SINGLES BAR 89 – A round-up of recent EPs and singles

Singles Bar 89The daughter of Peter Lewis, founding member of 60s psych-folk icons Moby Grape (and who features on Stratocaster), and granddaughter of Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young, ARWEN LEWIS comes with an impressive lineage, However, her new six-track EP Under The Stars (OMAD Records) is evidence that she doesn’t need to cite family history to get attention. Raised on late 60/early 70s rock and folk, the influence can be clearly heard in both her originals and choice of covers. Of the latter, there’s a countrified arrangement of her father’s ‘Black Moon’ (her debut album was all MG covers), a frisky, brass-coloured take on Jackson Brown’s ‘Doctor My Eyes’ and a largely faithful reading of Joni Mitchell’s ‘I Think I Understand’ off Clouds. The two others are both self-penned, the melancholic slow walk wistfully folksy ‘Man On The Moon’ with trumpet and twangsome guitar, and ‘Winter’, which comes in two versions, one all Mitchell-styled moody electric guitar and the other stripped down to piano and cello. Still finding her way perhaps in terms of her own music, but this bodes well for the future.

There’s nice chunky percussion and ringing guitar to kick off ‘Everybody Lets You Down’, the opening track of You Are The Rain, the debut 4-track EP by EUAN BLACKMAN. Euan is one of the new breed of artists gaining fame via Spotify and TikTok and recorded the tracks in his Liverpool bedroom but don’t go thinking that this is rough lo-fi. In fact, it’s remarkably sophisticated. The second track is ‘Busy Doing Nothing’, a single release a few months ago. It’s a hard-edged song which seems to find its proper place in this context leading, as it does, into ‘Bad Things’ with harmonica, urban sound effects and tasty lead guitar. Finally, ‘Cherry Stone’ features Ben Stafford and what sounds like pizzicato guitar if that’s actually a thing.

The Time We Lost is a new EP from East London five-piece FORTY ELEPHANT GANG, a response to current unrest and uncertainty, that being the theme of the opening ‘Fences’ where the empty supermarket shelves, curfews and daily government briefings of lockdown were like returning to the days of WWII. Lockdown’s also the backdrop to the early Blur summery lazing ‘Miss You’ while calling on Lennon influences ‘No More Tears’ speaks to pandemic fatigue with its associated casualties, both human and the truth. Opening with the repeated title refrain, ‘A Simple Life’ takes on a  Latin rhythm for a hope of change once things get back to normal – or the suspicion that they won’t, returning to more uncertainty, this time money worries, on he near seven-minute ‘Hard Times’ which opens with distant news bulletins before easing into a taut, tempo and rhythm shifting musical web of anxiety with a nervy plucked mandolin break as it gathers to a chaotic finale, the collection winding up with a return the autumnal Beatles balladry on the mortality-themed ‘Fun While It Lasted’. Not lyrically over-cheery then, but at least the melodies can soothe the furrowed brow.

Clanging guitar heralds Big Blue, the debut EP from Canadian Ben Cornel who also goes by the name BIG BLUE. Ben plays heavy psychedelic rock with Mooch and now he has moved from Montreal to Yellowknife without his band and begun exploring open guitar tunings. After the attention-grabbing introduction the opening track, ‘Primordial Water’, takes us through Ben’s instrumental repertoire of guitars and banjo. No pun intended but this EP really is stream of musical consciousness particularly as the meandering second track, ‘Adrift’ follows the watery motif.

‘The Crossover’ is a rather more nimble finger-picked piece and ‘Put To Sleep By The Smoke’ has a Spanish feel with nylon-strung guitar over steel-strung. In contrast, ‘Timelapse’ is rather more English pastoral in style and ‘Ripples’ takes us back to the water with echoey electric guitar notes hanging in the air.

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Based in Nashville, MELANIE MACLAREN is a lightly voiced folkie, her new Tourist (Tone Tree) EP a gently delightful collection of five songs dealing with memory, family and loss. It’s hard to resist a number titled ‘Disassociating At A Tiki Bar In A Landlocked State’, but this fingerstyle number has far more going for it than that, joined here by the airy, pure sounding notes of ‘Henry Hudson’ and dreamy Americana-tinged, pedal steel shaded ballad ‘Orion’ where, reflecting a self-destructive desire to make up for lost time, she sings “light me up like Christmas”. There’s more of a stream of consciousness approach to the wistful longing of ‘Summer in Sweden’ where synths and acoustic guitar are joined by Irish bouzouki, banjo and pedal steel while the title track closer is another relaxed fingerpicked folksy and gently aching number written for her nieces and nephews during a time of family loss and grief family about how while everything is temporary, there are some things, like the love between a parent and child, that are true and eternal. Most definitely a name to watch as her star ascends.

Engine For The Sound is the new EP by accordionist and clog dancer HEATHER FERRIER. With Alasdair Paul’s guitars, Adam Stapleford on percussion and Sam Quintana on double bass alongside her she sets out to do something different. ‘Lacuna’ opens with some unexpected sounds before crashing into folk-rock and finally a more conventional accordion/guitar duet. ‘Apple 1’ opens with some strange parping noises but settles down into something sensible as Heather displays some nifty fingerwork.

‘The Break’ is a pretty, delicate tune – at least it starts that way before developing into something more akin to a suite. Finally, the title track is packed with even more ideas. Although Heather’s name is on the cover this is very much an ensemble work and the contributions of sidesmen can’t be overestimated.

Canadian singer-songwriter JERRY LEGER warms up anticipation for his UK tour with new download EP The Time Flew By (Latent Recordings) which comprises outtakes from his four albums for the Cowboy Junkies’ label.  The rowdy Dylanesque blues boogie ‘Mean Payola’ was intended for last year’s Nothing Pressing, a call for “someone like Wolfman Jack to play my records and help save me from obscurity”.  The piano-backed ‘We’re A Mess’ is a slower, more border country sounding number (though the Dylan colours persist here and elsewhere) while ‘What Baby Wants’ is more aggressive and bluesier and the title cut, taken from a repeated phrase in a Kurt Vonnegut book he was reading, is a shuffling pedal-steel and fiddle Canadian folksy number he describes as a cross between Tom Waits’ ‘Martha’ and an old country-gospel end-of-life of song.

For the avoidance of any doubt, JOLḖ is really Josh Oliver, originally from Somerset and the EP Let Go is his first release for two years, a product of lockdown which, paradoxically, gave Josh time and space to learn and work. The opening track and first single, ‘This City’ is a contemplative song about visiting a place without the right person. ‘Hopes’ features electric guitar and massed synths and visits the same feelings of loss and separation.

‘13’ is a song looking back over the years; “I still play that old guitar you gave me when I was thirteen” is its opening line, immediately setting the scene. ‘Talk’ opens with strange, manipulated sounds before settling into a steady rock beat but still with acoustic guitar leading the way. Like the whole set it’s about separation and isolation – “I wish I could call you just to talk”. ‘Stay’ should perhaps appear before it in the sequence as it seems to tell the story of what happened first but at ‘Let Go’ finds him in a better place which is what the record is all about.

From their forthcoming album, Such Ferocious Beauty, COWBOY JUNKIES release the single, ‘Hard To Build. Easy To Break’. It opens with the languid beauty of their earlier music as Margo Timmins sets out the theme of the song – look after this precious planet – but then introduces dirty guitar that seems to exemplify the fate awaiting it.

Featuring the stirringly melancholic Uilleann pipes of Rathcairn piper Eanna O Crionan,  County Meath, Sean nós balladeer BRENDAN MELIA has written the self-released ‘Forgotten Freedom’, a ballad that channels the spirit of the great Ronnie Drew in protest at the current Irish housing crisis as he imagines what the founding fathers of the Irish state, Jim Larkin, James Connolly, Michael Collins, would think of the government’s handling of things as he sings “I wonder what James Connolly(would say/To see what his country has become/He would grieve for the homeless and the poor…if he were alive today/I’m sure that his stomach it would turn/At the greed and the inequality/I believe that he is spinning in his grave”. Powerful stuff.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of Rogue Records and the release of its first album, Still Pause by MAGGIE HOLLAND, Ghosts From The Basement have released a double A-side single. One side is ‘Banks Of The Nile’ taken from that album and featuring Maggie solo on banjo. The other is the rather more familiar ‘A Proper Sort Of Gardener’ later borrowed by June Tabor. It’s a true story and one that can still bring a tear to the eye but the notion that she didn’t regard God as a proper sort of gardener still resonates.

SKIPINNISH have joined forces with Donald Francis MacNeil, 64-year-old inshore fisherman around Mingulay and the islands to the south of the Isle of Barra, for ‘The Clearances Again’ (Skipinnish Records) , a rousing slow marching, swayalong protest song written by the band’s co-founder and fellow fisherman Angus MacPhail and evoking the forced dismantling of Highland communities in the 18th and 19th centuries  in response to the Scottish Government’s plans to ban inshore fishing and all marine activities fearing they will wreak economic, social and cultural devastation. Written from MacNeil’s perspective and featuring his own vocal contribution as he sings “My song marks a fight for survival/A Mayday call we cry/We will stand for the rights of our children/We will not let our islands die” alongside the voices of Gaelic singer Rachel Walker and children from Castlebay School on Barra.

‘The Way You Looked At Me’ is a rather delightful slice of Irish-Americana by Dublin-based EOIN GLACKIN released as a taster for his forthcoming album, The Cost Of Living. Fingerpicking is to the fore as Eoin shows off his new 6-string banjo (or is that a banjitar?).

New music from Clare-based  LAURA MULCAHY is always guaranteed to brighten the day, the latest being the self-released slow waltzing  ‘The Legend Of Lily Pond Lake’, a whimsical fairytale about the pleasures and peace of being an introvert rather than just one of the crowd  (“all the girls booking for Spain on the plane/She stays in her lily pond lake just the same/With a pair of swans/A cormorant too/They’re up for the quack…”) that ingeniously manages to slide in the line about how she “dines with a frog-friend/Francois De Choisy”, a sly reference to the French 17th century transvestite abbe.

‘All In The Name’ is a song by Jamie Freeman who sadly passed late last year. Here it is reworked by THE SELF HELP GROUP, a sextet from Brighton who worked with members of Hatful Of Rain, The Jamie Freeman Agreement and virtuoso steel guitarist CJ Hillman on this recording. With all these musicians on board it has a big sound topped by sweet vocals and a great hook. All proceeds will go to Brain Tumour Research.

BELLA GAFFNEY channels Joni Mitchell on ‘Blue’, an homage to her inspiration. She has the shining guitar sound, the delicate percussion, the voice that leaps and swoops and the confessional lyrics. A little gem.