ELEPHANT SESSIONS – What Makes You (Elephant Sessions)

What Makes YouSince the release of their last album, 2017’s All We Have Is Now, the five young Highlanders who are Elephant Sessions have toured around the world, garnering numerous awards and journalistic plaudits, and even had a pale ale named after them by Belhaven Brewery. So it’s a wonder they’ve managed to find the time to step back into the studios and lay down another fine album, What Makes You.

What Makes You sums up where the band is at, making the music they feel represents them, their experiences and musical interests. It’s such a tight fusion of many different influences including acid jazz, rock, funk and electro beats that it’s pointless trying to unpick it all – and it’s still all layered round that inescapably Scottish traditional heart.

If Euan Smillie’s fiddle and Alasdair Taylor’s mandolin embody tradition on the front line, writhing and tumbling around rhythmic, melodic and tempo variations, Mark Bruce ably throws rock shapes on guitar. Seth Tinsley parries with a full-funk bassline plus electronica, while Greg Barry’s sensitive percussion lends light and shade to the whole sonic picture.

The simple, mantra-like melody of the atmospheric ‘Intro’ segues into ‘What Makes You’ where it gets tossed lightly around in a swirl of variations – and it’s the fluid ease of this, as well as the skilful use of layering, that makes Elephant Sessions work so well.

The mellow chimes of ‘Colours’ slide in softly, before swishy percussion and driving guitar kick in, over which the fiddle soars and winds, counterpointed by an angular mandolin. ‘Search Party’ wakes up rocking, its jagged, flickering guitar giving the impression of sirens and flashing lights, while mandolin and bass riffs suggest a funky distant cousin of Another One Bites The Dust.

‘Loft Crofter’ sets a wriggly fiddle and mandolin over bright, jagged funk and a brittle snap track. Meanwhile, at ‘Tyagarah’ (named after the site of Australian Bluesfest where Elephant Sessions have twice played) there’s a more sinister, dry, insect-like clicking that evolves into a bubbling popcorn beat as the front line once more tangles and slides away.

The bare-arsed funk workout of ‘We Out Here Now’ is an instant party groove, so the quiet start of ‘Riverview Part 1’ comes in like the morning-after, its melancholy fiddle soaring over moody brass. Mirroring the start of the album, this penultimate track launches straight into its upbeat counterpart, ‘Riverview Part 2’, an electro-driven, acid-jazz folk tune with big blasts of brass like a ship leaving harbour.

As a band whose reputation is fast being cemented on their joyous live performances, that live energy was something they wanted to capture on this album. If success could be measured in the momentary surprise at the absence of an outburst of applause after each track, then What Makes You is a runaway success.

Su O’Brien

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‘Colours’ – official video:

ANNIE SUMI – In The Unknown (own label)

In The UnknownSometimes the music you didn’t know you needed to hear will find you anyway, as a rare and serendipitous encounter with Canadian singer/songwriter Annie Sumi recently demonstrated. Performing in an overly-warm pub room at a community fundraiser with musical partner, local cellist Jessica Burrows, Sumi quickly captured and entranced the room, drawing on a number of songs from her 2017 album, In The Unknown and her 2015 debut, Reflections.

In The Unknown is a fine place to begin exploring this ethereal-folk artist whose controlled yet fluid finger-picked guitar perfectly complements her warm, intimate vocal style. Up close to the microphone, she draws the listener in with compassionate, human stories wreathed in natural and spiritual metaphors. Her songs are mature and introspective, with something meditative, healing even, about them.

On disc, her live “girl-with-guitar” sound is fleshed out by some sympathetic accompaniments, be it delicate strings or the metallic shimmer of pedal steel, both featuring on opener, ‘Evaporating Life’, a reflection on impermanence.

A jazzy swish of percussion and angular steel guitar reflect the hard surfaces of ‘The City’ which, paired with a matching urban soundscape interlude, sees Sumi in carefree mood. More sombre is the environmental change contemplated by ‘Baby Blue’, melodically informed by the bending notes of whalesong.

A glimmer of hopefulness dusts life’s gloomier corners, whether that’s melodically in the climbing chorus of ‘Eye Of A Rose’ or lyrically, as in the moving, tender meditation of ‘Get By’ on life’s compromises and struggles. Yet sometimes a positive spin is hard to come by, as the mournful, slurring strings of the bleak ‘Helpless Dancer’ attest. It forms a stark contrast with the witty, spirited take on broken hearts of the lovely ‘Nightingale’.

Even to these grumpy old heathen ears, ‘In Everything’ with its chorus of “there’s a little bit of God, In everything” shouts out “hit song”. It’s interesting – if perhaps a bit unfair – to compare live and recorded versions of this song made over two years apart. More poppily uptempo and somewhat dominated by an insistent drumbeat in 2017, its 2019 stripped-back live counterpart elicited an audible emotional response from the audience. No matter how it’s served up, this strong, heartfelt song connects.

If ‘Peter Pan’ is a swooping, swooning flight, ‘Time Is A Dream’ is much more reflective on the role of imagination in Sumi’s creative process, “I am falling in and out of my imagination, In, and Out, I am fading to a dream”. With its muted brass, it’s a song that might slide comfortably into The Unthanks’ repertoire.

A quick mention of a newer song, not on this album but hopefully available in future, ‘Skybound’ swaggers like Short Sharp Shocked-era Michelle Shocked and is well worth checking out online.

Although on a flying visit to the UK this time around, Sumi hopes to return next year (promoters, please take note!) for the release of her much-anticipated next project, Solastalgia. With her infectious warmth and joy, it would be an absolute delight to welcome her to these shores again very soon. Until then, get acquainted with Annie Sumi by setting foot In The Unknown.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.anniesumi.com

‘Skybound’ – official video:

DADDY LONG LEGS – Lowdown Ways (Yep Roc Records YEP-2657)

Daddy Long LegsLowdown Ways is the third studio album from Daddy Long Legs, a animalistic, energetic trio from New York. Comprising Brian Hurd (vocals/ harmonica/guitar), Murat Akturk (slide guitar) and Josh Styles (drums/maraca), the three write their own material drawing on blues and other genres, all wreathed in a scuzzy sonic fuzz so filthy it should probably come with sterilising wipes.

Kicking off with ‘Theme From Daddy Long Legs’, in just under two minutes they summon up ghosts of the The Sex Pistols’ ‘Holiday In The Sun’ boot-stomp intro, the Old Grey Whistle Test theme and an Alan Lomax chain gang field recording. Damn, that’s good!

The meaty ‘Ding Dong Dang’ (and why not?), like lead single ‘Mornin’ Noon And Nite’, sees Hurd growling like an old Delta bluesman through the layers of distortion. There’s a carefully crafted, lovingly lo-fi energy and rawness to the sound production.

‘Pink Lemonade’, borrowing lightly from The Doors’ ‘Hello, I Love You’, also contains something a bit early 1980s electronic in its beats. The thundering drums of ‘Be Gone’ bookend verses that seem to have a casual acquaintance with Mungo Jerry’s ‘In The Summertime’.

‘Glad Rag Ball’ may nod briefly towards the Count Five’s ‘Psychotic Reaction’ but then heads off in an almost glam rock direction. ‘Winners Circle’ also mines that similar glam seam, this time overlaid with the pub rock feel of a 1970s stomper. Beer-sticky carpet, fag-ends and flares seem to hover just at the limits of one’s peripheral vision.

‘Back Door Fool’ is a pretty straightforward country blues, much as ‘Bad Neighborhood’, the longest song on here at just over four minutes, is a foot-to-the-floor grimy Chicago blues. The band thunders along the chugging blues of ‘Snagglepuss’ to the more refined ‘Célaphine’, uptempo rock’n’roll wearing a Cajun overcoat.

Wrapping up the album is the furiously galloping and apocalyptic spaghetti-Western ‘Wrong Side Of The River’ – a gloriously dark romp into the sunset.

Despite the clear influence of the distortion of 1960s garage punk and blues, this band is no mere nostalgia-fest, but a vitally contemporary take on American music traditions. And one that shamelessly hits the gut response with its visceral, low-down and dirty fuzzed-out garagey blues.

If you like your music bluesy, raucous and primal, Daddy Long Legs are the answer. Howling on stage in selected venues in the UK right now.

Su O’Brien

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‘Glad Rag Ball’ – official video:

DAVE FIDLER – Songs From Aurora (27.27 Records)

Songs From AuroraFor his follow-up to 2014’s debut, I’m Not Here, singer-songwriter Dave Fidler decided on something different. He spent last August conscientiously challenging his creativity by writing a song every day (chronicled on his website: a fascinating read) and eight of those songs are distilled into Songs From Aurora.

As the Aurora of the title is Fidler’s caravan, perhaps it’s natural that there’s a strong feeling of movement across many of the songs. From opening track, ‘On The Line’, whose deceptively gentle acoustic guitar intro ushers in a fraught tale of peril and survival, to the reflective, almost plaintive, ‘Another Word For Home’ encapsulating life on the road, there’s a sense of a constantly shifting horizon.

Whilst the beautiful and quietly uplifting featured single ‘Skylark’ flutters with a tentative optimism, ‘Sum Of Days’ is all restless energy. It contemplates the need to live true to ourselves (though the impeccably placed distant siren in the background helps suggest that freedom might have a cost). By contrast, ‘Will I Ever Learn?’ is that little nagging voice of conscience that might hold us back, or keep us safe. Its deliciously slouchy, porch-and-rocking-chair country-blues nicely counterpoints some tartly self-critical lyrics.

Fidler’s flair for contrasting musical arrangements helps sharpen the impact of his lyrics. The bleakness of ‘Heart Of Stone’ comes soaked in bright, sun-drenched guitar and mellow Hammond organ. The Hammond is used to different effect elsewhere, adding a sleazy undertow to the low-slung blues-rock of ‘The Water’ or blowing in like a rolling stone to the karmic ‘Breeze’.

He also shines a compassionate spotlight on family and friends. There’s a delicately longing song about someone absent, in ‘For You’, whilst ‘Let Her Go’ shows two distinct moods. A light syncopation accompanies some abstract concept of letting a loved one go, before shifting to a full-blown, directly apologetic blues.

Fidler delivers two exquisite and heartfelt songs dedicated to his parents. His respect for his mother’s life as a single parent is the subject of the Dylan-ish ‘Eternal Road’ whereas ‘Home’ confronts the cause: the death of his father. This final track with its spare, serious piano and gospelly backing vocals, is brutal with raw emotion.

Songs From Aurora reinforces Fidler as a fine songwriter making powerful and truthful emotional connections.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.davefidler.com

‘Skylark’ – official video:

GNOSS – Drawn From Deep Water (Blackfly Records, BFLY03CD)

Drawn From Deep WaterA little over a year since their Brother Wind EP made a favourable impact on Folking’s Singles Bar, those talented Gnoss chaps are back to unveil their new album, Drawn From Deep Water. Now a well-established four-piece of Aidan Moodie (guitar/vocal), Graham Rorie (fiddle/mandolin), Connor Sinclair (flutes/whistles) and Craig Baxter (bodhrán/stomp/percussion), their time spent touring and maturing has forged a richly coherent unit.

A good proportion of self-written material appears on the album, showing the lads to be as strong creatively as they are performatively. Moodie’s ‘Three Shores’ opens up proceedings with a light touch, the loping roll of the rhythm lifted by whistle and mandolin, while Sinclair’s ‘The Duchess’ features his deft, curling flute over tautly sparkling mandolin and soft-spoken guitar.

Rorie demonstrates great compositional versatility deeply rooted in traditional music, from the lyrical patterns of ‘An Orkney Christmas’ to the more manic ‘Voodoo’. The latter’s lithe, twisting 3-tune set drops flavours of jazz and blues into the melting pot, the whole held steady by Baxter’s intently quick-fire percussion. ‘The Badger’ begins with a looping spiral of fiddle and flute motifs before an atmospheric guitar bridge leads into the band’s own arrangement of ‘The Banks Of Newfoundland’. James Lindsay (Breabach) lends some ethereally swirling Moog on his piece with Rorie, ‘The Peeriefool’, as well as bass duties across the album.

Moodie’s other track here, ‘Sea Widow’ breathes more intimately. The understated melancholy of the lyric derives from Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, whose work also makes an appearance in ‘The Five Of Spades’. There’s a rather sweet swinginess to this version of the late Lise Sinclair’s song, from her cycle inspired by Mackay Brown’s novel A Time To Keep, although it feels as if it needed to be edgier, murkier. However, there’s a pleasing fragile brightness to Dave Francey’s ‘The Waking Hour’ and Väsen’s ‘Hasse A’s’ is just a burst of vital energy; its expressively fluttering, slurring fiddle pinned by a vividly pattering percussion.

Ross Ainslie’s airy, rounded production lets the interplay of instruments sing, as in album finale, the swirling ‘Laurel Cottage’ (Sinclair again) with its shifting transitions between foreground and background. Lending a warm, live-like sound, it manages to encapsulate the band’s essential dynamic and energy.

Drawn From Deep Water is a very impressive album, fully delivering on the EP’s promise and still leaving plenty of scope for future development. Don’t be an aGnosstic, give it a listen.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.gnossmusic.com

‘The Moul Head’ live:

ALESSIO BONDì – Nivuru (800A Records 800A/020)

NivuruAfter the sunshine splash of Alessio Bondì’s first album, Sfardo, the title of his second outing, Nivuru (Black), gives a hefty clue that things are about to take a darker turn. Although still singing in his native Sicilian, Bondì’s musical palette has greatly diversifed, taking on influences from travels in Africa and South America.

Right from the opening bars, the difference between albums is obvious, with the lustfully sinuous funk of ‘Ghidara’ (‘Guitar’) giving way to the African rhythms that weave through ‘Dammi Una Vasata’ (‘Kiss Me’).

Slowing things down, ‘Si Fussi Fimmina’ (If I Were A Woman’) has a Mick Hucknall-esque vocal that, just as the extended bending notes start to wear thin, is redeemed by Alessandro Presti’s delightfully smoky trumpet. The languidly heart-broken ‘Café’ with its Spanish-sounding guitar, slurred strings and woodwind flourishes suddenly twists – a kind of jazz voodoo shifts the mood into something altogether more menacing.

Where ‘Savutu’ (‘Jump’) has an 80s funk vibe, ‘Un Favuri’ (‘A Favour’) begins like a sudden, breathless awakening from a nightmare. This slow, introspective song slowly builds up momentum, only to falter into a tentative guitar finale. African percussion beats and a falling woodwind motif begin ‘L’amuri Miu Pi Tia’ (‘My Love For You’) before it surrenders to a full-on brass and handclaps fiesta.

‘Puddicinu A Luna’ (‘Little Chick Under The Full Moon’), with its gently plucked guitar is perhaps most like Bondì’s previous work, but even here he can’t resist adding a waltzing coda that leads straight into final song ‘Nivi Nivura’ (‘Black Snow’). This slinky, slightly Latiny song gains an additional intensity in its second half, largely due to the Oscar-worthy dramatically impassioned vocals.

With Nivuru, Bondì’s opted for a much fatter sound, with a more global feel, as if trying to cram in everything he’s assimilated on his travels. His diverse musical influences flicker throughout every song (which are generally longer than before), so that the overall effect becomes rather overwhelming and threatens to swamp the strong Sicilian presence. If Nivuru’s not wholly successful, for this listener at least, it is an intriguing progression and Bondì remains a name to keep an eye on.

There’s a rare opportunity to catch Bondì’s bold Sicilian-based global music live in the UK, at Servant Jazz Quarters in London on 31 March.

Su O’Brien

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‘Ghidara’  – official video: