To describe Glymjack simply as contemporary English folk would be rather inadequate. It is acoustic roots, lyric-driven with a nod to soft rock, peppered with a little Americana, and anchored here by two traditional English songs to establish the home ground. Thus Glymjack arrives all guns blazing with a finely produced sound and a galaxy of star guests that give an unequivocal seal of approval to their debut album Light The Evening Fire.
First, some name checking. In the driving seat is singer-songwriter Greg McDonald (accordion, bass, cuatro, guitar, tenor guitar, mandocello, mandolin, piano, vocals) who has written eight of the ten tracks. Adding flair and colour to the now-touring trio are Gemma Gayner (violins, violas, vocals) and Dickon Collinson (bass). The hallmark of the album is sophisticated arrangements with multi-instrumental and harmonic delights provided by a line-up of well-known guests from the folk world: Phil Beer, Steve Knightley, Miranda Sykes, Sam Kelly, Evan Carson, Louise McDonald, Tom Peters and Claire Portman. I read elsewhere that McDonald has been in the Phil Beer band, hence the reciprocal collaboration.
The word glymjack is Victorian slang for a street child who led strangers through the streets of London at night with a lantern. Many of McDonald’s songs are London-centric and the lyrics clearly reflect current social issues. But here’s my major gripe: why, when the lyrics and subject matter are so important, is there no booklet or word sheet in the CD, or indeed anything that tells you the background to the material? One could argue, I suppose, that if the lyrics are clearly audible (which they are), nothing else is needed. Well, I may be slow, but two hearings later I still don’t quite grasp the meaning of ‘The Wolf Who Cried Boy’. ‘Bright Sparks’ makes reference to folk heroes such as hedge preacher John Ball, one of the leaders of the 1381 peasants’ revolt, and to the suffragettes. I’ve no doubt that McDonald is a fine song writer, but some of the songs reflect particular events and concerns for which the listener (or is it just me?) needs at least a clue.
‘Bows Of London’ and ‘The Sweet Trinity’ are fine renditions of traditional songs, showcasing one of the many pleasures of the album – the rich harmonies. To conclude – thumbs up for a decidedly delicious and very English set of songs steered admirably by arrangements from the very best of the folk hierarchy.
Someone who knows rather a lot about these things has been saying for two years that I should go and see Darlingside. I haven’t seen them, but I jumped at the chance to review the CD. I really should have listened to his advice earlier – Extralife is rather classy, if somewhere outside simple categorization.
Essentially, what they create is beautifully smooth vocals above a mix of instrumentation. Harris Paseltiner, one of the quartet that make up Darlingside, describes how they created their sound “Each song and set of lyrics are created by all of us together, a sort of ‘group stream-of consciousness’. So we moved away from a single lead vocalist and started gravitating towards singing in unison, passing the melody around, or harmonizing in four parts through an entire song.” For me the smoothest song ever released was the Taylor, Garfunkel, Simon version of Sam Cooke’s ‘What A Wonderful World’. Imagine a whole album that can keep that kind of fine harmony without ever sliding into chocolate box cutesiness – and you have an idea of where Darlingside are at and how well they do it.
Darlingside’s YouTube channel describes them as “Indie Folk from Cambridge, MA” which gives you some sense of their genre. But the best way to get a sense of this rather inimitable sound is simply to have a listen. The link at the foot of the article takes you to a YouTube video of the final track on the album ‘Best Of The Best Of Times’. Their home page describes “arch humor, cryptic wordplay, and playful banter that the four close friends share on and off stage—but the music Darlingside plays is serious, cinematic, and deeply moving”. The visuals on the video show you their humour; the music lets you hear their deeply affecting sound.
It’s not an album to go through individual tracks on – there are some things you can’t break down into pieces without losing the sense of the whole, of what it is. This album is one of those. I’ll simply add that everyone who’s passed the stereo or sat in the car recently has purred, “Oh that’s nice/that’s lovely” etc.
There’s a handful of chances to see them in the near future as they are on tour in Ireland and the UK between May 4th and May 13th.
Released almost forty-nine years to the day since his first-ever John Peel recording sessions, approaching 72, his latest release and his tenth studio album, Rattle The Asylum Bars, finds Christopher John Trevor Midgley at his politically sharpest on a collection of thirteen songs that underline why he’s been referred to as England’s answer to Phil Ochs.
Armed with just his trusty 12-string Harmony guitar, the album’s topics range from Prohibition and lottery winners to Charlie Hebdo, opening with ‘Road To Valhalla’, a fierce strummed meditation on the ascent of mankind from its early origins that touches on both the idea of shared community through song and the tendency to shun outsiders for “fear of being displaced.”
With its circling fingerpicked chords and echoes of John Prine, ‘The Rose’ concerns a more specific subject, the death of young student Rachel Whitear in 2000 from a drugs overdose, but here told from the perspective of a medic attending yet another such incident of “the barbed wire wrapped around the rose.” Inspired by hearing the late Ian Paisley holding forth in the Houses of Parliament, not to mention the sanctimoniousness of the likes of Tony Blair and George Bush, ‘Moral Clarity’ sets a driving Bo Diddley riff to a playful but pointed swipe at those so blindly convinced of their own rectitude they refuse to countenance any other views.
Taking the pace down to a fairground folksy waltz, ‘People Like Me’ continues along much the same lines, referencing climate change, freedom of speech and such issues with a refrain about how the ‘right-thinking people’ (and the emphasis is on the political right, I suspect) are those who agree with you. Probably not one for Daily Mail subscribers.
The focus shifts to America for ‘The Angry Preacher’, a fingerpicked song about how the country’s noted philanthropists tend to be admired but rarely loved, based around a funeral and a wake and the cynical suspicion that such charity must hide some inner rot. We remain Stateside, slipping back several decades almost a century for ‘Bugs Moran’, another urgently delivered bluesy melody line and a delivery evocative of Jake Thackray that returns to the time of Prohibition for a narrative about the titular mobster, a rival to Al Capone who, having decided to sleep in (though the song has him watching from a coffee house), escaped being shot in the infamous St Valentine’s Day massacre.
It’s back to politics for the stately circular melody of ‘The Apathy Party’, a title that pretty much makes any comment on its lyrical content redundant, and from here to ‘The Hedgerows of England’, a shanty-like Swiftian commentary on how the unexpected acquisition of wealth via the lottery can shift political allegiance, the song couched in a member of the Establishment offering some advice on “oppressing the masses for profit and sport” to a new Country Member arrivee to the ranks.
One of the longer tracks, ‘The Hawk’ is another waltzer, an allegorical message to impetuous youth to fly responsibly on how not to embark on things you cannot conclude in the tale of a young bird learning to spread its wings, getting into difficulties and reminded that “take-off is optional, and landing is not.”
By way of departure from the other numbers, ‘The Ghost Train’ is a straightforward storysong about an old puppeteer and a bride and the forces of evil being abroad, set on All Hallows Eve. It’s back then to more serious concerns for the fingerpicked near seven-minute ‘The Only Soldier To Turn Up For The War’, a meditation on the possible reasons behind the Islamic radicalisation in prison of a young and troubled teenage Muslim girl, the victim of a dysfunctional family, drugs and abuse, turned into a suicide bomber. A song that seeks for explanations rather than simple condemnations, it’s a powerful, thought-provoking piece of work.
So too, in a different way is ‘Klara’, which, as historians may know, was the name of Adolf Hitler’s mother, the song referring to the premonition she’d had prior to his birth of the horrors he would bring and the claims that shed wanted to terminate the pregnancy. As such, the song extends beyond historical record to address the whole Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate and the division been moral absolutists and polemicists regarding balancing he life of one against the lives of the many.
Inspired by both the tragedy and the heroic defiance of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, it ends with the title track, a rhythmically choppy number set to a tune that echoes Tim Hardin’s ‘Black Sheep Boy’, about the right to freedom of the press to poke fun at sacred cows and how “we cannot in the world exempt Anything from out contempt. To do would betray…this liberty we value most.”
Beau may not have the contemporary cachet of a Billy Bragg or a Frank Turner, but his voice for change and awareness is as strong as any of them.
I really didn’t know what to expect from this album. I know Troy Donockley, of course – at least his work with everyone from Maddy Prior to The Bad Shepherds and I know he can play like a demon. Tuomas Holopainen, I learn, is the founder of Nightwish and a composer of symphonic metal so were we in for prog uilleann pipes? Vocalist and viola player Johanna Kurkela is a new name to me so what would Auri offer?
I find myself in an odd position. I love the instrumental sound that Auri makes from Tuomas’ huge keyboards to Troy’s delicate whistles and guitar. There isn’t much in the way of metal but guest drummer Frank Van Essen is an important part of the sound. Symphonic describes it well, as would choral with all the multi-tracked vocals, it is a big rich sound.
My odd position? For the most part, this is not an instrumental album and my first port of call for songs would always be the lyrics but I can’t get into these. If I let my mind wander and just listen to the sound Auri make, I’m quite happy. Johanna has a clear voce which is more robust than it first seems and if she were singing in her native Finnish, I wouldn’t be searching for meaning, and would be raving about what a great album this is.
There are some stand-out tracks; ‘Underthing Solstice’ is one such as are the wordless ‘The Name Of The Wind’ and the closing ‘Them Thar Chanterelles’. I rather like ‘Aphrodite Rising’ but I’m not sure what it’s about although I can probably make some guesses. This is why I didn’t get into 70s prog-rock and avoid concept triple-albums wherever possible. I never was an intellectual.
Almost since the very start, the musical collective led by Matt Hickman, known as ‘brownbear’, have caused something of a stir, not just on the Scottish music scene, but further afield. April 20th 2018 will surely see them only add to this popularity, with the release of What is Home? , their long-awaited and highly anticipated debut long player.
Full disclosure for fellow folkies; it is acoustic, but not overly folkie, while at the same time, it is mostly band-backed without being ‘rocky’. Perhaps rather than trying to pigeonhole it as something or other, one might as well simply embrace for what it is…and that is a very enjoyable debut album by a very gifted singer-songwriter.
The album opens with the catchy as hell ‘Covers’, which despite its up-beat melody, boasts a sense of heart-breaking melancholy in the lyric: “I pull back the covers, to find you have another lover…at that moment I realise, I’m the one whose living lies, because you’ve already moved on”.
From here, the momentum only builds, as singles ‘Wandering Eyes’ and ‘Truth Without Consequences’ are placed back-to-back, followed by the comparatively bare ‘Olive Tree’, where Hickman’s convincing mix of catchy melody and poignant lyric can once again be found, particularly in the song’s hook “ …it’s with the heaviest of hearts I say I’ll see you in heaven”.
It is described as an album which deals with the subjects of “love, loss and growing” yet amid the recording’s more reflective lyrics, the musically up-beat numbers prove equally inescapable; ‘The Wrong Team’, ‘Only For You’ and an album version of the 2016 single ‘Stop the World’. Fittingly, the record bows out on the title track, as we once again see the more laid back approach to brownbear’s versatile songwriting, making for a strong finish to a strong album.
With the diary filling up with forthcoming festival slots and album tour dates, the release of What is Home? (as noted) will surely only be the next step for a musician (and group of musicians) overdue big things, but it’s a damn exciting step at that. Regardless of what this comes to retrospectively represent or what it may pave the way for, as an album, on its own terms, it is a really and truly great piece of work.
It was only in December that Ross Ainslie’s fantastic solo album, Sanctuary, was released, and he is back again already, this time with Ali Hutton in a very welcome second celebration of their long-standing partnership. Symbiosis II (despite sounding like the title of a particularly difficult contemporary art piece) is a logical successor to their previous album, Symbiosis, and – appropriately – clear lines of connection join the two.
Symbiosis II is dedicated to Hutton’s grandad, who is also the subject of the first tune of the set entitled ‘Grandad’s’. This reflective piece makes a worthy companion, a mirror, to the delicate music box he previously created for his grandma, on the first album’s ‘Grans’.
As with the first album, titles are thematic one-word embodiments of the tunes that lie within (and an apostrophe pedant’s heaven!). The only non-original work on the album is ‘Goretree’, a tender Tommy Peoples cover. A number of the tunes have been specifically commissioned, and are credited accordingly. Whether composed by Ainslie or Hutton, the blending of the individual tunes into a set is never less than sublimely skilful, there’s no sudden lurch, no visible join, it all flows immaculately.
Despite these echoes of the first album, Symbiosis II pushes off into new territory, playing with notional boundaries of traditional music. It’s also definitely more of a “studio” album, given the addition of sound effects and synthesisers. Storm effects on ‘Mick’s’ give way to fast, fierce piping over a dark synth undercurrent, for instance, whilst ‘Birds’ features a clever interplay of whistles and pipes to reinvent the birdsong audio of the intro.
There is some striking, often quite moody, percussion, such as on the terrific ‘Kings’ where it lends an immediacy and a specific modernity to the tune ‘Dine Like Kings’. In the second part, ‘King Of The Mountain’, Patsy Reid’s strings add a dream-like drone, quite unlike the more tense, pulsating backdrop they provide on ‘Mink’. Andrea Gobbi’s thoughtful mixing ensures that nothing becomes overwhelming and a coherent balance is maintained throughout.
The duo’s core sound (Highland pipes, cittern, whistles, guitars and banjo) becomes more richly fleshed out as a result, and they wring a staggering variety of moods from whistles and pipes: lyrical and breathy, writhing and sinuous, beefy and muscular – and every shade in between.
Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton must surely be two of the most prolific young men around in Scottish music at the moment. Working in a dizzying variety of (often award-winning) projects their output never seems to falter. Symbiosis II is another superb addition to the catalogue.