SALT HOUSE – Undersong (Make Believe MBR7CD)

UndersongThere have been changes in the Salt House with Jenny Sturgeon joining Ewan MacPherson and Lauren MacColl and having a big impact as songwriter and lead vocalist alongside Ewan. What hasn’t changed is their use of literature as well as traditional sources to inspire their music. Undersong is only their second album, five years on from their debut, but it has been worth the wait.

There are no guest musicians on Undersong and there really is no need for them with everyone playing at least instruments and my criticism of Lay Your Dark Low that some of the vocals weren’t strong enough has been dealt with. There is a lightness and openness in the music which makes this album very good listening. The opener, Jenny’s ‘Old Shoes’, is a perfect example. Starting with just voice and dancing guitar – I’m not sure if that’s Ewan or Jenny – it slowly builds up with Lauren’s strings and the addition of the other voices. ‘Turn Ye To Me’ comes from a 19th century collection with words by John Wilson but Jenny’s music makes it sound very modern and they repeat the technique with ‘The Sisters’ Revenge’ a gorgeous song which I was convinced was an original written in the traditional idiom. Half right: the words are traditional but the tune is Ewan’s.

‘Lay Your Dark Low’ wasn’t on the album with that title and I can’t say when Ewan wrote it but it is another stunning song. Jenny’s ‘Charmer’ presages Lauren’s setting of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ and we’re back to the tradition with ‘I Sowed Some Seeds’ albeit somewhat adapted by Ewan. The title track which closes the album was written by all three band members and lives up to its name having a double meaning.

Undersong is a very fine album and comes highly recommended.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Old Shoes’ – official video:

Salt House announce their new album

Salt House

Five years on from their debut, which announced a major new force on the scene, Scottish band Salt House release their new album Undersong. Produced by folk heavyweight Andy Bell (Martin Simpson, Songs of Separation, Jon Boden, Furrow Collective), the album instills a special sense of place, recorded in a restored Telford Church on the island of Berneray, Outer Hebrides.

Whether it’s setting old words to new melodies, re-working ancient ballads or writing their own – Salt House marry all their musical strands with a deep understanding for the British song tradition and an empathy for a story. Recent recruit, singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon joins multi-instrumentalist and songsmith Ewan MacPherson and violist and fiddler Lauren MacColl to weave stories of landscape, place and time.

The Telford church used to record the music was featured in Channel 4’s Restoration Man and is a special, hugely creative space, in a location which marries perfectly with the band’s love of the islands, the outdoors and of nature. Salt House are based in the Highlands and Northern Isles and the music for Undersong was created over the past year between the Cairngorms and rural Aberdeenshire.

The ten songs on the album include new settings of poetry, a reworking of a Scandinavian ballad, and six new songs from Jenny and Ewan’s own writing. The band deliver and arrange their material with an honesty and respect to the story, the words, and their lineage, whilst continuing to forge their own sound.

Artists’ website:

‘Old Shoes’ from the album Undersong:

EWAN MACPHERSON – Fetch (Shooglenifty SHOOGLE16017)

fetchWhen I was asked to review the latest CD to be released by Ewan MacPherson, I was surprised to find that it was entirely instrumental works composed by himself, with the exception of three tunes. The CD, titled Fetch, comprises of thirteen tracks which last a total of 59 minutes. Eight of the tracks are five minutes or more long. These are not typical dance tunes or repetitive melodies. Each track is a composition with several parts to it.

To complement his obvious musical abilities on guitar and mandolin, to name a few, Ewan has brought in another eleven top line musicians who feature in different formats throughout the CD. It is not just a rammy with everybody playing along at once. The musicians have been carefully chosen to complement specific tracks. There is only one track which features Ewan alone and that is track 4, ‘Cherry Tree Reel/Dogs Got An Itchy Nose’. I asked him where that came from and he explained “Well, my dog’s got an itchy nose…simple!

You can’t argue with that.

When reviewing or listening to a song there are words to explain the song. An instrumental piece does not have that and it is often advantageous to speak to the composer to establish the reason that they have put each piece together. If I have to find a criticism, it has to be that the sleeve notes are insufficient. Having listened several times to Fetch, I felt I needed to understand each piece better so I contacted Ewan direct and asked him for his thought process behind each number. This he gave me and I listened again but with more understanding of what he was ‘saying’ in his music.

I despair at many recent instrumental releases that I have heard because so many artistes feel it essential to ‘impress’ by playing at breakneck speed or introducing loud drumming or loud bagpipes etc. Not this CD. It is all played at a very sensitive timing and volume level with great feeling. The chosen musicians are all extremely capable and sensitive to Ewan’s compositions. Ewan MacPherson took total charge of the recording and produced it himself in Scotland and Norway

I don’t know what Ewan MacPherson’s fans will think of this CD. Would they have preferred a song or two? Are they happy to listen to an hour of instrumental music? There is no doubt that it is a very good CD and instrumentally, it is excellent. I might suggest that rather than title it Ewan MacPherson…Fetch, I would have highlighted the writing skills of the man. ‘The Music of Ewan MacPherson with friends’ or something along those lines. He is a very talented composer and this CD is proof of that.

Whatever, I have enjoyed listening to this CD and it covers Ewan’s intention as he describes it on the back of the cover as “A collection of new instrumental folk music” which allows him to “re-connect with some friends from along the way…”.

Fraser Bruce

Artist’s website:

Ewan MacPherson & Friends – Fetch:

Ewan MacPherson announces solo album

Ewan MacPherson fetch

“Over the last 20 years I have been lucky enough to play with a wide range of folk musicians from all over the world, but especially Europe. It has been an inspiring journey learning from some of the finest players in a variety of culturally rich countries.

From the Celtic and Anglo Nations across to Scandinavia, my musical travels have led me to write this collection of tunes reflecting those experiences.

I am not from a family of tradition bearers, but my forebears hail from all over the British Isles and music is in my bones. I have a genuine love for it, along with a mongrel’s freedom which allows me to jump headlong into new cultures and get involved, learning many of the nuances in traditional styles from the generous musicians I have met.

Fetch is the culmination of all those experiences, with a few good friends from along the way, each one of them a respected musician in their own right. This is also a way to say thanks and perhaps a chance to give something back. In these uncertain times it feels good to be part of such a vibrant culture so full of bright energy.

This has been a very hands-on project, I wrote 95% of the music on this album, produced and recorded in Scotland and Norway, designed the cover art and booked the tour.”

Ewan MacPherson has been working in the music industry for 20 years. As a multi-instrumentalist he is a recognised figure on the vibrant Scottish music scene and as such was nominated for Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2014 MG Alba Trad Music Awards.

He is a founder member of three acclaimed bands (Fribo, Salt House and RoughCoastAudio) and has taken stages around the world with a wide range of traditional and contemporary folk/roots artists.

Ewan’s music has taken him as far as India, Malaysia, Canada, America, Australia and throughout Europe, in addition to his own projects he is currently a member of renowned acid-croft band Shooglenifty and tours with Patsy Reid. Ewan has also worked with many prominent artists including: Afro-Celt Sound-system, Alan Kelly Gang, Alasdair White, The Battlefield Band, Bella Hardy, Breabach, Bruce MacGregor, Burach, Chloe Matharu, Chris & Thomas, Claire Mann, Daimh, Dannsa, Emily Smith, Ewan Robertson, Fine Friday, Gillie Mackenzie, Gillebride MacMillan, Hannah Read, Inge Thompson, Jeana Leslie & Siobhan Miller, Kongero, Lori Watson, Maeve Mackinnon, Mairi Campbell, Malinky, Nuala Kennedy, Ranarim, Shooglenifty, Salsa Celtica and The Treacherous Orchestra.

A skilled multi instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter and producer Ewan released an album of self-penned songs in 2008 (which included a collaboration with Vashti Bunyan) many of which have been covered by other leading artists including Breabach, Patsy Reid and Siobhan Miller. He produced Gillie Mackenzie’s debut solo album in 2011.

Artist’s website:

‘Brutus The Husky/MacColl’s’ – the opening track from Fetch:


Kaela Rowan announces second solo album

Kaela Rowan

Kaela Rowan’s second album returns to her roots in the Scottish Highlands, to the songs she learned as a young session singer, and to the sounds of those who inspired her. The Fruited Thorn contains 11 traditional ballads, ancient and modern, coalescing into a work of raw and powerful beauty.

Kaela co-produced the album with James Mackintosh, best known as the innovative percussionist driving the irresistible grooves behind Acid Croft pioneers Shooglenifty and Transatlantic Sessions. And together with third band member Ewan MacPherson (Shooglenifty, Salt House), they have amassed a dream team of guest musicians, all carefully chosen for their unique musical voice.

 “This album is really a homage to all the amazing ballads and ballad singers past and present. Those great singers who bring songs to life and helped awaken the young singer in me. No matter how often I sing these songs, they move me with their universal and timeless beauty. Sheila Stewart said, ‘You search and you find your soul and you put that into the singing’ – I think that is what makes a good storyteller.

“Part of the story involves several journeys to Rajasthan. James Mackintosh and I were first invited to perform at Jodhpur Riff in 2012 and have been back very year since. Two of the songs ( Eilean Fhianain and Grioghal Cridhe) are the result of out collaborations with the amazing Rajasthani singer Dayam Khan Manganiyar.

“In every one of these ballads, there is a mesmerising age-old story, as relevant today as the day it was written. These songs connect us to those before us and, in some moments, it’s as though time itself doesn’t exist.

“I am indebted to the uniquely talented instrumentalists who were so generous with their contributions to the album, not least my band mates James Mackintosh and Ewan MacPherson”. Kaela Rowan

Artist’s website:

‘Now Westlin Winds’ with James Mackintosh:

SHOOGLENIFTY – The Untied Knot (Shoogle SHOOGLE15015)

SHOOGLENIFTY TheUntiedKnotYou never know what you’ll get with Shooglenifty. Venus In Tweeds was one thing, Murmichan another and The Untied Knot is something else again. Lots of new somethings, in fact. Words for a start.

On the first play The Untied Knot felt rather dark and that begins with the cover art by John Byrne. I know that these people are dancing and supposedly having fun but look at them. The impression is reinforced by Quee MacArthur’s title track which opens the first set. The drums, although very quiet, sound as though they have been imported from another piece of music; not wrong exactly, just unsettling. They fade still further before Garry Finlayson’s banjo opens the second part of the medley and then come back as straightforward as you please.

With the departure of Luke Plumb, who has returned home to Australia, new boy Ewan MacPherson has shouldered his share of tune-writing responsibility including the all-purpose march ‘Somebody’s Welcome To Somewhere’ and ‘Samhla Reel/Scolpaig’. Plumb left the band with two new tunes, ‘The Highway Carpark’ and ‘The Arms Of Sleep’ – although if I had a night such as the one he depicts I’d be seriously worried.

The big innovation is the input of Gaelic singer Kaela Rowan mixing old and new songs and some stunning puirt a beul while Shooglenifty travel the world. The prime example is ‘The High Road To Jodpur/Am Bothan A Bh’aig Fionnghuala’ which mixes mouth music and a decidedly sub-continental melody. Finally ‘Fitzroy Crossing’ is a dreamy Australia-inspired piece by Angus R Grant to calm everything down.

Once again Shooglenifty have done something different and made a remarkable new album.

Dai Jeffries

‘Someone’s Welcome To Somewhere’ live, featuring Ross Ainslie: