I still tend to think of Bella Hardy as one of the bright young things of folk music but she has already done more than enough to justify Postcards & Pocketbooks, a double-CD retrospective, all the tracks remastered by Ian Carter. Bella is an old-style fiddle-singer, a 21st century songwriter and just about everything between. She can bring power to traditional songs and weave old themes into new songs and you can never be sure where her muse will lead her next.
The first disc opens with ‘Learning To Let Go’ from her poppy album, Hey Sammy, built on the pounding drums of John Blease. It sounds like the song of someone still seeking a way forward and if it’s autobiographical then that might explain Bella’s frequent changes of approach. That’s followed by the almost traditional ‘Whisky You’re The Devil’ and her award-winning ‘The Herring Girl’. This could be a traditional song or, at least, a traditional story but there is not hiding its provenance. You might expect ‘Sylvie Sovay’ to be traditional but here again Bella just takes the names and the germ of the theme and works them into something very new.
‘Maying Song’ and ‘The Seventh Girl’ are largely old songs and the first half ends with the first of two unreleased tracks, the gorgeously pure ‘Sheep Crook & Black Dog’.
The second disc opens with a new version of ‘Three Black Feathers’, the song that first made her name. Here it’s pared back to a simple guitar accompaniment by Sam Carter and the experience of nine years is obvious in Bella’s voice. Sam is there again on a new version of ‘Time Wanders On’ and the second previously unreleased song, ‘Tequila Moon’. Other standout tracks in the half are ‘True Hearted Girl’ – a robust version of ‘When I Was On Horseback’ – ‘Walk It With You’ with vocals by Kris Drever and the marvellous ‘Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier’.
The set ends almost where it began with ‘Redemption’ from Hey Sammy followed by the closing ‘Tequila Moon’ based on a chunky guitar part. I’ve heard most of Bella’s albums but Postcards & Pocketbooks succeeds in giving a different overview of her career – a mix-tape that entertains and makes you think a little more deeply about what you’re hearing.
The second crop of fruit from the joint project between Sam Carter and Jim Moray brings in Stuart Provan on drums and adds Archie Churchill-Moss’s melodeon to Tom Moore’s violin with Barnaby Stradling on bass.
As with their Salvor debut, it’s rooted in traditional folk songs given a contemporary and often off-kilter treatment with contemporary resonance, case in point being album opener ‘Babylon’ which, opening with a radio broadcast sample, takes the shapenote hymn by the scruff of its neck and lurches into a driving rock drum beat bulked up with electric guitars and brass, the “Babylon’s falling” chorus refrain chiming with its described reaction to current British and US politics.
The drums and guitar solo may lean to the heavier side of folk rock, but there remains a definite traditional air to the 19th century transportation ballad, ‘Black Velvet Band’, set to a new, moody and slow-paced six minute plus tune by Moray that’s a far cry from the familiar rousing Dubliners’ version, the verse melody leeching off the similarly-themed ‘The Whitby Lad’.
The Roud collection also provides the source for ‘William Glenn’, Carter taking nasally lead on a nautical tale of mutiny, superstition and the crew casting overboard the captain they deemed responsible for the storms, a rousing, urgent shanty-founded interpretation learned from Nic Jones with the addition of new lines based on Tony Rose’s version as ‘Sir William Gower’.
Written by Moore, ‘The Ombudsman’ provides an instrumental break, violin naturally to the fore over a dampened bass drum thump, the initial nervy African-textured guitar work giving way to fierce, almost prog-folk riffs, the fury subsiding for the leaving song ‘Far In Distant Lands’, another shapenote hymnal, taken from The Southern Harmony 1854 as ‘328 Missionary Farewell’, it’s timely echoes of the migrant crisis delivered over a wheezing drone and a tinkling repeated keys pattern, building to a climax with wind effects before its final ebbing way.
It’s back to sea for the album’s lengthiest number, ‘Captain Kidd’, the Roud broadside about the legendary alleged pirate who was executed in politically controversial circumstances in 1701, the tune based on ‘159 Wondrous Love’ from The Sacred Harp, starting out in acoustic mode with Moray’s vocals accompanied by fiddle and drone before erupting around the two minute mark into steady-paced but full-blooded electric folk rock.
Another folk standard ballad, ‘Murder In The Red Barn’, the Suffolk-set true story of how Maria Marten was shot dead by her lover William Corder who was subsequently tracked down, found guilty and hung in 1828, events also giving rise to a popular melodrama and something of a local tourist industry, with even part of Corder’s scalp, ear attached, being displayed in Oxford Street. Unusually sung from Corder’s viewpoint, it’s set to a folk rock combination of ‘129 Heavenly Amor’ and ‘146 Hallelujah’, two tunes by shapenote composer William Walker that appear in The Sacred Harp, and featuring an almost Byrdsian jangling guitar solo. A fine companion piece to ‘The Murder Of Maria Marten’ recorded in 1971 by Shirley Collins and The Albion Band.
Featuring in both the Child and Roud collections, ‘Serving Man Become A Queen’ gets a sweeping rework, barreling along on both a newly written Moray tune and a borrowing from The New York Trader as it moves from high velocity drums-driven urgency to a slower passages with a brief touch of almost Bach organ.
The penultimate track and another nautical tale, here about one of three Scottish brothers who turned to piracy to support himself and his siblings, ‘Henry Martin’ begins with clattering African-styled percussion from Laurence Hung before Provan’s drums and glowering electric guitar take control, the number venturing into almost improvisational jazz rock territory towards the end. It ends in suitably jaunty form with melodeon akimbo and fiddle surging for ‘Drink Old England Dry’, a song originally written in response to Napoleon’s boastful threats to invade and drink the country dry, the French subsequently variously substituted by the Germans and Russians, but here reworked to tone down any pro-Brexit sentiments with Moray and Carter trading the new verses and joining together on the suitably rowdy, glasses raised chorus.
Invented in 1844 by Scottish mathematician Hugh Blackburn, a harmonograph is a mechanical device that uses two balanced swinging pendulums to draw geometric pictures, two different but equal forces working in perfect harmony to create a complex whole. What better metaphor for the musical symbiosis of False Lights could you ask!
Sweet Liberties, originally a commission by the EFDSS and Folk at the Oak, in partnership with the House of Commons, to mark the 2015: Anniversaries: Parliament in the Making, this has now expanded to become a 14-track album featuring a varied line up of folk musicians in celebration of 800 years in the pursuit of democracy.
Some of the names will be familiar, others less so, but all contribute thoughtful and relevant songs touching on various aspects of the overall topic. I am assuming that everyone listed in the credits (which includes Nancy Kerr and Patsy Reid on violin, Nick Cooke on melodeon) played on all (or most) of the songs, the writers themselves handling the vocals, perhaps the best known being Martyn Joseph who contributes three of his own numbers, the first, featuring fingerpicked guitar and violin, a revisiting of ‘Dic Penderyn’ from his Evolved album, the story of the 1831 Merthyr Riots and the man hung for a crime he could not have committed. The second, a duet with Sam Carter, is also one from the back catalogue, ‘Twelve Years Old’, from Songs For The Coming Home, inspired by the 1833 Factory Act and framed as a conversation between two children a hundred years apart. His third, ‘Nye’, is a new song written for the project, a fingerpicked, violin-accompanied tribute to those who work in the NHS and to its founder, fellow Welshman, Aneurin Bevan.
The album opens with ‘Kingdom’, the first of four songs by 2015’s BBC Folk Singer of the Year, Nancy Kerr, a traditional styled solo acoustic number that takes Magna Carta as a springboard to address the ownership and management of land for profit and the subsequent loss of habitat. Coloured by violin, ‘Seven Notes’ is another traditional framed track, one which uses the image of the migrating cuckoo as a poetic metaphor for colonialist history, setting it in an experiment in musical patterns to represent multicultural Britain.
Rather more jaunty, the waltzing, melodeon-led Music Hall-like ‘Lila’ (the only song not to also feature on her new Instar album) connects the suffragette movement with the abolition of slavery through its twin subjects, Adelaide-born Muriel Lila Matters, who took to a hot air balloon to scatter Votes for Women leaflets over Parliament, and Mary Prince, an eighteenth century Bermudian whose autobiography offered a narrative of slavery. Her fourth contribution, the spare, melodeon, violin and guitar accompanied ‘Written On My Skin’, again draws on metaphor and nature imagery (here a hunted fox) on a song in memory of women forced to resort to the Human Rights Act to have their sexual assault cases justly tried.
A relatively new voice on the British contemporary folk scene, Maz O’Connor also has four credits, all new recordings, kicking off with the violin-backed ‘Rich Man’s Hill’ which, inspired by the 1601 Poor Law and concerning the widening gap between the haves and have nots,, tells of a homeless man in London who believes that, if he works hard enough, he too can get himself a mansion. The one track to address democracy directly, ‘This Old House’ (a nod the Palace of Westminster) is a playful take on democracy and compromise framed in the context of a couple redecorating and patching up their shared house, pizzicato violin driving along the chorus.
Featuring nimble fingerpicked guitar and violin, ‘Broad Waters’, as the title suggests, concerns the 1985 killing of PC Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm estate and the subsequent police fitting up of three innocent men for his murder, and is set as a dialogue between a police officer pressuring a young boy into testifying against Winston Silcott. Her last track, backed by just acoustic guitar, the plaintive ‘Broken Things’, also concerns social justice, here, borrowing the opening of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem For Doomed Youth, a lament for the decline of the trade union movement, focusing on the Miners’ Strikes of 1984 and, in particular, the death of David Jones during violence on a picket line.
Which leaves Sam Carter who, like Joseph, provides three numbers. Echoing Kerr, ‘Am I Not A Man?’ also addresses slavery a waltzing number inspired by freed slaves organisation Sons of Africa whose campaigning contributed to the Abolition of Slavery Act, drawing for its details on the slave autobiography Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano.
His two other songs come at the back end of the album, the first being the lurching cabaret-styled ‘Dark Days’, a straightforward state of the nation comment with gyspy violin accompaniment, proceedings closing with the folksy salvationist hymn ‘One More River’, a return to the theme of slavery that sounds a personal note in that his great great aunt married the son of a fugitive Virginian slave, sun in his voice as he contemplates fleeing to England, ending in an unaccompanied chorus by Carter and, presumably, his three female associates.
Featuring none of the bombast or flagwaving that would likely characterise an American equivalent, this is both a damn fine album and a salient reminder of the liberties we so often fail to hold dear.
It didn’t start well. We heard the crash somewhere backstage and when Sam came onstage to find that his DI wasn’t working he confessed that he’d dropped his guitar. A few minutes fiddling got it going, fortunately for all concerned. Sam made a big joke of it and started again, with the audience firmly on his side before he’d even sung a note.
He began, as always, with ‘Yellow Sign’ from his first album. It’s a deceptively simple song that tells a complex story in just a few verses and tunes the listener in to Sam’s songwriting style; at once involved and yet simultaneously an observer. Now he introduced the trio: bassist Matt Ridley and drummer Evan Jenkins for two more old songs, ‘Dreams Are Made Of Money’ and ‘Taxi’. They were quite restrained at this point, cool and jazzy.
Sam went solo again to introduce the first of the songs from his new album, How The City Sings, beginning with the title track and ‘Our Kind Of Harmony’ before changing tack with a song from False Lights – ‘The Wife Of Usher’s Well’. Back came the band for a rockabilly version of ‘One Last Clue’ and as the end of the first set approached Sam announced that they were going to play some “Judas music”. Which meant that Evan picked up the big drumsticks and Sam his electric guitar (a 1960’s Gibson ES125 for guitar nerds) and gave ‘Oh Dear, Rue The Day’ an experience it can rarely have had.
Sam’s sets are always varied and can leave the audience wrong-footed as he does something unexpected. Tonight was going to be rock’n’roll night as the second set opened with ‘Dark Days’ and ‘The One’. Then, quite unexpectedly, he switched to a solo song from Sweet Liberties which may be called ‘One More River’ – Sam wasn’t specific. It relates to a several-times-great aunt who married an escaped slave in the early 19th century, which must have been quite scandalous even in Leicester. Sam constructed the song in the traditional style of a shape-note spiritual and it was quite wonderful, perhaps the highlight of the set.
The band returned, Judas took over again and brought my one reservation. ‘We Never Made It To The Lakes’ is a great song but it should be poignant and wistful. Sam insists on rocking it up and I really wish he wouldn’t. They wrapped up with ‘Taunting The Dog’ and ‘Drop The Bomb’ in rocking style and encored with ‘Waves & Tremors’
Variety is the key to Sam’s performances. He can pick out delicate acoustic lines or a screaming electric solo; sing the most tender of lyrics or roister through ‘Jack Hall’ and he does it all in one evening. The tour continues – don’t miss it.
Making good on his Best Newcomer gong in the 2010 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards , Carter went on to release his critically acclaimed No Testatment as well as collaborate with Jim Moray as False Lights on the Salvor album. The moment shows no sign of slacking with this, his third solo outing, produced by Dom Monks and Neil Cowley and recorded live to tap with musicians that, in addition to Cowley on piano, included his trio’s drummer Evan Jenkins, regular bassist Matt Ridley and award winning fiddler and viola player Sam Sweeney.
Opening with ‘From the South Bank to Soho’, an acoustic farewell love letter to both a romantic partner and London, Carter says the album is often unconsciously permeated by the city’s influences, the songs drawing on images and impressions, as on the piano-backed title track, but also more explicitly detailed as with ‘Haringey Lullaby’, a lament written in the wake of the Baby P case.
If those are all gentle melodies, then contrast can be found on the lurching Arabia meets carnival snake-charmer lope of ‘Dark Days’ with its marxophone and electric guitar, the gathering musical stridency of ‘Drop The Bomb’, its rock out guitar solo mirrored in the equally aggressive and dynamic sounds of ‘Taunting The Dog’, a number that underscores those Richard Thompson comparisons. Less angry in tone, the playful, organ-backed train rhythm scurry ‘One Last Clue’ is also a more uptempo affair, one which might even prompt loose thoughts of Chas ‘n’ Dave, or maybe Chris T-T.
It’s often the case that one style overshadows the other, but Carter has achieved a solid balance here on material that complements rather than contrasts, moving between the distorted ringing guitar and anthemic choral sound of ‘The Grieved Soul’ (a touch of Blake, perhaps), the bittersweet hushed ‘King For A Day’, the jazzy keyboards and acoustic guitars of ‘We Never Made It To The Lakes’ and the undiluted folksiness in which ‘Our Kind of Harmony’ swims without ever jarring.
This is the sound of a man supremely confident in his ability to craft and shape both words and music, never afraid to explore unknown territories, but equally happy to relax in familiar settings knowing it’s through choice not complacency. A sure thing for a Folk Awards album of the year nomination next time around, it’ll take some really stiff competition to challenge this.
Since being named Best Newcomer at the 2010 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Sam Carter has been stirring audiences from Camden to Canada, via an attention grabbing appearance on Later… with Jools Holland and a dreamsreallydocometrue performance in a specially assembled band to back Richard Thompson at Shrewsbury Folk Festival.
Since the release of his last solo album The No Testament Sam has toured the world, equally happy to perform on his own, with a band or to collaborate with other artists – including a trip to Pakistan to work with revered South Asian classical musicians Sajid Hussain and Haroon Samuel; an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show playing songs cowritten with Zimbabwean musician and former refugee Lucky Moyo; and closer to home as part of the allstar tribute tour The Lady: A Homage To Sandy Denny. In 2014 Sam teamed with Jim Moray to form False Lights, a band with the stated aim of updating the template of folk rock and making a joyful racket. Their 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominated album Salvor, released the following year, was praised from all corners proving that people really were ready for traditional English songs played in a style that owed as much to Radiohead as it did to Fairport Convention.
Sam’s third solo album How The City Sings captures this fervently admired singer, songwriter and guitarist at his most passionate and moving. Recorded live to tape in the studio, the album was produced by Dom Monks (who worked with Ethan Johns on records by Laura Marling, Paolo Nutini and The Staves) and keyboardist Neil Cowley (Neil Cowley Trio, best known for his contributions to Adele’s 19 and 21 albums). In addition to Neil, whose emotive piano lines were often improvised, the band includes fiddler Sam Sweeney (Bellowhead, Leveret and BBC Folk Musician of the Year) drummer Evan Jenkins (Neil Cowley Trio) and Sam’s longstanding bassist Matt Ridley.
How The City Sings features twelve songs that are at times affectingly intimate and at others brimming with righteous rage. As the album formed, Sam began to notice these songs were shot through with images and aspects of London. After ten years living in the capital it had become not only the backdrop but a central player in the parts of his life these lyrics detailed. Unconsciously How The City Sings became a way of processing where he was, in every sense.
Opening track ‘From The South Bank To Soho’ , underpinned by Sam Sweeney’s exquisitely measured viola, was written during the end of a significant romantic relationship and depicts a love triangle between two people and the town.
“The stakes are high when you live here,” explains Sam. “It requires you to make big decisions about whether you stay or go.”
In stark contrast ‘Haringey Lullaby’ is a lament on behalf of the borough where Sam resides, written in the wake of the Baby P case; trying to find words for so many unspoken feelings.
But this is an album of dark and light. ‘Our Kind Of Harmony’, with its chiming guitar giving a nod to the great Nic Jones, uses extended musical metaphors to celebrate the relationship of two of Sam’s friends who married and moved “south of the river”. The title track ‘How The City Sings’ was imagined as a vantage point over the entire record. While the rest of the album focuses on specific moments of love and loss, confrontation and crisis, this song comes from the bigger perspective of seeing this place that can seem so hard and cruel as also a gathering of hope and unity.
“What’s important to me about the record is that my experiences and what I sing about have become inseparable. I’m writing about my own life but also trying to give voice to the lives of others.”
How the City Sings is the most personal album of Sam Carter’s career, and when songs are this heartfelt and true they connect with us all.