LOUISE BICHAN – Out Of My Own Light (Swanbister Records SWAN001CD)

Out Of My Own LightIf you’re the sort of person who reads the small print on CD covers, you’ll be familiar with the name of Louise Bichan. She is widely known as a photographer, particularly of Scottish artists but has been playing the fiddle for even longer. Out Of My Own Light is subtitled The Margaret S. Tait Project and is, I believe, her first solo album. Margaret Tait was Louise’s grandmother and both came from the Orkneys but Margaret’s uncle had emigrated to Canada and settled there. After the second world war Margaret was, in her own words, “restless and unhappy” and journeyed to Canada to meet her family.

Out Of My Own Light tells Margaret’s story in music and it’s a complicated one involving a recording for CBC radio in 1950 and the choice of two suitors. The record closes with a recently rediscovered but sadly scratchy and incomplete tape of that broadcast. The rest of the record is composed by Louise and performed alongside some of Scotland’s finest musicians: Mike Vass, Signy Jakobsdottir, Duncan Lyall, Su-a Lee and Jennifer Austin, whose piano makes a striking contribution to the album.

Although rooted in the tradition, Out Of My Own Light is something more. You might call it alt-folk or nu-folk but I prefer to think of it as modern classical with tracks titled for people and incidents in Margaret’s life. The man she chose to marry, Sydney Bichan, gets two pieces, ‘Sidney The Pilot’ and ‘Flying Farmer’ and ‘Swanbister’, the name of Louise’s label was also the home of Sydney’s family. Louise isn’t clear about this but I suspect that ‘Margaret’s Walk To The Pier’ and the cover photograph are of Swanbister.

This isn’t an album you’re going to get at first hearing but you’ll find expanded sleeve notes at http://www.outofmyownlight.com and in Louise’s blog.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s webside: www.louisebichan.co.uk

A behind-the-scenes look at Out Of My Own Light:

GILLIAN FRAME – Pendulum (Cheery Groove CHEERY005)

PendulumGillian Frame was Scotland’s first Young Traditional Musician Of The Year. That was back in 2001 and it’s taken her the fifteen years since to release her first solo album. Of course she recorded three with the band she helped found, Back Of The Moon, played sessions for other bands and taught fiddle and the songs and tunes performed on Pendulum have been with her from those early days.

There are some fine musicians on the album – a core band of Mike Vass, Anna Massie and Euan Burton with guests Adam Holmes (who is making a name for himself with his own band) and Phil Hague. Despite this fine cast, what I like about this album is its essential directness and simplicity. The songs speak for themselves and the instrumental sets are not excuses for displays of ego.

The record opens with a vigour that initially surprised me. The song is ‘Rothes Colliery’, written by Gillian’s husband, Findlay Napier. It’s a straightforward song about the loss of a colliery and is sung in an appropriately straightforward manner – an excellent start. ‘Lovely Molly’ is a song of romantic trickery, played with a light touch and, like all the songs, sung without false emotion.

I’m in no way swayed by the fact that one of my all-time favourite Scottish songs, ‘Silver Tassie’, is included in the set with Holmes sharing lead vocals and that it’s followed immediately with ‘Fine Flooers In The Valley’ with ‘The Echo Mocks The Corncrake’ as a bonus. This is an excellent album.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.gillianframe.com

Paul McKenna Band – new album

Paul McKenna Band

2016 will see The Paul McKenna Band celebrate their 10th anniversary. To celebrate this milestone they are releasing their fourth, highly anticipated, studio album, Paths That Wind, produced by the legendary John McCusker.

The new album features guests in the form of some of Scotland’s greatest musicians – John McCusker, Rod Paterson, Mike Vass and James Lindsay

With a contemporary approach to songs, although not straying too far from their roots, their arrangements are both fresh and innovative. The exciting sound of The Paul McKenna Band is created through outstanding vocals, driving guitar and bouzouki, intense fiddle playing, a warm pairing of flute and whistles and dynamic bodhrán and percussion.

2016 started off with a bang with a three week tour of Australia which included playing in the new year to a crowd of 30,000 at Woodford Folk Festival. The band have a hectic year ahead with tours in America, Canada, Europe and the UK.

Artists’ website: www.paulmckennaband.com

‘Long Days’ – official video:

MALINKY – Far Better Days (Malinky Music MM001)

FarBetterDaysI love the music that is being produced in Scotland these days. I love its adventurousness and its imagination. I love the way that musical partnerships come together and split apart as though there is too much music for anyone to stand still long enough to make two albums together. But behind all this is the wealth of traditional music that stretches back over the centuries and underpins all the innovation.

Which is where Malinky come in. They are dedicated to Scots song and uncompromising in their commitment to the Scots language, which is a little surprising when you remember that their early years helped to propel Karen Polwart to solo songwriter stardom. Malinky are not averse to borrowing a song when it’s appropriate, however, so the version of ‘The Twa Sisters’ is translated from the original Swedish by Steve Byrne. ‘Long Cookstown’ is an Irish song, presumably brought in by Mark Dunlop who sings it; ‘The Wild Geese’ is a poem by Violet Jacob set to music by Jim Reid and Mike Vass gets to include one of his own tunes.

The rest is pure Scots traditional and my favourite is a song I’ve known for years but is rarely heard this far south. ‘The Bonnie Hoose O Airlie’ is a story of 17th century warfare between the royalist Earl Of Airlie and the anti-monarchist Earl Of Argyll although you can’t help but feel that there was something more opportunistic behind the attack given that Airlie wasn’t even there. The story has been embellished over the years but it’s still a superb song and beautifully sung by Fiona Hunter. Second to it but only by a whisker is ‘Son David’, another beautiful song telling a grim story. This version comes from Jeannie Robertson and features producer Donald Shaw on Ivor Cutler’s old harmonium and rich harmony singing from all four band members.

It’s not all gloom and bloodshed. ‘The Brisk Young Lad’ is a tale of failed courtship and ‘The Moss O Burreldale’ is apparently about a fight between Traveller families although it sounds far too jolly for that – just how does one plait one’s knees?

As I remarked, Malinky are somewhat uncompromising in their use of language and a crash course in Scots dialect would be advantageous but most of it makes perfect sense with the odd word or phrase to be deciphered. Oddly, Violet Jacob’s words are the most difficult.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.malinky.com

A live version of ‘The Wild Geese’ recorded in 2009:

Mike Vass: new CD – In the Wake of Neil Gunn

Neil Gunn‘A journey of recovery and discovery’

Award-winning Scottish composer and fiddler Mike Vass is the master musician behind one of the most ambitious and intriguing instrumental releases of 2014.

A case of adversity triggering creativity, In the Wake of Neil Gunn is an ambitious music-maritime project, the seed of which was sown when keen sailor Vass was seriously ill in hospital last year. Named Composer of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Music Awards Vass’s last highly acclaimed album Decemberwell (2012) was another instrumental CD conjuring up both the chill and the warmth of the final month of the year.

A long-term member of renowned Scottish band Malinky, Mike has also performed in the Paul McKenna Band, in a duo with sister Ali, with Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes and in the feted super group Fiddle Rendezvous. Also building a career as a producer (he produced Scottish songstress Fiona Hunter’s debut album last year) the Nairn-born tunesmith is known for his classy compositions – he wrote and performed the soundtrack for Gavin Robinson’s Scottish BAFTA-winning Hart’s Desire animation and his jig Cavers of Kircudbright won the inaugural Neil Gow Composition Award and has been recorded by artists from Scotland, Ireland, France and USA.

But in 2013 he suffered a setback when he was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease. Whilst recuperating in hospital his father gave him Scottish writer Neil Gunn’s book Off in a Boat, describing a 1937 voyage of the spectacular west coast of Scotland. Fisherman’s son Gunn had given up his job as a civil servant, sold his house and bought a boat called The Thistle to embark on his three month long adventure around the Inner Hebrides.

Says Mike, who had been put in an induced coma: “I’d suffered a life threatening illness called Neuroborreliosis – late stage Lyme’s disease that affects the central nervous system. I found Gunn’s book utterly inspirational and immediately started planning my own version of the trip.”

In May this year Mike did just that, mirroring Gunn’s voyage closely and gathering endless inspiration for the new album, with Salmon Films recording the voyage and House of Lochar re-issuing the book. Mike and a small crew set off on his father’s 35’ sailing boat from Portree on the Isle of Syke voyaging to the Isle of Eigg, Arisaig, Mull, Iona, Oban, Kentallen, Fort William and back up the Caledonian Canal to Nairn..He revisited the same coastal communities as Gunn and performed a series of concerts with guest musicians, including one at Iona Abbey.

He says: “Making music on board and watching the stunning coastline of Scotland slip by from one of the most privileged viewpoints on Earth is something I will never forget.” Though intimately inspired by Gunn’s voyage and writing Mike said: “It is inescapably the story of my own reflections. It is a journey of recovery and discovery”.

The 10-track recording features samples of “found sound” recorded on the trip (from flapping flags to a diesel inboard) and live instruments captured later in the studio. Multi-instrumentalist Mike plays tenor guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dulcitone, melodica and percussion. Joining him on the album are some of Scotland’s foremost traditional musicians – Iain Hutchison on piano (who also co-produced the release with Vass); Jennifer Port on oboe and clarsach (Celtic harp); Hamish Napier on flute and whistle and Euan Burton on electric and double bass. Adding to the filmic sound is The Cairn String Quartet of Katie Rush and Catherine Robertson on violin, Annemarie McGahon on viola and Susan Applebe on cello.

Highly original, it is a suite of music that ebbs and flows, variously subtle and symphonic, seemingly having arrived fully formed with edge, atmosphere, nuances and even boat creaks that makes you feel you are taking the voyage too!

Says Mike: “I also used some quirky sounding objects from around the house – if you listen carefully you might hear a toilet seat lid, an office stapler and a paracetamol tub being used as a shaker!”

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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. Can’t find what you are looking for? Search Amazon Store below.

Artist’s website: www.mikevass.com

“A multi-instrumentalist and composer, Vass bends genres here. Is this contemporary folk music or a modern classical work? Yes.” – 4 * R2 Magazine

“Only a few years into what promises to be a glittering career, Mike Vass delivers a stunning collection of standout tunes.”Taplas

“Expansively flowing, often luminous music that runs with the tide” – The Scotsman

A live performance of ‘Settled In Clay’ from In The Wake Of Neil Gunn:

FIONA HUNTER – Fiona Hunter (Rusty Squash Horn Records RSH004CD)

Fiona Hunter-300x300I had a clever introduction about another young singer falling into good company to make her debut but, of course, as lead vocalist with Malinky for ten years, Fiona Hunter has put in the miles already.

However this is her solo debut and the company is indeed good. There’s former band-mate Mike Vass who also produced the record and wrote a couple of the tunes that are woven into the songs; Matheu Watson who is everyone’s favourite Scottish guitarist at the moment; Euan Watson on double bass and Gillian Frame as second vocalist. Fiona’s source material is the wider Scots tradition, including Roberts Tannahill and Burns, which we can extend to Ewan McVicar’s ‘Shift And Spin’, which sounds more traditional than some traditional songs, and Andy Hunter’s ‘Ye Hielan Chiels’. Hey, it’s forty years old now!

Fiona’s skill is that she is equally convincing when singing a piece of nonsense like ‘The Weary Pund O’ Tow’ as when delivering a big ballad such as ‘The Cruel Mother’ or ‘Young Emsley’ – a variant of the young sailor murdered by his girl-friend’s parents story. There’s a favourite of mine here, ‘The Bleacher Lass O’ Kelvinhaugh’, and another piece of silliness to finish with in the shape of ‘Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow’ complete with the most tuneful chorus of drunks you’ll ever hear bashing out ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. The band is restrained in accompaniment and provides Fiona a platform for her cello while having free rein to stretch out in the instrumental passages. This is destined to be another of my albums of the year.

Dai Jeffries

 *** Although Fiona Hunter is officially released on March 3rd you can buy an advance copy from her website now. ***

 Artist’s website: http://fionahunter.co.uk/