FELICITY BUIRSKI – Committed To The Fire (Tree of Life FJB2019CD3)

Committed To The FireCommitted To The Fire was actually released earlier this year, but somehow slipped under the radar; however, albums of such quality should not be allowed to pass undiscovered. A former Page 3 model and actress, despite a musical family background Orpington-born Buirski (and appearing on Top Of The Pops as one of the Page Three Girls in 1977 singing ‘Hold On To Love’), didn’t take up music as a career until she was 30, prompted in part by a chance encounter with Leonard Cohen four years earlier. Although she had previously released two singles, ‘Angel’ as Felicity in 1979 and ‘4 O’Clock In America’ as Felicity Burski in 1981, I first came across her with her 1987 debut, Repairs & Alterations, an album streaked with Cohen resonances, notably on ‘Travelling Home’, and was hooked. It would, however be 12 years before the follow-up, Interior Design (on which the debut’s title track finally surfaced) and it’s only now, following a serious car crash in 2009, that the third of what is planned as a four disc project, Wayfarer – One Woman’s Journey From Illusion To Light (the fourth, as yet undated, will be titled Home), finally arrives, her classically influenced melodies given a country tinge and the spirit of Cohen again hovering.

Recorded with just producer Michael Klein on bass, guitars and percussion and Ian Stewart on keyboards, the thirteen tracks pay testament to her faith and spirituality as they explore various facets and dimensions of love, our relationship with the world in which we live and, well, modern art.

It opens with ‘Collision Of Desire’, a catchy uptempo dobro strum as she sings “I want love and you want lust…You want excitement I want trust”, the theme of love filtered through doubt and uncertainty on the lovely folksy fingerpicked ‘Blow The Dandelion’, a he loves me, he loves me not number that calls Baez to mind as she ponders “is love just a game of chance?Is it written in the stars/On number plates of cars?

Following the tempo of the title, coloured by synthesised string, ‘The Vampire Waltz’ again addresses the conundrum of knowing whether the new love we have found is real or something we imagine and then try and create and how “when we are cursed with a fixed idea/It’s amazing how many apparitions appear”.

The focus shifts to social commentary with the soaringly sung guitar jangle of ‘Sweet Charity’, initially addressing the allure of charity shops (“Retail therapy for the relatively poor”) but then transitioning into lyrics about how “money won’t find a cure for the cancer in our soul” and that, while charity may salve consciences, “we need to meet each other’s need/With love that’s full”.

It’s not the only track that turns the lens on the wider world. Tinged with touches of Townes van Zandt, the breezy fingerpicked ‘Up Where The Eagles Fly’ is an ecological plea to give the planet a little love and give future generations a chance to live and that “when my body lies dead in the cold dark earth/The only measure of my worth/Will be not what I took but what I gave”. Ostensibly the Cohen-echoing sway of ‘Modern Art’ appears a satirical critique of the patronisation and acquisition of art for financial gain as she sings “Herald the new religion”, but the track works at a deeper level about greed and trading in the human heart, where we “Frame the human spirit/Then hang it on the wall/Make ‘em dance while you call the tune/Make the infinite small” with “Babylon’s whores on the gain”.

Arguably, though, the best of these comes with ‘Who Will Guard The Dog?’ a song about feeling lost, “an outcast separated from my soul”, and the fear of the darkness and the void, with its image of a house barred and shuttered, overgrown with thorns where “the dog is still in chains/Though there’s nothing left to guard/She’s gnawed through the bone of her being alone/And barks at an empty yard” as its ends on a series of questions (“Who will make it better?Who will make it right?”) as it builds to the title’s final line.

Returning to love and relationships, ‘I Will Do Nothing For You’ is surely one of the best end of romance songs about holding on to self-worth ever written, opening with “I won’t paid the town red/Just because I’m blue/And I won’t be unfaithful/Just ‘cos you’re untrue” concluding that “When all our future lies in our past/Stillness breaks the pattern/Doing nothing breaks the cast”.

Accompanied by a quietly rippling guitar, ‘Let It Be For Love’ would be a highlight were it for not only including the word ‘ubiquitous’ in the opening line, but managing to also talk about “Trompe-l’oiel on a massive scale”, the fact that it continues to reveal itself as another prayer for a world of compassion and kindness and that “we’ll always have the choice/Of heaven or hell” merely adds to the scale.

She continues with ‘Nothing To Declare’, another song touched with the soul of Cohen that alludes to the Second Coming. Not to bring “salvation in my pockets” or “redemption up my sleeve”, but Love with “everything revealed” because (recalling an earlier lyric about the blind leading the blind) “there would be no point/In trying to hide it any longer/There was never anything concealed”.

Continuing to channel early Leonard, ‘The Mutual Sigh’ waltzes through a song about the battle of the sexes, its origins stretching back to the Garden of Eden, as men and women are “marching daily into battle/Still wounded by this great divide” in a call for equality with, as she puts in on the sleeve notes “the free man and woman …holding hands either side of their sacred throne”.

She ends with two songs drawing on the imagery of fire, redemption, salvation and rebirth, first up being the lilting ‘Like A Phoenix’ with its lyric about not being imprisoned by anger and pain, but to “let it lovingly teach you/Not become your ball and chain” so you can “rise from the ashes like a phoenix with wings” and you “Don’t let the love of your life be a dream”.

Finally comes the simple fingerpicked yet anthemic title track, about surrendering yourself to the hands of whatever god or faith you hold to be true, to be brought home, to trust not question, to reach within and find the power to seek and find forgiveness and to ascend reborn and transformed in the spiritual, emotional and personal flames.

A magnificent and quietly inspirational album, both a personal testament and a rallying cry to find light and hope in the darkness. Next time, let the trumpets announce its arrival a little.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.felicitybuirski.com

‘Blow The Dandelion’ – live:

JIM MORAY – The Outlander (Managed Decline MD001)

The OutlanderFor The Outlander, his seventh solo album, Moray dispenses with any original material to focus on a set of ten traditional numbers, some familiar, some obscure, and gives them his own personalised interpretation. He’s also adopted a more direct, live performance-based approach making extensive use of his purchase of a 1949 Epiphone Triumph archtop guitar and inviting an array of fellow folkies, among them Jack Rutter, Sam Sweeney, Matt Downer and Josienne Clarke, to join him in the studio.

With Rory Scammell on hurdy gurdy complementing Sweeney and Tom Moore’s urgent violins and Moray’s driving rhythm, the opening ‘Lord Ellenwater’ (sometimes ‘Derwentwater’), compiles the lyrics from an assortment of sources and is set to a tune collected in Cambridgeshire by Vaughan Williams in 1907 from (although some claim it as in 1905 from Emily Agnes Stears in Sussex) and concerns the alleged role of Ellenwater’s in the Jacobite uprising of 1715 and reports that the rivers on his estates ran blood on the night he was executed.

Learned from Roy Harris, ‘Bold Lovell’, a variant on highwayman ballad ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, is launched by handclaps (there’s no drums anywhere on the album) and proceeds at a fair trot, one again propelled by violins, but then, opening with just voice and Nick Hart’s concertina, things slow down for ‘When This Old Hat Was New’, a classic song of old folk nostalgia that traces back to 1630 and bigs up the Romans for looking after the poor folk as the instrumentation gradually builds.

The centrepiece, certainly in terms of running time, is ‘Lord Gregory’ which, extended to a waltzing six and a half minutes with addition of verses from alternate versions, is largely accompanied by just finger picked guitar, presented as a duet with Clarke in an Anglo emulation of the Welch/Rawling harmonies pairing albeit channelling the recordings by Maddy Prior and Kathryn Roberts. It’s followed by the almost as long ‘The Bramble Briar’, learned from the Ewan MacColl version of ‘Bruton Town’, a good old English folk ballad about murder that has its origins in Isabella and the Pot of Basil, a story about a farmer’s daughter, her jealous brothers and a beheaded lover in Boccaccio’s The Decameron. A spare, stark arrangement compounds the gloom of the narrative.

‘John Barleycorn’ is one of two folk club staples given a new lease of life by Moray taken at a suitably flagon-swigging mid-tempo, the other, which closes the album, being a stately, wearied pace and spare arrangement reading of ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’ that captures all of the song’s inherent resignation.

Betwixt these comes a slow strummed melancholic Appalachian-flavoured interpretation of ‘The Isle Of St Helena’, a song about Bonaparte’s exile collected by Cecil Sharp in Kentucky and learned from Steve Turner’s 1979 album Outstack, albeit without the concertina arrangement. Switching hemispheres, his fiddle-backed reading of transportation ballad ‘Australia’ owes a debt to Bob Hat’s 1973 version which relocated the destination from the original Virginny.

The final choice is ‘Jack Tar’, a handclap percussion, fiddle stomp take on the shanty about an opportunistic sailor overhearing a scheme by a squire to have his lover dangle string from her window so he can pull it for her to let him in, and naturally sneakily taking his place instead. Learned from the version collected by Sharp in 1904 with a slight variation in the lyrics, although, for purists, sadly he doesn’t include the “doomy-amma dingy-amma doomy-ammma day” chorus!

The most direct and simple of Moray’s albums to date, it cuts to the heart of what traditional folk music is about while ensuring a musical relevance for to the modern generation.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.jimmoray.co.uk

‘Bold Lovell’ – live with Tom Moore:

DREW HOLCOMB & THE NEIGHBORS – Dragons (Thirty Tigers 41767CD)

DragonsDragons, the tenth album by the Memphis-born, Nashville-based Holcomb finds him in jubilant form, even if many of the songs touch on mortality, with his most collaborative work yet, six of the ten songs being co-writes and five featuring guest vocalists.

It kicks off on upbeat infectious manner with ‘Family’, clapping hands bolstering a Bo Diddley meets Paul Simon beat that celebrates, well, family, in a song about growing up seen through the lens of fatherhood with is essentially a series of single lines each preceded by the title chant.

A similar theme of community follows on with ‘End Of The World’, an uplifting anthemic ballad that might even have a hint of Take That to it, that calls for unity and partying your way into the darkness and living for the moment. Wife Ellie joins him for ‘But I’ll Never Forget The Way You Make Me Feel’, a simple trot along love song with some tinkling piano in the background, then up comes The Lone Bellow for the part spoken swayalong title track, as, accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal drums, the chorus delivers an inspirational never give up message from his late grandfather left behind to “Take a few chances/A few worthy romances/Go swimming in the ocean on New Year’s Day/Don’t listen to the critics/Stand up and bear witness//Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way”.

Ellie returns for another chugging rhythm, dreamy, strings-enhanced love song, ‘See The World’, except this one is to his son as he sings “Someday you’ll fly away, find your own time and space… You’ll make your own noise, sing with your own voice”. Lori McKenna gets two co-writer credits, the jangling, steady drum beat mid-tempo ‘Make It Look So Easy’ about the moment when love strikes (“The very first time you put your hands in mine/I knew it would be impossible for me/To ever live without you”) and, also on vocals, the rolling country calypso groove ‘You Want What You Can’t Have’ which, Nathan Dugger on lap steel, is basically one of those other man’s grass numbers about being happy with what you’ve got.

The last vocal collaboration comes courtesy of co-writer Natalie Hemby on the slow walk-paced ‘Maybe’ which addresses pretty much the same theme (“Maybe we’re not supposed to try everything/Maybe we’re lost in what we want. Not what we need”) about how expectations can become a burden rather than a goal.

The emotional heart of the album, though, is ‘You Never Leave My Heart’, a simple piano-accompanied reflectively semi-spoken memory of his brother, who died twenty years ago but about which it’s only now Holcomb’s found the words to put his feelings into song as it swells to a soaring finale.

It all ends with the pulsing notes of ‘Bittersweet’, co-writer Carson Cooley on keyboards and synth for a song that returns to thoughts of mortality as “every curtain falls eventually”, but reminding that it’s what you do on the stage before then that matters, and to embrace life and “Play it like a board game, sing it like a hymn”. There may be dragons, but as long as there’s artists like Holcomb, there’ll always be a St George too.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.drewholcomb.com

‘End Of The World’ – official video:

TIM GRIMM – Heart Land Again (Cavalier CR255624)

Heart Land AgainTwenty years on from the release of his debut album, the Indiana-based Americana singer-songwriter revisits Heart Land with a re-recorded version alongside two new numbers and, this time round, with his then young sons Jackson (guitars, banjo, mandolin, harmonium) and Connor (bass) joining him and his harmonica-blowing wife Jan. Alongside Dan Lodge-Rigal on piano and percussionist Ben Lumsdaine, the background ‘oohs’ come courtesy of Krista Detor who should be due a new album of her own ere long.

The running order here is different from the original, although it kicks off with one of the new songs, ’Staying In Love’, a warm strummed and piano-accompanied memory of childhood and his father, the first thing he’s written since his passing two years ago. Keeping the family connection, it’s followed appropriately enough by ‘That Old Man’, this time, dispensing with the fiddle and joined by his two sons on vocals, about his grandfather.

Given a completely different uptempo treatment rather than the original slow waltz, ‘Too Hard Drivin’’ draws on the two years spent commuting between LA and southern Indiana and the decision to finally leave the one for the other and is followed by what was the first track on the debut, ‘Better Days’, still a semi-spoken Guy Clark-like memory of the older and longer established farm couples that were his neighbours when he moved back home and their fate. The first to pass was one Amos Chestnut, his wife running the farm on her own until her kids finally moved her to town, ‘She Remembers’ revisited with a jauntier pacing underpinned by banjo rather than acoustic guitar in memories that speak of joy rather than melancholy.

Grimm has made a point of recording a traditional number on each of his releases, the first, 20 years ago, being the Carter Family’s ‘Carter Blues’, fingerpicked again here before the arrival of ‘Down The Road’, a song about the highway along which workers come and go and of the encroachment of progress with its mortgaged houses and mortgaged lives given a more scurrying bluegrassy arrangement.

The original album actually had two traditional tunes, the second being ‘Sowin’ In The Mountain’, formerly a front porch gospel stomp but here a slower blues with throaty electric guitar.

Again reconceived, ‘Perfect Getaway’, a storytelling number based on his mother’s story of three high school kids in her remedial class who boosted a car and heading down Highway 65 until being pulled over by state troopers, began life as a Steve Earle-styled outlaw country tune but now takes on more of a laid back Clark perspective.

The remaining two reworks line up as ‘80 Acres’, a song about the land on which they live and those that went before now given a talking Johnny Cash chug, and, serving again as the final cut, this time with piano backing, ‘Pumpkin The Cat’ is another love song to the life and land they chose, “a slice of Heaven..pie in the sky” on which to raise “three boys, two dogs and a cow”.

Disappointingly, the album’s Texicali-coloured storysong about corporate outsourcing and resulting homelessness, ‘South Of The Border’, doesn’t get revisited, but you do get another reflection on the state of the nation with the folksy, mandolin-strummed waltztime ‘Love More’, a song calling for faith and kindness in dangerous times as, striking an optimistic note, he sings “There’s hope in the shadows, there’s God in the trees/There’s beauty in waiting when you fall to your knees”.

Reworking the album isn’t just a revisiting of the past, it’s an act of both memory and renewal, a love letter to what has gone before and a reminder that the music and the lives it celebrated remain as important today as they were two decades ago.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.timgrimm.com

Something like the original – ’80 Acres’ – live:

MEGSON – Little Bird (EDJ EDJ024)

Little BirdAs well as their adult material, Stu and Debbie Hanna also regularly play shows for young audiences, introducing them to child friendly traditional folk songs. Now, seven years on from When I Was A Lad, they have come up with a second collection, Little Bird, with an insert guide (illustrated by fellow folkie Jess Morgan) to commonly seen British birds for nascent ornithologists, one side of which the kids can colour in themselves.

Stu on banjo, they get the party started with ‘Red Bird’, an old bluegrass play song number originally collected and recorded in the 1940s by Leadbelly for his own album of children’s songs. The material here is a mix of the very familiar and the more obscure, the former represented by the kiddie shanty ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ set to a shoe shuffling skipalong rhythm with Stu on mandolin and Debbie on lead as is, substituting denin dungarees for red pyjamas, ‘Coming Round The Mountain’, a song that has its origins as ‘When The Chariot Comes’, a 1899 African-American spiritual about the Second Coming that developed into a secular version among the railroad gangs of the late nineteenth century. Then, Stu on vocals, there’s ‘I Saw A Ship A Sailing’, a nursery rhyme about a ship laden with treasure and crewed by mice and a duck.

Another play song with a call and response structure, given a handclap blues stomp treatment ‘All Around The Kitchen’ seems to date from the mid 1940s, published in 1948 by Ruth Crawford Seeger and recorded in the early 50s by her stepson legend Pete. There’s more physical activity required by ‘The Jumping Song’, a nonsense song in the tradition of ‘I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly’,

Stu again taking lead, ‘Ha Ha This A Way’ also featured on the Leadbelly album , though I suspect the fact that the original lyrics concern a young kid abused by his alcoholic dad and ‘frisky’ mother and rescued by school and the church don’t figure in their live introductions.

Built on banjo and drums, the bluegrassy ‘Baby On Board’ is one of two self-penned tunes, bemoaning the trials and tribulations of trying to get a new arrival to go to sleep with a rock that cradle refrain, the other, featuring Stu on fiddle and sung by Debbie, being ‘Marjory Clogs’, the story of a much-travelled lady, her dogs, parrot and monkey, a sort of folk Mary Poppins coming to the aid of children in need of a friend.

The remaining two numbers line up as ‘On The Mountain Medley’, a banjo led hillbilly gathering together of evergreens ‘Old Dan Tucker’, ‘Michael Finnegan’, ‘This Old Man’, ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ and ‘Go In And Out the Window’, and, bringing things back to roost, the title track, a traditional American children’s song, more strictly titled ‘Little Bird, Little Bird’, also known as ‘Fly Through My Window’ and which, as recorded by American folk singer Elizabeth Mitchell, once featured in an episode of Futurama.

With guest appearance by the couple’s daughter Lola and two dogs, this may be children’s folk songs, but in terms of both the hugely appealing performances and folk heritage, there’s much here that warrants a perch in grown up nests too.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.megsonmusic.co.uk

‘Red Bird’ – lyric video:

MEAN MARY – Cold (Woodrock)

ColdThat’ll be Alabama-born. Florida-raised and Nashville-based singer-songwriter Mary James, an early musical prodigy from a musical family (guitarist brother Frank and co-writer author mother Jean) who was writing songs at five, playing banjo, guitar and violin at seven and releasing her first recording, Mean Mary From Alaba, at age six. The soubriquet, incidentally, comes from the way she plays banjo rather than anything parsimonious or callous,

She’s now on to her fifth album (her last, Blazing, was the soundtrack to Hell Is Naked, the fifth novel co-written with her mother), a mix of Americana, bluegrass and folk that kicks off with ‘I Fell Into The Night’, a stark and spooked accordion-shaded, banjo blues example of the backwoods gothic that characterises her storytelling that more suggests Piaf than the hillbilly Amy Winehouse comparisons with which she’s been tagged.

It sets the mood for what follows both musically and lyrically with things like ‘Dark Woods’ with Frank on 12-string where she sings “Forget the city and its false lights / They steal your dreams, they steal your nights / Leave your troubles, your worldly goods / And run with me, run with me / To the dark woods”, the desolate tremulous vocals loss-themed exposed folk of the eight minute ‘Cold (House By The Sea)’, the emotional resignation of the solo-accompanied ‘Sad November Breeze’, ‘Friend I Never Had’ riding a jazzed frisky blues shuffle and, taking its cue from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, ‘Quoth The Mockingbird’ with its nimble banjo picking, guitar and stomp.

From a personal perspective, I find her strongest when she strips the instrumentation back to basics (not that anything here is what you might call elaborate), particularly on the banjo dappled yearning melodic folksiness of the ‘Rainy Day’ as her voice soars to almost a yodel, the simple accordion backed strum of the upbeat ‘April In December’ (where she sounds little like a Southern Joan Armatrading) and, Frank again on 12-string, the quite lovely folk feathers of ‘Sparrow’.

Digging out the violin to go with the banjo, piano, percussion and 12-string, she ends with the brief instrumental ‘Forevermore’ marrying traditional American folk and Eastern European gypsy influences to rousing effect, singing the title as the closing note.

The album may be Cold, but she’s white hot.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.meanmary.com

‘Dark Woods’ – official video: