Tori Reed is a female singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar but that is such a superficial description that it’s worthless. Same Page Different Book is her third album and I loved its predecessor, The Snug Sessions. So what’s going for her? Firstly, she writes very clever songs but doesn’t spoon-feed the listener with meaning. “I’m a victim of my own stereotype” from ‘The Good Fight’ is the key line for me – see my first sentence – Tori knows that she isn’t what she she’s supposed to be.
Secondly, she has a very flexible voice that she uses so well. She sings the opening track., ‘The 3 Muses’, in a “little girl” voice and I hate that but she rocks and roars ‘The Alphabet Song’ and it’s clear that she was just putting it on. Finally, she has assembled a fine band of musicians and knows how to use them. Rick Foot plays double bass and, after the conventional-sounding ‘The 3 Muses’, his is the only accompanying instrument on ‘Desire’ plus he plays some extraordinary notes on ‘Femme Fatale’. Lucy Roberts’ violin gets a workout on ‘No No, Gypsy Jazz’, Oli Faulkner plays a sparkling guitar break on ‘Delta Brit’ and the sax of Simon Hartung and the trumpet of Michael Grew add passion at the heart of the album.
Somewhere around ‘Study Of Em’ I wanted to stop and go back to the beginning because I realised I hadn’t got it on the first pass but I continued listening, still impatient to go back. Of course I had to wait for the dreaded hidden track – I’ve spoken about this aberration before. It’s a good song but what’s it called?
I’ll forgive Tori this time, simply because I’ve enjoyed the record so much. It has so much depth and gives you so much to think about.
Following her debut album, Away From My Window, Aberdeenshire singer IONA FYFE looks across the Atlantic for her EP, Dark Turn Of Mind. Aside from Gillian Welch’s title track and Gregory Alan Isakov’s ‘If I Go, I’m Goin’, all the songs are traditional and have roots in the Ozarks and the Appalachians. ‘Swing And Turn’ comes from Jean Ritchie and uses the tune often associated with ‘Gypsy Davy’ and is a typical southern mountain song.
‘The Golden Vanity’ is found in variations all across the English-speaking world including Scotland of course. Iona’s version combines Child’s version with Cecil Sharp’s and she notes that it was recorded by Jean Ritchie more than fifty years ago. ‘Little Musgrave’ comes from Sharp and Jeannie Robertson in this version although it was known in print in the 17th century. Between these is ‘Let Him Sink’, an Ozark variant of ‘Farewell He.”
The EP is built on Rory Matheson’s piano which gives Iona scope for some powerful singing. Aidan Moodie plays guitar and adds perfectly judged harmony vocals while Graham Rorie adds more decoration on mandolin. https://ionafyfe.com/
THE MARRIAGE is a new Americana union formed by singer Kirsten Adamson, the daughter of Skids and Big Country founder Stuart Adamson, and former ahab member Dave Burn on guitar and harmonies, making their debut with the self-released folksy strum of ‘Live, Love, Cry’, a rather fine taster for an EP and full album in 2019. https://www.wethemarriage.com/home
She Wynds On was commissioned to promote a new tourist route through the Cairngorms – a project called SnowRoads. The music was composed by CALUM WOOD and he is supported by Robert Black, Ross Ainslie, Stuart Spence, Charlie McKerron, Tom Oakes, Brigid Mhairi and Julia Dignan. It opens with the title song, a sort of overview of the four sections of the route from Blairgowrie to Grantown-On-Spey via Braemar, Ballater and Tomintoul. I suppose there was a contractual obligation to include the line “the heart of the Cairngorms” but that’s the only jarring moment. The four instrumental tracks are dramatic without being overblown and Scottish at their very heart. www.callumwood.com
Black country Americana singer-songwriter Joseph Hicklin, aka DEATH BY STAMPEDE, has released Contemporary Depressive, a 5-track download/stream EP from his Soundcloud site that, exploring the contemporary nature of depression (“this great big, looming Monster/ That holds you near and calls itself your home”), serves as an acoustic introduction to his music. With a dusty, slightly gravelly vocal reminiscent of the Handsome Family, Rod Picott or Willard Grant Conspiracy, it opens with ‘Daydream 27’, a mid-tempo fingerpicked chug musing on how “we all die on our own”. It’s followed by the choppier, early Dylan-like strum of ‘Neon (Reflecting)’ with its urban paranoia, the notion that reflecting on the past can be pointless and a chorus about “going to where the neon glows. where angels dance without halos.” ‘Songs of Love & Truth’ takes the pacing down again before building to an urgent climax, lines like “the moon is a thumbprint on a dirty widow” and the future being “just a fat man with a bird upon his shoulder singing songs of death, but also love and truth” underscoring his way with words and imagery.
‘Fool’ is another aching, world weary, introspective fingerpicked ballad (about being stuck in a rut and a sense of impotency how, since “life isn’t real and death is a joke” you may as well make the most even if “it seems so brave and it seems so cruel to live like a god and die like a fool.”
It ends with the slow melancholic gradually building sway of ‘My Morning Pill’, a feeling of helplessness and ennui where “nothing but smoke came out of my mouth” and “my whole life is like a train past my window sill” mingled with a desire to crawl out of the black hole “and get through the year and get through the day.” Closing with the line “I was an addict, just after one taste, it’s not too bad, I know now darling”, this is a breathtaking debut and unquestionably among the finest Americana releases of the year, you really should seek him out, he has the potential to be one of the greats. https://www.facebook.com/deathbystampede/
‘Shooter On The Mound’ is the second single from country-folk duo HENGISTBURY and is also the opening track on their debut album, Add Another Minute. Jessica Mary and Pete Briley produce a big sound and this song reverberates with earthy guitar, banjo and lap steel. Both single and album are available in digital format and physical copies of the album are available from the band’s website: www.hengistburymusic.com
An early taster for their forthcoming self-released album, Rivers That Flow in Circles, Birmingham’s BOAT TO ROW release ‘Spanish Moss’, a musically variegated, tempo-shifting affair that layers African percussion and electric guitars over a persistent bass line, before the instrumental playout with a wash of guitars, synths and violins. The album promises to be a more expansive and explorative musical palette than their debut. https://www.boattorow.com/
Familiar Strangers is a fine debut by NEW TOWN JACK, a singer-songwriter out of Southampton. The theme of the EP is, reasonably enough, strangers but it isn’t that simple. Friends can become strangers in ‘Change The Rules’ – something we’ve all experienced – and people can deliberately isolate themselves as explained in ‘Let Me Be’, although the story is rather fanciful. Deeper down, it’s also about people looking for people in both the physical and metaphorical meanings. www.newtownjack.co.uk
Also from Birmingham, RED SHOES contribute to the festive singles list with their download only ‘Time Stands Still’, Mark Evans providing the cascading strummed acoustic chords while Carolyn sings a moving lyric that draws attention to the homeless at this time of year, 50% of all profits being donated to Crisis UK. Available from their website: www.redshoes-music.com/charity
CARA DILLON has also been into the tinsel cupboard and, in response to the reaction performing it on her last couple of Christmas tours, emerged with her cover of Joni Mitchell’s Christmas-themed ‘River’ from her classic Blue album. Featuring John Smith on acoustic guitar and John Garrison on keys, it’s a beautiful version that conjures the feeling of snow falling on a silent night. To complement it, she’s also covered The Pretenders’ festive hit ‘2000 Miles’, giving it a folksy serenade with cascading guitar notes and fiddle. Both are downloadable from the usual platforms. http://www.caradillon.co.uk/
RICK FOOT’s Christmas song isn’t terribly Christmassy, nor is it very long. In fact ‘A Message To The Future’ weighs in at just 39 seconds! It can be argued that this is quite long enough to tell the future to get its shit together and Rick sums up the current situation in seven words and double-tracked double bass. http://www.rickfoot.com/
Back on a Christmas note, YVONNE LYON offers up the twinkling ‘I Believe In Christmas ‘(Self-released) with its silvery rippling keys and bells backdropping the strummed acoustic guitar as it builds to a choral finale. It’s backed with the ringing guitars of the more folk rock ‘Dear December’ with its hints of Amy Macdonald. www.yvonnelyonmusic.com
Canadian singer-songwriter ALLISON LUPTON joins forces with BBC Radio 2 Folk Music award winning trio The Young’uns and guitarist Craig Werth for the self-released ‘The Eve Of Christmas Day’, a more carol-like affair that also features a warm silver brass quintet arrangement by Tom Leighton. http://allisonlupton.com/
The Big Red Monster of the title is probably the rusting old tractor on the back cover but even Andy Griffiths isn’t quite sure. This is Andy’s third album of original songs, gentle and thoughtful with the laid-back support of a fine group of musicians including Rick Foot, Natasha Pattinson, Glen Hughes, John Budgen and Sally Barker.
The opening song, ‘Yesterday When’, is an exercise in nostalgia of the sort that every songwriter essays at some time, nice but undemanding. However, Andy quickly picks up the power with ‘The Liquorice Field’, a story of the young farm-hand and the girl from the big house. I set out looking for the history of liquorice growing in Britain, hoping that the fenlands from which Andy hails were its source, only to find that it hasn’t been grown commercially here for over a century and, as the song implies, only in Yorkshire. The reference to liquorice, however, gives the song a unique twist.
Nostalgia returns with ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ and ‘Tyneham Valley’, the memories of a young child displaced during the last war when the village was taken over by the army – another excellent song. My favourite track is probably ‘Any Day Now’ if only for its opening line: “I can’t remember getting arrested”. I suspect that it’s largely metaphorical but I’m not sure. Then again, ‘Sake Of My Heart’ is a description of alcoholism filled with clever wordplay and an air of mystery which, on reflection, is the best writing. Actually, Andy is adept at the art of oblique writing – I’ll figure out ‘Occasional Tables’ one day.
Twice through and I’m really getting into Big Red Monster. It’s beautifully played and there is something haunting in these songs that draws the listener back.
On his web site, Keith James describes his career as esoteric and secretive, but he has actually attracted a good deal of respect for his sensitive interpretations of the songs of Nick Drake, John Martyn and Leonard Cohen, and his musical settings of his own poetry and that of well-loved writers like Lorca and Dylan Thomas. His new CD, Tenderness Claws, is almost entirely focused on settings of poetry: it’s the first time I’ve actually heard his work, but it’s finely crafted and played, exquisitely produced (mostly by Branwen Munn) and engineered, and repays close attention.
There can be a degree of implicit tension between the intentions of the poet and the composer when a poem is set to music. Housman took exception to the omission by Vaughan Williams of two of the verses from Is My Team Ploughing? Vaughan Williams responded that ‘the composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense.’ (And made it clear that there were lines in the missing verses that he felt were best forgotten.)
Phil Ochs, though probably mostly remembered nowadays as a ‘protest’ singer, also composed several excellent settings to poems by Poe, Noyes and others. In his liner notes to I Ain’t Marching Any More he offered – if my memory doesn’t fail me – a sort of apology to John Jerome Rooney for his substantial changes to The Men Behind The Guns. (We’ll never know what Rooney would have thought about it).
Keith James clearly believes it appropriate that what Ochs called ‘the discipline of music’ should sometimes modify and shed a different light on an existing poem as it develops into a song. And the success of the settings here entirely justifies that belief.
Here’s the track-by-track summary:
‘Tyger Tyger’ is Keith’s setting of William Blake’s poem. This is the oldest poem set here, and the form is unequivocally strophic, by contrast with the freeform nature of the work of the ‘beat’ poets also represented here. However, it could be said that Blake’s writing was often a long way ahead of its time, and the arrangement is unequivocally modern, and in no way clashes with the more recent verse here. I particularly like Sarah Vilensky’s vocal work here.
Although the insert and booklet state ‘All music composed by Keith James’, ‘White Room’ is actually the melody that Jack Bruce put to Pete Brown’s words on Cream’s Wheels Of Fire Though I remember the original with nostalgia, Keith’s is really rather a good version, benefiting from significantly more light and shade. The arrangement accentuates the dislocated tone of the lyric better than the in-yer-face wah-wah of Cream’s version – perhaps we’re just too accustomed now to the sound of frequency filtering to remember its impact in the 1960s – and Keith’s understated vocal compares well to Bruce’s.
‘Andalucia’ is based on a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca with which I’m not familiar. It combines a rhythmic arrangement that recalls flamenco, though the percussion and some of the changes hint at Latin America. Keith’s vocal delivery, though, is all his own.
‘A Process In The Weather Of The Heart’ slightly rearranges the poem by Dylan Thomas, but still feels through-composed. I don’t know what Dylan would have thought, but it works for me.
‘Decorated Cardboard Human Shapes’ sets one of Keith’s own poems, combining a wide range of haunting aural effects with a compulsive percussion track.
‘Daydreams For Ginsberg’ is set to an abbreviated version of Jack Kerouac’s poem. It works very well.
‘The Mask’ is based on Lorca’s Danza De La Muerte (Dance of Death). This time the poem, though significantly shortened, is left in Spanish, apart from the couplet that begins and ends this setting. As with ‘Andalucia’, the guitar is steeped in flamenco feel, but Rick Foot’s bowed double bass adds quite a different dimension. Beautiful.
‘Blue Angel’ sets a poem by Allen Ginsberg to guitar arpeggios that give the setting a slightly folk-y feel.
‘Lizard On The Wall’ is a guitar-driven setting of Keith’s own slightly surreal words, punctuated by gentle flamenco-tinged clapping. I like it a lot.
‘A Third Place…’ sets another of Keith’s own poems, hinting at a tragic backstory. In some way I can’t quite define, it makes me think of Brel.
Keith’s voice has a fragility that might not be to everyone’s taste, but is entirely suited to the material here, and I can see (or hear) why it would be suited to the songs of Nick Drake, for instance. But then his settings here of his own poems make for compositions that stand very well on their own, even in the company of the other writers represented here. Highly recommended.
In the wake of his criminally underrated album Rain Machine, RICK FOOT returns with a six-track EP, Songs Of Idiocy & Expedience. It’s pared down even from the minimalism of the album and Rick says that the songs were arranged with an eye to live performance. It is amazing what you can do with just voice, double bass and a bit a technology. Rick double-tracks himself and throws in some percussive noises on ‘Your House: Full Of Twigs’.
Rick’s voice is laid back and sounds despairing at times and there is a political dimension to several songs. The opener, ‘Whoever You Vote For’ leads inexorably to the tag-line “the government still gets in” and ‘Your House’ is, I think, about a collapsing or collapsed society. Rick’s lyrics are often witty and sometimes quite surreal so ‘Potato’ and ‘House Of Cows’ require further study. The idiocy comes in ‘Lincolnshire Poachers’ but I won’t spoil it by telling you the story. Just go out and buy Rick’s records.
Anglo-Welsh trio THE TRIALS OF CATO formed in Beirut but now they are back home with an eponymous EP. They sound thoroughly traditional and it’s only when you start to listen carefully that you realise that these are original songs. ‘Matthew VanDyke’ has the rolling feel of an eighteenth century sea song but like the origins of the band it’s centred on the tragedy of the Middle East. ‘Reynard And The Goose’ is a conversation between the titular creatures – think ‘The False Knight On The Road’ – and is very clever. ‘Fighting Jack’ takes us back to the army and back to the war zones while ‘Aberdaron’ is sung in Welsh and paired with ‘The Shaskeen Jig’. There is so much potential here – we should hear more from The Trials of Cato before too long.
At first JOE MARTIN sounds American but the subtlety of his lyrics suggest otherwise – he’s really based in Leeds. He’s supported on Small World by Andy Leggett on double bass and Henry Senior on pedal steel. ‘Denver’ is pure Americana as is ‘When The Time Is Right’. The former has a lovely wistful lyric with a clever closing line that suggests that he’s not totally subsumed into the genre but can also look in from the outside. Joe’s acoustic guitar playing is clever without being flashy and his voice, and indeed his songs, are front and centre.
‘Trouble’ is the new digital-only single from the rather wonderful Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter ANNIE KEATING. A smooth country blues, ‘Trouble’ follows on from Annie’s recent album, Trick Star, and heralds her upcoming UK tour. It settles quickly into its groove with a simple bass line echoing her acoustic guitar decorated with restrained slide guitar.
Falkirk band THE NICKAJACK MEN make their recording debut with an EP, Wasting Away. They fall somewhere in the alt-rock/country field but the best track here is probably the nearly-folky ‘Marilyn’ with some really nice echoey vocals by Lewis White and the slow bluesy ‘Erb’ is pretty good, too. Twin guitars and keyboards give The Nickajack Men a full, rich sound over the bass and drums of Jamie Burns and Matthew McAlister. An excellent debut.
MARIA KELLY releases her first EP in download-only format. The Things I Should follows three singles all produced by Matt Harries. The second track ‘Far Below’ reveals a hidden strength in her voice as the arrangement cranks up the pressure. In contrast ‘Where’s The Worth’ is more delicate with lots of strings and a spare drum arrangement while ‘Pretend’ takes a more folk-pop direction.
Rick Foot, erstwhile musical partner of Keith James and member of Jon Boden’s Remnant Kings, brings to four the number of double bass players – I’m not counting Chopper’s cello – to step out of the shadows where they are usually kept and go it alone with a solo album. Now, you might be expecting improvisational jazz or a “solo” project with umpteen musicians and a girl singer up front but you’d be wrong on both counts. There is one guest musician, guitarist Arnie Cottrell, who appears on two tracks but otherwise Rick is on his own. True, his music is based on double-bass and cello but he is accompanying his own songs here and, while there is an acceptable quota of weirdness – ‘Aren’t You Glad’ springs to mind – there are no extended flights of fancy.
On Rain Machine Rick Foot emerges as a singer-songwriter with a light but characterful voice and an original turn of phrase. True, some of his songs are as dark as the CD cover – ‘The End Of The World Was Last Thursday’ is a twenty second vignette that might give you a hint. The opening track, ‘Broke The Weather’, is a song I’d have on a permanent loop if I was in danger of feeling too happy and ‘Start Again’ reminds me inexplicably of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ or rather the way it would have turned out had Holly come from Brighton, West Sussex. The best line of all comes in the chorus of ‘Everything Turns Beige’ where he sings “we’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at Wetherspoons”, summing up the theme of the album as a catalogue of the insanities of modern life.
Rick says that he has been honing some of these songs for several years and the ease of his performance supports that. There are a few studio tricks such as the reverse tape on ‘When It Rains’, some minimal percussion and odd noises (I’m assuming that Rick is responsible for the bleating sheep) and you couldn’t exactly call Rain Machine straightforward but it is as simple as it can be given the ingredients and it’s damn good. It will be up there as one of my albums of the year.