BURNING SALT – Automatic Lullaby (Own Label)

Automatic LullabyBurning Salt’s EP Dirt, inspired by the women and workers of Holloway prison and released in September 2018, was a stunningly intense and original aural and lyrical experience that earned the band a nomination for the Folking 2019 Awards in the ‘Rising Star’ category, but also gave them a lot to live up to when it came to releasing Automatic Lullaby, their debut full-length album. Fortunately, while the album is less conceptually cohesive, it has no less impact, giving us a more personal glimpse into Hannah Hull’s haunting songwriting.  It has all the (sometimes painful) honesty that I’ve come to expect from her work, with her distinctive vocals and acoustic guitar framed by the very capable and sympathetic musicianship of electric guitarist Bobby Williams (who also played piano and keyboards and produced the album) and double bassist John Parker.

Burning Salt are augmented on this recording by Daisy Palmer’s percussion on several tracks, Oli Arlotto’s baritone saxophone on ‘Superstitious Woman’, and Rupert Gillett’s cello on ‘Hold Me Down’.

Nevertheless, here’s the full track list.

  1. On the title track ‘Automatic Lullaby’ Hannah adopts an appropriately mechanistic vocal delivery in sharp contrast to the instrumental playout, in which mellifluous country-ish guitar is undercut by subdued discordance.
  2. ‘By These Words’ is a little more conventional, with a haunting tune carrying a harsh lyric.
  3. The melodic structure of ‘Hold Me Down’ for some reason reminds me of the sort of music I was apt to listen to in the early 70s, though the arrangement is economical where the 70s tended to be overblown. Still, I could almost hear Jim Morrison singing something like this. Actually, I’d probably buy this as a single if I didn’t already have it: it was still going through my head an hour after I first heard it.
  4. ‘Plateau’ starts from a slow-paced vocal that stretches the conventions of the love song well beyond the Top 40 – “I need you / I need you / I need you / but only if you behave” – and builds climactically.
  5. ‘Residue’ is a perfect exercise in saying exactly what you need to say, and no more.
  6. ‘Superstitious Woman’ has something of a rock ‘n’ roll vibe: I’m not sure about the freeform baritone sax solo, but even that has a certain OTT charm. And it’s rather a good song, its commercial potential presumably behind its release as a single.
  7. ‘Burn’ seems to me like rather a good rock track. Future single material, maybe?
  8. Thematically, ‘Lovers On A Ledge’ resembles ‘Residue’, and again needs only about a minute to make its point with precision, though its arrangement is quite different and rather daring.
  9. ‘King’ has a chillingly submissive timbre to the lyric, framed as a minor-key ballad.
  10. ‘Honey’ has been around for some time on the Burning Salt website as a video, and has also been released as a double A with ‘Superstitious Woman’. While at first blush it sounds almost like a 50s pop ballad, it has a sting in the tale, so to speak. “Keep your hands to yourself / I don’t need that kind of love…
  11. ‘Old Bones’ is an oblique lyric tied to another tune that lingers in the memory. Very effective.
  12. ‘You Missed Me’ is the shortest track on the album, with the main vocal line carried only by backing vocals.
  13. The uncomfortable lyric of ‘Take Me Home’ is carried by a simple chord sequence and some adventurous sound effects. An entirely suitable ending to an album that probably isn’t going on to the shelf labelled Easy Listening. In fact, after a few listens, I couldn’t think of a better choice for a final track.

This isn’t an album that makes much in the way of concession to commercial appeal – though there are some surprisingly catchy tunes and lines here – and the mood is generally downbeat, so it’s not going to appeal to everyone. However, if you heard and appreciated Dirt, I don’t think you’ll find this disappointing. If the band is new to you, check out the videos on the Burning Salt website.

Automatic Lullaby will be launched at the Hermon Chapel in Oswestry, Shropshire, on Friday 24th May 2019, the day on which it becomes publicly available on all major streaming platforms (or for download via the band’s own website). Going by the live set I heard the band do last year, the launch will be well worth your time if you’re in that area.

The album tracks ‘Honey’ and ‘Superstitious Woman’ have been released as a double single.

David Harley

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‘Superstitious Woman’ – official video:

KEITH JAMES – Message From The Gods (Hurdy Gurdy HGA2928)

Message From The GodsThe forthcoming CD from Keith James, Message From The Gods, is released on Monday June 3rd, and it’s a worthy successor to the albums of Keith’s that I’ve previously reviewed on this site. Which is to say that it’s very good indeed. Keith is a fine poet and songwriter in his own right, as well as a highly-rated interpreter of songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen et al. But he has also established an enviable track record in setting the poetry of other writers to music. This album continues to demonstrate his pre-eminence in that particular field, with ten settings of verse by Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, Kahlil Gibran, Kate Tempest, W H Auden, Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen. And here’s the track listing.

  1. ‘Tiresias’ is the first of two settings of verse by Kate Tempest. It’s rather a good example of Keith’s ability to make an effective song out of an irregularly-structured, rhyme-free poem. Some very nice slide guitar by Phillip Henry in this one, too.
  2. ‘You Are The One’ sets a poem by Frida Kahlo, better known as an artist. In fact, this poem to Diego Rivera makes for a very attractive love song.
  3. ‘All My News’ is a setting of a poem from Leonard Cohen’s collection Book Of Longing. The harmonies here and in track two are, appropriately enough, somewhat reminiscent of Cohen’s incorporation of female backing singers on his last tours. Indeed, if he’d set this poem to music, I suspect that his version would not have been unlike Keith’s.
  4. ‘Quartet’ is based on lines from Khalil Gibran’s collection of poetic essays The Prophet. Keith’s setting and arrangement has echoes of Western Asia that seem to recall Gibran’s Lebanese ancestry and awareness of a range of religious cultures.
  5. If the title of ‘Caged Bird’ reminds you of Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, you’re in the right ball park, though Angelou’s book title was actually taken from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy. Angelou’s poem is clearly influenced by Dunbar’s, but is none the worse for that.
  6. ‘The things I know’ is another setting of a poem by Kate Tempest. The poem reads almost like a string of epigraphs – “Fame is the worst thing that could happen, to your reputation / If some people don’t hate your work, you’re not doing it right” – yet Keith’s reconstruction gives it added lyrical and musical coherence.
  7. ‘If You Forget Me’ is a setting of verse by Pablo Neruda. Was Neruda writing to his wife, his lover, or to Chile while he was in exile? I don’t know, but the song works very, very well.
  8. ‘Alone’ sets another Maya Angelou poem set to a blues-y tune with an adventurous arrangement.
  9. ‘Weeping guitar’ is vintage Keith James, setting a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. No-one does this kind of setting better than Keith.
  10. H. Auden is probably best known popularly for Funeral Blues (“Stop all the clocks…“) since it was read in Four Weddings And A Funeral, though his technical range was far wider. His poem ‘But I can’t’, in this setting, sounds absolutely made for music.

Once again, Keith’s own musical expertise and sensitive vocals are supported by a fine set of musicians, and particular credit is due to the vocal support of Antonia Salter and the mixing and mastering skills of Branwen Munn. This is class material performed in an exemplary fashion. Highly recommended.

David Harley

Artist’s website: http://www.keith-james.com/

‘All My News’:

DARIA KULESH – Earthly Delights (own label)

Earthly DelightsDaria Kulesh is a very highly-rated performer in the hallowed virtual halls of Folking.com, so I count myself as rather lucky to have got a review copy of her forthcoming CD Earthly Delights, due for release on May 31st 2019. Once again, she is supported by an impressive selection of musicians. As well as many names already familiar from her previous CDs and/or live performances (all reputable musos in their own right, of course), three tracks also feature characteristically fine fiddle from the Phil Beer (tracks 4 and 9) and Tom Kitching (track 1). Most of the production is expertly handled by Jason Emberton, who also contributes much of the accompaniment.

As you’d expect, there are several songs here that derive from Daria’s Russian and Ingush heritage and her knowledge of Slavic folklore, but this time she’s cast her nets a little wider, without compromising her ability to tell a story in song.

Here’s the track listing.

  1. Daria’s lyrics to ‘Golden Apples’, with music by Igor Devlikamov, are based on a Russian folk tale concerning the Firebird, though not the story that forms the basis of Stravinsky’s ballet. An exhilarating start to the album.
  2. ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ is Richard Farina’s lyric to the tune better known as ‘My Lagan Love’, a glorious melody collected by Herbert Hughes in Donegal in the early 20th A sensitive reading with restrained instrumental and vocal accompaniment, rather than the full-on harmonies of Sandy Denny’s version. Closer, perhaps, to the gentle orchestration of the version recorded by Mimi Farina after Richard’s death, though Daria’s vocals are more animated and accurate in pitch. (I still love Mimi’s version, though.)
  3. ‘Shame Or Glory’ is by Daria, and makes the very valid point that a McGonagall or Florence Foster Jenkins has the same drive to create and succeed that characterize more “successful” creators, and we should respect that. The arrangement has a sort of Kurt Weill/cabaret feel that I find very appealing. I like the interplay between Jonny Dyer’s guitar and Marina Osman’s piano, too.
  4. ‘Earthly Delights’ is another of Daria’s own songs. One of the ‘delights’ of Daria’s songs for me is the way that a line will sometimes spark an unexpected association, like the echo of ‘The Two Magicians’ in ‘The Panther’, from her last CD. In this case, it’s the line “Strange fruit in the garden of earthly delights“. The subject matter is far removed from Meeropol’s protest against lynchings, being more about the message that “If seeking pleasure and following your heart doesn’t hurt, subjugate or break others…then perhaps it’s a natural way to be…?” Yet there’s something very apposite about the last verse here: “Oppressed and oppressor…One person’s wrongs are another one’s rights.” An accomplished performance of a delightful folky tune with stunning fiddle from Phil Beer.
  5. There are many Slavic folk tales about rusalki (water spirits), often translated into literature and music – Dvořák’s opera is a particular favourite of mine. Daria’s ‘Rusalka’, however, is based on a short poem of 1819 by Pushkin, as translated by John Farndon and adapted and shortened by Daria, who has set it to music. Its presentation in this slightly condensed form does it no harm at all.
  6. Daria’s ‘Vasilisa’, previously released as a single, draws its theme from a Russian fairy tale in which the heroine encounters the supernatural Baba Yaga. While the story to some extent resembles the Cinderella story, Vasilisa seems morally more ambiguous. Oddly enough, the modality of the melody makes it a highly suitable companion piece to ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’, though the instrumentation has a decidedly Asian feel.
  7. ‘Morozko’ is another of Daria’s retellings in music of a Russian folk tale, with accompaniment that stresses its Eastern European origins.
  8. ‘Cap And Bells’ is an effective setting by Joseph Sobol of a poem of W.B. Yeats, from Sobol’s theatrical cycle In The Deep Heart’s Core: A Mystic Cabaret, with most of the accompaniment carried by Marina Osman’s piano.
  9. An unexpected inclusion is Percy French’s ‘Pride Of Petravore’. I have to admit that Daria makes the best of its tortuous Irishisms, though.
  10. Daria’s ‘Made Of Light’ is, in more than one sense, a lighter song, almost a ballad, augmented by Jonny Dyer’s expressive trumpet. Lovely.
  11. ‘Greedy King’ sets Daria’s lyric to a tune by the multi-talented Jonny Dyer, and melds a Soviet joke and the story of the Wise Men of Gotham into a telling commentary on the sad state of today’s world (not to mention yesterday’s!). The lyric may sound like a counsel of despair, but musically it offers a suitably upbeat finale.

Where Long Lost Home can be seen as a very personal journey into Daria’s own family history and heritage, Earthly Delights draws on a wider range of source material that still comes over as essentially Daria: some beautiful melodies, fascinating lyrics, all exquisitely sung and adventurously arranged. If you’re not familiar with her work, this is a good place to start.

The CD will be launched at Dunton Folk on 1st June 2019.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.daria-kulesh.co.uk

‘Golden Apples’ – official video:

ODETTE MICHELL – The Wildest Rose (Own Label)

The Wildest RoseAs previously mentioned on Folking.com, Odette Michell is following up her well-received debut EP from 2018 (By Way Of Night) with a full-length album called The Wildest Rose. The new CD will be launched at TwickFolk, held in the Cabbage Patch in Twickenham, on April 14th 2019, and is due for release on the 26th April. The launch will feature special guests Richard Lee & Phil Beer which gives you some idea of the regard in which she’s held among her fellow musicians. Talking of which, Odette’s vocals, guitar and bouzouki are more than ably supported here by Phil Beer on fiddle and backing vocals (tracks 1, 3 and 10), Stu Hanna on a variety of instruments (especially violin) and backing vocals on most tracks, and Toby Shaer on fiddle and whistle (tracks 2, 7 and 8).

Here’s the track list.

  1. If the sleeve didn’t tell me that ‘The Wildest Rose’ was written by Odette, I’d have assumed it was a traditional song I hadn’t met before: not only because of the cast of the lyrics – it seems to be a trademark of hers to write lyrics that are strongly influenced by traditional forms – but because of the shape of the very strong melody which has more than a hint of Irish. Some fine fiddling (of course) from Phil Beer here.
  2. ‘The Banks Of Annalee’ is also along traditional lines lyrically but a little more contemporary in presentation, with very striking vocal multi-tracking on the chorus, and nice doubling up between the fiddle and whistle.
  3. ‘Rolling Shores Of England’ is a nostalgic song that benefits from vocal harmony from Phil Beer.
  4. The title of ‘Bless The Ground You Grow On’ kind of speaks for itself. The vocal harmonies (which reminded me a little of Alison Krauss) and mandolin are particularly effective here.
  5. It would be a trifle perverse to make a song featuring the ‘Great Old Northern Line’ sound very traditional, I guess, and in fact this one leans a little (not too much!) towards country, but as ever, it has a very strong chorus that I could well imagine being popular in sessions. Very striking lyrics: it’s a pity there’s no lyric sheet with the CD. I almost catch myself being nostalgic for the 25 years I spent commuting on the Tube.
  6. ‘True Lovers Farewell’ is a very classy minor-key version of a song sometimes known as ‘Fare Thee Well’ or ‘Ten Thousand Miles’ or even ‘The Turtle Dove’ (under which title it was arranged by Vaughan Williams, though this is a very different reading). Beautifully sung with very tasteful guitar harmonies.
  7. ‘I Once Loved A Shepherd’ starts with striking double-tracked whistle before moving into a very accomplished story-song, though the tune is a little reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Urge For Going’ in the chorus.
  8. There are many broadside ballads about the Gunpowder Plot, but ‘Light Up London Town’ takes a more contemporary approach, and yes, includes a strong chorus.
  9. ‘Dance Me Through The Night’ is perhaps the most ‘modern’ song here, but still fits very well in delivery and instrumentation with the rest of the CD.
  10. ‘The Eastern Seas’ could easily pass as an Irish air, and a good one at that. A lovely finish to the CD.

All in all, this is a fine collection of excellent melodies, beautifully sung and played, most of which give a nod lyrically and or melodically to UK traditional forms without straying too far into pastiche, and are notable for their irresistible choruses.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.odettemichell.com

‘The Banks Of Annalee’ – live:

CARRIE TREE – The Canoe (Own Label WCRCD05)

The CanoeBrighton singer/songwriter Carrie Tree’s third CD, The Canoe, due for release on the 26th April 2019, is a little more delicate and spiritual than anything I’ve reviewed recently, but certainly no worse for that. It addresses the themes of “birth, death, water, home and travel” in a style that is often allusive, poetic rather than literal, and never less than fascinating.

The production and arrangements come courtesy of Markus Sieber. Sieber is known for his ambient recordings (as Aukai), and besides the conventional (and beautifully arranged) array of piano, woodwind, strings and other instruments, there is plenty of use of less usual sounds (including ngoni, balafon, ronroco* and sitar) in the accompaniment. It all contributes to a hypnotic, peaceful and sometimes slightly Andean soundscape here, but don’t mistake its subtlety for aural wallpaper.

  1. I was slightly taken aback by the fact that the first few lines of ‘Sweet Illusion’ include the rhyme of ‘illusion’ and ‘confusion’ that others of my generation probably remember from a multitude of Holland-Dozier-Holland hits. However, this song comes from a very different place, and once past that little hiccough, presents as a sensitive and touching lyric, with a breathy delivery – sometimes lowered to a whisper – that will either charm or irritate you. I must admit, it’s grown on me considerably. (If it irritates you, give the other tracks a chance: they’re worth it. And it’s a very pretty melody.)
  2. ‘Honey Soup’ is described as being “about the body as a vessel, as a home in life.” Exquisitely sung, and fascinating instrumentation.
  3. ‘The Canoe’ is a moving song about birth. The last quatrain is taken from ‘Oak Song’ by Anna Richardson. I particularly like the vocal harmonies.
  4. ‘Human Kindness’ is somewhat grittier subject matter “Inspired by a man who told me his story / Of a war-torn homeland & a life he had to flea [sic]“. A pacier track with a powerful message: “I know that there’s more to thus ugly game“.
  5. ‘Only Love’ is a gentle song beginning with a vaguely blues-y guitar part, but moving into something more complex with accordion and pizzicato strings.
  6. ‘Deep As We Dare’ is notable not only for the passion of its lyric, but for some extraordinary vocal work.
  7. ‘Alive’ also has some adventurous vocal effects: I’m not sure I care for the scatting, but it’s another fine song.
  8. ‘Call To The Wind’ has a particularly attractive arrangement, framing a simple but moving song.
  9. ‘Red Clay Woman’, with its supernatural lyrical echoes, strikes me as something of an epic. Anyway, it’s probably my favourite track, with a complex arrangement and melodic twists and turns that follow the lyric rather than forcing it into a scansion-lined straitjacket.
  10. ‘Summertime’, by contrast, is almost a conventional song of love and loss, but is no less effective for that. A fine end to a remarkable album.

Carrie’s deceptively delicate voice displays a wide dynamic range and an intense higher register, and as the CD gathers pace, it’s easy to see how she came to work with other artists of the calibre of Carly Simon, Albert Mazibuko (Ladysmith Black Mambazo), and Martha Tilston, while her songwriting has been compared to that of Jeff Buckley and John Martyn. I’m not sure those comparisons do her any favours – she has a voice all her own – but I have to agree that this is quality writing. Recommended.

*Ngoni: a West African stringed instrument that some believe to have evolved into the banjo; Balafon: also from Africa and perhaps originating in Mali, an instrument resembling the xylophone; ***Ronroco: an Argentinian stringed instrument, essentially a low-register charango. Its use is something of a Sieber trademark.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: www.carrietree.co.uk

‘Deep As We Dare’ – live:

KY BURT – The Sky In Between (Woodstove Records)

The Sky In BetweenWhile lots of Americana finds its way between my ears from time to time, Ky Burt’s album The Sky In Between, due for release on the 5th April 2019, is a little different from most of the CDs in that idiom I hear. Ky’s self-written songs here seem somehow to reflect the landscapes in which he’s found himself over the course of his Midwest upbringing, his career in Arizona, and his most recent move to the Pacific Northwest, as well as the more internal landscapes that we tend to expect from a singer-songwriter. Which actually makes it rather interesting.

On an album mostly recorded at Tyler Fortier’s home studio in Oregon, Ky’s own guitar, vocals and 5-string banjo are supported by a range of musicians and instruments. Not only the usual bass, percussion, piano/keys etc., but also Nashville-tuned guitar, pedal steel and violin. His vocals are untrained, but pleasant – vaguely reminiscent of Davy Graham, though the overall sound and material here are generally nearer country than anything I remember Davy recording. In fact, nearer to country – or in places, country rock – rather than folk, whatever you may understand by that label. And the emphasis here is on the songs rather than on vocal or instrumental virtuosity, though the playing is never less than competent.

  1. ‘Midwestern Sky’ obviously reflects his Midwest upbringing, with a tale of a contented man who chose to stay in that region and “count the airplanes flying high in this Midwestern sky…
  2. ‘Hard To Reach’ is a banjo-dominated ballad of unrequited or broken love, with nice interplay of fiddle and banjo on the instrumental break.
  3. ‘Idaho’ is a more upbeat song of travel.
  4. ‘All I Leave Behind’ is another ballad with a theme of regret, and does have a slightly folky feel. Some of the vocal phrasing seems a little awkward to me.
  5. ‘The Woodstove Song’ is a simple performance carried only by nice clawhammer guitar. It’s really rather a nice song that suits Ky’s voice.
  6. Electric guitar gives ‘Back To The City’ more of an appropriately urban feel, as do the harmony vocals. Another good song.
  7. ‘Midnight Cigarette’ has an old-fashioned jazzy feel, with some slightly unexpected changes. Collin Stackhouse’s violin is a particular standout.
  8. The atmospheric ‘Small Town Dream’ is described as “a lamentation of dying towns everywhere“.
  9. The sparse arrangement of ‘Maple Grove’ gives emphasis to a particularly affecting lyric.
  10. ‘Seeds In The Dirt’ is a nice story of rekindled friendship, mostly carried by sprightly, folk-y banjo.

The accompanying PR sheet describes the album as “Awash with painterly imagery“, and indeed there is something about these story-songs that does call to mind the social snapshot aspect of Edward Hopper. The more I hear it, the more I like it. If you’re a fan of Americana, give it a try: it might just surprise you.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: http://www.kyburt.com/

‘Midwestern Sky’ – live: