Since the release of her previous album I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Corrie Shelley although I’ve not yet heard her perform live. Although I don’t claim to know her, I have an inkling of what she’s about and that helps. Forget Me Not sounds rather more uniform than The Leaf And The Cane, perhaps because of the smaller band: Stephen Shelley, Les Hilton and producer John Kettle with Nicki Louise playing bass on one track. That said, the sound is big and rich – indeed ‘My Hands’ is pure folk-rock but Corrie has the voice to handle it.
Some of the inspiration comes from her family but when you read that the opener, ‘I Wish I’d Listened’, comes from what her father said in the car on the way to her first wedding you know that she hasn’t lost any of her bite. ‘The Box’ might be about that same husband but I can’t be sure but ‘Alice’ is a much gentler song concerning her mother in law’s experiences as a war-time evacuee. ‘My Hands’ is for Corrie’s son and ‘Clocks’ for her grandfather while ‘Recognition’ continues a theme from her first album and is about her mother.
‘Culloden’ is one of Corrie’s historical songs which she says was inspired by Outlander and I really like the addition of a snippet of ‘The Skye Boat Song’ at the end. The television show, Nashville, inspired ‘Wine & The Liquor’ but Corrie doesn’t countrify the hell out of it – just a restrained lap-steel break by Les who doesn’t touch his harmonica once. The deaths of major musicians over the last few years gave rise to ‘Hard To Believe’, something we’ve all felt recently. ‘Sit Down Together’ was co-written with Bob Kettle and has something of the style of one of his Merry Hell anthems and ‘Big Man’ is just for fun – at least I hope the Johnny Cash riff wasn’t intended seriously.
Forget Me Not is another really good record and, although she may not want to, I do think that it’s time that Corrie got herself a deal allowing her to do things on a bigger scale. My copy came with a packet of seeds (do they all?) – forget me not, of course.
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The follow-up to last year’s Trysting Tree EP (the tracks of which all appear here), the sleeve echoing the title of David Niven’s autobiography, The Moon’s A Balloon, this is the album from the north-west quartet which, hopefully, will provide lift-off to getting the far wider acclaim they deserve.
Vocally fronted by guitarist Pete Cunliffe and Cherlene Walmsley, who share the lyric credits, with Paul Cunliffe on bass and David Windsor on violin, they’re joined on various tracks by Merry Hell’s John Kettle, who also produced much of the material and contributes both bouzouki and programmed drums.
Sung by Walmsley and anchored by Windsor’s fiddle, it opens with a Cunliffe track from the EP, ‘Silver Darlings’, a shantyish number that tells of the hardships of a small fishing community near Wick in the late 19th century faced with dwindling stocks of herrings, the silver darlings of the title, the chorus calling them to their nets.
Striking another socioeconomic note, Cunliffe takes over for ‘There Is A Seam’, the fingerpicked guitar, bass and fiddle affording a suitably moody backdrop to a song about the Lancashire coalfields during the bitter struggle between the miners and the Thatcher government in the 80s as he sings how “The pits and the people, they are the same.”
Again underscoring their ability to craft a memorable and infectious chorus, Walmsley’s ‘Twenty Thousand Feet’ takes a romantic turn for a song about the giddy feelings of falling in love and the sense of finding home. Then it’s back to a protest undercurrent for Cunliffe’s ‘Haul Away’, a fiddle-led swayalong shanty sung in the voice of a young Bridgewater lad press-ganged into taking the King’s Shilling, saving his galleon when it was attacked by Spanish ship only to drown, his tale narrated by his ghost back in the local inn.
The EP title track, penned by Cunliffe and sung by Walmsley, another brooding number, featuring Jan Hough on bodhran ‘The Trysting Tree’ draws on the tradition of how certain trees were chosen as meeting places to arrange and finalise such things as sealing truces or exchanging prisoners, the song sung in the voice of the tree, witness to historical record.
The tempo and mood take a sprightlier turn in the Walmsley-sung ‘Magic Hour’, Windsor’s fiddle accompanying her on a rainy but warm-welcoming journey round a Scotland’s Western Isles in that moment of the day when “the clouds break over the mountains/And sunlight bathes the sea.”
The airy joyfulness is short-lived, however, the track being followed by the achingly melancholic ‘All The Bonny Birds Have Flown Away’, Cunliffe on lead and Walmsley providing harmonies on an anti-war song written for the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice talking of loss, of the broken bodies and souls, and the impact of “hell and hatred” on both humans and nature.
With Windsor’s sympathetic fiddle to the fore, the echoey sung ‘Lullaby For The Forlorn’ sustains the melancholia before Walmsley’s equally mournfully-paced ‘Carry Me Down To The Shore’, also from the EP, heads back in time to sing of a Viking warrior’s thoughts as he’s carried to the ship that will be his final resting place and of the Valhalla that awaits.
The album’s longest number at over eight minutes, the suitably cosmic and atmospheric and suitably spacey title track with its nagging guitar riff, ethereal low whistle, contemplative fiddle, dreamlike vocals and choral harmonies finds Cunliffe musing on childhood games and the passing of time, and innocence, as we grow older.
It ebbs into the distance to be followed by the glorious final track, strummed guitar, keys and fiddle taking wing on ‘Murmurate (Safety In Numbers)’, a song inspired by and describing the murmurations of starlings, dancing “in the half-light of dusk/In pirouettes of trust” that, in its line “shall we gather one and all, from factory roofs and village halls, brought together in our call to sing”, delivers a metaphorical message about the strength of solidarity. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, When We Were Astronauts has its eyes on the stars and its feet on the ground, make space for it in your CD constellation.
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The previous evening, the electric Merry Hell had rocked the packed courtroom supported by The Trials Of Cato and Derek Martin. I’d like to tell you how good they were but that must wait for another monograph. Tonight was about the launch of their acoustic album, Anthems To The Wind, and my first chance to hear the band in a seated venue, the upstairs theatre. Merry Hell Acoustic and comfort; bliss.
Support came from singer-songwriter Jenny Colquitt who is clearly a local favourite. She has a powerful voice and a powerful guitar style but I thought her best moments came when she soft-pedalled, particularly on the two covers she closed her set with – Sting’s ‘Fields Of Gold’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird’.
If you expect the acoustic band to be gentle and pastoral, forget it. True, drums and keyboards are absent so there is a shift in the musical balance between Bob Kettle’s mandolin and bouzouki plus John’s guitar at the top and Nick Davies’ bass taking up most of the bottom. Neil McCartney’s fiddle still has the essential role it fulfils in the full line-up but with the addition of a stomp-box to hold the rhythm. For some reason John wasn’t miked so Andrew and Virginia handled all the lead vocals and the harmonies aren’t quite so overwhelming. The band seemed very relaxed and there was some looseness that the full fat version, who are now very tight and slick, have abolished – I have to say I like it that way. Some things remain the same: Nick still hangs about at the back of the stage and Bob still lurks in the shadows and is almost impossible to photograph in action. And the passion and sincerity in the music are undiminished.
They began with two of their crowd-pleasing anthems, ‘Loving The Skin You’re In’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (Until We’ve Had A Night Before)’. Actually, this crowd were pleased by everything. Gradually, Merry Hell brought the temperature down via the plea of ‘We Need Each Other Now’ to Virginia Kettle’s lovely ‘Leave A Light On’ which is tailor-made for the acoustic set up. That was followed by ‘Drunken Serenade’ which, with the addition of ‘The Banshee Reel’, becomes an expression of nostalgia and they worked up to another all-time favourite, ‘Bury Me Naked’ but without Beverley the spade.
As the set progressed it briefly became more light-hearted with ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’ followed by Virginia and Andrew’s song-and-dance number, ‘The Baker’s Daughter’. After ‘The War Between Ourselves’ and ‘One More Day Without You’ Neil McCartney performed an excellent Ric Sanders impersonation leading into ‘Let The Music Speak For Itself’.
The first encore, ‘Coming Home’, has been turned into a perfect fit for this line-up performed unaccompanied with everyone taking a solo line. In contrast, the floor pulsed under the pounding feet through the final ‘Sweet Oblivion’. Not so much has changed, really.
I was always a fan of The Tansads back in the 90s and the reunion of three Kettle brothers, singer Andrew, guitarist John and mandolin player Bob, along with John’s wife Virginia, in 2010 under their present name has done nothing to change my mind. Bloodlines is their fourth full-length album since then, the first to feature the voices of all eight members (the others being keyboardist Lee Goulding, Neil McCartney on fiddle with bassist Nick Davies and drummer Andy Jones comprising the rhythm section) and not only continues to see their political veined folk flourish, but also takes both that and the songs of personal relationships up a few notches.
It opens with ‘We Need Each Other Now’, John’s stirring anthemic cry for unity in a world divided over a martial beat and ringing guitars, a theme further explored on Bob’s swaying folk rock ‘Come On, England!’, here, again featuring the band’s massed voices, focusing at the divisions at home, a call for arms in a show of the nation’s tradition of tolerance and defence of people’s rights in the face of the troubling rise nationalism and racism in the name of the red, white and blue.
Sandwiched between is the title track, penned and sung by Virginia, a song that, presumably inspired by the current trend to trace family trees, again celebrates connections, this time within the family and generations, scraping fiddle and tumbling drums providing the song’s spine. ‘Coming Home Song’ is another from Bob, a heartfelt call for peace born of the refugee crisis sung a capella by himself, Andre, Virginia, Neil and Nick, while, again raising the anthemic flag and setting a martial beat, ‘All The Bright Blossoms’, on which he’s joined by Goulding on writing duties, addresses mortality and how love lives on in memory.
Virgina provides two in a row, echoing the theme of ageing on the acoustic slow guitar and fiddle waltzing ‘When We Are Old’, which she also sings, and striking political notes with ‘Stand Down’, a defiant message from those seeking freedom, mercy and justice to those who seek to oppress and exploit. Co-penned by John and Bob, the weary ‘Sailing Too Close To The Wind’ is another call to action, and not sing lullabies to our demons and simply “lie there and wait for the end to come.”
‘Chasing A Bluebird’ is something new from the band, the first to be written by McCartney, a country tinged waltzer duet between Andrew and Virginia about an inconstant restless lover leaving broken hearts behind, carried along, as you might guess, on a fiddle tide.
The final four numbers are all from Virginia. The traditional coloured ‘Over The Wall’ a rousing tale of a now or never prison escape by men locked up for striking for better pay and this, in turn, leads into the dreamy ‘Under The Overkill’, pizzicato fiddle and snare introducing a tumbling celebration of a love affair and its “wonderful moments in glorious technicolour”, Andrew providing the chorus refrain to her verses.
She shares credits with Bob and Goulding, who also wrote the music, for the penultimate ‘Man of Few Words’, another tender love song – a la ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ – about being unable to express what you want feel, before bringing things to a close with ‘Sweet Oblivion’, a playfully frisky, mandolin and fiddle driven hoedown, each member taking a bow on their respective instruments, about seizing love and life (“kiss me like it was the last night on earth”) and not going grimly into the dark night. If I was planning a party for the apocalypse, this lot would be top of the list for the house band.
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Rising 8-piece folk-rockers, Merry Hell, release a new video and limited edition 4 track CD to tie in with their forthcoming tour and to herald the forthcoming album The Ghost In Our House (And Other Stories) – coming in the new year. The CD will be a free give away at gigs between now and Christmas but is also available to buy online from the band’s website. www.merryhell.co.uk/shop
The video was largely filmed at The Old Court Buildings in Wigan, where band member and producer John Kettle has his studio. However, our female lead singer, Virginia Kettle did have to walk in and out of the sea off the North Wales coast in order to obtain a number of shots. The storyline was developed by the whole band and shot and produced by our fiddle player Neil McCartney.
Tracks on The Ghost EP are:
1: There’s A Ghost In our House (3.21) An up tempo and atmospheric track that reminds us that ghosts can come in many forms. To describe it as haunting would be a little clichéd but once heard, the tune will inhabit the twisting corridors of your mind, emerging at the most unexpected moments. Almost but not quite the title track of the new album but certainly its inspiration.
2: The Baker’s Daughter (2.58) A memorable folk-rock anthem with a chorus that audiences have been joining in with almost as soon as they have heard it. The lyrics tell a story that will strike a chord with many of the female listeners.
The first two tracks are taken from the album which will be out in the New Year. The final two tracks are bonus tracks
3: Nobody Knows Me Like You (4.41) Slower and gentler musically but with a strongly reflective and insightful lyric that make the song powerful in a different way. Newly recorded by the band and exclusive to The Ghost CD EP.
4: Rosanna’s Song (3.56): A live version of a crowd favourite, recorded at The Grand Venue in Clitheroe. Living proof that, while Andrew’s voice has been likened to a strimmer in a bucket of gravel, he does have a softer, more velvety underbelly. A beautiful ballad of friendship.
We’re very excited at folking as we have just got our hands on the new Merry Hell “Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain” album which is due for general release on the 20 May 2013 through Mrs Casey Records.
The album sees the seven-piece build on the songwriting and musicianship which hallmarked their acclaimed 2011 debut, BLINK…and you miss it.
If you did blink and miss it, then you can head back in time with Dai Jeffries and read his excellent album review here
(which he did for us in September 2011).
We also have a live clip of “Drunken Serenade” (from BLINK…and you miss it) for your listening and viewing pleasure below.
Recorded at Jaraf House Studios, Wigan, Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain is the sound of a band at a new creative peak, inspired by a summer spent immersing themselves in the atmosphere, music and communities at folk and roots festivals up and down the UK.
Tracks like ‘Bury Me Naked’, ‘Let The Music Speak’ and ‘Let’s Not Have A Morning After (‘Til We’ve Had A Night Before)’ have already become firm favourites among the band’s devoted live following, delighting audiences at Towersey and Wickham Festivals, Big Session, The Great British Folk Festival and many more.
Driven by the distinctive counterpoint vocals of Virginia and Andrew Kettle, the songs are folk music in the broadest sense – story-telling, rootsy and organic – yet underpinned by an unashamed pop sensibility and given wings by the musical accompaniment, including a guest appearance from folk violin legend Dave Swarbrick.
Built around the Kettle family axis (in addition to Virginia and Andrew, the band includes John Kettle on guitars and brother Bob on mandolin and Irish bouzouki), Merry Hell are a band blessed with ability and imagination.
Equally at home in reflective, acoustic-based moments, or declaring their credentials with powerful rock rhythms, the breadth of talent carries firmly into live shows where, time and again, audiences have been swept off their feet and those new to Merry Hell have joined the believers.
If “BLINK…and you miss it” was the sound of Merry Hell becoming comfortable in their new found skin then “Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain” is loving the skin they’re in.
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