JONES – Carver’s Law (MEME CDMM20)

Carver's LawThe title a reference to a maxim held by the writer Raymond Carver to give everything he had each day trusting that the well would be full again the next, Carver’s Law is Trevor Jones’ fifth solo album, one which features writing collaborations with Boo Hewerdine and David Bridie and musical input from multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren and pedal steel maestro BJ Cole alongside long-standing musical partner and co-producer Marcus Cliffe.

As ever, it’s a reflective, meditative affair, the melodies usually anchored by piano, Jones vocals couched in his distinctive dreamily musing delivery, evocative rather than declarative, the album opening with the brief, sparse piano and violin-accompanied ‘Drinking Alone’, one of four Bridie co-writes, pondering whether solitude is better than the dangers fraught in sharing your feelings. The arrangement blossoms on ‘Coleman’s’ (which repeats the image of a rope), steel keening across the lush keyboard framework as, on a lyric exploring forgiveness, he asks “if you lit a candle/Whose name would you mumble?”. Should you be wondering, the title is another Carver reference, inspired by an account by his second wife, fellow writer Tess Gallagher, of an Irish restaurant she wanted to take him too but how he kept being distracted by a Wendy’s or a McDonald’s. They finally got there and the name became a synonym for whether their new poems or stories achieved what they out to do.

‘Have A Sunset On Me’, again complemented by pedal steel with Ljunggren texturing on sax, clarinet and flute, plays a similar thematic note, veined with closure and acceptance of a relationship run its course opening with the line “For want of something better/We went for something worse” and moving to “Seems the dreams that you discover/Were always there to see”.

French for the act of returning, ‘La Rentrée’ moves into waltztime territory on brushed snares for a song about memories, of “the debris of years washed up at my door” and of not being weighed down by the past, but to “try to forget to remember” and to take part in “the dance of the day”.

Featuring Bridie on piano and synth, ‘Gentle Down’ serves as a 56 second lullaby bridge into ‘Morning Pockets’, a song co-written with Hewerdine that has Jones paying tribute to the late British writer and critic AA Gill, acknowledging the influence (“a hounder, a helper, a crutch”) of his mastery of words as he sings “Another man’s pockets is where I belong”.

Indeed, Jones’ love of the poetry of words and their evocative power is manifested in the spoken’ Every Dream A Shadow’ which, contradictory to sentiments elsewhere, values the treasure of memories, of “the faces that have loved you” and of how “what you get is what you give”.

Opening with the sounds of ships’ bells, ‘Blackshore’ continues the thought with a simple fingerpicked number about inspiration, of drawing on experience, of “the beauty of it all” and “the blessings of the ‘in between’” in order to “turn your back to the shore” and move on to uncharted seas and create your own waves.

Another lullaby-flavoured number comes with ‘And The Moon Led Me Home. in which he acknowledges that “You’ve got to be lost to be found”, a reverie of home and hearth that references Rupert Brooke’s 1912 poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, in its line about there being honey still for tea.

Opening with clarinet, at just over five minutes ‘What’ll I Do’ is the longest and most musically muscular track, Jones’ dramatic Meatloaf moment, an end of a relationship number that glories in going out in style (“If that was our goodbye then girl/It’s as good a goodbye as can be”) and how we only tend to see things clearly when it’s too late.

Bridie on piano, it’s back to the sounds of water with the words-tumbling ‘Le Mercury’, an observation of two lovers in a moment of emotional crisis (“She is pale, he is tanned/Seems nothing is going as planned”) and the resolution to go with the figurative dance (another recurring image), giving away to another piano-backed spoken number, ‘Dust In My Throat’, that again addresses the theme of memory and the ghosts that he can never let rest in peace, “a box of dead crows he can never release”. Once again, the resolution here delivered in an almost Shakespearean declaration, is to learn from the lessons life teaches and that “Nothing is settled/ If nothing is lost”.

Two short pieces, Cliffe’s piano instrumental ‘Hook and Tumble’ and the closing piano, cello and violin epiphany ‘Woebegone’, which returns to the conclusion of the opening track, sandwich the country-tinged, steel yearning, hymnal waltzing ‘Folderol’, a bittersweet song of “all the hurt that kindness brings”, of lovers grown apart (“I’m for whiskey, you’re for wine”) and of holding on when you should be letting go, not of parting in anger but a goodbye “light as a sparrow”.

Tender, compassionate, sad and veined with hope for better tomorrows, it’s yet another album from an artist who remains frustratingly little known and underappreciated. Here he’s poured out the best of what he has, but we can rest assured that the spring will replenish because, as he says, “I have a song/That will keep singing/Until the darkness has gone”.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.jones16.bandcamp.com/ / www.miraclemile.co.uk/

‘Every Dream A Shadow’ – official video:

TONY BURT – People Watching (Mirror Blue MBCD010)

People WatchingHailing from Birmingham and now living in Bromyard in Herefordshire, Burt’s been a jobbing folkie since the 60s, playing in outfits such as Witches Brew and Dempsey’s Lot as well as solo gigs round the pub and club circuit. Although he’d always written, that had taken something of a back seat to crowd pleasing covers until he attended a songwriting workshop in 2014 and hooked up with Boo Hewerdine, who co-produced this debut album, People Watching, along with drummer Chris Pepper, both of whom provide the backing to Burt’s guitar and mandola.

All the songs are self-penned, one, pastoral troubadour folk and mellotron-tinted ‘If I Were A Wish’, with lyrics by wife Brigit, and are much in the same 60s vein, opening with the fingerpicked moving on post-relationship ‘Turning My Blind Eye On You’ to reveal an often deep vocal echoing shades of Richard Thompson, one of his acknowledged influences, and Ewan MacColl.

The bulk of the material is relatively freshly written but two have a longer history. Sporting political protest metaphor lyrics, the slow shanty sway ‘The Ship’, Hewerdine on harmonium, dates to 1973, while the ukulele-strummed ‘Devil’s Diamond’ was the only thing he wrote throughout the 90s. In a way, it has vague thematic link to ‘Fly Closer To The Sun’, opening on harmonium drone written on the day Lehman Brothers went bust, albeit the song about taking risks rather than a condemnation.

A couple of more whimsical numbers arrive with the ukulele jaunty ‘Rock Me In Your Arms’ and its audience-friendly chorus that, for all its depression-themed backdrop, suggests the playful side of Harvey Andrews and, backed by drone, ‘Monica Is Taller Than Me’ tells of an elegant waitress in a Scottish restaurant, a nostalgic lust-free reflection and fantasy on the days when a little flirtation may have been an option.

By darker contrast, another drone-backed number, ‘The Village’ calls early Strawbs to mind for a song inspired by the exploits of Freddie Spencer Chapman, the British army officer who found behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Malaya during WWII, and the cost of resistance. Rather cheerier is a visit to the up-tempo strummed ‘JJ’s Bar’, a memory of time spent singing at a remote rock venue in Luxor, Egypt, being a star if only for a night and a handful of drinkers.

As an observational writer, the album ends suitably with the title track, written in a Cleobury Mortimer pub near Ludlow, fantasising the lives and inventing stories about this snapshot of humanity, such as poor old Malcolm who “thinks he’s God’s gift to women” whereas “He’s despised by all those present, talking to him’s just a chore.” Ending with “I wonder what they think of me”.

Probably that, while he may not be one of the acclaimed veterans of the English folk scene, he’d well be worth catching next time he’s playing their local.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.tonyburt.co.uk

‘Turning My Blind Eye On You’:

SIMON AND THE ASTRONAUTS – Simon And The Astronauts (own label AIRLOCK01)

Simon And The AstronautsSimon And The Astronauts is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing or, more accurately, disguised as a cat video. The titular Simon is poet Simon Wells who co-wrote the songs and alongside him are Boo Hewerdine and Chris Pepper who drums and was responsible for most of the recording. Tucked away are Boo’s son Ben, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier and Karine Polwart – mostly on just one or two numbers.

The opening track, ‘Astronauts’, is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd which may not be not be a coincidence as the second song is ‘Grantchester Meadows’ but not the Roger Waters song although that would have fitted in perfectly. The first two cuts are quite pastoral and then the mood changes. ‘Zinc’ is our first chance to hear Simon, speaking his lyrics, and I couldn’t help thinking of Marc Bolan at this point. Yes, I am that old. The track is decorated by Svetlana Alexievich’s theremin following Boo’s piano.

‘Bridge’ and ‘Airmail’ are both love songs, each in their way, and by now the album is getting entertainingly quirky. Karine Polwart, assisted by Findlay Napier, adopts her broadest Scots accent for ‘Love Is’ which she co-wrote with Simon. Although it sounds jokey, it’s actually quite serious and a very clever song. ‘I’m Just A Cat’ features Simon on saxophone and may go some way to explaining the cover design Or not. By this time Simon And The Astronauts is getting under your skin.

‘Oscar (Looking At The Stars)’ is Darden Smith’s solo and he backs Simon on ‘Tightly Wrapped Jackets’. Ben Hewerdine takes ‘Trampoline’ as a solo and his dad does the same with ‘Box Of Tears’ and then we get Simon’s final appearance on ‘Patti’, in part a paean to Patti Smith, more prose than poetry, spoken over Boo’s throbbing guitar.

As the styles and instrumentation mix you begin to suspect that the participants had a heap of fun making this album. The lyric booklet is one big joke but Simon’s words are deadly earnest. You really should hear this record.

Dai Jeffries

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‘I’m Just A Cat’:

Simon And The Astronauts release debut album

Simon And The Astronauts

Simon And The Astronauts really is a fascinating project. Simon Wells is a writer who had attended several of Boo Hewerdine’s song-writing workshops. Over the course of a year together Simon and Boo have made this superb album. Enlisting such talents as Karine Polwart, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier, Ben Hewerdine and Chris Pepper they worked in a very unusual way. Simon would bring a lyrical concept to the studio and together with these musicians would spontaneously write and record each track. Simon himself is a fine performance poet and also leads three of the tracks. There is spontaneity to this album that means you hear new music at the moment of its creation. Stylistically it moves between dream-pop, indie-electronica, delicate acoustics and edgy poetry. It was a chance for these musicians to work outside their comfort zones. Simon’s vision makes it all hang together in a deeply cohesive way.

When looking at tracks on the album, the album opener ‘Astronauts’ was the first track Simon and Boo recorded, at the end of the day, playing back this track that was both eccentric and accessible, they knew they were onto something special. ‘Grantchester Meadows’ follows, co-written with Ben Hewerdine, Boo’s son, who is also a very talented songwriter who has had songs recorded by, among others, Eddi Reader and Dan Whitehouse. Ben took Simon’s lyrics and made this sweetly unsettling recording. ‘Zinc’, which talks about the war in Afghanistan, is augmented by archive recordings of Leon Therimin playing his new invention. The song ‘Bridge’ was also written on day one and is the true story of a bridge in Sheffield, sung by Boo, this was the last track to be finished. Airmail is another Boo song, where he and Simon were remembering those ultra-thin letters people used to send abroad, this recording using a high strung guitar. ‘Love Is’, features Karine Polwart, a joyous take on Simon’s words, recorded with Findlay Napier and other attendees at a workshop. A personal favourite for me, ‘I’m Just A Cat’ is a blissful song, sung by Boo, about, well, being a cat. “Without Simon I would never have a written a song like this” says Boo. Chris Pepper’s production work is just fantastic on this track. ‘Oscar’ is a track where Darden Smith took Simon’s lyric about Oscar Wilde and made this beautiful piano ballad. Tight Metal Jackets features fiery poetry by Simon set against Darden’s rootsy Americana. ‘Trampoline’ is Ben’s jerky indie take on Simon’s concept and ‘Box Of Tears’ which is basically where Simon’s wonderful lyric led Boo to write this tender ballad, the track recorded as soon as it was written. The album closes with ‘Patti’, a simple yet heartfelt tribute to Patti Smith.

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‘Astronauts’:

Simon Todd announces new album

Simon Todd
Photograph by Peter Morrison

Half Empty/Half Full is the eagerly awaited new album from Simon Todd, produced by Boo Hewerdine, ably assisted by Chris Pepper. The album is a collection of songs based upon the concept of considering a wide variety of situations from alternative perceptions. When discussing song selection for this album, Boo Hewerdine (who Simon is so grateful and honoured to have had as a producer) suggested that he select songs that fit together around a theme. Simon immediately had five or six come straight to mind that involve looking at situations from alternative, multiple, or different perspectives. That’s how the album was born; there can be a positive and a negative in everything. Life is about choices. Make yours the right ones.

The songs cover a wide-range of subjects, some very personal, others as an observer or even being completely fictional. Regret and a search for redemption, looking for positives in the peak of personal grief, the horror and futility of the Great War, mental illness, the environment, love & heartache, and the corruption of the many by the few; it’s all here. Working with Boo and Chris Pepper was nothing but an absolute pleasure, and although Simon has never been one for self-praise or promotion, if this wasn’t his music, he’d turn it up when it came on the radio and buy it!

Hailing from the North East of England, Simon Todd is gifted with a powerful voice with a considerable range. He has, over the years, honed his song-writing into a craft, placing equal importance on lyrics, melody and chord structure.

In June 2008, Simon spent a week in Crete with Nashville recording artist and producer, Kevin Montgomery, at Songs In The Sun. Also in attendance were ex Brooks and Dunn drummer Dale Dorman, and the legendary Tommy Allsup – one-time Buddy Holly, and Bob Wills Texas Playboys guitarist; the man who flipped the coin with Ritchie Valens for a seat on the plane  that took Valens, Buddy and The Big Bopper from us on “The day the music died”. “Sitting by the pool in such a beautiful location”, said Simon; “singing ‘True Love Ways’, whilst being accompanied by Buddy Holly’s guitarist, is something that will stay with me forever”.

The experience inspired Todd, who returned home to attack his work with a renewed vigour, ultimately resulting in his debut solo CD release Contracts For The Sale Of Land in 2009. Whilst predominantly writing on his own, there have been collaborations with the likes of Karine Polwart, Findlay Napier, Ali Ingle, Tom Bem, Rosie Bell, Dave Fenley, Kellys Collins, and Pete Sallis. In addition, Simon has also been involved with song-writing retreats organised by the likes as Squeeze’s Chris Difford, and has rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as Darden Smith, and Duke Special. He has performed on both sides of the Atlantic (UK-wide, Texas & Nashville). Previously a regular contributor at the once annual “Heroes & Scarecrows”, Alan Hull (Lindisfarne) celebration night, he toured the UK in 2012 with multi-award winning Texan singer-songwriter, Dave Fenley.

Simon’s songs are guaranteed to get your foot tapping, your mind thinking, or your ears wondering why they haven’t heard him before, and how soon they can do so again.

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‘Demons’:

EDDI READER – Cavalier (Reveal 077CDX)

CavalierForty years into her career, Reader’s 11th solo studio album, Cavalier, continues the recent trend of mixing original and traditional material with, naturally, something from Robert Burns.

Recorded in Glasgow and co-produced with husband John Douglas, and featuring a plethora of musicians, Boo Hewardine, John McCusker, Siobhan Miller, Phil Cunningham and Michael McGoldrick among then, it opens on a traditional note with the gently waltzing Irish tune ‘Maiden’s Lament (An Charraig Donn)’, with whistles, Martin Kershaw’s clarinet and Miller and Annie Grace on backing. The first of the original numbers comes with the poppy Douglas co-penned ‘Wonderful’, a song about learning to let go of trying to control your children’s lives as they transition to adults, the collaboration (along with Simon Dine) also providing the hushed slow waltzer ‘My Favourite Dress’, a nostalgic song reminding how short life is, written for his aunt Mary, in care and suffering from dementia.

It’s Douglas who provides the equally poppy, R&B brass-embellished uptempo title track about sharing the load, his other credits including the slower sway of ‘Fishing’, a number about learning that troubles always pass, even rainy evening, and the following ‘Maid O’The Loch’, a number written as a fundraiser to refurbish the titular boat that takes tourists around Loch Lomond. He also shares a co-write with Phil Cunningham on the gradually swelling ‘A Sailor’s Farewell To The Sea’, the latter putting words to the latter’s Christmassy instrumental and featuring both brass ensemble and accordion.

Hewardine provides two numbers, the first being the 50s-like jazzy shimmering, brushed drums, clarinet and brass-kissed ‘Starlight’ (to which Reader added a final verse), given a Mills Brothers-styled arrangement. The other, ‘Old Song’, takes on a very Scottish waltzing feel courtesy of Alan Kelly’s accordion, a romantic hymn to how music can touch memories and lift hearts.

Turning to Reader’s solo material, coloured by whistles and accordion, ‘There’s A Whole In The Desert Dear Darling’ is a swaylong waltzing lullaby of sorts written in memory of Milou Bedssa, a close friend from her teens who had recently passed away. The other is the album’s penultimate track, the lovely, ukulele-accompanied, percussion rippling ‘Go Wisely’, another song for the kids, both a benediction as they embark on their own lives and a reminder that phone calls don’t cost a lot.

Which just leaves the other traditional numbers. Given a rolling and tumbling Celtic rhythm, ‘Meg O’The Glen’ takes its lyrics from two 18th century poems by Paisley’s Robert Tannahill telling the tale of a lass of low fortune being forced to marry a rich old man she didn’t want, song seguing into an instrumental coda of Jerry Holland’s ‘Brenda Stubbert’s Reel’.

Found among songbooks during a late relative’s house clearance, picked out on the harmonium inherited at the same time, ‘Deirdre’s Farewell To Scotland’ is based on the Celtic myth ‘Deirdra Of The Sorrows’, about a pregnant Irish girl forced to seek sanctuary and the fate of her daughter, the story resonating with the contemporary refugee crisis.

Learned from a version by American jazz singer Kurt Elling, ‘The Loch Tay Boat Song’ is familiar number of love and leaving in the Scottish tradition, here given a laid back late night jazz arrangement for Steve Hamilton’s piano and dedicated to Davy Steele. It’s followed in lively fiddle-laced and wheezing accordion style by ‘Pangur Bán And The Primrose Lass’, a cocktail of an Irish poem about a cat hunting mike (the title translates as White Cat) that rolls into the instrumental interlude, a tune that apparently appeared on an early 70s Steeleye Span album as ‘The Primrose Lassie’, originally collected by Douglas’s great uncle, Irish song archivist Colm Keane. It features Monica Queen on harmonies, prompting thoughts that’s she’s long overdue an album of her own.

And so, Douglas on piano and McCusker on fiddle and whistle, it ends with another nod to her favourite Scottish songwriter, a four verse version of Burns’ classic ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’. She says she chose the album title to reflect how she’s feeling. The thesaurus defines it as offhand, high-handed or careless, but also, as a Caballero or a Quixotic figure. Long may she tilt at windmills.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.eddireader.co.uk

‘Wonderful’ – official video: