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

Artist’s website: www.judycollins.com

‘River’:

MEGAN HENWOOD – River (Dharma Records DHARMACD30)

RiverThe third album by singer-songwriter Megan Henwood, River, is due for release on 27th October 2017. And it demonstrates the evolving talent and maturity of a singer who had already made considerable impression in 2009, when she and her brother Joe won Radio 2’s Young Folk Award, and a writer whose storytelling is supported by fine melodies and solid musicianship. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly folky album (which isn’t a criticism), however.

The songs are all written by Megan, who also plays acoustic and electric guitars here, while cellist Matthew Forbes and bassist Pete Thomas, long associated with her work, are once more strongly featured on this album. The early promotional copy I have doesn’t include details of these or other personnel, though the press release tells me that the CD was produced by Tom Excell, and the unexpected but very effective trumpet on ‘Fresh Water’ is by Jonny Enser. There’s no lyric sheet at this point, either, which always strikes me as being a shame when the words are as good as this. It also means that when I cite lyrics in this review, I may be inaccurate, so I apologise in advance for any accidental mondegreens, but her wordsmithing is too good not to try to quote.

Here’s a track-by-track listing:

  1. ‘Join The Dots’ uses a classic ballad structure, moving between a gentle verse to a dramatic chorus that reminded me a little too much melodically of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (sorry!).
  2. ‘Fresh Water’ lies a little closer to a fuzzy line between alt-folk and modern country with its acoustic fingerpicking. A very pretty love story –”I’ve got a thirsty heart and your love is like fresh water … to me” – with some perfectly judged double-tracking on the chorus.
  3. Megan’s song about Oxford, ‘The Dolly’, has the barest touch of Joni Mitchell-ish head register in the first verse, but also makes good use of her distinctive lower register. Great lyric, and the chorus has a nice bass line running in parallel to the vocal.
  4. The lyrics to ‘Seventh’ are a little more diffuse: the story is more difficult to follow, but the impact of the song is undeniable. Some nice touches of organ, too. As in one or two other places, the percussion seems a little too far forward here and there, though the suggestion of a ticking clock – I guess that’s a wood block – does suit the theme of the song. And perhaps it’s just an artefact of my elderly stereo.
  5. The wordless middle section to ‘Apples’ is a little overextended for my taste, but I like the combination of lyric and melody very much.
  6. ‘House On The Hill’ is a song about the scariness of romantic involvement – “I’m not afraid of the dark/but I’m afraid of you leaving“. The combination of the underlying electric guitar and strings is particularly atmospheric.
  7. The multi-tracking on parts of ‘Rainbows’ is a little denser, almost reminiscent in places of the Carpenters.
  8. ‘Peace Be The Alien’ includes some of my favourite lines: “From my follicles/down to my fingertips” and “Turn it down/headful of decibels“. Yes, “life’s too loud” but this song is definitely worth turning up the volume a bit.
  9. ‘Oh Brother’ explores the complexities of a sibling relationship. Autobiographical, perhaps, if it matters. A fine song, anyway.
  10. ‘Used To Be So Kind’ seems to pick up the theme of unkindness and being the firstborn child from the previous song. Some nice, slightly jazzy chord changes later in the song.
  11. ‘The Craftsman’ is probably my favourite Henwood song at the moment, and perhaps the folkiest. Just voice and acoustic guitar. Lovely.
  12. ‘L’Appel Du Vide’ is a French expression meaning “the call of the void”, similar to what Poe called ‘The Imp of the Perverse’: the sudden urge to do something harmful to oneself or to others. The song begins with an acapella section building into close harmonies, then develops the theme with some slightly eerie instrumental backing to match the disquieting lyric – “L’Appel du Vide I believe you’ve been haunting me/gather up all of my sins/siren won’t leave, she just sits here and sings to me/when will the finish begin?” Its understated drama makes for an unforgettable end to the album.

I tend to feel uneasy when I invoke the names of other artists in a review: all I’ll say on this occasion is that while Megan Henwood doesn’t sound too much like Mary Chapin Carpenter or Janis Ian – for a start, there’s something very English (in a very non-chauvinist way) about her use of language – but if you like the work of either of those artists (or maybe of Stevie Nicks), I’m pretty sure you’ll like Megan’s. It’s lyrically rich storytelling, melodically varied, imaginatively scored and sung with an unassuming, unforced range and fluidity. It’s certainly an album I’ll be listening to again, and I’ll be taking a look at her earlier recordings. Does that make me officially a fan?

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.meganhenwood.com

‘The Dolly’ live:

COAST – Windmills In The Sky (Ruabhal Records SAM04)

WindmillsCoast is a folk-rock band, with the emphasis on the rock, formed by Paul Eastham and Chris Barnes back in 2009. Windmills In The Sky is their third album and I hope it will be the one that propels them to greatness. They spent their childhoods on Benbecula in the western islands and their music reflects that edge-of-the-world wildness. If I tell you that they employ twin drums/percussion with mighty electric guitar from Finlay Wells you’ll immediately know where they are coming from. These are big, anthemic songs centred around the keyboards and orchestral programming of Eastham.

The album opens with ‘Is Sinn Na Tuinn Air Bhàrr A’ Chuain’, a delicate acoustic piece – for about forty seconds until the band kicks in to give us a sort of overture to what is awaiting. Three songs are firmly rooted in Western Scotland. The first, ‘River’, is a song of pure nostalgia for a Hebridean childhood while ‘Thundersnow’ and the title track give contrasting views of west coast life. The former is essentially the opinion of a fisherman wishing that he was somewhere warmer and drier while ‘Windmills In The Sky’ tells of the welcoming sights of home after a long voyage. The windmills are, of course, the turbines that I suppose are the first things that fishermen can see as they return to harbour.

Coast are no one-trick ponies, however, and other songs take a wider view. ‘No More Heroes’ looks back on 2016 and reflects the line from David Bowie’s song – he is one of the heroes who are no more – but it’s also about regaining control when those leaders are gone. ‘1884’ is the true story of murder and cannibalism that set a precedent in common law and ‘That Old Atlantic Sky’ is the extraordinary – but also true – of a German fighter pilot and the crew of an American bomber in 1943. ‘Let It Rain’ and ‘This Whole World’ are philosophical songs reflecting on the modern world.

The band makes a really big sound but also finds room for traditional instruments: Charlie McKerron’s fiddle, Lorne MacDougall’s pipes and whistles and the accordion of Sileas Sinclair. These are not over-used but serve to anchor Coast’s roots firmly in the Western Isles.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.coast.band

‘River’ – official video: