RACHAEL SAGE – Pseudomyopia (MPress Records MP9009-2)

PseudomyopiaLast year, Sage a legally blind New York singer-songwriter without corrective lenses, released Myopia, her 14th album, packed with ringing guitars, piano and, for the most part, upbeat indie power pop built around the concept of short-sightedness and metaphorical blindness. This year, with the help of musicians that include bassist Richard Hammond, cellist Ward Williams and Patti Smith guitarist James Mastro, she’s revisited it (minus two tracks) as Pseudomyopia with all new acoustic arrangements and a title that extends the term to bigoted social attitudes towards diversity and difference.

As with the original, it opens with the air-punching celebratory feel of ‘Alive’, cello and mandolin augmenting the guitar and a line about being in the Olympics where nobody ever cheats and “losing my virginity in purple satin sheets”. ‘Daylight turns to piano, a song of domestic violence, the narrator unsure of how she should respond to her traumatised combat veteran husband, feminist themes also to be found on the cello and plinketty piano notes of ‘Sistersong’ as it addresses the pressures on women that won’t allow them to be themselves.

Self-identity and being comfortable with who you are also inform the cello-backed Tori Amos-like ‘Maybe She’ll Have Cats’, sung from the perspective of a father pondering on his sexually wayward teenage daughter’s future, and the piano-accompanied ‘Spark’ with its anthemic chorus surges. There are specifically political moments too. The bluesy ‘This Darkness’ treats on the controversy of the Dakota Pipeline and environmental neglect, the punningly titled ‘Snowed In’ with its brooding cello and dissonant guitar takes its inspiration from Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance by America’s intelligence agencies reflected in its theme of paranoia, while ‘Tomorrow’, with its la la la chorus, employs the notions of patriotism and nationhood to address the concept of truth and the perspectives from which it is viewed as she sings “Vision is a euphemism for blindness, Brave is a euphemism for bleak, but tomorrow is blue skies”.

The folksily reworked almost cinematic title track, which features fingersnaps and Mastro (curiously echoing Sting’s ‘Fields Of Gold’) counterpointing her piano, returns to the theme of self-discovery and self-confidence and overcoming emotional nearsightedness.

Of the two remaining cuts, one is a cover, an almost baroque chamber-like arrangement of Howard Jones’ ‘No One Is To Blame’ that she makes her totally her own while the other, ‘Olivia’, which sports hints of Regina Spektor, is a tribute to strong women that was specifically inspired by an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and the character of Olivia Benson played by Mariska Hargitay.

Regardless of whether you’re familiar with the original album, this is a terrific collection in its own right. If you have Myopia, you’ll want this too. If you get this, you’ll want the other.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.rachaelsage.com

‘Alive’ – official video:

THE RACHEL HAMER BAND – Hard Ground (own label RHB01)

Hard GroundHard Ground is the debut album from The Rachel Hamer Band: Rachel, Graeme Armstrong, Grace Smith and Sam Partridge. The Newcastle based quartet are the current recipients of the English Folk Dance And Song Society’s Graeme Miles Bursary which helped to fund the project. Appropriately, then, they open with one of Graeme’s songs, ‘Blue Sunset’.

The hand ground of the title is the ground of industry although ‘What A Voice’ is rather more metaphorical. Graeme’s song celebrates, if that’s the right word, the effects that industrial pollution can have. The fumes from the factory chimneys turns the sunsets blue in summer, the Tees is amber-brown and reflects the skies in violet and orange. Hardship and death are common themes of the album and next up is Jean Ritchie’s ‘West Virginia’ an oddly matter-of-fact account of a woman’s response to a mine disaster.

‘The Digging Song’ is the first hint that there might be a lighter side to the band. It’s an old joke that you’ll quickly recognise. Later, Ewan MacColl’s ‘School Days Over’, lauding the nobility of labour contrasts with Alan Bell’s ‘Alice White’ which concerns the suffering and degradation of the women. Between then sits Rachel’s composite version of ‘Gypsie Laddie’, another few moments of lightness unless you happen to be the deserted lord, of course.

The chief melody instruments are Grace’s fiddle and Sam’s flute and whistles. Graeme’s guitar provides the rhythmic foundation with support from producer Ian Stephenson on double bass and cello and Richard Hammond’s percussion although the most notable percussive sound is that of Grace’s clogs! Throw in Sam’s harmonium and the band can produce a really solid sound to back Rachel strong, distinctive voice and can break out into decorative passages without missing a beat.

Hard Ground is an exceptional debut album by anybody’s standards and I predict a great future for The Rachel Hamer Band.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.therachelhamerband.com

The Rachel Hamer Band live at Todmorden Festival: