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:

KITTY MACFARLANE – Namer Of Clouds (Navigator Records, NAVIGATOR104)

Namer Of CloudsGiven the praise heaped on Kitty Macfarlane’s 2016 EP, Tide & Time, expectations are understandably high for her first full-length album release, Namer Of Clouds.

Macfarlane’s light soprano, paired with an equally light-fingered plucky guitar, nonetheless contains a filament of controlled determination. Softness and steel are never far apart, even in the delightful gentle lullaby of ‘Dawn And Dark’.

Macfarlane’s strong poetic sensibility is evident from the CD booklet: song lyrics rarely read well but here they hold their own, even against Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, ‘Inversnaid’. Her songs often pull focus in a graceful shift from particular to abstract, like ‘Namer Of Clouds’ where Luke Howard’s original cloud identification system forms the starting point for contemplating the human need to name – and thus own – the world. Jacob Stoney’s riffling keyboard and the dense, layered swell of the arrangement underscore the narrative movement.

‘Seventeen’ is a rites of passage song with an underlying chill, much like ‘Frozen Charlotte’, an Appalachian cautionary tale of the perils of not wearing your big coat. Its finale, stripping away the instrumentation, allows an intense intimacy to the vocal, an idea also used effectively in ‘Morgan’s Pantry’, whose softly pounding drum, gull calls and water sounds add atmosphere to Macfarlane’s softly rasping vocal.

‘Sea Silk’ tells of Chiara Vigo, keeper of an almost fairytale tradition of the spinning of brownish clam silk into a golden thread by the womenfolk of Sant’Antioco island, off Sardinia. There’s a real sense of joy and wonder in chronicling this disappearing skill, and a slightly manic glee at accomplishing the feat.

As mentioned before in these pages, there’s a real vogue at present for adding ambient natural recordings and Macfarlane’s no exception, right from opener ‘Starling Song’, loaded with birdsong over a lean, steely slick of guitars and percussion to the closing ‘Inversnaid’ with its celebration of ‘the weeds and the wilderness’.

Studio wizardry is generally skilfully and subtly deployed and arrangements are convincing, although a folk rock re-working of ‘Wrecking Days’ doesn’t feel entirely comfortable. A handful of Lost Boys lend their creative talents, with Graham Coe’s tender cello fleshing out the softly-spoken defiance of ‘Man, Friendship’ and Jamie Francis’s lithe, writhing guitar under the migrationary musings of ‘Glass Eel’.

Macfarlane’s debut certainly doesn’t disappoint: it’s an assured and confident album that delivers all that the EP promised, and more.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.kittymacfarlane.com

‘Man, Friendship’ – official video:

 

 

DOWALLY – Somewhere (own label, DW002)

SomewhereAre we there yet? Today’s destination is highland hamlet Dowally – or rather, the immensely talented Scottish trio of that name, who decided to call their second album Somewhere. Alongside their first album, Welcome To Scotland, it does suggest the musician’s itinerant life, that standing wave of maps, road signs and satnavs. Somewhere also suits the geographically fluid nature of the band’s music which weaves elements of traditional, jazz, Klezmer and classical into a luscious, glowing soundcloth.

Dowally was invited to record its first album by cellist and creative wizard Graham Coe (The Jellyman’s Daughter, Sam Kelly band). A fairly off-the-cuff affair, it led to a more planned approach for Somewhere, with Dan Abrahams (guitar/double bass) and Rachel Walker (fiddle/whistle) writing most of the material. Phil Alexander (accordion/piano) completes the Dowally triumvirate, and Coe’s cello makes a welcome return appearance on three tracks.

Opening with ‘Sunday Brunch’, as laid-back as its title indicates, the music displays inventive turns of rhythm and fluid changes of pace. As is typical for this album, instruments riff around the melody, dancing away and back again. It’s a playful approach that can only be rendered well by seriously good musicianship.

A surprising cover of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ is mashed up with fiddle tune ‘The Banshee’. It’s intriguing and striking, especially in the final section where two differently paced vocal lines plus fiddle gather together to a shuddering, implosive halt. Dominic Blaikie’s strong, flexible vocals feature here and on a cover of Lennon/McCartney’s ‘And I Love Her’. This is a most extraordinary, dark rendition, as the vocals dip and soar, almost menacingly, across Alexander’s improvised reel fill and a poignant fiddle.

This album is simply packed with inspired, original moments as the band sweeps the listener along with logical yet unexpected musical progressions. Tunes writhe and twist from one mood to another, musical genres flicker and move on. A slow dance between guitar and accordion gets interrupted by an urgent, insistent fiddle in ‘Veruda’; ‘Be Mine Or One’ courses jazzy peaks and valleys, and the Klezmer of ‘Castellation’ invokes something moodier and darker.

A brusque accordion punctuates fiddle and guitar on ‘St Vincent’s’, developing into a into lush piano, as the whole bends up to its finale. ‘Chris And Emily’s’ loose, bluesy guitar intro to is picked up with superbly curling, intricate banjo, courtesy of Dallahan’s Ciaran Ryan.

Culminating in ‘Port Inn Hornpipe’, a fine display of how this band creates an auditory feast, a jaunty air gets lightly dusted with chilled out jazz until it’s abruptly interrupted by frenetic banjo, dashing piano and accordion. Returning briefly to the central theme, now embellished with bar room piano and vocalising, a last banjo flourish whisks it away for good. Unlikely on the page, perhaps, but fantastically good on the ears.

Produced with a confident, airy lightness that allows each instrument – and the spaces in between – the space to speak clearly and be heard, this album is a true listening pleasure.

So, are we there yet? Yup. Wherever Somewhere is, it’s pretty impressive. Definitely worth sticking around for a while to see where Dowally heads to next.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: www.dowally.com

‘Fluorescent Banshee’ – official video:

THE JELLYMAN’S DAUGHTER – Dead Reckoning (own label)

Dead ReckoningA gentle beginning with cello, voice and mandolin and then the strings flow into the musicscape. ‘Quiet Movie’ is a fine opener to the new album Dead Reckoning by that marvellous duo The Jellyman’s Daughter.

This new outing is chock-full of bitter sweet ballads, laments, lullabies and dancing tunes such as the second track ‘I Hope’, a foot-tapper with a deceptively quiet start and catchy chorus.

The chugging cello riffs that punctuated their previous album are less frequent here, but still make a welcome appearance now and then. The banjo is used judiciously and joyfully on a number of the songs and, indeed, takes centre stage on the instrumental ‘The Shoogly Peg’, giving it a southern swamp-music flavour.

Emily Kelly has a super voice and Graham Coe’s vocal ably compliments hers giving cohesion to the whole.

There is more of a flow to this collection than the previous album which probably stems from the familiarity of two artists at one with each other. This album is a real pleasure to listen to and seems to offer more to the listener with each subsequent visit. I recommend you avail yourself of a copy and settle down to some fine music by an accomplished duo.

Ron D Bowes

Artists’ website: https://www.thejellymansdaughter.com/

‘Dead Reckoning’ – live: