SMITH & McCLENNAN – Small Town Stories (White Fall Records)

Small Town StoriesSmith & McClennan’s Small Town Stories is a beautiful folk record of oxymoronic depth. It’s authentic folk music which oozes (heaven forbid!) with commercial appeal. It also blinks cleverly between the Scottish west country and Americana Appalachian roots.

Just like Richard Thompson’s ‘Great Valerio’, this album “dances through the air” on a razor-sharp tightrope of deep emotion. There’s such folky grace to this album. ‘Firefly’ is an acoustic rifle shot that embraces the rough world of “stone cold fingers clinging to a cardboard home” which ends with some sort of redemption. It’s just an idea, but humanity is always predicated on redemption. Not only that, but fireflies do, indeed, spark with weird electric hope in any dark night sky.

‘Sailin’s A Weary Life’ is a traditional tune with banjo prodding. Odd: when I was younger, I thought there was a huge chasm between a pint in a Scottish pub and my own Wisconsin bar. Now, with this song, I’m not that sure. And with age, I’ve come to drink folk music that’s brewed with universal hops.

The album is filled with lovely acoustic music. Jamie McClennan (who wrote all but two of the songs) sings the beginning lead on ‘Hummingbird’. Emily Smith adds a joint vocal, and each voice embraces the other in the tender tune that’s driven by a dramatic drum. ‘The Sweetest Girl’ dips and sways with a backing violin, and it echoes the charm of an early Nanci Griffith album like Poet In My Window. ‘Leaving’, too, is a dual voiced tight-walked wonder of a song with pathos to burn for “a hand I wouldn’t hold and a friend that won’t grow old”. Then, ‘Bricks And Mortar’ answers that pain with the softest pulse of a melody that just begs “for one last dance and an old house that keeps us safe in every storm’. It’s a beautiful tune that conjures recalled comfort.

And, once again, the song is equally potent, whether I raise an Old Chub Scottish Ale or a Wisconsin brewed New Glarus Cabin Fever Bock.

Now, in all fairness, this record doesn’t play the Scottish poker hand of the traditional (oft times including a Robert Burns’ tune) songbook. “For a’ that”, look to Fiona Hunter (of Malinky fame), Julie Fowlis, and Mairi MacInnes with their gorgeous records. But this album certainly spins in the same orbit as Karine Polwart’s Faultlines.

That said, ‘Long Way Down’ rocks a bit. Perhaps, it sounds like a Fleetwood Mac song, circa Rumours. That also said, Willow Macky’s ‘Better Than War’ is a quiet throwback to 60’s optimism. It’s a cliché that prefers ‘wisdom’ to “war’, but perhaps, really decent clichés may be all we have to keep the campfire burning.

The last two songs, ‘Wait For Me’ and ‘One More Day’, once again, toss a coin betwixt a Scotch beer and an American brew. And it’s a beautiful coin toss that sings with the soul of an always acoustic heart. You know, fellow Scot Jackie Leven once sang about “walking backwards in the snow”. These songs, too, touch and retreat from the weather of the world. They cup all the storms and sing to the safety of any final melodic harbour.

Wonderful folk albums are sort of a dime (and/or a 10p coin) a dozen these days. But Small Town Stories is worth the time. It’s ages old, and it’s ages young. And then it treads a tightrope with the balance of melody, harmony, and passion that will always keep the audience’s attention, because this music, indeed, “dances through the air.

Bill Golembeski

Artists’ website: https://smithandmcclennan.com/

‘Long Way Down’ – official video:

EMILY SMITH – Songs For Christmas (White Fall Records WFRCD015)

Songs For ChristmasThe clocks have gone back, the days are shortening, so it must be time to settle down and look towards the festive season. And what better to line up on the CD player than Scottish singer/songwriter Emily Smith’s unambiguously titled Songs For Christmas album? It’s a smart, quietly eclectic mix of songs with all-round appeal that should ensure it becomes a solid seasonal favourite for years to come. Whether it’s traditional Celtic airs, well-known hymns and songs, old spirituals or the kitsch of a pop song, there’s something here to suit nearly every taste.

Carol service favourites ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ are here stripped back with subtle arrangements. The latter in particular, is kept very intimate, intriguingly punctuated by a softly distant martial percussion. ‘Silent Night’ is softened out until it’s almost a waltzing, slightly jazz-tinged lullaby. In contrast, Michael Head’s carol ‘Little Road To Bethlehem’ rocks out in lively fashion, with a skittering fiddle accompaniment.

North American influences, traditional and modern, feature strongly on the album. ‘Heard From Heaven Today’ gives a pared-back Appalachian feel to this spiritual, and ‘The Blessings Of Mary’ is swept along by sinuous fiddle and snappy guitar. Coming more up to date are Mindy Smith’s maddeningly catchy and charming ‘Santa Will Find You’, and the album closer, ‘A Life That’s Good’ (from the Nashville TV series) is a fittingly count-your-blessings wrap-up.

Naturally, the album wouldn’t be complete without a couple of traditional Scottish songs. ‘Christ Has My Hairt, Ay’ is bright and clean whilst broadside ‘The Parting Glass’ (a favourite show closer of Smith’s) is kept poignant and bittersweet, not maudlin. There’s another fine Celtic touch with the inclusion of John Doyle’s ‘Merry Christmas To All And Goodnight’.

The two songs on the album written by Smith herself are absolute (Christmas) crackers. ‘Find Hope’ sets the album off on the right foot. All the essentials of a Christmas song are here, typical seasonal landmarks picked out against the real message of hope and joy, all reflected in wistful fiddle/viola cadences. Her other song on this album, ‘Winter Song’, is similarly well-crafted, lyrically and musically. Here are all the signs of winter drawing in, the sense of the natural world shutting down and waiting for those little signs that herald the coming of spring. We hunker down with mixed feelings, we “endure” the winter and wait for it to pass..

Each song is beautifully played and sung. Jamie McClennan (fiddle, guitar, vocals), Matheu Watson (guitars, vioa) and Ross Hamilton (bass, drums, vocals) provide tight, yet relaxed accompaniments that are sympathetic and harmonious. Smith’s gloriously smooth and clear vocals effortlessly crest the band’s delicate arrangements.

This is no big whoop-it-up party album, this is the one to put on in the quiet downtimes, those reflective moments spent thinking about family, friends and those who are absent. One for the end of the night, when you say goodbyes once more. Yes, it’s sentimental – but then this is the perfect time for a bit of sentiment. It’s also soothing and calming, full of gentle hope and optimism. And we could all do with some of that.
Su O’Brien

Artist’s website: http://www.emilysmith.org/

‘Heard From Heaven Today’:

Emily Smith announces Christmas album

Emily Smith

Multi-award winning Scottish folksinger Emily Smith has been a leading voice of the Scottish and UK folk scene for over a decade.  2016 sees the release of her sixth solo album Songs For Christmas. (Produced by Jamie McClennan & Brandon Bell)

Emily’s career began in 2002 when she became BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year.  Subsequent accolades include Scots Singer of the Year 2008 & 2014 and two nominations at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2012 (Folksinger of the Year & Best Traditional Track).

On Songs For Christmas Emily presents a beautifully crafted album of original and traditional material drawn from her folk background.  The material has been written and collected over the last few years in response to the popularity of her annual Christmas show held in Emily’s home region of Dumfries & Galloway.  The result is an album of songs that inspire, comfort and celebrate Christmas and the winter season.  Forgotten gems such as the ancient Scots ‘Christ Has My Hairt, Ay’ and soulful American ballad ‘Heard From Heaven Today’ feature alongside contemporary covers and favourite carols.  Smith’s songwriting also features two originals ‘Winter Song’ and the single ‘Find Hope’.

Joining Emily on Songs For Christmas are multi-instrumentalists Jamie McClennan (fiddle, guitar, vocals), Matheu Watson (guitars, viola) and Ross Hamilton (bass, drums, vocals).

Emily will be touring the UK throughout December. Full details at www.emilysmith.org

‘Heard From Heaven Today’:

THE JAMES BROTHERS – The James Brothers (Drover Records DROVCD001)

The James BrothersThe James Brothers aren’t brothers, of course. They are James Fagan and Jamie McClennan and nowhere near as mean as the look on the cover. James is Australian but it might be less well-known that Jamie was born in New Zealand – so it was just a matter of time before they got together to record some “Colonial Roots Music”.

A couple of the songs are familiar but the majority are gleaned from collections that will be familiar in the antipodes but unknown in the northern hemisphere. The opener, ‘Run Away Wilder’ comes from a book of poetry called Black Billy Tea – New Zealand Ballads by Joe Charles with a tune by Fagan and McClennan. Its subject is George Wilder, a very polite burglar still known to be around in 2009.

Another source is Shanties By The Way, a collection of New Zealand ballads. Some, like ‘The Voyage Of The Buffalo’ are definitely sea songs but ‘Shearing’s Coming Round’ is clearly a dry-land work song anticipating the muster of shearers. It was written by Irish émigré David McKee Wright around the turn of the 19th century and has the ring of authenticity. Bill Scott is another author and ballad collector whose work is liberated. His ‘Hey Rain’ is a typically spirited Australian reaction to the coming of the rainy season.

The best known songs here are Trevor Lucas’ ‘The Ballad Of Ned Kelly’, ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ written by Tim Finn in his Split Enz days and Michael O’Rourke’s melancholy ‘The Poison Train’, a meditation of the death of rural communities. The James Brothers have a freedom of spirit that we seem to associate with down under – or is that a cliché? Actually, I don’t mind if it is, this is a fine album.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.thejamesbrothers.co.uk

‘Hey Rain’ – live:

Q&A. Dai Jeffries talks to Emily Smith

Emily Smith’s fifth solo album, Echoes, will be released on 24th February followed by a spring tour. While we wait, what else has been going on?

It’s pretty much all about the new album. To start off we have three dates at Celtic Connections and because they are before the album is officially released we’ll be launching an EP with two tracks from the album and two even newer tracks that people can’t get anywhere else. We recorded that at the end of December but I have an eight month old baby boy and he’s taking up most of my time!

The new record is more traditional than Traiveller’s Joy which featured your own song-writing. What prompted that move, if move it is?

We started recording this album in November and December 2012 so it’s been a long time and I just had lots of traditional songs that kept popping into my head – songs that I’d forgotten about – and I was thinking ‘I want to do something with that’. I seemed that my heart was leaning towards making a more traditional album. Traiveller’s Joy and the two before that were a 50:50 split of traditional and newly-written songs – my songs or other people’s songs. I’d written a few songs but I’ve never written every week or every day or every month – if I feel like writing a song it comes and I move on. But when I was starting to think about Echoes I had lots of traditional songs coming to the surface but I didn’t want to follow the stereotypical template in terms of instruments and arrangements. I still wanted to do something new and fresh.

Indeed. The record has a very rich sound produced by relatively few, albeit very talented, musicians. Is that down to the production, the arrangements, the playing?

I think it’s all of those. Jamie [McClennan] and I always start together. I choose the songs and have a rough idea of where we want to go and we’ll work on it a bit and gradually bring in other people. The first person to be brought in on this album was Matheu Watson, who mainly plays guitar but also fiddle and whistle. We took a lot more time to rehearse this album before we went into the studio so we rehearsed a lot with Matheu and also Signy Jakobsdottir, who we’ve worked with for several years, and the bass player Ross Hamilton.

So that’s the core band and we spent a fair bit of time playing together, going through the songs and recording live together as much as we could. In previous years we’ve had to layer things. There is still a bit of that and obviously the folks who have recorded over in the States were added on but the groundwork was done altogether.

Does working through the material before recording make a significant difference?

I think it does. The first album I made was done with a band I’d gigged with quite a lot and that came together quite quickly. You take time to settle into it and it gave time to change things. If you book someone to come in and record on a particular day and then go away that’s the part they’ve laid down. If you’ve played together you’ve got the time to change and adapt and the songs really did change. At the start I was thinking that it was going to be a more stripped-back album – I love the way it’s turned out but it’s so funny to think back to how I thought it was going to be.

There are non-Scottish instruments, like lap steel, on the album but they don’t detract from the essential Scottish feel.

That’s something I really wanted to hold on to. I do listen to a lot of American music and I’m influenced by a lot of American artists and the bluegrass scene – the Transatlantic Sessions guys; Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien and Aoife O’Donovan, who sings on the album – she’s one of my favourite singers – but I certainly didn’t want to make an album that sounded American. I wanted it to be a Scottish album with its own sound.

There is a kinship between Scottish music and some of the music of the Americas, simply because the Scots took their music with them, isn’t there?

Definitely. That’s really apparent in the songs that Aoife used to sing in Crooked Still. I could hear the Scottish versions in them. There’s a strong thread and it’s nice to be able to collaborate and we’re living in an age where you don’t even have to be on the same continent to be able to perform together.

Of the three covers on the album, Archie Fisher’s ‘The Final Trawl’ seems a natural choice but how did you come across Darrell Scott’s song, ‘The Open Door’?

It’s on an album of his called The Crooked Road and we bought that the year it came out. Jamie and I have always been big Darrell Scott fans. We came across him because we knew of Tim O’Brien and they did a duo album. After that Darrell was playing in Glasgow – that must be about seven years ago – we went to see him and were totally blown away by his voice and his songs.

And ‘John O’ Dreams’?

It wasn’t Bill’s version I heard first. It was a young Irish singer called Daoirí Farrell. It was on an album he put out a couple of years ago and it just reached out and touched me – I thought it was a really beautiful song. Then you go on to find other versions. When I come across a song I like to learn it and then go and listen to other people singing it, once I’ve made my own version. Then I don’t feel like I’ve been influenced in the way I sing it.

The covers seem to fit in with the other songs that I was choosing. Jamie and I have been gigging ‘The Open Door’ for a good few years and likewise ‘John O’ Dreams’.

Who will be with you on the tour?

The bulk of the tour will be myself, Jamie and Matheu playing as a trio with the exception of the Queen’s Hall date in Edinburgh and the London show at Cecil Sharp House where we’ll also have Signy and Ross – percussion and bass. At Celtic Connections, the first gig on 28th January will also have Jerry Douglas and Aoife O’Donovan and another backing vocalist, Rory Butler.

Emily’s tour opens in Inverness on March 6th. For more details visit http://emilysmith.org/

Artist’s website: www.emilysmith.org

EMILY SMITH – Echoes (WHITE FALL RECORDS – WFRCD007)

Emily-Smith-Promo4_album_1mbWith her fifth solo album, Emily Smith has returned to traditional song. I have to say that this pleases me greatly, not because I dislike her songwriting, but because the great canon of Scottish traditional song cries out for her voice to record it.

That may be a trifle ambitious but Echoes is an excellent way to start going about it. The core band of Emily’s producer and husband Jamie McClennan, Matheu Watson, Signy Jakobsdottir and Ross Hamilton is augmented by guests including Kris Drever, Tim Edey and Jerry Douglas bringing a variety of influences to the songs without detracting from their essential Scottishness. Douglas’s slide guitar adds an entirely unexpected texture to the opener, ‘Reres Hill’ and to an inspired ‘King Orfeo’ in which Emily retains the Gaelic refrain. There’s a touch of seventies’ folk-rock in ‘My Darling Boy’ but ‘Twa Sisters’ and ‘Clerk Saunders’ contrive to sound both modern and old simultaneously. The performances are all first class and I should single out the cello of Natalie Haas as being a key element of the arrangements, majestically underlining the songs.

There are three “modern” written songs – written within the last fifty years, that is. Archie Fisher’s ‘The Final Trawl’ has almost attained traditional status but Darrell Scott’s ‘The Open Door’ is essentially a country song that is presented here almost as a tale of Scots emigration to the New World. Finally we have Bill Caddick’s ‘John O’ Dreams’. It’s a song we’ve all heard many times before – because it’s a bloody good song – but Emily manages to bring something fresh to it by not trying to do anything clever. It’s probably my favourite version.

In case I’ve not made myself clear, Echoes is a brilliant album.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon

Artist’s website: www.emilysmith.org