ELAINE LENNON – Elaine Lennon (LSR001CD)

Elaine LennonElaine Lennon releases her debut album on January 24th. Unless you knew the background, you wouldn’t know it was a debut album. Findlay Napier has produced it, the songs – almost all written by Lennon – are engaging, and Lennon’s voice is enthralling. The background is that Lennon’s lifelong passion had been music. When the youngest of her two children went to school in 2018, she sat down to work out whether she could be a professional musician. In less than two years, she has been named as “one to watch” by the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International and is about to release the self-titled album, Elaine Lennon.

Lennon’s vocals and piano are at the core of the album, with the band adding a nicely judged depth without being intrusive. My favourite track is ‘Fear (Breakup Song)’ which is delicately played and merges the images of relationship break up into a lyric about fighting and defeating Fear, as affirmative (for the Sci-Fi buffs) as Frank Herbert’s Litany Against Fear. It’s also a great tune, beautifully sung.

The link below is to ‘Trouble’ where you can hear for yourself the interplay between piano and vocal, in this case for a lyric about being in trouble because “love was not in my plan”. Lennon’s website has more detail on the origins of the song. Elsewhere ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ both rises to the glories of love which can “make you fly above the clouds” and also captures the ruefulness of “Only love can softly pull the seams apart/Only love can break your heart”. There’s a tenderness to the vocal which is simply delightful. ‘You and Me’ feels like it’s from the same song-writing seam, this time the unchallenged contentment of being in love.

The only cover on the album is “She’s Got You”, the Hank Cochran masterpiece which was a hit for Patsy Cline in the early 60’s. Lennon’s version is less country, but doesn’t half tug at the heartstrings; it’s a great cover which makes the song sound bang up to date despite its nearly sixty years age.

The album will be launched on January 20th at The Glad Café as part of Celtic Connections. From what I’ve heard on this album and what I’ve flicked through on YouTube of Lennon’s live performances, if you’re up in Glasgow it will be worth your while finding time for this.

Mike Wistow

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‘Trouble’ – official video:

MISHRA – The Loft Tapes (Hudson MSR004)

The Loft TapesFronted by guitarist Ford Collier and vocalist-banjo player Kate Griffin, winners of the inaugural Christian Raphael prize at last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, and augmented by jazz-folk double bassist Joss Mann-Hazell, Mishra are a new Sheffield-based ‘global folk collective’, the instrumentation on their debut album, The Loft Tapes,  encompassing clawhammer banjo, African calabash, Irish whistle and bouzouki with John Ball, their mentor at Sheffield university, guesting on tabla.

Each track a single live take recorded on analogue tape, predominantly self-penned, as you might surmise it straddles several musical styles and cultures, opening with a 50 second drone, whistle and banjo intro improvisation on ‘Raag Jog’, a Hindustani classical raga (the trio are named for a Hindu Brahmin surname), before tabla picks up the thread into ‘Road Dust and Honey’ merging eastern and Gaelic flavours and suggesting such influences as Davy Graham and Jack Rose.

Banjo and whistle make the running on ‘Chase The Sparrowhawk’, another instrumental, that sounds traditional but was written by Collier. Indeed, the album has a balance between tunes and songs, the former also encompassing ‘Jog For Joy’, tabla and banjo playing off each other in a hybrid of raga and jig, and the six-minute jam closer ‘Morphology’ that, in addition to banjo, whistle and table, also features Collier reciting in Tabla Bol, the spoken form of tabla drums.

Returning to the songs, among the their own work particularly noteworthy are the plaintively waltzing Appalachian-shaded ‘Beautfully Blind’ which, for some reason, reminds me of ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’, the jazz-inflected, whistle-driven ‘Taru Taru’ (which may or may not have anything to do with race of magic users in Final Fantasy) and, the most folksy of them all, ‘Keep Your Kindness’, the only number on which Collier and Griffin share the vocal parts.

There’s also two non-originals, the first being an arrangement of ‘Angeline The Baker’, a song written by Stephen Foster for the Christy Minstrels in 1850, in which the narrator (male but sung here by Griffin) laments that he should have married the titular Angeline, a slave who has now been sent away by her owner.

The other, and one which further nods to their Americana sensibilities, is a faithful reading of Gillian Welch’s unsettling Southern Gothic number ‘Scarlet Town’ from The Harrow & The Harvest. Together, they make for an impressive and multi-textured debut and it’ll be interesting to see how they expand their global folk fusions in albums to come.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.mishramusic.co.uk

‘Scarlet Town’ – live:

JOHNNY CAMPBELL – From Hull And Halifax And Hell (Subversive Folk Records SF002)

From Hull And Halifax And HellJohnny Campbell is a singer/songwriter/guitarist from Manchester who has not forgotten the sixties although I suspect that he’s too young to have actually been there. That doesn’t matter: the spirit of the folk clubs in their heyday runs in his veins. The set, complete with all his introductions, was recorded in a bar in Nôlsoy in the Faroe Islands. It sounds as though the audience is small – the total population of the islands is only 50,000 or thereabouts – but they enjoy a joke and From Hull And Halifax And Hell is indeed live in the Faroe Islands.

The fourteen track set is a mixture of original songs, covers and traditional material – just like sets used to be. The first three songs are Johnny’s and sound traditional. He borrows the ‘Tramps And Hawkers’ tune for ‘Complaint’ – another long-standing tradition – and, but for one line, he could claim that he’d dug up ‘Johnny McGhee’ in a dusty library stack with no-one to gainsay him.

Now he starts to mix things up. The first cover is from protest singer Cosmo. ‘Climate Change Is Coming’ isn’t really suitable for sensitive dispositions but it makes its point forcefully. He follows that with ‘The Derby Ram’ and then Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Victor Jara’ and that made me stop to think. It seems to be a rather incongruous juxtaposition but…where do you place a song like ‘Victor Jara’ in a set? It is at once tender and brutal; a contradiction within itself so slotting it in after a joke is probably quite reasonable.

Johnny does a fine version of ‘Arthur McBride’, followed by the song that gives the album its title. ‘Hook, Line & Sinker’ is his anti-Brexit song complete with a “subtle” Bob Dylan reference and ‘Dark Streets Of Nôlsoy’ is the Pogues song in disguise. He finally closes with ‘Moving On Song’, as angry and bitter as it has ever been. Somehow it feels like a premonition.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: https://johnnycampbell.co.uk/

‘Complaint’ – live:

JUDY COLLINS with JONAS FJELD and CHATHAM COUNTY LINE – Winter Stories (Wildflower/Cleopatra)

Winter StoriesA seasonal collaboration between Collins, Norwegian singer-songwriter Fjeld and the North Carolina bluegrass outfit, recorded over the course of just a few days, Winter Stories brings together reworks, covers, and new material, getting underway in stirring fashion with their take of Stan Rogers’ classic ‘Northwest Passage’, the verses shared between Collins, Fjeld and Dave Wilson with all three pitching in on the chorus, backed with piano, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.

Collins dips back into her songbook for three numbers, a lively bluegrassy ‘Mountain Girl’ and, as the closing track, ‘The Fallow Way’, previously one of three new songs on her 1990 Forever anthology, and the piano-led ‘The Blizzard’, a number about getting stuck in a Rockies snowstorm with “a dark-headed stranger” which originally appeared in its full seven-minute splendour on 1990’s Fires of Eden, here trimmed to just six.

The soaringly duetted title track is a new contribution by Fjeld, essentially a reflection on how “the light will come again”, be that in the seasons or emotional life, as indeed is ‘Frozen North’, Hugh Moffatt’s lyrics again using the winter cold as a metaphor, here warmed by the spark of love. Fjeld is also the author of ‘Angels In The Snow’, a song Collins previously recorded six years ago for Christmas With Judy, now revisited as a duet.

There’s two new songs to emerge from the collaboration, both Fjeld and Wilson co-writes, the frisky scuffling bluegrass ‘Bury Me With My Guitar On’ and the moodier, jazz-coloured ‘Sweet Refrain’ that, accompanied by piano, sketches a picture of a lonely old cowboy tracing out a melody alone in some room that brings back memories of lost friends and lovers.

The two remaining tracks are both covers, Collins taking solo lead on Jimmy Webb’s 1977 classic ‘Highwayman’, the story of a man (or here, in her silken tones, a woman) reincarnated as a thief, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship captain and a number she’d been meaning to record for several years but somehow never got round to. The other is another jewel in the 70s SoCal crown, Collins again in the spotlight for a lovely reading of Joni Mitchell’s inadvertent Christmas standard, ‘River’, a seasonally set break-up number generally assumed to be about her relationship with Graham Nash and escaping painful emotional roots.

Winter Stories is not a Christmas album in the conventional commercial sense (nary a carol in sight), but even so it perfectly captures the bittersweet feelings the time of the year inevitably evokes.

Mike Davies

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…………

Artist’s website: www.judycollins.com

‘River’:

JOHN MOSEDALE – We’re Not Packing Parachutes (own label)

We're Not Packing ParachutesEarlier this year we reviewed Twenty Seven, the debut EP by Hereford singer-songwriter John Mosedale. Now he returns with his first full-length album, We’re Not Packing Parachutes. This is an entirely solo project although there are one or two uncredited extras which may come from library tapes – I’m damn sure they didn’t get a Spitfire into the studio. Three of the ten tracks are written by fellow solo singer Rob Carey and one, the best track on the album, is a co-write.

The title track which opens the record is a metaphor that I’m still trying to work out. I think it may be about mental health and feelings of the need to escape sometimes. It’s followed, neatly, by the first of Rob’s songs, ‘Not Every Parachute Was Made For War’. This is an exercise in nostalgia beginning in the apple orchards of Kent and soldier setting off for WWII. The narrative isn’t explicit about whether the soldier returned but the inclusion of the opening bars of ‘The Last Post’ suggests otherwise.

One of John’s specialities is the humorous song of the type popular in folk clubs back in the 60s. That was then and this is now and you can’t get near the knuckle anymore. ‘Always Putting My Foot In It’ may be a clever idea that works well in a live setting but shouldn’t be allowed inside a recording studio and Carey’s ‘Plastered In Paris’ seems lyrically illogical. ‘My Dog Has 3 Balls’, which appeared on the EP, is a tribute to John’s Labrador and not a triple entendre although still full of gags while ‘Doc Brown’s Car’ suggests humour but is full of nostalgia for the 50s. I’m sure that you can work out what make it is.

John isn’t the first singer to turn to music full-time after escaping the nine-to-five and ‘Old Man In The Mirror’ is a wry meditation on the aging process. Finally, we have ‘Remember Me’, the best song in the set. It begins oddly with the singer enumerating pi (but only to five decimal places) but develops into a contemplation of Alzheimer’s from the point of view of a carer. It deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

John has enjoyed a successful first year on the circuit and We’re Not Packing Parachutes certainly won’t do him any harm.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.johnmosedale.com

‘My Dog Has 3 Balls’:

TRACK DOGS – Fire On The Rails (Mondegreen Records)

Fire On The RailsTrack Dogs’ Fire On The Rails is folky and funky with trumpets galore and the occasional violin that soars above the usual musical fray.

A flashback: there was a great world music band in the 90’s called 3 Mustaphas, whose motto was “Forward In All Directions”. And this album takes up that aegis and runs to score points into the goal posts of countless cultures. Yeah, this one is all over the geographical place.

The folk purity of ‘Love & War’ quickly morphs into a very Tijuana Brass and ethnic percussion mode, only to be matched with a fiery violin that checks the pop propulsion of the tune and shifts it into overdrive, while the vocals sing an earnest cause of, well, “love and war” passion. And ‘I Needed You’ is another urgent tune with a bouncy trumpet, great lyrics, and a vocal that pleads to the big heart of the world. The melody (sort of) conjures the memory of (the great) Phil Ochs and his song ‘Another Age’ from his Rehearsals For Retirement album. Nothing wrong with that! ‘Better Off  On Your Own’, again, has a vibrant trumpet and vocal melody that pulse the tune, while an acoustic guitar provides an unleavened anchor that recalls the human touch of a really nice Paul Simon Graceland period song.

And, quite frankly, the pop mastery of Billy Joel comes to mind. Again, nothing wrong with that!

It’s just an idea, but the trumpet graced sound will appeal to old folky types who loved Bruce Cockburn’s song ‘You Pay Your Money And You Take Your Chance’, from his Inner City Front record.

But the infectious mandolin graced ‘Dragonfly’s Castle’ makes all the crap I watched on the television today a distant and, thankfully, muted memory. It’s a really nice song.

Odd: the lyrics are often contemplative, but they are also laced with humour. ‘On The Last Night’ vibrates with ironic goodness, like a good Sir Raymond Douglas Davies tune that begs us all to “come dancing”. A banjo propels ‘Don’t Delay’. This is brilliant Nitty Gritty Dirt Band celebration stuff. Truly, Mr. Bojangles would dance to the tune. By the way, its banjo-fueled beauty rivals any song on CAAMP’s recent (and very nice) By & By album.

Now to be fair, ‘And The Piano Sings’ can’t even claim a distant cousin kinship to folk music, but it’s funky and gets tattooed in the brain. It’s a Freddie Mercury tribute. The chorus is catchy in a nice way and avoids any reference to Galileo, Figaro, or for that matter, anyone known as Beelzebub.

Ahh – ‘Abi’s Lullaby’ is a lovely acoustic folk tune that assures, “all your dreams are safe with me”. It’s a quiet respite from the quick pace of the album.

That said, the fast ‘When She Comes’ ups the ante, and with its folk-blues-ragtime combo-platter approach, recalls the music of The Red Clay Ramblers, who just managed to include every bit of America’s soul (and a trumpet!) in their music. That’s high praise.

The album ends with ‘All Clapped Out’, an all vocal and hand clap fest that puts a somewhat odd and enjoyable final punctuation point on the record.

Fire On The Rails bounces between the poles of pop and folk with trumpets and strings aplenty, all of which accent the urgent vocals and choruses that bob far and wide and make any Mustapha proud because this music, indeed, goes “forward in all directions”.

Bill Golembeski

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‘On The Last Night’: