VICKI SWAN & JONNY DYER – Twelve Months & A Day (WetFootMusic WFM190201)

Twelve Months & A DayVicki and Jonny usually build their albums around a theme and the theme of Twelve Months & A Day is … that there isn’t a theme. They freely describe the record as a bit of a mixed bag and it comprises the songs and music that they have been working on and enjoy playing. The odd thing is that it holds together perfectly. There is no straining to find material to fit an idea; this is a snapshot of two musicians in a few moments of time.

There is a greater emphasis on instrumentals than perhaps we’ve seen before and anyone who follows Vicki and Jonny on social media will be aware that they have a habit of collecting instruments. Vicki plays nyckelharpa – four different types – plus flute and double bass and Jonny has expanded his armoury to include strange, ancient wind instruments such as the cornu and the carnyx. The album opens with ‘Andy Clarke’s’ a set of three tunes, the first coming from Vicki’s Scandinavian heritage and the others being described as session tunes. The first song is ‘Gallows Tree’, the words being ‘The Demon Of The Gibbet’ by Fitz-James O’Brien. It’s described as the spooky one in the notes and it certainly is one of the creepiest tales you could wish for although I worry about a hero called Norman.

‘Dance All Night’ – two tunes and a song – banishes the shadows and the combination of tune and song occurs again in ‘Grandpa Joe – the nonsense contra reel one – and the mediaeval ‘Ai Vis Lo Lop’ on which Vicki takes the lead vocal. ‘John Lover’ is a gorgeous song that I hadn’t heard before; 19th century American in origin although it appears as an Irish tune and several people have claimed authorship of it. ‘Two Red Roses’ has words by William Morris, ‘Mary Free’ is an old Christmas carol and ‘Elegy’, possibly the top track, is a classically styled duet for piano and oktav nyckelharpa.

This “mixed bag” is an excellent representation of the music Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer are capable of making when they set themselves free to follow their own passions. You’ll love it.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.swan-dyer.co.uk

‘Dance All Night’ – live:

MIKE TURNBULL – …In So Small A Compass (own label MTM03)

In So Small A CompassMike Turnbull’s debut, Circlet Of Gold, was a delightful vignette that began with the landscape of his native Lake District and told stories from here, there and everywhere. He sang and played every note but it was inevitable that he would stretch his metaphorical wings. …In So Small A Compass is produced by Lukas Drinkwater who also plays bass, guitar, banjo and percussion with Ciaran Algar on fiddle and Ewan Carson on bodhran.

On the first play I just gathered impressions. Mike hasn’t strayed far from the landscape – and seascape, for that matter – and birds feature heavily as a motif. Indeed, the sound of chattering birds leads into the opening ‘Seek Thy Brother’ which takes as its starting point the children’s magpie rhyme and maybe the old adage that if you see a lot of crows together, they’re rooks. Of course, it’s all a metaphor. ‘Boat Thief Song’ seems to stem from a memory of youthful mischief and is decorated by country tinged fiddle from Ciaran. Memories and birds appear again in ‘Heart Shaped Wood’, somewhere Mike probably knows well just like the landscapes he’s walking in ‘Between Breaths’ and ‘Sycamore Gap’, a song about the building of Hadrian’s Wall.

Mike is a fine story-teller, as his debut proved, so ‘Louisa’ isn’t about a lady but the famous overland launch of the Lynmouth lifeboat to Porlock in the teeth of a gale back in 1899. I’ve compared Mike to Seth Lakeman before (although I’m not sure he agrees with me) but this is just the sort of song that Seth would write. Sorry Mike. …In So Small A Compass is rather more poetic than I was expecting so ‘Edge Of The Map’ could be a tale of mediaeval sailors or, more likely, a metaphor for striking out in a new direction. There is nostalgia in ‘Lakeland Heart’ and romance in ‘Seabirds’ Call’ but also a sense of practicality – the couple are on the sea in a small boat travelling “once around the island” so there is no time to be soppy.

This is clearly a big step forward from Circlet Of Gold – much as I liked that record – but what is most impressive is the fact that Mike’s songwriting has maintained its quality. …In So Small A Compass is all meat and no filler.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: https://www.musicglue.com/mike-turnbull

‘Lakeland Heart’:

THE UNTHANKS – Lines (RRM021S / RRM021SLP)

LinesLines is a trilogy of song cycles inspired by poetry, focusing on three female perspectives across time: Hull fishing worker Lillian Bilocca; World War One poets; and writer Emily Brontë. Lines is available on general release from February 22nd .

After discovering Brian Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries, the actor and writer Maxine Peake created the play The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca as part of Hull’s hugely successful City of Culture events. Bilocca was the woman who changed policy and regulations following the loss of three trawlers in close succession in early 1968. She led women from the Hessle Road area of Hull (where many of the trawlermen came from) in protest against the lack of safety in the trawling industry. The protests led to a meeting with the government in London and then to eighty-eight safety measures being enacted.

The play had an original live score by The Unthanks and this album has five tracks. The music is predominantly written by Adrian McNally. A couple of the songs have lyrics by Peake – but the album also includes Bolling and Fishman’s ‘Lonesome Cowboy’ (which is a surprise until you relate the lyrics to the long journeys of the trawlermen). I didn’t get back to Hull to see the play, but based on this album, I regret it even more than I did at the time – the music is magnificently atmospheric, with rich but hushed tone set by McNally’s piano and supported by equally soft vocal and playing from the rest of the band.

It isn’t possible to understand Hull, particularly West Hull, without understanding its trawling history. Peake’s play with its focus on the events of 1968 has helped unite this fishing tradition into the modern city of culture. To give an idea of the significance of the women’s protests, Brian Lavery quotes one of Bilocca’s colleagues on her return to Hull from London as saying that the women of Hessle Road “did more in six days than Trade Unions and politicians had done in a century”. The definitions of folk music are many and varied but one of them is “the people’s music”. The Unthanks album will help preserve the story of Lillian Bilocca and the Headscarf Revolutionaries. It will also widen the audience that knows the story.

Mike Wistow

The second part of Lines comprises six songs concerning the Great War and, of course, there is a back story. The songs were originally written for a project marking the beginning of the war and have now been recorded to mark its end. Such projects tend to be collaborative affairs and so the first voice we hear isn’t an Unthank but Sam Lee who sings the first part the long opener ‘Roland And Vera’. Roland was Roland Leighton who was shot and killed two days before Christmas 1915 and Vera was his fiancée Vera Brittain. The song is based on her memoir and there’s lots about her to look up.

‘Everyone Sang’ is the first set of words by a contemporary poet, in this case Siegfried Sassoon with music by Tim Dalling who also sings on this recording. Sassoon was also responsible for the harrowing ‘Suicide In The Trenches’. Adrian McNally takes over as composer from this point beginning with ‘War Film’ by Teresa Hooley, although the poem was probably written in the 1920s. We don’t often think of women as war poets but Jessie Pope, who wrote the final piece ‘Socks’ is one such. Wilfred Owen dedicated Dulce Et Decorum Est to her which shows the regard in which she was held at the time.

The short poem ‘Breakfast’ was written by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, the leading Georgian poet. It’s typical of the way wrote about the minutiae of life and The Unthanks expand it including lines from ‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’ which are perfectly in keeping. The music is, perhaps inevitably, dominated by McNally’s piano with extra strings brought in to bolster Niopha Keegan’s fiddle and Chris Price’s bass and guitar

Dai Jeffries

As the concluding part of The Unthanks’ Lines trilogy, part three is based on the poetic works of Emily Brontë. Commissioned by the Brontë Society to commemorate the bicentenary of Wuthering Heights, this set of scored poems also forms an audio trail around the Haworth Parsonage (until 31 March 2019; free, but equipment booking required).

Unlike the epic adventurousness of some of their more recent work, this album has a direct simplicity, featuring only Rachel and Becky Unthank’s voices accompanied by Adrian McNally’s piano. McNally composed and performed on the parsonage’s 5-octave cabinet piano, which no doubt informed the hypnotic minimalism of the resulting music. Ambient sounds derive from on-site recording sessions, which took place after museum hours.

As we enter ‘The Parsonage’ the crows take raucous flight from the churchyard next door. Opening the door, only footsteps and the chiming and ticking of clocks disturb the stifling stillness. Nature, time, death. A triumvirate of forces scouring across Emily Brontë’s life and work.

Brontë’s nature is not manicured or cultivated, but an untamed, raw beauty. As the little piano riffles of ‘High Waving Heather’ sketch in the endless moor-top breeze (just as likely to be a bitterly whipping wind!), Becky and Rachel sing alternate lines, before they run together in a harmonic stream.

Connecting with nature is therapeutic. ‘Shall Earth No More Inspire Thee’ makes a plaintive and heartfelt cry for its subject to re-embrace nature to gain relief from inner torment. Yet ‘Lines’ conveys the sadness of finding that nature cannot soothe those who do not allow it in.

‘Remembrance’ has been set to an arrangement of a traditional tune, which pairs very well with this heavily Romantic lament. But it’s the deceptively simple and placatory dissembling of ‘She Dried Her Tears And They Did Smile’, set to a slow waltz, that really gets under the skin.

Some of the songs comprise several poems in well-considered conjunctions, such as ‘Deep Deep Down In The Silent Grave’ partnered with the equally solemn ‘Oh Hinder Me By No Delay’. But it’s ‘The Night Is Darkening Around Me’ where the dread and defiance of “I will not, cannot go” is perfectly counterpointed by the tender ‘I’ll Come When Thou Art Saddest’. Bridging back to the first poem via a short poem fragment, ‘I Would Have Touched The Heavenly Key’, this is a delightfully constructed track.

The refrain of crows, clocks and footsteps opening ‘O Evening Why’ suggests this as a logical end to the album, but perhaps it’s just too downbeat, as Becky sings the first poem in a dirgey minor before Rachel joins with the equally tonally bleak ‘It’s Over Now; I’ve Known It All’. Instead, the brighter ‘I’m Happiest When Most Away’ escorts the listener back to the moors and leaves them contemplating the shifting night skies at the top of the world.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.the-unthanks.com

Recording the Brontë song cycle:

MARTIN LLOYD CHITTY – Antiques (own label)

AntiquesWhen I listened to the first few tracks of Antiques I realised that it was a rather special debut album. Martin Lloyd Chitty is a singer-songwriter from Lancaster – his voice retains the trace of an accent – with a remarkable talent for story-telling. He wrote, produced and performed every note on the album from acoustic guitar to grungy electric and drums.

Martin’s songwriting is reminiscent of the way the young Al Stewart used to build a story from small observations. The opening tracks, ‘Diana Camera’ and ‘You, Me & The Coffee Pot’, are both domestic stories, the first being a not-so-simple love song and the second recounting a trip to Scotland but saying much more. You would think that the third song, ‘Alaska’, would be a more expansive piece and, indeed, it records a day in…the Lake District but it’s the little details that make the song real. I won’t explain the title; that would spoil it.

The centre-piece of the album is the twelve-and-a-half minute ‘Antiques Shop (1923-2017)’. I’m guessing that most of it comes from Martin’s imagination – it’s a bit too melodramatic to be completely true – but it feels real as it tells of the owners of the titular shop and their destinies. The last verse tells how the final owner took a pocket-watch, the property of the shop’s founder, onto Antiques Roadshow – “they said that it was rare but the clip was never aired”. That is so sad that there has to be a grain of truth in it.

From here, Antiques takes a darker turn. ‘The Shadow Never Fades Away’ is a description of depression if I’m any judge and ‘Mere Mistakes’ takes that feel a step further. The record continues its downward spiral until the final track, ‘The Only Perfect Love Song’. Yes, it’s sad and nostalgic but like the first tracks it’s based a seemingly inconsequential moment and slowly takes an upturn of the kind that only music can engender ending in a cry of triumph. I do hope that we’re going to hear much more of Martin in the future.

Dai Jeffries

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

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Artist’s website: https://martinlloydchitty.com/

‘The Only Perfect Love Song’ – live:

IAN GEORGE – Kingdom Of My Youth (own label)

Kingdom Of My YouthKingdom Of My Youth arrived unheralded, as CDs often do. It sat on my desk, almost got buried under the clutter and was rescued at precisely the right moment. I tell you this, not to explain how things sometimes “work” here but to put off the moment when I have to write something intelligent about this album. Let’s start with the facts and the story. Ian George Van Ornum (as the Eugene police referred to him) is from Minnesota. He’s worked with the band Patchy Sanders and in the duo Fellow Pynins, who will be appearing in the UK this summer, but this is his first solo album.

Ian went back-packing in Europe where he met French rock star Mathieu Chedid, generally known as M, who invited him to record at his Paris studio called – you’ll love this – Labo M. Ian put a band together and work started. The album opens with ‘Gitche Gumee’, a song about Lake Superior, the actual kingdom of Ian’s youth. It took me a while to get into it because it felt too big. Superior is a big lake so I suppose it makes sense but it took three or four plays for it to settle in. Next is ‘The Wild & The Untamed’ based on a bass and minimal drum riff. The lyrics feel like a cut-up exercise and I really don’t get what it’s about but it sounds good.

‘Kandinsky’ is made up of quotes from the Russian painter. Ian has taken his prose and turned it into poetry with seemingly little effort and set it against a multi-guitar backing – it’s rather lovely. ‘Son’ is a bit creepy – I think it’s about the obligations that parents place upon their children – and I kept getting flashes of The Shining. ‘Better With A Buddy’ is a much jollier recounting of Ian’s European sojourn and it’s probably my favourite track. It’s followed by a mandolin and fiddle instrumental, ‘L’Étang-La-Ville’, to keep the spirits up and ‘The Jolly Road’, my other favourite track, oddly reminiscent of Matthews Southern Comfort.

The final track is the odd one out. Recorded solo at home in the mid-west ‘Shenandoah’ is a link to Ian’s previous incarnation as a folk singer, developing from simple voice, drone and guitar and building up to what he is becoming now. It’s impossible to pigeon-hole Kingdom Of My Youth but I do like it and now I want to hear the music Ian came from.

Dai Jeffries

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

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Artist’s website: https://www.iangeorge.com/

‘Kandinsky’:

TANNARA – Strands (Braw Sailin’ Records CD006BSR)

StrandsAfter their impressive debut, Trig, Tannara could have headed into folk-rock territory – Owen Sinclair played a mean electric guitar. Alternatively, they could have turned back to their roots and with Robbie Greig coming in to replace Cameron Ross on fiddle it seems that was the direction they chose. Although all the tracks on Strands are originals (with a couple of borrowings), the band’s second outing is a more thoughtful affair. Mattie Foulds is still in place as recording engineer and occasional percussionist but Sinclair and Joseph Peach have taken over production duties.

The first track, ‘Smiling’ comprises two tunes ending in a field recording of running water which lead in the first song, ‘The Next Station Is’, which begins with voices discussing something or perhaps nothing. The songwriter and vocalist is Sinclair and the song could have been rocked up but, although there are some interesting sounds bubbling away underneath the song is lead by acoustic guitar, fiddle and accordion. It ends with a big finish without ever getting out of hand.

Peach’s ‘Good Ship’ is dedicated to Sinclair and then comes Becca Skeoch’s first contribution – not delicate harp pieces although her harp is there over the underlying keyboards and drums – but something rather modern with Greig’s fiddle as much to the fore as the harp. There’s just a touch of the grungy sound that they employed on Trig. The second song is ‘Spent Lees’, a melancholy piece again by Sinclair with Peach’s keyboards and lots of strings.

Tannara have succeeded in bringing traditional influences together with modern ideas in a way that doesn’t jar. Traditional sounding tunes pop up playfully among arrangements which are definitely modern without being outré. The final track, ‘Jutland’, with words by Les Sullivan given a very traditional tune by Sinclair, begins with the voice of Danny MacLachlan, a survivor of the battle recorded in a very formal style in 1970. The song is punctuated by the sound of Morse code and ends with Tom Anderson reminiscing about survivors watching film of the battle in their later years. It’s a modern approach while still being respectful to the past and that’s what Tannara do. I applaud them for it.

Dai Jeffries

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

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Artists’ website: www.tannaramusic.com

‘Spent Lees’ – official video: