PAULA WOLFE – White Dots (Sinb Records SIB0318CD)

White DotsHer first new album in a decade (Lemon, Staring and Find are being remastered for a 2020 reissue), during which time she built her own studio, completed a PhD in Music Production and Gender and published Women In The Studio: Creativity, Control and Gender In Popular Music Sound Production, White Dots finds the Dublin born multi-hyphenate in excellent form with a cocktail of pop, folksy, jazz and stage musicals. At times vocally echoing Kate Bush, she crafts story-led songs that have seen her likened to Carole King and Nora Jones though I’m more inclined to line her with Ray Davies and Vinny Peculiar in the way she channels observations, both wryly humorous and pointedly serious, into her lyrics to capture a perspective that I’ve previously described as akin to Mike Leigh. Many feel like play scripts in waiting.

Interpolating the refrain from The Hollies’ ‘Jennifer Eccles’, her new collection kicks off with the light, upbeat ‘Cherrington Road’, an early childhood memory of “Sitting on a swing, singing up to the sky”, her mother in the kitchen boiling potatoes, prompting a song (the lyrics more accurately a poem) about how children carry the memories of their parents and that “when it comes to the end all you’ve got is where you came from”, reflecting how there is “No child/when I’m gone to pass on to her own” and with “No child to remember my smell, to retell the tales I had to tell” she turns them into words and a tune “like a prisoner scratching obscenities on a prison wall”. Evocative of perhaps Laurie Lee in its reminiscences of an idyllic childhood, it talks about her and her mother dancing to Engelbert Humperdinck and of her father cycling home from work, asking if they watched Andy Pandy before repeating the lament.

The intro nodding to The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’, second up is ‘Georgia Blue’, a song inspired by a train journey taken to London to interview Florence and the Machine’s Isabella Summers while researching her book. Her return trip was delayed when the driver didn’t turn up, Wolfe transmuting the experience into the story of Joseph, a cross-dressing train driver who, overcome by the mundanity of English greyness, decides instead to dress up the nines and remember “what it’s like to feel beautiful/What it feels like to light up a room, to take some glamour from the gloom”.

‘Follow’ follows, a rumbling rhythm and programming nagging behind the piano and strings on a song about getting away from it all, “pain all packed up in a rucksack… Things I don’t need I leave behind in the van”, walking in the isolation of the mountains and sketching the dynamics of a supportive relationship in the simple lines “I steam ahead, you still lead/I follow …As the days unfold and my story is told, you listen, you lead. I follow”.

Relationships unravelling inform several numbers. Featuring flute, sax and strings, ‘Traces’ begins with “You tell me conspiratorially about your latest affair, with no mention or care for her” and how she’s “the foil to avoid, your just-in-case date” to distract any suspicions on the part of the lover’s partner, ending with “Arrogance sublime,you suggest he’s more my kind”, while on ‘Bonnie’, although she’s “longed a lifetime not to feel I have to leave”, the narrator brings a wilted love affair to a close because “I can’t keep you in my heart when we are apart/no memory of tender love to hold me in the dark”.

In contrast, ‘It Could Be’ offers a vignette of a lonely bachelor looking for love, logging on to a dating site hoping for “a message to lighten the day”, finding none “but he’ll make the best of things anyway”, Wolfe capturing the quintessence of the singleton in a world of others relationships as she sings “He’s so understanding when friends don’t call/he knows it gets harder for them to fit him in when they’ve got kids” and yet remains optimistic (“I’ve got this far and I’ve still got hair”) that maybe love might yet be out here, perhaps meeting another lonely soul “looking for love as you walk down the aisle of the supermarket, Sunday morning shopping for one”. After all, as the semi-spoken ‘Magic’ puts it, after you’ve thrown it all away and realised what loss can bring, “Just when you think that good enough really is good enough, something fresh and new comes”.

Returning to storytelling, ‘Caravan Man’ again transforms real experience, here someone she saw on a French campsite, into a portrait of an outsider “sitting by your caravan all day” watching passing travellers “pegging out their lives in tidy piles”as she wonders who he is and what he’s waiting for.

Likewise, spanning France and Mexico City, featuring piano, simple strummed guitar and warm trumpet, ‘Paris Metro paints a picture of two buskers from South America playing their brass instruments outside the station on a Sunday morning while a world away “the night is lit up by flames of fire blown from the mouth of a boy while his friend tries to clean the taxi driver’s windscreen”, musing, as a musician and performer, on how “there’s not a lot between us”.

Returning to break-ups, the Randy Newmanesque title track brings the album to a close in crushing despair, the white dots the stains of tears dried on her glasses as the woman sits heartbroken in the car park after her unfaithful lover’s lies killed “whatever love lingered still” in a hotel room “Lying to my face about your affair, crying at the thought of my leaving you there in the house meant to be the start of all our dreams”.

But, while the songs speak of sadness and loss, of isolation and loneliness, moments lost or never seized, ultimately White Dots is suffused with elements of hope and affirmation, most firmly embedded in the bossa nova inclined and its declaration of undying love. Like Joseph, Wolfe offers rays of light beyond the darkness, and with her songs, her children, she’s “gonna paint these grey skies red”.

Mike Davies

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

‘When’ – live:

MISHRA – The Loft Tapes (Hudson MSR004)

The Loft TapesFronted by guitarist Ford Collier and vocalist-banjo player Kate Griffin, winners of the inaugural Christian Raphael prize at last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, and augmented by jazz-folk double bassist Joss Mann-Hazell, Mishra are a new Sheffield-based ‘global folk collective’, the instrumentation on their debut album, The Loft Tapes,  encompassing clawhammer banjo, African calabash, Irish whistle and bouzouki with John Ball, their mentor at Sheffield university, guesting on tabla.

Each track a single live take recorded on analogue tape, predominantly self-penned, as you might surmise it straddles several musical styles and cultures, opening with a 50 second drone, whistle and banjo intro improvisation on ‘Raag Jog’, a Hindustani classical raga (the trio are named for a Hindu Brahmin surname), before tabla picks up the thread into ‘Road Dust and Honey’ merging eastern and Gaelic flavours and suggesting such influences as Davy Graham and Jack Rose.

Banjo and whistle make the running on ‘Chase The Sparrowhawk’, another instrumental, that sounds traditional but was written by Collier. Indeed, the album has a balance between tunes and songs, the former also encompassing ‘Jog For Joy’, tabla and banjo playing off each other in a hybrid of raga and jig, and the six-minute jam closer ‘Morphology’ that, in addition to banjo, whistle and table, also features Collier reciting in Tabla Bol, the spoken form of tabla drums.

Returning to the songs, among the their own work particularly noteworthy are the plaintively waltzing Appalachian-shaded ‘Beautfully Blind’ which, for some reason, reminds me of ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’, the jazz-inflected, whistle-driven ‘Taru Taru’ (which may or may not have anything to do with race of magic users in Final Fantasy) and, the most folksy of them all, ‘Keep Your Kindness’, the only number on which Collier and Griffin share the vocal parts.

There’s also two non-originals, the first being an arrangement of ‘Angeline The Baker’, a song written by Stephen Foster for the Christy Minstrels in 1850, in which the narrator (male but sung here by Griffin) laments that he should have married the titular Angeline, a slave who has now been sent away by her owner.

The other, and one which further nods to their Americana sensibilities, is a faithful reading of Gillian Welch’s unsettling Southern Gothic number ‘Scarlet Town’ from The Harrow & The Harvest. Together, they make for an impressive and multi-textured debut and it’ll be interesting to see how they expand their global folk fusions in albums to come.

Mike Davies

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‘Scarlet Town’ – live:

JUDY COLLINS with JONAS FJELD and CHATHAM COUNTY LINE – Winter Stories (Wildflower/Cleopatra)

Winter StoriesA seasonal collaboration between Collins, Norwegian singer-songwriter Fjeld and the North Carolina bluegrass outfit, recorded over the course of just a few days, Winter Stories brings together reworks, covers, and new material, getting underway in stirring fashion with their take of Stan Rogers’ classic ‘Northwest Passage’, the verses shared between Collins, Fjeld and Dave Wilson with all three pitching in on the chorus, backed with piano, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.

Collins dips back into her songbook for three numbers, a lively bluegrassy ‘Mountain Girl’ and, as the closing track, ‘The Fallow Way’, previously one of three new songs on her 1990 Forever anthology, and the piano-led ‘The Blizzard’, a number about getting stuck in a Rockies snowstorm with “a dark-headed stranger” which originally appeared in its full seven-minute splendour on 1990’s Fires of Eden, here trimmed to just six.

The soaringly duetted title track is a new contribution by Fjeld, essentially a reflection on how “the light will come again”, be that in the seasons or emotional life, as indeed is ‘Frozen North’, Hugh Moffatt’s lyrics again using the winter cold as a metaphor, here warmed by the spark of love. Fjeld is also the author of ‘Angels In The Snow’, a song Collins previously recorded six years ago for Christmas With Judy, now revisited as a duet.

There’s two new songs to emerge from the collaboration, both Fjeld and Wilson co-writes, the frisky scuffling bluegrass ‘Bury Me With My Guitar On’ and the moodier, jazz-coloured ‘Sweet Refrain’ that, accompanied by piano, sketches a picture of a lonely old cowboy tracing out a melody alone in some room that brings back memories of lost friends and lovers.

The two remaining tracks are both covers, Collins taking solo lead on Jimmy Webb’s 1977 classic ‘Highwayman’, the story of a man (or here, in her silken tones, a woman) reincarnated as a thief, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship captain and a number she’d been meaning to record for several years but somehow never got round to. The other is another jewel in the 70s SoCal crown, Collins again in the spotlight for a lovely reading of Joni Mitchell’s inadvertent Christmas standard, ‘River’, a seasonally set break-up number generally assumed to be about her relationship with Graham Nash and escaping painful emotional roots.

Winter Stories is not a Christmas album in the conventional commercial sense (nary a carol in sight), but even so it perfectly captures the bittersweet feelings the time of the year inevitably evokes.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.judycollins.com

‘River’:

THE SERVANTS’ BALL – The Servants’ Ball (D.Wink CD13)

The West Sussex Gazette, December 15, 1938

The Servants' BallThe other evening, I had the good fortune to be assigned by this paper’s editor to attend a performance given at the Whittington Village Hall by an ensemble of performers going by the name of The Servants’ Ball. Individually, they comprise banjulele (a sort of banjo and ukulele crossbreed) player and step dancer Ewan Wardrop, fiddler Ben Paley, Rob Harbron on concertina, Ben Nicholls playing upright bass with Julian Hinton at the piano and Evan Jenkins providing assorted percussion.

Their repertoire ranges wide across a number of popular musical style, some steeped in the folk traditions of this country, Europe and the plantations of America, others harking back to the days of Victorian music hall or reflecting such contemporary fashions as the current enthusiasm for ragtime music. Indeed, they are well versed in popular passions, opening their programme with an instrumental number entitled ‘Egyptian Princess’ reflecting the current craze for Egyptology, it’s snake-charmer rhythms prompting several members of the audience to engage in what is termed a “sand dance”, its strutting movements modelled on tomb paintings, emulating the famous comedy routine of music hall act Wilson and Keppel who, you may recall, enjoyed a successful run at the London Palladium as recently as 1932. Had Howard Carter been among the throng, I feel sure he would have joined in.

Their repertoire for the night intermingling such dance tunes with songs of music hall vintage, they proceeded to delight, Wardrop, a ukulele player to rival George Formby, singing ‘The Bird On Nelly’s Hat’, a turn of the century vaudeville cautionary comedy ditty composed by Arthur Lamb and Alfred Solman about a lovestruck lad being fleeced of all his money by the titular golddigger.

Returning to instrumentals, led by concertina, they had the audience taking to the floor for the polka-influenced ceilidh tune ‘Number One Dance Step’ on which Wardrop demonstrated his foot tap talents to great effect before drawing applause and roar of approval as Hinton launched into the well-known ‘Champagne Charlie’, the lyrics written by Birmingham factory worker Joe Sanders who, under his music hall stage name of George Leybourne introduced the song, sponsored by champagne firms, into his act in 1868, boosting his income to almost fivefold to £120 a week.

Returning to dance tunes, introduced with a roll on the drums, next up was ‘Sultan Polka’, composed by Charles Louis Napoleon d’Albert for Sultan Abdulaziz I of the Ottoman Empire, this was followed in turn by ‘Pretty Little Dear’, not, as you might think, the 1926 comedy number by Frank Crumit, but rather another concertina dance tune, this of Sussex origin, which I understand the ensemble learned from the work of the renowed Scan Tester from Horsted Keynes, whose Country Dance Band often perform at such local functions.

Allowing the crowd to take a respite from their lively footwork, it was back to music hall for ‘I’m A Man That’s Done Wrong’, or, to give it the full title, ‘I’m a Man That’s Done Wrong to my Parents’, a sorrowful lament of a ne’er do well spurned by his family, Wardrop singing “I once wronged my father and mother, Till they turned me out from their door, To beg, starve or die, in the gutter to lie, And ne’er enter their dwellings no more” dating back to the end of the 1880s and reputedly written in Dorsetshire by one H. Strachey.

Having had time to catch their breath, the revellers were then encouraged back on to the floor for ‘Wild West Gallop’, a lively tune encompassing fairground whirligig, minstrel rag and quadrille and, from there, bearing the time of year in mind, straight into ‘Winter Cotillions’ medley before, accompanying himself on piano, Hinton returned to sing ‘Beautiful Boy’, an amusingly far fetched Victroian tale of no known authorship about of how a young lad was forced to undergo any number of surgical procedures, such as stretching his mouth wider, to make him to look more attractive to the opposite sex,with some unfortunate side effects. Let us hope the medical profession never encourages such nonsense.

Coming to to the close of the evening, they had time for two further tunes, Harbron leading them in the bouncing along ‘Les Rats Quadrille’, composed in 1844 by Gervasius Redler for student dancers or “les petits rats”, and returning to the fad for all things Egypt, Egyptian Ballet, an adaptation from Ballet égyptie by the composer Alexandre Luigini’s. Finally, it was the turn of Nichols to lend his stentorian vocals for a lugubrious six-minute variation of the children’s lullaby of ‘Old King Cole’ with the lyrics revised to talk of the monarch summoning Paganini, Paulo Spagnoletti and the London-born Nicholas Mori to satisfy his predilection for trios, the mock serious song continuing to talk of his secretary declaring a mole on his face as “boding something would take place but not what that something would be” and how the musicians parted company when the king started snoring on page 44 of Giovanni Battista Viotti’s ‘Concerto in G’, their dozing alcohol-doused patron then setting himself alight with his pipe and exploding, the number finally ending by inviting listeners to view the records at the British Museum in Bloomsbury.

A perfectly agreeable night of dancing, laughter and merriment that sent the party goers home happy and humming the tunes, I would not be surprised if, in say 80 years, some similarly enterprising folk musicians didn’t reprise the programme to afford equal delight to their own audiences.

Mike Davies

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A (possibly) serious video about The Servants’ Ball:

BEANS ON TOAST – The Inevitable Train Wreck (BOT Music)

The Inevitable Train WreckEvery year since 2009, Jay McAllister has released a new album of protest and social comment songs on his birthday, December 1. He’s now 39 and The Inevitable Train Wreck is his eleventh. I have to confess that albums in recent years have done little for me, but this, quite possibly because he’s working in collaboration with Lewis and Kitty Durham from Kitty, Daisy and Lewis and has tapped into the rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of Chuck Berry and Otis Redding’s classic Atlantic soul grooves is his strongest in some time.

It’s the former, from when the title comes, that kicks things off with ‘World Gone Crazy’, a state of the nation protest boogie about how “the ship is sinking” delivered in his familiar Chas ‘n’ Dave vocal complete with catchy singalong chorus. It’s followed appropriately enough with the sunny day woodwind coloured jauntiness of ‘England I Love You’ recollecting the hottest day on record when an unelected leader moved into No 10 and, as you might assume, has much to do with Brexit and his observations on the country’s changing social and political climate where “hate is on the high street” as we hand power to those in charge by turning on ourselves. The same summer also backdrops the snare shuffling, brassy ‘Lost Poetry Department’, where the heat and the inability of the train to take the strain resulted in him leaving his guitar, Martin, on the luggage rack in Guildford.

Finger-snapping and upright bass pinion ‘Extinction No 6’, another lifted from today’s headlines number, this time inspired by Greta Thunberg as he sings of climate change and the legacy we are leaving our children to the cooing of back-up vocals before the tempo shifts midway to a frantic funky flurry that comes on like Ian Dury on amphetamines.

Another sunny goodtime swing carries ‘Saying No To Robots’ which, like the funky, horns a go go ‘Logic Bomb’, taps into worries about the glitches and exploitable weaknesses of modern technology where computer crashes and hackers can bring things to standstill or worse, or, as he expounds on the monologue bridge of the former, artificial intelligence renders the need for humans redundant..

Introduced by wailing harmonica, as per the title, ‘Rich vs Poor’ addresses more traditional protest territory, which may be why it’s the one that most calls to mind Bragg and Guthrie, albeit veined with his individual wit than can turn out lines like “it will be the loaf of bread versus the upper crust”.

Simply strummed, ‘Mountains’ slows things down for a song which, in its sentiment about surmounting the obstacles before you, is essentially his take on ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from The Sound of Music. And, while we’re out in the countryside, the fact that he’s played Glastonbury on numerous occasions doubtless led him to write ‘Take Your Shit Home With You’, a rap across the knuckles for those who reckon it’s okay to leave their £30 pop-up Argos tents and the rest of the rubbish behind when they go home.

The Inevitable Train Wreck ends with, first the call for love and honesty in ‘Truth Be Told’, another motoring-along boogie, here with Kitty and Daisy calling back the chorus line and honky tonk piano taking it to the close, and finally, returning to politics with references to Donald and Boris, ‘On and On’, which attacks the placing profit over people, the widening inequality divide and how, while more people die of obesity than starvation, of old age than lack of medication, we live in a time when “more people take their own lives than die in wars”. And yet, he still manages to leave on an upbeat, positive note, declaring “I believe the world’s worth saving …and we can keep on singing, because life goes on”.

If he carries this form over into his 40s, then perhaps he can really help switch the points and stop things going off the rails.

Mike Davies

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‘On & On’ – official video:

JUDE JOHNSTONE – Living Room (BoJack BJR2221960-3)

Living RoomAs I noted in my review of her previous album, Johnstone is better known as a songwriter than a performer in her own right, her work having been covered by many of Americana’s great and good. As such, Living Room, often stripped to basics with minimal arrangements (the sleeve is just a black and white photo of her and a piano), might be seen more as demos for potential covers by artists looking to add some extra class to their albums than a spotlight for Johnstone herself, but that would be to overlook the quality she brings to her own material.

It opens simply with ‘Is There Nothing’, just voice, piano and Bob Liepman’s cello unveiling the end of a long relationship as she watches her partner walk out of the door to be with his new lover, the tune co-composed by the wonderfully named Blessing Offor, a former contestant on The Voice. Indeed, there are several collaborations, both in terms of music and lyrics, here, the second up being ‘My Heart Belongs To You’, a co-write with Nielson Hubbard and the ubiquitous Ben Glover, the latter part of the backing vocals while David Brewer contributes penny whistle and Johnstone sounds like a female Tom Waits. Glover not only also shares a credit on the similarly themed, Gaelic-flavoured piano waltz ballad ‘Seasons Of Time’, but also sings lead while Johnstone harmonises and accompanies and Olivia Korkola adds violin to the cello and whistle.

She also takes a vocal backseat on ‘That’s What You Don’t Know’, co-writer Hunter Nelson stepping up for a dreamy, pedal steel caressed evocation of some 40s ballroom slow dance on a song about how the screen persona of its celluloid star hides the sadness of the man behind the smile for the camera.

Her vocals back in the mix behind the piano, the reflective ‘All I Ever Do’ adds percussion and David Pomeroy’s fretless bass to the pedal steel and whistle with Tim Hockenberry on harmonies as the lyrics mix loss and hope in the lines “It’s a lonely life I’m living/But I’m gonna wait and see/What this old, broken-down world/Has left for me”.

Again featuring cello and pedal steel, ‘One Good Reason’ is a wholly self-penned song of a relationship in crisis, but not yet past the point of no return (“We’ve got so much to lose/You’d never be so blind/Or fool enough to choose/To leave it all behind”), while, shifting rhythm patterns, ‘Serenita’, co-written with Maggie Doyle, sung by Brandon Jesse, Johnston duetting on the chorus with Linley Hamilton on trumpet, turns to storytelling about a wedding doomed to tragedy when a storm blows in, the groom left waiting at the chapel and now drinking away his despair.

Another solo Johnstone credit, here with Matt Rollings adding accordion to cello and pedal steel, ‘I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way’ strikes a seasonal note, although its theme of being alone at Christmas with your regrets, through the actions of your own dysfunctional heart, is on the bittersweet side of festive.

The final two numbers are both all her own work, Nick Scott and Hockenberry accompanying on upright bass and trombone, respectively, for ‘So Easy To Forget’, a song of the hurt of being let go that essentially revisits Jim Reeves’ Am I That Easy To Forget’ from the female perspective of “an ordinary fling” who’d hoped for something more. It ends in total solo mode with ‘Paradise’, a song about past dreams, present laughter and future hopes that play out as a wistful piano ballad but which, in other hands, could equally as easily be transformed into a Springsteenesque full-powered anthem. That’s the sign of a real songwriter; the album serves eloquent reminder that Johnstone superbly embodies the singer half of the hyphenate too.

Mike Davies

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‘One Good Reason’ – live: