This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
EMILY PORTMAN Coracle Furrow FURR009
Photo: Judith Burrows
Dark, dark is the considerable beauty of Emily Portman’s work. Dark, mysterious and a consistently alluring puzzle.
“Do not linger too long at the cave’s opening/It will close its greying teeth and crush you within”, she sings, all sweetness and light on Darkening Bell. Or ”Small things I remember/How your hair came away in my daughter’s dimpled hand…” (Nightjar); and “Taste of rust, taste of rust/Touch the fruit and it turns to dust/Turns to blood upon your thigh/Turn to tears in your lover’s eye” (Dotterine).
All Around My Hat, this isn’t.
The album’s theme is birds, secreting stories that bulge with allegory, colour and mystique, as she again uses her love and fascination for the traditional form to dive off into intriguing vignettes subtly woven around reflections of motherhood, loss and love and death. Brink Of June takes its cue from the traditional May Song, Borrowed & Blue is a response to The Cruel Mother and shades of Tam Lin decorate Eye Of Tree.
Yet, this first fully self-penned album, swiftly moves into Portman World and is a big step on from her last album Hatchling. Beautifully produced by Andy Bell, it’s musically far more sophisticated than its predecessors – her regular working partners Rachel Newton and Lucy Farrell contributing to a blissful soundscape of harmony vocals amid a welter of strings, aided and abetted by a variety of guests including pedal steel guitarist MG Boulter, inventive percussionist Toby Kearney and Bellowhead’s Sam Sweeney. The title track was recorded at Stoney Middleton Church with wondrous churchy results and, lest we get the impression this is just the weirdy-weirdy nonsense widely being purveyed at present as some sort of new dawn, Portman’s songs have a richness and range rarely heard elsewhere. You can hear one on fRoots 54.
Indeed, in parts it sounds almost poppily bright, the odd sound effects and percussive tricks adding to an uneasy mood that sways between gentle exhilaration and smiling menace. The animals may look cute but don’t stroke them.
THIS IS THE KIT Bashed Out Brassland HWY-044
TELLING THE BEES Steer By The Stars Black Thrustle BLATHR004
Photo: Lucy Sugden
This Is The Kit
Two similarly-named English bands, fronted by brilliant, distinctive songwriters, both on their third albums. The magnificent original artworks (by Catherine Hershey and Rima Staines, respectively) that adorn the covers of these CDs, immediately convey the impression that these are special creations, made with care by dedicated artists.
This Is The Kit are singer, songwriter and banjo player Kate Stables, her guitarist partner Jesse D Vernon and a varying cast of musicians, who bring keyboards, horns, violin and drums to the party. Recorded mainly in New York with producer Aaron Dessner (of The National) some of that city’s influence can be discerned in the chugging Velvet Underground pulse of Silver John, but it’s the indestructible beat of Bristol (Portishead’s Jim Barr is a sometime accomplice) that really defines the sound of these ten tracks.
Stables has a huge gift for penning memorably compassionate songs, and surely only a mother could use titles like Nits and Vitamins for such “rare and remarkable” works. Her lyrics, by turns imploring (“say the magic words, say the magic spell”), gnomic (“blessed are those who see and are silent”), and laugh-out-loud surprising (“we’ve been getting most mightily filthy – mud marks up to our necks” or “you can struggle with the smugness of all those little bleeders”) glide on liquid melodies and shimmering musicianship.
This is a beautiful, beguiling record, and Kate Stables’ voice is as rapturous as an angel’s sigh. Instant calmer.
• www.thisisthekit.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
Photo: Judith Burrows
Telling The Bees
Telling The Bees’ Andy Letcher would, one suspects, probably prefer that his voice was described as belonging to a dryad (albeit a male one) rather than an angel, but his is also a compelling croon and a rare songwriting talent.
We’ve been eulogising this group’s live performances for some time, but with this album they’ve brilliantly committed their essence to shiny disc. The addition of newest member Jim Penny is significant – his anglo concertina providing dexterous counterpoint to Letcher’s insistent mandolin and the breathtaking strings of Jane Griffiths and Josie Weber, all underpinned by Colin Fletcher’s wonderfully expressive bass.
Telling The Bees are an extremely smart batch of cookies (academics and published authors, don’cha know) but their clever, complex music is always utterly accessible – even to lumpen dunderheads like me. They can do weird (Astrolabe) without being twee and re-write lumps of tradition into original work (Oxford May Song) without being corny. They can tell fantastic stories (A Puppeteer Came Into Town) and create highly relevant new songs from existing poetry (John Clare’s I Fear These Tory Radicals). They also know that “sometimes words are not enough” and unleash the kind of intense, euphoric dance grooves (Windflower) associated with fellow-travellers Spiro – with whom, oh joy of joys!, they’re appearing at Sidmouth Folk Week. Don’t miss them.
• www.tellingthebees.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
You can hear tracks from both of these on fRoots 54.
MBONGWANA STAR From Kinshasa World Circuit WCD091
On first hearing, this sounds like a tidied-up Congotronics
. No less weird but more – shall we say more spaced out? Producer Liam Farrell was apparently in Kinshasa looking for punk ethic paydirt and – what luck – ran into two of the wonderful but now defunct Staff Benda Bilili with their new band Mbongwana Star. Enthralled by their wild and chaotic roaring style, Farrell began recording, and then – most important – went on to editing everything back to the bone. So you have these heavily twisted sounds manipulated out into some distorted kind of clarity. All kinds of sonic exhilaration ensue, over hyperventilating guitars and clattering percussion. It's odd, but it's organised. Ghostly voices flutter, swarms of electric insects swoop and turn, the monolithic bass pounds on into the darkness. Remarkable music: absolutely current, but full of odd echoes of the past. There's even a tender ballad to catch your breath to. Hear a track on fRoots 54• www.worldcircuit.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
ANNA & ELIZABETH Anna & Elizabeth Free Dirt Records DIRT-CD-0072
Photo: Lisa Elma
Anna & Elizabeth
Blimey…give me a minute… First listen of this album, I am rendered immobile in wonder. I remember hearing Ami Koita sing at Ronnie Scott’s one time, and I felt physically pinned to the back wall by the sheer power of her voice. Not just the volume (which was alarming) but by the gut-wrenching, outlandish potency of it.
Now, we know that Elizabeth is a jedi of ballad singing, so this has, of course, been a much-anticipated follow-up release for the powerhouse duo of multi-instrumentalist and singer Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Appalachianista LaPrelle. Even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for this primal and stirring wave of raw, authentic hardcore Americana.
With their unadorned vocal delivery and interplay, their voices, in harmony, cut to the very bone of a song, convey its essence in all its bloodcurdling glory. The instrumentation, mainly minimalist guitar and banjo picking, lays an unobtrusive bedrock for the searing, bare-boned old-soul LaPrelle vocal, blazing alongside Anna’s softer downy singing: a yin and yang symbiosis which makes the duet harmonies even greater than the sum of their parts. It’s impossible not to feel the visceral thrill of Long Time Travelin’ and Soldier & The Lady.
Each singer takes turns at leading a catalogue of portentous traditional ballads and hymnodies, from other-worldly Greenwood Sidey to uillean pipe drone set Orfeo and haunting Poor Pilgrim Of Sorrow, with its chiming guitar motif and trance-like three-part harmonies (with mentor Alice Gerrard). The two non-trad songs, Father Neptune and Hazel Dicken’s Won’t You Come & Sing For Me, fit in quite naturally, fronted by Anna and assisted by the godmother of old-timey, Gerrard.
Simplicity maybe the key to this record, both artists evangelical in their belief of serving the voice and story, but the effect is extraordinary. There is an intuitive feel to their music-making, though both are assiduous students of traditional form and substance. As mentor and guest vocalist Alice Gerrard pronounces: “These young women follow in the footsteps of many of our idols and mentors who have gone before…and they do them proud.”
Genuinely awe-inspiring. You heard a track on fRoots 53.
• annaandelizabeth.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
AND THE REST… The albums - good, adequate and plain bad - which didn't get the full-length treatment, contributed individually by a selection of our various reviewers cowering under the cloak of collective anonymity. For example…
Heg & The Wolf Chorus Rain (Own Label no cat no)
A third EP, and three new memorably melodic songs by the rapidly-ascending Bristol quintet features inventive piano and string arrangements and exquisite vocal harmonies. Full album release planned for 2016. See them in our folkadelic cellar at Sidmouth FolkWeek. www.hegandthewolfchorus.com
Catrin Finch Tides (Acapela ACAPELA CD907)
If you were expecting solo harp improvisations, something solidly classical or Welsh folk based, it’s none of those. Think Penguin Café meets thoughtful film soundtrack music, with the harp often in ensemble with a string quartet, some vocal passages, simply stated piano and even a duduk. Beautifully recorded and as tasteful as her fashion sense (i.e. classy while a bit edgy). A keeper, and for Water Aid. www.acapela.co.uk
Various Songs From A Stolen Spring (KKV FXCD 405)
A collaboration between North African and American musicians. The arranger demonstrates solidarity by keeping rhythms four square. Barely a sign of North African beats. Lyrics like “Hey Mr Blackman” don’t help. Show solidarity by buying good local African music. discovery-records.com
Luke Daniels Tribute To William Hannah (Greentrax CDTRAX379)
Scottish melodeon pioneer William Hannah was a celebrated band leader in the 1920s and a major influence on Jimmy Shand. His early recordings of Scottish dance music are lovingly recreated here by contemporary musicians on melodeon, fiddle, guitar and piano. www.greentrax.com
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down