THE LOST WORDS – Spell Songs (Folk By The Oak QRCD004)

Having held the unofficial job title “wordsmith” in various contexts for several decades, I was not going to miss the opportunity of hearing and reviewing an album with the title The Lost Words: Spell Songs. Especially as one of the highly-talented musicians involved in the project is Karine Polwart, whose Laws Of Motion CD I reviewed with some enthusiasm here.

It turns out that this is a multi-faceted project with a complicated backstory. Some years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began to replace some of the words it defined with words that were considered to be more in keeping with the lives led by children today, so that words relating to religion and to the natural world – like bird and flower names – were replaced by words related to various aspects of information technology (for example). Robert MacFarlane was one of 28 authors – among the others were Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo, and Andrew Motion – who wrote to Oxford University Press asking them to reconsider, specifically with reference to words “associated with nature and the countryside“. (I don’t intend to get into that argument here, but the OUP’s argument is that while the number of words included in the OJD is a limiting factor, the kind of words that critics want restored do feature in their much-expanded range of dictionaries for children.)

MacFarlane then went on to write a poetry book called The Lost Words: A Spell Book, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, with watercolour illustrations by Jackie Morris. As it says on the web site, the poems in the book “are called ‘spells’ rather than poems as they are designed to be spoken (or sung!) out loud in order to summon back these words and creatures into our hearts.” The book has inspired a number of musical and multi-media projects, but Spell Songs is the result of a collaborative project commissioned by Folk By The Oak. The CD is available in a hardback book format (a limited-edition double vinyl album box set is also available and includes the CD book).

Sadly, the review CD is a promo copy without the book, but it looks from the web site as if the book would be worth the money for the illustrations alone. But while I haven’t seen the ‘spells’ in isolation, the music certainly sets them off beautifully. Here’s the track list.

  1. ‘Heartwood’
  2. ‘Selkie-Boy’
  3. ‘Kingfisher’
  4. ‘Heron’
  5. ‘Little Astronaut’
  6. ‘Acorn’
  7. ‘Ghost Owl’
  8. ‘The Snow Hare’
  9. ‘Conker (Magic Casket)’
  10. ‘Papa Kéba’
  11. ‘Charm on, Goldfinch’
  12. ‘Willow’
  13. ‘Scatterseed’
  14. ‘The Lost Words Blessing’

The eight musicians all contribute vocals, but also contribute individual instruments as follows:

  • Karine Polwart: tenor guitar, Indian harmonium
  • Julie Fowlis: shruti box and whistles
  • Seckou Keita: kora
  • Kris Drever: acoustic, electric & bass guitars
  • Kerry Andrew: melodica
  • Rachel Newton: electroharp, fiddle, viola
  • Beth Porter: whistling, cello, ukulele
  • Jim Molyneux: piano, Rhodes, synth, accordion, drums, percussion

With this range of singers and instrumentalists, there is much more variation in the material presented here than you might have expected, given their common source, though that unifying theme gives each piece an emotional impact that goes far beyond the introspection of run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter fare. The arrangements, singing and playing are all excellent. And I think I know what one of my wife’s birthday presents is going to be this year. That way I get to read the book as well as hearing some very beautiful music.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: https://www.thelostwords.org/

[Book ISBN13: 9780241253588]

‘The Lost Words Blessing’ – official video:

NITEWORKS – Air Faìr An Là (Comann Music, CM002)

Air Faìr An LàIf the combined words “folk” and “electronica” bring on an attack of the vapours, a lie down with the reviving sal volatile of Niteworks’ second album Air Faìr An Là (At Dawn Of Day) might just help. The four Skye lads of Niteworks clearly love their traditional music but, obviously, generations born into techno and its offspring want to reflect contemporary sounds, too. If Martyn Bennett was a pioneer in this field, Niteworks are most ably picking up the reins and forging forward on their own account.

This time around, they’ve engaged top techno producer Alex Menzies (aka Alex Smoke), who overcame his own initial reluctance about the project and has helped to create a vital, full-throttle album that’s subtler than it might at first appear (try the constantly mutating rhythmic pattern punctuating the 1968 spoken-word recording of Skye man, ‘Calum Ruadh MacNeacail’), and definitely stands on its own merits.

Opening with ‘Dookin’’, spacey sonics lope along until first a vibrant fiddle and then pipes drop in, hoisting the melody line across a thumping drumbeat. Kinnaris Quintet’s Fiona MacAskill and her two colleagues provide excellent fiddle parts throughout.

Other guests include Julie Fowlis, whose coolly sparkling vocal soars over ever-intensifying beats in ‘Òran Fir Ghriminis’, and Lewis musician Iain Morrison who brings a slow, atmospheric version of his own song, ‘Like Wolves In The Night’.

SIAN, a trio featuring Ellen MacDonald (recently with Daìmh), deliver crisp vocals on the title track, a waulking song, and also the album’s lead single, reviewed here in a recent Singles Bar. The rapid vocal repetitions are weirdly well-complemented by an ‘80s Kraftwerk-ish bubbling undercurrent. MacDonald’s warm tones also take up ‘Do Dhà Shùil’ (‘Your Two Beady Little Eyes’), a St Kilda lullaby with a soundscape that conjures blowing sand, rattling boat masts and the sea’s sighing fall-rise.

Dragged from the very earth itself is ‘Cumhachd’ (‘Power’ or ‘Energy’): a primal incantation where Allan MacDonald’s hypnotic vocals are slowly subsumed as he picks up the tune on his pipes. More pipes feature on ‘Iain McGee’s’, this time steadily bubbling up through a trance-ish rendering of the tune, before erupting wildly out. In contrast, the increasingly dark, insistent ‘Lùths (Gabh Greim)’ wibbles along, unsteady as an old cassette tape, and closing tune ‘Highlander’s Farewell’ somehow works a traditional strathspey up into what could be an action film car chase soundtrack.

Updating traditional music can be risky, but clearly Niteworks have found their contemporary groove and, right now, they are riding it expertly.

Su O’Brien

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Live at Celtic Connections feat. Julie Fowlis:

Techno-folkies Niteworks release their second album

Niteworks
Photograph by Callum Woodbridge

Air Fàir an Là, the second album by Niteworks releases 17th August, and is the follow up to Niteworks critically acclaimed debut album, NW. The album takes its name, which translates from Gaelic to ‘at dawn of day’, from the album’s lead single which features a song composed by Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, a poet that lived on the Isle of Skye during the 17th Century. The band felt this title appropriately reflects the point where they are on their musical journey; the beginning of something new, different and unknown, with yet more potential to be seized and explored.

Niteworks vision with Air Fàir an Là was to produce a record that blurs the lines between Scottish traditional music and contemporary electronica, by bringing together elements of Gaelic and Scottish folk song, traditional tunes and melodies, all melded together with cutting edge electronica.

Having previously self-produced all their material, Niteworks have changed tack for this new album, and have called upon acclaimed techno producer Alex Menzies (Alex Smoke) to oversee the album’s production. The band, being fans of his solo productions, approached Alex despite him having limited experience of working with a band or experience of Scottish traditional music. The aim of this was to bring a whole new way of thinking and approach to Niteworks’ sound, and has resulted in the perfect combination to bring Niteworks to a new, more diverse audience.

In keeping with the band’s previous work, Air Fàir an Là contains many high-profile collaborations including with Julie Fowlis, one of the most successful and high-profile Gaelic musicians of all time. Other collaborators include Lewis born singer and multi-instrumentalist Iain Morrison, traditional string ensemble Kinnaris Quintet and up-and-coming band of three of Scotland’s finest Gaelic singers SIAN, who feature on the lead single. The album also features Ellen MacDonald, winner of the 2016 Gaelic singer of the year at the MG Alba Scots Trad music awards, whose contribution on Air Fàir an Là, marks the first time she has recorded with the band despite having performed live on numerous occasions.

Keen to ensure the entire package reflects the high-quality standards of the band, the album features stunning photography from acclaimed landscape photographer, Dougie Cunningham of Leading Lines. The front and inside album covers features an illuminated Niteworks logo in locations around the Isle of Skye, creating a dramatic backdrop to the Niteworks brand.

Innes Strachan of Niteworks said, “working with a producer has something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and to get the opportunity to do this with someone as high profile as Alex is absolutely amazing. Alex brought the whole album together in a way that doesn’t just sound like a collection of tracks, and we’re now excited for people to hear the results”.

Alex Menzies said, “having never worked with a band before, or had many dealings with traditional music, I was not the obvious choice for Niteworks to work with. As it turned out, it was a chance to think without preconceptions and work outside my comfort zone. As the band are all accomplished musicians and producers already, I was really just there to add noise and make things messier. I gained a lot from the experience and really enjoyed working with the band. I have a genuine new regard for traditional music, and this may well see further exploration.”

Iain Morrison said ‘I’ve been a fan of Niteworks so it was really lovely to be asked to collaborate on their new record. They are grounded in their roots but they’re also pushing into new ground so it’s going to be exciting to see where they go with it. Just a great band’.

Air Fàir an Là feat. SIAN, is the first release from Niteworks second album, of the same name. It was released on the 13th July with a supporting video by up-and-coming Scottish film maker Dòl Eoin MacKinnon.

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Air Fàir an Là is available for pre-order now from Niteworks bandcamp, and will be available for purchase, download and to stream across all major platform iTunes, Spotify, Amazon etc., from the 17th of August 2018.

Niteworks and Julie Fowlis live at Celtic Connections:

Nick Drake to be inducted into the Folk Awards Hall Of Fame

Photograph courtesy of Village Voice

This year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, held at Belfast Waterfront on 4 April, will see singer-songwriter Nick Drake inducted into the Folk Awards Hall of Fame.

Folk musician and producer Dónal Lunny will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award and the Armagh Pipers Club will be presented with the Good Tradition Award.

One of folk music’s annual highlights, the event presented by Mark Radcliffe and Julie Fowlis sees some of the biggest names celebrate the thriving folk scene of the UK and beyond. Dónal Lunny and the Armagh Pipers Club will join previously announced Cara Dillon, Paul Brady, Lankum and Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band to perform on stage at the prestigious event in Belfast.

Mike Edgar, Head of Entertainment and Events, BBC Northern Ireland, says: “We are so thrilled that the Radio 2 Folk Awards have chosen to come to Belfast. This part of the world boasts some of the finest musicians and singers on the planet, a fact that is being truly reflected in the line-up for this year’s event. So much talent in one room on one night – it’s sure to be a stunning evening and we look forward to sharing it with everyone on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio Ulster and also BBC Four and BBC Northern Ireland.”

The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Hall of Fame exists to celebrate significant people who have made a lasting impression on folk music, and have since passed away. In 2018, the year in which he would have turned 70, the inductee will be the singer and songwriter Nick Drake.

Drake’s music didn’t garner commercial success during his lifetime, but decades after his early death at the age of 26, his music would find a wide and reverent audience. Drake left relatively little music behind; only three full studio albums were recorded: Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972). Featuring sublime and original guitar work, intimate vocals and distinctive pastoral strings, those records became classics. Produced by Joe Boyd and John Wood, the music was heavy with meaning and mood and, ultimately, highly influential on singer-songwriters of all kinds.

Actor Gabrielle Drake, Nick’s elder sister, will be present at the Radio 2 Folk Awards and the evening will see a special performance of one of Nick Drake’s songs. Gabrielle is an actor of stage and screen and became well known in the 1970’s for her role in television series The Brothers and UFO, and later in Crossroads and Coronation Street.

On Nick being inducted into the Folk Awards Hall of Fame, Gabrielle says:

“I think Nick would have been quietly amazed, amused but above all, honoured. And, indeed, grateful. As I am on his behalf.”

During the evening, musician and producer Dónal Lunny will receive a prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to folk music. He is widely regarded as being central to the renaissance of Irish music over the last three decades.

Born in Tullamore in the midlands of Ireland, Dónal grew up in Newbridge, Co. Kildare. He was founding member of several of Ireland’s important bands including Planxty, The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, Coolfin, and more recently, Mozaik, plus he has produced some of the most significant albums of the traditional music revival since the ’70s. An adept musician and player of the bouzouki, guitar and bodhrán, Dónal has also produced tracks for, and performed on albums with international stars such as Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, Clannad, and Baaba Maal. He has written music for many films and theatre productions, and at present, performs with Andy Irvine, DoZoMo, Paddy Glackin, Atlantic Arc Orchestra, and Usher’s Island, and continues with composition, production and teaching.

The evening will also see the Armagh Pipers Club presented with the Good Tradition Award, to recognise their contribution to the preservation, dissemination and progression of traditional music over a number of years.

Founded in 1966 to promote and teach Irish traditional music, the Armagh Pipers Club is an educational charity. Although its original focus was the revival of Ireland’s elbow-driven uilleann bagpipes (pronounced ‘ill-un’), the club rapidly expanded into teaching many other traditional instruments. The club currently provides classes to over 200 students, children and adults, drawn from Armagh and seven neighbouring counties. Many Pipers Club students have gone on to successful professional careers in traditional music, and the contribution of the organisation to the folk scene in Ireland has been immense.

The club’s director, Brian Vallely, who with his wife Eithne founded the organisation, says:

“The Good Tradition Award has had many worthy recipients, ranging from Celtic Connections to Meredydd Evans, John McCusker, Steeleye Span, the Cambridge Folk Festival, the Transatlantic Sessions series and many others – so we are in exalted company. Over five decades, the hundreds of tutors and students who have been associated with the club have made a significant contribution to the survival and development of the traditional music of Ireland, as has the club’s ground-breaking series of tutor books since their first publication in 1972. The recognition of our work through this prestigious award will help the club to maintain its high profile nationally and indeed internationally.”

In addition to the Lifetime Achievement and Good Tradition awards, prizes will be awarded in the following categories on the night: Folk Singer of the Year, Best Duo, Best Group, Best Album, Horizon Award, Musician of the Year, Best Original Track, Best Traditional Track and the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award.

The Radio 2 Folk Awards 2018 will welcome an array of guest presenters to present winners with their awards, including Finbar Furey, who is a multi-instrumental folk musician, best known for his band of brothers, The Fureys. Past guest presenters have included Sir David Attenborough, Sharleen Spiteri, Sir Ray Davies, Pauline Black, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Martin Freeman, Sandie Shaw and Sean Bean.

Tickets for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in Belfast are available from bbc.co.uk/radio2, and the event will be simulcast live from 7.30-9pm on BBC Radio 2 and Radio Ulster. After the show, selected highlights will be available to watch at bbc.co.uk/radio2, and a highlights programme will be broadcast on both BBC Four and BBC Northern Ireland the weekend after the event, and available on BBC iPlayer following that.

The Radio 2 Folk Awards are a 7digital Creative production for Radio 2 and produced by Kellie While and Jon Lewis.

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BLUE ROSE CODE – The Water Of Leith (Navigator NAVIGATOR103)

Water Of LeithBlue Rose Code, aka Ross Wilson, has a deservedly growing reputation, with luminaries as diverse as Edith Bowman, Ewan McGregor and Ian Rankin among his fans. Time Out described the music as “Imagine John Martyn meeting a young Van Morrison and being shipwrecked with bundle of Chet Baker records.” The Water Of Leith, the new album, is released on October 27th.

Sometimes in the clatter and busyness of modern life we miss out on more sophisticated gems which don’t leap out and hit us in the face. I’ve just spent a week in rural France, mostly surrounded by stillness but also with CDs to review. And with time and quietude to really hear, I discovered The Water Of Leith to be one of those sophisticated gems.

Wilson has said, “I’m passionate about that fusion of folk and jazz and where it intersects with songwriting”. He has returned to his roots in Scotland and the album has award winning singers (Julie Fowlis, Kathleen MacInnes) and jazz musicians (Konrad Wisznewski, Seonaid Aitken, John Lowrie, Colin Steele and James Lindsay) creating the sound. The Water Of Leith strolls easily across those borders and intersections, melding Scottish music and jazz as stunningly as Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill have been finding new power and beauty in Irish music by similarly combining different traditions.

The first three tracks are more broadly accessible and likely to get the greater radio play on non-specialist programmes. The remaining nine tracks, though, take you somewhere different, somewhere unique, those borders and intersections between jazz and folk – like that world you capture occasionally in the very early morning where the dawn mixes with the rising mist and you see and hear with a clarity that will be gone in twenty minutes. There are songs where the interplay of vocal and instrument create the mood (‘Passing Places’, ‘Sandaig’) and there are others where the interplay is between instruments (notably the two extended tracks ‘The Water’ and ‘To The Shore’ – the two tracks combining into seventeen minutes of sheer delight if you can find a quiet place to listen).

Blue Rose Code are touring in November to coincide with the release of the new album, dates to be found on their website (see below). In the meantime have a listen, a proper listen, to ‘Scotland Yet’ which was recorded earlier this year in Glasgow – and feel the hairs tingle on your neck.

Mike Wistow

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Artist’s website: https://bluerosecode.com / https://bluerosecode.com/live

‘Scotland Yet’ live:

Blue Rose Code (Ross Wilson) announces new album

Blue Rose Code

Blue Rose Code, aka acclaimed singer-songwriter Ross Wilson, releases The Water Of Leith, his first album for Navigator Records on October 27 on CD, download and album stream.

A nomad both geographically and musically, Ross writes from the heart eschewing any specific genre and the twelve new songs on The Water Of Leith, addressing themes of love, loss, travel, home, accepting the past and embracing the future, are painted with colours of folk, jazz, soul and pop; an eclecticism that has become a hallmark of Blue Rose Code and has seen him compared to John Martyn, Van Morrison and Tom Waits.

Underlining the sense of movement and place in Ross’s work and The Water Of Leith is rooted in his return to his Scottish homeland. There, he reconnected with the stellar musicians who were to become an integral part of the new album’s sound: multi award-winning singer Julie Fowlis, celebrated Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes, BBC Folk Award Winner, Ross Ainslie, 2017’s Scottish Jazz Awards’ instrumentalist of the year Konrad Wiszniewski, leading violinist Seonaid Aitken and three of Scotland’s finest jazz musicians; John Lowrie, Colin Steele and James Lindsay, to name just some of the contributors. Grammy-winning American singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman features on the opening track. Ross co-produced the album with Angus Lyon.

Blue Rose Code will tour extensively around the release of The Water Of Leith, including concerts at Edinburgh Queen’s Hall on November 3, London Bush Hall on November 14, Perth Concert Hall on November 20 and two nights at Harbour Arts in Irvine on November 24 and 25.

In the space of a few short years and the release of well-received albums North Ten, The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, and And Lo The Bird Is On The Wing, Blue Rose Code has built a growing reputation as a powerful writer and performer, gaining extensive radio play and the praise of key broadcasters including Edith Bowman, Mary Ann Kennedy, Bob Harris and also actor Ewan McGregor who made a cameo appearance on And Lo The Bird Is On The Wing after commenting: “My uncle Denis Lawson (star of Local Hero) gave me a copy of The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, it’s beautiful and I can’t stop listening to it.” Author Ian Rankin is also a fan and has written insightful sleeve notes for the new album.  The Water Of Leith marks another step forward for Ross: his first record in recovery following a personal history overcoming alcoholism and addiction.

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‘Grateful’ – live at RTE: