SIMON AND THE ASTRONAUTS – Simon And The Astronauts (own label AIRLOCK01)

Simon And The AstronautsSimon And The Astronauts is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing or, more accurately, disguised as a cat video. The titular Simon is poet Simon Wells who co-wrote the songs and alongside him are Boo Hewerdine and Chris Pepper who drums and was responsible for most of the recording. Tucked away are Boo’s son Ben, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier and Karine Polwart – mostly on just one or two numbers.

The opening track, ‘Astronauts’, is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd which may not be not be a coincidence as the second song is ‘Grantchester Meadows’ but not the Roger Waters song although that would have fitted in perfectly. The first two cuts are quite pastoral and then the mood changes. ‘Zinc’ is our first chance to hear Simon, speaking his lyrics, and I couldn’t help thinking of Marc Bolan at this point. Yes, I am that old. The track is decorated by Svetlana Alexievich’s theremin following Boo’s piano.

‘Bridge’ and ‘Airmail’ are both love songs, each in their way, and by now the album is getting entertainingly quirky. Karine Polwart, assisted by Findlay Napier, adopts her broadest Scots accent for ‘Love Is’ which she co-wrote with Simon. Although it sounds jokey, it’s actually quite serious and a very clever song. ‘I’m Just A Cat’ features Simon on saxophone and may go some way to explaining the cover design Or not. By this time Simon And The Astronauts is getting under your skin.

‘Oscar (Looking At The Stars)’ is Darden Smith’s solo and he backs Simon on ‘Tightly Wrapped Jackets’. Ben Hewerdine takes ‘Trampoline’ as a solo and his dad does the same with ‘Box Of Tears’ and then we get Simon’s final appearance on ‘Patti’, in part a paean to Patti Smith, more prose than poetry, spoken over Boo’s throbbing guitar.

As the styles and instrumentation mix you begin to suspect that the participants had a heap of fun making this album. The lyric booklet is one big joke but Simon’s words are deadly earnest. You really should hear this record.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: https://simonandtheastronauts.bandcamp.com/

‘I’m Just A Cat’:

Simon And The Astronauts release debut album

Simon And The Astronauts

Simon And The Astronauts really is a fascinating project. Simon Wells is a writer who had attended several of Boo Hewerdine’s song-writing workshops. Over the course of a year together Simon and Boo have made this superb album. Enlisting such talents as Karine Polwart, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier, Ben Hewerdine and Chris Pepper they worked in a very unusual way. Simon would bring a lyrical concept to the studio and together with these musicians would spontaneously write and record each track. Simon himself is a fine performance poet and also leads three of the tracks. There is spontaneity to this album that means you hear new music at the moment of its creation. Stylistically it moves between dream-pop, indie-electronica, delicate acoustics and edgy poetry. It was a chance for these musicians to work outside their comfort zones. Simon’s vision makes it all hang together in a deeply cohesive way.

When looking at tracks on the album, the album opener ‘Astronauts’ was the first track Simon and Boo recorded, at the end of the day, playing back this track that was both eccentric and accessible, they knew they were onto something special. ‘Grantchester Meadows’ follows, co-written with Ben Hewerdine, Boo’s son, who is also a very talented songwriter who has had songs recorded by, among others, Eddi Reader and Dan Whitehouse. Ben took Simon’s lyrics and made this sweetly unsettling recording. ‘Zinc’, which talks about the war in Afghanistan, is augmented by archive recordings of Leon Therimin playing his new invention. The song ‘Bridge’ was also written on day one and is the true story of a bridge in Sheffield, sung by Boo, this was the last track to be finished. Airmail is another Boo song, where he and Simon were remembering those ultra-thin letters people used to send abroad, this recording using a high strung guitar. ‘Love Is’, features Karine Polwart, a joyous take on Simon’s words, recorded with Findlay Napier and other attendees at a workshop. A personal favourite for me, ‘I’m Just A Cat’ is a blissful song, sung by Boo, about, well, being a cat. “Without Simon I would never have a written a song like this” says Boo. Chris Pepper’s production work is just fantastic on this track. ‘Oscar’ is a track where Darden Smith took Simon’s lyric about Oscar Wilde and made this beautiful piano ballad. Tight Metal Jackets features fiery poetry by Simon set against Darden’s rootsy Americana. ‘Trampoline’ is Ben’s jerky indie take on Simon’s concept and ‘Box Of Tears’ which is basically where Simon’s wonderful lyric led Boo to write this tender ballad, the track recorded as soon as it was written. The album closes with ‘Patti’, a simple yet heartfelt tribute to Patti Smith.

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‘Astronauts’:

DARDEN SMITH – Everything (Compass 746812)

EverythingAfter the release of 2013’s Love Calling, his fourteenth album in thirty years, the Austin-based singer-songwriter considered calling it a day, unsure he had anything left worth saying or that anyone was even listening. Instead, he turned to exploring creative avenues outside of the traditional music business, writing an as yet unpublished book on artists’ perspectives on work, doing songwriting workshops and helping put together a non-profit group called Song-Writing-With-Soldiers, a program to bring professional songwriters and veterans together to write songs about combat and returning home.

This, in tandem with growing older and getting sick of the cynicism of those in power and feeling the need for compassion for strangers, sent him back to reconsider material he’d written over the past five years, both by himself and in collaboration with the likes of Bruce Robison and Matreca Berg. Narrowing the total down to twelve, he recruited a bunch of his favourite musicians, among them bassist Roscoe Beck, guitarist Charlie Sexton and the legendary David Mansfield and, with Beth Nielsen Chapman among those providing harmonies, went back into the studio, persuaded that, yes, he did have something to say and that hopefully someone out there might need to hear it, even if it only changed one person’s day for the better.

Everything is the result, and the self-reflection that went into its genesis can he heard on the lazing lope of the Radney Foster co-penned ‘Soul Searching’ as he sings about “trying to find where I belong” and “what I want to leave behind me when I’m gone”, that contemplation of legacy also to be found on the Simon-esque title track about making the most of life and “when I’m gone here’s a song I hope the angels sing.”

It’s upbeat tone is reflected in many of the songs, notable cases in point would be the repeated piano riff opener. ‘Blessings’. (“just remember that you make a difference and the world is better off that you are here”) and the celebration of individuality in the acoustic rippling ‘Against The Grain’.

Co-written with Berg, ‘Firefly’ is a love song with a classic Jackson Browne flavour while thoughts of mortality inform ‘I Love You, Goodbye’, another song of the heart, this time informed by a friend’s passing, about remembering to take the time to let people know how you feel while you still can.

A timely song about the need for human kindness, ‘Love Will Win The War’ is, Mansfield on mandolin, a strummed folksy march beat with a crowd friendly chorus of ‘hate may win a battle, love will win the war.”

Elsewhere ‘Carousel’, a gently waltzing reflection on a past relationship co-written with Robison, features Kelly Willis on harmonies, album closer ‘Can You See The Moon’ has a late night blues vibe while, another Foster co-write, ‘Forever’ reps the album’s only glimpse of hopelessness and despair, telling of a woman walking out of an abusive marriage and, quite possibly, walking into the water to drown , though it’s equally possible to see it as a cleansing and rebirth before she starts a new life.

Smith says he set out to make an album that brings people together, an affirmation in the face of a world that seeks to them apart. Everything is a whole lotta love.

Mike Davies

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‘Everything’ live:

Texas Troubadour Darden Smith’s Love Calling Now Available

Darden Smith 2013Singer-songwriter Darden Smith earned his stripes in the in the early days of Americana, building devoted audiences on the Austin circuit in the 80s. Since then, Smith’s songwriting has taken him on a circuitous journey as a performer, philanthropist, collaborator, teacher, and now inevitably back to songwriter as he releases his Compass Records debut Love Calling, Love Calling was recorded in Nashville and produced by Gary Paczosa and John Randall Stewart and features 11 news songs, including co-writes with Radney Foster, Gary Nicholson and the late Harley Allen. In a new “behind-the-song” video, Darden discusses his co-write with Allen and gives a very special performance of “Seven Wonders.” below:

Smith is known for pursuing new creative paths and pushing himself past his comfort zone, keeping his music fresh long after others have fallen into the recycling routine. One such path was forged in the mid-1990’s when Smith began collaborating on dance/theater productions in Austin. This led to an even bigger challenge when he accepted a commission by the Austin Symphony to compose “Grand Motion,” performed in 1999. Both of these projects, which could be called sidelines, informed Smith’s self-released Marathon (2010), a haunting song cycle named for a remote town in West Texas.

As Smith puts it, “Exploring this other work forced me to look at how I was pigeonholing and limiting myself. Am I just a songwriter? A singer-songwriter? A folksinger? A musician? This opened up how I defined myself, no longer as just one thing. I was about 40 then and the last decade or so has been the most creative time of my work life.”

Smith’s expansive vision for his music extends well beyond being a singer-songwriter. Love Calling developed organically as Smith immersed himself in projects that kept him out of the spotlight but profoundly influenced his music—and the life his music reflects. In 2003, he launched The Be An Artist Program, which uses songwriting to help students discover their own creativity. From there, Smith created “Songwriting With Soldiers”, a program that taps into the power of collaborative songwriting to awaken creativity and give people faith in their own voice. Participants have ranged from homeless youths at Covenant House in Newark, New Jersey, corporate clients seeking conflict resolution, and service members returning from combat. Fall 2013 marks Smith’s second year as Artist-In-Residence at Oklahoma State University’s Institute For Creativity and Innovation, where he explores creativity with students in the classroom and in mentoring sessions.

“With a lot of the work I’m doing now, these big projects, I kind of had to start operating beneath the radar. This allowed me the freedom and flexibility to look outside myself, says Smith. “I just opened up to these new possibilities, new ways of working. And the more I kept opening up and saying yes to new ideas, the more fun I had, the more creative things got. And the more songs I wrote.”

So, for Smith, Love Calling represents something of a culmination, a milestone, a circle completed. The album finds him pushing forward while looking back, bringing together projects that ultimately share the same creative energy.

As Darden maintains, “To me, it’s all the same, all music. Just music.”

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