LEIF VOLLEBEKK – New Ways (Secret City Records)

New WaysOttowa born, Montreal resident Leif Vollebekk returns with his fourth full length album, New Ways, following on from its 2017 Polaris Music Prize nominated predecessor, Twin Solitude. Claiming to be a material shift from the introspection of that album – and also a partner to it in the sense of filling the gaps between those songs – New Ways captures moments of emotional engagement, of relationships.

The slowly unfolding ‘The Way That You Feel’ still retains a strong sense of the inward-looking, so it’s not until ‘Never Be Back’ that a more external-facing mood takes over. Its rapid-fire, sub-rap R&B possibly influenced by Vollebekk’s listening to lots of Rihanna and Macy Gray, while another R&B-based track, ‘Hot Tears’, appears to drop an unlikely Oasis tribute in the line “what’s the story, morning glory?”.

Further influenced by the films of Terence Malick and Richard Linklater, ‘Transatlantic Flight’ casually references Julie Delpy whilst also containing one of music’s least flattering compliments, “you look good when you’re tired on a transatlantic flight”. Smooth.

‘Phaedrus’ takes a more bluesy turn, quickly countered by the paciness of ‘Blood Brother’ with its hard-edged rock guitar in the mid-section. In the way of one of Vollebekk’s big inspirations, Leonard Cohen, sometimes troubling phrases pass by without question. Lyrics like “you know your lips whenever you kiss me, it’s like a gun against my skin” raise questions about the emotional health of any relationship. Still, through the slow country blues of ‘Change’ into ‘I’m Not Your Lover’ (“anymore” adds the gravelly lament), it seems things may have moved on. Probably for the best.

There’s an overall cohesion to the album, deriving from the use of a limited palette of instruments, in hues of jazz, blues and country. The one-time, one-take recording of ‘Wait A While’ perhaps best exemplifying Vollebekk’s passion to capture a sense of immediacy.

And yet, nothing that’s gone before signals the sudden jolt into Americana and the rather downbeat yodels of ‘Apalachee Plain’. In mood, it stands apart from the other songs here, perhaps being more reminiscent of Vollebekk’s earlier work and a closer tie to the North American tradition than is suggested by other songs in this collection.

He may have already completed the UK leg of his current tour, but there will be another chance to catch up with Leif Vollebekk at London’s Bush Hall in April next year.

Su O’Brien

Artist’s website: www.leifvollebekk.com

‘Transatlantic Flight’ – official video:

SMITH AND BREWER – Another Shade Of Smith And Brewer (Own Label SMBR01)

Another Shade Of Smith And BrewerSince first being introduced to each other by Joan Armatrading in 2015, Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer have strode ahead boldly. Another Shade Of Smith And Brewer sees our eponymous duo filling out to a full band for their first proper studio album.

Many of the songs here feel like much-loved old friends, friends with a makeover and now gleamingly buff, toned and muscular. The addition of Eric Lavansch’s drums and Tom Sinnett’s bass has lent another dimension and dynamic to Smith and Brewer’s compositions, allowing for greater meatiness and tonal variety.

But, not so fast. The album is bookended by classic Smith And Brewer duets of two of their finest songs. ‘Isabella’ appears in intimate close up, with its brittle-bright picking and those trademark tightly wrapped harmonies. Later, the melancholically laid-back ‘Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’ will languidly usher us out.

So it’s song two before the difference, the band sound proper, kicks in with a muted drum signalling a subtly reworked ‘Another Shade Of Blue’. More dramatic changes are afoot though, as ‘Life’s Too Short’ takes on a very attractive new aspect as a pacy, energetic rockabilly romp, while hints of the early ‘70s – a homeopathic dose of Allman Brothers, maybe – infuse the American country soft-rock of ‘Favourite Photograph’. (Even the album title, “Another Shade Of…” has a vaguely 70s throwback feel of polo-necked easy listening about it – mercifully not reflected in the contents).

A trio of ‘B’ songs follow. That’s not a comment on quality, they just all begin with the same letter. There’s a strong streak of self-deprecation in the tender ‘Better Than Your Father’, a touching paternal wishing spell and in ‘Better Man’ with its fear of being an undeserving recipient of love. In the middle of this trio, temptation beckons. ‘Blow Wind Blow’, is transformed by a shuffling beat that smoothes the shift between verse and falsetto chorus which marks the central heart vs.head dichotomy of the song.

‘Don’t Say You Don’t Love Me’ sashays along with new power, drawing on bold percussion and African-influenced swagger. On ‘Julietta’, the dense, fluid interplay and occasionally staccato guitars now intertwine over a fast-rolling bassline and ‘Love You Forever’ gains a punchy richness from a brush of drums.

‘Music City’ may signal another kind of shift for Smith And Brewer, who have proven themselves as highly creative lyricists, albeit often focused on love in its many guises. This drily funny tale of the pair’s Nashville trip manages to convey excitements and frustrations equally, all set to a full-steam ahead rocking country blues with a thrusting road-trip bassline. If it’s a new direction, it’s a very promising one.

The new line-up allows for more exploration of Smith and Brewer’s love of Americana, edging them away from Simon & Garfunkel territory and into something altogether more robust. With their, by now, firmly established talents in songwriting, close harmonies and guitar skills, the expansion into a band feels like the next logical step, moving their sound on and giving it room to grow in the future.

Su O’Brien

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‘A Lovely Day For Doing Nothing’:

NIALL KELLY – Promenade (Glovebox Records, GL103)

PromenadePromenade is Niall Kelly’s third album release, and a Kickstarter project, as is ever more commonplace these days. A dozen or so years spent deeply immersed in the London blues scene gave Derry-born Kelly a thorough grounding in the business, ready for when he branched out with his own band. Picked up in 2017 by Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott as support on their sell-out Irish tour, Kelly took his music home again.

Title song, ‘Promenade’ shuffles brightly along in Kelly’s signature Americana style. But there’s a definite Celtic twist to this music, too. This can be ascribed, at least in part, to the fiddle playing of his wife, Caitlin, which is heard to particular effect on the pulsating ‘Stranger In Love’.

Other musical flavours abound too, not least the rockabilly thrust and steaming Hammond organ of album opener, ‘Burned By A Little Love’. Then there’s Martin Winning’s intriguing jazz/lounge woodwind on country ballad ‘Sparrow’ that adds extra poignancy to the song’s mournfulness.

‘Polly May’, first featured on Kelly’s self-released Soho Sessions EP in 2017, is a hip-twitching rolling blues with stately brass ornamentation, courtesy of Matt Holland. This contrasts with the brooding melancholy of the brass section on slow, piano-led ‘Got It Made’.

‘The Letter’ is not the Boxtops’ classic but, as with all the songs on the album, it’s Kelly’s own composition, this time with Latiny, Tex-Mex overtones alongside its shiny country steel. It’s a mood that sneaks out euphorically once again in the more uptempo ‘Turned It A Little Loud’.

There is, it must be said, more than an echo of Van Morrison about the songwriting and especially the musical arrangements – a certain richness and warmth that perfectly complements Kelly’s tenor. This is no doubt due to the production talents of Tucker Nelson, who’s created a richly layered, nuanced sound palette based around Kelly’s preferred method of recording as ‘live’ as possible, with minimal takes to keep the sound fresh and capture the spark of performance.

Kelly’s first two albums, Hand In Fire and Not Sleeping were re-released as a double-pack under the title, Not Sleeping in 2018. If Promenade is your first brush with Kelly and you like what you hear, then it may well be worth checking this out, too.

Su O’Brien

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‘Promenade’ – official video:

PP ARNOLD – The New Adventures Of (Absolute/Ear Music, 0214038EMU)

The New Adventures Of PP ArnoldPP Arnold never quite became the global soul superstar she deserved to be, despite that rich, wounded voice giving the defninitive rendition of Cat Stevens’ ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ and Chip Taylor’s ‘Angel Of The Morning’. Her voice may grace albums by music’s biggest names over the last five decades, yet The New Adventures Of  PP Arnold is only her third proper solo release.

Thankfully, a 25-year friendship with producer Steve Cradock (Ocean Colour Scene) brings the full splendour of Arnold’s voice back to the spotlight once again. And it’s a joy to hear that her voice has lost none of its emotion or power on this eclectic set of 15 songs which largely constitute a plushly orchestral homage to Arnold’s 60s and 70s heyday. Yet nothing feels ersatz here, it’s an album with a distinctly contemporary twinkle in its eye.

Cradock wrote a number of the songs, like opener, ‘Baby Blue’, a lush, Phil Spector-ish poppy soul and ‘The Magic Hour’, which borrows from the Lee Hazlewood songbook. Whereas ‘Still Trying’ feels like a big production number from musical theatre, all chimes and swing, ‘Finally Found My Way Back Home’, co-written with Arnold, is an unexpectedly sassy, percussive, sinuous blues.

Arnold also contributes her own songs, some co-written with her son. There’s the slinky blues of ‘Though It Hurts Me Badly’ and the fine slice of early 70s-style funk, ‘I Believe’. Different again is ‘Hold On To Your Dreams’, where that epic voice soars over a swaggering, blaxploitation-like funk, that also tips a wink to Inner City’s ‘80s dance hit ‘Good Life’.

Covers include a classy pop pair from Paul Weller, ‘Daltry St’ with it’s slowed-down That’s Entertainment-ish intro, Mike Nesmith’s brightly marriage-shy ‘Different Drum’, and ‘You Got Me’ with its crashing piano and Arnold darkly way down in her range.

But, the elephant in the folk room must be the version of Sandy Denny’s ‘I’m A Dreamer’. Whilst sounding quite unalike, both women have that husky catch, that honesty and a voice that powers up effortlessly. It makes a stunning powerhouse showcase for Arnold, culminating with its swelling, uplifting brass.

The album winds down with a jaw-dropping rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie’ – the rap lovechild of 50s beat poetry that whips through jazz, ‘70s funk and ‘80s new wave (think Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ or Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’) before finally coming to rest in electronic bleepery and a ferocious brass fanfare.

The final song – the only place it could be – is a tender tribute to Arnold’s late daughter, Debbie, delivered in an intimate gospel style with Exeter Cathedral’s organ and an elegant harp adornment.

The New Adventures Of PP Arnold is so plainly a labour of love for all involved, her voice is clearly still in superb shape and she’s ready to seize her rightful soul diva crown. Don’t miss her UK tour in October.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.pparnold.com

‘Different Drum’ – live on TV:

BEN HEMMING – The Devil Beside Me (own label)

The Devil Beside MeReleased in May 2019, Ben Hemming’s third album, The Devil Beside Me is, it’s fair to say, a pitch dark slice of blues. Written from a place of alienation, “…that sense of isolation and detachment is a central theme that runs throughout the record” says Hemming, this is one album that’s unlikely to become a family sing-along favourite on long car journeys.

What it is, though, is a solid and impressive piece of work. Owing easily as much to American nu-metal as to blues or Americana, it brims with moody introspection and quasi-religious/occult imagery. Album producer, Mark Waterman, has previously done the honours for Depeche Mode, and its not hard to detect similar textural layers here.

Hemming’s baritone vocals, moving easily from lush richness to coarse growl, readily call to mind artists like Pearl Jam, Mark Lanegan and especially Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts, with those oddly stylised, exaggeratedly rounded vowel sounds that still seem incomprehensibly popular with a lot of (mostlly male) singers.

Opening track, ‘Dead Man Blues,’ fair scorches with rage and pain. ‘Never Had A Heart’ adds a mournful country steel wail before ‘I Know It To Be True’ rides in on a dirty, fat bass riff. ‘One Eyed King’ is a, buzzsawing song with slight reminders of Rocket From The Crypt’s ‘On A Rope’. ‘The Sea’, a relatively sparse, open track features a simple melody and lyrics as bleak as they come, like “my mother knew, the day she had me, a darker day she would never see” – which just feel like Hemming’s trying a bit too hard and rather straining for effect.

If it’s true to say that the album might have benefitted from a bit more variation in tone, as it all feels rather relentlessly heavy and dark, with little light or shade between the songs, it does have a hypnotic internal consistency.

Teenage me would absolutely have revelled in the utter bleakness of it all and especially those gloriously scuzzy guitars. Grown-up me still got a real buzz from listening, but also wanted to offer him a cup of tea and a chat about if he’s feeling OK.

There is, though, some light at the end of this murky tunnel, “…what might at first seem like quite a dark and soul-searching record, is really about taking a journey that leads to overcoming those demons and becoming a stronger and more developed person because of it”. Well, phew, that’s alright then.

Su O’Brien

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‘Inside’ – official video:

GWILYM BOWEN RHYS – Arenig (Erwydd Records ER003)

ArenigArenig is the third solo album from multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Gwilym Bowen Rhys, 2019 Welsh Folk Awards Best Solo Artist winner and BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2019 nominee. From his youthful days in cheeky alt-rock band Y Bandana, via three-part folk harmonies with his sisters in Plu and his grandad’s collection of traditional Welsh music, Rhys has nurtured his own distinctive style.

He’s a very forward-looking traditionalist, drawing on ancient and modern Welsh language sources married with sympathetic, progressive arrangements of his own contemporary music or traditional tunes. It’s a collaborative affair, with the album’s hugely talented musicians developing arrangments in the studio with him. They sizzle right from the start as opener, the saucy, traditional, ’Yr Hosan Las (The Blue Stockings)’ gets a complimentary lively, choppy, even jazz-infused backing. Even the salute to homely little aphorisms, ‘Da Gennyf Air O Ganu (I Enjoy A Little Singing)’ is set off with some nimble, thoroughly modern harp and a driving, percussive chug.

Rhys demonstrates his considerable credentials as a traditional composer, too: his tune ‘Jac Yr Oil’ (a tribute to his great-grandfather) perfectly comfortable beside its more established set mates. A little later, his writhing, insistent ‘Jeri Bach Gogerddan’ celebrates Welsh Romani influences on traditional Welsh music.

Gypsies’ curses may be called to mind by the fairly terrifying incantation towards the end of the bluesy ‘Byta Da Bres (Eat Your Money)’. The fire and passion in Rhys’s delivery of this song require no specific language skills.

Like an Alan Garner novel, natural and elemental forces are personified and influential in the daily lives of men. The seasons lead to the amorous tryst of guitar ballad, ‘Clychau’r Gog (Bluebells)’, while a lunar pull drives the melancholic ‘Lloer Dirion Llw’r Dydd (Gentle Moon, The Colour Of Day)’. Rhys’s gritty voice, easily conveying power or softness is texturised here to create a digeridoo-like resonance.

The gorgeous title track, ‘Arenig’, recited by its author (and Rhys’s great-uncle), poet Euros Bowen, describes the wonder of seeing the Snowdonian mountain suddenly ablaze with colour. From out of a low drone, the twisting fiddle motif is gradually echoed by a clear, bright harp before the compelling vocal begins. No matter the language, its rhythm and poetry transcend mere meaning. English translations are available on Gwilym Bowen Rhys’s website, which is useful – if only to demonstrate how much better the Welsh sounds.

Arenig is an intriguing and highly accomplished album: that rare intuitive meeting of tradition and contemporary that creates something genuinely exciting and original. And how particularly splendid that we can now celebrate and enjoy so much excellent music in the native languages of these small islands.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.gwilymbowenrhys.com

‘Clychau’r Gog’ – live: