DON McLEAN – Botanical Gardens (BMG538329932)

Botanical GardensForty-seven years and 19 albums on, McLean’s name is still preceded in reviews by “American Pie singer” and for most people, he’s still probably associated with that and ‘Vincent’. Now 72, Botanical Gardens, his first (and rumouredly last studio recording) in eight years, the first for a major label since 1995 isn’t going to change that.

His voice, as you’d imagine, is more seasoned these days, at times a little on the wobbly side, but he still has the ability to gather you up while the music, a mixed brew of folk, country, blues, rock and a dash of vaudeville, offers a relaxed, melodic listen in the classic manner. The title track, a rolling country blues and gospel number, was apparently inspired by a visit to gardens near the Sydney Opera House and sets the theme of being rejuvenated by love (undoubtedly sparked by the current relationship with his 24-year-old girlfriend) that bubbles through the majority of the songs. Indeed, the title of the twangy Marty Robbins-styled country ‘The Lucky Guy’ pretty much speaks for itself while on the goodtime soft shoe shuffle ‘Ain’t She A Honey’ (slap a big band on it and it could have come from the 40s) his baby’s hot, “a ripper with a buckle and a zipper.. a looker and a steam pressure-cooker. ”

Elsewhere, the giddiness of romance – and the feeling of not quite believing his luck – is also to be found on the similarly retro jazzy swing of ‘You’ve Got Such Beautiful Eyes’, a number you could hear Willie Nelson covering, and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Your Baby’ which is, well more rocking especially on those 50s sounding guitar solos. Led by piano, there’s a laid back jazzy swing too on ‘I’ve Cried All The Tears That I Have’ with its sentiment about how “it’s better to love and to lose than decide you don’t want to live.”

But it’s not all positive and upbeat. Enrobed with swelling strings, ‘The King Of Fools’, another Willie contender, reflects on screwing up a past relationship as he sings “castles and mansions lie ruined in the sand…I lost your love, my crown and jewels”, while the musically dramatic ‘A Total Eclipse Of The Sun’ looks back to a brief encounter that left him metaphorically bleeding in the dust. The lyrics refer to meeting this heartbreaker back in a hot July and the same month is at the heart of ‘When July Comes’, a stark piano ballad with McLean in terrific voice on a lyric that brushes up against mortality. It calls to mind Brel, Aznavour and, especially, Sinatra, the latter’s influence making itself further felt in the album’s only cover, a piano and strings arrangement of Arlen and Harburg’s ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ which the Guv’nor recorded on In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.

Nor is it exclusively about matters of the heart. Another early 50s-styled piano ballad, on the surface ‘You’re All I Ever Had’ would seem to be about a constant lover, but dig a little deeper and it’s more likely about his lifetime’s love affair with music. Of a topical persuasion, while it may have been written in 2015, set to a saloon bar piano, the country swaying gospel ‘Grief and Hope’, a song about healing and looking to a better tomorrow, seems particularly pertinent in a divided Trump America. And, striking a similarly optimistic note, the other, the most country sounding number, with its echoes of Cash and Haggard, is ‘The Waving Man’, which dates back further to 2014, and is actually about one of McLean’s neighbours in Camden, Maine, wheelchair-bound veteran Kert Ingraham who, told he wasn’t allowed to smoke in his care home, took to sitting in the street outside, waving to folk as they passed by, the lyrics musing “does he wave goodbye to the life he led or does he wave hello to the life ahead?” If this really does prove McLean’s recording swansong, Botanical Gardens sees him bow out in full bloom.

Mike Davies

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Live on TV – ‘Total Eclipse Of The Sun’ and interview:

YOU ARE WOLF – Keld (Firecrest Records, FC001P)

KeldDiving down from the avian themes of You Are Wolf’s first album, Hawk To The Hunting Gone, Keld is a set of songs of water, specifically the mysticism of freshwater inland waterways. The word “keld” means “the deep, still, smooth part of a river” – somewhere to swim, to chant spells, to drown, to murder.

You Are Wolf is one among Kerry Andrew’s many projects as a prolific writer and musician. Here, she partners with multi-instrumentalist Sam Hall (whose cello playing is gorgeous) and percussionist Peter Ashwell to bring an alt-folk take on some traditional songs and to push the boundaries with their original material. The songs focus on building up complex rhythmic sequences from multiple layers of instruments and voice.

The traditional songs are delivered fairly straight in Andrew’s clean, clear vocal. Arrangements are rhythmically rich and suitably sympathetic, with the running water and hand percussion beneath the a cappella vocal of ‘The Baffled Knight’, followed by the metallic clinking and sultry cello of ‘As Sylvie Was Walking’ making for a very enticing start.

At track three, there was a sudden parting of the ways. ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ is a bafflingly over-stuffed incantation, a mantra-fuelled distillation of urban yoga workshop. Perhaps there’s just a bit too much sonic distraction going on in this one. ‘George Collins’ and ‘Down In The Willow Garden’ which follow, are sweet and simple relief, by contrast.

Generally, though, it’s on the original songs that the band members really get a chance to stretch themselves. ‘Dragonfly’ moves from a sinister rattlesnake shake to African Pygmy singing in a rather Kate Bush-like way. There’s a fine coda to ‘If Boys Could Swim’ where, over a darkly scraping cello, the central phrase is chopped up, eventually reduced to a mere two words “girls, boys” which, despite suddenly calling a well-known Blur song to mind, is highly accomplished and considered in terms of how it’s achieved.

In another take, ‘Drowndown’ plays around with the phrase “Do not go down to the water’s edge”, until it becomes a stumbling, aphasic repetition, any sense of the words subsumed into the rhythm. As well as a strong influence of minimalism, there’s more than an echo of P J Harvey’s “Down By The Water” hereabouts. Except that where Harvey is visceral, You Are Wolf are cerebral. What this means – for this listener at least, please do listen and form your own view – is that it’s entirely possible to appreciate the composition and musical skill on a coolly intellectual level, without ever being troubled by the hot, primal tug of emotional connection.

Su O’Brien

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‘As Sylvie Was Walking’ – official video:

CONNLA – The Next Chapter (Connla)

Next ChapterWhen you read of the “hottest new band on the scene” you tend to roll your eyes and translate the accolade into “over-egged, fly-by-night, bratpack”. But how wrong I was about this one. The creative storm that is Connla demands attention. Young, vibrant, energised, yes – but more than that, they’re firmly grounded in the Northern Irish tradition and each of the five musicians comes with a stamp of authority that includes All Ireland Champion flute (Ciaran Carlin) and Uilleann pipes (Conor Mallon) and tutor at the prestigious Armagh Pipers Club (Emmer Mallon). You’re left in no doubt that these musicians are here to stay.

The diversity of sounds, textures and arrangements held my attention throughout, including the hallmark driving flute which, though mellow, pushed the rhythm through the tiniest of holes. The contrasting break comes from the soulful and beguiling vocals of Ciara McCafferty. I particularly enjoyed her rendition of ‘Julie’. Rhiannon Giddens’ edgy song that imagines a riposte from a slave to her mistress in the American Civil War. Which brings me to the one criticism I have – why doesn’t the sleeve contain any information or lyrics? With CDs now in demise, please indulge us in the last vestiges of tactile joy – a small informative booklet.

Although the fast-paced Irish singularity is never far from the surface, Connla are not afraid to borrow from other traditions. ‘Mighty Makena’s’, for instance, is tinged with jazz swings reminiscent of Moving Hearts, while ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ manages to capture the hallmark plaintive yearning of the traditional American gospel song. In the week that we learned of the passing of Liam O’Flynn it was apposite to hear Conor Mallon leading the next generation of Uilleann pipe players. His spine-tingling entry on ‘One Starry Night’ is one of many moments to treasure.

For me the litmus test of a newly discovered artist is whether I’d go to see them live. Connla somehow manages to capture the vigour of a live performance in a studio recording that left me wanting more. So my answer is, quite simply, yes.

Jon Bennett

Artists’ website:

‘Julie’ – live:

PATRICIA VONNE – Top Of The Mountain (MIG 20182 CD)

Top Of The MountainPatricia Vonne releases Top Of The Mountain, her seventh album on March 23rd. It’s got a variety of styles, which is both its strength and weakness. At times, it’s a little way from the kind of music that is at the core of but I’ve enjoyed playing the album, which has an energy to it that I imagine makes Vonne and her band a great live act.

Vonne comes from San Antonio and describes herself as ninth generation Tejana. Top Of The Mountain reflects the mix of influences that she has grown with: rock, folk, flamenco, bilingual tex-mex, Latin, and predominantly has a rock band sound behind the songs. The opening track ‘Citadel’ has an air of late 80’s/early 90’s rock; the second track ‘City is Alive’ has a dirty grunge lead guitar to reflect the lyrics; ‘Illuminaria’ is sung in Spanish to another lively rock beat with lead played not just on the high notes, but also with occasional bass lead a la Duane Eddy; the title track is so catchy I’ve struggled to get it out of my head; ‘Lil Lobo’ will probably have audiences dancing in the clubs to its heavy beat. See what I mean about the album? – it’s great fun but it’s not traditional folk or folk-rock.

There are elements of Americana, though – particularly since the next track reminded me to keep to a wider understanding of the Americana genre. Madre de Perla is a flamenco-esque tribute to Vonne’s mother (the title translates as mother of pearl) and nudged me to remember that the Spanish heritage is as much a part of Americana as other traditions.

The video link below takes you to ‘Tidal Wave’; it’s less than a minute but have a flick through the other videos on the page and you’ll get a feel for Vonne’s energy and the strong melodies of her songs. The wildly rocking ‘Graceland Trip’ (also on the video page) and ‘Lekker Ding’ (hottie/sexything according to the urban dictionary – though you don’t need to know this, just listen to the delivery) draw more on a rock’n’roll tradition.

‘Western Blood’ is an instrumental somewhere between the music for a Clint Eastwood western and The Shadows ‘Apache’ and it works really well. ‘Concion de la Boda’ (Wedding Song) draws more on European traditional music roots for its arrangement. The album closes with the quieter ‘God’s Hands’ and ‘Stop The Madness’, where Vonne’s vocal is thoughtful but still a delight.

It’s been great to listen to Top Of The Mountain. The album’s strength is in the vitality of Vonne and her band – and, hence, I’d like to see them live – as well as the range of musical traditions it draws on. While I’ve enjoyed the range of influences, the diversity also makes it feel a bit more like a collection of singles. Maybe in the days of playlists and shuffled music that doesn’t matter, not least because there’d be some instantly engaging singles amongst them.

Vonne is on tour, if not the UK, from April 5th:

Mike Wistow

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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‘Red Hot Heart’ live:

THE MELLOWSHIP – You Belong With Me … (own label)

You BelongBorn, raised and still based in the West Country, when she was 23 aspiring singer-songwriter Mo Dewdney had a motorbike accident that left her paraplegic. For some years, music was no longer part of her life, but, then, after the birth of her son, she found herself playing out words and music in her head. She began putting these down on paper, began singing with a local band and, eventually, decided to try her luck by singing her own material in a capella settings. This in turn led her to link with other folk musicians from the region, such as Anthony Chipperfield, and, now, her self-released debut album, You Belong With Me… recorded in collaboration with folk luminaries Lukas Drinkwater, on guitar, bass and harmonies, and fiddler Ciaran Algar.

As their involvement might indicate, Dewdney is of a traditional persuasion, although all but one of the numbers are self-penned, her pure, clear and often yearning vocals and phrasings having earned comparisons with Judy Collins and Sandy Denny. The collection opens with the contemplative ‘shine on’ optimism of ‘Starlight’, leading to an unaccompanied introduction to ‘Marriage Bands’, a song that strikes a rather less upbeat note with its tale of a warrior spirit woman losing her independence, freedom and spirit in the chains of loveless marriage, the cycle repeating itself with her daughter in the last verse; however, buoyed up by Algar’s rustic backwoods fiddle and Drinkwater’s waltz time guitar melody, the nature imagery dressed ‘Kiss All The Stars’ has a rosier view of love’s binding power.

With Drinkwater adding drums, as per the suggestion of the title, ‘The Woad – The Last Battle of Maidens Castle’ takes on traditional ballad form, returning to warrior imagery for the story of a woad-painted tribe facing the end of their dream, the vocals adopting drone line tone, complemented by hollow plucked fiddle and a hypnotic war dance rhythm.

Underpinned by Algar’s lullabying fiddle, another celebration of love, ‘You Belong To Me’ with its dreamy chorus is a warmer affair, while, again in waltz time, ‘Grampa Sam’ sets Dewdney’s lyrics to a tune by Jim Causley in a touching tribute to an elderly gent who took her under his wing when she first moved to the country, taught her to garden, told her tales of his life’s joys and tragedies and became a grandfather to her child.

The musically upbeat mood continues with the fingerpicked jauntiness of ‘The Moment I Now’, a call to do the right thing by the planet on which she live, its love of the natural world and eco message echoed in the album’s sole cover, Drinkwater playing guitar and harmonising on Stan Rogers’s classic ‘Northwest Passage’.

It ends with again just the two of them, this time Drinkwater also adding bass, on ‘Down By The Fire’, the sound of the sea backdropping a final affirmation of finding a place and a partner with whom to share your life. With another project already in hand in collaboration with Greg Hancock, you might want to climb aboard and share yours with her.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

JESS VINCENT- Lions Den (Kostenurka Records)

Lions DenThere have been a few changes in Jess Vincent’s life since the release of Shine back in 2015. She’s become vegan for a start. However, the most significant is the fact that she and her partner, Jozeph Chowles, have moved from Wiltshire to Bulgaria where, indeed, the bulk of the album was recorded, partly in the home studio from which the label name comes, and that, unlike her previous releases, all the songs here are solely Vincent’s work.

The good news, though, is that there’s been no major musical upheavals in the process, although the new environment does feed into Chowles’ arrangements, Eastern European hints surfacing here and there, such as in the Indian harmonium drone that permeates the pulsing ballad ‘Follow’, on which Vincent’s vocals are well back in the mix, although, having said that, the twang to the guitar would be more at home in Utah.

It opens on sparse, dry banjo notes with the tempo-shifting ‘The Way It Is’, bursts of guitars and percussion making their presence felt in the faster flurries, Vincent’s high pitched warbling vocals sounding especially effervescent. I’d assume the title track, a languorous number picked out on a minimalist repeated acoustic guitar phrase, a muted percussion rumble surfacing towards the end, lyrically addresses making the big move and, as she says in her notes, facing her demons.

‘Stranger’ is another relatively muted number, the vocals again held back in the mix, opening on single ukulele notes before the arrangement fleshes out and those Eastern European colours seep into the gradually gathering melody. ‘Ghosts’ shifts continents, the crooning backing vocals, harmonium and harmonica evoking sprawling mid-west landscapes over which the melody ebbs and flows. Harmonium again provides the bedrock on the gently dappled ‘Ballerina Dreams’ with its dreamy, shimmering ambience and lines about seasons changing beneath her feet, by which point you’ll have clocked that this is a generally musically reflective affair, with no rock storms lurking unexpectedly in the wings, although the steady march beat ‘Cherry Tree’ does kick the sonic level up a notch or two with its electric guitar breaks and the backwoods gospel feel to her vocals.

That same Appalachian sensibility is also evident on ‘Waiting For You’, a simple but particularly lovely number with its undulating , tinkling electric guitar notes, wheezing harmonium and music box-like melody.

Of the two remaining numbers, ‘Holiday’ takes an early hours, slow bluesy lullabying waltz approach and what could possibly be described as a narcotic Chris Isaak/David Lynch mood, while ‘Won’t Be Long’, a yearning brushed drums mortality-themed folk gospel slow shuffle, sees the album out on campfire in the pines harmonica and picked acoustic guitar notes that bundles together familiar thoughts of Iris deMent, Dolly Parton and Nanci Griffiths.

The dictionary definition of a lion’s den is a dangerous or frightening place, but there’s no need to approach this with caution, just jump right on in.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Waiting For You’ – live: