After the explicit Englishness of her previous album Hilary James has taken an old direction. Those of you remember Spredthick will be very comfortable with this album – a collection of 20th century standards and classics.
There is an argument that Hilary’s voice is rather too pure for some of these songs. ‘Skylark’, one of three Hoagy Carmichael titles here, is perfect for her. You can imagine her at the microphone in a smoky 1940s nightclub, the band in white tuxedos with an audience of servicemen and their dates enjoying a few hours’ respite. It’s much more difficult for her to roughen those beautiful notes. She manages it for a while on the traditional ‘Frankie & Johnnie’ and uses the lower part of her register for Utah Phillips’ ‘Rock Salt And Nails’. Her version of ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ owes something to Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac although here it is stripped back to guitars and bass and doesn’t resort to massed strings.
Other songs here that really suit Hilary’s style are ‘They All Laughed’ and Patrick Sky’s ‘Separation Blues’ and she opens the album with one of her pieces, ‘Last Show Tonight’ – the break-up of a relationship cast as a performer’s valediction. I really hope it isn’t autobiographical. The final track from which the album’s title comes, is ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, Hilary following Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday in covering this late night weepie.
Hilary’s band includes many of her regular supporters including lead guitarist Phil Fentiman and the multi-talented Simon Mayor (the original Spredthick). Simon Price plays drums but is replaced for one track by Dave Mattacks and Brendan Power adds harmonica to ‘Deep River Blues’. These musicians have worked together for so long that it’s second nature to them and You Don’t Know shows how good that can be.
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With a background as much in art as music (she studied fine art at Reading University), and despite notions about devoting half her time to each pursuit, it was music that won the early battle for her attention. Teenage influences – spells as vocalist with a big band, an occasional classical lesson, and a love of British and Irish folksong – all left their mark on a vocal style variously described by the press as “quintessentially English”, “one of the most stirring female voices in contemporary British folk music”, and “a superb voice that defies categorisation”. Hilary James’ voice is certainly one that easily crosses the great musical divides.
Despite albums and countless tours with long term partner Simon Mayor, it wasn’t until 1993 that her solo debut Burning Sun appeared, a mix of British folk ballads, evocative originals and a nod to the classics. The follow-up, Love Lust & Loss, was a collection of mostly traditional songs, and a collaboration with that remarkable pianist, the late Beryl Marriott. It wasn’t until her third album, Bluesy, that Hilary returned to her other, earlier influences and explored her, well… bluesy side.
With Lullabies With Mandolins in 2004 she and Mayor briefly returned to their early work with children. The duo had previously presented music education programmes for the BBC for six years, were among the last hosts of the iconic BBC TV programme Play School, had written over fifty songs and released five Musical Mystery Tour albums for children. The new CD was a bedtime collection of traditional songs and classical tunes, and like their previous recordings for children, proved just as popular with adults. “Exquisite, magical, delicate, intriguing” said Roots Review; “Get two copies” raved Irish Music Magazine (one for the nursery and one for the adults).
Eventually, paint brushes were retrieved from the loft, new canvases appeared, and so it was no coincidence that her 2011 album was entitled English Sketches, a celebration of English rural life. It was her best received album to date, gaining a place in The Sunday Times ‘Best ten world music albums of the year’. The sleeve features – of course – sketches by Hilary. Which brings us by a rather circuitous route to the album You Don’t Know and a return by Hilary to the bluesier side of her repertoire.
You Don’t Know is the ‘other side’ of Hilary James. Her last album, English Sketches, celebrated the English landscape, weather and seasons through traditional song and new settings of English poetry, but her formative years were influenced as much by the blues, the Great American Songbook, and singing with a big band.
Nods to her folky side are still evident here. ‘Deep River Blues’ is as beloved of ragtime guitar pickers as of bluegrass and old-time bands, but done here as its title requests, Hilary’s voice competing with Brendan Power’s soaring harmonica and Simon Mayor’s violin. It’s performed here with a new bridge section written by Hilary. The granddaddy of ragtime guitar pickers himself, Reverend Gary Davis, wrote ‘Say No To The Devil’, in an effort no doubt to guide his followers towards his religious world view; it’s arguable his massively influential guitar playing earned him far more secular disciples. ‘Frankie & Johnnie’ is the only narrative song on the album: the age old story of love, betrayal and revenge, with a doubly tragic ending.
A long love affair with the music of Hoagy Carmichael surfaces here with three tracks. ‘Skylark; and ‘The Old Music Master’ are both collaborations with Johnny Mercer. Mercer was said to have written the tender lyrics of ‘Skylark’ with Judy Garland in mind, a stark contrast to the ‘roll-over-Beethoven’ themed flippancy of ‘The Old Music Master,’ but both display his lyrical genius to the full (how many could rhyme spinet with infinite?). Carmichael’s own, brief but fondly affectionate lyrics to ‘New Orleans’ witness once again the predilection of American writers for “songs called cities”.
The words to the throwaway ‘Separation Blues’ were actually written by a man; it’s a song not wholly typical of Patrick Sky, a product of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene who became infamous for biting political and social satire. His album Songs That Made America Famous was rejected by numerous labels before eventually gaining publication. Utah Phillips, a man also prominent on the 20th century American folk scene, wrote the enigmatic ‘Rock Salt And Nails’. Like Sky, he took a strong political stance, but was more protester than satirist.
Gershwin’s ‘They All Laughed’, a favourite from the Great American Songbook, has been a lifelong part of Hilary’s repertoire, dating from her days with the big band. It featured in the 1937 film Shall We Dance and incorporated a classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routine.
A few years ago, an old recording by Gracie Fields of the rather long, but intriguingly entitled ‘The House Is Haunted By The Echo Of Your Last Goodbye’ featured on the long-running BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs. After the broadcast, the phone began to ring with friends and relatives suggesting it would suit Hilary’s voice – so here it is!
‘Need Your Love So Bad’ has achieved the status of a standard among blues-rock artists, similarly in the jazz-blues scene with ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’. ‘Last Show Tonight’ is a song Hilary first wrote some twenty years ago, dusted off, polished up, but decidedly not to be taken literally…!
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You may know Alister Atkin as a maker of fine guitars and you may have heard his debut album, In Time, recorded with Brendan Power and Tim Edey. If not, don’t feel bad. Neither had I until recently and I’m supposed to know about these things.
Alister and his band are based in Canterbury but in his heart he’s Canadian. His wife comes originally from Nova Scotia, a place where the music of the old world meets that of the new and To Evangeline is just that fusion. I love the music of The Band and, clearly, so does Alister. In fact there are one or two borrowings from Robbie Robertson and the removal of one such would improve ‘Shipping News’ immensely. Sorry to be harsh, Alister, but it has to be said. Once over that, this is an extremely good album – witty, literate songs matched with good tunes and a band which includes Geoffrey Richardson and Annie Whitehead, two former members of The Penguin Café Orchestra – this is close to nirvana: The Band and PCO.
The song that should/might be a single is ‘San Diego’, the story of a musician who is offered the big time and turns his back on it – the line about driving over his guitar makes me wince, though. There are two different cuts of the song on the album – a blatant clue. In the meantime the opener, ‘Jess’s Song’, is available as a single. It’s a song redolent of the fog of the Bay Of Fundy and will enhance your iPod even if you don’t buy the whole album – but that would be a mistake.
To Evangeline is the stunning new album by Alister Atkin and his band The Ghost Line Carnival, who are based in and around the historic city of Canterbury in Kent. This second offering from Atkin is sure to take his reputation as a singer-songwriter towards the heights he already occupies as one of the finest guitar makers of his generation with a client list that includes artists such as Richard Hawley, Elbow, Eddi Reader and Graham Coxon.
The influential roots music site Spiral Earth have previously nominated Atkin’s 2012 debut release In Time in the ‘Best Debut Album’ category in their annual awards ceremony and it also received an excellent response from many others in the industry, including magazines such as Classic Rock, Guitarist and Acoustic and the radio presenter Mike Harding, who praised Atkin’s songcraft and added that his song Tom should be considered a modern day classic.
In TIme was recorded with BBC Folk Award winners Brendan Power and Tim Edey, plus other notable musical guests. However, in order to promote it live Atkin decided to put his own band together, stating:
“It was clear to me that I needed a group of talented musicians to help me deliver an accurate live performance. Over time the group evolved and what we built was a band that had a great energy both on and off stage. Their creativity and spirit was in such abundance that my next album simply had to be written with them as a collective effort.”
To Evangeline takes the listener on a journey both musically and geographically, with an overwhelming influence coming from the Canadian north east province of Nova Scotia in a classic case of art mimicking life, given that Atkin’s wife originates from the area and he has made numerous trips there. Of the beautiful ballads that he has subsequently been inspired to write, he marvels that: “A true testimony to the band is how I have returned from Nova Scotia many times with nothing more than tales of my travels and meeting different people and yet they have created an album with me which sounds as if they were beside me on every step of the journey.”
The new album was recorded in just three days in a wonderful locked down almost ‘Transatlantic Session’ style environment where distractions are minimal and the creative juices flow. The Ghost Line Carnival consists of Russ Grooms (double bass), Lee Cornwall (cajon), Aidan Shepherd (accordion, piano) as well as two members of the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra in Geoffrey Richardson (viola, mandolin, spoons) and Annie Whitehead (trombone).
Of the difference in the recording process, Atkin comments: “’In Time’ was everything I wished it could be with the sort of large scale production that would traditionally come with an artist’s later albums, but ‘To Evangeline’ was always going to be different, that straight up from the floor rawness that only really ever manifests itself in the live environment. We wanted that and we achieved it.” Recorded with Matt Barwick at Big Squeak Studios in a village just outside Canterbury, the new album has a warm acoustic feel to it with beautifully captured brass, strings and percussion alongside delicate vocal harmonies from the entire band.
The group take their name ‘The Ghost Line Carnival’ from a reference once made to the twilight procession of artists travelling the roads from one performance to the next, often exchanging stories or simply offering a knowingly appreciative nod to each other as they pass and disappear into the night.
To Evangeline will be released in early March 2014 but Alister Atkin And The Ghost Line Carnival will be previewing it live in the months prior to that. An edited version of the album opener Jess’s Song is also available now as an introductory single and scene setter for the full album.
When Tim Edey walked away from Manchester’s The Lowry stage with the coveted BBC Radio 2 Folk AwardsMusician of the Year gong last year, few knew of the flip side of this upbeat, charismatic artist and the battle he faces with daily demons.
For despite being one of the most talented musicians on the planet and, according to BBC Radio 2 ‘s Mark Radcliffe, “the nicest man in folk” , Edey has had to overcome a life time of panic attacks, childhood bullying, a OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) diagnosis and a teenage mental breakdown.
The 33- year-old Kent-born musician even thought his career was over when, after 9/11, he couldn’t step aboard a plane – having to give up the opportunity of a major American tour with Irish singer Mary Black – and the fear then escalated to trains, buses and cars.
Edey, whose brilliantly eclectic new solo album Sailing over the 7th string is released on Monday, October 14, is open about his challenges and says music is the “therapy” and positivity he needs to keep on track.
After enduring bullying at school, it all started soon after his 15th birthday when he suffered his first panic attack. “I was hyperventilating and it was all downhill from then on.”
He is aware many of his fears – which have included a phobia of lifts – are irrational and even laughable. “Some of the things that happen are just mad – on stage I started repeatedly counting the guitar plectrums because I was convinced they were going to fall into my drink and I would choke.”
“When I lived in Dingle in Ireland a lot of the roads were very bumpy. I would get an idea that I had hit someone and began retracing journeys. The worst thing is having to continually check things like whether you have turned off the tap. You just can’t stop….
A keen sailor, Tim says that on a boat there is no escape from your fears. “Sailing a 28 foot boat alone, you are forced to confront each and every fear and thought and carry on.”
But Perth-based Tim is able to restore the balance by immersing himself in his music whether solo, session or in his duo with harmonica genius Brendan Power with whom he also won Best Duo at the 2012 Folk Awards. As one of the most in-demand musicians on the acoustic circuit he has played with many of the major players on the Celtic scene from The Chieftains to Christy Moore and Sharon Shannon and is soon to embark on an American tour with Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster.
Tim says: “There are different forms of OCD and it’s ridiculous because it’s all in your head. I have good days and bad days. I don’t think there’s anything to hide – there shouldn’t be a stigma about it-– a lot of people write to me about it who are in similar situations.”
Tim, whose partner is Perthshire singer Isobel Crowe with whom he has a baby daughter Ava, says: “It’s been a mad journey but I’m just thankful I’m able to play my music and keep things under control. OCD and anxiety often go hand in hand with creativity – the positive thing is my music. Music makes it right!”
Sailing over the 7th String – predominantly guitar music with a bit of box playing thrown in for good measure – is already being heard across the BBC airwaves and getting enthusiastic reviews.
It is released on the Gnatbite Records label on October 14 and is available at gigs and online at www.timedey.co.uk
Kaleidoscope may not be the coolest word to use at the moment thanks to John Bercow, Speaker Of The House Of Commons but it happens to be the way I view Tim Edey’s colourful rise to fame within the ‘folk’ community. Having recently been the recipient of the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for 2012 as musician of the year no less Tim’s prowess as a multi-instrumentalist has long been admired by those of us fortunate to have shared his company at sessions or performing on stage. Edey’s unbelievably technical flawless musicianship is displayed on this ten year retrospective proving just how comfortable he is in his own company or with that of his equally talented associates including Michael McGoldrick, Seamus Begley and Brendan Power. Opening with the almost ‘harp’ sounding “Out On The Ocean” thanks to his intricate nylon strung guitar playing this leads nicely into the jazz-styled “Independence Hornpipe” with an astonishing display of digital dexterity on melodeon. As if being a fantastic musician wasn’t enough he also displays a talent for tune writing with his own wistful melody “Little Bird” where he’s accompanied by Sharon Shannon. Anyhow, enough of the name-dropping and on with the jaw-dropping…if it’s digital dexterity that floats your boat (by the way, Tim’s based in the sea-side town of Broadstairs…and proud of it) then I can thoroughly recommend this CD.
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