THE OLD SWAN BAND – Fortyfived (Wild Goose WGS434CD)

FortyfivedThe Old Swan Band, rightly lauded for its longstanding championing of English dance music, broke a 20-year recording hiatus in 2014 to mark its 40-year anniversary. Fortyfived, the band’s latest album, celebrates this continued survival across four and a half decades. Much like the dwarf’s axe, some of the band’s original parts have been replaced over time but The Old Swan Band still stands proud as a pioneer in its field.

And yet, as Fortyfived amply demonstrates, the concept of “English” music may not be quite what might once have been assumed. There is growing evidence of a much greater musical cross-pollination with other lands. Consequently, Fortyfived sees English tunes nuzzle up close with their Celtic, North European, American and Australian relations. It’s a genuinely free-trade community where borrowing and adaptation is not just tolerated but forms part of the fabric of the music itself. And, really, wouldn’t it be more surprising if that were not the case? Turns out there’s no point getting too flag-waving and parochial about it, after all.

Here, then, is music for dancing to with unselfconscious abandon at whatever name you give to your local knees-up. No doubt it has already been gracing dance floors throughout the festive period, for those sage enough to have caught its December release. But even in the cold comedown of January, it lights up the gloom with reels, quadrilles, waltzes, two-steps, polkas and more, in a dizzying gallop where the pace never lets up for a moment. These are tunes simply crying out for the foot-tapping, beer-flowing exuberant whirl of live performance.

Performances are as tightly dynamic as you might expect, insistently nudging the tunesets along. Particular mention must go to Martin Brinsford’s eternally restless percussion and John Adams’s sensitive trombone punctuation, underpinning the vigorous frontline fiddle triple of Flos Headford, Paul Burgess and Fi Fraser.

On CD while, of course, it’s possible to pick out all the instruments, get contemplative over arrangements and performances, it can feel as if the warmth and feedback of a live audience is missing from the mix. Nonetheless, Fortyfived delivers up its well-considered dance music without borders, all intelligently combined and arranged, and given with an unabashed, heartfelt joy. Exactly the kind of tonic we could do with right now.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.facebook.com/TheOldSwanBand

A taster for the album:

RANT – The Portage (Make Believe Records, MBR8CD)

The PortageThe quartet of superbly talented individual fiddle players – Bethany Reid, Jenna Reid, Lauren MacColl and Anna Massie – who in combination make up Rant, have just released their third album, The Portage.

Recorded over four days at Queen’s Cross Church in Glasgow (Charles Rennie Macintosh’s only completed church), the sound is airy, clean and wonderfully detailed. And from the moment the uplifting swirls of ‘Göran Berg’s’ curl up into the air before metamorphosing into its more melancholy companion piece, ‘Crow Road Croft’, it’s obvious that this album is something truly special.

The spaces between the notes make themselves felt in ‘Sir Ronald McDonald’s Reel’, as the snaking lead winds around a volley of plucking before a graceful downward swoop suddenly gets scooped up into the upwardly spiralling motif of ‘Johhny D’s’, served over a dark chocolate richness.

A change in mood comes with the measured and wistful ‘Now Westlin Winds’, before a sprightly ‘Annie Allan’ (with its dark colouring to the playing over an intriguing reggae syncopation) bridges into the Scandinavian ‘Hambo’, a tune with an altogether more classical edge, somewhat Strauss-like in its melodic ebb and flow.

‘Rosemarkie Man’ feels like a blustery walk along windswept Scottish coastlines, while ‘Arnt Ivar’s Polska’ is more stately, tenderly-twining embrace than lively dance tune. An angular prickliness opens ‘The Rescue Man’, warming up as it reaches the sprightly gallop of ‘Pam’s Hoose’. There’s a sensitive flourish to Andy Cutting’s ‘Altfechan’, as it spins out its central, gracefully climbing motif.

The spartan traditional lament of ‘Nach Truagh Mo Chàs’ (‘Hard Is My Fate’) is a tune of such intense mournfulness as to move even the hardest heart. Avoiding mawkishness, it makes for a real sustained hit of raw emotion, after which ‘The Portage’ very sensibly picks up gently. Tasting of salty sea air on a chilly bright day, it’s an affectionate and hopeful tune and a very fitting place to end the album.

Not a note feels out of place or unnecessary in the arrangements, and the performances are absolutely stunning. Whether writing their own tunes or arranging others’ work, Rant captivatingly weave together classical styles and the drive of traditional folk playing, all with an open, contemporary feel. The Portage is a flawless album of understated perfection.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.rantfiddles.com

‘Göran Berg’s/Crow Road Croft’:

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

Artists’ website: www.smithandbrewer.com

‘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

Artist’s website: www.niallkellymusic.com

‘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

Artist website: www.pparnold.com

‘Different Drum’ – live on TV: