GEMMA MAE ANDERSON – Life (own label GMAZE2CD)

LifeLike many musicians, I’m all too well aware of the risks and consequences of joint damage and pain, especially in my own age group (let’s just say the wrong side of retirement age…) I find it difficult to imagine, though, what it’s like for Gemma Mae Anderson, though, being diagnosed with the debilitating autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 17, which means that she’s now lived with that diagnosis for longer than she lived before it. Yet her debut CD Life shows a determination to go beyond that sad situation: not only has she crystallized her experiences into a positive musical artefact, but she’s also using it to raise money for the charity Versus Arthritis. Furthermore, she’s assembled an impressive array of backing musicians, mostly Shetlanders. (Pulp’s Candida Doyle, who contributed keyboards to ‘Wherever There’s A You’, is from Belfast, but has Shetland family links and was also diagnosed with RA as a teenager.)

You might expect an album with no less than four Shetland fiddlers featured to be pretty folky, but in fact this one leans to the pop end of the spectrum, with a soupçon of country here and there.

Here’s the track list. All titles are credited to Gemma.

  1. ‘Open Up’ is a nice upbeat song: lyrically, it reminded me a little of Mary Chapin Carpenter, though Gemma’s voice is a lot lighter.
  2. ‘Ray Of Light’ is a little slower, but has a basically positive message.
  3. ‘Everybody Knows’ is nothing like the Leonard Cohen song of the same title: in fact, it has darker overtones, lyrically, and rather an interesting melodic structure.
  4. The piano-borne ballad ‘Anything’ also sounds as if it reflects the singer’s physical condition, though I guess it could apply to many other situations. Very effective, anyway.
  5. ‘Wherever There’s A You’ has a bouncier feel, set against a curiously 1960s arrangement.
  6. ‘The Way Of Life’ is another piano-borne ballad with prominent fiddle.
  7. ‘Today We’ll Tell The World’ balances piano against acoustic guitar behind an attractive love song. Nice backing vocals too.
  8. ‘Falling Forever’ is another very positive love song.
  9. By the time I got to ‘Not A Bad Feeling’ I was beginning to feel a bit I had overheard rather too much of a conversation between a couple. The songs stand well in isolation, but the cumulative effect is a little too much.
  10. Fortunately, ‘Take This Road’ changes the mood, while maintaining Gemma’s trademark positivity. It’s nice to hear viola counterpointing fiddle, too.
  11. ‘I Want To Believe It’ has a much darker lyrical theme, and benefits from a dramatic and vocal intensity that isn’t quite there in the preceding tracks.
  12. There is some of that darkness and intensity in the lyric to ‘Time’, too.

This is a very pleasant CD: Gemma sings nicely, if a little uncertainly in places. The songs are generally upbeat, with very singable choruses, even where the lyrics hint at something darker. It would, perhaps, have benefited from a little more light and shade, more variation in pace and modality, at any rate in terms of appealing to a grizzled old folky. Lord knows there’s little enough positivity and optimism in the world today, but some of the songs here suggest that she is capable of tapping a richer vein of emotion that could make for some very interesting future work. Nonetheless, Life should make lots of money for a very good cause.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.birnamcdshop.com/product/gemma-mae-anderson/

 

ATLANTIC UNION – Indulgence (Blue Island Records CD 20191)

IndulgenceWhen I reviewed the last CD from Atlantic Union here, I noted that “I’m looking forward to hearing where they take us next.” Their new CD Indulgence was indeed worth waiting for, and while it includes a few familiar songs, the band goes further into exploring its own music with nine original tracks. The band are Sally Goddard (vocals, guitar, bodhrán/percussion); Dan Rubin (vocals, violin, viola, bouzouki, guitar, mando-uke, string bass, octave mandolin, bass guitar, mandolin); Jane Ogilvie (Celtic harp. accordion, piano, vocals, tongue drum). And here’s the track listing. ​

  1. ‘Forest Flower’ features some rather pretty guitar introducing a pleasant song by Dan Rubin.
  2. The well-known ‘Star Of The County Down’ is credited as ‘traditional’ here, though the words are usually credited to Cathal McGarvey . It features the distinctive vocals of Sally Goddard and Jane Ogilvie’s harp, as well as Dan Rubin’s tastefully arranged strings. While this description may make it sound a little orchestral, it’s actually very appropriate, with Sally’s vocals containing just enough ornamentation to remind us that she’s an unusually gifted folkie, not an opera singer slumming. J
  3. Jane Ogilvie’s ‘You Can Do This’ has a slightly Palm Court feel with its piano and violin, yet ruthlessly dissects some of the comforting clichés we offer our friends at times of stress. Actually, I really like it, and Sally shows that she’s just as comfortable with a very different style of singing.
  4. ‘Where Does Mother Go?’ is another of Jane’s songs, and it’s stunning. It will certainly ring whole peals of bells for anyone who’s experienced some form of dementia at close quarters. The melody and arrangement are a perfect match for the lyric. Sally eschews undue histrionics and lets the lyric speak for itself. Outstanding.
  5. Thematically, Sally’s ‘Gabriella Joyce’ invites comparison with Carol Hall’s ‘Jenny Rebecca’. I tend to associate the latter with the singing of Frederica Von Stade, which makes for stiff competition. All credit to Sally, then, for coming up with a song and performance that are equally effective, and will undoubtedly please the ears of many parents, not just Gabriella’s. 30 years after the birth of my own daughter, Sally’s song still tugs at my heartstrings.
  6. Dylan’s ‘The Hour That The Ship Comes In’ is more laidback than the version recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. It’s a decent version, but not one of my favourite songs at the best of times.
  7. The intro to Jane’s song ‘Murmansk Run’ rather cleverly transplants a quote from ‘What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor’ into a very Russian-sounding arrangement. Pastiche is a risky approach to a serious topic: pseudo-Russian music is more often associated with more humorous material such as Vera Johnson’s ‘The Minx From Pinsk’ or Tom Lehrer’s ‘Lobachevsky’. And there’s not a lot of humour to be found in a song remembering the incredibly dangerous Arctic convoys of World War II, sending lease-lend aid to the USSR. And yet after a few hearings, it seems to work rather well. Very nicely done.
  8. Dan’s ‘Under Full Sail’ is an instrumental set slightly reminiscent of Steeleye Span. Which is by no means a bad thing.
  9. ‘So We’ll Go No More A-Roving’ brings back some personal memories for me, as it’s one of the songs Sally and I did as a duo back in the late 60s. This version is even better! Sally’s voice is accompanied here only by harp, but subsequently, Dan’s strings pick up the theme for an instrumental version. The setting of Byron’s poem is credited here to Maude Valérie White, whose setting was indeed one of the earliest of many, but this is the melody from the setting by Richard Dyer-Bennet.
  10. ‘Port Mahon’ is a lovely version of Sydney Carter’s beautiful song.
  11. ‘The Axeman’ features Jane Ogilvie’s vocals, and turns out to be about wooden ships, not a serial killer or even Omen’s heavy-metal executioner. An interesting song by New Brunswick composer Douglas Carter, and sung rather well.
  12. Dan’s ‘I Do Not Feel The Giant Clams’ is a little weird – I guess you had to be there, and kayak is not my natural environment – but the band evidently had fun recording it.
  13. ‘Sonata Celtique’ successfully combines Jane’s piano with Dan’s violin. A good set of tunes from Jane.
  14. Dan’s ‘Way-O Way-O’ (not the similarly titled Joss Stone track) has a rough-hewn Caribbean-ish feel. I’m not averse to a little such pastiche – my wife and I frequently remind each other to put the lime in the coconut – and it’s an enjoyable way to finish.

It’s good to hear a band that clearly still has fun making an album, and Indulgence also has several outstanding moments with considerable emotional impact. In fact, ‘Where Does Mother Go?’ and ‘Gabriella Joyce’ are worth the price of the CD all by themselves. I hope to hear a lot more of their original material in future.

David Harley

Artist’s website: http://www.atlanticunion.ca/

Read David Harley’s review of Atlantic Union’s Homeward here.

THE YEHLA COLLECTIVE – Steel Strings And Iron Curtains – Songs that Ignited The Downfall of Communism (Sun King Records)

Steel Strings And Iron CurtainsIt’s just 30 years on from the Czech Velvet Revolution (more commonly known in Slovakia as the Gentle Revolution) that marked the transition from one-party Communist rule to a parliamentary republic. Plamen Press is an independent press specializing in Central, Eastern and Southeastern European literature, translated into English, and – in partnership with Sun King Records and a group of musicians known as the Yehla Collective – on the 17th November it published the CD Steel Strings And Iron Curtains.

The Yehla Collective is an international group of musicians from the area around Washington, D.C. that includes Czech musician Bohuslav Rychlík and Slovak guitarist Tomáš Drgoň. America, Moravia and Armenia are also represented in the group by other members of the collective – including Anna Connolly, Ian Jones, David Keplinger, Christine Kharazian and Reggie Love – who have a range of musical experience from punk to folk, from rock to jazz and classical music, and the range of settings here reflects that wide spectrum. While some tracks lean towards gypsy jazz, the CD is nudged towards Central/Eastern Europe tradition by the use of the Slovak fujara (a contrabass fipple flute) and koncovka overtone flutes.

The record comprises ten ‘protest’ songs with political undertones by Czech songwriters Karel Kryl and Jaromir Novahica. These poetic yet subtly subversive lyrics – not so subtle as to escape the attention of the Communist authorities, though, since Kryl’s songs were officially banned before the revolution – have been translated into English by Plamen founder and publishing director Roman Kostovski.

My extraordinarily limited knowledge of Slovak doesn’t run to assessing the accuracy of these translations from the Czech, but they do seem to me to work very well indeed in English. Comparisons have been drawn with Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits: certainly I can understand comparisons with Cohen, especially, not only lyrically but in terms of the eclectic musical styles and arrangements. You might even see occasional similarities of expression with Brel or even Brecht.  Here’s the track listing: songs marked with a single asterisk are credited to Karel Kryl and Roman Kostovski while songs by Jaromir Novahica and Roman Kostovski are marked with a double asterisk.

  1. ‘The Angel’* is said to be Kryl’s most popular song. With its acoustic guitars and flute, it’s quite folky.
  2. ‘The Comet’** is apparently Novahica’s most popular song and perhaps refers to Halley’s Comet, which last visited the Solar System in 1986. The comet is often seen as presaging major changes/events (the Norman invasion of 1066, the Great War, the Velvet Revolution…). Given the present state of the world, perhaps it’s a matter for regret that it isn’t due back till 2061. But given the present state of society, perhaps he’s correct in believing that we won’t be around by the. Structurally, the song reminds me of some of Brel’s songs such as ‘Port Of Amsterdam’.
  3. ‘Morituri Te Salutant’* (“We who are about to die salute you”) seems to compare the mandatory acquiescence of the gladiator to that of the soldier. It’s a very powerful song with echoes of both Cohen and Brel.
  4. ‘Magdalene’** seems deeply pessimistic on a more personal level.
  5. The arrangement of ‘Sarajevo’** puts a slightly gypsy jazz framework around a Balkan theme. I guess back in the day the very mention of a church wedding might have worried the authorities.
  6. Though ‘Salome’* has a distinctly Eastern European setting, the melody actually reminds me somewhat of the Scottish song/lullaby ‘Chì Mi Na Mòrbheanna’, better known as the tune used by Jim McLean for ‘Smile In Your Sleep’. In combination with the harsh, unsettling lyric, it makes for a powerful musical statement.
  7. ‘The Wastrel’** has a particularly interesting and poetic lyric, in a disturbing sort of way.
  8. ‘Habet’*, like ‘Salome’, borrows imagery and even the name of Herod from the Christian mythos as a metaphor for a cruel 20th-century modernity.
  9. ‘Petersburg’** has a distinctly uptempo gypsy jazz feel set against a slightly Pushkinesque story. I’d rather like to hear Daria Kulesh sing this, but this is a good version. The trumpet gives it a slightly jokey dimension, but perhaps that’s meant as a counterweight to the exaggeratedly suicidal lyric.
  10. ‘A Heart And A Cross’*: yes, I can certainly see why songs like this would have been banned. A dramatic and satisfying end to the CD.

While the publisher’s claim that these songs “ignited the downfall of Communism” might be a little overblown, there’s no doubt that these “powerful and existential lyrics” were and still are immensely important to those who survived the Communist era, and Steel Strings And Iron Curtains would be an important social and historical artefact irrespective of its literary and musical merit in terms of high culture. However, Plamen quite rightly regards this as literary project as well as a music project. While some of the vocals are a little patchy, the music is engagingly presented, and to me the lyrics are worth the price of the CD. It would be well worth your taking a look at the promotional video to get more idea of what the music is like. (More information and the promotional video are here.)

David Harley

Label website: http://www.sunkingrecords.com

Karel Kryl sings ‘Habet’ in the original Czech:

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Sunshine Of Your Love: A Concert For Jack Bruce (MIG Records MIG02192)

Sunshine Of Your LoveOn the 24th October 2015, a year after the death of Jack Bruce – widely acknowledged as one of the best electric bass players of all time – a small galaxy of star (admittedly not very folky) musicians gathered for a tribute concert at the Roundhouse in London. Sunshine Of Your Love, released on the 25th October 2019, is a DVD and double CD set recorded at that concert. Among the musicians taking part were Ian Anderson (frontman of Jethro Tull), Dave ‘Clem’ Clempson (Bakerloo, Colosseum, Humble Pie, Jack Bruce and Friends), Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music, Quiet Sun), Bernie Marsden (Whitesnake, Paice Ashton Lord), Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions, Electric Sun), Hugh Cornwell (The Stranglers), Mark King  (Level 42), Joss Stone, members of Jack’s own Big Blues Band, and many more. There is also archive footage of Jack Bruce himself, including an energetic ‘Traintime’ and an emotional ‘Music For An Imaginary Western’. And while Cream bandmate Eric Clapton didn’t perform at the concert, the CD does include as a bonus track his pleasantly understated acoustic guitar piece ‘For Jack’.

Ginger Baker, Jack’s bandmate most famously in Cream (but also in Blues Incorporated and BBM – perhaps we shouldn’t mention the Graham Bond Organization in this context), also appears in the film, famously walking off during the performance of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, though that isn’t as obvious from this film as from a video widely viewed on YouTube. Sad, but perhaps not an altogether inappropriate footnote – not so much in the light of the notoriously difficult relationship between Bruce and Baker, more in that there is a clear difference in approach between Baker and the other drummer (Frank Tontoh? – he isn’t actually credited in the booklet that accompanies the set), who is way too obtrusive for my taste. In sharp contrast, Baker’s playing behind Aruba on ‘We’re Going Wrong’ is an object lesson, surprisingly sensitive for such a difficult man.

Certainly there was much more to Cream than the internal conflicts, and much more to Jack Bruce than that band, influential and well-remembered though it might be. Still, there are quite a few more songs here most associated with Cream, including ‘I Feel Free’, ‘White Room’, ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ (of course) and ‘Politician’, as well as some Cream songs that Bruce didn’t co-write (the Skip James classic ‘I’m So Glad’ and ‘Badge’, written by Eric Clapton and George Harrison). While some of Bruce’s best-known songs written with Pete Brown were first recorded with Cream, there are many other songs here from their longstanding writing partnership. In general, the Cream songs follow the original arrangements with augmented arrangements, and in the ‘Sunshine…’ finale, a slightly-extended jam. Liam Bailey does a good job of the lead vocal on several songs. Mark King’s vocals are sometimes uneven, but his love for the songs carries him through. Still, on the whole I rather prefer the re-interpretations from the 2005 Cream reunion, even if they don’t always have the energy of the original recordings.

Standout tracks for me: the jazzy interpretation of ‘Milonga’; Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s ‘Rope Ladder To The Moon’, accompanied only by her own cello; ‘Candlelight’, a song written by Bruce and his wife Margrit Bruce Seyffer; Ian Anderson making ‘Tickets To Waterfalls’ sound very much his own; the harmonies between Chloe Fiducia and Julie Iwheta on ‘Ships In The Night’; daughter Aruba Red’s heartfelt ‘Folk Song’; and while I’ve never quite acquired the Joss Stone habit, ‘Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out Of Tune’ suits her perfectly.

Not so good: Hugh Cornwell’s pitchy vocals on ‘Hear Me Calling Your Name’; while Uli Jon Roth does a good job of recalling the old Clapton solos, his use of the whammy bar sometimes seems a little over-enthusiastic on ‘I Feel Free’. A matter of taste, I suppose: I can’t deny his technique.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. Certainly there’s plenty of technique on display here throughout, from a crop of talented musicians who generally do justice to a much-missed musician (yes, by me too). I’m particularly pleased to have been introduced to some songs I haven’t heard before: clearly, I have some catching up to do.

The 2015 concert apparently raised over £35,000 for East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices (EACH), for which Jack had frequently raised money, and a percentage of the sales from the box set is promised for donation to the same charity.

David Harley

Artist’s website: http://jackbruce.com/

‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ – from the concert:

JOHN RICHARDS – Bring Back The Spring (Working Joe Music WJMCD2019)

Bring Back The SpringJohn Richards is credited on his new CD Bring Back The Spring as “John Richards, Songwriter”. And it is indeed quite possible that you have never heard John himself or the many bands with which he has been associated. But there is a good chance you know songs of his through versions recorded by Robin Dransfield, Downes and Beer, Mike Silver, Fairport Convention and other luminaries. Nevertheless, he seems to work tirelessly around the West Midlands despite his intention, announced some years ago, to concentrate on songwriting rather than continuing to gig with the full John Richards Band. Bring Back The Spring reflects his intention to leave behind as few uncompleted songs as possible, and a good thing too. His own vocals, guitar and bouzouki are augmented by a galaxy of fine musicians and singers, including daughter Emma Jones, Mike Silver, Phil Beer, and Paul Downes, and other longstanding collaborators such as Jim Sutton.

Here’s the track list:

  1. ‘Tutchen The Jed’ (touching the dead) is a bizarre murder ballad based on superstitions of murderers who were identified by a corpse that bled in their presence (cruentation).
  2. ‘Hallsands’ tells the story of a Devon village virtually destroyed by excessive dredging in order to provide sand and gravel for the naval dockyard at Keyham. Very effectively sung by Emma Jones.
  3. ‘Look In Their Eyes’ was co-written with Mike Silver, and is an excellent song about immigration and false promises. “They came when invited to make a new start / and find a new life for their children.
  4. ‘Yellows & Blues’ includes the line that gives the CD its title: it’s a contemplative song with a typically singworthy chorus.
  5. ‘Young Thomas’ is an absorbing story song about an instance of therianthropy – people who can change into animals (or vice versa). Phil Beer’s fiddle solo towards the end of the song is particularly effective.
  6. ‘Never Trouble Trouble’ is a rather classy number with a blues feel.
  7. ‘Threadbare Coats’ was also co-written with Mike Silver and contemplates chilling issues of trial by the media and exploitation of the victim.
  8. ‘No Blacks, No Irish & No Dogs’ is the final song in this collection co-written with Mike Silver, and addresses the issue of ongoing prejudice with individual stories. I imagine the man from Arkansas in the first verse was Bill Broonzy.
  9. ‘Mary Stone’s Waltz’ / ‘The Marigolds’ Waltz’. The waltz that follows this story song was written by Jim Sutton.
  10. ‘Cats Eyes & Stars’ is a story song with a distinctive acoustic rock and roll feel.
  11. Despite its funereal subject ‘The Ballad Of An Ordinary Man’ actually has a rather uplifting chorus. I like it a lot.
  12. ‘Mrs. Allcock’s Millionaire’ has an attractive melody and makes a good point about not being a “would-be millionaire“.
  13. The lengthy ‘The Unknown Soldier’ / ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ strays into Eric Bogle/Bill Caddick country with its reflections on the Great War, and is a creditable addition to that body of work.
  14. It doesn’t seem to be John’s way to name names, but ‘A Bitter Thing’ is clearly about Alan Turing and “the prejudice of fools“. A very effective song.
  15. ‘Billy Shaw’ makes a trenchant political point about war and how people with good intentions are exploited for military purposes – “we went to war on a lie” – and makes a fine end to the album.

Bill Caddick regarded John Richards as “One of our finest writers and singers.” The vocals here by John and Emma are never less than pleasant, and there is indeed quality song-writing here, in some ways reminiscent of Caddick himself, with stories old and new. I can only hope that John has enough songs in him not yet written to lure him back into the studio at some point. But if not, Bring Back The Spring  is still a creditable end to his recording career. Certainly I’m glad to have finally become acquainted with his music.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.thejrbs.co.uk

‘Yellows & Blues’ – live:

FINN PAUL – Wind & Stone (Independent Release IWCD001)

Wind & StoneScottish singer-songwriter Finn Paul says, accurately enough, that his music “… is about fantastical nonsense; pirates, dreamworlds and mystical islands. But more than that it’s about the methods we use to escape in a society that’s becoming ever more disconnected from reality“. That said, to my ear, the lyrics on his new CD Wind & Stone are not as far out or surreal as that might suggest. In fact, they often hint at an understated but close affinity with the Highlands and islands of the North, though without the explicit political commitment of a Dick Gaughan or Karine Polwart. Regardless, these are very good songs indeed, and suit his distinctive vocals perfectly.

Those vocals, plus Finn’s own guitars and mandolin, are augmented by producer Angus Lyon (keys and accordion), Briona Mannion (violin), Finn Mannion (cello and cajon), Daisy Tempest (drums and backing vocals) and Ben Schofield (backing vocals). The accompaniments are solid without being showy, focusing the listener’s attention on the songs rather than the instrumentation, as seems entirely appropriate to a quality set. of compositions.

Here’s the track listing:

  1. ‘Spanish Silver’ does indeed bring to mind words like romantic or escapist – “For Spanish Silver / I pledge my heart / for sword and spoil / for freedom sails” – echoing, perhaps, the era of Sir Andrew Barton / Henry Martyn, though the emphasis here is on freedom and adventure rather than the explicit bloodletting of the old ballads.
  2. ‘The Watcher’ certainly has echoes of faraway places and cultures. It’s not often you find references to Valhalla and the Silk Road in the same lyric, though the adventures here seem altogether more peaceful in intent than the battles of Norse mythology.
  3. ‘Norwegian Sea’ hints at a story of love lost rather further North than most love stories – or is it a fantasy, or simply a metaphor? Regardless, it’s a fascinating track.
  4. ‘Treat Her Fair’ refers not to a woman, but to the world, though the politicizing is restrained – “…So let’s stand up to those who wish to buy her / And let them know we’ve / Always been borrowing“. Nicely done.
  5. The slightly James Taylor-ish guitar introduction to ‘Anna’ leads into a fascinating metaphor/story/portrait in song slightly reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, though I think I actually prefer Finn’s song (heresy!). Certainly Anna seems an altogether more comfortable heroine, though clearly she is more than capable of discouraging a visitor from overstaying his welcome. Sooner or later in many of the review CDs I like most, I come across a song that makes me think I might actually like to add it to my own repertoire, and in this case it’s ‘Anna’.
  6. The appealing love song ‘Fortune’ is also available as a single, and will, I suspect, do very well.
  7. ‘Dance It All Away’ is a slow, emotive ballad accompanied only by piano.
  8. ‘Wind & Stone’ returns to the themes of freedom and escape, yet without suggesting loneliness. I particularly like the sparing use of strings on this track, which makes a fine end to the CD.

I tend to mistrust reviews that compare one artist to another in order to convey a general impression of the music being considered, but several plays in, it occurred to me that there was something vaguely familiar about this set. I think perhaps it’s a slight similarity to early Donovan in the vocals, and while Finn Paul is certainly no imitator of Donovan or anyone else, I think there’s also a resemblance in lyrical approach with these characteristic themes of romance, freedom, and escape, expressed through a certain individual approach to mythmaking.

All that aside, this is fine music from a significant talent. I think – hope – we will hear a great deal more from Finn Paul.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.finnpaulmusic.com/

‘Fortune’ – official video: