GREG HANCOCK –The State of My Hair (own label)

The State Of My HairAn intoxicating musical and lyrical cocktail of Al Stewart and Ray Davies, infused with his own unique brilliance as a guitarist and songwriter, for his follow up to 2017’s A303, Devon based Hancock mines memories from childhood to middle age, from hanging out with fellow teens playing at being grown ups drinking ‘Thunderbird Wine’ to seeing the ‘Creases And Marks’ slowly appearing in the mirror.

The telescoping of time that underpins the album is laid out in the opening track, ‘My Mother (And The State Of My Hair)’, beginning with a wash of electronics and sampled sounds out of which gradually emerge the keyboards, drums and guitar for a song that starts in 1928 with the discover of penicillin, the 1930s Wall Street Crash and the birth of his mother, throwing in a reference to Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ on a blues and jazz tinged number that, embellished by trumpet, muses on the unreliability of memory.

Featuring Kathryn Tremlett’s violin and Jo Hooper’s cello double tracked into a string quartet, ‘Sarky Sally’ has Hancock playing a Puerto Rican cuatro on a song recalling a sharp-tongued schoolfriend who could make people laugh but “couldn’t make them happy”, schooldays also informing ‘Christopher’, a cello-accompanied composite portrait of a misfit coloured with a fair degree of autobiography.

A lively instrumental flavoured with strings, brass, accordion and euphonium, ‘Odyssey FC’ is a tip of the hat to the old Southend-on-Sea folk club that set him on his current career path, while, at nearly six minutes, ‘The Men In A Pub’ calls Pete Atkin to mind as, to simple fingerpicked acoustic, he reminiscences on three old codgers that used to inhabit the local pub’s snug bar on another number about time passing.

Featuring Ben Homer on piano and Devon-based music manager and promoter Katie Whitehouse on backing vocals, the waltztime ‘Four Spanish Words’ moves the album on to 1999 and an unreciprocated love that, in tandem with being broke, led Greg to relocating to Saudi Arabia, romantic disappointment being briefly alleviated when he was 40 by the short but passionate Paris affair commemorated in the all-acoustic fingerpicked ‘One Weekend’.

If you’ve ever met up for a reunion with someone you’ve not seen in years only, like a cornered animal, to remember why, then the rain-washed bluesy moodiness of ‘Coffee And Cake’, guitar complemented by warm sousaphone, cello and euphonium, will strike a chord, though whether you’d have the same courage to unleash the beast and speak your thoughts is another matter.

Featuring just acoustic guitar and subtle electronics, ‘A Cube Of Space’ is a particularly poignant moment, the first verse recalling an unsettling dream about his mother and the second an observation of his father succumbing to the slow ravages of dementia (“for a moment it seems there mighty yet be a trace left of the man she met when she was twenty-three”).

Another six-minute number, Ashley Height’s lap steel imparting country colours to its strum, ‘The Way Of These Things’ returns to his relocation to Saudi Arabia, subsequently followed by a move to Abu Dhabi and, a decade or so later, a return to the UK, giving rise to a song that considers and accepts the often transient nature of even close relationships, whether you’re in a country or a marriage.

It ends, appropriately, with the lazing, dappled melody of ‘Bedtime Now’, looking back on childhood and youth for a reflection on changing attitudes to bedtime, being sent upstairs by his mother or, in his teens, getting up at 5am or rolling in after dawn, the song coming up the years, looking for a beacon in the dark, and ending on an optimistic note, still leaving for work at five, but warmed throughout the day by the image of someone still in the bed he’s had to leave, waiting on his return.

Reflective and wistfully melancholic, but suffused with the warm glow of a life lived, his songs speak of lessons learned, hearts broken, people lost to time and of dreams that refuse to fade with the years. It may be very personal, but the feelings and experiences strike universally recognisable notes. Baldly put, it’s locking good.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

Promo video:

KATIE SPENCER – Weather Beaten (own label GUK-PR002KRS)

Weather BeatenRalph McTell has likened the Yorkshire progressive folk singer-songwriter’s guitar playing to Bert Jansch. I’d not disagree, but I’d also suggest Davy Graham and Wizz Jones have also helped shape her highly distinctive and often esoteric patterns and structures, while she herself cites Roy Harper, John Martyn and Laura Marling among her influences.

Produced by Spencer Cozens, who, of course, collaborated with Martyn, and accompanied by Tom Mason on double bass, percussionist Miles Bould and Martin Winning on woodwind, this is her album debut following two EPs, and is very much informed by the East Riding landscape in terms of atmosphere, mood and imagery.

She opens with, at just over two minutes, the shortest track, ‘Incense Skin, with its circling crystal shimmering fingerpicked guitar and double bass bookending the poetic four line lyric. It sets the musical mood and the war, intimate vocal style for the subsequent ‘Drinking The Same Water’ with its lightly dappled melody, Bould’s subtle percussive shadings and a lyric in which simple actions, like counting the trees on the way to school or washing her hands, prompt thoughts about an absent parent, wondering if they are doing the same and thinking of her.

Coloured with clarinet, the title track follows, again with a circling guitar and touching on a fractured relationship, unexpectedly seeing the face of a former (and jealous) lover across a room, things shifting into jazzier guitar territory for ‘You Came Like A Hurricane’, an almost 90-second instrumental intro giving way to a more lyrically upbeat number about finding new love (outside a supermarket), the sort that feels like discovering twenty pound notes under your duvet.

Continuing in the same vein of weather imagery, the languidly sung ‘Hello Sun’ has a lovely summer afternoon vibe and a lyric about looking to spend some time in the sunshine again after having been hanging out for too long with the darkness; for some inexplicable reason it reminds me of Melanie.

A delicate, pastoral folk instrumental that serves to showcase her guitar virtuosity, Helsa (which may or may not connect to the Norwegian for saying hello) provides the bridge to the album’s second half which gets underway with ‘Too High Alone’, a parting song (“today you have your boots on”) that, featuring Winning’s clarinet, has vague musical hints of ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’.

Albeit with some minor tweaks to the lyrics, the sole traditional number is an arrangement of (fittingly) ‘Spencer The Rover’, a folk staple that’s been recorded by, among others, Shirley Collins, The Copper Family and John Martyn, and, while taken a slightly more uptempo pace, it’s his reading this most recalls. Interestingly, while the lyric has mention of Spencer rambling in Yorkshire, only one variant of the song has ever been collected in the county, in 1907, as sung by George Hall in Hooton Roberts, which, as per the song lyrics, is “near Rotherham”.

Another parting song, ‘The Best Thing About Leaving’ is structured in two parts, opening with a bluesy feel, Andalucian tones etched on resonant Spanish guitar to a wind-like drone backdrop, and the strongest indication of Martyn’s influence, the first two lines of the lyric followed by a lengthy instrumental passage before, just over half way in, the track shapeshifts for a more lilting section containing the remaining uplifting two verses.

Featuring sampled bird trills, it ends with ‘The Hunter’, the album’s most musically fluid and upbeat track, riding a rippling rhythm and hand percussion with lyrics that melds images of both restlessness (“the cuckoo flew this morning”) and permanence (“discontent with rented goods”) as she sings “I am not the hunter you say I am/The bird’s nest it’s always in my head/Never in my hands”.

McTell calls her a musical weaver threading tapestries of song. Long may her loom spin.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘You Came Like A Hurricane’ – live:

THE LEYLINES – Recover Reveal (own label)

Recover RevealBased in Weston-super-Mare, with numbers like ‘Breakout’, False Hope’, the rhythmically choppy ‘This Is Your Life’ and the aptly titled ‘Kicking Up A Storm’, the five-piece collective’s second album, Recover Reveal, bolsters their claim to be included alongside the likes of Skinny Lister, McDermott’s 2 Hours, Ferocious Dog, and The Levellers in the roll call of rowdy British folk punk. However, there’s more shadings to them than just that. Featuring the sterling violin skills of Hannah Johns, The stomping ‘Control’, ‘Long Way From Home’ and break-up number ‘In My Head’ are all rousing examples of urgent contemporary fiddle-driven folk rock while, in distinct contrast, the narrative lyric title track is a downbeat slow sway ballad about moving on and starting over and ‘In Your Shadow’ extends its fingerpicked guitar lines and pulsating rhythm over six ebb and flow minutes as it moves from spare acoustic to more anthemic heights.

‘Fly Away’ is equally infused with that soaring spirit of defiance, while on ‘Broken And Alone’ frontman Steve Mitchell delivers a stirring working class heroes battle cry from Brexit Britain that surely has a hint of Merry Hell about it. Although probably best experienced in a packed club or better yet shaking the skies at a festival (where they have built their reputation for a wild live performance), whether you bung this in the player while you’re hurtling down the motorway or raise a flagon or two with friends in the living room, The Leylines will connect you with a very vibrant natural energy.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘This Is Your Life’ – official video:

KALYN FAY – Good Company (Horton Records)

Good CompanyAfter international critical recognition for Caroline Spence and Courtney Marie Andrews, it’s time for the Tulsa-born singer-songwriter to step up to the plate and take her deserved place in the spotlight. Following on from her 2016 debut, Bible Belt, which was rooted in her father’s Cherokee heritage and her mother’s Christian beliefs, featuring John Fullbright on keys, Jesse Aycock on guitars, dobro and lap and pedal steel, and Carter Sampson and Jared Tyler among those providing harmonies, Good Company both consolidates and expands her prowess as both a writer and a singer on songs that explore her relationship with her home state of Oklahoma, looking forward rather than back.

It opens with her “staring out the window of this beat up old Camry” on the slow paced, wearyingly sung title track, seeking to break free of a life just running to stand still and how “we’re all just looking for something” though, for her, not, like her friend, settling for marriage and a family simply because that’s what you do. ‘Wait For Me’ has a more soulful edge to its sway as, accompanied by muted resonant guitar, she asks “will you miss me when I’m gone?”, underscoring the urge to get away but also the need to hold on to ties.

Riding a chugging rhythm and electric guitars crafting an open desert ambience, ‘Highway Driving has an appropriately more uptempo approach with its hints of Gretchen Peters and again talks of hitting the road even if you’ve “got no place to go and nowhere to run” in the hope that something or someone will turn up to provide a distraction.

Inspired by seeing both her friends and parents working through rough patches in their relationship, ‘Baby, Don’t You Worry’ is a slow, accordion-coloured barroom waltz about taking it slow, easing into the similarly paced, late evening bluesy post-break up ‘Come Around’ as she sings about “missing things I can’t seem to get over”, wondering whether “it’s pride I feel or an ache that I suffer” and planting her feet on steady ground, sustaining the mood with the pedal steel ache of ‘Long Time Coming’ and trying to put the past behind.

‘Oklahoma Hills’ lifts the pace slightly for a bluesy, organ-backed number about becoming tired of the road and thinking of things left behind as the seasons change and the songs of home are whispered in the wind and she pointedly admits “maybe I’m just a mess.” Another organ-paced slow waltz, ‘Alright In The End’ again has thoughts turned homewards and of “stars shining over Tulsa” and the hope “that they’re shining over you too.” Starting quietly, ‘Faint Memory’ maintains the reverie with thoughts of missing “slow dancing close in the living room and the record skips while it plays our tune”, remembering “the good times when life didn’t seem so bad”, and reflecting on how “sometimes it’s hard to see what you had”.

Veined with hints of The Band, the penultimate organ-based number, ‘Fool’s Heartbreak’, speaks of the challenges of moving on when you’re not even sure that’s what you want (“Feels like I’ve been working hard but I’m not sure what for/What’s the point of fighting if you don’t want the war”), waiting on the good times but “stuck in the chains of love” caught between “hell and the heavens above”.

It ends, a candle in the window, with the hauntingly lovely, dobro and accordion-stained ‘Dressed In White’, a song enrobed in grace and redemption, forgiveness and rebirth “calling for the best her father offered” as it gathers to a hymnal fall.

If there’s a criticism it’s that, because of the thematic nature of the songs, it can feel a little one-paced, and a little musical uplift might not have gone amiss, but, regardless, this is company you will want to keep close.

Mike Davies

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WEST OF EDEN – Flat Earth Society (West of Music WOMCD12)

Flat Earth SocietyIt’s a touch ironic that one of the best bands currently energising traditional British and Celtic folk music with a contemporary lens happens to come from Sweden. Comprising Lars Broman on fiddle, Martin Holmlund on bass, drummer Ola Karlevo, Henning Sernhede on lap steel and electric guitar and fronted by Jenny and Martin Schaub, the former on accordion and the latter playing assorted guitars, piano, cittern and mandolin, they’ve been playing music since 2005 and this is their eighth album (two of them being Celtic Christmas collections), recorded predominantly in Scotland (in anything from churches to distilleries) and featuring contributions from such folk luminaries as Damien O’Kane, John McCusker and Heidi Talbot.

Unlike some of their past albums, this doesn’t have a conceptual basis, other than generally being about partings and new beginnings, opening with the moody, rumbling percussion, acoustic title track, Jarlath Henderson on low whistle and Jenny, her airily pure vocals at times evocative of Anne Briggs, taking lead on a song about a broken romance in which the narrator’s world has been left flat.

Kicking up their folk rock heels, as the title suggests ‘The Dwindling Of The Day’ concerns the passing of time, Jenny singing about holding on to memories of someone who’s no longer around, slowing down slightly for ‘Horsehoofs & Primroses’, O’Kane on tenor guitar, a traditional-flavoured number of the urge to go a roaming when Spring is in the air.

Henderson contributing harmonies, set to puttering percussion, ‘Pretty Please’ is a liltingly lovely song about being weary of domestic squabbles and “rocking our boat on the wildest of seas”, giving way to ‘Kate, Are You Ready Now?’ as, Henderson on Uillean pipes and Karlevo laying down a slow march beat, Martin makes his first lead vocal appearance on a stirring strummed ballad that puts a spin on the jilted at the alter tale, this time it being the bride who doesn’t turn up while the groom tries to convince himself she’s just running late. Jenny returns for the jazzy ‘Porcelain Days’, hints of Pentangle colouring its lyric about navigating your way through a fragile relationship walking on eggshells and hoping the other partner will stick around as the ice starts to crack.

The first of two instrumentals, ‘Isak/Doris’ combines two fiddle tunes, Duncan Chisholm on the first with its military snare beat before McCusker takes over on the sprightlier second half. Then, it’s on to ‘Old Miss Partridge’, O’Kane on banjo and Jenny duetting with Talbot on a jaunty, accordion-led romp about an eccentric old bird suspected of being a witch and being found dead, blasted by lightning near a tree on the hill, her ghost still wandering at night.

It’s back to melancholia with McCusker providing low whistle for as Jenny sings the simply strummed, strings laden lament ‘Come Winter, He’ll Be Gone’, another song about loss and partings with the changing seasons serving to metaphorically chart the course of the relationship on the album’s most poetic lyric, evocative at times of Christina Rosetti.

Putting on his best Irish accent, the fiddle-accompanied, trotting rhythm ‘Vipers & Fireflies’ is Martin’s only other lead vocal, another song about how our worst nature sometimes gets the better of us and we say things in the heat of the moment we later regret, here using weather imagery as a metaphor.

The final song has Jenny accompanied by McCusker on tin whistle for ‘Peacock Blues’, its lively Irish jig-like tune belying a lyric that returns to a theme of arguments with the narrator being in the shadow of a more dominant personality (“I am the ceiling and you are the sky…you light up the room and I’m in the gloom”), the album ending on the other instrumental, ‘Rowbotham’s Map’, arranged for accordion and fiddle, bringing things full circle with the title referring to the Flat Earth Map of the World drawn up by the artist Samuel Rowbotham around 1873. Flat or round, global recognition for West of Eden among folk circles is long overdue.

Mike Davies

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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

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