JESS VINCENT- Lions Den (Kostenurka Records)

Lions DenThere have been a few changes in Jess Vincent’s life since the release of Shine back in 2015. She’s become vegan for a start. However, the most significant is the fact that she and her partner, Jozeph Chowles, have moved from Wiltshire to Bulgaria where, indeed, the bulk of the album was recorded, partly in the home studio from which the label name comes, and that, unlike her previous releases, all the songs here are solely Vincent’s work.

The good news, though, is that there’s been no major musical upheavals in the process, although the new environment does feed into Chowles’ arrangements, Eastern European hints surfacing here and there, such as in the Indian harmonium drone that permeates the pulsing ballad ‘Follow’, on which Vincent’s vocals are well back in the mix, although, having said that, the twang to the guitar would be more at home in Utah.

It opens on sparse, dry banjo notes with the tempo-shifting ‘The Way It Is’, bursts of guitars and percussion making their presence felt in the faster flurries, Vincent’s high pitched warbling vocals sounding especially effervescent. I’d assume the title track, a languorous number picked out on a minimalist repeated acoustic guitar phrase, a muted percussion rumble surfacing towards the end, lyrically addresses making the big move and, as she says in her notes, facing her demons.

‘Stranger’ is another relatively muted number, the vocals again held back in the mix, opening on single ukulele notes before the arrangement fleshes out and those Eastern European colours seep into the gradually gathering melody. ‘Ghosts’ shifts continents, the crooning backing vocals, harmonium and harmonica evoking sprawling mid-west landscapes over which the melody ebbs and flows. Harmonium again provides the bedrock on the gently dappled ‘Ballerina Dreams’ with its dreamy, shimmering ambience and lines about seasons changing beneath her feet, by which point you’ll have clocked that this is a generally musically reflective affair, with no rock storms lurking unexpectedly in the wings, although the steady march beat ‘Cherry Tree’ does kick the sonic level up a notch or two with its electric guitar breaks and the backwoods gospel feel to her vocals.

That same Appalachian sensibility is also evident on ‘Waiting For You’, a simple but particularly lovely number with its undulating , tinkling electric guitar notes, wheezing harmonium and music box-like melody.

Of the two remaining numbers, ‘Holiday’ takes an early hours, slow bluesy lullabying waltz approach and what could possibly be described as a narcotic Chris Isaak/David Lynch mood, while ‘Won’t Be Long’, a yearning brushed drums mortality-themed folk gospel slow shuffle, sees the album out on campfire in the pines harmonica and picked acoustic guitar notes that bundles together familiar thoughts of Iris deMent, Dolly Parton and Nanci Griffiths.

The dictionary definition of a lion’s den is a dangerous or frightening place, but there’s no need to approach this with caution, just jump right on in.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.jessvincentsings.com

JESS VINCENT – Shine (Hatsongs HAT008)

JESS VINCENT ShineOnce again produced by and featuring Reg Meuross (who also co-wrote five of the 12 tracks) with regular collaborators, guitarist Marcel Rose and cellist Beth Porter joined by Pete Willis on bass and Graham Brown taking over from Roy Dodds (who handles the mastering duties) on percussion, Vincent’s third album continues her upwards momentum as one of the brightest names on the UK folk-country scene. Again, the DeMent and Parton comparisons are to the forefront, but this time round I’d also suggest there’s a definite touch of early Nanci Griffiths to her engaging warbling trill, especially so on the lovely ‘Fall Apart’, the song itself putting me in mind of Julie Gold.

Reg providing the harmonica and banjo, it opens with the sparkling exuberant and infectious upbeat folk-pop title track, a number that could make the most dismal winter’s day feel like glorious spring, then, keeping the theme of love’s positivity (and the harmonica), comes ‘Love Me True’ before the first of the album’s songs rooted in real life figures. Featuring Vincent on shruti box, ‘New Amsterdam’ is a sort of sea shanty and gypsy waltz cocktail about Olive Thomas, a silent movies actress (and sister-in-law to Mary Pickford) whose promising screen career was cut short in 1920 after drinking mercury bichloride, rumouredly laced in her wine, sparking one of the first of media frenzy Hollywood scandals.

Moving from movies to music, Meuross co-penned closer ‘Billy Tipton’s Waltz’, Brown on brushed drums and Mike Cosgrave on piano, tells the story of William Lee Tipton, an Oklahoma-born 1950’s jazz pianist and saxophonist who was born Dorothy Lucille , but lived her life as a man (she had several wives and three adopted sons, who only discovered the truth when, 74, their father was treated for a fatal peptic ulcer), forming the Billy Tipton Trio (the others unaware of his true sex) and releasing two albums.

A somewhat less celebrated name, featuring Porter’s cello, ‘Wind On The Downs’ is adapted from the best known work by the Oxford-born poet Marian Allen, written after her fiancé, Arthur Greg, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps who was shot down in 1917. And, staying with a military but introducing a personal touch, the gently dappled, vocally soaring Parton-esque ‘Charley’s Song’ was written as a morale-boosting tribute to her army officer friend and the responsibilities she takes on.

There’s also a very personal note to the banjo and accordion backed Vincent/Meuross waltzer ‘Wrong Shade Of Blue’ that juggles the musically upbeat framework and the sunny day images with the emotions welling up over her mother’s death. She adopts a similar mismatch on ‘Shackles And Chains’, where she duets with herself on a piano led DeMent-like country heartbreaker about a woman rescued from post break -up suicide drowning and the chains of the past by a man the narrator meets in bar and who follows her to the sea.

Featuring Cosgrave’s accordion and Brown on cajon, the last of the co-penned numbers takes its cue from Tex-Mex tales of men seduced by femme fatales, ‘Run, Senor Run’a train-rolling rhythm tale about how Carlos ignores his friend’s warning that the woman with whom he’s besotted has come from the grave.

Which just leaves two self-penned tracks, the mid-tempo uke and cello accompanied ‘Raining’, a track that pretty much sums up the sort of day we’ve all had when the world seems to fall apart and the waters rise, and, again calling DeMent to mind, the gentle Appalachian heartache of ‘Here And Now’, Porter’s cello underscoring the lyrics (again, surely informed by her mother’s passing) about the grief, loss and and sense of being left alone following the death of someone close. Listen hard and you may find it hard not to feel a lump welling in the throat. Her best album yet, Vincent doesn’t just shine, she positively glows.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: http://www.jessvincentsings.com/

‘Shine’ – live performance and interview:

CHARLIE DORE – Milk Roulette (Black Ink Music BICD8)

Milk RouletteAlthough she never really attained the stardom predicted for her when she released ‘Pilot Of The Airwaves’ back in 1979, the Pinner-born singer’s not exactly done too badly for herself, sustaining a successful career over the years as an actress, producer and songwriter, as well as regularly releasing albums and performing live. This, her eighth album, is particularly personal, the title track referring to how, to test whether the milk had turned sour, her father would simply take a swig and approach he, an ever optimistic widower, apparently applied to the women in his life. As the title suggests, family loom large too in ‘Looking Like My Mother, Acting Like My Dad’, a song and arrangement that, especially in Dore’s husky quiver, feels very much of the 30s or 40s (possibly down to its homespun recording), while album closer, ‘Cradle Song’, brings together a transcription of a piano instrumental written by her mother as a young child and an old cassette recording of her father reading his poems.

Although ‘Three A Penny’, a three-part harmony unaccompanied (save for barely discernible keyboard) number about the culture of cheap downloading, and featuring O’Hooley & Tidow, clearly comes from the very heart of a working musician, elsewhere, personal resonances are more open to interpretation. Sketched out on sparse piano notes, opening number, ‘All These Things’, another pre-war sounding track with co-producer Julian Litman on Indian harmonium, is about the hopes and heartbreak of IVF, ‘Born Yesterday’ a love letter from a new mother to her young child and ‘Firewater’, a guitar rippling, viola accompanied song about falling for a handsome man with a brilliant mind who, unfortunately, also happens to be a career drunk.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, death makes an appearance, conceived as an unwanted salesman peddling his wares to her father and brother on the defiant ‘Stare You Down’ and, equally poignantly, at the core of ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Promoted’, a strings arrangement in which the euphemism of the title and recalling the passing of her mother when Dore was 15 rejects the idea of being taken to a better place in favour of staying on the shop floor a little longer.

The remaining number, the tumbling, chorus-catchy ‘Best Man For The Job’ featuring harmonium and Dobro with Reg Meuross and Jess Vincent guesting on vocals, recounts the ironically titled tale of a neglected wife warning husbands that if they don’t tend the garden then weeds and discontent may grow and lead others to cultivate it instead.

Often fuzzily warm, sometimes playful, sometimes touching, but always immensely listenable, you really should pour a couple of pints.

Mike Davies

Artist website: www.charliedore.com

I included this video because Guildford Vox is one of our local community choirs. That should be Anna Tabbush conducting but if it isn’t I’m sure she’ll tell me!