THE STORY SONG SCIENTISTS, Findlay Napier and Megan Henwood, are widely regarded as two of the finest songwriters in the country. On the evidence of their second EP, Quantum Lyrics, they are also among the least predictable. The opening track, ‘Specimen 1: 1800 FTD’ finds a heavily echoed Findlay reading an excerpt from Byron’s The Darkness as an introduction to ‘1800 And Froze To Death’, a song about 1816 – the year without a summer. It all begins to make sense. ‘Ode To The Man With The Golden Arm’ and its follow-up ‘Specimen 2: JH’ is a tribute to James Harrison whose blood contains a rare antigen and who has made 1000 blood plasma donations.
‘Lo And Behold’ is an ode to artificial intelligence and its follow-up ‘Specimen 4: L&B’ includes vocals by Siri – Alexa was probably contractually unavailable. ‘The Anarchist Cookbook’ and its Specimen really need no explanation while ‘Clouds’ and ‘Specimen 5’ include extracts from the Cloud Appreciation Society. The songs are all delightful and easy to listen to but the five specimens that elaborate on them prevent this from being just a jolly collection but pull the listener up each time and make them think about the issues.
Born in New Jersey, but based in Maine, warbling voiced Americana singer-songwriter SARA TRUNZO draws on her adoptive home as inspiration for her self-released Cabin Fever Dream EP. It kicks off with the mid-tempo strum of ‘Kind Bone’, a kiss-off to a toxic relationship that suggests the singer wants break-up sex before calling it a day (“Let me have a hair of the dog if you got a kind bone/In your body and then take your body home”), followed by the puttering drums rhythm of ‘I Work Saturdays’, a song inspired by an overheard conversation in a local diner about a single mother struggling to balance parenting (“I missed her soccer game/But she told me that it’s okay/She didn’t do good anyway”) and making a living in a seasonal economy where “the definition of enough /Is good but never plenty”.
Sounding like a country Smokey Robinson, ‘Nashville Time’ takes the idea of “novice soothsayers waiting for a sign” trying to get a meeting in Music City as a mirror for a relationship (“we’re on Nashville time/That gives us an extra hour but it don’t make you mine”). Conjuring thoughts of DeMent and Prine, Free For The Taking references a weekly Maine classified ads paper, Uncle Henry’s where you can find anything from a rusted auto to a Remington rifle or unwanted wedding bands, neatly using it to speak about looking or love and self-worth (“I may not be no vintage Playboys/I may not be a box of Mason jars/
I’d like to think I’m somewhere ‘em/With a perfectly good fixer upper heart”). It ends with the five-minute twangsome guitar and piano slow barroom waltzing ‘Liberty Tool’, from whence the EP title comes, named for a “tool-emporium-meets-performance-art-shop” in Waldo County that uses carpentry imagery to speak of wanting to carve your own new identity rather than being confined by someone else’s expectations (“your sights are set on four walls and a hearth/That sounds just like a cage to my restless heart”) and while “our root cellar and freezer say we’ve been blessed a lot/But I’m hungry for something we haven’t got”. A fever well worth succumbing to.
You’ll know AMY THATCHER from her roles in The Shee and with Kathryn Tickell and The Side. You may look at Let What’s In, Out and think, “another collection of jolly accordion tunes” and, yes, there is quite a bit of piano accordion here and the second track, ‘Nee Musette, Pet’ is quite amusing. But there is a lot more to this EP. On the opening track, ‘Look At You Now’, Amy also plays synth, piano and percussion and hums a little lullaby. The track is for her twins, born prematurely when Amy was on tour, and is a celebration of all three of them coming through a stressful time successfully.
‘The Unheard’ is also embellished with synth and piano, a slow, thoughtful tune for the unknown people whose stories we don’t hear on the news or read about in the papers. Finally, ‘Finn’s Reel’ is a celebration of Amy’s love of another sort of dance music and features beats and drums by Joe Truswell. Don’t forget that Amy is also a member of Monster Ceilidh Band and The Royal Northern Sinfonia, only one of which is relevant to this tune.
From Essex (as you can hear) and based in Manchester, CHLOE HAWES self-releases Finn, a four-track EP of acoustic folksy pop that suggests a touch of Grace Petrie influence to the melodies and delivery. The fingerpicked ‘I Don’t Know You Now’ is about moving way and growing apart (“You only remember how I could be/And I don’t know you now…You claim to have known me for many, many years/But when you look into my eyes I see no recognition here”), followed appropriately by a thematically akin ‘Moving to New York’ (“How can you miss me, if you didn’t even know my name?”) about how “When you’re out on your own/Too broke for international calls/And you say that you like it/But really you just wanna go home”.
Her best lines come with the strummed ‘First To Leave’ (“The remains of my cremation/Are just another powder for someone to snort”), a damaged goods (“the only things that I’m interested in/Are the things that might kill me”) reversal of the usual romantic overtures (“please don’t walk away, I am begging you to stay/So that I can be the first to leave”), ending with the more uptempo, scampering rhythm of ‘Fin’(a deliberate letter short) about finding post-break-up solace (“That perfect umbrella that once sheltered me was ripped out by the changing of the wind/I’ll shelter the storm within the arms of Finn”). It’s her fourth and most successful EP, time perhaps to think of an album, then.
OLIVIA RAFFERTY is the granddaughter of Gerry Rafferty’s cousin although they never met. It’s a bit tenuous but the musical genes have survived and Olivia now releases her debut EP, Hurricane, a set of songs about breakups. Solo debut this may be but Olivia has garnered a lot of experience in a short time and there is maturity in both her voice and her writing. The opening track, ‘Grace’, opens with the crackle of a needle on vinyl – it’s been done many times before but it serves to set a mood for a lyrically strange song, slightly disturbing actually, but very compelling. ‘Hurricane’ begins with a few seconds of backwards tape – is this going to be a motif? Mandolin, electric guitar, synth and percussion add to Olivia’s acoustic guitar on the most complex song, lyrically, in the set. ‘The Way We Were’, already released as a single, is initially a simple finger-picked song later beautifully augmented by Bryan Cowan’s aerophones. As the final track, it certainly leaves the listener wanting more.
Gearing up for his annual album release, BEANS ON TOAST releases a new single, ‘Not Everybody Thinks We’re Doomed’. The sound is relatively heavy by Beans’ standards with lots of guitar and production by Blaine Harrison and the arrangement contrasts nicely with the singalong tune and the optimistic words. Survival Of The Friendliest will be released on December 1st.
For our non-Gaelic readers, ‘Tabhair Dom Do Làmh’ translates to “give me your hand” and is the first new self-released material by pure-voiced Anglo-Irish singer-songwriter LEWIS BARFOOT since her acclaimed Glenaphuca album earlier this year. Recorded with Scottish musician Elizabeth Flett on fiddle and whistle, the lilting traditional tune was written by Derry harpist Ruaidri ‘Dáll’ Ó Catháin around 1603, Barfoot composing the English lyrics to celebrate the marriage of her Korean filmmaker friend Narae Kim. The single also features an instrumental version.
It’s not every day that we receive music recorded by an MP but KEVIN BRENNAN has just broken our duck. Kevin is MP for Cardiff West and ‘Tabernacle Lane’ tells of the last man to be hanged in Cardiff. Mahmood Mattan was innocent but the face of racism hasn’t changed since 1952. The story is well told and with Gerry Diver, Pete Flood and Glen Matlock on board this is a fine performance. Kevin’s album, The Clown And The Cigarette Girl, from which this single is taken, is released any time now.
TREETOP FLYERS channel Van Morrison circa Warm Love with the reflective, nostalgic ‘Castlewood Road’ (Loose), a taster for their forthcoming album, Old Habits, brass and gospel-like backing voices adding to the Celtic soul groove. www.treetopflyers.co.uk
Last month, JOHNNY CAMPBELL released ‘Winter Hill Trespass’ (apologies for the delay, Johnny) to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the mass trespass by 10,000 local people to defend an ancient right of way across the moor. The event predates the Kinder trespass but is less well-known. The song is a narrative with some imagination thrown in and an extremely singable chorus. Johnny’s guitar is joined by the violin of Mikey Kenney and the sound of the wind on the moor. It actually sounds cold.
Now a four piece with Sarah Kelly on ukulele, bass and vocals and guitarist Keith Thompson joining singer-guitarist and squeezebox man Matt Cole and drummer Martin Fitzgibbon, recorded as live, JIGANTICS release ‘Childish Things’ (Rawtone) as a Rudyard Kipling derived taster of next year’s album of the same name, which, Kelly singing lead and a fine electric guitar break, recalls the shuffling uptempo folk rock of early Fairport with echoes of fellow Midlanders Red Shoes.
The Castalia, the debut album by up and coming traditional artist, ISLA RATCLIFF, is about to be released and as a taster we have ‘Tune For Annabelle’, a fiddle slip-jig written by Isla and featuring the dancing feet of the titular Annabelle Bugay.
‘Sadness Of The Sea’ is the latest single by MARTHA TILSTON. It is taken from her album, The Tape, which is the soundtrack of a film that she wrote, directed and starred in – as well as writing all the music. It’s a gentle piano-led song, vaguely reminiscent of Carole King in her quieter moments, but the lyrics are pointed, citing global heating and the lack of political leadership.
JOHN WARD wrote ‘Cathedrals’ as part of a lockdown project. It’s a gentle acoustic song with piano, strings and very laid-back percussion over acoustic guitar. The lyrics compare the building of a cathedral by people who will not live to see its completion to the planting of trees by people who will not see them grow to maturity. Remember that much of the mature woodland we now enjoy was planted to ensure that the Royal Navy would never run out of timber for its ships!