ASTRALINGUA – Safe Passage (Midnight Lamp)

Safe PassageA self-described nomadic space-folk duo, multi-instrumentalist and composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and his backing vocalist wife Anne Rose have, over the course of recent critically well-received singles, built a healthy anticipation for this, their debut album, variously recorded in the Sierra Nevadas, the Mojave desert and France. Navigating a cosmic pathway between psychedelia, folk, progressive and classical, and complemented by instrumentation that includes flutes, violin, cello and double bass with Chris Hillman on mandolin, they declare it to be a statement on mortality, isolation and transitioning between worlds.

It open with their first two singles, ‘Plunge’ and ‘Visitor’, the former, a chamber arrangement driven by pulsing cello sets a nervy rhythm reflecting anxiety and anticipation of inevitable, inexorable change as Joseph sings “into the falls we go to whatever waits below/holding our heads up high/it’s a good day to die!”. Written and recorded in a Mojave cabin, ‘Visitor’, by contrast, is a more meditative, sparser piece of pastoral psych-folk, the simple acoustic guitar flecked with flute and bolstered by double bass, Anne having referenced the story of the Pied Piper in regards to the ambiguous intent of the song’s narrator as they softly purr “come with me my weary child, cold and all alone/put your little hand in mine and I will take you home”.

The tumbling, circling notes of an acoustic guitar provide the framework for ‘Sweet Dreams’, cello and flute complementing Joseph’s use of musical box piano notes and cajon for a lilting, sunnily pastoral languorous sway and lyrics that hint at dreams (or perhaps even suicide) as a way to reconnect with life’s lost magic.

It’s followed by the first of the instrumentals, ‘The Nimble Men’, a dissonant, ambient swirl enfolding flute and cello that sounds like it could be used in one of the dark enchantments of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ shading into the most recent single, the softly sung, otherworldly ‘Space Blues’, which again speaks of isolation and feeling adrift in (echoing Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’) conjuring the image of an astronaut “staring through a polished glass” at the stars, feeling empty and cold and missing his home and asking “how much have i sacrificed for curiosity?”.

‘Phantoms’ is another instrumental, a stark, sombre piano piece that shades into plucked violin, melancholic cello and disorienting, discordant sound effects like harpies at a bacchanalia. Opening what sounds like the chimes of Big Ben and proceeding on a repeated piano note drone ‘NSA’ returns to space but with an even more disturbing lyric as, bridged by a pulsing strings interlude, Joseph sings in sweetly conspiratorial tones “I know your secret/this whole time I’ve been watching you… I know what you want and I’ve got what you need/I’ve got everything that’s burning in your mind”.

By way of something different, Joseph draws on his love of William Blake for a setting of his poem about the destructive nature of envy and anger, ‘A Poison Tree’, a playful arrangement featuring trilling twin mandolins and cello that evokes European folk music, a cautionary tale to be sung in some Balkan tavern as the sun sets.

A meditation on the transitory nature of existence when “all of the things you hold so dear can in an instant disappear”, ‘Fallen’ opens with the sound of a musical box being wound up, a five minute lullaby about mortality, the arbitrary nature of death and how, drawing ion nature’s cycles, winter can draw in on relationships and beliefs leaving you high and dry as “all of the things you hold so true can make the coldest bed for you”.

Again echoing that crossing from one world to another realm, drawing on Arthurian myth, ‘Passage To Avalon’ is the third and final instrumental, a suitably dreamy, classical influenced piece featuring violin, fiddle, double bass and wordless vocals that conjures the serenity of passing over, serving as an appropriate prelude to the album’s thematically-linked seven-minute parting track, ‘The Troubled Road’. Evocative of The Flaming Lips and featuring bansuri (Indian flute), double bass, cello and FX, it’s a psychedelic cosmic spiritual with the narrator singing about weariness with the world, of being “tired of carrying this load”, ready to rest his aching bones as death closes in and he calls for Charon to ferry him across the river to the promised land.

For an album that predominantly deals with isolation, alienation, loss and death, it’s surprisingly uplifting and beguiling in its contemplation of the passage to the beyond. In Latin their name would mean the language of the stars, and this is a stellar debut indeed.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.astralingua.com

‘Space Blues’ – official video:

THE BYRDS – On A Wing: A Compendium Of Historical Performances: Volume 1 (Sound Stage SS8CDBOX48)

On A WingThe Sound Stage label are back with an absolute monster from the vaults, this time in the form of an 8 disc (yes 8 f*uking disc) box set, dedicated to the folk-rock pioneers, The Byrds. Made up of 109 tracks, there is a lot to get through in very little time (and cyber space) so I’ll pick out some of my own highlights and you can decide for yourself what I’ve missed.

Kicking off in 1968, in the wake of the band’s reshuffle, the historically “typical” sound of the Byrds is captured here. For example, renditions of folkie standards like ‘Old Blue’ and the JFK-themed arrangement of ‘He Was A Friend of Mine’ are among the company of the Dylan and Guthrie covers, so often associated with the Byrds. In among these, seep the country elements also associated with the group; of particular note are ‘Nashville West’ and Gram Parsons’ lament, ‘Hickory Wind’.

Parsons features a good deal and particularly on Disc 2, which transports us from November 1968 to June of 1969 and to the Palomino Club, in North Hollywood, where Clarence White joins forces with Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers. At times, the sound really isn’t great, but the excitement of the moment comes across and at times it is hard trying not to get caught up in the concert, even if just as a listener…some near 50 years later.

‘The Train Song’ is an upbeat, energetic and that spur of the moment vibe still spills out through the speakers and jumps from one feeling to another; to that of the wild ‘Dream Baby’ or the laid bare and lonesome ‘She Once Lived Here’ or ‘Black Limousine’…yet the atmosphere reuses to die. Disc 3 continues the same performance and while the inconsistencies in the sound remain the main source of complaint, numbers like ‘Sweet Mental Revenge’, ‘Another Place, Another Time’ and an otherwise brilliant version of Merle Haggard’s ‘Hungry Eyes’ remain among the high points.

The halfway stage of this set takes us to some more intimate gigs, beginning with David Crosby, at the Matrix (December ’70) on Disc 4. On this occasion, he’s joined by members of The Grateful Dead to perform a mixture of freshly penned solo material (‘Cowboy Movie’ and ‘Laughing’ for example) and some interesting takes on standards like ‘Deep Elm Blues’. It is slow, more spacious and guides us in perfectly to Disc 5; a Roger McGuinn set from 1974, after the Byrds had finally parted. This one in particular, is a real treat. Alone on stage, McGuinn stands equipped with a guitar and harmonica, running down his Byrd-loyal set of 60s pop hits, traditional numbers and of course, the odd bit of Dylan. From his own work, ‘Bag Full Of Money’ is particularly good.

Disc 6 is probably the rockiest of all the collection, emanating from Amarillo, Texas and featuring McGuinn, Gene Clark and Chris Hilman, alongside a crew of session players. The familiar formula of Byrds big hitters and contemporary efforts is used here, and ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ turns up, surprisingly, for the first time. Of equal note on this disc, are the messy, audience participation-led version of ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ and ‘Stopping Traffic’.

The final discs take us to Gene Clark and The Fyrebirds, circa 1985. ‘Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies; and ‘Tried So Hard’ stand out on Disc7, while Disc 8 builds slowly, through the likes of ‘Here Without You’, ‘She Don’t Care About Time’ and ‘See Your Face’, into the slightly heavier country-rock tinged ‘Dixie Flower’ and ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ and bidding a fitting adieu on Byrds-shaped classics ‘So You Wanna Be A Rock ’n’ Roll Star’ and ‘Eight Miles High’.

Byrds On A Wing…is something of a journey, but a delightful one. Spanning the 8 hour mark, there is a lot to take in. Naturally, there are a few tracks which repeat from time to time, but they’re not unwelcome and even at that, each of them are done with such a different style and approach, they feel completely different to their predecessors.

Christopher James Sheridan

More information and buy from: http://www.odmcy.com

‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’ – live on TV:

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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‘A Winter’s Blues’ – official video:

JD Weaver makes recording debut

JD Weaver makes recording debut

His heroes are John Lee Hooker, Joan Baez, John Martyn, Stevie Nicks. Also John Butler. And Stevie Ray Vaughan…But at only 19, JD Weaver is a recording artist and a hero himself. Check this out…

We can announce his first recordings. The EP’s called Where Eagles Fly. Recording/gigging has been very difficult access-wise. Now JD is looking for a label or producer. Looking to move forward. Not only that! Also – JD has taken a brave step.

He’s taking a stand. He’s speaking out. It’s an issue JD knows. He is highlighting it. He’s raising it. Because it’s been hidden or ignored. It’s the unseen issue of music and disability, music and access, music and visibility. Of music and marginalisation. It’s a music industry issue. A whole lot more needs to be done. Music and disability. Think about it.

JD says this:

“I want to say ‘no’, ‘this is does not define me…I am capable of so much more than some people think’. The EP discusses how people can be marginalised and grow disillusioned. For me, I haven’t always been disabled, so I’ve seen my dreams/aspirations change. I’ve had friends come and go. Because of how differently they saw me once I was labelled disabled.

“I decided to confront this through a concept EP built around a native figure, taking element s from aboriginal people, native American and Inca civilisations. This figure has left the world to hide in a cave high above a mountain range. The only animals there are eagles. Eagles and this dweller see the horrors of the world unfold from above; they have seen their world completely changed due to the constant movements of people, war, violence, abuses. I read up on the issues native/indigenous groups face today as a result of their history. I saw something of these cultures in myself. I love their vibrancy. And that they stay strong, despite the fact their history has been far from generous to them, really spoke to me on a personal level. I want that with my music. Vibrancy and colour. And yet a sense that there may be a real tragedy beneath. I hope you all will take something away and possibly see some potential in me that I know is there!”

Inspired music. Inspirational stuff. The EP was produced by Bob Cooper at Airtight Studios, Manchester, famed for being a recording space for artists such as KT Tunstall and Thea Gilmore. Brilliant Billy Bragg sideman Chris Hillman plays lap steel, while JD plays Seagull Excursion and Washburn Black electro-acoustic guitars. This is the start for JD. What a story.