THEA GILMORE – Small World Turning (Shameless Records, SHAME19001)

Small World TurningIf you’ve ever wondered what the sound of a Small World Turning is, Thea Gilmore’s first album in two years has the answer. It’s furious, witty and socially astute. It’s maternally fierce, compassionate and tender. It’s a state of the nation address. It’s a call to arms.

A sense of urgency pervades the album, as darkness skulks around the periphery. The premature fade-out of an intimate, bathroom-echoey, a cappella rendition of traditional lullaby, ‘Mockingbird’, opens up an unsettling sensation of loss. Later, the intensely lovely, bittersweet piano ballad ‘Karl’s Lament’ confirms our fears, “somewhere there are crosshairs on a mockingbird”. Listener, there’s trouble at t’mill.

Fortunately, Gilmore’s songwriting is on searing form, tackling cultural commentary with biting precision. Oxford’s notorious ‘Cutteslowe Walls’ provide the perfect allegory for the country’s ever increasing rich/poor divide, ‘where there’s a line at the foodbank, where they’re handing soup to the boys on the floor, where sleeping bags are blocking doorways, you’ll see the shadow of the Cutteslowe walls”.

That song’s brightly toiling percussion, suggestive of the kind of manual labour seen in the area’s once-booming car industry, is typical of the glove-snug fit of the musical arrangements – with a generous roster of artists including Sam Lakeman and Ciaran Algar making significant contributions. This review copy is light on detail, but Seth Lakeman’s distinctive fiddle graces the ominous ‘The Loading Game’ and Cara Dillon’s Irish whistle coolly pierces the warmth of countryish ballad, ‘Don’t Dim Your Light For Anyone’.

Brimming with fury, the fiercely spat out, heavily sardonic ‘Glory’ condemns media manipulation and fake news with its “welcome to brand new history”, much as the skronky angularity of ‘The Revisionist’ takes angry aim at right wing ‘populists’ – whilst also perfectly demonstrating the power of a well-placed Oedipal insult.

Shuffling percussion and chain-gang vocalisations lead the bluesy, pro-migration ‘Shake Off Those Chains’. A mariachi-style trumpet might suggest Mexico, as might the border-crossing closer ‘Dreamers’. This final lullaby appears to bring the album full circle. But its melodic echoes of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ plus Egan Stonier’s lamenting, Irish-style fiddle make it more uncomfortable than comforting: more Cormac McCarthy than AA Milne.

Even the vibrant ‘The Fuse (Let It All Come Down)’ – perky tv-jingle meets the gleeful sensuality of Kate Bush’s ‘Eat The Music – bristles with uneasy tension. The Kinks-ish ‘Blowback’ swarms with suitably deceptive pubby jollity, as does the “the people’s reactionary”, a public-school educated millionaire faux ‘man of the people’. Insert name here.

‘Grandam Gold’ (a Chaucerian-era phrase for wealth hoarders) is the most obviously “folky” sounding, with Dillon and Gilmore’s harmonies sublimely delicious. But there’s no mistaking the message, “take up your arms and prepare for the fight, accept what is simple or defend what is right’. Pick your side.

This album turns an incisive female gaze on a small world that’s increasingly turning off-kilter. It walloped me right in the maternals and isn’t about to let go. A brilliant, necessary album for our times.

Su O’Brien

Artist website:

‘The Fuse’ – lyric video:

SONGDOG – Joy Street (Junkyard Songs JSLPCD17)

Joy StreetI became a convert to Welsh poet-novelist-playwright Lyndon Morgans’ often talk-sing vocal style and deeply poetic narrative lyrics with the band’s second album and have not been disappointed since. Joy Street, his seventh release, doesn’t break the spell. Produced by Nigel Stonier and featuring backing trio of Karl Woodward on piano, mandolin and banjo, drummer and accordionist Dave Paterson and Jasper Salmon on violin, Morgans is in an atypically upbeat mood, not just lyrically but musically too, with ‘It’s Not A Love Thing’ a joyful, bouncy fiddle-led pop-folk number sung without any mannerisms and one of several to feature Thea Gilmore on backing vocals. The same verve spills over into ‘Raise Your Glass In Praise’, a six and a half minute celebration of an eclectic list of things that ring his bell, ranging from jelly beans, mist over meadows, Blonde On Blonde and hot Soho nights to grassed over graves, empty fairgrounds and “all the lips I kissed on my way to you”. It even has a catchy refrain.

Not, of course, that he’s forsaken his familiar melancholy. Despite the title, the simply fingerpicked, sparsely accompanied ‘Joy Street’ itself is weighed with reflective regret (“they fight and laugh and bluff, mourn the old neighbourhood gone and stuff, look back on the lives they’re gonna lose soon enough”) as is the accordion and fiddle carousel-waltzing ‘A Ukulele Whizz Looks Back’ with its barroom conversations between old friends about memories of times, songs and women past (“in the headlights swimming on my bedroom wall I see us playing in the lane till it got too dark to see the ball, didn’t think we’d ever grow old”)… and ,of course, some ukulele.

Memories, the passing years and romances lost to time also inform the ‘The Old Superhero’ with its swayalong cabaret-tinged chorus (and subtle nods to Cohen and Bowie) featuring vocals from James Trott, Anna Zweck, , Biff Roxby, James Kelly and Alyss McBirney, the musical box flavours of the valedictory memories of youthful romance in ‘Amen, Baby, Amen’ featuring Margit van der Zwan on cello,. Likewise, ‘The Dry Wind of Oblivion’, a theatrical styled number that nods to his Jacques Brel influences as he sings “you bit down to my heart and left it beating in a bowl, my blood still dribbling down your chin as you started on my soul.”

Heading into the final stretch, you’ll probably get a good idea of the mood in ‘Razor-Wire and Tinsel’ from the title, reminding me slightly of those talked type songs Steve Harley once did, Woodward on harmonica and Jimmy Forres providing the contemplative electric guitar solo for a slow march rhythm in service of yet another look back into the heart’s bruised past as he muses on how “sometimes you can be so unhappy having the time of your life”.

Despite telling a tale of doomed holiday romance, ‘Helldorado’ is a more musically upbeat track with, as you might surmise, a Texicana flavour to its acoustic guitars, squeezebox and Liz Armour’s horns, while, every bit as downcast as it suggests, ‘Love Dies Petal By Petal’, is a forlorn gradually swelling acoustic ballad anchored by a lonely drum beat about a love withered by whiskey and blow, its air of resigned acceptance summed up in the line about how “now it’s just the corners of your mouth that smile hello” as he pleads “I’m not a bad man anymore.”

It ends on a final note of desperately trying to regain a love lost or thrown away with ‘All Those Afternoons’, a wistful la la la punctuating Cohenesque lines like “be my nemesis, my gaoler, my catastrophe, my bane, I’d love you to forget me and then remember me again” and how “we’re all traitors to someone or to something in the end.”

He calls Joy Street a place “where life happens, any human highway or byway”. You should take a stroll, it’s superbly well paved.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Smoke-Rings & Shaving Cuts’ – live:

THEA GILMORE – The Counterweight (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD668)

CounterweightThea Gilmore described herself like this “Some people write me off as some waily folky woman……Other people think I’m rock. In terms of an image, if you want to be cold and corporate about it, it’s hard to decide who my target market is. There isn’t one. There is no box that I can be put in” She has been described by Uncut magazine as “The best British singer-songwriter of the last ten years – and then some”. Her new album, The Counterweight is released on June 2nd.

Is it folk? Even with my fairly eclectic and inclusive categorization of folk, probably not. Is it Americana? There are shadows of Americana but Gilmore is very much a UK songwriter and they are no more than shadows. Does it matter? Not at all, this is just a damned good album from someone who can’t be put in a box.

The album has tracks which are more electric than some of Gilmore’s previous. The single ‘New’ premiered on Ken Bruce’s show and ‘Sounds Good to Me’ has been getting some airplay on Radio 2. The opening track ‘Fall Together’ has a great vocal set against a simple piano before the wider band joins in, initially gently and then strongly – the kind of territory inhabited by Annie Lennox at her best (Listen also to ‘Slow Fade to Black’ for an equally lovely vocal.) It’s a stunning opener to the album and you’d normally want to link to it after the review – but there’s an even better song.

The album was recorded during spring and summer 2016 and in between the opening and closing tracks are a number that are simultaneously timeless and linked to the specifics of last summer. ‘Reconcile’ – with a gem of a line about needing “a mortgage for your coffee”, references to instagram, and “a road ahead/there’s a watershed” – was developed as Britain voted to leave the EU; ‘Johnny Gets A Gun’ recorded on June 16th shortly after the hate crime of the Orlando nightclub shooting. The light-hearted and self-knowing optimism of ‘Another Damn Love Song’ “How did I get here/How did I find you/How did a skeptic go so wrong” with its up tempo chorus. ‘Here’s to You’ is the penultimate song, another element of redressing the balance from the blows of 2016 “Raise a glass to alchemy/another one to unity/….there’s always strength in numbers/but there’s divinity in two/here’s to lovers and here’s to you

‘The War’ provides the album with its title of The Counterweight. As Gilmore reflected on the events of the summer, they became the inspiration for this final track. Have a look at the video below on YouTube and you’ll see the references to Jo Cox MP, murdered on June 16th. But the war “isn’t out there” – the song is also about what’s inside us and what we can do ourselves.

Take a look at that box on your desk

Take a look at that heart in your chest
Take a look at those thoughts in your head
The war’s already here……….
It’s so easy to hide
Behind imagined Ironsides
Nostalgic and misty eyed
When the wolf’s at the door
In the time of hate
Throw down the counterweight
Tear up that flag and say
You’re worthy of more

Gilmore’s website notes: “The track is also possibly the mission statement of the album, a call-to-arms on the negativity and bleakness of the 2017 social terrain mesmerized by fake news and futility. The Counterweight tries to be exactly that. A redressing of the balance, a tool of pressure, an exertion of opposite force and as such, a flag of hope.”

The musical style may not be what we’ve traditionally seen as folk, but the themes are – and our times are changing.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website:

NIGEL STONIER – Love And Work (Shameless SHAME017)

Love And WorkNigel Stonier is probably best known as a producer and a man who writes songs with and for other people so it came as a surprise to discover that Love And Work is his sixth solo album but not that it’s a work of great class.

I suppose that you would describe Nigel’s music as sophisticated pop-rock but don’t be put off if you think that sounds a bit MOR. It isn’t. Nigel is a multi-instrumentalist and a witty songwriter and his wit extends to his arrangements. Take the single ‘You Need Love’. Nigel says that he didn’t want it to sound too sweet so asked James Hallawell to impersonate Al Kooper’s Hammond style – and then topped it off with as fine a Dylan harmonica impersonation as you could wish to hear. It only lasts a few seconds but it’s just perfect.

It is inevitable that Nigel is a bit of a musical magpie given that he’s worked alongside Thea Gilmore, Robert Plant, Gretchen Peters and Fairport Convention among others – things are bound to rub off. He’s no mere copyist, though, and everything undergoes a transformative process. You might say that the opener, ‘Ready To Begin’, is Byrds-like but it’s not really; it just embodies the spirit of Roger McGuinn’s guitar. ‘You Breathe New Life Into Me’ features a pulsing mellotron which Nigel describes as “Strawberry Fields” and it is but it gives the feeling of bellows on a pump organ, breathing life into the song.

Other top tracks are ‘Turnaround Town’ – lots of clever words that I haven’t figured out yet – and ‘Work In Progress’ and I really like the last track. ‘The Extra Song’ is just that and Nigel ropes in his children, Asher and Egan on percussion, fiddle and vocals. The cover doesn’t tell you that they are aged five and ten and you wouldn’t know it to listen There’s a lot of talent in that family. The icing on the cake of that particular song is Nigel’s wife Thea Gilmore playing whistle on the coda. Love And Work is a brilliant, clever album.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

Videos of Nigel are about as rare as rocking horse droppings but we couldn’t resist this one:

Thea Gilmore announces new album and single

Thea Gilmore

Thea Gilmore has announced the release of her new album The Counterweight, which will be released June 2nd through Cooking Vinyl. The first single to be taken from the album, the rallying anthem ‘Sounds Good To Me’, is out now.

“I like to think of it as a bit of an anarchist’s polka…” says Thea of the single. “Calling the dispossessed, the downtrodden, the weary to arms. Lighting a fire… remembering there’s more than one way to live and who wants to walk when you can dance!”

It’s been 13 years and eight albums since Thea released Avalanche, her critically acclaimed fifth release and the album deemed to be her breakthrough record. The then 23-year-old was writing with a fire inside her post 9/11 about global anxiety and the increasingly vacuous celebrity culture.

Calling upon the spirit of this predecessor, Thea is back with the album she feels follows it. Having never entirely lost her voice of protest, on subsequent albums Thea was looking inward more, singing songs about the depression she had been diagnosed with, love songs in uncertain times and songs about parenthood.

Now though, she is back with The Counterweight, an album full of passion and fire inside to protest, and an album that echoes the rapid change in our social and political landscape that 2016 brought with it.

When finishing the album in September, Thea was forced to look back at the spring and summer recording period and the tumultuous times that happened throughout the year including working on ‘Reconcile’ as Britain voted to leave the EU, and recording ‘Johnny Gets A Gun’ three days after the Orlando shooting.

That day was also most harrowingly of all, the day when the world was watching the tragedy of Jo Cox’s murder unfold and at the very eleventh hour became the inspiration for the final track ‘The War’, with the first and last verses directly referencing her.

Thea quotes “I was throwing a cautionary message in a bottle into the shifting tide, but also singing a reminder that acts of kindness and humanity are never in vain: ‘You can cut that stem, but wild flowers grow again, all you can do is just tend to them and know that you tried’”

“I’d finished the album pretty much. All the shit that had gone down in 2016, the world changing moments… everything had shifted and this song fell out of me on one of the last mix days. The first and last verses directly reference Jo Cox and in between. I like to think it shines a light on these dark days, but also offers hope.”

The track is also possibly the mission statement of the album, going to war on the negativity and bleakness of the current world mesmerized by fake news and futility.

The Counterweight tries to be exactly that. A redressing of the balance, a tool of pressure, an exertion of opposite force and as such, a flag of hope.

Thea Gilmore will be heading out on a UK headline tour to support the album, with full details to be announced soon.

Artist’s website:

THEA GILMORE – Ghosts & Graffiti (FullFill Records FCCD 165)

THEA GILMORE Ghosts&GraffitiA mixed bag, jam packed with 20 tracks from the talented Miss Thea Gilmore. Some older tracks and some brand new tracks to encounter. The songs are often woven around intelligent, inventive and sometimes just plain strange lyrics; as in the case of “Razor Valentine”.

Not all the tracks hit the mark in my opinion, but there is such a rich selection that a small wobble here and there is no big deal. There are an array of guest artists on the album, such as Joan Baez, King Creosote and The Waterboys, adding variety and counterbalance to the songs. From upbeat rocking style to mournful ballad (and even, dare I say it, folk) [yes, you dare – Editor], this album covers the ground in style.

It’s incredible to think that some of the tracks on this album stretch back some 17 years and yet still come over as relevant. Age has not dated them.

Stand out tracks, for me? The opener ‘Copper’, ‘Start as We Mean to Go On’, ‘Coming Back to You’ ‘Razor Valentine’, ‘Sol Invictus’ and ‘Wrong with You’. Plenty of other goodies in the bag, but these are the tracks that pressed my buttons on the first play.

So if you acquire this CD you are getting a potted history of Thea Gilmore’s musical work, with the added bonus of new tracks. Plus a glossy booklet which has an introduction by the author Neil Gaiman, who became a fan of Thea Gilmore in the early years.

So, a thumbs up for Ghosts & Graffiti. Well worth the money in your pocket or adding to your birthday list.

Ron D Bowes

Artist’s website:

‘Coming Back To You’ – the official video: