RICHARD DURRANT – Stringhenge (Own Label, TheBurningDeck003CD)

StringhengeJS Bach’s elaborate baroque isn’t necessarily folk’s obvious partner, but for guitarist Richard Durrant they are simply links in a lengthy musical chain. In his new album, Stringhenge, landscape and music are tightly bound, including in his instruments: a guitar made from 5000-year-old bog oak and a tenor guitar decorated with a silver Uffington Horse.

A Sussex classical guitarist trained at the Royal College of Music, Durrant embraces other styles and traditions joyously, with a playing style that wears its intricate skill with light ease. What’s quickly obvious from Stringhenge is his attention to detail, taking pleasure in tiny adjustments to resonance or plectrum, just as much as key or rhythm.

This is Durrant’s first double album, with the first CD recorded on Shoreham Beach (unless it’s also the name of a super-hip studio?). It largely features JS Bach pieces re-imagined for guitar, and occasional ukulele (he reserves one just for playing Bach). He’s creative with style and mood, adding classical Spanish touches to ‘Anaerobic Prelude’ which perfectly suits Bach’s bubbling, tumbling-over-themselves motifs. ‘Under Downham’ is unabashed English pastorale, and there’s even a harpsichord-like resonance on the strings in ‘The Reefknot Gavotte’. A swingy jazziness pervades ‘The Deep Dark Woods’, with touches of syncopation chopping into the rhythm. However, shorn of its cello mood-swings, the much-loved ‘Prelude In G’ lacks power.

Among the Bach nestle traditional tunes, with the jaunty light baroque frolic of ‘Speed The Plough’ linking them. ‘The Skye Boat Song’ pits two distinct key moods against a bagpipe-drone strum, while ‘Sorton’s Hornpipe’ (aka ‘Jacky Tarr’) slowly builds up the rhythm but remains oddly melancholic. ‘A Brief History Of Wood’, Durrant’s original composition, is strong and punchy, with sliding falls and hard picking.

The studio-recorded CD two is surprisingly different. It’s a funny, strange, slightly hallucinogenic experience, like rediscovering an obscure folk-rock concept album from the late 1960s/early 1970s. ‘Kenneth The Hedge’ has more than a hint of early Pink Floyd about it and ‘Frank Bough’s Allemande’ is amusingly odd. Elgar-derived ‘Edward The Good Angel’ is a slightly sinister 1960s caper movie theme that overindulges on a Greek holiday and passes out while listening to a beautiful blackbird. Bang on trend with the current birdsong vogue, then. Two minutes of joyous skylark song rounds off the disturbing ‘Morris Dreams’, which frequently teeters on parody’s cliff edge. Suddenly, we’re safely harvest home and, like looking back across a landscape, we can contemplate the distance travelled.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.richarddurrant.com

‘My Lady Jane’ – official video:

NORTHERN FLYWAY – Northern Flyway (Hudson Records, HUD013)

Northern FlywayThis eponymous album from Northern Flyway is a beautiful addition to a rapidly growing body of music prominently featuring birdsong. Northern Flyway is Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thomson’s new audio-visual project, featuring Magnus Robb’s bird recordings. Subtly drawing parallels with human migration and diversity, it’s also an alarm cry of disconnection from our natural world.

The rhythms and patterns of birdsong create audible landscapes of seasonal change, starting with the honking geese of opener, ‘Flyway’, which suggests the drone of an invisible aerial motorway of migration. The dawn chorus’s bubbling crescendo is transformed into a delirious, giddy fairground ride in ‘We Are The Morning’.

‘Rosefinch’ is the first of many songs dedicated to particular species. It’s a warm, bright song, with Jason Singh’s churring beatboxing and an accordion motif to mirror the bird’s phrasing. ‘The Gannets’ is a perfect example of how the album intertwines interview snippets and birdsong, often digitally manipulated to form beats and punctuations. The birds’ eerie, scratchy cry cuts through the airy, chant-like vocal, as a gently curling flute breaks free, soaring over a dully metallic percussion.

‘Lost Lapwing’ with its rather brusque, mantra-like vocal takes the bird’s eye view; the manipulated birdsong at times adding a whale-song-like melancholy before eliding into Robbie Burns’ delicate ‘Sweet Afton’. The richly-layered ‘Curlew’ evokes the bird’s wide-open-skies call (like a bleaker, saltier skylark), and the wisdom attributed to ‘The Owls’ (inaccurately, say some who work with them) is contemplated over a delicious curvy, sinuous beat.

The powerful ‘fragment of the past’ that is ‘The Eagle’ sees mediaeval touches added to Tennyson’s poem fragment. More early music influences, plus Singh’s menacing animalistic beatboxing, feature in closing track, ‘Huginn And Muninn’ (the names of Odin’s ravens), in celebration of the darkly intelligent corvid.

‘No Barriers, No Borders’ makes a pointed comment on migration, its breathy atmosphere faintly calling to mind The Unthanks’ Mount The Air (no bad thing). Sarah Hayes’s lovely, plangent piano lead on this and the rather more autumnal ‘Nomad’.

As a high, shimmering wave of sound moves across ‘Loch Carron Flame’, the listener’s viewpoint plunges from migrating geese down into the flame shell reef of the murky Scottish waters. Videos of the reef are available to watch online: it gives the song’s repeated ‘goodbye’ an added pathos that is almost unbearable.

Northern Flyway portrays the beauty of these birds and their often precarious environments without preachiness. Original and multi-layered, this is an enigmatic, gorgeous piece of work.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

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‘Curlews’ – official video:

SMITH AND BREWER – Live 16/12/2017 (Own Label)

Smith And Brewer LiveRiding high on their success in front of their biggest audience to date at Cropredy, as well as playing a host of other festivals, Americana duo Smith & Brewer are having a good year. For everyone who’s been enjoying their performances, Live 16/12/2017 provides a chance to take the magic home and skitch the coat-tails of summer a little longer.

Even though this soft-launch album is not the band’s main-feature release this year, it’s worthy of an honourable mention. Recorded before a live audience on a wintry December night in The Plough pub in Shepreth, near Cambridge, the album gives a solid representation of the duo’s live set and sound, with a crisp, clear audio quality that keeps the tight harmony vocals and guitars in sharp focus.

Four songs will already be familiar from their Ben Smith & Jimmy Brewer EP, including a slightly more leisurely version of the delicious ‘Blow Wind Blow’, the uplifting ‘Isabella’ and intense ‘Beaten Track’.

Smith & Brewer seem to specialise in writing songs where a light touch in melody, harmonies and guitars counterpoints something far bleaker in the subject. The sunny, chilled vibes of ‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’ hide a heart of darkness, “lately all my food’s delivered, in little boxes I forget to throw away”, and the bright guitars of ‘A Better Man’ belie self-doubt, “I have always thought you deserved a better man”.

Love, in all its aspects, is very often the subject matter, and on ‘Better Than Your Father’, Smith’s beautiful hymn to his son, it’s a pragmatic wish-list, “may you not pick up bad habits, I’ll try not to give you mine”. Yet even as the chirpy country of ‘Life’s Too Short’ coldly throws out “if she wants to leave you for somebody new, then let her”, it also features some gorgeously warm intricate picking. Along with the insistent, rolling blues of ‘Julietta’ with its frenetic guitar interplay there’s no doubting just how seriously good Smith & Brewer are and how compactly they work together.

Live 16/12/2017 certainly captures the Smith & Brewer sound and, despite the slightly disorientating “Happy Christmas” sign-off (give it a few months, it’ll be relevant again), it will help keep summer in mind until they drop their full studio album, due later in the year.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.smithandbrewer.com

‘Life’s Too Short’ – live at Cropredy:

HANNAH RARITY – ‘Neath The Gloaming Star (Own Label, HR085NEA)

Gloaming StarWinner of 2018’s BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician award, Hannah Rarity, has just successfully crowdsourced her debut album, and it’s exquisitely lovely. ‘Neath The Gloaming Star’ can only – rightly – enhance her growing reputation within Scottish traditional music.

Rarity has that crystal clarity often found in female Celtic voices, but with a misty breathiness around the edges. Her pure diction makes it a joy to follow her expressive storytelling as she makes tiny tweaks in rhythm or tempo, acutely adjusting phrasing to keep the listener hanging onto every word.

Opener, ‘The Moon Shined On My Bed Last Night’ foregrounds that voice, sparsely instrumented with piano and guitar. As the verses progress, the instrumentation intensifies and her singing gains force. It’s a strong start on an album of well-judged arrangements, like the loose groove and layered vocal of title track, ‘Neath The Gloamin’ Star At E’en’. There are other neat touches like the descending fiddle phrase as ugly witch ‘Alison Cross’ strikes her reluctant suitor down to the ground. Only some brief electric guitar harshness on a slowed-down ‘Braw Sailin’ On The Sea’ provides a minor jarring moment.

A couple of songs from Rarity’s 2016 EP, ‘Beginnings’ are redrawn here for a bigger band. Andy M Stewart’s ‘Where Are You (Tonight, I Wonder)?’ is thoughtful and intimate, taken slowly, underpinned by dark strings, piano and muted whistle, yet some of its former intensity is subdued. Conal McDonagh’s elegant whistle also rounds out a fuller arrangement of that lively tale of mistaken identity, ‘Erin Go Bragh’. (The short, fronted ‘a’ sound used here for “bragh” might well be logical, but it rather irksomely defeats the song’s internal rhyme scheme).

Both of Rarity’s featured self-compositions slot deservedly well into the album. The modernity of ‘Wander Through This Land’, punctuated by a soft, militaristic drum, is evident in its choppier phrasing and rhythms, whilst ‘Wasting Time’ reveals an intriguing, throatier aspect to her voice.

Moving performances of ‘Land O’The Leal’ and ‘Hallowe’en’ are reminders of the strength of Rarity’s interpretative talents, while Davy Steele’s ‘Rose O’Summerlee’ makes a perfect album closer, the vocal interwoven with Phil Cunningham’s tender accordion is simply stunning.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.hannahrarity.com

‘Land O’ The Leal’ – live:

FAIRYTALE – Autumn’s Crown (Magic Mile Music, MMM41112)

Autumn's CrownGerman folk-rockers Fairytale cunningly release their second album, Autumn’s Crown, as the first signs of seasonal change appear. Having already secured the support of some of Ireland’s biggest musical names, this follow-up to 2015’s Forest Of Summer is clearly aiming for wider UK recognition.

Singer-songwriter Oliver Oppermann (guitars, mandolins, Irish bouzoukis, vocals) is the band’s Svengali, although he modestly tucks himself away in the middle of the cd booklet, along with mono-syllabic cellist, Moon. Cover duties instead fall to the glamorously ringleted and mediaevally-garbed Laura Isabel Biastoch (vocals) and Berit Coenders (violin,viola,vocals). Let’s pause briefly at the cover art and wonder who felt this soft-focus Robin Hood look was just what the band needed.

Undeniably, there’s some very fine musicianship on offer, Coenders and Oppermann in particular are skilful manipulators of their instruments. Oppermann’s sympathy for and understanding of the Irish tradition is plainly demonstrated in ‘Mushroom Foray’ and album closer, the homage ‘Donegal’ (he acknowledges Manus Lunny’s tuition in the sleeve notes).

Those lyrics, though. The English-language songs tend towards a fantasy-by-numbers of mystical woods and waters, runic magic and elves. In ‘As Old As Time’ words sit heavily on a slim melody. For this listener’s tastes at least, it’s all a bit incense-smoky, too much fey and whimsy, over-reliant on ritualistic chanting to lend atmosphere.

Interestingly, the two songs in German are among the best here, perhaps because they lack that twee sentimentality. The dervish moonlight waltz of ghostly dancers in ‘Wassergeister’ and the powerful death-lure of ‘Am Weiher’ both invoke the dark mystery of water.

That said, there are some interesting ideas that work well, like the chanted chorus of ‘Waterfall’ and the acoustic rock of ‘The Dark Elves’ with added crows rising over Moon’s dark cello. ‘Living In The Wood’ and the skipping ‘Mando Dance’ have solidly folk roots and the poppish ‘Moonway’ might appeal to fans of Sally Oldfield’s ‘Moonlight Shadow’.

With tight harmonies and spacious production, there’s room to hear every part of the carefully-constructed soundscape. And it does feel like a construct: slick, contrived even. It would be instructive to see them live to try to understand them better and perhaps find the heart in their music.
Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: www.fairytale-folkmusic.de

‘Autumn’s Crown’ – official video:

ASSYNT – Road To The North (Garthland Records, GAR001CD)

Road To The NorthThe trio of musicians who make up Assynt may still only be in their 20s but between them have already amassed a barrowload of nominations and awards. Having worked with many of Scotland’s finest musicians, this year they finally came together as Assynt (named after an area of North-West Scotland). So, as the first album from this newly-minted group, there’s plenty of anticipation surrounding Road To The North.

That it’s an album of largely original material is the first of many pleasant surprises. Pipes and whistles man David Shedden contributes by far the largest share, although Graham Mackenzie (fiddle) and Innes White (guitar / mandolin) demonstrate equally strong composition skills. Only the final track, ‘Harris Dance’ presents a set of traditional tunes, drawing the line of continuity between old and new.

White’s understated playing is the keystone to the band, holding the centre rhythmically and with great sensitivity. Sometimes loose and jazzy (‘Fiend And The Hound’), at other times hinting at Spanish style (‘Aidan Jack’), or playfully riding the beat on ‘No Way Out’, he’s got flair to spare. On the lovely ‘Ava May’, his spare accompaniment underscores a lyrical lament very much in the Highland tradition.

Sheddon’s vigorous and nimble piping is at the fore on ‘The One Upper’ and title track, ‘Road To The North’. Mackenzie, whose clean style tends to minimal vibrato afterburn, readily matches or complements him, as the tunes demand. Frequently, fiddle and pipes/whistles are tightly and intricately entwined, moving effortlessly from mirroring the melody to chasing around and playing tag with it, as on ‘Forward Thinking’. On the smartly drilled ‘Garthland Drive’ they wreathe and twine sinuously around each other, whilst ‘Conal McDonagh’s’ initially moody fiddle gets bowled over by some frenzied pipes as they spin off in a rapidly turning pattern.

The interplay between these three musicians is deft and subtle, the tuneset bridging transitions smooth. There can be no doubting the quality of their composition, arranging and playing together. If they’re this good when they’re just starting out together, imagine what Assynt could become.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: www.assyntmusic.com

‘The One Upper’ – live: