MARTIN STEPHENSON – Gladsome, Humour And Blue 30 (Barbaraville Records)

Gladsome Humour And Blue 30I might have begun by remarking on how long it must be since I listened to the original Gladsome, Humour & Blue but having played the new version once I had to dig out my old vinyl and give it another spin. It’s still a great record and ‘There Comes A Time’ grabbed me immediately, or again, or both. This was Martin and The Daintees’ second album and everything was going for them including having Paul Samwell-Smith on-board as one of the producers.

Martin has taken a new approach to recording Gladsome 30. He has thirty years more experience, his voice is a little deeper and stronger and he has trimmed away much of the decoration leaving essentially a guitar band, somewhat heavier than before. There are subtle differences, too. The lyrics have been changed in small ways so that ‘There Comes A Time’ is now written mostly in the second person until the final verse in which Martin reveals that he’s where he wants to be and the line “I have my reign” is almost triumphal. Martin addresses the song to his younger self, it seems.

I like the way that ‘The Old Church Is Still Standing’ segues into ‘Even The Night’, the sounds of the organ (actually Martin’s guitar) bridging two of the album’s finest songs and then drifting away into what was originally the end of the first side. ‘Wholly Humble Heart’ opens with stinging electric guitar from Paul Steel and develops into the album’s big production number. It was an important song in 1988 and it still is. ‘Me & Matthew’ is an immediate contrast being just fingerpicked acoustic guitar and voices.

Martin has added two bonus tracks. The first is a rock’n’roller called ‘Get Get Gone’ which mixes up its time zones by including a Metro station and a ten bob note as well as pound pounds. Martin lets his accent run free on this one. Then, after a pointless wait (et tu, Stephenson?) we have another version of ‘There Comes A Time’, almost hymnal with its multi-voiced guitars. Gladsome 30 isn’t a replacement for the original, in fact I’ve enjoyed listening to both side by side, but while it stands alone it is also complementary. You do need both.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.daintees.co.uk

‘Wholly Humble Heart’ – live and solo:

SIOBHAN MILLER – Mercury (Songprint Recordings SPR002CD)

MercuryTo be brutally honest, if this were Siobhan Miller’s first album and I was listening cold I probably wouldn’t have got past the first three tracks. I loved Strata – it was the perfect blend of new and old, of traditional songs and covers – but Mercury is pop music, well made and sophisticated, true, but pop music nevertheless. All the songs are originals, some written with Euan Burton, Louis Abbott and Kris Drever, performed with a fashionably modern band, embellished with violins and brass.

I’ll temper my criticism a little. The third track, ‘Strandline’ attracted my attention and the fourth, ‘The Western Edge’ is excellent. I hoped, at that point, that Siobhan had turned her back on foolish notions but, sadly, I was disappointed. A major problem is the absence of lyrics: they are not printed on the cover and, although we’re promised them on Siobhan’s website they are nowhere to be found. With everything that is going on around her musically, they are essential. Even the star guests like Eddi Reader and Kris Drever are lost in the wall of sound that Burton, Abbott and Iain Hutchinson generate.

The title track, which opens the album, actually sounds rather interesting on subsequent listenings – I can make out something about picket lines and throwing stones but it’s lost. The second track, ‘Sorrow When The Day Is Done’, is a nicely upbeat song but the combination of Abbott’s drums and John Lowrie’s piano overwhelms it. It’s rather like an episode of Masterchef – I can appreciate the skill and see the ideas going into the dish but there are far too many of them and the finished article is unpalatable.

I am so disappointed with Mercury. Come back to us, Siobhan, please.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.siobhanmiller.com

‘Mercury’ – lyric video:

BETH WOOD – The Long Road (own label)

The Long RoadHailing from Lubbock, The Long Road is Wood’s 11th album, and her maturity, experience and assured confidence are in evidence throughout this collection of short stories in song that conjures Americana thoughts of Nanci Griffith, the Indigo Girls and Dolly Parton as well as the sophisticated folk of a Dory Previn.

Working with the core backing of bassist Milui Fultz and drummer Jeremy Burchett, augmented here and there with Anna Tivel on fiddle and backing vocals, guitarist Peter Perdichizzi, producer Tyler Fortier on keys and guitars and, as on the countrified opening break-up ‘Where I Go’ (“when you say it’s your way or the highway, this is where I go my way”), Bryan Daste on pedal steel, the songs reach out and touch familiar experiences and feelings.

Featuring Tivel’s fiddle and Peter Mulvey on backing vocals, ‘One Shot’, a mid-tempo song that finds a sixteen-year-old heading down the Silver Thread to marry his sweetheart, a winding highway that connects former mining towns in southwestern Colorado, looking to chase his hopes and dreams, the lyric actually a reflection on the morning after the 2016 election, war and sacrifice, the title carrying two meanings.

From one highway to another, the soulful title track slows the pace down for a five chords slow dance through painful memories (her marriage had recently fallen apart, something that informs many of the songs) and sense of feeling alone and adrift. The sentiments spill over into the fiddle-adorned ballad ‘Go Now’ where she sings about the geography of loss and how “grief is a river that we can’t cross” while the crystalline sung ‘Call When You Get Home’ with its simple piano, mandolin and fiddle sports a chorus of “Call me when you need me,call me when you don’t call me for no reason just to say hello and call when you get home”.

The more upbeat mood here is also reflected on ‘The Hard Way’, its two characters finding that moment when, as she puts it, they realise that dreams are ideas with wings that you have to decide to fly.

Billie Holiday provides the spark in the bittersweet dreamily reflective Janis Ian-tinged ‘Old Things’ with Fultz on upright bass, the lyrics drawing a relationship split by the gulf between sepia toned familiar comfort and full coloured uncharted horizons, the memories within a room reminding how “It’s just like you to like old things it’s just like me to be new”.

Organ and pedal steel providing the primary colours, ‘Painted Lines’ is probably the most Parton-like number, a testament from a travelling musician for who, the songs are the path (“I have overheard that it is absurd for a woman to take to the road/but I’ve got a dream and it’s a part of me/it’s written in my DNA code”) but also has a “heart that aches for home”.

The lushly arranged piano ballad ‘Heaven Only Know’ with its soaring vocals and string echoes the opening track in its theme of an unclear journey ahead where “we stumble and we stare/tripping over signs everywhere/a bargain that we never got to choose/when we love sometimes we lose”, the only certainty being “the way you make me feel”.

It ends on a perfect pairing to reinforce that notion of change, of letting go and finally moving on to whatever destination presents itself. First up is the jaunty Griffiths strum of ‘Leaving’ (“Thinking I might take a trip to somewhere I have never been before/drive until I feel like stopping sleep, wake up, then drive a little more”), to be followed by a perfectly complementary, rhythmically warm cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’.

Wherever the road takes her, she’ll prove a welcome musical companion.

Mike Davies

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).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.bethwoodmusic.com

‘The Hard Way’ – live:

CIARAN O’KANE – Round & Round (own label)

Round & RoundCiaran O’Kane describes his debut album, Round & Round, as “a collection of the songs I like to sing” which is the best reason for singing them and also a very Irish way of looking at things. Like his countrymen since time immemorial he has picked up music on his travels, kept some songs and written others. The result is a record of great variety.

Round & Round opens with ‘The Banks Of The Lee’ sung over drones, a technique Ciaran returns to on his own song, ‘Done’. There is no clue as to how the effect has been achieved; it doesn’t sound like tape loops and there is no synthesiser credited so I guess it is bass and accordion played live and treated in some way. Whatever, it’s cleverly done and makes for an arresting start to the album. Ciaran has a great voice for songs like this and ‘The Moorcocks Crow’ and transfers the same vocal technique to some of his own writing. ‘Snow’, for example, has a tune that sounds old and contains the kind of grace notes that are frequently found in Irish singing. Give it a while and someone will tell you that it’s traditional.

There are two other traditional songs; a relatively straight take on ‘Willie Taylor’ and a rather gorgeous ‘Lord Franklin’ sung as an unaccompanied duet with Ciaran’s mother Helen O’Kane.  Then there are two accordion tune sets, ‘The Ranaghan Reels’ and ‘The O’Num Polkas’, plus a rather good version of Ger Wolfe’s ‘The Curragh Road’.

And so to Ciaran’s own songwriting. I’ve already mentioned ‘Snow’ but the tragic story told in ‘The Fulldiew Stone’ is even better – a hundred years from now it will be traditional. These two are not necessarily typical of his output, though. The title track, a slightly rueful song of self-realisation appears twice, the second being a stripped-back version accompanied only on bodhran which I prefer. ‘The Belfast Lass’, a cautionary tale, has its roots somewhere in the tradition and must be a live favourite and ‘I Won’t Give Up’ is an upbeat song full of positive attitude.

Ciaran O’Kane has made a fine debut album – check it out.

Dai Jeffries

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).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: https://www.facebook.com/Ciaranokanemusic/

‘Skim’ – live:

MARK HARRISON – The Panoramic View (own label)

The Panoramic ViewI really like Mark Harrison’s previous album, Turpentine, so I was delighted when he sent me The Panoramic View. Mark plays 12-string and National guitars and his core band is double bass and drums courtesy of Charles Benfield and Ben Welburn. His music is the blues but with the lightest of touches and an edge of country with piano by Paddy Milner taking us into a saloon somewhere and Paul Tkachenko’s brass taking us somewhere sleazier. On top of that he’s a very inventive song-writer.

The opening track, ‘One Small Suitcase’ is about escape and a line in the first verse suggests that our protagonists are slaves planning to run away. Without that line the song could be about a young couple eloping but perhaps both interpretations are true. You never know what Mark is going to write and so, perhaps with that in mind, he’s engaged Scottish television presenter Gail Porter to read introductions to the songs which otherwise would be printed in the booklet, going as far as to explain that the instrumental ‘Pool Meadow Strut’ is about a Coventry bus station.

Actually, Gail’s introductions are important as Mark bases several songs on old bluesmen and only a real aficionado would know that ‘Don’t Die Till You’re Dead’ was a favourite phrase of Mississippi John Hurt or that Eddie “Guitar” Burns gave up playing music and worked multiple jobs to raise the kids from two marriages as told in ‘House Full Of Children’. Although Burns’ name isn’t well-known to most people he is highly rated among Detroit bluesmen – just the sort of guy that Mark would know about.

‘What Son House Said’ is a possible interpretation of an alcoholic ramble, in fact nearly all the songs are hedged around with “might bes” or “could haves” and when the subjects under discussion are living under the Jim Crow laws in the 50s and 60s or the life of a Chinese track-layer in the 19th century perhaps all you need is empathy for other people’s lives. Mark has that.

Dai Jeffries

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).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.markharrisonrootsmusic.com

‘Ain’t No Justice’ – live

MERRY HELL – Anthems To The Wind (Merry Hell Music MHMCD218)

Anthems To The WindHere’s a conundrum. When you see them playing the folk circuit, Merry Hell comprise Virginia Kettle and her borther-in-law Andrew on vocals, his brothers John on guitar and Bob on banjo, mandolin and bouzouki, bassist Nick Davies and fiddle player Neil McCartney. Officially, however, they’re now an eight-piece with Lee Goulding on keyboards and Andy Jones providing percussion. For such practical reasons as most club stages being too small to accommodate that many musicians, the latter two remain studio-bound.

So, while a live album might be representative of the band on any given night, it wouldn’t be representative of the band as such. So, what you have here is a collection of numbers from the repertoire featuring all eight members, recorded (mostly) live at three venues, just not with an audience, but with the arrangements stripped back to the way they would be heard in their primarily acoustic setting of a folk club.

Ok, that’s the logistics out of the way, so what about the music? It kicks off in fine fettle with the slower live styling of ‘Drunken Serenade’ the opening track from their debut album, these days, of course, showcasing McCartney with an interpolation of traditional instrumental ‘The Banshee Reel’.

Introduced by Virginia as “a message to mothers everywhere”, ‘My Finest Hour’ is the reworking of off Head Full of Magic, Shoes Full of Rain, spinning the perspective with, here, Virginia rather than Andrew recounting how mom puts a damper on the couple’s amorous intentions.

Again, it’s Virginia rather than Andrew who sings lead on a slightly longer version of the slow waltzing ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ from 2015’s There’s A Ghost in Our House…, fiddle replacing the already pared back original’s guitar solo.

It’s back to Blink…And You Miss It for anthemic swayalong ‘Over The Border’, fairly akin to the studio recording but, again, slightly longer. The debut also yields three further songs, Bob’s mandolin now being joined by some rousing fiddle from Neil on ‘This Time’, the playful unlikely love story of ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’, sung as before by Virginia, benefiting from a fuller arrangement to its slow march tempo. Andy’s percussion underpinning the prolusion, the division-themed call for tolerance and social anger management ‘The War Between Ourselves’ is one of two instances where the live album brushes up against rock’n’folk, Neil’s fiddle again in the spotlight.

The third is one of the band’s undisputed live showstoppers, ‘Lean On Me, Love’ transformed totally from the studio version with Andrew opening in sonorous a capella form and the slower, almost hymnal arrangement raising its uplifting and inspirational message to the heavens.

Likewise, another live favourite, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ takes on a more full-bloodied stomp feel to the recorded incarnation on Head…and, I venture to suggest, is all the better for it. So too is Andrew and Virginia’s haunting duet of loss and longing on ‘Leave A Light On’ off Ghost…, stripping away the drums and supplanting the guitars with melodeon to bring the song’s swelling emotions into greater relief.

There are, conspicuously, no songs from the most recent album, Bloodlines, you do, however, get two numbers new to Merry Hell but brought in from the Tansads’ back catlogue. The call to personal action and taking risks of ‘Fear Of Falling’ is the second ‘rock-out’ with its strummed guitars, driving fiddle, whoops and handclaps, the album ending with Andrew on lead and the melancholic fiddle notes of the similarly themed slow waltzing ‘Satisfied’, with its refrain singalong image of “millions of people lost in the world”, settling for and accepting the life they’ve been handed rather than, it’s implied, making one for themselves.

They did, of course, win Best Live Act in this year’s Folking Awards; however, not being a live album per se, there’s no crowd applauding or calling for more. You’ll doubtless want to do that part yourselves.

Mike Davies

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).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: www.merryhell.co.uk

‘Lean On Me, Love’ – live: