Pons Aelius’ second album picks up pretty much where Captain Glen’s Comfort left off. ‘Fire Under The Bridge’ opens the show with three tunes by Jordan Aiken featuring his Highland bagpipes and Callum Younger’s pounding percussion. However, as this album proves, Pons Aelius are no one-trick ponies.
The second track, ‘Charlie Smith’s Recovery’, is the only borrowing in the set. Written by Alexander Taylor Cameron, it features whistles and Sam Partridge’s flute before the pipes come back, rather more gently this time. The first of the two tunes that make up ‘The Ambassador Disaster’ is written by Tom Kimber and features his tenor banjo and Aikin allows him to continue through its partner tune.
Lest we forget that Pons Aelius are as much Newcastle as Scotland we next have ‘Rafa’s’. Aikin wrote ‘The Rafa Benitez Jig’ which is partnered with Alasdair Paul’s ‘Get In The Boot’, possibly a description of the team’s playing style. For no good reason the term “harum-scarum” popped into my mind as I listened! Tom Kimber’s banjo is back for ‘The Nightwalker’, the first half of ‘The Phantom Jake’, a tune by Partridge. Pipes and flute weave in and out of the banjo figure and, unusually, the tune comes to a clear stop before its partner begins.
‘Interlude’ is a far too short piece built around the flute and so evocative of open hills, perhaps just as the sun is going down. Paul’s ‘Five Miles To The Mill’ gives Kimber a turn on the mandolin but the band constantly move the lead around all their instruments. Let’s not forget the solid foundation laid down by Bevan Morris’ double bass and Younger’s kit. I particularly like the way that the mandolin opens ‘Elinor’s’, linking the two tracks. Younger features on bodhran and the whole tune is rather lovely as everyone takes a turn.
The final two sets are ‘The Glen Where The Deer Is Imaginary’ and ‘The Durnamuck Deer Chase’. These may be linked but I get the feeling that the titles are private jokes within the band. Not that it matters, they round off the album in the fine style in which it began.
The Newcastle-based band Assembly Lane are Tom Kimber (mandolin, harmony vocal), Niles Krieger (fiddle, harmony and lead vocals), Bevan Morris (double bass), and Matthew Ord (guitar, lead and harmony vocals). While their CD Northbound – due for release on November 10th 2017 – draws on both British and North American traditional material, the arrangements lean generally towards the North American: indeed, if it were not for the absence of a banjo player, this would be a classic bluegrass line-up, and their sound generally reflects that sensibility. The songs are all traditional, but there are three instrumental tracks credited to Tom Kimber and one to bluegrass mandolin player Bill Monroe.
‘The Hills Of Mexico’ is one of those slightly morose songs in which the singer regrets a poor choice of occupation: lyrically, it has some lines that resemble ‘The Buffalo Skinners’. Nicely arranged, though sometimes the backing distracts from the vocal. The tune used here resembles the one recorded by Roscoe Holcomb.
‘Ain’t No More Cane’ is the well-known-prison song: the arrangement of this version, however, is closer to old-timey than to the Texas prison farms. It appears to owe much to the Band’s arrangement, though a little more sprightly and with much the same verses but in a different order. Nice harmonies, too. However, it doesn’t really convey the brutality of the environment from which the song arose.
‘Mind The Gap’ is an attractive instrumental set with a bluegrass feel, but credited to mandolinist Tom Kimber. Mandolin, fiddle, bass and guitar are all featured prominently in the course of the track.
‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ is a familiar version of the border ballad (Child 9), but rendered here with a bluegrass-y arrangement that gives it some freshness.
Title track ‘Northbound’ is an attractive tune by Tom Kimber with some impressive unison work from fiddle and mandolin, as well as spotlighting skilful lead work from fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as well as the usual solid basslines from Bevan Morris.
‘Northbound’ segues almost seamlessly into Kimber’s ‘Fivefold’. While there are sections in ‘Fivefold’ that recall tunes that are staples of Celtic dance music, there’s a fascinating individuality and complexity to the interplay between the instruments over jazzy bass riffs.
‘Sir Patrick Spens’ uses the tune from Christie’s Traditional Ballad Airs used on Nic Jones’s 1970 recording and many subsequent recordings. It’s a fine tune, and this version does it justice, vocally and instrumentally.
On ‘1845’, sometimes known as ‘The Morning of 1845’, fiddler Niles Krieger gets to take the vocal lead, and does so with credit.
‘Road To Columbus’ is the classic Bill Monroe tune, and the band does it justice.
‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Mourn?’ – more often heard as ‘Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan’ – is particularly notable for the rich acapella harmonies of the opening section, and the bowed bass and fiddle of the next section, but the athletic playing and changes of pace throughout ensure that the listener’s interest never flags. A delightfully upbeat end to the CD.
For me, the best part of this CD is the instrumental work. The press release suggests that the album was essentially recorded live as an ensemble, which perhaps explains its freshness, yet the arrangements are impressively complex: clearly these are excellent musicians who are very comfortable playing together. The vocals are very competent and appropriate to the arrangements, and while there are one or two songs that we have, perhaps, heard a little too much of over the years, all are well performed. This is an album that delivers good music and promises more. And I’d love to hear them live.
Great band name, Pons Aelius. To save you the trouble, the original was a small Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall so the name reflects their musical heritage: mostly Newcastle with more than a dash of Scots. Captain Glen’s Comfort, named for a tune by piper and whistle-blower Jordan Aikin and flautist Sam Partridge, is their debut album after two years on the road and that experience shows.
Alongside Aikin we have Partridge’s wooden flutes which provide softer shades to contrast with the brightness of strings. Tom Kimber plays mandolin and tenor banjo giving the band four different lead instruments. Actually, that should be five since Alasdair Paul’s bouzouki is as much a lead instrument as a rhythm one. Alasdair also plays guitar alongside Bevan Morris’ double bass and Callum Younger’s bodhran and mixed percussion.
The band’s repertoire mixes original compositions, mostly by Aikin, a couple of traditional titles and some shrewd borrowings, notably Mats Edén’s ‘Yrsnö’ which serves to remind us that they are looking outwards not inwards. It’s the variety of music and versatility of playing that singles Pons Aelius out. The title track starts out a soft pastoral flute piece that gradually picks up the pace and it’s followed by the jazz influenced ‘£75 Fine’ and ‘Oh My Doughnuts’, the first part of which is written by Morris and built around a bass figure.
In another band, Aikin’s pipe part on ‘£75 Fine’ might be played on electric guitar and ‘Oh My Doughnuts’ might use boogie-woogie piano. All through the album the emphasis of the melody shifts from instrument to instrument but they are never gimmicky. Listen to ‘Lament For John Morrison Of Assynt House’ in which the pipes are underscored by Morris’s bowed bass and topped off with Partridge’s flutes. My only criticism of the record is that the piece should have been left to stand alone rather than being paired with another tune even though the pipes return to the original theme at the end.
And as that really is my only criticism I think it’s fair to say that Captain Glen’s Comfort is a very fine debut.