TRACK DOGS – Fire On The Rails (Mondegreen Records)

Fire On The RailsTrack Dogs’ Fire On The Rails is folky and funky with trumpets galore and the occasional violin that soars above the usual musical fray.

A flashback: there was a great world music band in the 90’s called 3 Mustaphas, whose motto was “Forward In All Directions”. And this album takes up that aegis and runs to score points into the goal posts of countless cultures. Yeah, this one is all over the geographical place.

The folk purity of ‘Love & War’ quickly morphs into a very Tijuana Brass and ethnic percussion mode, only to be matched with a fiery violin that checks the pop propulsion of the tune and shifts it into overdrive, while the vocals sing an earnest cause of, well, “love and war” passion. And ‘I Needed You’ is another urgent tune with a bouncy trumpet, great lyrics, and a vocal that pleads to the big heart of the world. The melody (sort of) conjures the memory of (the great) Phil Ochs and his song ‘Another Age’ from his Rehearsals For Retirement album. Nothing wrong with that! ‘Better Off  On Your Own’, again, has a vibrant trumpet and vocal melody that pulse the tune, while an acoustic guitar provides an unleavened anchor that recalls the human touch of a really nice Paul Simon Graceland period song.

And, quite frankly, the pop mastery of Billy Joel comes to mind. Again, nothing wrong with that!

It’s just an idea, but the trumpet graced sound will appeal to old folky types who loved Bruce Cockburn’s song ‘You Pay Your Money And You Take Your Chance’, from his Inner City Front record.

But the infectious mandolin graced ‘Dragonfly’s Castle’ makes all the crap I watched on the television today a distant and, thankfully, muted memory. It’s a really nice song.

Odd: the lyrics are often contemplative, but they are also laced with humour. ‘On The Last Night’ vibrates with ironic goodness, like a good Sir Raymond Douglas Davies tune that begs us all to “come dancing”. A banjo propels ‘Don’t Delay’. This is brilliant Nitty Gritty Dirt Band celebration stuff. Truly, Mr. Bojangles would dance to the tune. By the way, its banjo-fueled beauty rivals any song on CAAMP’s recent (and very nice) By & By album.

Now to be fair, ‘And The Piano Sings’ can’t even claim a distant cousin kinship to folk music, but it’s funky and gets tattooed in the brain. It’s a Freddie Mercury tribute. The chorus is catchy in a nice way and avoids any reference to Galileo, Figaro, or for that matter, anyone known as Beelzebub.

Ahh – ‘Abi’s Lullaby’ is a lovely acoustic folk tune that assures, “all your dreams are safe with me”. It’s a quiet respite from the quick pace of the album.

That said, the fast ‘When She Comes’ ups the ante, and with its folk-blues-ragtime combo-platter approach, recalls the music of The Red Clay Ramblers, who just managed to include every bit of America’s soul (and a trumpet!) in their music. That’s high praise.

The album ends with ‘All Clapped Out’, an all vocal and hand clap fest that puts a somewhat odd and enjoyable final punctuation point on the record.

Fire On The Rails bounces between the poles of pop and folk with trumpets and strings aplenty, all of which accent the urgent vocals and choruses that bob far and wide and make any Mustapha proud because this music, indeed, goes “forward in all directions”.

Bill Golembeski

Artists’ website: http://trackdogsmusic.com/

‘On The Last Night’:

THE SERVANTS’ BALL – The Servants’ Ball (D.Wink CD13)

The West Sussex Gazette, December 15, 1938

The Servants' BallThe other evening, I had the good fortune to be assigned by this paper’s editor to attend a performance given at the Whittington Village Hall by an ensemble of performers going by the name of The Servants’ Ball. Individually, they comprise banjulele (a sort of banjo and ukulele crossbreed) player and step dancer Ewan Wardrop, fiddler Ben Paley, Rob Harbron on concertina, Ben Nicholls playing upright bass with Julian Hinton at the piano and Evan Jenkins providing assorted percussion.

Their repertoire ranges wide across a number of popular musical style, some steeped in the folk traditions of this country, Europe and the plantations of America, others harking back to the days of Victorian music hall or reflecting such contemporary fashions as the current enthusiasm for ragtime music. Indeed, they are well versed in popular passions, opening their programme with an instrumental number entitled ‘Egyptian Princess’ reflecting the current craze for Egyptology, it’s snake-charmer rhythms prompting several members of the audience to engage in what is termed a “sand dance”, its strutting movements modelled on tomb paintings, emulating the famous comedy routine of music hall act Wilson and Keppel who, you may recall, enjoyed a successful run at the London Palladium as recently as 1932. Had Howard Carter been among the throng, I feel sure he would have joined in.

Their repertoire for the night intermingling such dance tunes with songs of music hall vintage, they proceeded to delight, Wardrop, a ukulele player to rival George Formby, singing ‘The Bird On Nelly’s Hat’, a turn of the century vaudeville cautionary comedy ditty composed by Arthur Lamb and Alfred Solman about a lovestruck lad being fleeced of all his money by the titular golddigger.

Returning to instrumentals, led by concertina, they had the audience taking to the floor for the polka-influenced ceilidh tune ‘Number One Dance Step’ on which Wardrop demonstrated his foot tap talents to great effect before drawing applause and roar of approval as Hinton launched into the well-known ‘Champagne Charlie’, the lyrics written by Birmingham factory worker Joe Sanders who, under his music hall stage name of George Leybourne introduced the song, sponsored by champagne firms, into his act in 1868, boosting his income to almost fivefold to £120 a week.

Returning to dance tunes, introduced with a roll on the drums, next up was ‘Sultan Polka’, composed by Charles Louis Napoleon d’Albert for Sultan Abdulaziz I of the Ottoman Empire, this was followed in turn by ‘Pretty Little Dear’, not, as you might think, the 1926 comedy number by Frank Crumit, but rather another concertina dance tune, this of Sussex origin, which I understand the ensemble learned from the work of the renowed Scan Tester from Horsted Keynes, whose Country Dance Band often perform at such local functions.

Allowing the crowd to take a respite from their lively footwork, it was back to music hall for ‘I’m A Man That’s Done Wrong’, or, to give it the full title, ‘I’m a Man That’s Done Wrong to my Parents’, a sorrowful lament of a ne’er do well spurned by his family, Wardrop singing “I once wronged my father and mother, Till they turned me out from their door, To beg, starve or die, in the gutter to lie, And ne’er enter their dwellings no more” dating back to the end of the 1880s and reputedly written in Dorsetshire by one H. Strachey.

Having had time to catch their breath, the revellers were then encouraged back on to the floor for ‘Wild West Gallop’, a lively tune encompassing fairground whirligig, minstrel rag and quadrille and, from there, bearing the time of year in mind, straight into ‘Winter Cotillions’ medley before, accompanying himself on piano, Hinton returned to sing ‘Beautiful Boy’, an amusingly far fetched Victroian tale of no known authorship about of how a young lad was forced to undergo any number of surgical procedures, such as stretching his mouth wider, to make him to look more attractive to the opposite sex,with some unfortunate side effects. Let us hope the medical profession never encourages such nonsense.

Coming to to the close of the evening, they had time for two further tunes, Harbron leading them in the bouncing along ‘Les Rats Quadrille’, composed in 1844 by Gervasius Redler for student dancers or “les petits rats”, and returning to the fad for all things Egypt, Egyptian Ballet, an adaptation from Ballet égyptie by the composer Alexandre Luigini’s. Finally, it was the turn of Nichols to lend his stentorian vocals for a lugubrious six-minute variation of the children’s lullaby of ‘Old King Cole’ with the lyrics revised to talk of the monarch summoning Paganini, Paulo Spagnoletti and the London-born Nicholas Mori to satisfy his predilection for trios, the mock serious song continuing to talk of his secretary declaring a mole on his face as “boding something would take place but not what that something would be” and how the musicians parted company when the king started snoring on page 44 of Giovanni Battista Viotti’s ‘Concerto in G’, their dozing alcohol-doused patron then setting himself alight with his pipe and exploding, the number finally ending by inviting listeners to view the records at the British Museum in Bloomsbury.

A perfectly agreeable night of dancing, laughter and merriment that sent the party goers home happy and humming the tunes, I would not be surprised if, in say 80 years, some similarly enterprising folk musicians didn’t reprise the programme to afford equal delight to their own audiences.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.facebook.com/theservantsball

A (possibly) serious video about The Servants’ Ball:

GWEN MÀIRI – Mentro (Erwyd ER004)

MentroGwen Màiri is of Scottish/Welsh ancestry and, if you wish, you may explore the mysteries of Yr Hen Odledd for yourselves. Gwen is a tutor and author, singer and harpist and has performed with major orchestras as well as musicians in the Welsh tradition. Mentro is her first solo album, although solo is a relative term these days, and she is supported by our new favourite Welshman, Gwilym Bowen Rhys, on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and shruti and the dark tones of Jordan Price Willams’ cello.

Here we have traditional tunes and words, some original compositions and some poetry including a Welsh translation of ‘Rose Of Sharon’. Gwen opens with the traditional tune, ‘Yr Wylan Gefnddu’ followed by the first of the poems; ‘Tawelwch’ – quietness – written by Gwen’s mother, E Mary Jones. Gwen has written music for this and added the traditional ‘Si Hei Lwli’ to complete a beautiful piece. Next is ‘Rheged’, a tune which is so quintessentially Welsh you could tell that blindfolded. I’m still trying to decide why it is so but it is.

I’m guessing that the three pieces that make up ‘Y Dydd Drwy’r Ffenest’ are dance tunes – they sound good for dancing but the sleeve notes are not exhaustive. I’m amused that the title of the last of the three, ‘Llancesau Trefaldwyn’, is actually longer in English. ‘Rhosyn Saron’ is gorgeous, ‘Teifi’ anchors the music firmly in Wales and uses some notes that most harpers don’t get to. The third song is ‘Hwyr’, which has a hymn-like quality and after ‘Y Feillionen’ comes the fourth, ‘Y Deryn Pur’, a traditional lyric. Finally, Gwen takes a real solo with ‘Cyn Gwawr’.

I’ve said before that Welsh is a beautiful language for singing, even if I don’t have the knowing of it, and it is also a beautiful language for playing. Mentro is your proof.

Dai Jeffries

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

‘Rhosyn Saron’ – official video:

BEANS ON TOAST – The Inevitable Train Wreck (BOT Music)

The Inevitable Train WreckEvery year since 2009, Jay McAllister has released a new album of protest and social comment songs on his birthday, December 1. He’s now 39 and The Inevitable Train Wreck is his eleventh. I have to confess that albums in recent years have done little for me, but this, quite possibly because he’s working in collaboration with Lewis and Kitty Durham from Kitty, Daisy and Lewis and has tapped into the rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of Chuck Berry and Otis Redding’s classic Atlantic soul grooves is his strongest in some time.

It’s the former, from when the title comes, that kicks things off with ‘World Gone Crazy’, a state of the nation protest boogie about how “the ship is sinking” delivered in his familiar Chas ‘n’ Dave vocal complete with catchy singalong chorus. It’s followed appropriately enough with the sunny day woodwind coloured jauntiness of ‘England I Love You’ recollecting the hottest day on record when an unelected leader moved into No 10 and, as you might assume, has much to do with Brexit and his observations on the country’s changing social and political climate where “hate is on the high street” as we hand power to those in charge by turning on ourselves. The same summer also backdrops the snare shuffling, brassy ‘Lost Poetry Department’, where the heat and the inability of the train to take the strain resulted in him leaving his guitar, Martin, on the luggage rack in Guildford.

Finger-snapping and upright bass pinion ‘Extinction No 6’, another lifted from today’s headlines number, this time inspired by Greta Thunberg as he sings of climate change and the legacy we are leaving our children to the cooing of back-up vocals before the tempo shifts midway to a frantic funky flurry that comes on like Ian Dury on amphetamines.

Another sunny goodtime swing carries ‘Saying No To Robots’ which, like the funky, horns a go go ‘Logic Bomb’, taps into worries about the glitches and exploitable weaknesses of modern technology where computer crashes and hackers can bring things to standstill or worse, or, as he expounds on the monologue bridge of the former, artificial intelligence renders the need for humans redundant..

Introduced by wailing harmonica, as per the title, ‘Rich vs Poor’ addresses more traditional protest territory, which may be why it’s the one that most calls to mind Bragg and Guthrie, albeit veined with his individual wit than can turn out lines like “it will be the loaf of bread versus the upper crust”.

Simply strummed, ‘Mountains’ slows things down for a song which, in its sentiment about surmounting the obstacles before you, is essentially his take on ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from The Sound of Music. And, while we’re out in the countryside, the fact that he’s played Glastonbury on numerous occasions doubtless led him to write ‘Take Your Shit Home With You’, a rap across the knuckles for those who reckon it’s okay to leave their £30 pop-up Argos tents and the rest of the rubbish behind when they go home.

The Inevitable Train Wreck ends with, first the call for love and honesty in ‘Truth Be Told’, another motoring-along boogie, here with Kitty and Daisy calling back the chorus line and honky tonk piano taking it to the close, and finally, returning to politics with references to Donald and Boris, ‘On and On’, which attacks the placing profit over people, the widening inequality divide and how, while more people die of obesity than starvation, of old age than lack of medication, we live in a time when “more people take their own lives than die in wars”. And yet, he still manages to leave on an upbeat, positive note, declaring “I believe the world’s worth saving …and we can keep on singing, because life goes on”.

If he carries this form over into his 40s, then perhaps he can really help switch the points and stop things going off the rails.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.beansontoastmusic.com

‘On & On’ – official video:

MATTHEW ROBB – Dead Men Have No Dreams (own label)

Dead Men Have No DreamsIt’s no mean feat to release an album which stays in the mind for both its music and its sense of authenticity. Two years ago, Matthew Robb released Spirit In The Form which did just that. On December 5th he releases Dead Men Have No Dreams and I suspect he’s done it again.

Listen to the title track below. Right from the start you have Robb’s vocal, simultaneously (and paradoxically) stark and rich. It demands your attention, as do the simple acoustic guitar that wouldn’t be out of place in Guthrie or 1963/64 Dylan, the insistent refrain, and a nine verses tale taking you into the depths of:

“…………….……. too terrified to ask
for the bright lights of salvation
on that dark night you will scream
for you know your soul will go to hell
and dead men have no dreams

before pulling you up through images of hope: “trying to find the diamond in your mind”, “love is the only fuel for survival” to the concluding, life-affirming:

in the big black tunnel of time
a light can still be seen
so I’ll carry on through the rain
for dead men have no dreams”.

Robb is also a performer of his own poems and if you get the album, you’ll find the imagery in the accompanying lyric book to be as compelling as the CD.

There are ten great tracks on the album and I only have a limited number of words for a review, so a few other highlights. The opening line of the second track is “In these policy makers heads there must be something definitely lacking”. On the page, that looks like a line from a report. In Robb’s hands it becomes the opening to a couplet “they’ve given the go-ahead to unrestricted hydraulic fracking” for a song, ‘Common Destiny’, which builds through a steady and simple jazzy-blues arrangement to a conclusion five verses later that “you’ll see we share a common destiny”.

‘Begging You Back’ is a love song asking a partner to return; there are few male vocalists who can make a catchy tune and a pleading lyric sound like the song of a strong man. Robb does it on this track. Similarly, ‘Cry Some Tears’ rips your heart out with its simple arrangement and Robb’s vocal asking “come here baby, don’t hold it all inside/where the feelings of yesterday remain”.

Listen to ‘Valley of Stone’ for yourself and decide whether it’s an economic, political and environmental description of life in an old mill town and/or an image of emotions made visible through the valley of stone, its objective correlative. I love ‘Spoils of War’ for the way it hits you from the start, subtle guitar picking, a mesmeric tune and haunting backing arrangement, which builds line on line to the final lyrics “imagination killed by some material disease…..when the dust finally settles, hope someone’s still home”.

‘Red Light Blues’ is, unsurprisingly, blues-based and rich in imagery and references (including the passing use of the phrase “cross town traffic”); ‘Pass The Buck’ is another track with a livelier tempo, perhaps echoing most strongly of talking blues with the band driving the pace.

The album finishes with an eight and a half minute song, ‘When Am I Gonna Wake Up’, that you can listen to, then play from the start and listen to again, then listen more times and unpick the imagery which hops from verse to growing chorus until it reaches a final question:

When am I gonna wake up and start to give
see what I am doing in this life that I live
when am I gonna wake up, be more kind and care
and see I’m not alone in this life that we share”.

Like the rest of the album you wonder whether this is the song of an individual, the song of our society – or both. Beats me. All I can suggest is you give the album a good listen and see how Robb’s images interrelate with your own life.

Finally, then, Dead Men Have No Dreams isn’t poetry, it’s a CD of songs. While the sound on the first album was pretty impressive, the trio on this album of Marcus Rieck (drums), Cecil Drackett (bass) and Tobias Hoffman (electric guitars) have helped Robb to create something which sounds like…well, actually, I don’t have comparisons.

It sounds like Matthew Robb, a lyric-poet uncompromising in the way he covers the emotional and societal concerns of the modern world and makes them into damn good songs.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://matthewrobb.com

‘Dead Men Have No Dreams’ – official video:

JUDE JOHNSTONE – Living Room (BoJack BJR2221960-3)

Living RoomAs I noted in my review of her previous album, Johnstone is better known as a songwriter than a performer in her own right, her work having been covered by many of Americana’s great and good. As such, Living Room, often stripped to basics with minimal arrangements (the sleeve is just a black and white photo of her and a piano), might be seen more as demos for potential covers by artists looking to add some extra class to their albums than a spotlight for Johnstone herself, but that would be to overlook the quality she brings to her own material.

It opens simply with ‘Is There Nothing’, just voice, piano and Bob Liepman’s cello unveiling the end of a long relationship as she watches her partner walk out of the door to be with his new lover, the tune co-composed by the wonderfully named Blessing Offor, a former contestant on The Voice. Indeed, there are several collaborations, both in terms of music and lyrics, here, the second up being ‘My Heart Belongs To You’, a co-write with Nielson Hubbard and the ubiquitous Ben Glover, the latter part of the backing vocals while David Brewer contributes penny whistle and Johnstone sounds like a female Tom Waits. Glover not only also shares a credit on the similarly themed, Gaelic-flavoured piano waltz ballad ‘Seasons Of Time’, but also sings lead while Johnstone harmonises and accompanies and Olivia Korkola adds violin to the cello and whistle.

She also takes a vocal backseat on ‘That’s What You Don’t Know’, co-writer Hunter Nelson stepping up for a dreamy, pedal steel caressed evocation of some 40s ballroom slow dance on a song about how the screen persona of its celluloid star hides the sadness of the man behind the smile for the camera.

Her vocals back in the mix behind the piano, the reflective ‘All I Ever Do’ adds percussion and David Pomeroy’s fretless bass to the pedal steel and whistle with Tim Hockenberry on harmonies as the lyrics mix loss and hope in the lines “It’s a lonely life I’m living/But I’m gonna wait and see/What this old, broken-down world/Has left for me”.

Again featuring cello and pedal steel, ‘One Good Reason’ is a wholly self-penned song of a relationship in crisis, but not yet past the point of no return (“We’ve got so much to lose/You’d never be so blind/Or fool enough to choose/To leave it all behind”), while, shifting rhythm patterns, ‘Serenita’, co-written with Maggie Doyle, sung by Brandon Jesse, Johnston duetting on the chorus with Linley Hamilton on trumpet, turns to storytelling about a wedding doomed to tragedy when a storm blows in, the groom left waiting at the chapel and now drinking away his despair.

Another solo Johnstone credit, here with Matt Rollings adding accordion to cello and pedal steel, ‘I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way’ strikes a seasonal note, although its theme of being alone at Christmas with your regrets, through the actions of your own dysfunctional heart, is on the bittersweet side of festive.

The final two numbers are both all her own work, Nick Scott and Hockenberry accompanying on upright bass and trombone, respectively, for ‘So Easy To Forget’, a song of the hurt of being let go that essentially revisits Jim Reeves’ Am I That Easy To Forget’ from the female perspective of “an ordinary fling” who’d hoped for something more. It ends in total solo mode with ‘Paradise’, a song about past dreams, present laughter and future hopes that play out as a wistful piano ballad but which, in other hands, could equally as easily be transformed into a Springsteenesque full-powered anthem. That’s the sign of a real songwriter; the album serves eloquent reminder that Johnstone superbly embodies the singer half of the hyphenate too.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.judejohnstone.com

‘One Good Reason’ – live: