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’:

EDGELARKS – Feather (Dragonfly Roots DRCD006)

FeatherThe fifth album by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, but Feather is only the second under their new name Edgelarks, this had the formidable task of following upon their eponymous ‘debut’. As you would expect, it does so effortlessly, expanding their musical palette as it goes and showcasing Martin’s ever maturing voice. The discovery of a single feather in the middle of a Dartmoor stone provided the impetus for the opening banjo-driven title track, the inability to identify its origin serving to underscore the notion that there remains mystery in the world and the album’s proclaimed mission to bring hope and positivity in dark times.

Ancient stones also lie behind ‘Where I Stand’, specifically the Roborough Down stone, one of the many Ogham stones which bear writing in the Irish runic alphabet, the lyrics reflecting the fact that this particular stone carries the inscription of two names, a father and his son who, as second generation no longer considered Irish as his native tongue. It’s not hard to see the wider resonance of embracing new cultures while honouring the old.

With Hannah on fiddle and Phillip augmenting guitar with stomp box, ‘Back From Hope’ is a breezy duet about a husband and wife who spent their Sundays walking the Peak District (Hope being a Derbyshire village), although the song has its origins in the true tragedy of John Axon, a Stockport railwayman killed while trying to stop a runaway freight train his story recounted in MacColl and Seeger’s Radio Ballads where his wife recalls their hikes.

Featuring dobro and banjo, ‘Wanting Nothing’ addresses a theme of contentment with just a home away from the bustle and a fire to warm, while National and tenor guitar lay down a slow-paced melody for ‘What We Save From The Tide’ where the beachcombing the flotsam and jetsam serves as a metaphor for the creative process.

The duo switch instruments with Phillip on banjo and Hannah on guitar for ‘Oyster’, another song of promise and hope that draws on nature (the poem referencing Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is The Thing With Feathers) in the idea of the mollusc spinning beauty out of pain., the six-minute track building to a frenetic mantra-like climax.

Fiddle shares space with stomp and shruti box for ‘Time Away’, a lazing, slowly loping celebration of the rejuvenating power of taking time off for a holiday, the pair delving into real life with ‘Growing’, dobro and banjo creating the dreamy atmosphere as, based on a true story from Sweden, the clearly metaphorical lyrics recount the loss and, sixteen years later, the recovery of a wedding ring, here wrapped around an unearthed carrot.

They head into the final stretch with the rhythmically itchy and melodically shape-shifting ‘Wander’, Henry’s buzzing beatbox harmonica putting in its only appearance alongside pizzicato five-string fiddle, shruti and stomp box for a song that (with a hint of Celtic folk to its swaying chorus) is essentially about migration and the definition of home as the place where you put down roots not where you come from.

The album’s sole traditional number comes with a six-minute rendition of Spencer The Rover, stripped back to the bare bones of harmonica, shruti drone and Martin’s exposed vocals, the final number being ‘The Longest Day’, plucked fiddle and National steel solo colouring a song of change and renewal inspired by the turning of the year, solstices, equinoxes and, the song building from calm to a swelling anthemic feel on Martin’s soaring fiddle, traditions like the May Day dancing the sun up on Dartmoor and a reminder that “the day is long and full of hope/And the circle turns forever”.

They describe their intention as to create an album of “bright songs for dark days”. Let it light up your life.

Mike Davies

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‘Feather’ – live:

EDGELARKS – Edgelarks (Dragonfly DRCD004)

EdgelarksHaving previously traded under their own names, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin have decided to save space on the album sleeves (well, after this one anyway) by reinventing themselves as Edgelarks. Fans will be pleased to know, however, that, musically, the duo haven’t rung too many changes.

Featuring contributions from Lukas Drinkwater on bass, John Elliott on drums and keyboards and table player Niall Robinson, inspired by last year’s tour of Australia, the album deals with themes of margins and marginalisation, of boundaries, transition and hope, opening in ‘Landlocked’, a moody, banjo-pinioned song about Nancy Perriam, a woman from Exmouth, who, in the early part of the 19th century, went to sea and travelled the world with the navy.

The slouching rhythm of ‘No Victory’ introduces a new instrument to their musical repertoire with Martin playing a pedal powered shruti box while the track also features Henry’s beatbox harmonica technique. Indeed, the instrumentation throughout is as eclectic as it is extensive, featuring Dobro, fiddle, banjo, a variety of guitars and the return of the Chaturangui, an Indian classical slide guitar played by Henry. On ‘Undelivered’, a song inspired by the discovery of a trunkload of undelivered 17th century letters, specifically one from a woman to the father of her unborn child, he even plays his lap slide Weissenborn with a paintbrush to create a buzzing drone.

Of a more recent origin, three intersecting true stories make up the sparse, drone-backed ‘Caravans’, pivoting around the 2010 sub-prime mortgages crash documented in the film The Big Short and exploring themes of ensuing loss and lives lived outside the financial vortex where dreams can kill.

Elsewhere, the Celtic-tinged ‘Signposts’, the most traditional folk sounding number, and the minimalist and appropriately glacial arrangement of ‘Iceberg’ offer fairly straightforward metaphors about making connections and people having hidden depths, respectively.

A suitably discordant affair, ‘Yarl’s Wood’ strikes a political note, being titled after and written about the Bedfordshire immigrant removal centre and the allegations of the abusive treatment of the women detainees, the theme of refugees resurfacing on ‘Borders’, which, set to drone and clacking percussion, is based around the true story of Afghan refugees who, seeking to ensure her future, send their five-year-old daughter on a journey, on foot, with two cousins to northern Europe in search of asylum.

Thematically connected, the tabla-dappled ‘Song Of The Jay’, ostensibly about how the Californian Bush Jay apparently sings a special song for the ‘funerals’ of other birds, of different species, serves as a metaphor for universal kinship. The drone is also created from a sample of a Jay singing.

Although also going by the title ‘The Emigrants Song’, sung in Cornish by Martin, the rhythmically pulsing traditional ‘Estren’ takes a different tack in the tale of an American traveller in Cornwall, leaving it open to question whether he intends to be true to the woman he meets and declares he’ll take back home or that she’s the latest in the list of those to whom he’s pledged s his loves.

There’s another traditional number to be found with the mortality-themed ‘What’s The Life of Man?’ given a suitably simple and reflective tone before the instrumentation swells in the final stretch. As well as them both featuring the Chaturangui, it also serves to set the scene for the upbeat final track, the self-penned, acoustic accompanied ‘The Good Earth’ which treats on nature’s life cycle of death and renewal and, by extension, the connections we share with one another, both those around us and those who have gone before as she sings how “we grow on old wood, we are links in the chain.”

The couple say they chose their new name as it captures the concept of liminality or transition explored in their songs and the idea of their music being on the periphery. Given the quality here, that may be a status that will also prove to be in a state of transition.

Mike Davies

Phil Henry and Hannah Martin 24/9/17a

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‘Song Of The Jay’:

Edgelarks – Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin – New Album and Remaining Tour Dates

Edgelarks

We were recently treated to the hatching of Edgelarks (the new name for duo Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin) at the Southdowns Folk Festival in Bognor Regis last Sunday evening. The name change also spearheads the launch of the new album by the same name that is released 6.10.17.

The definition of Edgelark is “to sing about or from the margins”.

So its no surprise that the album focus on transitional spaces, minimal places, people, refugees and times. It looks at boundaries and thresholds; crossroads and borderlands.  There is a travelling theme that runs through the new album which spans stories of transition from old to new, all documented in song and wonderful music to a backdrop of shades of early morning light contrasted with the last ebb of light at the end of the day.

Darren Beech

Edgelarks describe this further as:

The idea that, despite often being places of marginalisation, these are also places of change – and therefore places of hope. That when social norms break down, when you are between two established worlds, there is a chance for new perspectives. That in the end, we have far more in common than things that divide us.

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Artist Web links:

www.edgelarks.co.uk

SHAKE THE CHAINS – Shake The Chains (Quercus Records QRCD003)

Shake The ChainsEven supposing you knew nothing about this album, a quick glance down the track listing would instantly identify Shake The Chains as a politically conscious project. A new generation of protest songs sit comfortably alongside some old standards.

Despite Edwyn Collins’ complaint in ‘A Girl Like Youabout “too many protest singers, not enough protest songs”, it can sometimes be hard to imagine what it would take, in these trying times, to generate enough protest to effect real change. But here is a delightful set of songs, nonetheless.

Hannah Martin contributes songs of poetic allegory and metaphor. ‘Yarl’s Wood’ evokes the horror of a refugee ending up in a detention centre. The refugee’s flight, “the choice that is no choice” is starkly laid out and overwhelmingly powerful. ‘Song Of The Jay’ uses certain bird behaviours to draw unflattering parallels with some human ones. Similar, but viewed from another angle, is Tim Yates’s song ‘Side By Side’ which delivers a darkly moody lament on social division.

Nancy Kerr delivers a brilliantly tender pairing of poems about Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed under Pinochet’s regime. This lengthy piece allows the purity of the art form simply to shine.

Naturally, these serious subjects deserve gravity, but there is room for humour, too. Greg Russell’s country-flavoured ‘Bunch Next Door’ is a domestic scale witty deconstruction of political villains, while ‘Ding Dong Dollar’ has a drily sardonic air of resignation.

By contrast, Findlay Napier’s songs are much harder-hitting, with a raw passion. ‘Building Ships’ is a poignant song about his father’s experience of the death of that industry. The album’s title track – as well as a rallying call to action – ‘Shake The Chains’ is punchy, feisty and totally heartfelt. Its central chorus is adapted from Shelley’s poem Masque Of Anarchy, about the Peterloo massacre in Manchester, and a much-quoted work of those standing up for the poor and oppressed.

Of the stalwarts, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ has a simplicity, sincerity and even an undercurrent of anger. Likewise ‘We Shall Overcome’ – stripped back, sung a capella (with delicious harmonies) is revealed afresh as a sorrowful yet hopeful anthem.

The live recording gives an immediacy to the songs: the joy of hearing an audience respond suits the nature of the works. It provides a confirmation bias, a reassurance that the listener is not alone, as well as a desperately necessary response to the current madness in the world.

Whilst we can see how much we’ve moved on from the treatment of Alan Turing, as detailed in Kerr’s touching ‘Poison Apples’, it’s also a reminder against complacency. Rights hard-won may be all too insidiously and easily eroded.

It’s a hard album to review without clambering onto the soapbox, so tightly enmeshed are subject and medium. It is a superb album in its own right, with strong songs, gorgeously arranged and performed. It is also deeply moving: keep the tissues handy, there will definitely be something in your eye. Now, get out there and change something.

Su O’Brien

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‘If I Had A Hammer’ – live:

Nancy Kerr And The Sweet Visitor Band live at the West End Centre, Aldershot

Nancy Kerr
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

The first time I heard Nancy Kerr play she was sitting primly on stage alongside Eliza Carthy. How things have changed: now she’s front and centre, mistress of her stage with a superb band behind her. The Sweet Visitor Band is a fluid entity. With James Fagan at home on child care duty Greg Russell took the lead guitar role and, this being the last gig of the tour, Hannah Martin stepped in for the very busy Rowan Rheingans – what a super-sub she is. Tom Wright on drums, guitar and pedal steel and Tim Yates on double bass remain in place. In most bands you might call them the engine room but they are much more that.

This tour was to promote Nancy’s new album, Instar, a complex work and Nancy did acknowledge that it was good of us to turn out to hear what was essentially a bunch of new songs. They opened with ‘Farewell Stony Ground’ from the new album, the story of a man who set up a car park on a piece of waste ground and took the public’s money for fifteen years. An urban myth? Can we be sure? The song is a perfect slice of English folk-rock in contrast to the title track which starts with a jazzy feel from the drums.

The band is remarkably flexible. At quiet points, the harmonies of Nancy and Hannah dominated minimal accompaniment; in full-on mode with five voices together and every else going full blast, comparisons with the folk-rock bands of the early seventies are inevitable.

Highlights – I looked at my notes and thought ‘that was good, so was that…’ but ‘Fragile Water’ with Hannah on banjo stands out as does the chugging rhythm of ‘Light Rolls Home’, a song written about Nancy’s end of Sheffield. They closed the first set with their Christmas single, ‘Gingerbread’, not the happiest song as Nancy conceded but it has a hummable tune if you don’t concentrate too hard on the words. The other side, ‘It Was Red’, was the first encore. ‘Kingdom’, which opened the second set, was one of several songs written for Sweet Liberties which appear in new clothes on Instar and is another storming almost-rocker.

It was an excellent show: powerful, thought-provoking, sometimes angry sometimes tender and I do have to give a cheer for the Westy which continues to book the best of folk music acts. It’s great to have such a venue a couple of miles from our front door.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://nancykerr.co.uk/
Venue website: http://hampshireculturaltrust.org.uk/west-end-centre