KATIE DOHERTY & THE NAVIGATORS – And Then (Steeplejack Music, SJCD023)

And ThenA life-changing decade after her debut album, Bridges, was released, Katie Doherty returns – with Navigators Shona Mooney (fiddle) and Dave Gray (melodeon). New album, And Then, feels like an invitation to sit down for some tea and cake and a bit of a catch-up.

An early graduate of Newcastle University’s Folk Music degree, sometime Broom Bezzums member, Royal Shakespeare Company project musical director and collaborator with many other theatrical companies, Doherty’s career path has taken plenty of serendipitous turns. Add in marriage and a small person underfoot, and it’s all too easy to see how time can slip by.

All but one of the songs on And Then, were written by Doherty, a gifted songwriter with a huge melodic sensibility. Her songs may still have a folk core, but they are wrapped within contemporary musical and singing styles. From the warmly nostalgic, contagiously lovely waltz of ‘Heartbeat Ballroom’ via the strong, jagged ‘Angry Daughter’ – a protest song framed in a female context (and featuring Doherty’s splendid cathartic soul diva holler) – through to the strong musical theatre vibe of ‘And Then’, myriad diverse influences inform this engaging music.

A noticeable self-critical streak is also evident, starting with the volley of bending notes that conveys the defiant, chin-out hurt of ‘I’ll Go Out’. A pragmatic view of love is established in ‘Yours’ and only ‘Navigator’ (the source of the band’s name) lightens up a bit to celebrate love and friendship. Still, a lingering core of self-doubt persists in many of the lyrics, like in ‘Tiny Little Shoes’, a delightful, very Bella Hardy-esque song about the fear – and love – of parenting.

For a totally contrasting mood, Doherty’s sansula playing adds ethereality to the already sparse and chilly ‘Rose In Winter’, warmed only by a faint echo of birdsong. Equally gripping are the muscular fiddle and mournful melodeon breaths of ‘Polska’, a traditional tune to which the addition of Doherty’s arabesque melismatic vocalisations could be considered a spot of lily-gilding.

As the belated catch-up draws to a close, a chorus of voices joins with the plucked fiddle and barely-there piano opening to ‘We Burn’, swelling into a triumphant, uplifting finale. On the strength of this smartly constructed set of songs, it’s to be hoped that Ms Doherty and her Navigators don’t leave it quite so long next time.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.katiedoherty.co.uk

‘Heartbeat Ballroom’ – official video:

NIGHT TREE – Dedications (Night Tree Records, NT02)

DedicationsNight Tree is an American/Swedish sextet, all alumni of the New England Conservatory. The group has worked extensively with US-Irish band Solas, with founder Séamus Egan producing both their albums so far. Dedications is Night Tree’s second album, commemorating places and people of significance to them.

The unique set-up of saxophone, accordion and percussion supplementing a classical string trio alerts the listener that this album will be something out of the ordinary. From beginning to end, nothing goes quite where you imagine it will, each track a travelogue of global musical styles drawn from an extensive repertoire. As well as many shades of classical music, from chamber to avant-garde/minimalist, there are rich seams of jazz, traditional and world music. The Celtic influence features strongly throughout, particularly evident in tracks like ‘The Last Day Of Summer’ and ‘Blue-Eyed Sailor/The Piano Room’.

The nine-and-a-half minute superbly-titled ‘Elvish Warfare Suite No.1’ sets the tone for what to expect. Shifting constantly, from moodily enticing accordion to a wave of fast strings over a muted percussive beat, this is a twisty-turny beast. A curving sax line gives way to a husky violin lamenting over a spare piano line before the mood becomes lithe and light once more, over a cidada-like swish of percussion. The return of the sax lends an unsettling shift to a cooler angularity, concluding with heavy-bowed melancholy strings.

‘Oya’ culminates in African-sounding vocalisations, whilst ‘Baby Blue’ kicks off with doo-wop harmonies over plucked violin before taking a woozy turn past some metronomic strings. ‘The Girl In The White Dress’ continues with the Michael Nyman-esque strings, a slippery accordion leading off the main melodic line.

‘North Carolina Cottage’ begins with a cappella voice, instruments joining the off-beat in a flowing, jazz style, accompanied by a bleating sax. ‘Year With The Yeti/Wings From The North’ is a light, skipping melody with a nimble sax part and ‘Point Joe’ culminates in a sax coda of the main tune. Although the sax is used with great invention, it’s hard to shake off some of its 1980s connotations, which linger in the rather bland finale ‘Great Storm’.

Night Tree clearly relish playing with the possibilities of harmonics and composition, skilfully fusing unlikely musical bedfellows and taking their music to the edges of disconcerting atonality. They’re tightly attuned to each other’s playing, apparently even practising in darkness sometimes, so as to concentrate more. There’s a constant, fluid restlessness to the music, yet it remains highly listenable and enjoyable. Someone should probably tell the band’s faces, though: their cover photos look like they just got a nasty tax bill.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.nighttreemusic.com

‘Oya’ – live:

SVER – Reverie (Folkhall Records FHR002CD)

ReverieIn celebration of their ten years as a quintet, SVER release their fourth album, Reverie. Recorded live over two days and steeped in Nordic tradition, SVER’s tight-knit musicianship, versatility and sense of sheer enjoyment simply shines through. The band may describe their sound as ‘folk-rock’ but it gleefully transcends obvious categorisation.

SVER’s band members – Olav Luksengård Mjelva (fiddle/hardanger fiddle), Anders Hall (fiddle/viola), Leif Ingvar Ranøien (two row accordion), Adam Johansson (guitar) and Jens Linell (drums) – share an astonishing quality of flow and interplay, smoothly passing melodic phrases and thematic variations, seamlessly and gently leading the listener’s focus from one instrument to another.

Mjelva and Hall (familiar from their Nordic Fiddlers Bloc collaboration with Kevin Henderson) create a pair of delightfully dextrous polkas in each other’s honour. Mjelva embellishes Sjur Viken’s twisting, lively, ‘Lille Grisen’ (‘The Little Pig’), its lithe, taut fiddle pivoting around the drums. In contrast, Andreas Bjørkås’s ‘Lassi’ is an angular, muscular beast of loose, bending notes and a slurring fiddle phrase.

Guitarist Johansson’s ‘E14’ (the name of the road to his home, rather than Canary Wharf’s postcode) is beaty but mellow, the pace gradually accelerating with the joy of returning home, including some rather funky guitar and, unusually, a fade-out. His ‘Annas Vals’ is equally hard to define, with different instruments carrying the slow and tender air by turns, as the rest slide softly around it. The cacophonic clatter of ‘Boot’N Rally’ opens out into a pure, clean guitar that lures the listener onwards to an irresistibly wiggly dance tune.

Mjelva takes on the remaining composition honours, starting with a sweetly rolling tune for his girlfriend, ‘The Doctor’. ‘Batch 15’ is a tight little jig whose woozily reflective mid-point (that moment when you get a bit head-spinny, realise that your legs don’t work any more and order another pint anyway) goes on to ramp the energy back again with a masterful control of pace. The contemplative ‘Reverie’ is probably as dark as this album gets, but is followed by a most light-hearted homage to 70s tv show The Love Boat. A slow fiddle, joined by accordion and guitar, plays a variation on the show’s theme tune, any brief illusion of tastefulness rapidly evaporating in an explosive jazz-rock finale loaded with extra cheese.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: www.sverfolk.com/en

‘The Doctor’:

BREABACH – Frenzy Of The Meeting (Breabach Records, BRE005CD)

Frenzy Of The MeetingHaving toured the world, won awards and created an immensely successful album, Astar, zinging with creative fusion, what would Breabach do next? Judging by their latest album, Frenzy Of The Meeting, released in late October, the answer seems to be to find a revitalised inspiration in the traditional music of home.

Never a band to stand still, Frenzy Of The Meeting finds Breabach testing new waters once again. As usual, tracks were initially laid down live in the studio in order to capture the band’s essential sound. The band then enhanced these tracks during further studio sessions, in collaboration with producer Eamon Doorley. The final result is still absolutely Breabach, but in a subtly fleshed out way.

Starting with Bonnie Prince Charlie landing on a chilly beach on Eriskay, the low-slung guitar and bass of ‘Princes Strand’ provide solid ground for a rather wistful tune carried by whistles and pipes, as well as forming the link to ‘Knees Up’. This uplifting two-tune set pits ferocious piping against Megan Henderson’s soaring vocals.

Delicate bouzouki wreathes through ‘Winter Winds’, Calum MacCrimmon’s utterly beautiful song comparing the changing weather to the healing nature of time, “give it time and the sky will change”. Sharply switching mood, the stomping opening to ‘Western Isle Dance’ pairs a lively traditional tune with James Lindsay’s more reflective musing on the nature of alternative facts.

Ewan Robertson and Michael Farrell’s thoughtful ‘Birds Of Passage’, inspired by Longfellow’s poem of the same name, contemplates aspects of migration, its upwardly spiralling instrumentation mirroring the lyrics. The ballsy, sinuous ‘Google This’ follows, intriguingly paired with a traditional waulking song which sounds like it shouldn’t work, although – of course – it does.

The title track, ‘Frenzy Of The Meeting’ opening with a deep bowed bass and lithe fiddle bubbling over mouth harp, is a darkly delicious meshing of Henderson’s tune ‘Incahoots’ with the low chant of a traditional Ceòl Mòr. The album wraps up with ‘Oran Bhraigh Rusgaich’ which builds on its core of atmospheric harmonium drone, airy reverb and sparse guitar into a grand climactic finale, leaving just a trace of whistles hanging on the air.

Frenzy Of The Meeting may not have quite the same immediacy as its predecessor, but it has a satisfying deep richness and texture all of its own. It’s a fascinating new development in Breabach’s work, building yet more layers, more experiment and versatility into their sound.

To see this album in live performance, catch Breabach on tour around the UK now and until February 2019.

Su O’Brien

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‘Birds Of Passage’ – official video:

KÍLA – Pota Óir (Kíla Records, KRDVD003)

Pota ÓirKíla, a band with a mutable line-up around the core of the Ó Snodaigh family has been around since the late 80s, with a prodigious output of band and offshoot projects over that time. Last year, the band released a live album, Beo/Alive to include some of their less-performed tracks and Pota Óir (Pot of Gold) is its accompanying DVD. Shot in atmospheric black and white by director Anthony White (a stylist in the mould of the great Anton Corbijn), it intercuts band talking heads with live and backstage footage.

Mercifully, that’s about where any relationship to a bog-standard music DVD ends. A faintly sinister opening section with a droning musical track over choppy edits of band members, like an outtake from a ‘found footage’ horror film, invites the bold viewer in. Kílaland is then gradually revealed as a curious, liminal place of tall tales and shifting perspectives, where even the band’s name is open to conjecture.

Right from the first track, ‘Matatu’, Rónán Ó Snodaigh seizes the eye with his intense physicality, ferociously pacing the stage with his bodhrán. Standing like a flamingo in ‘Pota Óir’ or brooding on his knees in the beautiful ‘Babymouse’ (Dee Armstrong’s stunning melody paired with Colm Ó Snodaigh’s tender lyrics), he’s a truly elemental presence.

There’s no real conscious ‘showmanship’ here, just a breathtaking intensity of performance between musicians working it out in real time. Guest vocalist, Polish singer Kayah, adds a rich throatiness to the intricate ‘Seo Mo Leaba /Am Reel’ as different parts and musical lines cross and intersect in a constant dynamic flowing stream. The band’s influences are prolific: there’s a jazz looseness, there’s funk in the bassline, soul and rap in the vocals, there are world influences from Africa to the Middle East – everything gets caught up in the Kíla tornado.

The film really captures the idea of music being a living entity, from its origins and gestation into a working piece, to feeding off the audience in order to attain spontaneity and transcendence in performance.

‘Raise The Road’, a rare song in English and a guide to growing up, features the line “don’t be afraid, be courageous and shine”. Sung largely a cappella, it’s a goose-bumpy moment but it also seems to sum up the band’s philosophy. There’s a casual bravery in their risk-taking, their willingness for things to be imperfect or under-rehearsed, as long as they create an energy. Kíla, then, is not so much a band, more an unstoppable force, cheerfully straddling chaos in order to craft magic.

Su O’Brien

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Artists’ website: www.kila.ie

‘The Derry Tune’:

VIVE LA ROSE – For She Who Hangs The Moon (Gestation Records, GEST01)

For She Who Hangs The MoonLondon-based Scot David Luximon-Herbert has been making music in various guises over many years, finally emerging as Vive La Rose in 2014 with the EP, Don’t Move, Don’t Speak. For Vive La Rose’s debut album, For She Who Hangs The Moon, he has crafted a lush, piano-driven Americana-washed soundscape about “figuring out your little corner of the world”.

Opening song, ‘Night Terrors’, unpicks the anxieties of the creative process and features one tiny, stomach-dropping moment where the instrumentation cuts out, leaving his whispering husky growl flailing momentarily, like the cartoon character who suddenly realises he’s running on thin air. Generally, though, like all the songs here, there’s a gentle air of reassurance and positivity.

The bright, tinkling ‘Rio Grande’ contemplates the bittersweet conflict of a couple torn between the demands of home and dreams of travel. Looking further outwards, Colin Elliot & The Up North Orchestra’s lyrical strings adorn Kennedy’s famous moon mission speech in ‘Before We Lose The Light’ as it builds in grandiosity over a ‘70s-sounding chorus. Its abrupt conclusion only throws the Spanish-tinged guitar intro of ‘Of A Fire On The Moon’ into full relief, another momentous song whose moody electric guitar climax falls away with the tentatively hopeful lyric, “as long as I can hold here”.

Nicky Francis’s briskly shuffling brush drum introduces ‘Interior Rules’ which seems to be about working out what really matters, whilst ‘Given Time’ features both Mark Neary’s pedal steel and some gorgeously poignant brass from Terry Edwards.

Time looms over ‘The Watchmaker’ (mortality and achievement), “I’m a watchmaker down inside and I need more time” and ‘Schiehallion’ (shifting perspectives) with its immortal line, “I’m swinging from the family tree”. Rod Sparks’ Hammond embellishes both this and ‘Sirocco’, a song with melodic traces of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, before the gently waltzing guitar of ‘My Shadow’ brings the album to a close.

There’s a thoughtfulness in the instrumentation and a gentle optimism that infuses this whole project, which is tenderly dedicated to his wife. Luximon-Herbert’s stated aim was to make the album that he wanted to, despite lacking a big budget. He’s certainly done a fine job of delivering a plush, involved album that radiates compassion and warmth.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: http://vivelarosemusic.co.uk/

‘Schiehallion’ – official video: