DAVID CAMBRIDGE – Songtales (own label DC001CD)

SongtalesDavid Cambridge’s story is a familiar one. He had a serious, responsible job, ran a folk club as a student, played guitar and sang and, having escaped the nine-to-five, he found that music took over. He also builds guitars, by the way, and Songtales is his debut album. Now, you might be lured into thinking that this is a vanity project recorded very basically in his shed but you couldn’t be more wrong.

For one thing, the album was produced by Ben Savage who also plays guitar and David’s guests – used sparingly – are Evan Carson, cellist Anna Scott and Saul Bailey on melodeon with backing vocals from Hannah Sanders and his musical partner, Jenna Walker. The arrangements allow David to perform the songs live on stage with just his guitar although, having heard Songtales, you would miss the delicacy and sometimes ethereal beauty of the accompaniments.

Unless you’re very young you won’t find any real surprises but I’d like to think that you might hear the lovely ‘Too Close To The Wind’ for the first time and be moved to find out more about Stuart Marson. David betrays his affection for Fairport Convention several times also including Huw Williams’ wistful ‘Summer Before The War’ and ‘She Moved Through The Fair’. The opening cut is a stomping take on ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ followed by Mike Waterson’s blues-tinged version of ‘Rocking The Cradle’. He gives us a world-weary reading of ‘Monday Morning’ followed by one song I hadn’t heard before, the euphemistic ‘Little Grey Hawk’- it’s good to know that there is always something new to be discovered.

Affection for Nic Jones is displayed with ‘Isle Of France’ and ‘Billy Don’t You Weep For Me’ – the latter never gets old. I wasn’t actually looking forward to the closing ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ but David’s acoustic guitar arrangement is stunningly good: the lyrics are still off-the-wall but we’ll let them go. This is a very fine album and I got quite nostalgic in places. Songtales may be a debut but it’s built on years of experience and it shows.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.cambridgeandwalker.com

You’ll find videos and sound files firmly embedded in David’s website from which I cannot wrench then free.

CHRIS CLEVERLEY – We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold (Opiate Records OPI001)

We Sat Back And Watched It UnfoldI loved Chris Cleverley’s first album, Apparitions, which appeared in 2015. That was four years ago so he hasn’t rushed into recording his follow-up. In that time he’s written and performed, formed a trio with Kim Lowings and Kathy Pilkinton and made lots more friends, several of whom appear here. Although a skilled interpreter of traditional material and other people’s songs, Chris has gone down the songwriter route. The twelve songs here are all original; there’s one co-write with Sam Kelly who also co-produced the album. For the avoidance of any doubt let me say now that We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold is a stunning piece of work.

These are deep, serious songs although Chris leavens them with humour. The opener, ‘The Arrows And The Armour’, is a witty love song decorated by Jamie Francis’ banjo and Katie Stevens’ flute and I guarantee that by the end the song you’ll be hooked. ‘Scarlet Letter’ is a reworking of the first part of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel and the thing is that Chris doesn’t make Hester Prynne sound terribly sorry for her action.

‘I Can’t Take It’ is an odd meditation on the effect that events have on shaping our personalities and then comes the title track. It feels vaguely Orwellian and it might help if you’ve watched Mr Robot, which I haven’t. Like ‘I Can’t Take It’, it uses health care as a metaphor and Chris is right: we have sat back and watched it unfold and look at the mess we’re in. ‘A Voice For Those Who Don’t Have One’ considers mental health in a way that is very simple to relate to and by the end it has crept up on you. I confess that it brought a tear to my eye. It leads smoothly into ‘Happy And Proud’, a song about gender identity and ‘The Ones Like Ourselves’ which is…well…a song for people who don’t really fit in. I can relate to that.

Chris takes a side-step into history with ‘Madame Moonshine’. I’m still trying to decide if it’s about what he says it’s about or something other. Victorian perversity lives in the song – even reading the words leads you into a Dickensian world – and the strangeness of the music can bring on a shudder. The co-write, ‘The Low Light Low’ is based melodically on ‘The Golden Vanity’ but only just and lyrically it’s completely different.  At this point I’d pretty much decided that Chris Cleverley was living up to his name and playing mind games with his listeners by writing a song about something and then feeding us a line.

Musically, We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold is a weighty album. I should mention Evan Carson and Lukas Drinkwater on percussion and bass, Graham Coe on cello and Marion Fleetwood and Hannah Martin on violins and viola who worked to produce this wall of sound. Some of songs I’ll need to puzzle out a bit more but the music makes them very easy to listen to. Unless several truly astonishing things turn up before December this will be one of my albums of the year.

Dai Jeffries

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

‘In A Dreamlike State’:

HONEY AND THE BEAR – Made In The Aker (own label)

Made In The AkerBased on a ridiculously small sample, I’m beginning to detect a trend for small groups of players making big music overlaid with powerful vocals. If I’m right then Made In The Aker, the debut album by Honey And The Bear, is right on the money. Honey And The Bear are multi-instrumental/vocal/songwriting duo Lucy and Jon Hart. They have waited a while to record this album and their patience shows in the quality of their work.

Lucy and Jon live on the Suffolk coast – aker is Suffolk for turbulent current, if you were wondering – and many of their songs are inspired by their surroundings and local legends. The opener, ‘Dark Heart’, is the story of a girl who cut her heart out in despair for her missing lover and whose ghost is said to haunt Dunwich beach. More prosaically, ‘The Ferry’ is a tribute to the two families who have operated the Southwold to Walberswick ferry for generations. Even when writing in less specific terms they start by drawing on their locality so ‘Sailor’s Daughter’, about breaking free of society’s shackles, starts with an imagined girl, presumably from one of the coastal villages.

It’s back to a local story for ‘Margaret Catchpole’, who was transported to Australia for stealing a horse but ‘Springtime Girl’ was inspired by Lucy’s grandparents, in particular her grandfather who planted his wife’s name in daffodils in their meadow. Other songs were inspired by a Cuban coffee plantation, a tree house and Sir Christopher Cockerell who is rumoured to have tested his hovercraft prototype on Oulton Broad.

Principal among the small group of musicians supporting Lucy and Jon is Toby Shaer, who plays on every track, Evan Carson who provides all the drums and percussion and Graham Coe whose cello underpins eight of the eleven tracks. There are cameos from Archie Churchiill-Moss and Ciaran Algar and, of course, Lucy and Jon play eight instruments. It is their combined vocals, however, that make the album what it is and what it is is a very accomplished debut.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: https://honeyandthebear.co.uk/

‘Dark Heart’ – live:

EVAN CARSON – Ocipinski (Evan Carson Music – ECMCD001)

OcipinskiOcipinski is percussionist Evan Carson’s first solo album inspired by Jerzy Ocipinski and the Polish Resistance Movements of the Second World War. Why this subject matter you ask? It just so happens that Jerzy Ocipinski was Evan’s grandfather.

The album has taken somewhat longer to complete that originally planned, but as we all know Evan is a busy man recording and/or performing with The Willows, Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys, Carousel and more recently The Tweed Project, to name just a few. It was also recorded in places as far afield as the UK, Russia, Iceland and Australia so it was somewhat logistically challenging.

The music was co-written by Evan and Gleb Kolyadin, who also plays piano on the album masterfully. The lyrics are credited to Evan, Georgia Lewis, Jim Grey and Hannah Sanders who also provide their highly impressive vocal talents along with Evan himself and Ben Savage. Other musicians involved are Karl James Pestka (violin & viola), Graham Coe (cello), Toby Shaer (flutes), Chris Heales (electric guitars and bass), Josh Franklin (bass and synths), Chris Cawood (acoustic guitar and bass) and Archie Churchill Moss (melodian). You are probably already getting the feeling this is something you have to listen to.

The way the album flows is like a prog folk version of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, albeit shorter and without all the psychedelic imagery. Four of the seven tracks are over six minutes long and all are filled with intricate percussion, piano and vocals. The album is obviously percussion driven and those of you who have seen Evan with any of his bands will know he is not one to stick with a standard drum kit and 4/4 beat.

‘Sky’, the opening track is the shortest on the album and it creeps up on you like an instrumental dawn, it builds gently and then leads into ‘Shards’ (for me the best track on the album) with it’s syncopated drum beat and frenetic piano and wonderful lead vocals from Georgia (someone I must find out more about). This leads into ‘Chrysalis’ with more haunting vocal which has an Eastern feel to it.

‘Otriad’ starts with more great piano from Gleb, features Evan/Jim on lead vocal and has the strings from Karl and flutes from Toby which come to the fore in a middle instrumental section. ‘Bloodlines’ starts slower, but then there is more of that driving percussion with Hannah on lead vocals and Ben’s warming backing vocals. This leads into ‘The Fireflies Of Falaise’ which is mainly instrumental with a multi-vocal chant to take it to the end. The final track ‘Anders Prayer’, has an industrial feel to it with Georgia again on lead vocal and it closes out the album in fine fashion.

This is a truly original piece of work brilliantly produced by Joshua Franklin, which I encourage you to take 43 minutes out of your day to sit down and listen to from start to finish. If you’re at the more open-minded end of the folk world, you will thoroughly enjoy the experience.

Duncan Chappell

Artist’s website: www.evancarsondrums.com

‘Shards’ – in rehearsal:

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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‘Lakeland Heart’:

THE WILLOWS – Through The Wild (Elk Elk014)

Through The WildA sort of folk supergroup that sees singer Jade Rhiannon Ward and multi-instrumentalist husband Cliff joined by Ben Savage on Dobro, percussionist Evan Carson from Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys and, new to the line-up, Katriona Gilmore on fiddle and mandolin and double bass player John Parker, this belated follow-up to 2014’s Amidst Fiery Skies finds the Cambridge-based sextet ranging across genres that span English folk, Americana and bluegrass with a sound that, at times conjures an English Clanaad. That is not the case, however, with full-blooded folk rock album opener ‘Coda’, which, like all but one number, is penned by the band. A number that deals with mortality and loss, it’s echoed in the softer, more reflective and melancholic breathily-sung ‘Better Days’ where, mottled by banjo, grief gives way to hope.

The sole non-original comes with an clopping percussion arrangement of the traditional ‘True Lover’s Ferry’, a song of love on London’s waterways learned from the singing of Peter Bellamy. Gilmore and Carson provide the backbone with Ward’s banjo also prominent for ‘Perfect Crime/Ernest Durham’s’, another musically muscular number, which draws on the true story of Percy Cox, a soldier from the Fens in the First World War who, to get a higher age, stole the identity of Ernest Durham, an Australian soldier who lends his name to the second half instrumental.

A song about the healing power of love, the evocative fiddle and banjo coloured ‘Honest Man’ musically heads out to the Appalachians before they turn to Canada for ‘Pearl Hart, Savage taking on electric guitar and Carson laying down the skittering percussive bedrock on a song that recounts the true story of the 19th century Canadian who gave up robbing stagecoaches to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

War rears its head again with ‘Out Of Our Hands’, a rueful acoustic guitar accompanying Ward on a song which, briefly swelling towards the end, was inspired by her reading of A Memory of Solferino, Henry Dunant’s 1862 book about the battle of Solferino in 1859 between Napoleon’s forces and the Austrian army, the suffering of the soldiers and the lack of aid, and which led to the founding of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions.

The English landscape serves as inspiration for two numbers, the first being ‘False Light’, pizzicato mandolin and fiddle gradually building to a big production number about the lights people imaged they saw over the fenland marshes, luring them to their deaths. It’s followed by ‘Gog Magog’, a jazzy, airy, puttering percussive rhythm number that, inspired by the eponymous chalk hills of Cambridgeshire and the mythical pagan giants (also to be found in the Bible and Cornish legend) who walked them, again treats on loss through conflict.

It ends on a personal note with the spare six-minute traditional flavoured, fiddle-coloured slow waltz ballad ‘Dear Lilly’ being dedicated to Jade’s great aunt, her courtship, marriage, miscarriage and subsequent nursing of her dying husband , going on to live for over a century, a fitting uplifting conclusion to an album that welcomes the band back in magnificent style.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.thewillowsband.co.uk

‘False Light’ – official video: