SINGLES BAR 51 – A round-up of recent EPs and singles

Singles Bar 51Making waves on the Suffolk acoustic scene, HOLLY D JOHNSTON bids for a wider audience with her self-released new EP, Illusive Harmony. Hattie Bennett on cello, the airily pastoral fingerpicked modal guitar of ‘Eve’s Kind’ opens things up, her pure voice reminiscent of the young Judy Collins (indeed, ‘My Father’ comes to mind) on a song about how “every woman’s raised/ To know my place, To know my lot”, free but in chains (“They were opening the door and they were beckoning her through/When she pushed the hinges more she saw/The chain across her pathway waiting/With a collar for her neck”).

Piano accompanies ‘Emerald Rover’, a journey to Ireland in search of direction, but feel an “imposter”, blown by the Western Wind as she ponders “If you’re the wise man, does that make me the fool? A fool for Ireland, and wild Atlantic views”, while, arranged for jazz-tinged piano and an almost martial guitar rhythm, ‘Dante’s Kiss’ is inspired by Rodin’s famous state and tells of two lovers forever out of each other’s reach. Featuring just voice and piano, ‘Alabaster’ offers an enigmatic portrait of her grandmother, her story enfolded in a box with a dress “carved in ivory and alabaster stone”, but also the image of her as an army girl dressed in “woven suit, spectacles and button boots”, a “Standard issue army soldier, thrown about in rust and solder/Driving in a postal van through pyramids and sand”, the song exploring how much of our identity is uniquely ours and how much is inherited.

On a historical note, cello making a return, ‘Hearth And Home’ documents the protest by the women of Ipswich in the Census Boycott of 1911 when, led by Constance Andrews, they hid away an upstairs room at Arlingtons, formerly a ballroom now a Grade II listed brasserie, so as not to be counted in a society where they did not count enough to vote.

It ends with a full band live recording of ‘Renaissance’, a brushed drums slow waltzer about the inspiration music and musicians can bring. Suffolk’s kept her close for too long, it’s about time the rest of the country discovered her immense talent. The CD also comes with a poetry booklet.

Singles Bar 51One good thing about this lockdown business might be that musicians have dusted off abandoned projects or are doing things that they might not have thought of otherwise. So it is with GREG HANCOCK who has completed four demo tracks to be released (mostly as a download) as Another Nice Mess with the assistance of George Arnold and Lukas Drinkwater.

Greg says that the first track, ‘Don’t Expect It All To Make Sense’, is about not asking “why” because stuff happens – delicately put, Greg. It seems like a good attitude to adopt in our present circumstances. The title track comes from a situation in which Greg was stuck with nothing for entertainment except a compilation of Laurel & Hardy films. It begins with a thoughtful acoustic guitar intro before building up into a surprisingly angry song about apportioning blame and taking sides.

‘The Water’ is about … well, Greg says that he wasn’t very good at being young and that’s something we can all empathise with but he’s better now he’s older. We can’t be responsible for other people’s happiness but we can avoid making them unhappy. Lukas’ bass gives the song an easy rhythm. Finally, the jazzy ‘Headlong’ considers the way social media can alter memory – are other people’s memories fake news or are yours?

Singles Bar 51In response to the Coronavirus crisis, MARTYN JOSEPH has put together a two track downloadable digital single to help raise funds for the Cavell Nurses’Trust, who provide support, both emotionally and financially, for UK nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants. ‘When We Get Through This’ is a rhythmically measured brand new song of hope and optimism, a violin-backed number about coming out on the other side, a stronger, more united people, seeing these events as a catalyst for change and calling not to give in to despair, uplifted by a tide of love and compassion. It’s backed by a new recording of his sprightly fingerpicked ‘Nye (Song for the NHS)’, originally from 2015, a tribute to and celebration of NHS architect Aneurin Bevan and the doctors nurses that keep it running, a reminder that “the purpose of power is to give it away”.

Singles Bar 51MATT LAZENBY is from Yorkshire but now lives in Montreal and is known there as a singer songwriter. For Sweet Dreams Of Life he has returned to the traditional folk songs of his native land. The set opens with ‘Sweet England’ and continues with ‘Sweet William’ – two songs centred on unhappy young ladies. For the latter, Matt takes verses from versions by Fred Jordan and Shirley Collins which tell a rounded story, but doesn’t relate how our heroine hanged herself.

The lady in ‘Death And The Lady’ doesn’t have a very good time of it, either, and neither does the lass in Anne Briggs’ ‘Maa Bonny Lad’ – in fact this is a thoroughly miserable set of songs. Matt is known for his lo-fi approach and his performances are as stark as his songs, featuring twinned acoustic guitars and nothing in the way of studio enhancement.

Singles Bar 51Hailing from the north east but based in London with a definite soulful Irish brogue, OUR MAN IN THE FIELD is dusty-voiced Americana singer-songwriter Alexander Ellis , his wearily chugged new single ‘It Was Ever So’ (Rocksnob), featuring pedal steel and dobro, inspired by a news report about the closure of Clerkenwell Fire Station, the oldest operational one in Europe, one of ten as part of then Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s cutbacks, sung from the perspective of one of the redundant firefighters now facing an uncertain future. The firemen and women intended to mark the closure by walking out proud in their uniforms, but were told they weren’t allowed to and had to slip away through a side exit in their civilian clothes deemed surplus to requirements. You don’t have to be a firefighter to understand that.

Singles Bar 51If you need something to cheer you up MATTY JAMES CASSIDY has just the thing in the shape of 4x4x1, an EP of country/blues/rock covers. He opens with George Jones’ ‘The Race Is On’ – it’s amazing how much fun misery can be, isn’t it? The misery continues with ‘Dear Doctor’ courtesy of Messrs. Jagger and Richards and a much less mannered version of the song. Ronnie Lane’s ‘How Come’ is a long-time favourite here at Folking Acres and Matty does it full justice before finally turning to Tom Waits and ‘Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards)’. No new ground has been broken here; no great insights expounded – it’s just bloody good singalong fun.

Singles Bar 51If the name of THE LAST INKLINGS suggests something thoughtful and philosophical you’d be right. The Last Inklings are David Hoyland and Leonardo MacKenzie formerly of Kadia and Alchemy is their first EP. With inspirations as diverse as Marcus Aurelius and Moulettes you’d be right to expect something different. First off the instrumentation here is mandolin and cello. Both guys are multi-instrumentalists but they have deliberately restricted themselves to this musical palette.

The songs themselves are equally esoteric beginning with ‘The Alchemist’ and continuing with ‘The Telling Of The Bees’ and in the words are shades of Kipling and Yeats – it’s a struggle to find a meaningful comparison. Paradoxically, none of this is as odd as it may sound. The interplay between the two instruments is fascinating. Both can function as lead instruments with Leonardo’s cello taking the role of a fiddle in a more conventional line-up before dropping back to lay a foundation for David’s mandolin to have its turn in the spotlight. There is nothing around that sounds quite like these guys since Amazing Blondel called it a day.

Singles Bar 51Also sounding a social commentary note, recorded in lockdown at home, DANNY SCHMIDT is releasing the moodily fingerpicked, huskily-sung ‘A Prayer For The Sane’ as a free Bandcamp download. A response to three years of Trump’s divided nation and a clarion call for the impending elections to rebuild “a world rebuilt on decency, civility, and a respect for factual reality…led by facts, honesty, and transparency.. by someone who honors the truth, and respects those on the other side of it” as he sings how “It’s time to set our anger free/It’s time for facts to shade beliefs…It’s time to shake the voting booth”.

Singles Bar 51On a slightly lighter note, Cambridge folkie CHRIS FOX releases ‘We Sing Hooray’, a mesmeric, prowlingly hollow percussive rhythm spooked shanty pirate recruitment song, with acoustic guitar solo and a hooraying chorus crew, to smugglers, thieves and men at large to find a better life and shared spoils. And up he rises.

Singles Bar 51A latter day ‘American Pie’, ‘Legacy’ (PoetMan Records) is the new nine-minute single from MICHAEL JOHNATHON, a tribute to all the artists who have influenced his musical journey. Strumming guitar and accompanied by piano, it both takes its musical structure from Don McLean’s classic and cleverly namechecks it with some wordplay in the chorus, each verse a chapter in contemporary musical history, throwing in some often cryptic song and artist references to Stairway To Heaven, Jim Croce, The Kingston Trio, Steve Goodman, Dylan, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Joni Mitchell, Dave Van Ronk, Rick Nelson and many others as it makes its way from modern music’s formative years to “download digital and Facebook memes” and the collapse of the record industry as it once was as he sings about “Playing my guitar and hoping you would hear me”. Given this has received huge airplay across America and is even being used in college classes, I think he’s probably succeeded on that score.

Singles Bar 51Recorded remotely and with vocal contributions from a chorus of frontline workers, MERRY HELL release ‘Beyond The Call’, a song written by John Ketle in response to the current situation and originally just a demo on Facebook until overwhelming response prompted a full band recording, the video featuring some 150 of those voices. It’s a classic MH number, stirring, emotive and reaching out to inspire community, a brilliant companion piece to ‘We Need Each Other Now’.

Singles Bar 51Hampshire country pop sisters WARD THOMAS release ‘Hold Space’ (Sony Music) as a taster for the upcoming The Space Between EP, set to a handclap rhythm and bearing a decided melodic comparison to ‘Torn’, it’s described as “a song for anyone going through a tough time” and about how “we live in a world of advice and ‘shoulds’ and sometimes we just need to be there to walk beside our loved ones while they find their own way”.

Singles Bar 51Serving as a prelude to his next album due later this summer, soft-voiced Essex-born Criminal Barrister’s Clerk MATTHEW SHEPHERD self-releases the lightly percussive and fingerpicked  tender “give me a chance” love song ‘Turns To You’ further reinforcing comparisons to early Bon Iver,  Paolo Nutini and just a hint of James Blunt on what he calls the “coffee shop vibe” of the new material. Any profits will go to Haven House Children’s Hospice.