I still tend to think of Bella Hardy as one of the bright young things of folk music but she has already done more than enough to justify Postcards & Pocketbooks, a double-CD retrospective, all the tracks remastered by Ian Carter. Bella is an old-style fiddle-singer, a 21st century songwriter and just about everything between. She can bring power to traditional songs and weave old themes into new songs and you can never be sure where her muse will lead her next.
The first disc opens with ‘Learning To Let Go’ from her poppy album, Hey Sammy, built on the pounding drums of John Blease. It sounds like the song of someone still seeking a way forward and if it’s autobiographical then that might explain Bella’s frequent changes of approach. That’s followed by the almost traditional ‘Whisky You’re The Devil’ and her award-winning ‘The Herring Girl’. This could be a traditional song or, at least, a traditional story but there is not hiding its provenance. You might expect ‘Sylvie Sovay’ to be traditional but here again Bella just takes the names and the germ of the theme and works them into something very new.
‘Maying Song’ and ‘The Seventh Girl’ are largely old songs and the first half ends with the first of two unreleased tracks, the gorgeously pure ‘Sheep Crook & Black Dog’.
The second disc opens with a new version of ‘Three Black Feathers’, the song that first made her name. Here it’s pared back to a simple guitar accompaniment by Sam Carter and the experience of nine years is obvious in Bella’s voice. Sam is there again on a new version of ‘Time Wanders On’ and the second previously unreleased song, ‘Tequila Moon’. Other standout tracks in the half are ‘True Hearted Girl’ – a robust version of ‘When I Was On Horseback’ – ‘Walk It With You’ with vocals by Kris Drever and the marvellous ‘Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier’.
The set ends almost where it began with ‘Redemption’ from Hey Sammy followed by the closing ‘Tequila Moon’ based on a chunky guitar part. I’ve heard most of Bella’s albums but Postcards & Pocketbooks succeeds in giving a different overview of her career – a mix-tape that entertains and makes you think a little more deeply about what you’re hearing.
As soon as I started to play Hurry The Jug I was struck by an indefinable warmth in the music that immediately made me feel at home. The trio are based in Sligo where Declan Folan and Shane McGowan grew up – Leonard Barry is from Kerry, which is the other end of the country but not to worry – and their repertoire reflects not just the traditions of South Sligo but their familiarity with those traditions.
The second striking thing, right from the opening track ‘Hurry The Jug/The Pullet Wants The Cock’, was the richness and smoothness of Leonard’s piping. The Uilleann pipes, in expert hands, can do things that neither the Scottish pipes nor the Northumbrian small pipes can do and here we have something of a masterclass. Most of the tunes are traditional but hidden away are the names of Joe Liddy and Tommy Peoples. Leonard and Declan swap lead roles and sometimes take a solo or near-solo. I would have liked to hear Shane have a bigger share of the spotlight but the guitar isn’t a major player in Irish traditional music. I thought that it might happen with ‘The Garavogue/Graf Spey/The Hare’s Paw’ but the fiddle rushes in before he really got under way. The same happens with Declan’s lovely composition, ‘The Carousel’, but this time it’s Leonard’s whistle that jumps in.
The only piece that I’m sort of familiar with is ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ played here as a set dance but there are some really jolly tunes here, notably a couple of barndances, ‘Kitty Shand’s/Bill O’Malley’s’, and the jigs, ‘Father Quinn’s Favourite/The Humours Of Rahey/The Shoemaker’s Fancy’, but the whole set is a splendid affair.
“Delightfully dark” is how I’d describe Neighbours And Sisters, the second album by Brighton collective, Bird In The Belly. I haven’t yet heard their debut, The Crowing, but I expect to rectify that very soon. The group comprises Laura Ward and Adam Ronchetti, aka Hickory Signals, multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor who also produced and Jinnwoo or Ben Webb as I believe we can now begin to call him. If you’ve heard Jinnwoo before you’ll know he has a voice like no other and Laura has one of the few female voices that can stand with him. Put them together and the result is quite remarkable.
Most of the songs are, or were, traditional. Ward and Jinnwoo each wrote one and another comes from a Great War song. I say “were” because the titles have been changed, new music has been written, and the words adapted from the original sources. But it doesn’t matter. These songs have been disinterred from manuscripts in library stacks and give a new lease of life.
The album opens with doom-laden drones: a combination of Adam’s shruti and Tom’s organ at a guess, before Laura’s voice comes in. The song, called ‘Robin And Starling’ by Bird In The Belly was originally a Victorian ballad and the new arrangement maintains the right feel. Other songs encompass death, rape, prostitution, execution and homosexuality so ‘Robin And Starling’ is just about the most upbeat track in the set. Actually, Laura’s song ‘Bees’, enumerating superstitions surrounding beekeeper, is mostly uplifting except for the bit about cutting off butterflies’ heads. The other original song, which closes the set, is Jinnwoo’s ’45 George Street’, about the last two men to be executed for sodomy in this country.
The arrangements succeed in being spare and complex at the same time with Laura’s flute and Tom’s violin providing the principal decoration. That said, they can build up a big sound as they do on ‘New Gate Stone’. I really like Neighbours And Sisters: it appeals to my temperament.
Carl Hession is held to be one of the finest accompanists, arrangers and composers in Irish music; a veteran of Moving Cloud and a number of bands with Frankie Gavin. Concertina player Francis Cunningham and harpist Eimear Coughlan are both making their recording debuts on Úrnua in this distinguished company. Also appearing are violinist Bogden Sofei, cellist Sharon Howley and percussionist Jim Higgins. It’s a tribute to Carl’s skills as a producer that Eimear’s harp shines so brightly in the mix.
If I were a talented session player I’d be all over this album like a cheap suit. There are forty tunes here, spread over eighteen tracks – some sound deceptively simple and others definitely are not. The majority are written in the Irish traditional style: reels and jigs with a set of slip jigs and another of polkas plus slow reels, a march and a couple of waltzes.
Sadly, I’m not a player and here’s my problem. I’m not a fan of the piano in folk music although I appreciate its use as a continuo in Celtic music. To his credit, Carl doesn’t try to dominate the other players but provides a firm basis for the melodies, enriching the sound while allowing space for the harp and concertina. Secondly; can a tune be traditional if it’s only just been written? Inevitably, some of these tunes will be adopted into the tradition and welcomed simply because they are good tunes but their origins will always be documented. Is that also the case with the majority of Irish instrumental music?
Because of the above my favourite tracks are those which don’t quite fit the traditional mould. ‘Celtic Storm’ is listed as an adagio and classical gigue and ‘Minuet/Sprightly Spring’ is a paring of a minuet and a waltz while ‘Inishbofin’ is a delightfully mournful slow air. The playing is never less than exemplary and, despite myself, my foot was definitely tapping by the end.
Kirsty McGee is something of a veteran now but she has operated under many people’s radar including, sad to say, mine over the last few years. The Deafening Sound Of Stars is only her eighth album in almost twenty years, so as the owner of five of them maybe I’m not doing too badly. Hobopop is Kirsty’s concept: music without frontiers; neither geographical nor cultural. So while most of this album was recorded in Leeds, some parts were recorded in California and others in Brazil. The result is a heady blend of styles and influences.
The opening track, ‘Moving On’, is a gently rolling country number – Kirsty has long had an affinity with Americana – decorated by Clive Mellor’s harmonica. Kirsty has a collective of ten musicians behind her and this song is based around Barkley McKay’s lap steel and Hammond. The second track is sophisticated lounge jazz featuring Nick Walters’ trumpet and there are still a dozen tracks to go. ‘Butterfly Pin’ is a bluesy jazz number and by this point in what was supposed to be my writing phase I just sat back to listen again.
Fortunately ‘Raven’s Eyes’ dragged me backed to work – I guess Anton Hunter is responsible for the strange sounds underpinning the song – and that comes just in time for my favourite song, ‘Copenhagen’ For Kirsty, this is a retro arrangement based on acoustic guitar with a glass harmonica in the mix but there are more delicate elements than I can enumerate before the track builds up to its big finish. From now on, The Deafening Sound Of Stars takes on a subtly different mood with ‘Second Tuesday’ and the bluesy Americana of ‘Highway Dog Rose’.
And so it goes. The Deafening Sound Of Stars is a splendid album that I’d rather listen to than have to write about. Jazz, blues, folk and smart lyrics are all here – and if those lyrics were printed just a bit larger on the cover it would be perfect.
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I 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.