SINGLES BAR 30 – a round-up of recent EPs and singles

Singles Bar 30Following on from 2016’s Trick Star, accompanied by Steve Mayone on mandolin and nylon string guitar, pedal steel player Chris Tarrow, Jason Mercer on upright bass and Alex Hargreaves providing fiddle, ANNIE KEATING’s latest is a five-track collection of road songs originated from last year’s European tour. It opens with the title track, ‘Ghost Of The Untraveled Road’, a Dylanish mid-tempo waltzer about listening to a song on an Italian radio station, understanding the sense if not the word, sparking ‘busy bees’ in her a thinking about how things might have turned out differently (“Should I think of you fondly, or not much at all?/Shall I cherish confessions of bury them all?”) had she taken different paths.

Reflectiveness also feeds into the gently jogging country breeze of the fiddle-accompanied ‘Forever Loved’, Hargreaves again adding colour and texture to the wearied ‘Kindness Of Strangers’, essentially a song about how the warmth and hospitality of those you meet along the way can keep you going. There’s more musing introspection about the past on ‘Sting of Hindsight’, another fiddle-led waltzer with pedal steel streaks as she ponders “Maybe I’m built for a life on the road” and concludes that all you can do is “Be here, let go of regret”. It ends all too soon with such regret riding the mournful pedal steel and fiddle tide on “Forget My Name”, the chorus shading the song’s Nanci Griffiths colours with hints of Tom Petty.

There’s a sense that the EP is about refocusing herself and reminding why she’s committed herself to making music and spending on the road, and of the grace notes that balance the times when it all seems like a weight. As such, she’s clearly emerged at the right end of the tunnel and hopefully a new full length will be on the not too distant horizon.

Through The FayreWe featured THE MEADOWS in these pages back in 2015. They are a young family quartet from Wales who recently sent us their debut EP, Through The Fayre, five songs about or set in fairs, although for some reason they play ‘Carrickfergus’ as an instrumental. Actually, it’s very good with Fantasia Meadows’ piano and Melody Meadows’ flute dominating a delightfully pastoral sound. They open with ‘Brigg Fair’, effectively a vocal solo by Titania Meadows, followed by ‘Scarborough Fair’. ‘She Moved Through The Fayre’ features vocal harmonies by the three sisters over Harvey Meadows’ electric guitar for a very different sound and we hear more of Harvey as he takes the lead vocal on the final ‘Star Of The Country Down’ at a cracking pace.

UnpluggedTHE GRAVITY DRIVE are a married couple, Elijah and Ava Wolf, from the south-west. While working on their second album, they also chose to record a back-to-basics EP, Unplugged, to showcase acoustic versions of four songs. They begin with ‘No One’s Gonna Tell You’ – a fairly basic guitar strum with minimal but perfectly judged decoration and their two voices alternating and harmonising some clever lyrics. Potential for a real ear-worm here. There is also some nice amplified acoustic lead on ‘Candle In The Dark’ and more clever lyrics (“only love can be your candle in the dark”) over a rolling country melody. ‘What Is Love’ has a very Dylanish guitar – if Elijah had gone into ‘All Along The Watchtower’ I wouldn’t have been surprised – until Ava takes over with a 1930’s feel about her share of the vocals. Finally, ‘Breakheart Hill’ has the feeling of traditional Americana – in a full arrangement it would cry out for pedal steel or mouth harp.

Kete BowersLiverpool singer-songwriter KETE BOWERS has a new two self-released track single well worth seeking out. ‘Northern Town’ is a confessionally sung, spare, moody five minute strum about drinking to numb heartache, which only takes you deeper into depression, the lyrics extending to parallel this with a sketch of a town that’s sunk into the same state with “Boards on the windows and nailed shut doors/Broken benches where men sat and talked/No dreams to dream here anymore.” The same idea extends to ‘A Town With No Cheer’, which, evocative of Springsteen’s bare-bone acoustic work, spins a haunting image of broken hopes and dreams (“the ghost of banjo Harry picking out some lonesome tune/When we were young we’d shoot for the moon/Now nothing here is sacred and there’s little or no regard”) in a former ship-building town brought to its knees and the emotional numbness that has swallowed up both it and those that live there, stripped of faith and drowning in drink and despair.

The Wind Blows ByAmerican singer/songwriter JOEY COSTELLO releases what would seem to be his debut EP, The Wind Blows By, although he has a fair number of singles to his name. What is immediately apparent is the sincerity of his approach to his music but it isn’t matched by the production. There is an unacceptable amount of guitar squeal, particularly on the lead track and a shrillness that leads to reaching for the volume control. His vocal style has been likened to those of Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne so if you like them you’ll probably like Joey too. There are some decent songs here but too much getting in the way of them.

Black FeathersCurrently working on their new album, BLACK FEATHERS offer a taster of things to come with ‘The Ghosts Have Eaten Well’ (own label) Sian Bradley and Ray Hughes duetting on a catchy acoustic uptempo rootsy Americana number, the evocative title a metaphor for the dangers of being consumed a constant reflection on regret and guilt that cannot be changed but which prevent you from moving on.

Last SwallowVeteran singer-songwriter, guitarist and sound engineer ROSS PALMER has a new four-track EP, Last Swallow. The lead track is a wistful, acoustic reflection on lost love but ‘Make It Last’ picks up the pace a bit with a bigger arrangement including electric guitar and drums. There’s no indication as to who is playing what but Ross is probably doing most of it although Melanie Crew is prime suspect for the female voice. Ross doesn’t really do rock’n’roll so ‘Separated By Water’ and ‘Ghosts & Echoes’ are very much in the same style. An album is expected later this year.

HengistburyUK country duo HENGISTBURY have released their debut single, ‘What Folks Don’t Know’ available as a download with a limited number of CDs. There’s sprightly banjo under Jessie Mary’s vocals while the ‘B-side’, ‘My Body Ain’t A Temple’ boasts a bigger arrangement with piano. It’s all very nice but quoting “shining like a National guitar” is a bit naughty.

UB40 FEATURING ALI, ASTRO AND MICKEY – Unplugged + Greatest Hits (UMC)

ub40 unpluggedThe Unplugged album (along with the Greatest Hits compilation), by the band calling itself UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey, means that UB40’s current status deserves and requires a little clarification.

In 2008, frontman Ali Campbell left the band, followed soon after by keyboard player Mickey Virtue, and in 2013 by percussionist and vocalist Astro. In due course, the three of them were reunited in the line-up represented on the Unplugged CD. Meanwhile, Ali’s brother Duncan replaced Ali as the original band’s vocalist.

There now seem to be two versions of UB40, with some tension between the two bands resulting in a still unresolved legal dispute over the use of the name and some muted verbal sparring on their respective websites.

The Unplugged CD which is the main subject of this review is the work of the three core members of the newer incarnation of the band, Ali, Astro and Mickey, and consists of re-recorded interpretations of hit singles recorded by UB40, or on which UB40 members (especially Ali Campbell) were featured. The Greatest Hits CD, on the other hand, consists entirely (as far as I can tell – I only have promotional copies) of original recordings by the band as it existed for most of its life up to 2008, and which did, of course, also include Ali, Astro and Mickey.

First of all, I’ll look at the Unplugged CD: where an earlier version of a track is featured on Greatest Hits, though, it seems reasonable to compare the two versions rather than consider them in isolation.

  1. ‘Kingston Town’ revisits the 1970 song by Lord Creator which was a hit for UB40 in 1989 and also features on the Greatest Hits CD. The arrangement is essentially a stripped down version of the older version, with guitar taking the lead part and piano taking the rhythm part. The vocal part proves that Ali’s voice hasn’t lost its charm. However, the unplugged recording suffers from the lack of the heavy underlying bass guitar part characteristic of so many reggae recordings (including the 1989 UB40 version). And I don’t think it gains from the extended outro.
  2. Neil Diamond’s song ‘Red Red Wine’, like the older version, owes its reggae flavouring to Tony Tribe’s 1969 version. This update has a ‘toasting’ talk-over by Astro, as did the original version on the 1983 album Labour Of Love. The version found on the Greatest Hits CD seems to be the shorter, toastless1983 single.
  3. Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, like the original, has a somewhat gospel-y feel enhanced by the organ backing. It doesn’t reproduce the synthesizer parts or backing vocals of the older version.
  4. This version of Eddy Grant’s ‘Baby Come Back’ doesn’t particularly resemble the Equals version from the ’60s, but revisits the 1994 version by Pato Banton that featured Robin and Ali Campbell, and again features Banton.
  5. Elvis Presley’s ballad ‘(I Can’t help) Falling In Love With You’ was written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss, though the melody is essentially that of ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini (also known as Martini il Tedesco). This re-working follows the 1993 version by UB40 rather than Presley’s (or Martini’s!) – that version is included on the Greatest Hits CD.
  6. ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince, reworks the version by Ali Campbell (previously recorded for Radio Riddler’s Purple Reggae album. It’s not on the Greatest Hits CD.
  7. Sonny Bono’s ‘I Got You Babe’, originally a hit for Sonny and Cher and later a hit for UB40 with Chrissie Hynde, is here re-recorded with Ali’s daughter Kaya Campbell taking the female vocal part.
  8. The first UB40 original on this CD is ‘One In Ten’, a song of social commentary said to refer to a contemporary statistic: 9.6% of the workforce in the West Midlands was said to be claiming benefits in the summer of 1981. It does a good job of expressing the prevailing alienation and polarization of the time. The guitar part lacks expression compared to the atmospheric sax on the original recording, but the harmonies are as strong as ever.
  9. ‘Homely Girl’ is another reworking of a UB40 cover version of the 1974 Chi-Lites hit. However, the jaunty reggae arrangement has more in common with the Inner Circle arrangement. The Unplugged version is notable for substituting some in-your-face but smiley melodica for the subdued synth on the Greatest Hits version.
  10. ‘Please Don’t Make Me Cry’ is a Winston Tucker song originally covered on the Labour Of Love album, and not included on Greatest Hits. This also includes some melodica, presumably played by Astro, and it’s surprisingly effective.
  11. ‘Food For Thought’ was the first UB40 single (that version being included on here on Greatest Hits). On the Unplugged version, the original saxophone parts are approximated on guitar and the vocals seem further forward in the mix. While I miss the sax, I prefer the vocal balance here.
  12. ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ is yet another cover version, this time of a lightweight but very popular song by Eric Donaldson. The lighter arrangement for the Unplugged version allows more focus on the vocal hooks than the version from Labour Of Love (also included on Greatest Hits.
  13. ‘Rat In Mi Kitchen’ was apparently written by Astro about a rat in Ali’s kitchen… Both versions are entirely listenable, but the brass on the Greatest Hits version, including trumpet from Herb Alpert, does give it some extra oomph.
  14. ‘Tyler’, originally recorded on UB40’s 1980 debut album, is based on the disturbing case of Gary Tyler, who served 41 years in prison in Louisiana before being released in 2016. The older version isn’t included on Greatest Hits, but the Unplugged version works very well with its minor melody and plaintive melodica riff.
  15. ‘You Could Meet Somebody’ is a re-recording of a UB40 original originally released on the Rat In The Kitchen album, and not included on Greatest Hits. This is another track with melodica to the fore and pleasant harmonies, though the lead vocal is a little nasal.
  16. ‘That’s Supposed To Hurt’ is from Ali Campbell’s first post-UB40 solo album, Flying High. A pleasant end to the CD.

Many of the tracks on the Greatest Hits compilation were re-recorded for Unplugged, so I won’t consider those tracks again below. The remaining tracks, however, are as follows.

  • ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ was the follow-up to ‘I Got You Babe’. Unusually for this collection, it sounds more New Romantic than reggae.
  • ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ was written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers of The Miracles, and an early hit for The Temptations. This version, however, is closer to the catchy reggae arrangement by Eric Donaldson.
  • ‘Higher Ground’ is a UB40 original from 1993. Catchy tune and brass arrangement, interesting lyric.
  • ‘Breakfast In Bed’ is 1988 track featuring Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. It’s a cover of a song recorded by Dusty Springfield for her 1969 Dusty In Memphis This is a decent version if you don’t mind the change of rhythm, but for me Dusty’s version is definitive.
  • ‘Here I Am (Come And Take Me)’ is an Al Green song, but with an arrangement modelled (according to Wikipedia) on a version by Irving ‘Al’ Brown.
  • ‘King’ is another UB40 original: good harmonies and a strong lyric relating to Martin Luther King.
  • ‘If It Happens Again’ is another UB40 original, reported to have been written in response to the Conservative party’s election success in 1983, though that isn’t clear from the lyric.
  • ‘Bring Me Your Cup’ is also a UB40 original. Nice brass arrangement.
  • The last track and the last original on the CD, ‘Sing Our Own Song’ has a strongly anti-Apartheid lyrical theme, and provides a rousing finale.

UB40’s Greatest Hits has quite a few songs with which I wasn’t well acquainted. The combined package as a whole offers a good selection of songs associated with UB40. And as a standalone CD, Unplugged is a good introduction to the work of the Ali/Astro/Mickey lineup in the context of the older material, and may hold particular appeal for those who know their recent Silhouette album. But is it successful as a fresh re-imagining of the original recordings? In general, we’re presented with a version of an older arrangement, but modified to adapt to the more limited instrumental palate available to the smaller line-up. In some cases, it works very well – certainly I enjoyed the melodica passages more than I expected. In some other cases, the vocals are more effective than on the original recordings, though sometimes the phrasing seems exaggeratedly ‘reggae’. But I’m not hearing any complete recasts like, for instance, Clapton’s acoustic version of ‘Layla’.

David Harley

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