The Harbour Of Songs Project is reviewed by Pete Fyfe…

“Harbour Of Songs” is a project…excuse the pun…helmed by Adrian McNally and funded by The Stables Arts Centre near Milton Keynes providing an interesting background coupled with a selection of ‘folk-styled’ music artists as diverse as Ralph McTell, Janis Ian and Guy Chambers. I won’t go into much detail here (you’ll have to buy the CD to find out more) but the basic concept comes from donated pieces of wood to help build a boat and songs loosely based on the stories of those donations. This may not at first sound the most riveting of reasons to purchase a copy of the album but the attention to detail and judicious use of arrangements and instrumentation harking back to the glory days of Clifford T Ward and Peter Skellern really evokes a sense of nostalgia that musically I’m pleased to see is currently on an upward ‘trend’. As a frequent visitor to the seaside town of Hastings I feel a particular affinity to Nick Hemming’s “White Fish Authority” and for other reasons…too painful to go into detail here…with Nick Hornby’s “The Ruler” which prove vivid reminders of a bygone era – mind you, if plimsolls need to be donated for a similar project please let me know. I must admit that listening to this recording was a pleasure and if, like me, you hanker for a bit of wistful reminiscing you’ll be hard pushed to find a more evocative representation on what is, after all, some pretty obscure subject matter.

PETE FYFE

Catalog number: The Stables STABLESCD001

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Artist’s website: www.stables.org

Award-Winning Songsmith Susan Greenbaum Announces This Life

Susan Greenbaum committed the first sin of musicians: She quit her day job. After working as a corporate executive in Fortune 500 companies, she traded her power suits for performing and songwriting. Since then, the Harvard graduate is poised for success, having won several national songwriting awards, including the Smithsonian Songwriters Award, The Philadelphia Songwriters Project and released four albums independently. Now, Greenbaum is releasing This Life, her most insightful and engaging songs to date, distributed by Compass Records Group this January 31st.

Not only were the songwriting trophies a boost to Greenbaum’s career change, she won a national competition to be the opening act for Jewel and enjoyed overwhelming success on the tour, welcoming thousands of new fans. Prior to This Life, her most recent album of all-original songs, Hey, Hey, Hey! was lauded by Billboard for having songs with “hooks that drill into your brain; smart, organic production; and lyrical substance to make the music an interactive experience.”

Her success has not come without sacrifice, as the tragedy of personal loss lends itself to the depth to Greenbaum’s songwriting. The album-opening “This Life” is a reflective letter to her brother who passed away from brain cancer; she wrote the song a week before her wedding. “I was thinking about how he wasn’t going to be at my wedding but maybe he was, maybe he is somewhere safe and healthy and not in pain and able to at least look down on all of us. That’s the whole idea of the song­—a conversation with him.” Greenbaum instills a glimpse of hope and recovery in her music, even in songs inspired by tragedy.

The album is far from somber and includes high-energy singles such as “Big,” a lively recipe for fame and fortune. “It’s very me, it’s funny and cynical and it’s unafraid to really look at things and be blunt and honest and there’s positivity in it and there’s reflection in… It’s like, ‘Chop chop! Let’s get to it, let’s get famous!’” The album includes lighthearted love songs like “Penny on the Sidewalk” and even a novelty bonus track lamenting the consequences of the indecision of squirrels.

Recorded in Nashville at Compass Sound Studios and produced by Garry West and Alison BrownThis Life includes such esteemed musicians as multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Todd Phillips on upright bass, and the banjo of Alison Brown on the tracks “Virginia, the Home of My Heart” and “The Squirrel Song.” Says Greenbaum of the recording process, “Garry and Alison are very right-brained as well as very left-brained, and I am too, so we worked very well together. I had no idea what was going to happen, but it was one of the smartest risks I’ve ever taken!”

Greenbaum draws big, enthusiastic audiences who delight in her lively, diverse and powerful performances. Greenbaum has toured as a solo artist, playing such storied venues as The Bitter End in NYC, The Birchmere, Bethlehem Musikfest, Floyd Fest and Rams Head Tavern. In addition to touring with Jewel, she performed an acoustic set with Dave Matthews Band violinist Boyd Tinsley; sharing bills with Jill Sobule; and opening for Kenny Loggins, Patty Griffin, Dar Williams, Janis Ian, Jim Messina, Todd Snider, Tuck and Patti, Iris DeMent, Lucy Kaplansky, Lloyd Cole and Catie Curtis. Susan also endorses W.L Gore’s Elixir Strings.

Unafraid, brazen and under five feet tall, the dynamic Greenbaum shares an empowering message: “If you have something you know you love to do and you want to do it, you can do it! Follow your dreams!”

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Mary Black – Stories From the Steeples (3ú Records / Blix Street Records)

This is the first studio recording from Mary Black in six years, and it’s a collection that demonstrates an artist in full command of her bewitching vocal prowess. Throughout an impressive career, Mary has consistently demonstrated impeccable taste in her choice of material, and the evidence presented here suggests that her ear for seeking out songs of utmost grace and beauty is as keen as ever. With a voice that has only gained in depth and resonance over the years, Mary brings her trademark warmth and sincerity, casting light and shade amongst the lyrics to create her own personal space amongst the words of carefully chosen songwriters. Never one to rest on her laurels, we’re gifted songs from familiar friends such as Shane Howard, Eric Bogle and Julie Matthews, alongside burgeoning writing talents, including Danny O’Reilly and Ricky Lynch.

Sharing the stage with a number of guests, Stories From The Steeples contains three duets: the beguiling “Lighthouse Light” features Janis Ian in a perfectly balanced performance that whets the appetite for further exploration of this winsome partnership; the robust, soulful voice of Imelda May joins Mary on an affirmative song of place and belonging, “Mountains To The Sea”; and the playful “Walking With My Love” finds Mary exchanging lines with the legendary Finbar Furey. All three performances are notable for their palpable sense of modesty and mutual admiration.

Two stand-out tracks come from particularly close to home, being written by Mary’s son, Danny O’Reilly. “Faith In Fate” paints a stark contrast between the sheer despair of a broken relationship with a determined hopefulness to move on and patch things up. Managing to be simultaneously bleak and uplifting with its heady infusion of hurt and devoted affection, it’s a song that plays to all the strengths of Mary’s typically emotion-wrought interpretation. Offering a similar cocktail of emotions, “Wizard of Oz” is a mournful reflection on the search for strength and happiness, underpinned by a dreamy string arrangement over which Mary lays her heartwarming vocals.

Fulfilling the role of storyteller, Mary excels in bringing lifelike colour to the characters of “Marguerite And The Gambler,” a Ricky Lynch song that recounts the familiar tale of many a traditional folk ballad, with its gamblers, true love, misguided familial intervention, heartbreak and devastation. Those purchasing the extended version of the album are handsomely rewarded with an exquisite reading of Chris Woods’ “One In A Million,” a story of true love that takes the mundanities of life and turns it in to utter magic, and proving beyond any doubt that Mary remains a song’s best friend.

Paul Kelly’s “They Thought I Was Asleep” benefits from a tender reading, cloaked in Mary’s trademark warmth, depicting the torment of a child inadvertently witnessing from the back seat of a car, the emotional breakdown of his parents’ relationship. Equally devastating, though of more epic proportions, Eric Bogle’s “All the Fine Young Men” is made all the more disarming, thanks to the sheer reverence with which Mary furnishes this stark, anti-war anthem.

With a little less polish than some of her earlier releases, Stories From The Steeples steps forward as an intimate, unpretentious collection, bathed in a soft but radiant glow of effortlessness and wholehearted integrity. Time will tell, but Stories From The Steeples may well prove to be Mary’s best yet.

Mike Wilson

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Artist Web Link: https://www.mary-black.net/

JANIS IAN – ‘Best of Janis Ian’ CD/DVD

JANIS IAN, one of America’s most durable, thoughtful of singer-songwriters, makes a very rare visit to these shores in October 2011 for an extensive UK tour (details below). The tour is presaged by the release of a double CD plus a twelve track DVD (filmed in 1979 in Japan and Australia) Best of Janis Ian set on Edsel Records. This release is the first British career-spanning retrospective of this most gifted and perceptive of writers and performers – across its generous thirty-one tracks are her breakthrough hit, Society’s Child,  as well her remarkable 1975 classic, At Seventeen. Also included are such wonderful items as Jesse, Stars, and Fly Too High, her 1979 hit collaboration with Giorgio Moroder.

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Janis Ian is thought-provoking, humorous and charming – her underrated guitar-playing skills once even drew compliments from none other than the late Chet Atkins who was no mean string-bender himself!