The first time I saw Andy White he still looked like Bob Dylan circa 1966 – I think I admired his nerve. I’ve tried to keep up with him since then and there are a couple of passages in his autobiography that I still like to quote. Time Is A Buffalo In The Art Of War is his fourteenth studio album in a thirty-five year career and it’s about the things that his music has always been about. In fact, there is a quotation in the booklet that sums it up: “It’s our world and this is how I see it”.
Andy is supported by long-time associate Rod McVey on keys and saxophone, son Sebastian on drums and John Dreyfus providing strings (synthesised?) with extra brass from Kelly O’Donohue and Renn Picard. There are only nine tracks but several of them are quite long. Even when he just had an acoustic guitar Andy was a rocker at heart and here he takes the opportunity here to stretch out a bit. For all the messages in his songs he hasn’t forgotten that music is also supposed to entertain.
The first track is the eight minute ‘Last Train’ and as to what it’s about, please see above. It’s built on an insistent rhythm which I’m sure is McVey doing something clever and Andy plays guitar and bass and enjoys a workout at the end. The song is blessed with not one, but two killer hooks and provides an overview of our problems. If we don’t get on the train we’ll reach the point when ‘The Shit Hits The Fan’ and the second song poses a series of questions; where will we be? what can we do? where’s the plan?
‘Running Round In Circles’ and ‘Friday Night’ both have the vibe of nostalgia with passing references to David Bowie and Bob Dylan. Of course, there’s a lot more than that going on but “Rock and roll will never ever die”. ‘Armageddon #4’ has a rallying call amongst its despondency and ‘Fly If You Want To’ is a sort of lopsided love song. I’ll confess that I haven’t really got to the heart of the other three songs yet but each time I play the record some lines stick in my mind. The thing is; even if you don’t take in the messages first time, or at all, these are still bloody good songs and I’ll be happy when I’ve finished writing so I can just sit back and listen to them.
It’s hard to credit that Old Wow is only Sam Lee’s third album. It seems that he’s been around forever, done so much and already had such an impact on the British folk scene. The album is inspired by Sam’s other consuming passion, the natural world, and there are plenty of bucolic songs about the mythical rural idyll. These are not necessarily those songs but I do detect a pattern. The ten tracks are divided into three sections, heart, hearth and earth and it seems that the first song in each group fits the rural theme – after that you’re on your own.
The opening track, the first of the heart set is ‘The Garden Of England’ which used to be ‘The Seeds Of Love’ until Sam started work on it. It provides the album’s title, which is Sam’s reaction to nature, particularly after a close encounter with a buzzard. So far, so straightforward. Next is ‘Lay This Body Down’, followed by ‘The Moon Shines Bright’. Well, death is natural. Completing the section is ‘Soul Cake’ and Sam confuses us by beginning the song with ‘Green Grow The Rushes O’. Soul cakes were traditionally baked for Halloween and now the traditional children’s song takes on a more sinister aspect.
I’m sure that you’re familiar with Sam’s arranging style and he doesn’t stray much from it on Old Wow. At the heart of the record are piano, bass and percussion with cello on two tracks plus Hardanger fiddle and, for the first time, electric guitar played by producer Bernard Butler.
Hearth begins with ‘Spencer The Rover’ but returns to tragedy with a song I hadn’t heard before, ‘Jasper Sea’, a tale of a father and son drowning. ‘Sweet Sixteen’ doesn’t get any jollier. The opening of the earth section with ‘Turtle Dove’ is symbolic of Sam’s preoccupations. He has spoken about the decline of these birds before and the words of betrayal that he adds to the song are not for the girl being left behind. ‘Worthy Wood’ and ‘Balnafanen’ are both laments and Sam incorporates into the latter parts of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ as he does with ‘Lay This Body Down’.
Old Wow is a complex album – all of Sam’s are. It carries its own darkness and, although it is inspired by nature you will search in vain for shepherdesses and jolly ploughboys. It will grip you, however.
Del Scott Miller is from Barnsley and Lantern is his second solo album as a singer-songwriter. He’s also singer, writer and guitarist with Mynas and, if he’s to be believed, plays covers when he needs the money. He describes his style as alt-acoustic but that hardly covers it. This is a complex album of varying styles.
So the record opens with ‘Pale And Distant’, a short acoustic guitar piece and just as you’re thinking ‘this is nice’ he smashes you round the head with some rock and roll. Del describes ‘Stains’ as being about a ‘thoughtful and fragrant Goebbels tribute act’. I won’t name names but you know the sort of person he’s talking about: watching everything, hearing everything and spreading his fake news.
‘Second Born Of Five’ is the only song to have its lyrics printed on the sleeve and may therefore be the most important and is certainly the most complex. On the surface, it’s about the troubles of a second-born son with a bullying elder brother but it develops into something else. There is domestic abuse, revenge and perhaps an allegory for our country’s condition. It’s a hell of a song. ‘The Beacon And The Brine’ is another short instrumental and it is quickly apparent that Del is a very talented guitarist. The track blends into ‘Mast’ which ends up as powerful folk-rock with Dom Dudill’s fiddle leading the charge.
‘Manifesto’ opens with more solo guitar before the song develops and then there is a sudden change of style ‘The Oaks Pit Disaster’ is a traditional song sung unaccompanied with Steph Shaw sharing the lead vocals. The colliery was near Barnsley and the song has an unpolished authenticity and we stay in Yorkshire for the closing ‘Little Blinder’, dedicated to Barry Hines. There is a lot going on with Lantern – occasionally I thought too much – but there’s nothing I’d want to lose.
As if to prove that not only does Robb Johnson have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist but that he’s actually ahead of the beat, this album arrived just before the election. There is politics in Eurotopia but not in the way you might expect. This isn’t a rant, more a lament, a threnody for the loss of Europe. It includes some of Robb’s best and most complex songwriting; songs full of people, places and memories.
Robb has spent a good deal of time gigging around Europe and beyond and many of these songs are set in cities across the continent. I assumed that the opener, ‘The Carnival Song’, is about a visit to Jerusalem and then I came to the chorus: “Dir propeller, eller, eller/Gehen schneller, schneller, schneller”. It refers to a song called ‘Dreh den Propeller’ by a German singer called Buddy. It’s horribly catchy and I suspect that it’s something that Robb heard on his travels and found stuck in his mind. In a way it sets up the majority of the other songs which are set in different times and places and in his memory.
‘Charing Cross Station & Hungerford Bridge’ and ‘Coincidents On The Circle Line’ are obviously set in London and are inspired by chance observations and memories, the latter finds Robb musing about a vanished Afghan coat. Then we move on. ‘If The Night Runs Out Before The Money Runs Out’ takes us to Paris, ‘Tram Number 22’ finds us in Prague and ‘The Kreuzberg Sisters’ deposits us in Berlin. ‘My Last Night In Montmartre’ is obvious even to me.
Now it gets serious. Having lulled us with nostalgic tales of exotic places, Robb hits us first with ‘Stalingrad’ and then ‘Welcome To The Museum’ and now we see what he’s been leading up to. The romance of old Europe is ripped away and the ugly face of the modern world is revealed. ‘The Work Is Never Done’ returns to Paris and picks up the theme in the mundane activities of the day before the tourists arrive.
The Irregulars on Eurotopia are Jenny Carr on piano, John Forrester on double bass and Robb’s son Arvin on drums. Linz Maesterosa’s flute and reeds and Bethan Prosser’s violin help to provide the late-night, rainy atmosphere that colours many of the songs. There’s one more thing you need to know. This review is of the thirteen track full band CD but …there is also a nine track vinyl version with just Robb on acoustic guitar and Fae Simon on vocals. The two issues have only four tracks in common so you know what that means: yes, you need them both!
Jon Palmer is a fine songwriter and a good bloke to have a pint with – both of which endear him to me. One Fine Day is the third studio album from his band, now an octet, which belies its name by having Baz Warne of the The Stranglers playing electric guitar on three of the twelve tracks. Producer David Crickmore also adds to the electricity as does Nick Settle but I’m not going to quibble. I am going to stick my neck out and say that this is the band’s best album so far.
As a songwriter, Jon can be a bit political but he’s also a skilled storyteller and one of the delights of the album is listening as the songs unfold, often in unexpected ways. The opening track, ‘Music Town’, is really upbeat and I’d like to think it’s about Jon’s home town of Otley but it’s also about any place where music can be found be it club, session or the back room of a pub. ‘One Fine Day’ begins in the same up-tempo style, with Matt Nelson’s whistle and Wendy Ross’ fiddle leading the way and finishes in a wild instrumental coda. But as you listen you get the sneaking suspicion that the story won’t have a happy ending.
‘Great North Road’ is one of Jon’s great story songs. You’ll think you know what it’s about and you’d be mostly right…but at the first mention of a horse you have to adjust your viewpoint. There’s any number of traditional songs that tell the story that Jon wraps up in the second verse. ‘Bridges Not Walls’ is the first overtly political song – do I need to explain its inspiration? Thought not. ‘Vagabonds & Rogues’, in a deceptive waltz time, could be another traditional story and it suggests something Steve Tilston might have written although I don’t believe that Steve would have risked the maidenhead joke.
‘Hey Now!’ is a folkier follow-up to ‘Music Town’ with a neat bit of name-dropping but I wonder how the Acoustic Band like being called “a bunch of reprobates”. I think I’d be proud of that. ‘Little England’ is Jon’s inevitable Brexit song delivered more in sorrow than anger. ‘The Knife Thrower’s Assistant’ – “I never miss, well, only sometimes” – is another story with a delicious twist. Actually, there are twelve great songs here and, although I’ve mentioned a couple of the players, One Fine Day is great ensemble piece, tightly played.
One Fine Day isn’t officially out until April but, guess what, go to Jon’s website, cross his palm with silver and I’m sure he’ll sell you a copy.
I don’t believe that anyone has coined a term for the music that Blackbird & Crow play. I’d like to suggest “gothic folk-rock”. Other artists have ventured down this road but I’d also like to suggest that Maighréad Ní Ghrásta and Stephen John Doohan do it best. Ailm is their second album – the title refers to a letter of the Ogham alphabet that signifies conifer which, in turn, is associated with healing.
The search for healing is at the centre of the album which combines Irish folklore and history, blues, psychedelia and Americana with an overpowering sense of mystery. The songs are populated with lost and broken characters, some of whom have found their way out of the darkness, some of whom are defiantly still there. In the modern world I’m pretty sure that ‘Parting Rag’ is about Shane MacGowan while ‘Margaret The Martyr’ takes us back to the era of the navvies, telling the story from the point of view of a wife left behind.
Maighréad’s powerful voice revels in its Irishness as do her lyrics. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist: various stringed instruments plus harmonium and synth. In support they have cello, drums, uilleann pipes, trumpet and saxophone but it is the extraordinary arrangements, which I’m sure are down to Stephen, that dominate the sound.
The first two tracks, ‘Harlot On Holy Hill’ and ‘The Witch That Could Not Be Burned’ run together and are firmly in the defiant camp. Everything, including Maighréad, is turned up to maximum and really rock you back on your heels. They are followed by the first of two covers, ‘Princess Of The Ditch’ by Kilkenny singer-songwriter Richie Healy. It’s a perfect match for Ailm. The other cover is Robbie Basho’s ‘Orphan’s Lament’.
There is so much power in this record and much beauty. There are some strange songs too: I’m still trying to work out ‘The Ways That I Can Make You Suffer’ but Ailm is already shaping up as one of my albums of the year.