SINGLES BAR 42 – The meaning of life, the universe and everything

A round-up of recent EPs and singles

Singles Bar 42Echoes is the first solo work from Sheffield’s NICOLA BEAZLEY. Nicola plays five-string fiddle which she blends with her brass band background into an intriguing EP of tunes. The opening track, ‘Cutting The Rushes’, is jig but with a slow mournful start. It was written by Nicola for Oakenhoof’s rushbearing and is paired with ‘Cross Of Honour’. Nicola’s brass section, Tom Hurst, Georgia Woodhead and Matthew Beazley, allow her fiddle, supported by Katie Williamson, to take the dominant role – for now.

The title set begins with ‘Blue Eyed Stranger’, led off by Andy Watson’s guitar but ‘Echoes’ is northern variant of ‘The Floral Dance’, and the brass really takes hold before ‘Dennis Crowther’s No 3’, which includes excerpts from the Britannia Coconut Dancers’ tune.  The EP continues its interplay between string and brass and several more of Nicola’s own tunes over four more tracks – ‘Damflask’ is particularly good.

Singles Bar 42Putting aside her chamber folk style, Things I Didn’t Need (Rough Trade) is a new stripped back EP from JOSIENNE CLARKE, the title track of which, on which she accompanies herself with moody, resonant guitar, she describes as “A love song to myself from the perspective of the fragile male ego; something I’ve come to know better than I’d care to.” It comes with two further numbers, the Nick Drake referencing ‘Season And Time’ with its watery pastoral acoustic guitar about the frustration and futility in communicating through song, and the gossamer-delicate ‘Never Lie’, which serves as a response to the self-delusion of the title track.

Singles Bar 42‘Rocks’ is the first single taken from sparrowfeather, the debut EP by JAY SUNAWAY. Now it gets complicated because Jay Sunaway is a they, not a he, a five piece collective led by Joe Woods. ‘Rocks’ is about subterranean London, its lost rivers and its denizens and if you’re a fan of China Miéville you’ll immediately feel at home here. The band combine folk instruments, accordion and fiddle, with bass and drums but without going all folk-rock.  In fact, their music displays great subtlety. The other two tracks, ‘Kittiwake Cry’, about a couple arguing on a beach amid the seabirds’ calls, and ‘Sparrowfeather’, both have a mystery about them: “sparrowfeather or neutron star, I can’t say how good you are”. ‘Rocks’ is available digitally now with ‘Kittiwake Cry’ being released next month and other tracks later. Jay Sunaway is a band we want to hear more from.

Singles Bar 42Following on from last year’s Radio Hymns album, Nashville duo GRANVILLE AUTOMATIC, Vanessa Olivarez and Elizabeth Elkins, return with the all new ‘You Can Go To Hell, I’m Going To Texas’ (own label), a twangily sung, big guitars number that sounds like it’s about a woman giving her lover the heave but is in fact about Davy Crockett’s kiss-off to Tennessee as he headed out west after failing to get elected to the U.S. Congress. In the interest of historical accuracy, however, it should be noted that what he apparently actually said was “Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”

Singles Bar 42Monsters is the new EP by COCO AND THE BUTTERFIELDS. The opening track, ‘Five Bells’, begins with a fast strummed acoustic guitar before the band kicks with a rocking track that’s pretty restrained by their standards. ‘Warriors’ isn’t so laid-back but clever production keeps the vocals high in the mix even when the rest of the Butterfields go into full-on headbanger mode. There are two versions of the title track, the full take and the radio edit, a surprisingly folky sound, at least in the long version, which has a melody that inexplicably brings images of Scottish islands to mind. ‘Battlegrounds’ completes the martial theme.

Singles Bar 42‘LONESOME’ CHRIS TODD is an Irish blues performer, front man of The Hardchargers who released their debut album last year. Now Chris has gone out on a vintage acoustic limb with a debut EP, Dark Horses. Not that there’s anything quiet or wimpy about it. ‘Red Lion Yard’ benefits from an insistent guitar pattern suitable for a song written in the pub car-park where Chris was living in his van. It’s the second of his own songs, the title track being the first, and these are paired with two covers. First is Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Lonesome Dog Blues’ and if that’s still an acoustic guitar, it’s undergone some hefty post-production. That’s followed by Bukka White’s ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’.

Singles Bar 42There isn’t a lot we can tell you about DEAN MAYWOOD other than the fact that he’s Irish and has just released an eponymous EP. The five tracks are acoustic Americana with guitar and harmonica and some clever work going on in the background. The heart-breaking ‘Louisiana’ is probably the best track although ‘Knowing & Lying’ is pretty good, too. Sometimes that clever work gets too clever and there is far too much going on to give the songs a chance.

Singles Bar 42Hailing from the largest of the Aran islands, Irish singer-songwriter PADRAIG JACK gears up for his debut album with new single ‘Minnie’ (Good Deeds Music), a strummed folksy pop tale of a woman in an unhappy marriage who falls for a younger man (who serves as the song’s narrator) and realises there might be love and happiness waiting for her elsewhere. Being a folk song, her new love gets cold feet and does a runner, but she’s now liberated and ultimately ends up finding happiness with someone else.

Singles Bar 42We’re a bit late in reviewing ‘All The Signs Were There’, the latest single by S J DENNEY, his follow-up to ‘Here I Am’ – sorry S J. This time he’s rather more urgent with the drums well up in the mix, a nice rumbling bass and trumpet interventions culminating in a solo break at the end. Someone really should fund S J to make a full album – one song every two months doesn’t give the full picture.

Singles Bar 42JOSHUA BURNELL follows his very fine album, The Road To Horn Fair, with a single, ‘Skylark & The Oak’ featuring his wife, Frances Sladen. Acoustic guitar and harmonies backed by strings recreate the sound of the 60s, at least as we remember it, without imitating anyone. The lyrics have a mystic quality but Joshua insists that it isn’t a love song. Really?

Singles Bar 42‘Spencer Street’ is in Newcastle and is where REN once lived with a girl called Sophie. It begins with just acoustic guitar and slightly bluesy vibe, then a second guitar and a rather tasty lead come in. It’s a lovely nostalgic song and we should hear more of him.

Singles Bar 42MO KENNEY released ‘Ahead Of Myself’ a while ago but he’s touring the UK in July and August so we thought we should mention it. Mo is from Nova Scotia but doesn’t really sound Canadian and the song starts out as folk-rock (more or less) with clever lyrics but gives up pretending and becomes pop.


JOSHUA BURNELL –The Road To Horn Fair (Misted Valley Records MVR19A)

The Road To Horn FairWhile The Road To Horn Fair may follow on from last year’s Songs From The Seasons, a 14-track distillation of his project to record a traditional folk song for every week of the year, it was actually begun prior to that and, as such, is both prequel and sequel. Again, it features his at times idiosyncratic arrangements of traditional folk songs at a time when he was first discovering the genre. As such, he seems to have drawn considerable inspiration from the early Steeleye Span albums and their brand of electric folk, though, having said that, his version of the much covered ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ (presumably so familiar, he didn’t feel the need to include the lyrics) starts off in fiddle-accompanied troubadour manner before firing up into a rumbustious, drum thundering romp featuring the sort of organ solo Jon Lord might have broken into in the middle of a Deep Purple number.

JOSHUA BURNELL and his band performing at the Great British Folk Festival in Skegness in December 2018. Photo by Darren Beech.

In keeping with the medieval-style graphics and font, the album opens with ‘Pastime With Good Company’, a number by that-well Tudor hitmaker, Henry VIII (though some have been so bold as to suggest he might have kept a backroom team of minstrels to write for him), essentially a song about living it large rather than sitting around getting bored. Only 82 seconds long, the first two verses are sung a capella by Burnell and his wife Frances, the band wading in for the last 30 seconds as the track segues into ‘Berkshire Tragedy’, a lesser know variant of the seemingly dozens that exist of ‘Twa Sisters’, the sororicide where one sister drowns the other whose bones and hair wind up being turned into a fiddle that tells the father of her death. Here, learned from James Fagan and Nancy Kerr via the latter’s mother, the girl’s rescued by a miller, only for him to rob her and throw her back in and get hung in turn, the sister getting off scot free.

Equally well-known is ‘Cold Haily Windy Night’, learned from Martin Carthy, drums and electric guitars driving the traditional staple of a young maiden being abandoned by the lover (here a knight banging on her door seeking shelter) she takes to bed, a similar tale being recounted in ‘The Knight And The Shepherdess’. The new tune starts out with a simple arrangement before giving way to a rousing flurry as the wrong maiden stomps off to complain to the King and, refusing to be bought off, demands he make the Knight in question marry her. One hopes she made his life hell.

There’s a brace of instrumentals, the first, ‘Plane Tree & Tenpenny Bit’ combines the old and the relatively new, ‘Plane Tree’ being originally written in 1981 by Frenchman Maxou Heintzen, when it was called ‘Mominette’, then retitled in 1988 by Gary Chapin as ‘Scottish a Bethanie’ in tribute to his wife, before arriving at its current title in the 90s, transformed from 4/4 time to a 6/8 jig courtesy of the late Undine Hornby, Burnell keeping the melodeon, ditching the whistle and loading on the drums. It’s twinned with a lively melodeon romp through the traditional Irish tune also known as ‘Three Little Drummers’. The second instrumental stays in Ireland to hook up ‘Drowsy Maggie and Rakish Paddy’, a suitably fiery union consummated with some nifty banjo work by Ben Burnell.

Returning to the songs, ‘Ah! Robin, Gentyl Robin’ is another dating from the reign of Henry VIII, this time a madrigal composed by William Cornysh in which a young lad laments to a robin how his true love (lemen) fancies another, the three-part round given an Eastern sheen with bouzouki and oud with Frances again evident on vocals.

The song from whence comes the album title, ‘Horn Fair’ could refer to one of at least two fairs by that name. The first, which continues to this day, takes place at Eberboe in Sussex, the highlight of which is a village cricket match in which the winner gets a horned skull. The other has a far more colourful history and relates to how King John gifted the Kent village of Charlton with an annual fair to celebrate the day he cuckolded the local miller. Given that the fair was discontinued in 1874 because of the debauched behaviour of the punters, it’s a reasonable guess from the lyrics about a wench refusing to let ardent suitor ride either her or her grey mare that they refer to that one.

It’s set to two tunes, the first, arranged for acoustic guitar and a musical box sounding glockenspiel, was written by Jon Boden and gives way as the couple arrive at the fair to a carnival carousel instrumental playout taken from the tune Spanish ‘La Benja’, which, translated, as ‘The Witch’ adds an extra resonance to proceedings.

The collections ends with another evergreen,’ Come Ye O’er Frae France?’ which, you will of course, recalls, was included on Steeleye Span’s 1973 album Parcel of Rogues, though Burnell’s version has a far faster pace along with what he terms ‘hyperactive lunacy’ and another excursion into valve distortion organ work before sliding into ‘The Musical Priest’, a rousing Irish reel that sees things out in breathless style.

Accompanied with an annotated lyric booklet and a fold out castle sleeve design by Randy Asplund that features 26 runes arranged in a circle and an 18-line cryptic message also written in runes, this is a fine example of how traditional folk music can be both respected and reinvigorated by a contemporary audience given an artist with the vision and the boldness to take it by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Plane Tree & Tenpenny Bit’ official video:

DAN WEBSTER – Devil Sky (Paper Plane PPR1801)

Devil SkyDan Webster is a British singer-songwriter who has been described as the fusion of folk and country. On his fourth album, Devil Sky, much of the country influence comes from his band which includes Joshua Burnell, of whom we have spoken before, Emily Lawler on violin and Polly Bolton on mandolin who share much of the musical decoration. Dan doesn’t write country songs but sometimes they just turn out that way.

The opening track, ‘Playing Cards & Late Night Bars’, harks back to a song on his second album, catching up with the protagonists ten years on. After a folky introduction it sounds exactly like the title suggests it should and it’s followed by ‘Home Again’, a melancholy road song with a neat lyrical twist and a big arrangement. ‘Bo’ opens with unaccompanied harmony before kicking off into the first really country-sounding song. It’s actually about Dan’s son, Ben, who sings on the track and I guess that the words have a deep meaning for father and son but for the rest of us it’s a fun song.

Some of Dan’s songs have a point to make and ‘Freedom In Suburbia’ is pre-eminent among them. It might be thought a little heavy-handed but the thing is that the title is a threat rather than a celebration which is clever. There’s a great deal of sadness here: ‘Haul Away’, ‘Mary Anne’ and ‘Sand’ are all pretty miserable, beautifully performed but definitely not cheerful. ‘Joe’ is a modern take on a murder ballad with the whole process from unlawful killing to execution condensed into a week with another twist in the tale.

Dan has assembled a very fine band and his production is excellent. That said, Devil Sky, isn’t an album I’d select for a little light listening.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘Playing Cards & Late Night Bars’:

JOSHUA BURNELL – Songs From The Seasons (Misted Valley Records MVR18a)

Songs From The SeasonsIn late December 2015, quite possibly infused by a degree of festive spirits, the York folk musician (his voice not unlike Gerry Colvin) set himself the task of recording his arrangement of a different traditional folk song every week for the next twelve months reflecting the passing of the seasons. Predominantly drawn from the British tradition, but also including European selections, among them Danish ballads and Breton tunes, he created a web page blog for each song, detailing its history and the artists who had recorded and shaped it, posting his and others’ versions on his YouTube channel. Recorded with some twenty-six other musicians, they were divided, rather obviously, into Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. Of those 52, he’s whittled the selection down to 14 for this snapshot of the project, Songs From The Seasons, the majority dedicated to folk scene alumni who have served as inspiration.

It’s not chronological, the album opening in Autumn with a rewrite of ‘Two Magicians’ that gives the misogynistic narrative a female-empowerment slant and features Jack Woods on mandolin with Burnell giving it some Hammond organ stick. Staying in Autumn, the much recorded ‘Tam Lin’ unexpectedly appears here as a lively fiddle-led instrumental. It’s one of four with the equally jaunty others being ‘Behind The Haystack’, a Summer-infused quartet of tunes knocked out on, among others, accordion, bouzouki and whistle, an electric guitar and mandolin-driven ‘King Of The Fairies’ and ‘The Banshee Set’, another medley that starts off sedately with ‘Liisa Pessi’ and gathers pace through ‘The Banshee’ and ‘Farewell to Tchernobyl’ with melodeon, fiddle and auto harp in the mix, both from the Autumn collection.

Indeed, the season of mellow fruitfulness accounts for the majority of choices, the other two being a six and a half minute, slow and stately, sparsely arranged adaptation of the doomed love ballad ‘The Dowie Den Of Yarrow’, dedicated to Shelagh McDonald and featuring some bluesy Hammond work, and the equally lengthy and uncluttered ‘Reynardine The Werefox’ dedicated to and channelling the spirit of Sandy Denny who, of course, sang it on Fairport’s Liege & Lief.

Spring only gets two representations, the first seeing Burnell joined on vocals by Frances Sladen for a Martin Carthy-dedicated marching beat ‘High Germany’. The other, the power-gathering in power Irish traditional number ‘Mrs McGrath’, another ditty about soldiers off to war, here the Peninsula War of the 19th century and a young lad coming home minus his legs to a somewhat unsympathetic welcome from his ma, the recording dedicated to Bruce Springsteen and inspired by his Seeger Sessions.

Returning to Summer, this time with vocals, you get ‘Robin Hood And The Pedlar’, the Child Ballad tale of the pedlar they accost defeating both Robin Hood and Little John played on just guitar bass and mandolin. Sometimes known as ‘Gamble Gold’, it’s dedicated to Barry Dransfield who recorded it on his impossible to find eponymous 1972 album. The second, featuring a subtle arrangement of low whistle, bass, acoustic guitar, drums and Hammond is the album’s classic whaling song closer, ‘Farewell To Tarwathie’, perhaps best known from Judy Collins’ version on Whales And Nightingales, but originally recorded, as per the dedication, by Ewan McColl and A.L.Loyd for their 1956 Thar She Blows! album and revisited by the latter on his 1967 Leviathan! Ballads & Songs of the Whaling Trade.

Which leaves us with Winter, celebrated appropriately with a jazzily percussive and almost Tull-like take on ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’, Matthew Melford on double bass, dedicated to Annie Briggs who popularised it the 60s, followed in turn by a simple arrangement of ‘Lord Franklin’, the shortest number on the album at under three minutes, featuring just Burnell on rippling acoustic guitar and melancholic accordion. The remaining number, at some eight minutes, is ‘The Nightingale’, a tale drawn from Danish folk tradition of a knight, a castle and a bewitched maiden, that, in Burnell’s retelling doesn’t end happily, and set to the Scottish tune ‘Willy O Winsbury’ (which explains the Andy Irvine dedication, having recorded it with Sweeney’s Men) again featuring Sladen on harmonies with Rachel Brown’s cello adding colour to Burnell’s piano tinkles, drums and guitars building the track to a climax in a manner that calls to mind Mike Oldfield.

Disappointingly, the entire 52-strong series is no longer available in its entirety online, but, if this does well enough, perhaps Burnell could be enticed to make the other 38 (which include a version of ‘At The Harbour’ by Renaissance whose Annie Haslam provided the collection’s paintings) downloadable in their original four set form. But, if not, this sampler will see you through the year in fine fettle.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

SINGLES BAR 15 – Merry Christmas Everybody

A round-up of festive EPs and singles

Singles Bar 15It’s been a busy few months for THE CHANGING ROOM, aka Cornish duo Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain. Having released both their Names On A Wall EP for Armistice Day and the Picking Up The Pieces album, featuring mandolin and accordion, they now return for Christmas special, The Magic Of Christmas. Two of the three tracks are sung in Cornish by Kelly, opening with a lovely snowflake waltzing version of The Pretenders’ 1994 festive hit, ‘2000 Miles’ and closing with a chiming frosty air arrangement of the traditional carol ‘Silent Night’. There’s also a snatch of its melody on ‘There’s Magic In Christmas Eve’, which, sandwiched in-between, is penned by Brittain, who, singing in English, accompanies herself on piano as the song swells midway on drums and strings before a gentle fade.

its-christmas-timeIf you’re more a “Bah Humbug” sort of person JOHN CEE STANNARD’s EP, It’s Christmas Time, should be just up your street. Of course, Christmas can be a sad and lonely time for a lot of people and we shouldn’t take that lightly but the blues does seem to lend itself to the season. Black Ace’s ‘Beggin’ Santa Claus’, first recorded in 1937, is the perfect example of how low things can get while Shifty Henry’s ‘Let Me Go Home – It’s Christmas’ is a plea to whiskey to allow a barfly to get home while he still can. The other three songs are by Stannard and, starting with the title track, they get progressively happier and the closing ‘Winter Love’ is almost soppy. We reckon John’s an old softie really.

god-rest‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is a more traditional Christmas single from JOSHUA BURNELL. That said, we’re told that it’s a 15th century protest song – the protest being against the Latin dirges of the church. Joshua gives it an appropriate folk-rock vibe – he usually performs in a trio or a seven-piece band in which Hammond organ features heavily. The second track is ‘The Official Brawle’, a 16th century French dance tune taken at a tasty lick. The tune was, as you all know, co-opted by the church as ‘Ding-Dong Merrily On High’ but Joshua returns it to its original form. Good stuff.

marys-boy-child‘Mary’s Boy Child’ was originally written as a calypso so ANDREW JOHN & LISSA decided to record the backing tracks in Trinidad, adding the vocals back home in Denmark while Jime Hoke recorded his flute part in Nashville. It’s very pretty but I can’t help but I do think that an opportunity to do something really original has been missed. Turn up the steel drums and add a Caribbean choir and think on what it could be.

the-starEMILY MAE WINTERS’ single ‘The Star’ was inspired by lines from John Keats and having a star named after her as a birthday present. It doesn’t actually mention Christmas but it has a nicely seasonal feel. It’s a big, piano-driven song awash with strings. It is available only as a digital download at the moment but it will appear on Emily Mae’s debut album next spring.