We’re used to hearing Mike Vass as an instrumentalist and, particularly, a composer. His albums have been evocative musical journeys, In The Wake Of Neil Gunn being the prime example of his talent. With Save His Calm he’s turned singer-songwriter, a most unexpected change of direction. The title is an anagram and the album is described as semi-autobiographical with the songs drawn from people and experiences of the last few years.
I was prepared to be disappointed at first. The opening song, ‘They Never Found Me’, seemed designed to avoid scaring the horses but on closer listening it sets the scene for the powerful ‘Done With Calling You’. This is clearly a song about divorce but whose breakup isn’t made clear. The accompaniments are strong but restrained with Mike confining himself to tenor guitar and he gives his band: Louis Abbot, Euan Burton, Philip Cardwell, Tom Gibbs, Su-a Lee and sister Fi an unfamiliar freedom. Cardwell’s trumpet and Gibbs piano are key instruments on the record.
In 2013 Mike contracted neuroborreliosis, a very unpleasant and potentially life-threatening disease which resulted in hospitalisation and an induced coma. As documented in ‘Gates Of Saints’ he clearly believed that he was facing his final days. Before that song we have one about someone else’s death, ‘The Rainbow Of Your Last Days’. It might have been that he was writing about his own demise before it came.
‘Just Enough To Let The Light In’ and ‘Fly’ are both about past loves and there is a theme of aging and death running through the whole album with ‘Clutching At Straws’ and ‘As I’ve Grown Older’ and it seems to me that Mike was considering his own mortality in a different way and the final ‘Walk With Me And Meet My Children’ is a slightly disturbing piece about a traffic accident and its aftermath.
The power of Save His Calm grows with repeated listening and it becomes clear that sometimes it takes a monumental event to release someone’s creativity.
If you’re the sort of person who reads the small print on CD covers, you’ll be familiar with the name of Louise Bichan. She is widely known as a photographer, particularly of Scottish artists but has been playing the fiddle for even longer. Out Of My Own Light is subtitled The Margaret S. Tait Project and is, I believe, her first solo album. Margaret Tait was Louise’s grandmother and both came from the Orkneys but Margaret’s uncle had emigrated to Canada and settled there. After the second world war Margaret was, in her own words, “restless and unhappy” and journeyed to Canada to meet her family.
Out Of My Own Light tells Margaret’s story in music and it’s a complicated one involving a recording for CBC radio in 1950 and the choice of two suitors. The record closes with a recently rediscovered but sadly scratchy and incomplete tape of that broadcast. The rest of the record is composed by Louise and performed alongside some of Scotland’s finest musicians: Mike Vass, Signy Jakobsdottir, Duncan Lyall, Su-a Lee and Jennifer Austin, whose piano makes a striking contribution to the album.
Although rooted in the tradition, Out Of My Own Light is something more. You might call it alt-folk or nu-folk but I prefer to think of it as modern classical with tracks titled for people and incidents in Margaret’s life. The man she chose to marry, Sydney Bichan, gets two pieces, ‘Sidney The Pilot’ and ‘Flying Farmer’ and ‘Swanbister’, the name of Louise’s label was also the home of Sydney’s family. Louise isn’t clear about this but I suspect that ‘Margaret’s Walk To The Pier’ and the cover photograph are of Swanbister.
This isn’t an album you’re going to get at first hearing but you’ll find expanded sleeve notes at http://www.outofmyownlight.com and in Louise’s blog.
Amy Duncan’s new album opens, and indeed closes, with unshakeable optimism, which is unusual and very welcome these days.
The title song is about moving on and putting the past behind but it was the second track, ‘Song To Myself’, that attracted my attention. “I will be there at the moment of your death”, she sings. It’s an obvious thought but I don’t recall anyone putting it quite like that before. Be true to yourself is the clear message. The optimism of ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ may be cockeyed but it’s something I’m sure we’ve all thought – everything will be alright if only… In between there is a fair amount of gloom with ‘When The Dead Are Watching’ and ‘Crack In The World’ while ‘Ivory Tower’ is a song of self-criticism. The single, ‘Navigating’, brings back the feel-good factor.
Amy is a multi-instrumentalist and well-known as a double bass player. She is supported by harpist Fiona Rutherford and the string trio of Robert McFall, Brian Schiele and Su-A Lee with dobro from Ted Ponsonby, drums from Liam Bradley and extra keyboards from producer Calum Malcolm. The music drifts towards the jazzy end of folk but the strings are lush and sometimes everything stops except for the acoustic guitar to remind us where it all comes from. Dai Jeffries