Every year on the same date, December 1st, Beans On Toast (or Jay as his mum calls him) releases a new album and has done so for the last decade. A Bird In The Hand is his latest.
Beans has a lot in common with Robb Johnson – and I mean that as a compliment. He writes and sings the way he speaks and can draw his inspiration from the most mundane observations so his records are almost like a diary or an annual report. The past year was an important one for him, seeing the birth of his first daughter, not without a scare on the way, as told in ‘Magic’ with the opener. ‘Another Year’, addressed to her and her mother. The album was produced by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons who I guess plays drums and who recruited bassist Ted Dwane alongside guitarist Christof ven der Ven, singer-songwriter Jess Morgan, Tommy Heap and Chris Mass.
I suspect that Jay spent quite some time with mother and newborn and from that time came ‘Here At Homerton Hospital which praises the staff and makes the point of noting their nationalities. If he’s exaggerated a bit, I don’t mind. The single, ‘Alexa’ is an amusing dig at Amazon and ‘Bamboo Toothbrush’ takes an enormous swing at our ridiculous use of plastic. In between these is ‘1980’s Sagittarius’ which seems puzzling at first but turns out to be a song in praise of Skinny Lister vocalist Lorna Thomas, just because they are friends.
Beans takes a day off in ‘Watching The World Go By’ but returns to the fray with ‘Please Give Generously’ which isn’t just about the homeless, and a sort of confessional by a travelling musician in ‘Miss You Lke Crazy’ which is also addressed to his daughter. The bands cited above will tell you a lot about the sound of ths album – a little folky, a little rocky, quite serious and a great deal of fun.
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Two years ago, Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage stirred the folk and acoustic world with a stand-out debut album and there’s been little slumbering since. Now they are set to release an arresting second studio album, Awake. The combination of Hannah’s outstandingly pure, clear voice, their perfect fit harmonies and Ben’s exquisite dobro are the rock-solid foundations of this rising duo, first witnessed in the 2016 album, Before The Sun. This quality pairing unarguably has hypnotic effect, painting aural dreamscapes around them in resonant songs that are given room to breathe.
When Hannah’s folk family travels across Europe and sojourn in America ended and she returned to her native East Anglia, a chance meeting at a Cambridge folk club with The Willows band member Ben was the start of something special. Ben went on to produce Hannah’s solo album Charms Against Sorrow before they ventured into duo territory uncorking a beguiling, intricately woven, ethereal sound all their own. Before the Sun saw them named in many Albums of the Year lists including the 2016 fRoots Critics Poll and hinted at a largely untapped song writing talent amongst the expertly executed traditional arrangements and covers. That song writing skill moves more centre stage in Awake – an album that shows them fulfilling all the promise heaped on them.
Once again, they have returned to Toronto, putting Grammy-nominated Canadian producer David Travers-Smith (Madison Violet, The Wailin’ Jennys) at the helm for this album crafted with infinite care. The eleven-track release has six strong originals alongside innovative arrangements of traditional songs and captivating covers from the Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie cannons. The eye-catching album cover by psychedelic artist Alan Forbes depicts the High Priestess and a deer as The Hanged Man from the tarot card deck and tarot icons run through the CD booklet. Says Hannah:
“We used tarot throughout the recording process to help us think and feel more deeply about the music.”
A duo who delve into the mysterious and often like to release music in line with the lunar calendar, their live show sees them huddled around a single microphone, drawing the audience in. And so it is with this magnetic album.
Alongside Hannah’s trademark mountain dulcimer and Ben’s delicious dobro, they both play guitars on the album. Adding their magic are guest musicians from both sides of the Atlantic – from the UK Jon Thorne on double bass, Evan Carson on percussion and Norwich singer songwriter Jess Morgan, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts on additional vocals and from Canada Chris Coole on banjo, David Travers-Smith on horns and organ, Burke Carroll on pedal steel and on vocals, Vancouver-born American-Canadian alt country singer songwriter Suzanne Ungerleider who performs under the name Oh Susanna.
Entwined in the sturdy roots of English and North American music, Awake stirs with two original Sanders/Savage numbers – the mythical sea woman yearns to return to her spiritual sea home in the banjo-laced ‘Selkie Song’ and there is more heartache in ‘I Met A Man’, a modern retelling of the ancient story of love between a woman and a green man, with Burke Carroll weaving in his wonderful pedal steel.
The original material continues in ‘A Thousand New Moons’ – a luminous, gossamer-spun reflection on endings and beginnings, with Ben on lead vocal. The symbolic number 7 is the title of a song Hannah wrote for those who search for omens in the natural world, prompted by a friend desperate for a life change. The haunting instrumentation adds pedal steel and horns to Hannah and Ben’s guitar duet and the popular ‘One For Sorrow’ magpie nursery rhyme provides the chorus. The beautiful title track was originally written by Ben to tempt a talented friend out of a musical hiatus but has taken on a wider meaning and here it enjoys a lush vocal crescendo with the duo joined by Jess Morgan and Oh Susanna. Reaching is an exquisite, mellow, pin-drop perfect love song written by Hannah which closes the album in this duo’s soft tread style, building to a flourish which unusually features Ben on drums.
Awake is an album that stirs the soul and further endorses the empathetic class act that is Sanders and Savage. Released on May 11 on the Sungrazing Records label it will be distributed by Proper Distribution.
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A round-up of recent EPs and singles with compliments of the season
WOLFNOTE are a new trio from Berkshire making their debut with an EP, Frightened Of Your Own F#. The three female members, Bex, Gill and Ceri, have strong voices and harmonise well and between them play guitar, violin, cello, dulcimer and recorders and their silent partner, Mike, plays guitar, bass and cajon. The record starts with a cover of Dylan’s ‘Girl From The North Country’ taken a little more quickly than most people do – it can drag, sometimes. The other songs are originals and ‘Love And Light’ is particularly good. The production is excellent, concentrating on the voices with the instrumental leads clear and bright. A name to watch. https://www.facebook.com/wolfnoteband/
‘The Tug Of The Moon’ is the first single to be taken from If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, the forthcoming album by SARAH McQUAID. This could be the only song ever inspired by Newton’s third law of motion and its effect on sidereal time. Behind the science is the thought that we are all spinning towards the end of the universe and perhaps we should make the most of our time. Sarah creates a wonderful sound with fingerpicked electric guitar drenched in reverb. www.sarahmcquaid.com
While her new band settles in DARIA KULESH releases a single supported by two of her duo partners, Jonny Dyer and Marina Osman. ‘Vasilisa’ is an old Russian fairy tale from a book that Daria read as a child and still has. The story contains certain elements of Cinderella but far nastier and involves a supposedly deadly errand, the famous witch Baba Yaga and some unpleasant deaths. It has the mysterious air of Daria’s other Russian adaptations with the drone of a shruti box, dramatic piano, percussion and bouzouki. http://www.daria-kulesh.co.uk/
It’s that time of year, so folk have been getting into the festive mood for seasonal singles. First up comes the rather lovely download (from the usual sources) only ‘What Will Christmas Be’, a melancholic piano (Danny Mitchell) and cello (Chelsea McGough) ballad duet from BEN GLOVER and NATALIE SCHLAB about absence and loss at a time traditionally about being together, set off with a final peal of bells. https://www.benglover.co.uk/
Season Bright is a seasonal EP from EMILY EWING & ROBERT LANE. Robert is well known to folking readers and Emily is a singer-songwriter with a download EP to her name and a growing reputation. The lead tracks begins with Robert and Emily lamenting the fact that they’ll be spending Christmas alone (surely not) and moves on to the exhortation to “keep your loved ones near” over some lovely ringing electric guitar. The other tracks are the guitar-led ‘Get You’ and ‘Own It’, built around Emily’s piano. Available from iTunes. http://www.robertlanemusic.co.uk/
Jo Whitby aka LAURENCE MADE ME CRY mirrors the mood with her download single ‘It’s Not You, It’s Christmas’ (from her bandcamp site), a slow walking fuzzed reverb guitar (sounding like a kazoo on acid) and drums ditty about choosing to spend the festivities alone at home, although she still wishes everyone seasonal cheer. http://laurencemademecry.com/
SKINNY LISTER also get into the act with ‘Christmas Calls’ (XtraMile), an epic sounding arms-linked swayalong anthem very much in the Pogues ‘Fairytale’ mould, complete with military drums, bells and whistles. http://skinnylister.com/
From last year’s Edison Gloriette album, JESS MORGAN releases download Jay Chakravorty remix of the Moonstruck-inspired ‘Come To The Opera With Me Loretta’ (Drabant Music) that removes the piano, putting more focus on the vocals and giving it an anthemic seasonal synths and drums shimmer makeover. http://www.jessmorgan.co.uk/
Away from the holly and ivy,Yorkshire’s FRAN WYBURN self-releases ‘Foolish Sea’, George Birkett’s fingerpicking and Rachel Brown’s cello backdropping her pure, little girl vocals on a quirky tale of unrequited love that serves as a taster to her forthcoming album.
There is not so much Christmas spirit but an awful lot of pain in ‘Love Left Lost’, the second single from Brighton-based singer-songwriter JOSH McGOVERN. Quite which subterranean depths that voice comes from is hard to say but the tragedy is delivered over minimal acoustic and with soulful backing vocals on the choruses. https://www.facebook.com/Joshmmusic
To mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of blues guitarist LUTHER ALLISON Ruf records have released a limited edition eleven disc box set of his later work. As a taster there is a 7” vinyl single: ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Night Life’. The lead track starts with a deceptively simple Hammond organ and Luther waits until the chorus comes round for the band to kick in and then it takes off with some wonderful “doo-de-doo” backing vocals. http://www.rufrecords.de
Two years and one EP on from Langa Langa, released through the Norwegian label, the breathy-voiced Norwich-based singer-songwriter returns with Edison Gloriette her fourth and finest album to date, a relaxed and assured collection of eleven unfussily arranged, thematically-linked acoustic tracks that again speak to her English and Americana influences.
As with her debut, it was recorded in Bergen, in a cabin studio with returning producer HP Gunderson (who also contributes guitar, pedal steel and organ) and engineer Daniel Birkeland (also on bass, Hammond and guitar) with Steve Maclachlan adding percussion, Hannah Sanders backing vocals and Noel Dashwood providing dobro on two numbers back in the UK.
Her storytelling is as fine tuned as ever, opening with ‘The Longest Arm’, a beautifully observed, Edward Hopper-inspired vignette about a brief encounter between a man (“skin pulled tight in the wind”) and a waitress in the café of the album title (it’s actually a combination of two cinema names) with its pictures of “dead actors and Italian stars”, a spark passing between them as she “ leans in closer, her hair soft on his face. She wipes his lip clean with a napkin and smells like pancakes.”
Next up comes the Latin-tinged swaying rhythms of the Superman-referencing ‘Don’t Meet Your Heroes’, a cautionary message about not being blinded by appearances and awe in matters of the heart as “sweet ideas stink like Kryptonite that slaps away the hands that made all tomorrow’s plans” and you may well end up spending the night alone “sewing spangles on his clothes” because “suddenly there’s phone boxes everywhere you look.”
Featuring Dashwood, the achingly lovely ‘Still In Fashion’ is a pessimistic song about the inevitably of crushed love (“my hopes go down with the blinds. We know heartbreak is still the fashion. Long may it never show up on time”) while, Morgan on harmonica and Sanders on harmonies, ‘Hymn In The Morning’ conjures similar fears as she sings “will there be no one but me, will there be nobody else?” and, likewise on ‘Tell Me What The Trouble Is’, the protagonist can sense the relationship falling apart “with waning grace” because of a reluctance to talk things out (“there’s quiet in everything you do and you think it’s just a little balling yourself up, but you’re bringing the whole thing down with you. We never used to be silent”).
By contrast, the piano-accompanied ‘Come To The Opera With Me, Loretta’ is about the narrator seeking to persuade Loretta to save her faltering relationship with the volatile Ronnie (“I’ll make you my case for staying together”) and, while introducing the new character of Debbie, is actually Morgan’s reworking of a scene from the Oscar-winning romcom Moonstruck.
Again featuring Sanders and harmonica, the catchy rootsy strummed pop ‘Skate While You’re Skinny’ has the air of early Joni Mitchell in its advice to “always keep your lover in mind”, “stay out of the corner where you don’t belong” and “ if the wind is blowing, put your fists up. Come out when you’re bloody, whether won or lost.”
Featuring soulful dobro, the puttering bluesy ‘Red Rubies’ was apparently inspired by the true story of a bird eating man (the title referring to drops of blood), recast as a metaphor for not crippling another’s spirit (“I would not crush your feathers,. those gentle wings, for to fly”), followed, in turn, by the reflective ‘In Your Life’, sparse guitar accompanying lyrics about not letting the moment to express your feelings pass by and remain a remembered regret.
The slow waltzing ‘A Hundred Years Old’ returns to the relationships theme touched on with Heroes, but on a more positive note about keeping love constant even when your partner finds public expressions of affection awkward (“I’m holding your coats never holding your hand”) as the character sings “oh tangle me up in the mess that you make. I’ve already rolled up my sleeves” and “when you strike up the band with your red jacket on I wait for the beat of the drum.”
Nodding to living there in 2015, the album ends with ‘In Brooklyn’, a shuffling, steel-streaked reminiscence of a time in the character’s life when “so many things we took for granted”, a time “when we didn’t need the F-train or anyone, we’d take our blessings and we decorate up the second floor” before the “tears that were spilled on the Brooklyn Quilt, packing the apartment up into boxes.” Although such lines lead you to presume things were happier then than they are now, the song closes on an warm upbeat note of reverie (“now you can tell it back to me, beginning with Brooklyn, when we were living in Brooklyn”), a poignantly affecting end to a poignantly affecting album.
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A swiftish follow-up to last year’s Aye Me, the Norwich singer-songwriter’s third album continues to draw on both English and Americana influences, her storytelling as sharp and as engaging as ever, her distinctive claw-hammer guitar technique (perfectly illustrated on the poignant, summery crooning ‘Freckles In The Sun’ and the bubbling ragtime-cum-trad ‘Round And Round’) still beguiling.
Save for an uncluttered reading of trad chestnut ‘Silver Dagger’, the songs are all self-penned, variously inspired by her globetrotting and personal experiences, many in the form of parables exploring the relationships between people and places and the demands or the sacrifices the one requires of the other.
Her breathy voice now rather more seasoned than the little girl innocence of earlier work, the lyrics lean more to matters of the heart (frequently sung from a male perspective) than the hard times on her last outing, splendidly illustrated by ‘Adam And Genevieve’’s strings-washed tale of regret and growing apart, subtly hinting at the fall in ‘Eden’, and the choppy ‘Annie Of Greyfriars’, its besotted suitor pledging his love to the girl who works in the fish market down at the docks, while the wry ‘Cavalier’ takes pre-emptive defence against being hurt as she sings “you will age ungracefully and blame all your losses on me, it’s best to get on your horse and be, cavalier.” Even the protagonist of the rolling ‘Lone Cashier’, the Bonnie and Clyde story of a robbery gone wrong, promises to steal the stars and the moon for his lover, even though he knows he’s “not everything a man should be”.
There are songs that do step somewhat outside romance’s tender vicious circle; the Americana-hued Movie Scene reminds that life through the windscreen is never like that on the big screen, the Dylanesque Modern World reflects on being an old soul feeling out of place in today’s rush, album opener The Last Song tells of a songbird sacrificing itself to stop a school of whales from heading towards a whaling ship while The Missionary (from whence comes the album title, a reference to a village in Kenya) talks of hardships and sacrifices made in pursuit of a calling.
Like the best, most enduring works, it reveals its charms and observations unfussily, rather than pushing them in your face, and taking the time to discover them is all part of the listening pleasure.
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