THE YEHLA COLLECTIVE – Steel Strings And Iron Curtains – Songs that Ignited The Downfall of Communism (Sun King Records)

Steel Strings And Iron CurtainsIt’s just 30 years on from the Czech Velvet Revolution (more commonly known in Slovakia as the Gentle Revolution) that marked the transition from one-party Communist rule to a parliamentary republic. Plamen Press is an independent press specializing in Central, Eastern and Southeastern European literature, translated into English, and – in partnership with Sun King Records and a group of musicians known as the Yehla Collective – on the 17th November it published the CD Steel Strings And Iron Curtains.

The Yehla Collective is an international group of musicians from the area around Washington, D.C. that includes Czech musician Bohuslav Rychlík and Slovak guitarist Tomáš Drgoň. America, Moravia and Armenia are also represented in the group by other members of the collective – including Anna Connolly, Ian Jones, David Keplinger, Christine Kharazian and Reggie Love – who have a range of musical experience from punk to folk, from rock to jazz and classical music, and the range of settings here reflects that wide spectrum. While some tracks lean towards gypsy jazz, the CD is nudged towards Central/Eastern Europe tradition by the use of the Slovak fujara (a contrabass fipple flute) and koncovka overtone flutes.

The record comprises ten ‘protest’ songs with political undertones by Czech songwriters Karel Kryl and Jaromir Novahica. These poetic yet subtly subversive lyrics – not so subtle as to escape the attention of the Communist authorities, though, since Kryl’s songs were officially banned before the revolution – have been translated into English by Plamen founder and publishing director Roman Kostovski.

My extraordinarily limited knowledge of Slovak doesn’t run to assessing the accuracy of these translations from the Czech, but they do seem to me to work very well indeed in English. Comparisons have been drawn with Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits: certainly I can understand comparisons with Cohen, especially, not only lyrically but in terms of the eclectic musical styles and arrangements. You might even see occasional similarities of expression with Brel or even Brecht.  Here’s the track listing: songs marked with a single asterisk are credited to Karel Kryl and Roman Kostovski while songs by Jaromir Novahica and Roman Kostovski are marked with a double asterisk.

  1. ‘The Angel’* is said to be Kryl’s most popular song. With its acoustic guitars and flute, it’s quite folky.
  2. ‘The Comet’** is apparently Novahica’s most popular song and perhaps refers to Halley’s Comet, which last visited the Solar System in 1986. The comet is often seen as presaging major changes/events (the Norman invasion of 1066, the Great War, the Velvet Revolution…). Given the present state of the world, perhaps it’s a matter for regret that it isn’t due back till 2061. But given the present state of society, perhaps he’s correct in believing that we won’t be around by the. Structurally, the song reminds me of some of Brel’s songs such as ‘Port Of Amsterdam’.
  3. ‘Morituri Te Salutant’* (“We who are about to die salute you”) seems to compare the mandatory acquiescence of the gladiator to that of the soldier. It’s a very powerful song with echoes of both Cohen and Brel.
  4. ‘Magdalene’** seems deeply pessimistic on a more personal level.
  5. The arrangement of ‘Sarajevo’** puts a slightly gypsy jazz framework around a Balkan theme. I guess back in the day the very mention of a church wedding might have worried the authorities.
  6. Though ‘Salome’* has a distinctly Eastern European setting, the melody actually reminds me somewhat of the Scottish song/lullaby ‘Chì Mi Na Mòrbheanna’, better known as the tune used by Jim McLean for ‘Smile In Your Sleep’. In combination with the harsh, unsettling lyric, it makes for a powerful musical statement.
  7. ‘The Wastrel’** has a particularly interesting and poetic lyric, in a disturbing sort of way.
  8. ‘Habet’*, like ‘Salome’, borrows imagery and even the name of Herod from the Christian mythos as a metaphor for a cruel 20th-century modernity.
  9. ‘Petersburg’** has a distinctly uptempo gypsy jazz feel set against a slightly Pushkinesque story. I’d rather like to hear Daria Kulesh sing this, but this is a good version. The trumpet gives it a slightly jokey dimension, but perhaps that’s meant as a counterweight to the exaggeratedly suicidal lyric.
  10. ‘A Heart And A Cross’*: yes, I can certainly see why songs like this would have been banned. A dramatic and satisfying end to the CD.

While the publisher’s claim that these songs “ignited the downfall of Communism” might be a little overblown, there’s no doubt that these “powerful and existential lyrics” were and still are immensely important to those who survived the Communist era, and Steel Strings And Iron Curtains would be an important social and historical artefact irrespective of its literary and musical merit in terms of high culture. However, Plamen quite rightly regards this as literary project as well as a music project. While some of the vocals are a little patchy, the music is engagingly presented, and to me the lyrics are worth the price of the CD. It would be well worth your taking a look at the promotional video to get more idea of what the music is like. (More information and the promotional video are here.)

David Harley

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Karel Kryl sings ‘Habet’ in the original Czech:

CHRISTY MOORE – Magic Nights (Columbia 19075991082)

Magic NightsMagic Nights is the sequel to Christy Moore’s 2017 album, On The Road. Conventional wisdom says that a sequel is never as good as the original but, without making comparisons, that isn’t true here. As before, the twenty-six tracks here are neither a “normal” concert album nor a greatest hits collection. Sure there are some of Christy’s best known songs here: ‘Sonny’s Dream’, ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’, ‘Burning Times’, Spancilhill’, ‘The Two Conneeleys’, ‘The Reel In The Flickering Light’, ‘The Well Below The Valley’ and…breathe. We have to remember that all of these songs were significant enough to be performed live since the 1970s but, as Christy says in his notes, a song needs the room to be right.

I’ve heard Christy live several times and know him to be a mesmerising performer but recently I’ve come to wish that the rest of the audience were elsewhere. You’ll hear it here. Christy weaves an intimate atmosphere and you can get the feeling that he is singing just to you. His audiences are enthusiastic and know all the songs so well that they start to applaud before a song has actually finished. I actually appreciate that brief moment of silence after the last notes die away and for that reason I will not listen to this recording of ‘Spancilhill’ again.

That aside, I was hooked by this album from the first moments. I don’t believe I’ve heard ‘Magic Nights In The Lobby Bar’ live and this performance and its position as the opening track only enhances it. As you listen your reaction will be either, “oh, yes, I remember that song” or “I didn’t know Christy sang that”. I was convinced that Padraig Stevens’ jokey ‘The Tuam Beat’ was new but I was wrong – it’s from Lily if you want to check. Either way the result will be to send you scurrying back to an album you’d almost forgotten about and you’ll start to enjoy it all over again.

Needless to say there isn’t a bad song on Magic Nights although I’m surprised that there are few of Christy’s own compositions here – only ‘The Two Conneeleys’ and ‘Veronica’ bear his imprint. Perhaps he’s saving for a third compilation.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Missing You’ – live with Declan Sinnott:

PAUL MOSLEY AND THE RED MEAT ORCHESTRA – You’re Going To Die!   (Red Crow CROW001)

You're Going To Die!You’re going to die and so am I. Why are we sitting here listening to all of these lies?” I rather wish that Paul Mosley had opened his new album with the title track; those first lines are the perfect thought for today. His last full length album that I heard was The Butcher, a ghost story and a sort of love story but with You’re Going To Die! he returns to a collection of unrelated songs. On the first listening I subconsciously tried to link them which was no help.

The Red Meat Orchestra is a collective of fifteen musicians, many longtime Mosley sidespersons, providing every mood from rock to massed strings and it does take a while to settle into the album because there is so much going on. ‘Couldn’t Love You More’ is the string-drenched love song you expect but it’s followed by ‘Judge Mosley Presiding’ featuring tuned percussion and flute. Several band members play “junk” so it’s hard to tell what is actually making the sounds that decorate the arrangements.

I like the opening track, ‘Hello Yellow Crow’, very much although I’m not sure what it’s about. ‘People Are Idiots’ is a theory I’ve long held and Paul seems to return to it in the title track. “People are everything that’s wrong with this world” he sings and immediately denies the truth of the statement. The song opens as though it would be a political polemic but is, in fact, an exhortation to enjoy life while you can.

Paul turns to a reggae beat for ‘The 1970’s’ – nostalgia for his childhood – but the only possible miss-step is the Leonard Cohen impersonation at the end. I understand its purpose in the context of the song which features sounds of the 70s in its arrangement but it grates a little.

There is a lot to listen to in You’re Going To Die! and the dedication to Paul’s late mother perhaps gives us a clue to the thinking behind the songs. I recommend this record, particularly if you haven’t heard Paul’s music before.

Dai Jeffries

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‘The 1970’s’ – official video:

RANT – The Portage (Make Believe Records, MBR8CD)

The PortageThe quartet of superbly talented individual fiddle players – Bethany Reid, Jenna Reid, Lauren MacColl and Anna Massie – who in combination make up Rant, have just released their third album, The Portage.

Recorded over four days at Queen’s Cross Church in Glasgow (Charles Rennie Macintosh’s only completed church), the sound is airy, clean and wonderfully detailed. And from the moment the uplifting swirls of ‘Göran Berg’s’ curl up into the air before metamorphosing into its more melancholy companion piece, ‘Crow Road Croft’, it’s obvious that this album is something truly special.

The spaces between the notes make themselves felt in ‘Sir Ronald McDonald’s Reel’, as the snaking lead winds around a volley of plucking before a graceful downward swoop suddenly gets scooped up into the upwardly spiralling motif of ‘Johhny D’s’, served over a dark chocolate richness.

A change in mood comes with the measured and wistful ‘Now Westlin Winds’, before a sprightly ‘Annie Allan’ (with its dark colouring to the playing over an intriguing reggae syncopation) bridges into the Scandinavian ‘Hambo’, a tune with an altogether more classical edge, somewhat Strauss-like in its melodic ebb and flow.

‘Rosemarkie Man’ feels like a blustery walk along windswept Scottish coastlines, while ‘Arnt Ivar’s Polska’ is more stately, tenderly-twining embrace than lively dance tune. An angular prickliness opens ‘The Rescue Man’, warming up as it reaches the sprightly gallop of ‘Pam’s Hoose’. There’s a sensitive flourish to Andy Cutting’s ‘Altfechan’, as it spins out its central, gracefully climbing motif.

The spartan traditional lament of ‘Nach Truagh Mo Chàs’ (‘Hard Is My Fate’) is a tune of such intense mournfulness as to move even the hardest heart. Avoiding mawkishness, it makes for a real sustained hit of raw emotion, after which ‘The Portage’ very sensibly picks up gently. Tasting of salty sea air on a chilly bright day, it’s an affectionate and hopeful tune and a very fitting place to end the album.

Not a note feels out of place or unnecessary in the arrangements, and the performances are absolutely stunning. Whether writing their own tunes or arranging others’ work, Rant captivatingly weave together classical styles and the drive of traditional folk playing, all with an open, contemporary feel. The Portage is a flawless album of understated perfection.

Su O’Brien

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‘Göran Berg’s/Crow Road Croft’:

SMITH & McCLENNAN – Small Town Stories (White Fall Records)

Small Town StoriesSmith & McClennan’s Small Town Stories is a beautiful folk record of oxymoronic depth. It’s authentic folk music which oozes (heaven forbid!) with commercial appeal. It also blinks cleverly between the Scottish west country and Americana Appalachian roots.

Just like Richard Thompson’s ‘Great Valerio’, this album “dances through the air” on a razor-sharp tightrope of deep emotion. There’s such folky grace to this album. ‘Firefly’ is an acoustic rifle shot that embraces the rough world of “stone cold fingers clinging to a cardboard home” which ends with some sort of redemption. It’s just an idea, but humanity is always predicated on redemption. Not only that, but fireflies do, indeed, spark with weird electric hope in any dark night sky.

‘Sailin’s A Weary Life’ is a traditional tune with banjo prodding. Odd: when I was younger, I thought there was a huge chasm between a pint in a Scottish pub and my own Wisconsin bar. Now, with this song, I’m not that sure. And with age, I’ve come to drink folk music that’s brewed with universal hops.

The album is filled with lovely acoustic music. Jamie McClennan (who wrote all but two of the songs) sings the beginning lead on ‘Hummingbird’. Emily Smith adds a joint vocal, and each voice embraces the other in the tender tune that’s driven by a dramatic drum. ‘The Sweetest Girl’ dips and sways with a backing violin, and it echoes the charm of an early Nanci Griffith album like Poet In My Window. ‘Leaving’, too, is a dual voiced tight-walked wonder of a song with pathos to burn for “a hand I wouldn’t hold and a friend that won’t grow old”. Then, ‘Bricks And Mortar’ answers that pain with the softest pulse of a melody that just begs “for one last dance and an old house that keeps us safe in every storm’. It’s a beautiful tune that conjures recalled comfort.

And, once again, the song is equally potent, whether I raise an Old Chub Scottish Ale or a Wisconsin brewed New Glarus Cabin Fever Bock.

Now, in all fairness, this record doesn’t play the Scottish poker hand of the traditional (oft times including a Robert Burns’ tune) songbook. “For a’ that”, look to Fiona Hunter (of Malinky fame), Julie Fowlis, and Mairi MacInnes with their gorgeous records. But this album certainly spins in the same orbit as Karine Polwart’s Faultlines.

That said, ‘Long Way Down’ rocks a bit. Perhaps, it sounds like a Fleetwood Mac song, circa Rumours. That also said, Willow Macky’s ‘Better Than War’ is a quiet throwback to 60’s optimism. It’s a cliché that prefers ‘wisdom’ to “war’, but perhaps, really decent clichés may be all we have to keep the campfire burning.

The last two songs, ‘Wait For Me’ and ‘One More Day’, once again, toss a coin betwixt a Scotch beer and an American brew. And it’s a beautiful coin toss that sings with the soul of an always acoustic heart. You know, fellow Scot Jackie Leven once sang about “walking backwards in the snow”. These songs, too, touch and retreat from the weather of the world. They cup all the storms and sing to the safety of any final melodic harbour.

Wonderful folk albums are sort of a dime (and/or a 10p coin) a dozen these days. But Small Town Stories is worth the time. It’s ages old, and it’s ages young. And then it treads a tightrope with the balance of melody, harmony, and passion that will always keep the audience’s attention, because this music, indeed, “dances through the air.

Bill Golembeski

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‘Long Way Down’ – official video:

Hilary James’ English Sketches is re-released

Hilary James

Hilary James’ “elegant singing” (Daily Telegraph) has received much acclaim: quintessentially English but easily crossing the great musical divides from British folk ballads to blues and Berlioz. She’s famed too for an unlikely taste in bass instruments (she could turn up with her giant mandobass or slimline, semi-acoustic double bass). Her fine guitar accompaniments cross the genres from Vivaldi to bluegrass and she might even manage a step-dance if the wind is in the right direction. She has recorded six solo albums and also illustrated books, produced video art animations, and augmented reality projects. Continue reading Hilary James’ English Sketches is re-released