Steve Wickham.
The new album includes three instrumentals, the first being the hushed and reflective fingerpicked ‘Six Mile Cross’ (a location in Omagh) with its background wash of brushed drums and da da dah vocals while, played on Spanish guitar, the circling melody of ‘Ash Wednesday’ with its whistling and occasional bass drum thump has the feel of mountains and prairie nights in some Leone western. The third, and the album’s slow march swaying closer with its wordless oohing from Jolie, has a firmly romantic Irish flavour, not least in being titled ‘Glens of Gortin’, named for an area near Omagh. Indeed, the songs were written in an old County Monaghan hotel, the landscape, weather and their connections to their home informing and inspiring the finished work.
Meanwhile, back at the start and featuring a haunting harmonica, the world-weary ‘Fugitive Moon’ again has that dusty Americana texture, a five-minute strummed unrequited love song (“My heart is vacant like a desolate room”) of a man “cursed since the day I was born” in a lyric that references the river Boyne with the line “who knows where the time goes” surely a nod to Sandy.
The pace picks up, and even more so in the final stretch, with ‘Medicine Wine’, another widescreen number, here with Dave Murphy’s keening pedal steel and Garnier’s upright bass, that speaks of the Irish landscape’s healing power, namechecking both Gortin Glen and the Tara hills. It carries over into the chugging rhythm of the downbeat ‘Eight Hundred Miles’, the line “The loneliness of a long distance soul/Torn apart on the cambria shores” presumably a reference to the wreck of the SS Camria off the north-west of Ireland in October 1870 with great loss of life (“I’ll be gone in the grey winter sun/Forever tied to oblivion”), the harmonies underlining the frequent S&G comparisons. It is, however, Leonard Cohen who most comes to mind, both in melody and vocal delivery on the first of the two title tracks (a James Taylor nod, perhaps), a dappled rhythm underpinning a lyric Leech describes as a statement of perseverance and survival (“After the fire came the hard and blowing rains/At the belief seminar they said to face the pain”) as brass arrives in the closing stretch. His ghost is there again, hovering over the banjo-flecked and fiddle Appalachian flavours of the ominous -toned ‘Venus’ with its lines about how “I’ve come to be undone/By my blind faith” and “learned to smile as I make my kill” and
Things then take a bluesy turn with Garnier bringing a touch of his Tom Waits bass contributions to the spooked, loping and hushedely sung ‘Hope Machine’ with its Farfisa interjections while, harmonica putting in a return appearance along with brass shadings, ‘Wilderness’ is a slow lurch in keeping with lines like “comes a void where I slip and I fall into nothingness/Where I wait for the light to flood in out of consciousness/My back to the sun my weakness defenceless/I go blinded by the wilderness”, yet ultimately proving a refusal to surrender to despair – “And I look to the sky and I won’t be defied by the Emptiness/ Then comes a voice from above telling me to begin/Again/And I’ve got no choice but to heed the call and get up again”.
Paul Brainard’s mariachi horns also make a splash in the second half of the title as, McCauslan on baritone guitars, it swells midway before a soft dying fall as, haunted by the call of his native land, Leech sings “Now I’m far away I’m trying to get home/Pray to St. Anthony don’t leave me alone”. Their last album was called Halfway To The Healing, this completes the journey.