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

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

‘Peace Or War’ – official video:

TOBIAH – Are We Angels (Star Music)

Are We AngelsAre We Angels is the first album to be released by Tobiah since Step Up in 2011.  Words like ethereal come to mind and many of the songs would not be out of place in musicals, as they do have a theatrical feel to them with lush orchestration backing Tobiah’s clear and beautiful vocals.

The title track is a song that sums up the album, being both about relationships and how music can be used to heal or express the world.  From the sleeve notes accompanying the album we discover that Tobiah lost her husband whilst still in her twenties, after just a few years of marriage, and it was the random acts of kindness from often complete strangers that helped her through those difficult times.  We can all be angels on occasions, is the message, and it’s the small things that count.  As she says “My songs are very visual, about experiences in my life or a story that has caught my imagination.  Lyrics are important – I could never write a song that didn’t move me”.

The opening track ‘Kiss Kiss’ could easily be one of the songs from a show I mentioned earlier.  It’s a love song about all those special moments in a relationship with the most special moment being the kiss because “nothing is better than that, nothing is more special than that”.  It’s a very moving piece that gives the warm, fuzzy feeling of a true love song.

Selecting tracks to mention in this review, from the nine on offer, has proven difficult because the standard is very high throughout but I will mention ‘Ancient Church’, inspired by an old stone church near Tobiah’s home.  Sitting in it she began to think about those who’d come before and had perhaps found comfort and inner peace in it’s age and stability through bad times and good.

I also have to mention ‘Apples – The Long Goodbye’ which originally started  as a song about the changes of the season but became a song about Tobiah’s mother who is in the final stages of dementia.  Despite the subject this isn’t a depressing song at all.  Time passes and fortune or fate can give both the bounty of an apple harvest or the slow passing of a loved one.  It’s all part of the world we live in and music such as this can reach out to people to help them make sense of that.

I was attracted to this album the first time I heard it and many plays later I still find it both beautiful and moving.  It’s an album for those times when you want to just pull back and spend some time in quiet and contemplation.  When the world starts to get get a little too much this is the one to play and  recharge the batteries, as so many of the feelings within it are ones we’ve encountered but can have problems expressing.  It’s a reminder we’re not alone and life goes on.

I’ve mentioned Tobiah’s strong vocal ability but adding immensely to the album are the musicians she has chosen to work with, who interpret her music with great style and sensitivity; Caroline Lavelle (cello), Colette O’Leary (piano accordion), Rowan Piggott (fiddle), Simon Callow (keyboards/percussion) and Kenneth Hope (piano).

The album will be launched on 10th May and will be available on both iTunes and Spotify.  There are also physical CDs but no details as yet of how to order.  All profits from the album will go to the charity Animals Asia, which Tobiah has been supporting for several year, having previous released a single ‘Moon Bear’ on their behalf.

Tony Birch

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

‘Moon Bear’:

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

Please support us and order via our UK or US Storefront 

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Physical link to the US Storehttps://folking.com/folking-us-storefront/

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

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

 Artist website: http://katiemelua.com/

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