We’ll leave Christmas until later if you don’t mind. Belle Of The Ball is the debut solo recording by AINSLEY HAMILL of Fourth Moon and Barluath. She has an amazing cast of supporters including Graham Coe, Lucy, Evan Carson and Toby Shaer but what jumps out at you is that voice. She begins with the traditional ‘Latha Dhomh ‘s Buain a’ Choirce’ – a powerful but still authentic rendering over an insistent beat.. Butter wouldn’t melt. Then comes the title track. The instruments are mostly traditional and acoustic but Ainsley sings in a dark, smoky, bluesy voice. Where did that come from? ‘Runaways’, a delightfully hedonistic song, is performed in the same style and then it’s back to the traditional ‘Ailein Duinn’ with Ainsley keeping to the lower end of her register.. Finally we have the country-tinged ‘The Green Woods Back Home’, different again and a cracking song to wrap things up with.
THE PEOPLE VERSUS are a five-piece from Oxford who describe themselves as chamber pop but that could be a cover for posh folk-rock. The band spun off from Full Fathom Five and Ground Opening is their debut record – although they do a nice line in T-shirts as well. The EP opens with the double-header of ‘Like I’m Lonely/Driftwood’, built on a very basic drum-beat, possibly a loop, but ‘Driftwood’ gives the drummer more to do. ‘Ground Opening’ is also based on idiosyncratic percussion. Finally we have ‘Sea Monster (Charybdis)’ – you expect a touch of the classics from Oxford. The People don’t tell us much about themselves but we do know that the singer’s name is Alice and that she is blessed with a brilliantly flexible voice.
JAKE AARON certainly isn’t in a festive mood (good on you, Aaron) with ‘Here’s The Thing’. The thing is that he thinks we’re sinking and he could well be right. Jake has a nicely laconic delivery over a ringing acoustic guitar and a nice line in irony as he sings “here’s a song of hope and glory”.
In the spirit of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men DUSTY WRIGHT released ‘The Book Of Tears’ in the wake of the epidemic of mass murders in the USA this year. Americana with a soul-tinged chorus, this is a fine song that deserves a wide hearing. “Who has read the book of tears?” That’s just one of the questions he poses.
Northern Irish singer-songwriter AARON SHANLEY released ‘A Decent Apology’ just too late for last month’s post. As a post break-up song it’s one of the best. “I still don’t love you, I’m never going to. But I owe you a decent apology.” An EP is in the works.
Grungy as you could wish for, SMOKE FAIRIES release ‘Elevator’ in advance of their new album, Darkness Brings The Wonders Home, to be released early next year. You won’t be surprised to learn that the album and this track were recorded in Seattle.
Also grungy are THE ROQUES. Their single, ‘Valdivian’ begins with growling bass under strange drones and doesn’t really fit our remit but it exerts a certain compulsion. They look far too young to be having such dark thoughts.
VARO are a traditional duo from Dublin who will release their debut album in the new year. In the meantime they tempt us with their first single, ‘Sovay’ built on fiddle and drones supporting their close harmonies. Actually, Lucie Azconaga is French and Consuelo Nerea Breschi is Italian and their sound is more earthy than ethereal.
Christmas is still a way away for SERIOUS CHILD on ‘Brambles’. “Brambles will grow where bad people go to do unspeakable things” is the key phrase for the song is inspired by the work of forensic botanist, Mark Spencer. Can’t you just feel a TV series coming on? Alan Young, to give him his real name, occupies the same sort of musical and lyrical territory as Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Spooky but fascinating.
A final festive flurry of singles heads up with SIOBHAN MILLER and her self-released ‘At This Time Of Year’, a piano ballad bedecked with lush woodwind and strings that offers a simple message about missing those you can’t be with at this time of the year and sending them your best wishes.
The same sentiment can be found on the equally strings enrobed ‘Golden Christmas Time’ (Self-released), from TOBIAH, a song poignantly inspired by thoughts of absent friends and specifically the loss of her husband early into their marriage as she sings “See the dress I’ll wear tonight/Like the one you left for me/Placed beneath the Christmas tree”.
Taking a somewhat different tack, strumming an acoustic guitar, one of Nashville’s few Asian country artists, GABE LEE offers up ‘Christmas Day’ (Self-released), described as a “sad and sarcastic” juxtaposition of the Hallmark seasonal schmaltz with the cold, harsh nature of winter in a song about a man on the run, hiding from the law as he sings “It’s been a long, long lonely winter / It’s been a cold, hard-livin’ couple years / And it kills me to say they’re gonna lock me away / And it don’t look like I’ll be home by Christmas day”.
Taking an equally less cheery approach, alt-folk trio THICKETS offer the slow waltzing, icy auto harp tinkling ‘A Winter’s Warning’ (Self-released), a song that began life as an attempt a carol and ended up a murder ballad with Rebecca Lavery offering the ethereal vocal and Emma Hamilton providing the wintery harmonies.
Keeping it downcast, from Sweden comes SOFIA TALVIK riding on the ominous rhythms of ‘Christmas Train’ (Makaki Music), a free download from her Bandcamp site that, in keeping with her previous holiday releases, harks to the darker side with a modern take on the legend of Krampus, Santa’s evil counterpart, who most decidedly is not bringing joy and presents, here embodied in a train rolling down the track to steal dreams and lives.
Also from Sweden is BUFORD POPE telling is ‘What Christmas Ain’t’ (Unchained), a bluesy alt-country strum in which he recounts a kid preparing for Christmas with his sister and parents and then turning to a theme about those left homeless on the streets in the holiday season.
A social conscience is also at the heart of the acoustic chime of ‘Stars’ (Fretsore), a reflective new single by Scotland’s JACK HENDERSON which, opening borrowing from The Tempest’s line about we are such stuff that dreams are made on, responds to the divisiveness in today’s world with a song that, contemplating the origins of life, talks of how, in matters of substance, we are essentially the same. And that, as he puts it, there is “a real sense in which our personal stories have contributed to our collective human story”. Which, I guess, is really what Christmas is about.
What Christmas is about is at the heart of ‘Heart Of Mine’ by LADY NADE. The song is for her grandfather, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. You have to imagine what this time of year can be like for sufferers – routine is destroyed, strangers are all around and there is noise and bustle everywhere. Lady Nade simply says, “I won’t let you down”.
‘It’s Not That Cold Anymore’ also contemplates the problem of loneliness at a time when we’re supposed to be happy. YVONNE McDONNELL’s single is a lavishly arranged ode to nostalgia and lost loves. Add it to your Christmas mix-tape.