CHRIS CLEVERLEY – We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold (Opiate Records OPI001)

We Sat Back And Watched It UnfoldI loved Chris Cleverley’s first album, Apparitions, which appeared in 2015. That was four years ago so he hasn’t rushed into recording his follow-up. In that time he’s written and performed, formed a trio with Kim Lowings and Kathy Pilkinton and made lots more friends, several of whom appear here. Although a skilled interpreter of traditional material and other people’s songs, Chris has gone down the songwriter route. The twelve songs here are all original; there’s one co-write with Sam Kelly who also co-produced the album. For the avoidance of any doubt let me say now that We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold is a stunning piece of work.

These are deep, serious songs although Chris leavens them with humour. The opener, ‘The Arrows And The Armour’, is a witty love song decorated by Jamie Francis’ banjo and Katie Stevens’ flute and I guarantee that by the end the song you’ll be hooked. ‘Scarlet Letter’ is a reworking of the first part of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel and the thing is that Chris doesn’t make Hester Prynne sound terribly sorry for her action.

‘I Can’t Take It’ is an odd meditation on the effect that events have on shaping our personalities and then comes the title track. It feels vaguely Orwellian and it might help if you’ve watched Mr Robot, which I haven’t. Like ‘I Can’t Take It’, it uses health care as a metaphor and Chris is right: we have sat back and watched it unfold and look at the mess we’re in. ‘A Voice For Those Who Don’t Have One’ considers mental health in a way that is very simple to relate to and by the end it has crept up on you. I confess that it brought a tear to my eye. It leads smoothly into ‘Happy And Proud’, a song about gender identity and ‘The Ones Like Ourselves’ which is…well…a song for people who don’t really fit in. I can relate to that.

Chris takes a side-step into history with ‘Madame Moonshine’. I’m still trying to decide if it’s about what he says it’s about or something other. Victorian perversity lives in the song – even reading the words leads you into a Dickensian world – and the strangeness of the music can bring on a shudder. The co-write, ‘The Low Light Low’ is based melodically on ‘The Golden Vanity’ but only just and lyrically it’s completely different.  At this point I’d pretty much decided that Chris Cleverley was living up to his name and playing mind games with his listeners by writing a song about something and then feeding us a line.

Musically, We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold is a weighty album. I should mention Evan Carson and Lukas Drinkwater on percussion and bass, Graham Coe on cello and Marion Fleetwood and Hannah Martin on violins and viola who worked to produce this wall of sound. Some of songs I’ll need to puzzle out a bit more but the music makes them very easy to listen to. Unless several truly astonishing things turn up before December this will be one of my albums of the year.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://chriscleverley.com/

‘In A Dreamlike State’:

Chris Cleverley announces new album release

Chris Cleveley
Photograph by Redwood Photography

Alt-folk songwriter and fingerstyle guitarist, Chris Cleverley announces the release of 2nd studio solo album, entitled ‘We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold’.

Produced by BBC Folk Award Winner Sam Kelly at Cornwall’s infamous Cube Recording, the album is due for release on Friday 11th October 2019, to contribute to activity surrounding World Mental Health Day.

This collection of twelve original songs intends to explore a pervasive sense of anxiety afflicting our modern age. Diverse lyrical themes from deteriorating anxious minds, through to literary heroines, combine curiously with Cleverley’s characteristic, intricate guitar fingerstyle, to offer a challenging, but uplifting piece of art.

The new release promises a bold departure from debut Apparitions (The Telegraph ‘Top 70 Folk Albums, 2015’) with progressive song structures seeking to fuse elements of Folk, Americana, Pop, Rock, Metal and Contemporary Acoustic music. With full band arrangements, featuring 10 shining lights of the UK folk scene, the album’s soaring pop melodies and thundering rhythms reflect an approach to songwriting inspired by the American greats Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley and Paul Simon.

Cleverley is set to promote the album’s songs on a thirteen date UK release tour throughout Autumn 2019, including solo acoustic performances and as part of the Chris Cleverley Trio (featuring Kim Lowings and Kathy Pilkinton). A launch gig will take place featuring a full band in Cleverley’s hometown Birmingham.

Those intrigued by the album’s themes and musical content can support Chris Cleverley achieve a robust and wide-reaching release campaign. Head over to the official Indiegogo Crowdfunding page at https:/igg.me/at/chrisclev to explore a series of Limited Edition gifts and experiences on offer to pledgers.

Artist’s website: www.chriscleverley.com

The crowdfunding video:

CHRIS CLEVERLEY TRIO – Red Lion Folk Club, Kings Heath, Birmingham

Chris Cleverley Trio

Already well-established as a charismatic performer on the folk circuit and a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter as well as hugely accomplished guitarist, this hometown gig, the first of the award-winning club’s new season, served to launch his new trio format comprising himself, Kim Lowings and Said The Maiden’s Kathy Pilkington, who also plays banjo and woodwind.

Following an opening set by Minnie Birch, herself a frequent Cleverley collaborator, the trio took to the stage and launched into an a capella rendition of ‘The Old Man From Over The Sea’, Chris taking lead and the two girls crooning harmonies and joining in on the chorus, a ribald Irish ballad from the Anglo-American tradition about a young woman encouraged by her mother to have it away with some grey-bearded old bloke who ultimately proves to be sexually inadequate.

Cleverley strapping on guitar and with Kathy on banjo, ‘You And I Belong Together’, a new self-penned number, proved a rousing Americana stomp, setting the musical backdrop for a rendition of the traditional American folk classic ‘O Shenadoah’, a number he’d recorded on his debut album, elevated to even greater heights by Kathy’s clarinet and her and Kim’s complementary pure-voiced harmonies, the latter airily soaring, the former slightly earthier.

Two further numbers from Apparitions follow, the American folk coloured ‘The Dawn Before The Day’, Kathy back on banjo and Chris strapping on electric guitar, and the waltzing ‘Missing Persons’, explaining that, as the songs age so they change, the new format affording a chance to reinvent rather than simply retread.

The girls temporarily leave the stage for two solo Chris numbers, the ridiculously catchy as yet unrecorded ‘The Low Light Low’ which promises to be a highlight on the next album and, in a tip of the hat to the man who inspired him to learn guitar, a version of ‘Barrack Street’, a traditional tale of a sailor’s misfortune in Windsor, as learned from the Nic Jones album Penguin Eggs (and also on Said The Maiden’s A Curious Tale).

Ending the first set on another terrific new song, ‘Rachael’, the second began one more in a capella mode with another traditional ballad, his time from Scotland, with each taking a verse of ‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ before heading into Appalachian territory, Cleverly on banjo for ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ off his debut.

Setting the scene by recounting how he and Pilkington had taken some time during their summer Scottish dates to explore the blooming heather, they followed with ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, given a more uptempo strummed tempo than is usually the case. A number he’s been trying out on recent dates, Steve Miller’s 70s classic ‘The Joker’ might not immediately strike you as folk club material, but in the trio’s hands it works brilliantly. Then it was time for another solo spot. Having already reminded that he gives good between song banter with an amusing story about the animated video for ‘The Day Before The Dawn,’ thoughts of fox-inspired merchandise for babies and a toddler getting up on stage and dancing, he recalled how after reading The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, he was inspired by the beautiful grotesques on the fringes of society to write the subsequent song, ‘The Rafters’.

At this point, Kim and Kathy step off and Minnie Birch steps up to duet with Chris on ‘Glitter’, a song off her own debut album they’d been performing on their dates together, before everyone assembles for Birch to sing lead on ‘Up And Down’, a song inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream she wrote for The Company of Players, the Shakespeare-inspired project of which they comprise four of the nine members. And, returning for a well-deserved encore, it’s from this too that comes ‘But Thinking Makes It So’, a Cleverley-penned number inspired by Hamlet and the theme of mental illness, not only one of the very best songs he’s written, but one of the finest in the contemporary folk canon this century. An outstanding finale to a tremendous show.

Cleverley is set to record his new solo album in November and, while both Lowings and Pilkington will be involved, it won’t be a Trio project and there’s no further live shows from the line-up until next autumn. It would be an act of human cruelty to wait so long to hear them again, so, just perhaps, a live in the studio EP of the set’s covers and traditionals might not be too much to hope for. Make it so.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.chriscleverley.com

Performance: 26 September 2018

‘When I Was No But Sweet Sixteen’ – live in the front room:

Chris Cleverley unveils his new project

Chris Cleverley Trio

September 2018 sees the launch of a new live outfit from Contemporary Folk songwriter and fingerstyle guitar extraordinaire Chris Cleverley.

With an all-star line-up, Chris is joined by renowned folk singer/songwriter Kim Lowings and multi-instrumentalist Kathy Pilkinton of vocal harmony trio Said The Maiden.

Developing the solo live sound for which Chris has become well known across the UK, the trio presents fresh and vibrant arrangements of popular original and traditional material as well as exploring new, uncharted territory to stretch the boundaries of what we define as folk music.

Chris says of the new project:

“There were two main purposes for assembling this line-up. Firstly, I wanted to reinterpret material from my own back catalogue which I had naturally become disconnected from after years of performance. The dynamism that these two sensational musicians brought to the arrangements made it like performing a whole bunch of brand new songs. Secondly, through gearing up for the recording of my next record, I wanted to introduce hints of the denser, more layered sound that we’ll be creating.”

With a focus on intricate three-part vocal harmonies and detailed, unorthodox instrumentation these three musicians draw on a long history of collaborating to present a richly layered and tightly cohesive live sound. Audiences can expect effects-laden acoustic and electric guitars, ebow, banjos, clarinet, shruti box and keyboard, all underpinning the centrepiece of the trio’s vocal arrangements.

The trio’s inaugural showcase performance offers a rare opportunity to catch this live act in 2018.

This event is bookended by Chris’ Autumn Solo Headline Tour dates, including performances at Orpington, Rothbury, Newcastle, Carlisle, Aylesbury, Oswaldtwistle, Frodsham and Romford.

All the above dates will unveil glimpses of new material taken from Chris’ second studio album, which commences production in November 2018 under the guidance of award winning producers Sam Kelly and Graham Coe. Covering broad and challenging imagery of deteriorating anxious minds, damaging gender constructs, literary heroines and struggling public services Chris’ new material reflects a keen intellect and strong social conscience.

Artist’s website: www.chriscleverley.com

‘Missing Persons’ video by Redwood Photography

THE COMPANY OF PLAYERS – Shakespeare Songs (own label)

Shakespeare SongsThe Company of Players is an assemblage of young musicians brought together at the behest of Jess Distill of Said The Maiden, in order to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 by putting together some songs related to his life and work. And one of the fruits of that collaboration is the CD Shakespeare Songs. Participants are Jess Distill (vocals, flute, Shruti box – a drone instrument somewhat like a harmonium), Hannah Elizabeth (vocals, violin), Kathy Pilkinton (vocals, clarinet, spoons, mandolin), Sam Kelly (vocals, acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion), Kelly Oliver (vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica), Lukas Drinkwater (vocals, electric guitar, double bass), Chris Cleverley (vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo), Kim Lowings (vocals, dulcimer, piano), Minnie Birch (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Daria Kulesh (vocals).

And a very interesting set it is, too. Knowing nothing of the project, I was, I suppose, expecting performances of songs that actually feature in Shakespeare plays (‘The Willow Song’, for example) or settings of his words, possibly accompanied by instruments from the period – which would have been fine by me! – but there are no lutes or viols here, and the range of material is both wider and in many cases more modern than I expected.

Track listing:

  1. ‘Black Spirits’, by Kathy Pilkinton, takes its title and lyrical content from Macbeth: specifically, Act I Scene I, and Act IV Scene I, taken verbatim from speeches by the Three Witches. It starts with minor-key, dirge-like close harmonies from Said The Maiden over an instrumental drone, then picks up the pace with percussion from Sam Kelly, while the harmonies of Jess, Hannah and Kathy are augmented by the voices of Sam, Chris, Kelly and Minnie.
  2. Minnie Birch’s ‘Up And Down’ borrows ideas and imagery from Midsummer’s Night Dream, and even the chorus is based (though not verbatim) on the words of Puck:
    Up and down, up and down,
    I will lead them up and down
    .’
    The sound, however, is very ‘modern folk’. In fact, it reminded me a little of Megan Henwood, which is certainly not a complaint. A very pretty tune.
  3. ‘Gather Round’, by Kim Lowings, draws on ideas and imagery from The Tempest. However, the expression is unashamedly modern, and would not sound out of place on Radio 2. (Hey, that’s not a criticism: I often listen to Radio 2!)
  4. While the title of Chris Cleverley’s ‘But Thinking Makes It So’ comes from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark – “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” the song seems to be a more general musing on the human condition and psychological frailty, no doubt influenced by the well-known soliloquy. Very attractive.
  5. In contrast, ‘Method In The Madness’, by Jess Distill and Kim Lowings, is clearly based on Hamlet (perhaps somewhat influenced by the Icelandic Amlóði or the Amleth of Saxo Grammaticus, somewhat less conflicted precursors of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark). It’s curious that such a dark, corpse-strewn play should attract such light music. While this doesn’t have the levity of Adam McNaughtan’s ‘Oor Hamlet’ (chanted or sung to ‘The Mason’s Apron’), its sprightly tune, married to instrumentation that would not be out of place at a bluegrass festival, could certainly be described as toe-tapping. In fact, the tune would fit nicely into that group of American songs including ‘The Roving Gambler’, ‘Poor Ellen Smith’, and ‘Going Across The Mountain’. I’m almost tempted to describe it as fun.
  6. ‘Song Of The Philomel’ is a gentle song by Kim Lowings: the slightly archaic expression in the lyrics recalls Titania’s lullaby in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Philomel is both an old name for the nightingale and a 19th-century instrument somewhat related to the violin, though Hannah’s fiddle here doesn’t have the philomel’s shrill tone.) I particularly like this track.
  7. ‘Interval’ is a brief instrumental track, not listed in the sleeve notes or lyric booklet, but its mournful, slightly dissonant tone serves very appropriately as an introduction to the next track, ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk’. Amusingly, the press release ascribes its inclusion to Midsummer’s Eve mischief-making by the Fairy Queen and her followers. However, there’s nothing light-hearted about either track.
  8. Daria Kulesh’s ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk’ draws its story, as the title suggests, from the novella Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (and the source of an opera by Shostakovich), rather than directly from Shakespeare. Darla’s dramatic delivery of a melody fittingly reminiscent of Russian folk music is almost operatic in its intensity.
    By the way, the Russian word прощай, which appears several times in the lyric, generally means something like ‘farewell’ or ‘goodbye forever’, but can also mean something like ‘forgive’, which perhaps echoes the more sympathetic portrayal of Katerina in Shostakovich’s opera. Just a thought.
  9. ‘You Needs Must Be Strangers’ takes verses from Sir Thomas More. The authorship of this play is, to say the least, complicated. But it is generally accepted that 147 lines added to the play in 1603 were contributed by Shakespeare in his own handwriting. Its meditation on the plight of the exile has an all-too-apposite resonance in the 21st century, reminding me a little of Martin Thomas’s ‘The Exile’.
  10. ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’, by Hannah Elizabeth, sets the song from As You Like It described by Touchstone as “untuneable”, though Hannah’s setting (like Thomas Morley’s long before it) disproves that description. A great tune, though the extended playout is a little overlong for my taste.
  11. The lyric to ‘Jessica’s Sonnet’ is actually not quite a sonnet, but then it isn’t by Shakespeare either, being credited to Kelly Davis, Kim Lowings and Sam Kelly. It does, however, represent the thoughts of Jessica, the daughter of The Merchant Of Venice, just before she elopes with Lorenzo. The vocals are credited to Sam and Chris, but there’s a strong female vocal there, too, plus other harmonies that seem to be from the whole Company.

This certainly isn’t the sort of music I was expecting, but I certainly can’t say I was in the least disappointed by what I heard. Good solo and harmony vocals, excellent instrumental work where technique serves the interests of the songs but never overshadow them, and some very attractive tunes. If you’re among the many people who were completely put off The Bard by unimaginative English lessons, don’t let that put you off this take on his life and work. And if you love Shakespeare but are open to alternative ‘takes’ like West Side Story you may well like this.

It’s certainly staying on my iPod.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.facebook.com/TheCompanyofPlayers

‘Method In The Madness’ – live:

SAID THE MAIDEN – Here’s A Health (own label)

HealthFollowing on from last years EP, ‘Of Maids And Mariners’, Hertfordshire folk trio Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkinton return with their much anticipated second album, Here’s A Health, another fine collection of traditional, self-penned and cover material that again spotlights their immaculate harmonies.

Variously playing violin, piano accordion, mandolin, flute, clarinet, whistles, electric bass and Appalachian mountain dulcimer, they’re also joined on a couple of tracks by Lukas Drinkwater and Chris Cleverley.

Following the brief a capella ‘Preamble’, an invitation to “come lift up your voices”, things get under way proper with the traditional ‘The Bird’s Courting Song’, a three-part seventeenth-century children’s nursery rhyme from the Appalachians that features Jess on flute and comes with a “towdy, owdy, di-do dum” chorus. Hannah provides the violin-driven tune for the waltzing ‘The Maid Of The Mill’, a traditional eighteenth-century ballad, supposedly about Mary Leonard, a Hertfordshire lass who spurned any number of admirers before finally marrying, the words penned by the local curate, one of the unsuccessful suitors, with Drinkwater on double bass.

The traditional seam continues to be mined with their arrangement of ‘Sweet William’s Ghost’, Jess providing the tune for this cut up lyric tale of a woman being visited by her lover’s ghost and being invited to share his grave, the vocals given a simple dulcimer backing.

Another nod to the trio’s playful nature, next up is an unaccompanied cover of Tom Paxton’s quirky children’s song, ‘Jennifer’s Rabbit’, then, again featuring Drinkwater, it’s back to the traditional meadow with another three-part harmony showcase in ‘The Bonnie Earl O’Moray’, a traditional Scottish ballad about the murder of James Stewart, the titular earl, by his arch rival, the Earl of Huntly, in 1592, supposedly because the former was accused of plotting against King James VI. Interestingly, the line about him being laid upon the green gave rise to the term Mondegreen, meaning a misheard song lyric that changes the meaning, on account of the American writer Sylvia Wright hearing it as ‘Lady Mondgreen’ and assuming it to be his lover.

The first of the original material comes with ‘Polly Can You Swim?’, co penned by Distill and Pilkington and featuring Andrew Simmons Elliott as the sailors chorus, a sprightly sea shanty rather at odds with its words about accounts of women being thrown overboard for fear of them placing curses on ships. Of course, testing by sink or swim was also applied to witches and, sure enough, it’s followed by Distill’s particularly grisly ‘Black Annis’ based on the Leicestershire legend of a child-eating witch told by parents to keep their kids in after dark, Jess taking lead against the harmonies and accompanied by a vocal drone.

Keeping things dark, piano accordion introduces the traditional American murder ballad, its drone complemented by dulcimer in an otherwise a capella reading of ‘In The Pines’ inspired by recordings by both Lead Belly and Nirvana before Hannah’s spare mandolin makes its appearance in the final stretch.

Spirits are suitably raised with a return to native soil and an unaccompanied version of the erotic euphemistic Norfolk reel ‘The Bird In The Bush’, otherwise known as ‘Three Maids A-Milking’, ahem, from whence comes the album title. Pilkington’s contribution to proceedings is ‘Take The Night’, a sprightly strummed acoustic and violin-coloured tale based on the legend of a Hertfordshire highwaywoman, Cleverley joining them on banjo, the album then closing with a fine unaccompanied take on Richard Farina’s ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’, learned at the request of the late Dave Swarbrick when they supported him in 2015.

Maybe it’s just the time of the year, but there’s a crispness and ambience to the album that conjures bracing winter mornings and nights around the fire, but really, this is an album for all seasons.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.saidthemaiden.co.uk

‘Jennifer’s Rabbit’ – live and just for fun: