MALINKY – Handsel (Greentrax CDTRAX402)

HandselHere’s the second Scottish band celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. While some might go for a big statement Malinky, who concentrate on song more than instrumentals, are rather more subtle. They boast two of the finest interpreters of Scottish song in Steve Byrne and Fiona Hunter with Mark Dunlop bringing songs from Ireland and the guitar and fiddle of Mike Vass completing the line-up. Handsel is a double CD: one of new material and a bonus disc of archive recordings. The band has recruited Euan Burton to join them on double bass and some celebrated singers to bring songs to the party. With nine lead vocalists there is plenty of variety.

Although the songs are distinctively Scots or Irish, some of the stories they tell are familiar. Most are old, either labelled as traditional or holding on their authorship from the 19th century. There is one new tune by Mark Dunlop and one new song by Steve Byrne, who has done the most work in amalgamating texts to improve the narratives. The opener, ‘Begone Bonnie Laddie’ borrows a line or two from ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ and ‘The Forester’ is well known to Steeleye Span fans.  Dunlop played a major part in rebuilding ‘The Maid Of Doneysheil’ and its Irish origins can be discerned from the first notes.

The bothy ballad, ‘Sleepytoon’ with Ellie Beaton is as broad Scots as you might wish to hear and then come variants on stories concerning a grey cock and a ploughman laddie. There is old poetry from Allan Ramsey and Robert Burns and a more modern bothy ballad in the shape of ‘The Hash O Bennagoak’. Steve’s new song, ‘The Lads O The Lindsay’ concerns a lifeboat disaster off Arbroath in 1953. Steve is a native of Arbroath and his late grandmother remembered the event. Although it’s an emotional story the song is remarkably unsentimental in the manner of many old ballads.

The bonus disc is a splendid collection of favourite album tracks, live cuts and demos. Several are previously unreleased as far as I can tell – ‘Alison Cross’, a mighty and slightly atypical ‘The Trawlin Trade’ and ‘Clerk Saunders’ stand out as does the final track. This is a live performance of ‘The Bonnie Lass O Fyvie/The Silver Spear’ recorded for Malinky’s tenth anniversary concert featuring ten members of the band past and present including, of course, Karine Polwart.

Handsel – the name refers to a traditional New Year gift – is a really splendid album. Both the old and the new music resonate with the feeling of timelessness that makes folk music special. Please buy and enjoy.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.malinky.com

One of the bonus tracks, ‘King Orfeo’:

MIKE VASS – Save His Calm (Unroofed Records UR006CD)

Save His CalmWe’re used to hearing Mike Vass as an instrumentalist and, particularly, a composer. His albums have been evocative musical journeys, In The Wake Of Neil Gunn being the prime example of his talent. With Save His Calm he’s turned singer-songwriter, a most unexpected change of direction. The title is an anagram and the album is described as semi-autobiographical with the songs drawn from people and experiences of the last few years.

I was prepared to be disappointed at first. The opening song, ‘They Never Found Me’, seemed designed to avoid scaring the horses but on closer listening it sets the scene for the powerful ‘Done With Calling You’. This is clearly a song about divorce but whose breakup isn’t made clear.  The accompaniments are strong but restrained with Mike confining himself to tenor guitar and he gives his band: Louis Abbot, Euan Burton, Philip Cardwell, Tom Gibbs, Su-a Lee and sister Fi an unfamiliar freedom. Cardwell’s trumpet and Gibbs piano are key instruments on the record.

In 2013 Mike contracted neuroborreliosis, a very unpleasant and potentially life-threatening disease which resulted in hospitalisation and an induced coma. As documented in ‘Gates Of Saints’ he clearly believed that he was facing his final days. Before that song we have one about someone else’s death, ‘The Rainbow Of Your Last Days’. It might have been that he was writing about his own demise before it came.

‘Just Enough To Let The Light In’ and ‘Fly’ are both about past loves and there is a theme of aging and death running through the whole album with ‘Clutching At Straws’ and ‘As I’ve Grown Older’ and it seems to me that Mike was considering his own mortality in a different way and the final ‘Walk With Me And Meet My Children’ is a slightly disturbing piece about a traffic accident and its aftermath.

The power of Save His Calm grows with repeated listening and it becomes clear that sometimes it takes a monumental event to release someone’s creativity.

Dai Jeffries

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

‘The Rainbow Of Your Last Days’ – acoustic solo:

SIOBHAN MILLER – Mercury (Songprint Recordings SPR002CD)

MercuryTo be brutally honest, if this were Siobhan Miller’s first album and I was listening cold I probably wouldn’t have got past the first three tracks. I loved Strata – it was the perfect blend of new and old, of traditional songs and covers – but Mercury is pop music, well made and sophisticated, true, but pop music nevertheless. All the songs are originals, some written with Euan Burton, Louis Abbott and Kris Drever, performed with a fashionably modern band, embellished with violins and brass.

I’ll temper my criticism a little. The third track, ‘Strandline’ attracted my attention and the fourth, ‘The Western Edge’ is excellent. I hoped, at that point, that Siobhan had turned her back on foolish notions but, sadly, I was disappointed. A major problem is the absence of lyrics: they are not printed on the cover and, although we’re promised them on Siobhan’s website they are nowhere to be found. With everything that is going on around her musically, they are essential. Even the star guests like Eddi Reader and Kris Drever are lost in the wall of sound that Burton, Abbott and Iain Hutchinson generate.

The title track, which opens the album, actually sounds rather interesting on subsequent listenings – I can make out something about picket lines and throwing stones but it’s lost. The second track, ‘Sorrow When The Day Is Done’, is a nicely upbeat song but the combination of Abbott’s drums and John Lowrie’s piano overwhelms it. It’s rather like an episode of Masterchef – I can appreciate the skill and see the ideas going into the dish but there are far too many of them and the finished article is unpalatable.

I am so disappointed with Mercury. Come back to us, Siobhan, please.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.siobhanmiller.com

‘Mercury’ – lyric video:

Siobhan Miller announces new album

Siobhan Miller

Born in Penicuik, Scotland, Siobhan Miller grew up in the folk scene singing at festivals she attended with her parents. Her soulful and stirring renewal of traditional song won her the 2018 BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Traditional Track, and Scots Singer of the Year an unprecedented three times at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards (2011, 2013, 2017), whilst her first two solo albums received wide critical acclaim.

Growing up in a musical family in Penicuik, Siobhan made her singing debut at the Auchtermuchty Festival when she was 13 years old, winning both the children’s and women’s competitions. Continuing to sing, learn songs and develop her music, she formed a strong partnership with Orcadian musician Jeana Leslie. Together they won the 2008 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award and more accolades the following year.

After two albums in partnership with Jeana (2008’s In A Bleeze and 2010’s Shadows Tall) and graduating from Glasgow’s RSAMD with a 1st Class Honours BA in 2009, Siobhan joined Salt House, a group with the finely matched abilities of Lauren MacColl, Ewan MacPherson and Euan Burton. Their album Lay Your Dark Low was released in 2014 heralded as “seamless” by The Guardian.

Siobhan’s first two solo releases, Flight Of Time (2015) and Strata (2017) were nominated for Album of the Year at the Scots Trad Awards, highlighting her extensive range through traditional, contemporary and self-penned material, as well as her “delicate, nourishing vocals and lyrically rich compositions” (The List). Following her well-received debut, produced by James Grant of Love And Money, her hotly-anticipated follow-up Strata featured eleven carefully chosen songs Miller grew up listening to and performing in her youth and showcased the many influences on her formative musical years. Songs passed down by Scotland’s source and revival singers, such as ‘The Unquiet Grave’ and ‘False, False’, were included alongside titles from contemporary writers including Bob Dylan’s ‘One Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Pound A Week Rise’, penned by Ed Pickford.

Siobhan’s unique vocal style has been honed through collaborations and studies with many of Scotland’s top musicians and traditional bearers, leading to extensive tours fronting her own band, as well as guest appearances with the National Theatre of Scotland, a season on Broadway in New York, and on US/UK TV drama Outlander.

Mercury is the third solo album from Siobhan and her first album of entirely original material. Recorded in Glasgow with many of her frequent collaborators, including producer Euan Burton, it also features co-writes with Lau’s Kris Drever and Admiral Fallow frontman Louis Abbott.

Winner of 2018 BBC Folk Award for ‘Best Traditional Track’, at which she was also nominated for Best Singer, Miller is the only ever three-time winner of Scots Singer of the Year, and widely regarded as one of the foremost vocalists in Scotland. She creates music with detail and rich melodies that combine indie and alternative sounds with her upbringing in Scotland’s folk music scene. The album release will be accompanied by an extensive UK tour.

One of the themes of the album is memory: what we take with us over the years as the ‘important moments’, the precious nature of those memories and the curious process of our brain deciding what it will filter out without us really having control over it. Many of the songs see Miller looking at what we leave behind us in various chapters of our own lives and where we are headed, individually and as a society.

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‘The Sun Shines High’ – live:

Artist’s website: www.siobhanmiller.com

Hannah Rarity announces debut album

Hannah Rarity
Photograph by Elly Lucas

Hannah Rarity – BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2018 – releases her much anticipated debut album Neath The Gloaming Star on 2nd September. This new release will be launched with a number of high-profile appearances (BBC Proms In The Park) and UK tour dates in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen amongst others.

Following her acclaimed 2016 EP, Beginnings, (“Beautifully engaging vocals, thoughtful interpretations of traditional songs and some highly promising song-writing…Hers is definitely a name to watch.” fRoots Magazine), Neath The Gloaming Star features eleven songs, carefully selected by Rarity, which showcase her powerful vocals and fresh interpretations of songs from the folk genre she whole-heartedly embraces. Her vocal performance is supported by a stellar line-up of Scottish musicians, including Innes White (Karen Matheson, John McCusker), John Lowrie (Blue Rose Code, Adam Holmes & The Embers) and Euan Burton (Kris Drever, Siobhan Miller).

Rarity’s musical career to date has earned her a nomination for Scots Singer of the Year 2017 at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, seen her feature as ‘One to Watch in 2018’ in The Scotsman and front Irish-American band Cherish the Ladies. This first full-length work is a culmination of her musical journey and experience thus far, establishing Rarity as a voice in her own right, whilst paying homage to both source – Jeannie Robertson – and revival singers, including Rod Paterson, Fiona Hunter and Anne Neilson, from whom songs have been passed.

Produced by acclaimed musician and producer Euan Burton, the album has a bright and modern sound whilst remaining true to the folk tradition it is inspired by. “Neath the Gloaming Star” features a carefully balanced mix of beloved traditional songs, self-penned tracks and soulful covers of some of Scotland’s best-loved songwriters of the folk-revival – two late greats are celebrated in re-workings of Andy M. Stewart’s ‘Where Are You (Tonight I Wonder?)’, and ‘Rose O’ Summerlee’ by Davy Steele, which features folk legend Phil Cunningham. Meanwhile more contemporary songs – ‘Wander Through This Land’ and ‘Wasting Time’ – further develop the emotive themes of loss, love, hardship and longing that run throughout the album.

Artist’s website: www.hannahrarity.com

‘Land O’ The Leal’ – live:

RURA – In Praise Of Home (Rura Music RURACD003)

In Praise Of HomeAlmost the first sound you hear is the voice of Steven Blake’s grandfather, James Russell, reflecting on his home in Montrose. Or rather the feeling of home, that sensation sailors used to call the channels, and that idea is really what In Praise Of Home is about. Later, we hear some of the story of David Foley’s grandmother, Sheila Littlejohn, who came to Scotland from Jamaica as a child.

Both Blake and Foley composed tunes inspired by these stories, the former being the opener and title track of what is otherwise a purely instrumental album. It segues effortlessly into the second track, Jack Smedley’s ‘The First Day’ which harks back to the band’s origins as an instrumental quartet, having gained and lost Adam Holmes in the interim. The track, opening with keyboard drones, quickly morphs into the most traditional sounding tune on the record and will be released as a single.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and the band turn to other sources of inspiration for a while. ‘Malice Member’ was inspired by Jack Badcock and ‘Catriona’s’ by Catriona Price and I refuse to speculate on what might have prompted Foley to write ‘Lust In Translation’. Then comes his ‘Away Back’ with the voice of his grandmother. He took a step back while Blake, Smedley and Adam Brown wrote ‘The Gorilla’, inspired, apparently by a Gorillaz track.

Finally we come to two tracks linked as ‘Horizons Pts 1 and 2’. The first, Steven Blake’s ‘Below The Horizon’ is built around his Rhodes with Jack Smedley’s fiddle picking up a mournful melody. It’s my favourite track. Smedley composed the final ‘Journeys New’ which brings the whole album full circle but was the first track written. It’s built over Adam Brown’s guitar with the fiddle picking up the melody and features producer Euan Burton on Rhodes. Starting gently, it builds quickly to an appropriately exciting finish for a record that sees Rura moving on again.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.rura.co.uk

‘Lust’ – live: