KIRSTY ALMEIDA – Moon Bird (All Made Up)

Moon BirdKirsty Almeida is a writer and singer whose musical and personal journey has taken her around the world.  Born in Scotland, her father’s work has taken her to his home country of Gibraltar as well as the USA, Far East and South America.  She also joined orchestras and has studied both art and music as well as teaching choral pieces that involved fusions of classic and world influences.  If that wasn’t enough she has also been a backing singer for Atomic Kitten.  As you may imaging from this varied history her work is not going to neatly fit into one genre of music and her latest album Moon Bird, the first since Déjàvoodu in 2014, reflects that.

The nine tracks on Moon Bird are hard to pigeon-hole beyond “very good”.  They have an easy style which belies some of the themes explored and each song is presented well; production values are high here.

The album opens with ‘The Fire’ which is a deceiving simple piece, opening with guitar and piano overlaid with Kirsty’s voice before building layers.  Her voice is gentle and soothing, with just a trace of huskiness that allows emotions to be displayed.  On the surface this is a kitchen table song about a fire that won’t that light, but a deeper listening shows the real story a fading relationship where the spark has gone leaving only regret behind.

Following on from that rather downbeat start ‘Dance With Me’ is a love song that is rather beautiful, with lush strings and a flute highlighting the melody.

One of my favourite tracks on the album follows on from it.  ‘Josie Brown’ is a beautiful song about a young girl befriending the old lady of the title.  The beauty of this song is many fold.  The story of two generations, one looking back the other looking forward, would be enough on it’s own but the song finishes with the young girl being the first to find her friend dead in her home.  There are many things that could have been done with this but I think Kirsty got it right by keeping it stripped back and telling a story about life without overplaying the sadness of the situation.  We will all be Josie one day and she’s had a good life with a good friend at the end of it.  Again the main instrument is the voice and her distinctive style will be appreciated by anyone who appreciates quality singing, be it in a folk, blues or jazz setting.

The title track, ‘Moon Bird’, ups the tempo and rhythm.  There’s a Latin feel to the much fuller musical accompaniment with the vocals sitting back slightly. It makes a good change of pace and allows Kirsty to demonstrate her skills as a writer and arranger.

Closing out the album ‘Ode To a Parlour Guitar’ is a restful piece, a drawing of the curtain which doesn’t mainly feature a guitar but uses Kirsty’s voice as another instrument; there are no lyrics.

The overall impression of this album is very favourable.  There are seventeen other musicians listed but they add to and support the music rather than competing.  It’s one to listen to when you want to be reminded that the troubles in life are not unique, other people are going through the same thing but they get through it and become stronger as a result.  As a live performance I believe the audience would be entranced by the purity of Kirsty’s voice.  Every word is clear and expressed.

The album has now been released as is available through the artist’s website and there are also several chances to see it being played live, mainly in Lancashire and Yorkshire through February and March.

Tony Birch

Artist’s website: https://www.kirstyalmeida.co.uk/

‘Dance With Me’ – the single:

KIZZY CRAWFORD – The Way I Dream (Freestyle Records FSRCD128)

The Way I DreamKizzy Crawford has been making music for a while but her début album The Way I Dream is only just on the verge of being released and it’s been worth the wait.  When I first saw Kizzy she could have gone in several directions, including folk which she sings very well.  On this album she has taken a very different direction and produced something of quality that stands out from the crowd.  With a combination of soul and funk, even a bit of rap, it has a very strong commercial appeal and could well be the album that is the big breakthrough Kizzy deserves.  That’s why it needs to stand out because it’s a very crowded area, but the electronics and drums have been well mixed and produced so they compliment Kizzy’s voice rather than competing with it.  The lyrics are the most important element in every song on the album and they come through clearly.  Kizzy certainly has a voice that deserves to be heard, being very clear and nicely pitched.  She doesn’t have the biggest range but it’s warm and welcoming, drawing you in to the song.

The album opens with ‘Dive’, which is certainly a dance track and it is hard to listen to without moving.  ‘Real Love’, following it, is more upbeat in tempo and this variety continues through the album. ‘Progression’ is possibly my personal favourite, a song that bounces along and has all that excitement of youth but knowing there’s a lot more to come.  It’s another track you will find yourself moving to, especially during the chorus.

Kizzy has both Welsh and Bajan roots and both of these influence the album.  Two of the songs are in Welsh; ‘Achub Fi’ and ‘Adlewyrchu Arnaf’ but they stay in that modern style and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.  Any language has to move with the times and find an outlet that will appeal to people as a living thing.  Track 9, ‘Waiting Game’, is in English but has a Welsh rap in it; that may be a first but it certainly catches the attention.

I would recommend this album.  It’s different from what I normally listen to but I’ve played it far more than I needed to for for review purposes because it’s very good and I’ve enjoyed it.  It’s light and well paced and certainly brightens up the daily drive to work.

The Way I Dream is released on the 25th October and I haven’t seen a way of pre-ordering yet but it will be available through all the usual platforms as well as independent websites.

Tony Birch

Artist’s website: http://www.kizzymerielcrawford.com/

‘Adlewyrchu Arnaf’ – official video:

JAKE AARON – Fag Ash And Beer (own label)

Fag Ash And BeerYou should never judge a book by its cover, we’re told, and the same is true of album covers.  I took this album for review with a slight sense of trepidation.  As a title Fag Ash And Beer, along with a cover photo of Jake playing a guitar in his kitchen, fag in mouth, had me thinking I’d be listening to the sort of person you see in the corner of a pub playing well known standards.  Fortunately it turned out I was wrong.  Fag Ash And Beer is a well crafted set of eleven self-penned songs performed by Jake and a good backing band.

Opening the album ‘Elvis Has Left The Building’ is an instrumental introducing the band which builds from a bluesy guitar intro into a Hammond led piece of prog rock from Steve Lodder.  This is followed by the title track, a love song of sorts but with any sense of romance stripped away.  There’s neither wine nor roses whilst a cemetery with a broken tombstone becomes the trysting ground.

And the fag ash and beer wasn’t a sacrament

But it was pretty damn close.

This pattern of instrumental pieces is repeated through the album, with the last three tracks being all instrumental, an idea that grew from the original concept.  Initially Jake was recording acoustic material, which he was pretty happy with, but to reach the sound of ‘Give Me Your Horse’, the single from the album, “...I asked the players if they’d come in again to record a couple of live tracks and colour in some of the acoustic takes”.

It works well, giving a bigger sound than he would have had originally whilst retaining the acoustic sound and nu-folk feel, along with Jake’s singing style which is reminiscent of Mark Knopfler.

The instrumental pieces are on the album on merit, varying in style and tempo and showing Jake’s skill as a guitarist.  As a whole Fag Ash And Beer works well as a début album showcase for a writer and performer of high standard.  Checking out the social media there aren’t any live shows listed, either as a individual of for the band, which is a shame.  For now we’ll have to content ourselves with a recording that is available from the website as a CD or limited edition vinyl, or can be downloaded through Amazon and other streaming platforms.

Tony Birch

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

‘Elvis Has Left The Building’:

AMY HOPWOOD – All At Sea (own label)

All At SeaAmy Hopwood hails from the seaside town of Weymouth, in Dorset, so it makes sense that her inspiration would either come from the land or the sea.  As her album All At Sea makes abundantly clear this one comes from the sea.

Amy is certainly a folk singer and she has that straightforward style that is the mainstay of clubs and singarounds throughout the country, although she does it very much better than most. Along with Tobias Raven (who also recorded and mixed the album), and Coralie Hopwood on backing vocals the ten songs are very well presented and the voices take the lead.  Impressively seven of the songs are her own compositions, two are traditional and the final one is the well loved poem ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield set to music.

The sea has many faces and moods and one of the things I like about this album is how Amy explores these various facets.  Opening the album ‘Constant As The Sea’ is a love song about the one left behind on the shore.  This one, as with some of the others, has a simple chorus that is going to be picked up very easily by the audience and joined in with.

Sailors have always been suspicious, a topic investigated well in ‘The Call Of The Wind Witch’.  This is based, apparently, on a true superstition where wise women would sell knotted ropes to sailors about to set off on a voyage so they can try to control the wind .  Untie one knot for a gentle breeze, two knots for strong winds across the sea but never untie the third knot.  It’s a folk song, so it isn’t much of a spoiler alert to say that the third knot is eventually untied and they all die.

Just recently a report identified Blackpool as the most deprived area of the country and only a few streets away from the illuminations and arcades are huge social issues.  ‘The Seagulls Cried’ is based on a true story of a man who walked into the sea in the depths of winter, when both the sun and crowds have gone leaving only poverty and unemployment behind them.  In this case he was rescued by some onlookers although his eventual fate is unknown.  It’s a sobering song for those of us only only visit occasionally and imagine how wonderful it must be to live there.  Good music makes you think, and this is good music.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though.  ‘Throwing Stones At The Sea’ looks at that strange compulsion boys and men have of throwing stones.  We all do it, but none of us can explain why.  Is it an offering or a warning?  This song also demonstrates how well Amy matches music to words.  These men represent an army of people taking on a bigger power so the accompaniment is a military sounding snare drum.  On all the songs the backing is well matched, picking up on the mood of the piece.  Also very well done is ‘When The Boat Comes In’, with excellent harmonies and rounds between Amy and Coralie.

It was hard to decide which songs to not cover in this review because they’re all good.  As example of local singers doing what they do for the love of performing rather than fame you you’d be hard pushed to find something better.  On the strength of this album I hope I can get to see Amy and The Raven, as Amy and Tobias perform, one day in a club or at a festival.  In the meantime the album will have to do and I hope plenty of other people decide to join me in listening to it.  It can be purchased as a CD from Amy’s website, downloaded through Bandcamp or streamed on Spotify

Tony Birch

Artist’s website: http://www.amyhopwood.co.uk/

‘Constant As The Sea’ – official video:

STEELEYE SPAN – EST’D 1969 (Park Records PRKCD154)

Est'd 1969There are bands who seem to have always been there and have established a reputation that even allows them to break out into the mainstream on occasions.  Steeleye Span are one such band and this year they celebrate their 50th Anniversary with a brand new record Est’d 1969.  Perhaps you would expect some kind of retrospective and you might reasonably expect ‘All Around My Hat’ to appear at some stage.  However as lead vocalist Maddy Prior said in a recent radio interview, with Brian Player on Wey Valley Radio, “We’ve done a couple of “Best of..” type albums and I think we’ve covered that, and I thought for our 50th we should do something new.” They certainly have produced something new, and very good, being familiar enough for people who have followed them from the start to feel at home with whilst being fresh enough to appeal to new ears.

The album is a mixture of new songs, along with the traditional, but it has that distinctive sound of Steeleye Span to it.  The album opens with ‘Harvest’ and I’m sure that a lot of people, without knowing in advance who the band are, would recognise them within ten seconds.  If they didn’t get it from that then after twenty seconds there would be no doubt at all in their minds.  A close harmony opening, very reminiscent of ‘Gaudete’, gives way to a rollicking folk song that is going to go down a storm at festivals and live shows with a chorus you can’t help but sing along to “And we’ll roar out, roar out, roar out our harvest home.

Of the nine track on the album it’s difficult to pick which ones to talk about because there’s such a range across it.  Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’ is dominated by Maddy Prior’s voice, deeper than it was but still beautiful, and with a surprisingly detailed backing that doesn’t detract from the words.

Of the traditional songs ‘The Boy And The Mantle’ (Child Ballad 29) is an saga lasting over six minutes and demonstrates the best of prog rock folk, with a harpsichord and electric guitars adding to the effect.

Although the track listing is nine there are actually ten tracks as ‘Domestic’ has two songs in it, the second of which gratifyingly starts with “As I walked out one May morning” to show without doubt folk is the heart of Steeleye Span’s music.  This also harks back to The Silly Sisters, being a song Maddy used to sing with June Tabor.  The men don’t particularly come out well on either track.

Est’d 1969 has a huge range, different styles and tempos and new band members bringing their own influences but retaining the core sound in an evolution rather than rebellion.  Over fifty years cycles begin to appear so Benji Kirkpatrick is now part of the band, following in father John’s footsteps.   Given all the changes how is that sound maintained?  Maddy Prior again “It’s very interesting having new people, young people, who don’t know a lot about traditional music…they think they know what it is before they join us and then they discover it’s much more complex than that”.

There are a couple of chances to see Steeleye Span play at festivals over the summer but then also a major tour in November and December; full details are on the website.  If you can’t wait until then to get Est’d 1969, and you shouldn’t, it’s released on 28th June and is available from Park Records

Happy Birthday, Steeleye Span, 50 years young and still making a huge contribution to the folk scene.  Long may it continue.

Tony Birch

 Artist’s website: http://steeleyespan.org.uk/

‘Harvest’ – live:

HEADSTICKS – Kept In The Dark (STP Records Group STP056)

Kept In The DarkDefining or categorising music can sometimes be difficult.  If you Google Headsticks you find them defined as Alternative/Indie.  Their website, however, says  FOLK, PUNK, ROOTS, REVOLUTION. The website is probably a better definition of the music to be found on their new album Kept In The Dark.  Headsticks formed in 2012 and although they have built their reputation through live performance the back catalogue of two studio albums, two studio EPs and a live album in that time show they’re more than willing to get their music out to a wide audience.

Kept In The Dark is impressive before even a note has been played, being produced in the style of a hardback children’s book although I suspect the mushrooms on the front cover aren’t the sort found in a Sunday breakfast. Mushrooms are the image of this album because they’re kept in the dark and fed on…  Inside, the clearly printed lyrics are interspersed with photos from live shows and you can sense the energy and raw power the band brings to those.  The band, incidentally, are Andrew Tranter (lead vocals), Stephen Dunn (guitar & vocals), Nick Bayes (bass & vocals) and Tom Carter (drums & vocals).  So the album cover looks and feels good, with a lot of thought and production in the packaging, but what of the music?

The intro to track one ‘When?’ lasts three seconds then straight into driving guitar and drums with the first lyric being a screamed “yeah!” and we’re off.    Back to production values the lyrics sit well above the instruments so every word is crystal clear and Taylor doesn’t rush to get them out at the expense of enunciation.  The concept of punk, after the genre started to worry about gold discs, found a natural home in folk music because it was stories about ordinary people wanting to be heard. Headsticks have got something to say and they make sure you hear it.

A thought provoking track, one very relevant to now, is ‘The Song For Song’s Sake’ with a great chorus.

This is the song it’s the song for songs sake
It doesn’t mean nothing cus we’ve got nothing to say
This is the song and it don’t mean nothing
Singing la la la, hey hey hey…”

In each verse there’s a dichotomy so people are sitting around the festival fire pit, you can almost hear the bongos and see the dreadlocks, whilst across the world there’s another disaster unfolding as we sit “drinking whiskey with a steampunk pirate”.

The album is full of these insights.  ‘Out Of Fashion’ is certainly a dig at the slactivists we all know, perhaps even are.

Get angry with the TV?
Point our fingers at the screen?
Whilst we post our latest status,
of the false lives we all dream?

I’ve quoted far more lyrics already than I normally do in a review because this is an album where the words are important and ‘Out Of Fashion’ is spoken word rather than sung but this album is also worth listening to for the music which is good and tight.  Perhaps the biggest difference in this latest evolution of punk is that people can play the instruments and give us musically good songs without losing the edge.  I’d love to see this band at a festival because I know the audience will be moving and throwing themselves in to it completely.  The buzz of a live performance must be incredible.

So is it punk? Or folk? Or roots?  Yes, to all of them.  These are story songs with an arc and chosen to be played amplified and electronically but some of the tracks, ‘All Of The Trees’ for example, would work well acoustically.   With sixteen tracks on the albums there’s plenty of variety.

Should you buy Kept In The Dark?  Yes, unambiguously.  I love traditional music and, at it’s heart, this is an album of traditional music for the 21st century.  It can be bought as both CD and vinyl from the artist’s website as well as the usual platforms.

Tony Birch

Artist’s website: http://www.headsticks.co.uk

‘Peace Or War’ – official video: