BILL JONES – Wonderful Fairytale (Brick Wall Music BRICK007CD)

Wonderful FairytaleFifteen years on from taking a short break to raise a family, the Sunderland-based former Radio 2 Horizon Award winner finally returns with her fourth studio album. Produced by Ian Stephenson, who also plays guitar and double bass, and featuring Jean-Pierre Garde on strings, percussionist Stephen Henderson, Santi Jayasinha on flugelhorn and with backing vocals from Anne Hills and Gareth Davies-Jones, the wait for Wonderful Fairytale has been worth it. Indeed, opening with the Hills co-write swayalong ‘The Arboretum’ (its traditional feel partly down to the fact it’s a version of ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’), a tale of love blossoming over a shared love of botany, it’s like she’s never been gone.

There’s another borrowing for the piano waltz inner Cinderella/Snow White domestic drudgery-themed title track which interpolates the well-known chorus from Lavenders Blue before moving to one of only two non-originals, ‘A Far Cry’, a swaying love song by Peter Crossley, in whose band Who’s That Man? she played in the 90s and which also features on his own new debut album.

Her passion for traditional music is clear throughout the album, both in her own songs and in arrangements or reworks of songs from the repertoire. A case in point being ‘The Cold Susquehanna’ which, again co-written with Hills and coloured by icy piano, Henderson’s rumbling percussion, and Niles Krieger’s violin, offers a twist in ‘The Two Sisters’ that spins a gender twist on the original murder ballad’s victim as well as its sibling bonds.

Featuring just her yearning warbling voice and piano, ‘My Elfin Knight’ is a dreamy pastoral folk ballad about love and loss that gives way to another love song, this time for her adopted home in the piano country waltz roll of ‘The Wear County Line’, a widow’s coming home song. Krieger’s fiddle puts in another appearance, Jones providing the accordion, on the playful ‘Humphrey Kynaston’ which, in 70s folk rock manner, tells the story of the Shropshire highwayman and spendthrift son of the county’s High Sheriff.

The only actual traditional number comes with ‘The Three Ravens’, her doomy arrangement for sombre piano and mournful viola and featuring flugelhorn that combines words from that, the ‘Twa Corbies’ and her own additions, the pace picking up with jaunty sway of ‘Never A Lad’, her accordion giving it a European folk flavour, Hill’s lyrics drawing on the same lover poisons her man to stop him straying narrative of ‘Lord Randall’.

The last of their collaborations comes with ‘Myself At Home’, a descending scales, almost hymnal piano ballad Garde’s viola adding extra wistful emotional texture to a lyric about reflection and self-discovery, time passing and growing older that chimes with the earlier ‘Wear County Line’.

Featuring a full string quartet, ‘Caden’s Lullaby’ is what it says, a song for her youngest son, a “little bonny boy” with a habit of not being inclined to visit the land of nod and referencing his dad and two brothers too. It all ends with the other cover, an acapella reading of English folk singer and promoter Alan Bell’s ‘So Here’s To You’, a parting glass song she first performed 17 years ago alongside Hills and Aoife Clacy as with Faire Winds, Hill here harmonising on the second verse and joined by Davies-Jones for the chorus.

After fifteen years’ absence, when she sings the line “now I know we will meet again”, it fair gladdens the heart.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.brickwallmusic.com

‘My Elfin Knight’ – official live video:

ASSEMBLY LANE – Northbound (own label ALCD01)

NorthboundThe Newcastle-based band Assembly Lane are Tom Kimber (mandolin, harmony vocal), Niles Krieger (fiddle, harmony and lead vocals), Bevan Morris (double bass), and Matthew Ord (guitar, lead and harmony vocals). While their CD Northbound – due for release on November 10th 2017 – draws on both British and North American traditional material, the arrangements lean generally towards the North American: indeed, if it were not for the absence of a banjo player, this would be a classic bluegrass line-up, and their sound generally reflects that sensibility. The songs are all traditional, but there are three instrumental tracks credited to Tom Kimber and one to bluegrass mandolin player Bill Monroe.

  1. ‘The Hills Of Mexico’ is one of those slightly morose songs in which the singer regrets a poor choice of occupation: lyrically, it has some lines that resemble ‘The Buffalo Skinners’. Nicely arranged, though sometimes the backing distracts from the vocal. The tune used here resembles the one recorded by Roscoe Holcomb.
  2. ‘Ain’t No More Cane’ is the well-known-prison song: the arrangement of this version, however, is closer to old-timey than to the Texas prison farms. It appears to owe much to the Band’s arrangement, though a little more sprightly and with much the same verses but in a different order. Nice harmonies, too. However, it doesn’t really convey the brutality of the environment from which the song arose.
  3. ‘Mind The Gap’ is an attractive instrumental set with a bluegrass feel, but credited to mandolinist Tom Kimber. Mandolin, fiddle, bass and guitar are all featured prominently in the course of the track.
  4. ‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ is a familiar version of the border ballad (Child 9), but rendered here with a bluegrass-y arrangement that gives it some freshness.
  5. Title track ‘Northbound’ is an attractive tune by Tom Kimber with some impressive unison work from fiddle and mandolin, as well as spotlighting skilful lead work from fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as well as the usual solid basslines from Bevan Morris.
  6. ‘Northbound’ segues almost seamlessly into Kimber’s ‘Fivefold’. While there are sections in ‘Fivefold’ that recall tunes that are staples of Celtic dance music, there’s a fascinating individuality and complexity to the interplay between the instruments over jazzy bass riffs.
  7. ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ uses the tune from Christie’s Traditional Ballad Airs used on Nic Jones’s 1970 recording and many subsequent recordings. It’s a fine tune, and this version does it justice, vocally and instrumentally.
  8. On ‘1845’, sometimes known as ‘The Morning of 1845’, fiddler Niles Krieger gets to take the vocal lead, and does so with credit.
  9. ‘Road To Columbus’ is the classic Bill Monroe tune, and the band does it justice.
  10. ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Mourn?’ – more often heard as ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan’ – is particularly notable for the rich acapella harmonies of the opening section, and the bowed bass and fiddle of the next section, but the athletic playing and changes of pace throughout ensure that the listener’s interest never flags. A delightfully upbeat end to the CD.

For me, the best part of this CD is the instrumental work. The press release suggests that the album was essentially recorded live as an ensemble, which perhaps explains its freshness, yet the arrangements are impressively complex: clearly these are excellent musicians who are very comfortable playing together. The vocals are very competent and appropriate to the arrangements, and while there are one or two songs that we have, perhaps, heard a little too much of over the years, all are well performed. This is an album that delivers good music and promises more. And I’d love to hear them live.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.assemblylane.com

‘Mind The Gap’: