I loved Chris Cleverley’s first album, Apparitions, which appeared in 2015. That was four years ago so he hasn’t rushed into recording his follow-up. In that time he’s written and performed, formed a trio with Kim Lowings and Kathy Pilkinton and made lots more friends, several of whom appear here. Although a skilled interpreter of traditional material and other people’s songs, Chris has gone down the songwriter route. The twelve songs here are all original; there’s one co-write with Sam Kelly who also co-produced the album. For the avoidance of any doubt let me say now that We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold is a stunning piece of work.
These are deep, serious songs although Chris leavens them with humour. The opener, ‘The Arrows And The Armour’, is a witty love song decorated by Jamie Francis’ banjo and Katie Stevens’ flute and I guarantee that by the end the song you’ll be hooked. ‘Scarlet Letter’ is a reworking of the first part of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel and the thing is that Chris doesn’t make Hester Prynne sound terribly sorry for her action.
‘I Can’t Take It’ is an odd meditation on the effect that events have on shaping our personalities and then comes the title track. It feels vaguely Orwellian and it might help if you’ve watched Mr Robot, which I haven’t. Like ‘I Can’t Take It’, it uses health care as a metaphor and Chris is right: we have sat back and watched it unfold and look at the mess we’re in. ‘A Voice For Those Who Don’t Have One’ considers mental health in a way that is very simple to relate to and by the end it has crept up on you. I confess that it brought a tear to my eye. It leads smoothly into ‘Happy And Proud’, a song about gender identity and ‘The Ones Like Ourselves’ which is…well…a song for people who don’t really fit in. I can relate to that.
Chris takes a side-step into history with ‘Madame Moonshine’. I’m still trying to decide if it’s about what he says it’s about or something other. Victorian perversity lives in the song – even reading the words leads you into a Dickensian world – and the strangeness of the music can bring on a shudder. The co-write, ‘The Low Light Low’ is based melodically on ‘The Golden Vanity’ but only just and lyrically it’s completely different. At this point I’d pretty much decided that Chris Cleverley was living up to his name and playing mind games with his listeners by writing a song about something and then feeding us a line.
Musically, We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold is a weighty album. I should mention Evan Carson and Lukas Drinkwater on percussion and bass, Graham Coe on cello and Marion Fleetwood and Hannah Martin on violins and viola who worked to produce this wall of sound. Some of songs I’ll need to puzzle out a bit more but the music makes them very easy to listen to. Unless several truly astonishing things turn up before December this will be one of my albums of the year.
A new Bristol-based folk four-piece comprising pure-voiced singer Anita Dobson, Claire Hamlen on fiddle, guitarist Ant Miles and Joe Hamlen providing bass, banjo and harmonium. Produced by Lukas Drinkwater, their debut, Fragment, mixes together two originals by Dobson, six traditional arrangements and a notable cover. Taking the self-penned material first, the six and a half minute ‘The White Gown’ actually sound like some Child ballad involving an impoverished brother and sister who, orphaned and made wards of the parish become servants to the local lord and lady and end up being transported to Australia and separated for stealing the white linen they toil to wash. Built around sparse pulsing percussion, scraped guitar strings and metronomic rhythm it interpolates a fiddle-led interlude excerpt of ‘Men Of Argyll’. Of similar feel, the other, opening unaccompanied before Hamlen’s lurching fiddle appears, is ‘The Grey Of The Water’ which, as you might suspect is about love lost through drowning, and, repeating the first verse at the end draws on colour imagery interposes a snatch of the hornpipe ‘King Of The Faeries’.
The album opens with a rousing harmonium and click percussion take on the familiar traditional chestnut ‘The Blacksmith’ to be followed by a six-minute version of ‘I’ll Weave My Love A Garland’ with pizzicato plucked banjo. Robert Burns’s much covered ‘My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose’ gets another outing and manages to come up smelling fresh, the two others from the well-thumbed songbooks being a musically variegated ‘Hares On The Mountain’ that starts on drone and blossoms into a fiddle finale and, opening on a clock ticking chime and plucked fiddle before wheezing harmonium arrives, ‘William Taylor’, an arrangement that again dusts off the cobwebs.
They close with the cover, a spare reading of Suzanne Vega’s ‘The Queen And The Soldier’ that features some fine bass work with Claire Hamlem harmonising, at times calling The McGarrigles to mind and serving as both an inspired conclusion to a hugely impressive debut and the first steps taken along the road to a surely acclaimed future career.
Its been a while since we chatted to those 3 Daft Monkeys, so thought it was high time we caught up with them at the New Forest Folk Festival.
One of my lasting beer aerobic memories was standing with Tim and Athene at a festival watching a band years ago, I dropped my pint in a moment of madness and somehow it landed right side up on the grass, without spilling a drop. That is the effect those Monkeys have you, its never a dull moment with them around.
So, with beer secured, Paul Johnson and I arranged to meet Tim Ashton (with surprise guest Arlo) in the Artists Garden to have our chat. We talk about Glastonbury, what they have been up to recently, the Giant Pink Castle, what’s been happening since Lukas Drinkwater left the band and the new line up featuring Rich Mulryne (percussion/vocals) and Jamie Graham (bass).
We also talk about the most recent album ‘Year of the Clown’, the idea behind it and also plans for a new album. Tim talks about the Busking festivals in Italy and Switzerland and Arlo’s hula-hoop show. Finally, we speak about the rest of the tour this year and where you can go to see them jump around the stage all night.
The interview should start playing automatically, if not click on the play button below to listen.
A musical meeting of minds at a writing retreat led by Kathryn Williams led to Waterson, the daughter of Lal Waterson as, as such, English folk royalty, and Stroud-based Australian singer Emily Barker writing a song entitled ‘I’m Drawn’.
That, a dark, dank foliage folk plucked banjo number featuring cello and their two voices, now appears as part of this first collaborative album, produced by multi-instrumentalist Adem Ilhan, another attendee at the retreat, and featuring contributions by Lukas Drinkwater on guitar and bass and drummer Rob Pemberton. Following this initial collaboration, the pair continued to meet, at their respective home, to write these other songs that push their respective folk boundaries into other fields.
First up comes the pensive (and perhaps project descriptive) people watching title track with its eerie lyrics (“I’m a fly on the wall.. a lone ghost taking notes”) and sombre bass and cello, the mood immediately upended with the walking beat and handclaps of Richard Thompson meets The Bangles folk rock ‘Perfect Needs’.
A personal favourite is the hypnotic ‘Little Hits Of Dopamine’, a vaguely Eastern rhythmic chug with clicking percussion, trippy double bass groove and nervy banjo about social media addition with its “instant gratification” and “one click communication”.
Opening with and featuring thumb piano, the heady musical atmosphere continues on the alt-folk ‘All Is Well’, another Eastern snakelike rhythm weaving around traditional folk roots that calls to mind Robert Plant’s experiments in melding different folk cultures. The mood and tempo’s sustained as Barker takes lead on the late 60s psychedelia-shaded ‘We Don’t Speak Anytime’, a pulsing drone and sparse bass underpinning the vocally shared slow coma JOMO waltz ‘Drinks Two and Three’.
Barker’s spooked, plucked banjo provides the bedrock to ‘I’m Drawn’, the harmonies kicking in on the chorus, nimble fingerpicked acoustic taking over on the folksiest number, ‘Twister’ which, with lines like “he’s an eight ball” and the refrain “Let’s stay curious”, musically calls to mind the solo work of Linda Thompson or, perhaps more so, daughter Kami, at least until it suddenly takes off into a brief bridge of backward sounds.
The creative balance has, generally speaking, Waterson providing the lyrics and Barker the music, but the latter does have one lyric of her own, albeit ‘Disarm’ being just a 57 second naked bluesy track written at the retreat with Adem and set to a music box backing created by making holes in a paper scroll and then then fed through the machine to create the sound.
‘It’ll Be Good’ returns to piano for a lovely apology for not “being in the mood to be a person today”, Barker’s echoey distant backing vocals counterpointing Waterson’s note of weary self-convincing optimism before treated whispery vocals misleadingly introduce ‘Trick Of The Light’ which then, anchored by Drinkwater’s bass and reveals itself as a sultry sung 40s jazzy blues that echoes Barker’s own most recent album. After mention of illumination, it ends with the achingly beautiful ‘Going Dark’, a slow and soulful dual vocal piano waltz around the ballroom of depression (“when I go so low, when I go dark”) that dances with the ghost of Sandy Denny to a cello serenade.
The press release describes the album as a truly special one-off collaboration. Let’s hope not.
Following on from the Devon duo’s debut EP and 2016’s Live At Hope Hall, singer/guitarist Tobias Ben Jacob and Lukas Drinkwater (everything else) now release their first studio album, a collection of nine self-penned songs and their arrangement of one traditional number that weaves a melancholic mood but, as Cohen put it, with cracks where the light gets in.
Indeed, that’s exactly how it starts with ‘Song Of The Sun’, a melodically cascading dawn chorus as Jacob sings about how “the light pours in upon our golden slumbers”, waking to a new day amid the rhythms of the ancient English landscape, the lyric drawing on the folklore motif of the sleeping giant.
The title track strikes a note of nostalgia, Jacob recounting over Drinkwater’s piano notes and acoustic guitar, how, in 1934, the Lancashire town of Walton-le-Dale was witness to an aeronautical display by Royal Flying Corps veteran Sir Alan Cobham’s flying circus, a jumping off memory to ride the time stream and recall the Lancashire cotton mills and their smoky chimneys, an image of industrialisation offset by lines that speak of breezes blowing through cornfields, of corncrakes and willow warblers singing as the song becomes a lament for the loss of such halcyon days to the march of technology.
The mood of reverie continues into romantic realms on ‘Real Love’, which, caressed by a bowed double bass, is both a yearning to find the grail the title offers and an openhearted pledge of devotion (“I’ll treat you right no matter what you heard/I’ll be someone you can believe in”) and offering a haven in troubled times (“you come to me with wounded wings/Lost and broken hearted/In golden light come gather all your dreams around me/We’ll be alright”).
In stark contrast, again with double bass as its pulse, ‘There’s A Shadow On The Sun’, Drinkwater also providing harmonies, was written after reading accounts of life in war-torn Syria sung in the voice of a man whose wife was taken from him in a bombing raid (“I held her hand I watched her die”), his heart, like thousands of others in the war torn country, consumed by darkness, leaving him and the Syrian people, to paraphrase Cohen, “a thousand sorrows deep.”
“There’s a great sadness in this world”, sings Jacob resignedly in the closing refrain, leading appositely to ‘Nottamun Town’, a medieval English folk song, given a stark, funeral march arrangement (reminding that Dylan borrowed the melody for ‘Masters Of War’) with icy piano trills and reworked and additional lyrics to enhance its anti-war sentiments, the reference to longboats possibly a nod to the fact that, following their invasion of East Anglia, Vikings likely established a settlement in what would become Nottinghamshire.
Coming up the years, set to a ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ circling bass line, ‘Imagined Letter #4’ pairs a note to a lost love (“I rarely talk about you to my friends/Last week I thought I saw you coming down the stairs/How the heart sinks even as it bends”) with a commentary on increasing social alienation (“Everyone here seems so self-absorbed”) and the changing face of London (“they’re closing down the units and the old café/Sold them all to new millionaires…And nobody at the top seems to care”), Jacob’s lament echoing Elizabeth Smart (or maybe Ashley Hutchings) in the line “By Liverpool Street Station I sat down and wept.”
But while “Maybe romance is dead as a theme these days”, there’s yet a glimmer of hope (“I still have my suitors so I must be lovable”) and even though “Time is the eternal boat/That carries all our dreams away”, he still calls to stand “weary wings unfurled”, “exercise the voluntary muscles of the heart” and, conjuring Dylan Thomas, to “oppose those dying days/Don’t let your spark burn away”.
Thematically channelling Steve Winwood, crooned over acoustic guitar and double bass, ‘Higher Love’ continues the album’s positive trajectory away from the darkness (“seven days in a line/Each one came to pass a little better than the last”) for, although “the heart is a fragile thing”, “we rise with the morning sun…distil the life and sing”.
Graced with the line “the air it quivered like the tuning fork of all creation”, opening with whistling behind the acoustic guitar notes, the summery, sun-drenched ‘Iridescent Light’, its choppy rhythm and vocals conjuring Paul Simon, is an untrammelled celebration of life (“I woke up laughing madly and I don’t know why”) with the dawn unfolding as a “symphony of murmuration/An undulation fluttering through the sky” , of optimism (“I said that this could be the day our plans all come together”) even in the face of depression (“I asked you if you’d be alright/You said I don’t know if I ever will”).
Given the Simon echoes here, it’s perhaps no accident that, while their pacings are completely different, slowly unfurling on Spanish guitar and double bass, ‘Polaroid’ kind of plays as their answer to ‘Kodachrome’ in its reference to photographs as memories, the song also a nod to the healing power of music (“I wanted you to know/The song you wrote it helped me out when I was low”) and, once again, drawing on the image of new dawns (“I awoke, kissed my sleeping wife/And fell into the open arms of this life”).
For all the gloom, despondency, pain and loss that cast their shadows, ultimately the album serves a reminder that, as the bowed bass and piano-accompanied, hymnal-like closing track with its oohing backing vocals says, ‘It’s Still A Beautiful World’ and that, while we may be exiles on life’s weary road, poor wayfarers and disaffected refugees, we still have the capacity to “listen for the ocean in the shell”, to balance “a pocket full of heartbreak” with “a headful of heaven”, to find comfort and refuge in another’s love, to feel the joy of a newborn child and know that while empires may pass away, “the sun will rise just like it did today.” Throw back the curtains and let this album illuminate the chambers of your soul.
Mike Turnbull’s debut, Circlet Of Gold, was a delightful vignette that began with the landscape of his native Lake District and told stories from here, there and everywhere. He sang and played every note but it was inevitable that he would stretch his metaphorical wings. …In So Small A Compass is produced by Lukas Drinkwater who also plays bass, guitar, banjo and percussion with Ciaran Algar on fiddle and Ewan Carson on bodhran.
On the first play I just gathered impressions. Mike hasn’t strayed far from the landscape – and seascape, for that matter – and birds feature heavily as a motif. Indeed, the sound of chattering birds leads into the opening ‘Seek Thy Brother’ which takes as its starting point the children’s magpie rhyme and maybe the old adage that if you see a lot of crows together, they’re rooks. Of course, it’s all a metaphor. ‘Boat Thief Song’ seems to stem from a memory of youthful mischief and is decorated by country tinged fiddle from Ciaran. Memories and birds appear again in ‘Heart Shaped Wood’, somewhere Mike probably knows well just like the landscapes he’s walking in ‘Between Breaths’ and ‘Sycamore Gap’, a song about the building of Hadrian’s Wall.
Mike is a fine story-teller, as his debut proved, so ‘Louisa’ isn’t about a lady but the famous overland launch of the Lynmouth lifeboat to Porlock in the teeth of a gale back in 1899. I’ve compared Mike to Seth Lakeman before (although I’m not sure he agrees with me) but this is just the sort of song that Seth would write. Sorry Mike. …In So Small A Compass is rather more poetic than I was expecting so ‘Edge Of The Map’ could be a tale of mediaeval sailors or, more likely, a metaphor for striking out in a new direction. There is nostalgia in ‘Lakeland Heart’ and romance in ‘Seabirds’ Call’ but also a sense of practicality – the couple are on the sea in a small boat travelling “once around the island” so there is no time to be soppy.
This is clearly a big step forward from Circlet Of Gold – much as I liked that record – but what is most impressive is the fact that Mike’s songwriting has maintained its quality. …In So Small A Compass is all meat and no filler.