RACHAEL McSHANE & THE CARTOGRAPHERS – When All Is Still (Topic TSCD596)

When All Is StillIt’s been nine years since Rachael McShane realised her solo debut, the time since then keeping her busy as cellist, fiddler, viola player and singer with the now defunct Bellowhead, of which she was a founding member back in 2004, and, more recently, her role in the reworking of Peter Bellamy’s folk opera The Transports.

However, she’s now found a window to record a follow-up, again predominantly a collection of traditional material, working with two fellow North East musicians, guitarist Matthew Ord fron Newcastle bluegrass outfit Assembly Lane and Kathryn Tickell’s melodeonist Julian Sutton. She’s also joined on assorted tracks by former Bellowhead colleagues Paul Sartin on oboe and Andy Mellon, Justin Thurgur and Ed Neuhauser on trumpet, trombone and tuba, respectively. The album’s produced by Ian Stephenson who also handles double bass and piano duties.

With a couple of exceptions, her choice of material leans to lesser known of less commonly performed numbers from the folk canon, case in point being the opener, ‘The Molecatcher’, a waltzing ditty about infidelity as the titular cuckold catches his wife in flagrante although McShane’s sanitised the original lyrics so that now, he catches the lad by his coat (rhyming with sport) rather than his bollocks (rhymed with frolics) who declares the fine of ten pounds works about tuppence a time rather than a grind. Revisionist delicacy notwithstanding, it’s a fine and cheekily sung number, the tune of Sutton’s ‘Simpson Street Waltz’ written in honour of the studio where they recorded.

More usually known as ‘The Outlandish Knight’, a number she often played with Bellowhead, spotlighting melodeon, ‘Lady Isabel’ tells of a serial killer of young maids getting his comeuppance when his intended seventh victim tumbles him into the sea. The ballad exists in a wide variety of versions and lyrics, and, in keeping with the album’s mischievous tone, this retains the final verse where the girl bribes her parrot to keep quiet about where she’s been.

Originating from Huddersfield, the melodeon wheezing ‘Cropper Lads’ has been part of her repertoire for a while, a song celebrating the titular weaving industry craftsmen that makes reference to Great Enoch, a hammer used to smash up the jobs-threatening machinery during the Luddite uprising. It’s set to a new tune by McShane titled ‘Full Belly’, apparently inspired, not by anything weaving or industrial, but from playing an online game called Sushi Cat.

Lads from a different, ahem, field make an appearance in ‘Ploughman Lads’, a rousingly straightforward chorus friendly love song featuring percussion from Martin Douglas, followed, in turn, by the first of the two instrumental sets, McShane’s stately fiddle-led ‘Waltzing At Giggleswick’, written for a charity of which she’s patron and providing a platform for Ode’s guitar work, twinned with Sutton’s melodeon romp ‘The Ginger Cat Monster’.

By far the best-known number is ‘Two Sisters’ (you know, the one where one sister downs the other over a romantic rivalry and the body is found and turned into as self-playing fiddle and reveals her murder), except McShane reveals a cynical streak with a grizzly ending that shows justice a clean pair of heels.

Learned from the Peter Bellamy version, the mid-tempo swayalong ‘Barley and Rye’ is another song about bored wives who get up to mischief in the bedroom because they’re neglected by husbands more concerned with their work, here a farmer and his crops.

Sutton contributes the second of the instrumentals, the finely crafted and shape-shifting ‘Road To Tarset/Lake Of Swans’ both nodding to favourite haunts in Northumberland. On a darker note, this is followed by another staple, a suitably sombre and brooding take on euphemistically-titled incest ballad ‘Sheath & Knife’ which, variously recorded by Ewan MacColl, Eliza Carthy, June Tabor, Maddy Prior and Maggie Boyle, from whom McShane learned the song, tells how the king’s daughter becomes pregnant by her brother and goes with him to the greenwood to give birth where she asks him to put an arrow through her and bury her with their baby.

Lighter notes are struck on another well-known number, ‘Sylvie’ being a version of ‘The Female Highwayman’ or ‘Sovay’. One of the first songs the trio put together, it opens with a plucked viola before the instrumentation swells as the tale unfolds of a woman disguising herself to test her lover’s loyalty and bravery by demanding the ring she gave him. Given that, in the final verse, she declares that had he parted with it she’d have shot him dead, it’s perhaps not a match for the long haul.

Set to a new galumphing, melodeon-driven cider-swigging tune by McShane with brass arrangement by Stephenson, it all ends joyously with ‘Green Broom’, a traditional tale of a broom cutter who, fed up of his son lying in bed to noon, sends him off to the woods to cut a bundle , the lad catching the attention of a fine lady on his way home and ending up marrying her. There seems to be a Norman Tebbit-like moral for our social benefits times in there somewhere.

Fresh, sparkling and lively in its arrangements and performance, it’s an album that should consign phrases like ‘former-Bellowhead’ member to footnotes rather than a delineation.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.rachaelmcshane.co.uk

‘Ploughman Lads’ – official video:

DAN JOHNSON – Hemingway (State Fair)

HemingwayIn 1987, when Dan Johnson was just ten, his father, an injured US Air Force veteran, finding his skill set was not transferrable to civilian life, sank into depression and an eventual mental collapse that led to suicide. Thirty years later, his son is releasing Hemingway, a conceptual five-track EP cum audio book that seeks to raise awareness about the warning signs of suicide, especially among military veterans who, with, on average, twenty a day taking their own lives, account for 18% of all such deaths each year. In tandem with a non-profit online organisation based in Texas, he also wants to educate the public on the resources available to communities to help.

All the songs are autobiographical in nature, opening with ‘The Favor’, a brooding number with a sparse, desert-dry Weissenbaum guitar intro that harks to his own spiral down into a life of drugs and women, electric guitar snarling as Russell growls and part-speaks his way through the lyrics in way that conjures both Cash and Jennings at their darkest outlaw height.

Mingling echoes of Prine and Kristofferson and with Lloyd Maines on pedal steel, the mid-tempo waltzer title track is inspired by his father’s life. It tells the story of a young boy signing up at 18 and earning his nickname for his fiery nature as well as his tale-spinning, invalided out at 19 with loss of limbs and serious facial injuries, “too modest to speak of his pain”, unable to get work, and eventually taking “the Hemingway out.” Closing on haunting trumpet notes, it stands shoulder to shoulder with anything off Mary Gauthier’s similarly-themed Rifles and Rosemary Beads.

Opening on Springsteenesque piano, a six-minute stadium-sized muscular anthem with strings arrangement, ‘Bloom’ is a more upbeat number, one inspired by his three daughters and the experience of watching them grow and blossom underscored by a reminder that he came close to never doing so.

Heralded by the sound of a cigarette being lit and set to a flamenco guitar, Cuban percussion and Texicana shuffle, it’s followed by the punningly titled, trumpet-embellished ‘Tom Waits For No One’, a painful memory of a break-up, smoking with two empty glasses on the table waiting for a woman who never returns.

Framed by desolate sound effects of creaking boards and a cruel wind, it ends with another outlaw country-styled storysong ‘Lone Gunman’s Lament’, a song born from how, haunted by guilt and regret, Johnson came close to following in his father’s footsteps only to finally resolve to see things through and pour his pain and anger into his songs. It comes with a false ending as a sustained drone, punctuated by what sounds like the loading of a gun gradually, ebbs away into a final semi-spoken confession about making wise choices about “what you’ll live, or die even kill for.”

As mentioned, it comes with a second audiobook disc, a collection of short stories (running up to an hour) linked to or inspired by the songs, written in collaboration with novelist Travis Erwin, as well as spoken versions of the songs themselves. It’s also available as a paperback.

Following on from an eponymous 2015 debut with the Salt Cedar Rebels, itself firmly in classic outlaw country mode, this is Johnson’s first solo foray. On the evidence of both the songwriting and the music they feature, both he and the band deserve a far wider audience.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.danjohnsonmusic.us

‘Hemingway’ – lyric video:

GREGORY PAGE – A Wild Rose (own label)

A Wild RoseHis mother lead vocalist London’s first all-girl pop band The Beat-Chics and his uncle Tom Jones’s dummer on ‘What’s New Pussycat’, born in North London of Irish-Armenian heritage (but now based in Southern California), Page describes the music on A Wild Rose, his twenty-seventh album in as many years, as Americeltic, a tag underscored by the presence of Uilleann pipes, an influence assimilated from his grandfather, Dave Page, a traditional piper who once recorded for Parlophone.

Co-produced with Robbie Robertson, the album seeks to establish a musical and spiritual connection with a country which, despite his Irish blood, he’s never actually visited, the pipes being juxtaposed with the more American sounds of fiddle, banjo and, featuring Doug Pettibone, pedal steel.

Opening with the suitably lively banjo-led sounds of ‘I’m Alive’ and with numbers rarely exceeding three minutes, it’s a generally mid-tempo or upbeat musical collection, the only slow number coming at the close with the piano-accompanied instrumental ‘Goodnight Jack’.

Placed second in the running order, the title track opening introduces the album’s Irish colours, with Eric Rigler on the pipes, a song that celebrates the meeting and union of two hearts that can readily been also seen as a metaphor for the music itself. That Irish ambience returns for the intro to ‘Dreams To The Rescue’ before giving way to a banjo and fiddle jog.

Country colours provide the musical palette for the easy rolling rhythm of ‘Waiting For The Sun Again’ and, Pettibone to the fore, the playful retro-like break-up waltzer ‘Say Adios’ and the cascading chords of the swing balladry styled ‘The Trouble With Me Is You’, while the swayalong ‘Born With The Shakes Inside’ sounds a more folksy note.

Page’s lived-in voice has a touch of a less raspy, smoother Randy Newman about it that, like the songs, tends to pleasantly wash over you rather than demanding your attention, but this is undeniable well worth a bramble through.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.gregorypage.com

‘Waiting For The Sun Again’ – official:

THE SHACKLETON TRIO – Fen, Farm And Deadly Water (own label)

Fen, Fire & Deadly WaterThe name having slimmed down from The Georgia Shackleton Trio, though still comprising fiddle player, locally accented vocalist and songsmith Georgia alongside guitarist Aaren Bennett and mandolinist Nic Zuppardi, their second album, Fen, Farm And Deadly Water, again draws on British, American and Scandinavian traditions for its songs and influences as well as particularly those of their native East Anglia.

It’s one such that opens the album, the self-penned ‘The Fashionable Farmer’ being their rewrite of an old Norfolk broadside ballad, mandolin underlaying its cautionary jaunty tale of a farmer who spent all his money on dressing la mode, ending up with nowt to pay the rent. It’s followed by another indigenous Fenlands number, a bleugrassy arrangement of the traditional ‘Radish Boys’, a song dating from at least 1842 and apparently the ancient cry of the Great Yarmouth radish sellers, the Norfolk Fens apparently being the epicentre of the radish-growing universe.

Staying local, built around pizzicato fiddle and with a decided medieval troubadour feel, appropriately so since it dates from 1611, ‘Powte’s Complaint’ is the setting of a poem concerning the anger of the fen dwellers over the draining of the fens by the Dutch. It’s followed by a fourth fenland-sourced number, the unambiguously titled ‘Fenland Song’, which is slightly at odds with the calypso colours of the mandolin-led melody, written by Norfolk pig farmer Fred Brooke about the always present dangers of the sea reclaiming the lands.

Casting the net further afield, ‘Old Blue’, sometimes known as ‘Old Dog Blue’, is a traditional good time stomping American fiddle and mandolin tune dating from the minstrel shows of the late 19th century that has also seen service on recording by the likes of Seeger, Baez, Van Ronk and The Byrds and even features in Angus Wilson’s acclaimed stage play Fences.

Shifting continents, the trio’s Scandinavian influences are given expression on a pairing of lively tempo-shifting instrumental numbers, ‘Vals Till Lars-Olov’ twinned with the traditional polka ‘The Penknife Killer’, that afford the chance to show their dexterity on stringy things.

There’s three other instrumentals, the first being the trio’s fiddle-based arrangement of accordionist Karen Tweed’s ‘Only Viveka’. If you search YouTube you can find a recording of her playing it accompanied by Zuppardi on bass, and it’s he who contributes wandering tune ‘Bolton Lodge’, written for his great aunt and her habit of walking to the shops with her footsteps in time to songs remembered from her youth.

The third, ‘The Stanford’ is another tribute, this one a rumbustious fiddle and mandolin tune written by Shackleton in honour of Lowestoft pub The Stanford Arms and the landlord’s championing of local music.

The album closes with a more nostalgic celebration, the five minute ‘Down Into The Sea’ a bubbling affectionate reminiscence of and protest lament for the traditions of the old Victorian seaside towns and how the bustle of modern life and the priorities of government policies have seen them and their residents fallen into neglect. Fentastic stuff.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: https://www.shackletontrio.co.uk/

‘The Stanford’ – live:

TONY WINN – Push And Pull (Freefall FF011D)

Push And PullHailing from Essex and while you’ve likely never heard of him, an actor and poet as well as a musician, Winn has sufficient a following to make Push And Pull his seventh album. Given the right exposure, awareness levels could well rise.

It’s a highly accessible collection that spans the musical gamut from poppy reggae a la The Beat rather than The Police (as with the opening title track) or a calypsoish ‘What’s The Moonlight For’ with its steel drums to protest folk-pop such as the excellent Tom Robinsonesque shuffling refugee number ‘Sometimes The Worst Is The Best’, social commentary like the depression-themed ‘Grock’ or the bouncy gambling-addict tale ‘Easy Money’.

There’s a clutch of estimable love and relationship songs too, the gentle, cello-adorned folksy fingerpicked ‘I Stop To Wonder’, Helen Mulley countrified duet ‘You’ll Be The Ruin Of Me’ or the stately piano ballad ‘Come And Go With Me’ with its train journey imagery and message of unity, both personal and universal.

Closing with the semi-spoken fingerpicked poem ‘A Quiet Night’ which pulls the rug out from under you in the final lines, this is a real discovery, one I trust many more people will make.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.tonywinn.org.uk

‘Grock’:

TARA BEIER – California 1970 (Red Raven)

California 1970The title, California 1970, pretty much tells you where this is coming from musically and lyrically, as the Canadian singer-songwriter and classically trained pianist (not to mention documentary filmmaker and actress) casts an eye over L.A. life through the prism of soft folk-pop filtered through Wurlitzer, pedal steel, guitars and piano.

A mini-album follow-up to 2016’s Hero & The Sage, it kicks off with a simple fingerpicked acoustic intro to ‘Forever Mine’ before musically opening out into a catchy uptempo shuffle about growing up and growing apart but still being connected.

The near six-minute’ Wild China Tree’, the longest number she’s recorded to date, shows a rockier side with the psychedelic vibe of its circling guitar line that carries with its echoes of Buffalo Springfield, the title track even rockier driven by a thumping tribal drum beat with fierce guitars building to a rowdy, violin assaulted climax with lyrics about a delusional, mentally unstable life-weary woman’s struggle to find the truth between reality and romantic fantasy.

Sandwiched in-between is the synth-backed ready to love again dreaminess of ‘See The Owl’, the final stretch beginning with ‘Prize Winner’, simple piano notes underpinning the lusher surrounding arrangement while ‘Hollywood Angel’ is a tumbling slice of cascading Wurltizer Stevie Nicks-like Americana pop. It ends with the chugging guitar riff of ‘Diana’, another rock-informed song written about a runaway she met while living in the Valley.

If, at times, her vocals and phrasing call Buffy Sainte-Marie to mind, that’s undoubtedly down to the fact that she’s one of her biggest influences, to the extent that Beier actually played her in her most recent film project, Covered, but as this collection evidences, Beier clearly has a voice of her own, one that deserves to be heard on a far wider basis.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.tarabeiermusic.com

‘Hollywood Angel’ – official video: