JON PALMER ACOUSTIC BAND – One Fine Day (Splid Records SPLIDCD 26)

One Fine DayJon Palmer is a fine songwriter and a good bloke to have a pint with – both of which endear him to me. One Fine Day is the third studio album from his band, now an octet, which belies its name by having Baz Warne of the The Stranglers playing electric guitar on three of the twelve tracks. Producer David Crickmore also adds to the electricity as does Nick Settle but I’m not going to quibble. I am going to stick my neck out and say that this is the band’s best album so far.

As a songwriter, Jon can be a bit political but he’s also a skilled storyteller and one of the delights of the album is listening as the songs unfold, often in unexpected ways. The opening track, ‘Music Town’, is really upbeat and I’d like to think it’s about Jon’s home town of Otley but it’s also about any place where music can be found be it club, session or the back room of a pub. ‘One Fine Day’ begins in the same up-tempo style, with Matt Nelson’s whistle and Wendy Ross’ fiddle leading the way and finishes in a wild instrumental coda. But as you listen you get the sneaking suspicion that the story won’t have a happy ending.

‘Great North Road’ is one of Jon’s great story songs. You’ll think you know what it’s about and you’d be mostly right…but at the first mention of a horse you have to adjust your viewpoint. There’s any number of traditional songs that tell the story that Jon wraps up in the second verse. ‘Bridges Not Walls’ is the first overtly political song – do I need to explain its inspiration? Thought not. ‘Vagabonds & Rogues’, in a deceptive waltz time, could be another traditional story and it suggests something Steve Tilston might have written although I don’t believe that Steve would have risked the maidenhead joke.

‘Hey Now!’ is a folkier follow-up to ‘Music Town’ with a neat bit of name-dropping but I wonder how the Acoustic Band like being called “a bunch of reprobates”. I think I’d be proud of that. ‘Little England’ is Jon’s inevitable Brexit song delivered more in sorrow than anger. ‘The Knife Thrower’s Assistant’ – “I never miss, well, only sometimes” – is another story with a delicious twist. Actually, there are twelve great songs here and, although I’ve mentioned a couple of the players, One Fine Day is great ensemble piece, tightly played.

One Fine Day isn’t officially out until April but, guess what, go to Jon’s website, cross his palm with silver and I’m sure he’ll sell you a copy.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.jonpalmeracousticband.com

‘Hey Now!’ – live:

THE SMOKE FAIRIES – Darkness Brings The Wonders Home (Year Seven Records)

Darkness Brings The Wonders HomeThe Smoke Fairies new album, Darkness Brings The Wonders Home, is music that coughs up a bluesy and very British folk rock beauty. You know, the brilliant bottleneck player Mississippi Fred McDowell said, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll”, but these women certainly do – with British silky slide guitar to spare.

The first two songs explode with tough guitar lingo. In a way, this never stops being folk music; yet, in another way, it never stops being a lot of other things. Of course, The Fairies have played bluesy rock before with ‘The Three Of Us’ from their Blood Speaks album, but this new record certainly ups the amperage in relation to their last self-titled record which created lovely and dense and (somewhat) languid folk rock.

But, back to those first two songs, ‘On The Wing’ and ‘Elevator’: The former clears the air with a strident bottle-necked pulse, while those twin voices hover like angry spectres. Ahh, ‘Elevator’ plays a four aces riff, worthy of any card-carrying rock band of the 70’s with wah-wah intensity. And there’s a rhythmic piano to boot! It’s a wonderous rock tune.

Well, the rock pulse continues. ‘Disconnect’ has urgent chords, a lead guitar that plays with the angular construction of Chairs Missing period Wire, and vocals that recall an early Kate Bush. ‘Coffee Shop Blues’ is patient rock, with a broad landscape that percolates with the touch of honest truth. Once again, those vocals stretch toward a sublime sunset. This song dances on slow time.

‘Left To Roll’ is that same slow time with an even more glorious melody. I am from America’s frozen Midwest, and this song is a deep pair of warm gloves. It’s just an idea, but that’s the big deal with the Smoke Fairies’ music on this record: The solicitous singing butts against the juxtaposed punchy rock guitar sound. Darkness Brings The Wonder Home, more than any other SF’s album, tugs with bewitching tension.

Just a comment about the lovely unison vocals of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies: Years ago, the band Three Dog Night had a hit single called ‘One Is The Loneliest Number’. And the Greeks “considered the number 1 a unit and not a proper number, which had to express a multiplicity” (Thank you, once again Simon Critchley!). But these voices defy all that negativity about the solitary digit because the two Smoke Fairies become one in a joyous (before the fall) harmony of a Blakean “England’s green and pleasant land”. Yes, indeed, this music never stops being vibrate folk music.

And then the riff stuff returns. ‘Out Of The Woods’ vibrates with stinging chords and a psych feel. ‘Chocolate Rabbit’ grooves with guitar grease. The vocals slide with a spooky incantation. ‘Chew Your Bones’ gets bluesy with a Macbeth hellbroth” harmony. This song taps beauty and evil at the very same time. And ‘Don’t You Want To Spiral Out Of Control?’ flickers with psychedelic stop lights.

And, just another comment: This album picks up the embers of Fairport and Steeleye Span and continues to spark into the Wicker Man bonfire.

The finale song, ‘Super Tremolo’, simply weaves the melodic tapestry of this record to a final stitch. Those twin vocals sing a “green and pleasant” melody that is cast against rock guitar tension. Sure, this record never stops being a lot of other things. But, to once again quote Mississippi Fred McDowell, “My Baby She Gonna Just Jump And Shout”. And that’s what Darkness Brings The Wonders Home does: The Smoke Fairies “just jump and shout” in a way that never stops being a melodic folk record, but indeed, does “play rock ‘n’ roll”.

Bill Golembeski

Artists’ website: https://www.musicglue.com/smokefairies

‘Disconnect’ – official video:

THE OLD SWAN BAND – Fortyfived (Wild Goose WGS434CD)

FortyfivedThe Old Swan Band, rightly lauded for its longstanding championing of English dance music, broke a 20-year recording hiatus in 2014 to mark its 40-year anniversary. Fortyfived, the band’s latest album, celebrates this continued survival across four and a half decades. Much like the dwarf’s axe, some of the band’s original parts have been replaced over time but The Old Swan Band still stands proud as a pioneer in its field.

And yet, as Fortyfived amply demonstrates, the concept of “English” music may not be quite what might once have been assumed. There is growing evidence of a much greater musical cross-pollination with other lands. Consequently, Fortyfived sees English tunes nuzzle up close with their Celtic, North European, American and Australian relations. It’s a genuinely free-trade community where borrowing and adaptation is not just tolerated but forms part of the fabric of the music itself. And, really, wouldn’t it be more surprising if that were not the case? Turns out there’s no point getting too flag-waving and parochial about it, after all.

Here, then, is music for dancing to with unselfconscious abandon at whatever name you give to your local knees-up. No doubt it has already been gracing dance floors throughout the festive period, for those sage enough to have caught its December release. But even in the cold comedown of January, it lights up the gloom with reels, quadrilles, waltzes, two-steps, polkas and more, in a dizzying gallop where the pace never lets up for a moment. These are tunes simply crying out for the foot-tapping, beer-flowing exuberant whirl of live performance.

Performances are as tightly dynamic as you might expect, insistently nudging the tunesets along. Particular mention must go to Martin Brinsford’s eternally restless percussion and John Adams’s sensitive trombone punctuation, underpinning the vigorous frontline fiddle triple of Flos Headford, Paul Burgess and Fi Fraser.

On CD while, of course, it’s possible to pick out all the instruments, get contemplative over arrangements and performances, it can feel as if the warmth and feedback of a live audience is missing from the mix. Nonetheless, Fortyfived delivers up its well-considered dance music without borders, all intelligently combined and arranged, and given with an unabashed, heartfelt joy. Exactly the kind of tonic we could do with right now.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.facebook.com/TheOldSwanBand

A taster for the album:

BLACKBIRD & CROW – Ailm (MIG MIG 01652)

AilmI don’t believe that anyone has coined a term for the music that Blackbird & Crow play. I’d like to suggest “gothic folk-rock”. Other artists have ventured down this road but I’d also like to suggest that Maighréad Ní Ghrásta and Stephen John Doohan do it best. Ailm is their second album – the title refers to a letter of the Ogham alphabet that signifies conifer which, in turn, is associated with healing.

The search for healing is at the centre of the album which combines Irish folklore and history, blues, psychedelia and Americana with an overpowering sense of mystery. The songs are populated with lost and broken characters, some of whom have found their way out of the darkness, some of whom are defiantly still there. In the modern world I’m pretty sure that ‘Parting Rag’ is about Shane MacGowan while ‘Margaret The Martyr’ takes us back to the era of the navvies, telling the story from the point of view of a wife left behind.

Maighréad’s powerful voice revels in its Irishness as do her lyrics. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist: various stringed instruments plus harmonium and synth. In support they have cello, drums, uilleann pipes, trumpet and saxophone but it is the extraordinary arrangements, which I’m sure are down to Stephen, that dominate the sound.

The first two tracks, ‘Harlot On Holy Hill’ and ‘The Witch That Could Not Be Burned’ run together and are firmly in the defiant camp. Everything, including Maighréad, is turned up to maximum and really rock you back on your heels. They are followed by the first of two covers, ‘Princess Of The Ditch’ by Kilkenny singer-songwriter Richie Healy. It’s a perfect match for Ailm. The other cover is Robbie Basho’s ‘Orphan’s Lament’.

There is so much power in this record and much beauty. There are some strange songs too: I’m still trying to work out ‘The Ways That I Can Make You Suffer’ but Ailm is already shaping up as one of my albums of the year.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: https://blackbirdandcrow.com/

‘The Witch That Could Not Be Burned’ – live:

JULIE ABBÉ – Numberless Dreams (Anisogoma Records ANIS001)

Numberless DreamsShe doesn’t sound it but Julie Abbé is French and grew up in Poitou-Charentes, south of Roquefort and North of Bordeaux, which sounds like a good combination to me. She grew up with the Bal tradition but expanded her repertoire into swing, Latin jazz, blues and the English and Irish folk traditions. Having lived in the UK for two decades now she has recorded in all these styles but, as far as I can tell, Numberless Dreams is her first solo album.

Julie also has a thing for William Butler Yeats which is fine by me and she opens the album with her settings of two of his poems. The first is ‘A Poet To His Beloved’, which I don’t know well, and the second is ‘The Song Of Wandering Aengus’.  Now, you know how it is when someone writes a new tune for a familiar song? I can honestly say that it was halfway through before I realised that this was something new, so well does Julie’s melody fit the words. It’s a simple but clever tune and I like it a lot.

The first traditional song is ‘Courting Is A Pleasure’ which Julie has extensively reworked as she has with ‘Flower Of Magherally’ here an unaccompanied duet with Amy Cox, ‘Fhir A Bhata’, ‘Kellswater’ and ‘Claudy Banks’ – very different from the familiar English song. I’d usually get a bit precious about this sort of thing but Julie does her work with such skill and sensitivity that I really don’t mind.

There is one original instrumental, ‘Flagstones’, which features co-producer Sid Goldsmith on concertina and Dominic Hooper’s cello. ‘Stolen Child’ uses music by Daniel Bloodstone for Yeats’ words and the final track is ‘He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven’, another set of words by the poet with music by Julie.

Numberless Dreams is an album of shifting moods from unaccompanied voices via solo acoustic guitar to the dark sounds of cello and double bass and I‘ve enjoyed it very much.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.julieabbe.com/

‘A Poet To His Beloved’ – official video:

DEBORAH ROSE –The Shining Pathway (own label)

The Shining PathwayOriginally from Newport in South Wales but now based in Worcester, the pure-voiced Rose comes impressively endorsed by no less than Mary Gauthier and Judy Collins. Recorded variously in Nashville and Ludlow, The Shining Pathway  is her third album, a collection of songs about love, loss and transformation, much inspired by personal experience, pretty much all of the instrumentation provided by producer Ben Walsh.

It’s loss that underpins the strings-adorned opening track, ‘Wrestling With Angels’, a song about having to let go, apparently inspired by a visit to Crathie Kirk church near Balmoral on the same day the Queen was in attendance, while, in similar vein to Phil Ochs’ ‘There But For Fortune’, the softly sung ‘Grace I Go’, another mentioning angels, is about counting your blessings.

Another location spurred ‘Basket Of Roses’, namely the cave in Crete where Joni Mitchell wrote Blue (she even mentions singing ‘Carey’ while she was there and references the Mermaid Café and Matala Moon), the song, moodily picked out on acoustic guitar, about “the goddess within”, of holding on to grace, dignity and self-respect in matters of the heart.

From Joni, it’s a logical step to Laurel Canyon, the writing location for the rhythmically propulsive ‘Willow Of The Canyon’ while there singing for Marianne Williamson, until recently a Democratic presidential candidate.

From female empowerment to female victimisation, the resonant fingerpicked ‘Bluebeard’ is a dark pastoral folk styled song based on the French folk tale of a nobleman serial wife killer, albeit Rose reworking the narrative to have her protagonist escape (another appearance by ‘metaphorical’ angels) her grisly fate.

Her degree in literature also stands her in good stead for an intimately sung darkling folk setting of A.E. Houseman’s poem ‘The Recruit’ from A Shropshire Lad, set to music to mark the 100th anniversary of WWI and featuring the bells from Ludlow tower.

Moving to songs of love, a softly sung fingerpicked acoustic ballad, ‘Glow Of A Thousand Candles’ is a lovely image about the feeling love can bring while, accompanied by piano and poet Rebecca Weiner Tompkins on violin ‘Butterly’ is another hushedly sung vocally double-tracked cover of a ballad by Canadian songwriter Melodie Mitchell (who contributes piano) about the downside of being in love with a free spirit.

Then, taking wing from lepidoptera to avians, ‘Nigel’, written in collaboration with the late Eva Cassidy’s father at his Maryland home and featuring plucked mandolin, is based on a true story from The Washington Post about a lonely gannet who fell in love with and died next to a concrete decoy. I think you can draw your own allegories.

The album closes with the near six-minute ballad ‘Shallow Waters’, co-written with Christine Nichols (who sings backing vocals and plays piano), an aspiring songwriter she met during a Nashville writing retreat with Gauthier, her voice soaring on a spiritual call for wisdom and truth in a fractured world as she sings “I don’t want to swim in shallow waters…I don’t fear the depths of the sea”. May I suggest you take the plunge and join her.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.deborahrose.co.uk

‘Wrestling With Angels’ – official video: