PHIL LANGRAN – Skywriting (Longshore Drift LODR001)

SkywritingPraised by Kathryn Williams and produced by Boo Hewerdine, who also contributes guitar, harmonium and dulcitone to Skywriting, veteran Nottingham singer-songwriter Langram comes from the old school of troubadours, his keenly observed songs gentle, wistful and poetic, his voice seasoned with the years.

The bucolic ‘Bright Autumn Sky’ with its love of nature opens the album and sets the template for what follows and, while love song ‘World Enough’ sings of him shivering and shaking with emotion, the song itself is serene, a mood never broken by the ensuing eleven songs. ‘Leave To Live (Etechachan)’ sketches a portrait of a “barefoot child” as she “peels back the peat from the moorland” and ‘Time’s Dark Wing’ treats on mortality (“all the treasures we bring/Gathered under time’s dark wing”).

Elsewhere, there’s a disconsolate mood permeating ‘The Diamond Wheel’ where “we all dream or dreams alone”, while, on a more positive note, ‘Snow Angels’ talks of that, a Emily Dickinson might put it, certain slant of light when “The hours fall away/From the veil of time/To show the best of strangers/The way things were”.

At times he reminds me of the mellow aspects of Jim Croce while, Hewerdine on vibes, the jazz-shaded ‘Snow Angels’ conjures a mix of Al Stewart and Brian Protheroe.

Don’t come to Skywriting looking for social angst, but if you hanker after reflective songs that paint musical and lyrical landscapes, sharing the spirit of writers like Robert Frost and John Clare, then the slow waltzer ‘Snow on the Mountain’, the sense of wonder in the brief ‘Camera In The Sky’ (“Look up my little one/Look up on high/To all the future all around you”) and the fading relationship drawn in ‘Injury Time’ (”You hide your hand, I hide my heart”) will prove soothing balm.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.phillangranband.com

‘Bright Autumn Sky’:

 

VELVET & STONE – Velvet & Stone (own label LVID03)

Velvet & StoneFollowing three EPs, Devon duo singer and songwriter Lara Snowdon and violinist Kathryn Tremlett finally release their eponymous debut album, Velvet & Stone one which more than lives up to expectations.

Accompanied by Kev Jackson on guitar, producer Josiah Manning on keys and rhythm section Paddy Blight and Garry Kroll, they explore a realm of dark indie-folk that touches on both traditional and contemporary, poppy, influences. It’s the latter that kicks the album off with ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, not The Waterboys number, but a self-penned (as is all the material) song from their 2016 debut Storms EP on which, accompanied by steady march drum beat and Tremlett’s fiddle drone draws on the area’s fishing tradition and how girlfriend and wives would stare out to sea awaiting their loved ones’ return, some of whom never did.

Another previous release, ‘Oh Boy’ keeps the dark folk colours, but ups the tempo for a drums, violin and guitar driven song of unrequited love that makes effective use of dramatic musical pause and a surging chorus that suggests they’ve spent some time listening to Seth Lakeman. While charting a similar thematic course of rejection, things rein back in slightly for ‘Lay Her Down’ before it starts to build to a doomy, violin-lashed climax with Snowden’s impassioned vocals full of fire and fury.

Co-penned with Roger Styles, underlaid with keyboards and acoustic guitar, over which Tremlett’s violin weaves haunting notes, ‘Breathe’ is of a dreamier persuasion but still finds Snowdon yearning for a love out of reach.

Bubbling with pizzicato violin notes and Manning’s banjuitar, ‘Walls’ is another swelling number tossed on the tides of love resisted, drawing on siege metaphors, she sings “If I come here with my armies and breach the castle walls/Will the bricks and mortar crumble if I could love you more?”.

While that is constructed with traditional folk wattle and daub, ‘By The Water’ builds its love is blind longing and river imagery with a more folk-pop framework, opening with strummed guitar before a pulsing reminiscence of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ gives way to an infectious, soaring chorus. Whether by coincidence or design, there’s a watery ambience to the keys and violin on the steady rhythmic march of ‘Am I Dreaming?’ the lyrics of which combine both beating wings and undercurrent tugs, maintaining a similar soundscape and the double-tracked vocals of ‘Forget About The Rain’, a keeningly dreamy, pop-inflected number of the sun after the rain relationship metaphor variety. It ends back in traditional style with Tremlett laying down a sprightly West Country folksy fiddle backing to ‘I’ll Dream Of You Tonight’ as, again drawing on images of oceans, waves and shores, it bursts into a lively Morris-like fiddle and drums instrumental romping finale.

Hopefully, Snowdon’s songwriting doesn’t reflect the state of her own romantic life, but even if it does, the duo can rest assured that this hugely confident and impressive album is going to ensure there’s plenty of love out there for them.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.velvetstonemusic.com

‘By The Water’ – officially live:

CARLY DOW – Comet (own label CDOW-002)

CometHaving made a name for herself in her native Canada, the banjo-playing environmental scientist turned singer-songwriter’s second album, Comet, the follow-up to her impressive Ingrained debut, should further enhance her international profile.

She sets the sound and tone with the opening ‘Brightest Time Of The Year’, a steady slow walk rhythm and slightly spooked banjo offset by pedal steel, violin and cello as it introduces the nature-themed imagery that runs throughout the album. If there’s a hint of psychfolk mid-way here, the Dobro-coloured, mountain-air breathing ‘Sunlight Remembers’, another song about partings (“I won’t ask you if you need me / All I want is to see myself in your eyes / One more time before you go”), seems to be flirting with a mix of early Velvet Underground and Cowboy Junkies folk strum.

Another interesting relationship centred track (“We’ll talk our way into a bottle/And you won’t remember a thing I say”), the instantly infectious ‘Comet’ (Maria McKee by way of Tom Petty) itself shifts the tempo slightly, its walking beat gathering pace on the chorus and handclaps liberally scattered around. It’s back to backwoods banjo sound then for the clanging ‘Tiger’s Eye’, a swampy sounding number that bizarrely put me in mind of Creedence.

More of an alt-country persuasion, ‘Dreaming Of You’ finds Matt Filopoulos twanging the guitar as the track trots along with lyrics that are back in the hills with spruce and wolves, and from which it’s just a short step to ‘Like Coyotes’, Ashley Au’s Mo Tucker bassline providing the spine as Dow’s vocals further underscore the track’s strong Stevie Nicks flavours as she sings “Someday I’ll be running like the coyotes / Someday I’ll be running like the wolves / Wherever water guides me I will follow / Someday we’ll be free enough to grow”. It’s a comparison that returns later on the Rumours-inclined ‘Too Bright’.

Of the three remaining numbers, ‘Something Lost’ and ‘Constellations’ features her banjo skills, the former (a swings and roundabouts number) adding cello, violin, piano and upright bass, the latter (all should I go or should I stay with its “blow it down or stick it out”) featuring pedal steel and Logan McKillop on ‘howling’. With Jeremy Rusu on accordion, a similar sentiment of relationships in transition informs the melodically bright ‘Cut & Run’, though whether you see this as cutting your losses (“I should have loved you when I had the chance”) or getting out while there’s still a chance (“let’s drive till we can’t”) depends on how you see the glass. Judging by this terrific album, for Dow it’s positively overflowing.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.carlydowmusic.com

‘Cut & Run’ – official video:

ALICE HOWE – Visions (own label AH002)

VisionsIt’s just three years since the Boston-based Howe decided to make music a full-time career, the catalyst being meeting Bonnie Raitt’s legendary bassist, Freebo, at a folk music conference. He invited her to Bakersfield, offering to produce her debut album as well as co-writing several of the songs, channelling such diverse influence as Mitchell, Baez, Muddy Waters and Taj Mahal into a collection that pays homage but is never slave to the 60s and 70s folk and blues on which she was raised.

Working with a tight house band, Freebo on fretless bass, Visions is a mix of originals and well-chosen covers from her parents’ record collection, kicking off with the Howe/Freebo co-write ‘Twilight’, a waltzing, reflective rootsy number about choosing between a relationship that pins you down or following the road stretching before you that afford as an early taste of her pure and airily flowing mezzo-soprano voice.

The first of the covers comes with a soulful, relaxed interpretation of Taj Mahal’s ‘Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes’, electric guitar provided by Fuzbee Morse with Al Keith colouring the percussion on congas. It’s followed by another co-write, the folksy fingerpicked ‘Still On My Mind’ with its nature imagery lyrics that again talk of memoires but also the call of a life yet unexplored and a restlessness as she sings how “I sat down by the riverside/Fearing I could drink it dry/And still not be satisfied”.

The sole self-penned number, coloured by John JT Thomas on accordion, ‘What We Got Is Gold’ is a gentle acoustic love song about valuing a relationship, especially when the life of a travelling musician means you may be often parted. Next up is the second of the five covers, Sam Cooke’s classic ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, a slow soulful sway on which her crystal vocals are complemented by Morse’s guitar licks, Thomas’s bluesy electric piano and warm trumpet and sax from Lee Thornburg and Paul Perez, respectively.

Freebo gets to revisit his past with the folk-gospel ‘Too Long At The Fair’, a song previously recorded by Raitt on her 1972 Give It Up album on which he played, the version here fairly faithful to that although you might detect hints of Marvin Gaye’s cover of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ to the musical texture.

She stays with the blues for a slow burn though Muddy Waters’ ‘Honey Bee’ before amping up the charge for the bluesy swing co-write ‘Getaway Car’ (another life on the road track) with Thomas letting rip on Hammond organ and a full blown brass section scratching that itch.

The final co-write, another travelling troubadour lyric, is a country waltzer ‘You Just Never Know’ that brings in Jeff Fielder on dobro and Geoff Goodhue on mandolin, the album closing with one last cover featuring just Howe and Freebo for a simple strummed, slower paced and more reflective reading of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. One of the dictionary definitions of a vision is something beautiful. Seems appropriate.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.alicehowe.com

‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ – live:

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JONES – Carver’s Law (MEME CDMM20)

Carver's LawThe title a reference to a maxim held by the writer Raymond Carver to give everything he had each day trusting that the well would be full again the next, Carver’s Law is Trevor Jones’ fifth solo album, one which features writing collaborations with Boo Hewerdine and David Bridie and musical input from multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren and pedal steel maestro BJ Cole alongside long-standing musical partner and co-producer Marcus Cliffe.

As ever, it’s a reflective, meditative affair, the melodies usually anchored by piano, Jones vocals couched in his distinctive dreamily musing delivery, evocative rather than declarative, the album opening with the brief, sparse piano and violin-accompanied ‘Drinking Alone’, one of four Bridie co-writes, pondering whether solitude is better than the dangers fraught in sharing your feelings. The arrangement blossoms on ‘Coleman’s’ (which repeats the image of a rope), steel keening across the lush keyboard framework as, on a lyric exploring forgiveness, he asks “if you lit a candle/Whose name would you mumble?”. Should you be wondering, the title is another Carver reference, inspired by an account by his second wife, fellow writer Tess Gallagher, of an Irish restaurant she wanted to take him too but how he kept being distracted by a Wendy’s or a McDonald’s. They finally got there and the name became a synonym for whether their new poems or stories achieved what they out to do.

‘Have A Sunset On Me’, again complemented by pedal steel with Ljunggren texturing on sax, clarinet and flute, plays a similar thematic note, veined with closure and acceptance of a relationship run its course opening with the line “For want of something better/We went for something worse” and moving to “Seems the dreams that you discover/Were always there to see”.

French for the act of returning, ‘La Rentrée’ moves into waltztime territory on brushed snares for a song about memories, of “the debris of years washed up at my door” and of not being weighed down by the past, but to “try to forget to remember” and to take part in “the dance of the day”.

Featuring Bridie on piano and synth, ‘Gentle Down’ serves as a 56 second lullaby bridge into ‘Morning Pockets’, a song co-written with Hewerdine that has Jones paying tribute to the late British writer and critic AA Gill, acknowledging the influence (“a hounder, a helper, a crutch”) of his mastery of words as he sings “Another man’s pockets is where I belong”.

Indeed, Jones’ love of the poetry of words and their evocative power is manifested in the spoken’ Every Dream A Shadow’ which, contradictory to sentiments elsewhere, values the treasure of memories, of “the faces that have loved you” and of how “what you get is what you give”.

Opening with the sounds of ships’ bells, ‘Blackshore’ continues the thought with a simple fingerpicked number about inspiration, of drawing on experience, of “the beauty of it all” and “the blessings of the ‘in between’” in order to “turn your back to the shore” and move on to uncharted seas and create your own waves.

Another lullaby-flavoured number comes with ‘And The Moon Led Me Home. in which he acknowledges that “You’ve got to be lost to be found”, a reverie of home and hearth that references Rupert Brooke’s 1912 poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, in its line about there being honey still for tea.

Opening with clarinet, at just over five minutes ‘What’ll I Do’ is the longest and most musically muscular track, Jones’ dramatic Meatloaf moment, an end of a relationship number that glories in going out in style (“If that was our goodbye then girl/It’s as good a goodbye as can be”) and how we only tend to see things clearly when it’s too late.

Bridie on piano, it’s back to the sounds of water with the words-tumbling ‘Le Mercury’, an observation of two lovers in a moment of emotional crisis (“She is pale, he is tanned/Seems nothing is going as planned”) and the resolution to go with the figurative dance (another recurring image), giving away to another piano-backed spoken number, ‘Dust In My Throat’, that again addresses the theme of memory and the ghosts that he can never let rest in peace, “a box of dead crows he can never release”. Once again, the resolution here delivered in an almost Shakespearean declaration, is to learn from the lessons life teaches and that “Nothing is settled/ If nothing is lost”.

Two short pieces, Cliffe’s piano instrumental ‘Hook and Tumble’ and the closing piano, cello and violin epiphany ‘Woebegone’, which returns to the conclusion of the opening track, sandwich the country-tinged, steel yearning, hymnal waltzing ‘Folderol’, a bittersweet song of “all the hurt that kindness brings”, of lovers grown apart (“I’m for whiskey, you’re for wine”) and of holding on when you should be letting go, not of parting in anger but a goodbye “light as a sparrow”.

Tender, compassionate, sad and veined with hope for better tomorrows, it’s yet another album from an artist who remains frustratingly little known and underappreciated. Here he’s poured out the best of what he has, but we can rest assured that the spring will replenish because, as he says, “I have a song/That will keep singing/Until the darkness has gone”.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.jones16.bandcamp.com/ / www.miraclemile.co.uk/

‘Every Dream A Shadow’ – official video:

CURSE OF LONO – 4am And Counting (Submarine Cat SUBCD022)

4am And CountingOriginally released as a limited edition red vinyl album for Record Store Day, this 11-track set, recorded live at Toe Rag Studios is now available on CD. The idea of 4am And Counting was to take some of the more mellow, rootsier tracks off their Severed debut and last year’s As I Fell (not that either of them ever actually let slip the lead and rock out) and present them in a more stripped back setting rather than their more familiar widescreen approach.

As such, the five piece enlisted BJ Cole to provide pedal steel on four numbers, the first, which, as with many tracks, comes with a count in intro, being album opener ‘Tell Me About Your Love’, a Felix Bechtolsheimer song about preparing for death, giving a suitably early hours feel to reflect the album title.

They’re a little funkier for ‘I’d Start A War For You’ on which, here free of synths, Charis Anderson’s bass line provides the backbone, turning to more lazy loping country blues for Welcome Home’ featuring Alabama 3’s Nick Reynolds on harmonica. Anderson again underpins the walking rhythm ‘Blackout’ with a Velvets-like riff, still conjuring thoughts of ‘For What It’s Worth’ but slightly cut back from the original’s running time.

There’s one number here they’ve never previously recorded, a funky rumbling bluesy cover of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s ‘Goin’ Out West’, returning to moodier desert climes on the sparse and edgy feel of The Affair gradually gathering in instrumentation as it progresses in intensity before falling back to just drums and pensive electric guitar.

Two live favourites arrive back to back, organ and bass laying down the slow groove for the mesmeric chug of ‘Valentine’ and (presumably inspired by the name of Welsh metal outfit Bullet For My Valentine) its lyric about destructive jealousy with its bluesy guitar solo followed by ‘Way To Mars’ with Reynolds back on harp for a number that nods to Bechtolsheimer’s withdrawal experiences as, again showcasing guitar, it mixes country and gospel influences.

The last three cuts all come from Severed and all feature Cole, first up being the bluesy organ groove of ‘London Rain followed by the more acoustic country of ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ and finally, again in closing position, as befits the opening line of “it’s all over”, the lonesome resignation of the slow waltz ‘Don’t Look Down echoed in Cole’s weeping steel, one final bluesy guitar solo seeing it out for good measure.

4am And Counting is one for the fans rather than an enticement for new audiences, nevertheless it serves a solid reminder of what a great live band they are and Bechtolsheimer’s ability top pen catchy hook, strong melodies and complex lyrics, delivering them in his distinctive drawl.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: https://curseoflonoband.com/

The single, ‘I’d Start A War For You’: