THE LOST WORDS – Spell Songs (Folk By The Oak QRCD004)

Having held the unofficial job title “wordsmith” in various contexts for several decades, I was not going to miss the opportunity of hearing and reviewing an album with the title The Lost Words: Spell Songs. Especially as one of the highly-talented musicians involved in the project is Karine Polwart, whose Laws Of Motion CD I reviewed with some enthusiasm here.

It turns out that this is a multi-faceted project with a complicated backstory. Some years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began to replace some of the words it defined with words that were considered to be more in keeping with the lives led by children today, so that words relating to religion and to the natural world – like bird and flower names – were replaced by words related to various aspects of information technology (for example). Robert MacFarlane was one of 28 authors – among the others were Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo, and Andrew Motion – who wrote to Oxford University Press asking them to reconsider, specifically with reference to words “associated with nature and the countryside“. (I don’t intend to get into that argument here, but the OUP’s argument is that while the number of words included in the OJD is a limiting factor, the kind of words that critics want restored do feature in their much-expanded range of dictionaries for children.)

MacFarlane then went on to write a poetry book called The Lost Words: A Spell Book, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, with watercolour illustrations by Jackie Morris. As it says on the web site, the poems in the book “are called ‘spells’ rather than poems as they are designed to be spoken (or sung!) out loud in order to summon back these words and creatures into our hearts.” The book has inspired a number of musical and multi-media projects, but Spell Songs is the result of a collaborative project commissioned by Folk By The Oak. The CD is available in a hardback book format (a limited-edition double vinyl album box set is also available and includes the CD book).

Sadly, the review CD is a promo copy without the book, but it looks from the web site as if the book would be worth the money for the illustrations alone. But while I haven’t seen the ‘spells’ in isolation, the music certainly sets them off beautifully. Here’s the track list.

  1. ‘Heartwood’
  2. ‘Selkie-Boy’
  3. ‘Kingfisher’
  4. ‘Heron’
  5. ‘Little Astronaut’
  6. ‘Acorn’
  7. ‘Ghost Owl’
  8. ‘The Snow Hare’
  9. ‘Conker (Magic Casket)’
  10. ‘Papa Kéba’
  11. ‘Charm on, Goldfinch’
  12. ‘Willow’
  13. ‘Scatterseed’
  14. ‘The Lost Words Blessing’

The eight musicians all contribute vocals, but also contribute individual instruments as follows:

  • Karine Polwart: tenor guitar, Indian harmonium
  • Julie Fowlis: shruti box and whistles
  • Seckou Keita: kora
  • Kris Drever: acoustic, electric & bass guitars
  • Kerry Andrew: melodica
  • Rachel Newton: electroharp, fiddle, viola
  • Beth Porter: whistling, cello, ukulele
  • Jim Molyneux: piano, Rhodes, synth, accordion, drums, percussion

With this range of singers and instrumentalists, there is much more variation in the material presented here than you might have expected, given their common source, though that unifying theme gives each piece an emotional impact that goes far beyond the introspection of run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter fare. The arrangements, singing and playing are all excellent. And I think I know what one of my wife’s birthday presents is going to be this year. That way I get to read the book as well as hearing some very beautiful music.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: https://www.thelostwords.org/

[Book ISBN13: 9780241253588]

‘The Lost Words Blessing’ – official video:

MARSHES – When The Lights Are Bright (Endearingly Ramshackle ER0001CD)

When The Lights Are BrightThe artist formerly known as Beth Porter and the Availables, the name inspired by her new home in Dumfries and Galloway,  When The Lights Are Bright is a new venture for the acclaimed cellist and songwriter, also part of Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band, but one that, recorded two years ago, has been waiting in the wings for the right moment.

Working with frequent collaborators like Jools Scott on piano, viola player Emma Hooper, multi-instrumentalist and producer Luke Cawthra and husband Ben Peace on occasional glockenspiel, it draws on her own experiences of anxiety and panic to explore themes of mental health and isolation.

It opens with ‘Frame’, Pete Gibbs on double bass, her cello pulsing through what seems to be a song about dementia, taking the tempo down on the slow waltz ‘Wake Me’, a song about a relationship in which depression is a third partner that’s lushly coloured with strings, woodwind and brass, the drums kicking in on the chorus refrain.

Stabbing keyboard notes provide the musical neurosis for ‘Rear View’, the song based on her own driving experiences, gradually building in intensity as it mirrors the desperation lyric about the way inexplicable fear and anxiety can creep up on you. On a slightly more positive note, reflected in the summery feel of the upbeat arrangement, ‘You’ve Always Been’ concerns the person who’s always waiting to emerge from behind whatever dark clouds temporarily obscure them, the handclaps echoing the support and encouragement of others as she sings “Look around you/We’re all here/We all want you/Back down here”.

With an arrangement that mixes together sax, violin, trumpet, flute, clarinet, piano and glockenspiel, ‘The Game’ comes with a jaunty, almost vaudeville and, on the money-themed chorus, even a cabaret feel, the lyrics somewhat oblique and she sings about “my rented mind”.

The longest track at just over five minutes but stripped down to cello, piano and slide guitar, ‘Dreams Of You’ recalls a childhood friend who suffered from depression in the days before such diagnosis was more commonplace, Porter haunted by her feeling of not being there for her (“I could have saved you…Never reached out for you”) and of being jealous and having “Said things I didn’t mean”. The song references the dreams that prompted her to get back in touch.

Again featuring glockenspiel as well as bongos and Hammond organ, given a vaguely 60s folk pop feel, set to jaunty walking beat and sung in a deceptively sweet and summery voice ‘Grey, Grey’ is another ambiguous lyric that essentially tells of calling out to someone she thinks she recognises, a jazz musician it seems, who pays no attention while others turn and look. The line about “When your mind is a blur” and the repeated “grey, grey, grey” again point to a mental health reading.

It ends on two musically lively numbers, pizzicato strings, trumpet and woodwinds colouring the orchestral pop (and slightly occidental) flavours of ‘Who We Are’, a song of love, a supportive relationship and musical self-therapy number (“Singing is a way to work”), and, circling cello notes and Paul MacMahon’s drums laying down a driving beat punctuated by string flourishes, the title track offers a bittersweet to and fro between drifting and uncertainty and resolve, the refrain changing from having “a little piece” to “a little peace”.

Lyrically you have to work at teasing out Porter’s ideas and meanings, but even when not explicit you have a sense of what’s going on, while her light, airy, voice, her terrific cello work and the buoyancy and dexterity of the surrounding musicianship holds you in its spell, often at odds with the darkness in its making.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.marshesmusic.com

‘Grey, Grey’ – official video:

ELIZA CARTHY & THE WAYWARD BAND – Big Machine (Topic TSCD592P)

Big MachineFrom her debut solo album back in 1996, Carthy has never been predictable in her constant determination to both celebrate and reinvent the folk tradition and, while that may not have always endeared her to purists, it has produced a remarkable – and sometimes challenging – back catalogue. Her latest is no exception, here working with the big-band set up on her festival appearances, a 12-piece line –up that includes, among others, Beth Porter on cello, melodeonist Saul Rose, Mawkin’s David Delarre on guitar, bassist Barnaby Stradling from Blowzabella and former Bellowhead fiddler Sam Sweeney.

Aptly titled to reflect the sound, Carthy appearing on the front cover like some kind of folk Boudica leading her tooled-up army into battle, the material follows a similar pattern of self-penned originals, traditional reworks and covers, kicking off with a strident metronomic rhythm arrangement of one of ‘Fade & Fall (Love Not)’ complete with plucked cello and soaring brassy flourishes. It’s one of three Manchester Ballads, the others being equally strident shanty ‘The Sea’ with its martial beat and sweeping fiddle and, introduced with a cosmic keyboards whoosh, stumbling domestic violence number ‘Devil in the Woman’ with its repeated refrain chant ‘charming little woman”.

Staying in the traditional arena, the album’s longest and arguably most striking number sees her joined by Damien Dempsey for the eight-minute ‘I Wish That The Wars Were All Over’ (performed live onstage in the studio), a Roud ballad sung from the perspective of a soldier’s love, stemming from the American Revolution and referencing the Seven Years War, collected by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, from Dartmoor miner Sam Fone. Featuring a tinkling repeated piano pattern, melodeon, fiddle it has Carthy in tender vocal form, counterpointed by Dempsey’s keening longing. Interestingly, it has also been recorded by American folk artist Tim Eriksen with whom she made 2015’s Bottle album.

Ewan MacColl’s cabaret-like lurching shanty ‘The Fitter’s Song’ provides the title source, the melody a variation on ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’, with the third cover seeing her joined by the scion of another folk family dynasty, Teddy Thompson lending his voice to a rousing gospel-blues shaded treatment of Rory McLeod’s ‘Hug You Like A Mountain’ providing a showcase fiddle spotlight.

The remaining numbers are all Carthy originals, indeed the whale-themed shanty ‘Great Grey Back’ is a new treatment of a song that originally featured on Wayward Daughter, here with massed vocal backing rather than just one voice. One is an instrumental, the rousing part vocalised but wordless ‘Jack Warrell’s (Exerpt) – Love Lane’, while, another big sound, ‘Mrs. Dyer the Baby Farmer’, with its fiddle lament intro, is essentially a murder ballad concerning Victorian serial killer Amelia Elizabeth Dyer who took in babies that were unwanted or could not be cared for, ostensibly to be adopted, and despatched them to Jesus. ‘Epitaph’ closes the album on another murder ballad, here a cabaret-like tale of death by custard poisoning, Willy Molleson providing the thundering drums. The remaining track again underlines Carthy’s willingness and thirst to experiment and push the folk envelope, ‘You Know Me’ a commentary on hospitality and the refugee crisis (“the door is always open and the fires are blazing, no one ever turned away, the fruit in our garden is always good”) that, with a scratch intro and set against a dub-styled rhythm, features a rap by MC Dizraeli. Arguably her best work since 2008’s Dreams of Breathing Underwater, it further confirms her as one of the fiercest and most striking voices in contemporary folk music.

The album also comes as a deluxe edition that includes ‘Aleppo in the Sun As It Was’ from last year’s English Electric EP as well as the demo of ‘The Fitter’s Song’ and five extra tracks, including both a fiddle and vocal version of ‘Three Day Millionaire’.

Mike Davies

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Artist website: www.eliza-carthy.com

‘Fade And Fall (Love Not)’ – official video:

 

MAZ O’CONNOR – The Longing Kind (Restless Head RHCD 101)

MAZ O’CONNOR The Longing KindHer third album in four years, this is also the Barrow-in-Furness singer-songwriter’s first to comprise solely of self-penned, non-traditional material. It’s also a concept album of sorts in that, exploring the tensions and conflicts of a young woman living in London, it’s ordered like a three-act play, opening with songs of the uncertainty, confusion and displacement that ensue from being cut loose from the safe havens of education and family, continuing through imagined stories based on particular paintings and the way in which the subjects’ identities have been fixed by the artists, finally returning to reality with a newfound clarity and redefined sense of self.

Produced by Jim Moray, who also contributes an assortment of instruments, and featuring Beth Porter on cello, Matt Downer on double bass and Byrds legend Chris Hillman on pedal steel, the fingerpicked title track follows a brief instrumental intro, clearly nodding to such influences as Jackson C Frank, moving on to the leafy folk of ‘A Winter’s Blues’ which, with its circling guitar pattern, sounds like a sort of upbeat Nick Drake. Hillman is to the fore on ‘Crook of his Arm’, a lovely reminiscence of her father and his inability to keep her safe from the ways of the world in her determination to carve her path, while protective parent/ restless daughter themes also concern the frisky, percussion-driven ‘Mother Make My Bed’ featuring Nick Malcolm on trumpet.

Things slow down on the medieval hints of ‘Greenwood Side’, Millais’ Ophelia providing the impetus for the first of the painting songs, moving on to the piano-backed ‘Emma’ (other than the lyrical mention of being painted in blue, there’s no indication, on either the album or website, as to the source of the inspiration) and the cello accompanied ‘Jane Grey’, sung in the voice of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as Queen for just nine days, and inspired by the picture of her execution by Paul Delaroche. By contrast to these tragic heroines, the subject of the livelier strummed ‘Billy Waters’ (guessingly based on the painting by David Wilkie), again featuring Malcolm, is a one-legged black busker, who used to play violin to theatre-goers in the streets of London in the nineteenth century and, shortly before he died, was elected King of the Beggars in the parish of St. Giles.

Opening with the simple fingerpicked ‘Coming Back Around’, the third act rounds up proceedings with ‘A Quiet Word’ (a brass burnished restlessness/parting song which borrows its opening line from Macbeth), the traditional-hued ‘A Rose’ which highlights her soaring vocal range and, finally, returning home in the banjo-flecked ‘When The Whisky Runs Dry’, older and wiser with a bruised, but not regretful heart. Being honest, I don’t think this is the album to bring any major breakout success into the folk mainstream, but it will certainly delight her existing following and surely encourage curious newcomers to stay around to see where her journey takes her next.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: http://www.mazoconnor.com/

‘A Winter’s Blues’ – official video:

JESS VINCENT – Shine (Hatsongs HAT008)

JESS VINCENT ShineOnce again produced by and featuring Reg Meuross (who also co-wrote five of the 12 tracks) with regular collaborators, guitarist Marcel Rose and cellist Beth Porter joined by Pete Willis on bass and Graham Brown taking over from Roy Dodds (who handles the mastering duties) on percussion, Vincent’s third album continues her upwards momentum as one of the brightest names on the UK folk-country scene. Again, the DeMent and Parton comparisons are to the forefront, but this time round I’d also suggest there’s a definite touch of early Nanci Griffiths to her engaging warbling trill, especially so on the lovely ‘Fall Apart’, the song itself putting me in mind of Julie Gold.

Reg providing the harmonica and banjo, it opens with the sparkling exuberant and infectious upbeat folk-pop title track, a number that could make the most dismal winter’s day feel like glorious spring, then, keeping the theme of love’s positivity (and the harmonica), comes ‘Love Me True’ before the first of the album’s songs rooted in real life figures. Featuring Vincent on shruti box, ‘New Amsterdam’ is a sort of sea shanty and gypsy waltz cocktail about Olive Thomas, a silent movies actress (and sister-in-law to Mary Pickford) whose promising screen career was cut short in 1920 after drinking mercury bichloride, rumouredly laced in her wine, sparking one of the first of media frenzy Hollywood scandals.

Moving from movies to music, Meuross co-penned closer ‘Billy Tipton’s Waltz’, Brown on brushed drums and Mike Cosgrave on piano, tells the story of William Lee Tipton, an Oklahoma-born 1950’s jazz pianist and saxophonist who was born Dorothy Lucille , but lived her life as a man (she had several wives and three adopted sons, who only discovered the truth when, 74, their father was treated for a fatal peptic ulcer), forming the Billy Tipton Trio (the others unaware of his true sex) and releasing two albums.

A somewhat less celebrated name, featuring Porter’s cello, ‘Wind On The Downs’ is adapted from the best known work by the Oxford-born poet Marian Allen, written after her fiancé, Arthur Greg, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps who was shot down in 1917. And, staying with a military but introducing a personal touch, the gently dappled, vocally soaring Parton-esque ‘Charley’s Song’ was written as a morale-boosting tribute to her army officer friend and the responsibilities she takes on.

There’s also a very personal note to the banjo and accordion backed Vincent/Meuross waltzer ‘Wrong Shade Of Blue’ that juggles the musically upbeat framework and the sunny day images with the emotions welling up over her mother’s death. She adopts a similar mismatch on ‘Shackles And Chains’, where she duets with herself on a piano led DeMent-like country heartbreaker about a woman rescued from post break -up suicide drowning and the chains of the past by a man the narrator meets in bar and who follows her to the sea.

Featuring Cosgrave’s accordion and Brown on cajon, the last of the co-penned numbers takes its cue from Tex-Mex tales of men seduced by femme fatales, ‘Run, Senor Run’a train-rolling rhythm tale about how Carlos ignores his friend’s warning that the woman with whom he’s besotted has come from the grave.

Which just leaves two self-penned tracks, the mid-tempo uke and cello accompanied ‘Raining’, a track that pretty much sums up the sort of day we’ve all had when the world seems to fall apart and the waters rise, and, again calling DeMent to mind, the gentle Appalachian heartache of ‘Here And Now’, Porter’s cello underscoring the lyrics (again, surely informed by her mother’s passing) about the grief, loss and and sense of being left alone following the death of someone close. Listen hard and you may find it hard not to feel a lump welling in the throat. Her best album yet, Vincent doesn’t just shine, she positively glows.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: http://www.jessvincentsings.com/

‘Shine’ – live performance and interview:

EWAN McLENNAN – new album

Artist: Ewan McLennan
Stories Still Untold
Label: Fellside Records
Release Date: 29th September 2014

 

Autumn 2014 sees the release of Ewan McLennan’s 3rd album, Stories Still Untold.

It follows on from his debut release of 2010, the BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award-winning Rags & Robes and his second, critically acclaimed, 2012 album Last Bird to Sing. More recently, 2013 and 2014 have seen Ewan performing and recording alongside some of the world’s finest folk musicians on the latest series of Transatlantic Sessions, which featured both his self-penned and traditional arrangements. Ewan’s new release builds on all this and sees him produce quite possibly his best work yet.

Stories Still Untold has been two years in the making but it results from a process of distillation that began years before. A whole body of traditional songs long closest to Ewan were whittled down and, together with newly penned songs of his own, formed this album. The characteristics for which Ewan’s music has become known – depth of feeling, pathos and an evident respect and passion for the original material – are on show in abundance here.

More than ever this latest album has Ewan cast in the role of storyteller, with each song pulling you in and spinning a new tale before giving way to the next. There are new songs and old songs, past and present, spanning several hundred years. You’ll hear the first ever airing of powerful ‘big ballads’ like ‘Prince Robert’, dug up from some of the more obscure texts of the Child Ballads collection, as well as haunting traditional lost-love ballads like ‘False Young Man’ that have journeyed across the Atlantic and back. You’ll hear the cries of political dissent, long part of the folk song tradition, in songs such as ‘Granite Cage’ and the Chartist hymn ‘Song of the Lower Classes’. You’ll hear songs, like ‘A Beggar’ and ‘Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie’, with a lilt and a momentum driven by both Ewan’s unique and impressive guitar work and the cast of fellow musicians who join him on this album. Sitting seamlessly beside all this is Ewan’s own modern but timeless song writing – ranging from ballads from the underbelly of society, through to poignant and personal stories and onto hard tales from the finest watering holes.

Stories Still Untold features a cast of highly regarded folk musicians of Ewan’s generation who add their exceptional talents. From Ross Ainslie’s whistles, to Beth Porter’s cello and Lauren MacColl’s viola, each musician was chosen specifically with the songs in mind and the effect is subtle yet powerful. But in this intimate and moving album, both Ewan’s performances and the stories he sings remain very much at the forefront.

Ewan McLennan sings ‘The Granite Cage’:

Tracklisting

1. A Beggar
2. Out On the Banks
3. The Shearing
4. Aye Waulking O’
5. Song of the Lower Classes
6. Tales From Down At the Harp
7. The Ballad of Amy Nielson
8. Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie
9. The False Young Man
10. Prince Robert
11. The Granite Cage
12. Henry Joy
13. Coorie Doon

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