FLOOK – Ancora (Flatfish 006)

Ancora“Ancora impara” said Michaelangelo, aged 82, and I probably don’t need to tell you that means “I am always learning”.  [I suspect you might – Ed.] That’s something that Flook have taken on board with their first album since Haven in 2005. Flook didn’t go away in those 14 years, playing festivals, live shows and tours so why the lack of studio material? As Brian Finnegan says, “We…took a break in 2008, followed our hearts and instincts and went our separate ways; had kids, got hitched, loved, lost, explored the musical world…” Now they’re back with a Ancora, an album that shows that even iconic bands don’t rest on their laurels but continue to look for the new. This album will delight their many fans, attract new ones and be listened to by anyone who loves tradition as played by four experts.

Flook formed over 20 years ago, winning Best Band at the BBC Folk Awards in 2006 and at their heart still retain original flute and pipers Sarah Allen and Brian Finnegan, now joined by Ed Boyd (guitar, piano) and John Joe Kelly (bodhran). As well as the band the album includes a who’s who of guest musicians including Phil Cunningham, Philip Henry, Patsy Reid and Niall Murphy. There’s even Mark Tucker playing the theramin. The quality shines through and every track, none traditional, on the album is spot on. Hang on, didn’t I say the traditionalists will love it? Yes, I did because tradition doesn’t just mean it has to have been around for years. The 12 tracks on the album are formed from twenty tunes of which the majority are written by Allen and Finnegan but they also use works of contemporaries such as Jarleth Henderson, Sam Lakeman and John McSherry. It’s a living, breathing tradition.

The overall impression of the album is quality musicianship. The playing is precise and tight, they make it sound all very easy and natural, with the music flowing seamlessly. As an album of purely instrumental work it gives you, as the listener, a choice of dipping in and out or listening straight through. I’ve found it ideal to put into the car stereo for the trip to work, it has a running time of just under 50 minutes, and arriving in a much better frame of mind than I would normally do. Opening the album are two tunes by Finnegan; ‘Reel For Rubik’ and ‘Toward The Sun’. As expected the flutes dominate but the piece moves up through tempo and intensity and introducing the other instrumentalists.

This change in pace and style is common throughout the album, but never becomes rollicking. Probably my favourite piece, although a difficult choice to make, is Allen’s ‘Companion Star’ which is absolutely beautiful. It flows so well, at a gentle pace, and it’s very easy to imagine oneself on a boat just drifting along following that star. The segue into ‘Coral Castle’, co-written by Finnegan and Ashley Broder lifts the pace and introduces further instruments but again the title fits the piece, and anyone who has dived a coral reef will recognise the rhythm of life within it. .
I could easily have chosen ‘Turquoise Girl’ as another favourite track. This is a set of four tunes by four different composers, again flowing smoothly, with a faster pace that certainly gets the toes tapping. I can imagine it going down very well during a live performance.

This is certainly an album you should buy, a milestone from an iconic band, and get it now so that you can say you had it before the inevitable awards come along, because it will gain many Instrumental Album of the Year plaudits if there’s any justice in the world.

The album will be released on April 12th but is available to pre-order now through the website. Alternatively I’m certain it will be available at live shows and Flook will be taking it on tour throughout 2019, covering most of the country from Findhorn to Sidmouth.

Tony Birch

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‘Reel For Rubik/Unto The Sun’ – live:

VISHTÈN – Horizons (PTVISH18)

HorizonsThe East Coast of Canada is a mix of cultures that have retained their ancestral background whilst forming an overall whole.  There are influences from all parts of the British Isles and France.  The French influence is still very strong, especially in the area still referred to as Acadie and music plays a big part in that tradition.  Vishtèn hail from Prince Edward Island where this mixing is still evident today in accents and names that vary from town to town.  Horizons, Vishtèn’s sixth album,  reflects these different influences and more besides.  It is, in the very best sense of the word, an album based on tradition but one that adapts to the current world and is ready to move into the future.

Vishtèn are multi-instrumentalists Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc and Pascal Miousse.  For over a decade they’ve been playing and writing music based on their backgrounds but also picking up influence from the Celtic sounds of the Canadian east and mixing in rock and indie-folk.  All of that is represented, there’s even a bit of swing, in the eleven tracks on the album which is always a good sign that the music is evolving and developing.

The majority of the eleven tracks on Horizons are based on traditional Arcadian songs and all lyrics are in French.  With a bit of time and Google Translate I could have turned them into English but why?  Instead I let the lyrics become part of the song, the other advantage is that the emotions of the piece become much clearer and you get a better feel for the range on display.

The album opens with ‘Elle Tempête’, an adaptation of a traditional song with a driving fiddle backing that immediately gets the feet tapping.  They’re going to stay that way for most of the album.  Following up ‘J’aime Vraiment Ton Accent’ are two reels, the first led by accordian and piano which is an unusual combination that brings in a jazz feel, the second is a more usual fiddle led piece.

There are eleven tracks on the album and they’re all good, so it’s difficult to pick out the highlights but I particularly enjoyed ‘L’hemite’, again an up tempo piece and making good use of foot percussion by Emanuelle Leblanc.  For those of you who’ve not come across this before it’s big part of French Canadian music and best described as sitting down tap dancing, which really drives a tune along.

Following it is another instrumental piece written by Pastelle and changes pace from the previous tracks.  It’s a lyrical piece, almost an air, led by the flute and based on her grandfather’s stories of mermaids.  This change of pace and styles is something that occurs throughout the album a very enjoyable listen.

The mix of instruments on the album is also impressive, all members of the band are multi-instrumentalists and whilst only Emmanuelle and Pastelle add vocals their voices are well balanced, giving good harmonies.

It’s an album I thoroughly enjoyed listening to and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys traditional music with a difference to it.  It isn’t just another Celtic album but has a flavour of that sets it apart.

The album can be downloaded or purchased in hard copy through the artist’s website and there’s a tour of Scotland and England in between Jan 24th and Feb 10th to coincide with the UK release date of 25th January

Tony Birch

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 Artist’s website: http://vishten.net/

‘J’aime Vraiment Ton Accent’ – live:

HOLLIE HAINES – Letters To My Last Love (own label)

Letters To My Last LoveHollie Haines is a songwriter and singer from London who I’ve not come across before, so I had no idea what to expect from this first release although I assumed that with a title like Letters To My Last Love it wasn’t going to be an album of drinking songs.  There also isn’t a title track so what I found was a concept album, over seven songs, with a good story arc relating the breakup of a relationship and the establishment of a new one.  It follows the standard format of a change curve that anybody who has studied management theory would recognise.

Opening the album are three songs that very much represent the denial that comes with realising that things aren’t right.  ‘Except For You’ has the narrator in a relationship that appears to provide the only stability in her life and where everyone leaves her apart from the significant other but even here there’s a feeling something is going wrong.  This is the most downbeat song on the album, with an almost pleading sense of need to it.  The next track ‘Like I Used To’ is the end of the relationship when she finally realises she never knew the person at all and with ‘All You Did’ comes the  time to make a break and with it the recriminations.  It’s a song that’s both bitter and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Track 4, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, is not a cover but a rather lovely song about finding yourself on your own and the fear that comes with it.  There’s also that siren voice saying that perhaps things weren’t so bad after all, and certainly no worse than they are now.

After that comes the acceptance and the start of moving on.  In ‘I Got Through, Babe’ there’s the realisation that the worse is over, she got through the pain and is making a new start, even to the extent of sending the ex’s things back.  Finally there’s a glimmer of hope and the tone of the music changes to a more upbeat tempo and stronger voice.  Things get ‘Better’ on track six lifts and the pace lifts even more, this is almost a pop number.  Now happier on her own she’s even able to wish the ex well, hoping he’s also happy and moving on.

Finally there’s a new love in ‘Mine’, which is a very beautiful ballad.  With possibly a triumph of hope over experience there’s somebody new and all that excitement of love which this time will be the one.

In this album Hollie has made a very good job of showcasing her talent and range, with all the tracks self-written.  She’s got a very good voice, clear and with power when needed, delicacy and a real ability to sing emotions.  Hollie describes herself as alt-folk which is a very popular genre.  Basically it means, as folk always has, story songs where the lyrics are the most important element but without restricting influences from other genres.  The backing also varies well across the tracks, starting with lots of bass strings before progressing into lighter tones. The whole thing sound tight and well produced.  I would say that to get the full benefit of the story this is an album that should be listened to in one sitting rather than dipping in and out.  It’s made the drive to and from work quite a pleasure over the last couple of days.

As a début album it’s one to be applauded and I can say we have another good female singer-songwriter who will hopefully make an impression on the live circuit.  There are already a few live dates for early 2019 up on the website, mostly around the South-East, and the album is certainly good enough to have encouraged me to buy a ticket for one of them.  The album was released on  23rd November and is available to buy on iTunes and Amazon as a download.  I can’t see how to get hold of the physical album, except possibly at a live show.

Tony Birch

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Artist’s website: https://www.holliehaines.com/

‘Like I Used To’ – live session:

KATIE MELUA – Live at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster

Katie Melua and choirs
Photographs by Tony Birch

Westminster Central Hall is an impressive venue in an impressive building.  Built in 1912 the Great Central Hall has a capacity of 2,300 who sit beneath the largest self-supporting domed ceiling of its kind in Europe.  It’s a big venue that needs a big artist to fill it and Katie Melua did exactly that on December 8th  in a show that confirms she is one of the best popular singers around.  I had to check exactly how long she’s been in the public eye and was quite amazed to see that her début album Call Off The Search was released in late 2003 and there have been six more albums since.

Despite that, and the obvious loyal following she has, Katie remains a very down-to-earth performer.  There’s no big build up, no MC encouraging the audience.  Instead, as I’ve seen her do before, she quietly enters a darkened stage and starts on the first song with just her and a guitar. The audience were immediately captured, “their Katie” was back on home territory and they loved it.

Katie lets her music do the talking so there are no long stories or introductions, we didn’t get an “Hello” until after song three.  Instead we had twenty songs over two sets, and then the encores.  The show was beautifully paced with plenty of movement on the stage to break the evening up.  As well as her sole songs she had her band consisting of Tim Harries (bass),  Mark Edwards (keys), Nicky Hustinx (drums) and little brother Zurab Melua (guitar) being used in different combinations.  In addition we were also introduced to the Gori Women’s Choir from Katie’s home country of Georgia and who featured on her 2016 album In WinterThe choir consisted of fifteen members plus conductor Shalva Mosidze.  They made a wonderful contribution to the evening.

Katie MeluaWith that many people the staging had to provide a backdrop rather than completion and this was done through animations by Karni & Saul which were muted and restful.  It took me a while to get in to them but they did complement the music which was, of course, of the highest standard.  Although, as mentioned, the songs weren’t introduced most were familiar to the audience and several were greeted with applause including ‘Belfast’ from that very first album and ‘Nine Million Bicycles’.  Of course ‘Closest Thing To Crazy” made an appearance and I was half expecting a sing-a-long, but it wasn’t that kind of evening although it got a huge cheer at the end.  The audience were quite quiet, they’d come to listen, and even the one shout out was noted by Katie as being “very polite”!  Only ‘The Flood’ encouraged a slight clapping along, and that was rewarded with a smile.

In an evening of such lovely music there were some stand-outs away from the big hits.  ‘The Carol Of The Bells’ (Shchedryk) was beautifully presented with just Katie and the choir but I think it was ‘Diamonds Are Forever’; was the one that really caught me by surprise.  We’re all used to Shirley Bassey’s belting anthem to avarice but Katie turns it into a rather bittersweet song of somebody who has probably learnt the hard way that men are not to be trusted so only diamonds give the permanence she seeks.  The evening ended with a well deserved call for an encore and ‘What A Wonderful World’ was a suitable choice, greeted with a standing ovation.  It was a wonderful evening that left a very satisfied audience who will no doubt be back for more in the future.

Before finishing, there are several mentions to be made.  Support came from London based Keeva, who impressed me with her soulful voice and good presentation of her songs.  She’s somebody who is now on my watch list to see again.   Bryony October did an excellent job on sound balancing, at times, sixteen voices and five instruments none of which ever dominated.  Thanks are also due to Sue Harris at Republicmedia for her help and chasing down the photo pass, and to the staff at Central Hall who were unfailingly helpful throughout.

Tony Birch

 Artists’ websites: http://katiemelua.com/
https://www.keeva-music.com/

Katie Melua and The Gori Womens Choir – ‘Carol Of The Bells’:

CAITLIN KING – Flower Crown (SoSlam)

Flower CrownMusicians, like policemen, are looking younger and there is a new young musician on the beat.  Southend-on-Sea based Caitlin King has only just turned 16 and has released a début EP Flower Crown which shows a lot of promise.

Caitlin has been writing since she was 12 and it’s encouraging to see that all five tracks on the EP are her own compositions.  That’s a brave choice as the temptation must be to put a couple of well known covers in, but it also means that the performer has a chance to establish their own identity and not bind themselves to a particular genre.

I would pitch this album in the folk realm, as the songs are very personal, but it certainly isn’t just a folk album.  It has to be mentioned that Caitlin may lack years but has experienced loss in her life, which influences two of the tracks in particular.

‘Metaphor’, the opening number, is about facing loss and having to deal with that the time leading towards it where hope begins to fade and praying for the best doesn’t work. This track is quite pop orientated and is the only one that has a drum accompaniment.

‘In The Wilderness’, which follows it, is musically a much simpler track with just voice and guitar and is very much a song of somebody whose life is starting to take on a new direction and with new distractions such as relationships.  It has more of a folk feel and is rather beautiful.

‘Heal your Heart’ is a song that also refers back to Caitlin’s loss but what this song has in common with ‘Metaphor’ is that it has a positive message that throughout everything love remains and that love becomes part of the healing process.

For ‘Flower Crown’ Caitlin accompanies herself on piano. There a blues feel in a song about basically about love and being there for people and has an impressive build before ending with a gentle outro.

‘Like You Once Did’ returns back to the folk idiom and can also be considered a love song although the love isn’t happy and fulfilling.  Interestingly this song also includes spoken words, which is something not often heard in songs and yet it works very well here.  Hearing Caitlin’s real voice, with even a few “you know’s” thrown in for good measure, does bring home how young she is.

Caitlin’s voice, as with the songs, can vary across the tracks.  She’s certainly capable of putting on an accent that would not be out of place in a jazz bar but she also has a simpler and, for me, more natural sound that is very pleasant.  As a début this EP does exactly what it should.  Caitlin has set out her stall and showcased her talents well.  There’s a good range of skills on display and she’s not afraid to experiment, but also manages to avoid the trap of attempting to over-complicate things for effect. It’s a very promising start, from somebody learning their trade the right way, and I think there is more to come.

The album was released at the end of 2017 and is now available to download or stream through various platforms including iTunes and Amazon.

Tony Birch

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Artist’s website: https://www.facebook.com/caitlinkingmusic/

‘Flower Crown’ – official video:

BRONA McVITTIE – Live at the Tea House Theatre, Vauxhall, London

Brona McVittie - live
Photograph by Tony Birch

London is a city divided by the Thames, so “heading south of The River” always adds a little something to an occasion.  In this case it was only just south, to the Tea House Theatre based in an old Victorian public house that opened in 1886 on the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens as immortalised as the ‘Vanity Fair’ in Thackeray’s novel.  The occasion was the album launch of Brona McVittie’s We Are The Wildlife.

This is Brona’s début album, although she has appeared before on albums as a member groups including the London Lasses and neo-impressionist outfit littlebow, and it is very good.  There was no supporting act for the show, but some excellent backing musicians were used as required on each song so we had almost a series of scenes and the stage was well laid out to allow easy access and exit meaning it ran very smoothly.

The evening opened with just Brona and her harp for ‘Newry Mountain’, a traditional Irish piece featured on the album that is a very gentle love song, and so eased us in to the evening.  I say it was just voice and instrument but here we have a traditionalist who lets tradition guide rather than dictate how the music sounds.  As is so often the case these days electronics were used on most tracks either for effects or to provide a backing.  When done well, as it was here, that isn’t something I have problems with as I’m sure Turlough O’Carolan would have been interested if such devices had been around in his time.  After all, some of his contemporaries considered him too modern.

The second song of the evening also nodded to tradition, with ‘When The Angels Wake You’ based on a Yeats poem and backed by Myles Cochran on lap slide and the opening track to the album.  Yeats is a poet whom Brona uses for inspiration and that wasn’t the last poem of his to make an appearance, although we had to wait until the end for ‘The Jug Of Punch’, a parting song with is heard less frequently than ‘The Parting Glass’ but is every bit as good.

Brona is fortunate to be able to call of some terrific backing musicians, in addition to Myles Cochran, and they made a huge contribution to the evening.  Flautists Anne Garner and Keiron Phelan swapped places, with Anne also providing backing vocals alongside Barbara Marion whilst  Hutch Demouilpied’s sensitive trumpet playing fitted in perfectly. As already mentioned this mixing of sounds and players kept the evening fresh as you never knew what was coming next.

Of course, every song featured Brona and her harp so there was a common theme.  Brona’s voice compliments her chosen instrument so well with its gentle lilt and gossamer application.  This also reflects back into the songs which often have a sense of not being quite of this world.  ‘Under The Pines’ is a good example of this.  The inspiration for the song was a walk in the woods, past some dog kennels where the dog’s barks echoed off the trees so the sound became a surround rather than have a distinct direction.  Reality and fantasy collided and there were occasions where we, as the audience, weren’t quite sure which realm we were inhabiting but it certainly wasn’t part of South London surrounded by flats.

Yeats even managed to inspire an instrumental piece on the album which deserves mention for its title of heroic proportions.  ‘The Vast And Vague Extravagance That Lies At The Bottom Of  The Celtic Heart’ drew on most of the band and this slow, lilting piece brought soft rain and gentle landscapes readily to mind.

Music can touch many emotions but this evening left a feeling of quiet relaxed satisfaction, as if leaving a dreamscape you long to return to and We Are The Wildlife is a perfect of example of traditional sounding Irish music that has found a new lease of life and vigour in recent years.  The album is now available through the artist’s website or other platforms including Amazon and Rough Trade, but if you get the chance I would strongly recommend buying it at a live show.

Finally, credit must go to the sound man for the evening, Mark Thompson, who did an excellent job balancing up instruments and voices with very different ranges, as well as joint promoters Graham Smallwood of FolkonMonday and Karen Ryan of Irish Music and Dance in London.

Tony Birch

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Artist’s website: http://bronamcvittie.corkbots.com/