This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
KRISTI STASSINOPOULOU & STATHIS KALYVIOTIS Nyn Riverboat TUGCD1093
BABA ZULA Do Not Obey Milan CD 399 802-2
Photo: Dionissis Stefanopoulos
Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis
Evidence of the continued roots music where-it’s-at-ness of the East Med provided by two of the regions finest, hailing from Greece and Turkey respectively. Both in possession of an understanding of tradition, an edge of experimentation, musical inventiveness to spare and a need to address what’s going on around them.
I was a late convert to Kristi Stassinopoulou. But boy when I fell, I fell hard. It was the duo performance she gave with partner Stathis Kalyviotis at an fRoots event at the Roundhouse a few years back that did it for me. Nyn (which means “now” in Greek) offers a satisfying halfway house between the stripped down solo duo album that followed that performance and her earlier full band recordings. This is psychedelic folk-rock of a singular and regionally specific kind. Stassinopoulou’s pure voice is set to a shifting palate of backings and tempos, at times almost hymn-like, at others all punky psych rock. Kalyviotis uses loops and samples as a part of the overall sound, blending in with the live instruments (lauto, bass, percussion, keyboards, harmonium, sax on one track, bouzouki on a couple of others). The lyrics address the current situation in their homeland. “Seize the day, not rue the last” is their message. Right now, I’m particularly enjoying the lovely Greco-Indian flavoured Allaxokairia, but seem to find a new favourite track with each listen.
• www.krististassinopoulou.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
Over in Turkey, Baba Zula celebrate their 20th year together by upholding the long tradition of Turkish psych folk-rock. This is protest music, fired up by injustice, expressed through an intense mix of the local and the international. Saz and haunting folky vocals mixing it up with fuzz-guitar and snapping beats. They’re at their best when singer Melike Sahin takes the lead. The sweetness of her vocals making for a pleasing counterpoint to the wig-outs going on around her. It’s only a short album, clocking in at just over half an hour. But, like all the best protest music, feels as though it’s been punched out in urgent response to these tough times.
• www.babazula.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
JIM MORAY Upcetera NIAG NIBL015
Moray’s latest is an album of stories. Some are old, some new, but together they are cohesive – which is quite a feat, considering that the words to one of the songs are over 600 years old whilst others have been written in the past year. It’s easy to follow the narratives, as Jim Moray’s vocal delivery is clear, sweet and earnest throughout. The arrangements are varied and sensitive, often starting out stripped back to a single instrument and voice, with more instrumentation and dynamics being folded in as the track progresses.
First, the traditional songs: Fair Margaret And Sweet William is the opener whose story was first recorded as being written down in 1411. It’s jolly, with bright twinkly piano and orchestration that makes it sound a bit like mediæval pop – but maybe a little too frantic as an opener. The melody of William Of Barbary is more uplifting and flowing, with rich strings, classical horns and some soft rock elements. Edward Of The Lowlands, on the other hand, has a welcome dark and bluesy feel.
However, it is the songs written by Moray himself that really stand out as being the most powerful and full of feeling – and educational too. The Straight Line And The Curve is about the 16th Century scientist John Dee, and has a satisfying melody carried on piano, strings and vocals that all steadily step together.
The one song that can really lift your feet off the ground and float you through zero gravity is Sounds Of Earth, which tells of the love story between two astronomers, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. There’s a lovely finger-picked guitar part, and a distant-sounding steel guitar which provides all the atmosphere. The lyrics are clear and tell the story poetically and vividly: “We made a list of all the sounds to sum up who we are/A mixtape of humanity to travel through the stars.”
If ever there’s ever another Voyager spaceship needing to take a song to the outer edges of the galaxy, this one should surely be in the running.
Josh Coppersmith Heaven
BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY Shine A Light Cooking Vinyl COOKCD623W
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Sub-titled “Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad”. Or, in other words, Billy Bragg gets to indulge his younger man’s fantasies, drenching himself in the romantic folklore of the railroad pioneers and record an album of train songs.
He’s found a willing accomplice in American singer-songwriter Joe Henry, the pair of them taking off on an epic 2,000-mile/four day ride from Chicago Union Station all the way to Los Angeles, breathing in the fumes that presumably helped to inspire the likes of Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Sara Carter and Jean Ritchie to write some of the classic songs included here.
Of course, if they’d done it properly they’d have jumped on the back of the moving boxcars in true hobo style but, presumably fully ticketed, they contented themselves with alighting at various evocative stops on the way (St Louis, Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso and Tucson), setting up on the trackside to bang out glorious hits of the genre like Rock Island Line, Midnight Special, Lonesome Whistle, Hobo’s Lullaby and In The Pines with energetic and joyous abandon.
Necessarily primitive and unsubtle with occasional sounds of railway-hubbub behind them (shades of Michelle Shocked’s Texas Camp Fire Tapes), it’s great fun… though probably not as nearly as much fun as they clearly had making it. Worth it too, you imagine, for the million anecdotes and opinions Billy has returned armed with from the expedition.
Not sure how solidly it stands up in the general canon of folk music, but he’s right in his contention that these songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Lead Belly et al provide the bedrock of American folk song, not to mention great singalong choruses. Many of them have been recorded a million times ad nauseum, but songs like Jean Ritchie’s wonderful The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More – which tells of the emotions of a remote Appalachian mountain community when their supply train stops arriving after mine closures – remain at heart incisive reflections of the lifestyles, experiences and attitudes of communities at critical moments in history when the railways were central to the national psyche. While playing with the novelty value of providing a relevant context of sorts, Bragg and Henry remind us of this with unremitting enthusiasm.
• www.billybragg.co.uk | www.joehenrylovesyoumadly.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
MR MARTIN SIMPSON & MR DOM FLEMONS Proudly Present A Selection Of Ever Popular Favourites Fledg’ling FLED 3100
Photo: Photo Judith Burrows
Mr Flemons and Mr Simpson
This transatlantic collaboration between Mr Simpson and Mr Flemons was originally commissioned in 2014 by the English Folk Dance & Song Society to explore the connections between English and African-American musical traditions. It’s one of those ideas that always looks good on a funding application, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a successfully empathetic artistic outcome.
Thankfully, this particular pairing proved a winner from the get-go, and this album, recorded during their Autumn 2015 UK tour, provides ample evidence. Simpson has, of course, long been an admirer and exponent of the kind of vintage Americana that is Flemons stock-in-trade as ‘The American Songster’. The best-known of the songs here – John Hardy, Little Sadie and Stealin’, are Simpson favourites, sourced in youthful days from long-treasured records by Lead Belly, Hedy West and the Memphis Jug Band, and sung with relish by Scunthorpe’s premier blues man.
The Flemons-sung repertoire includes fine versions of My Money Never Runs Out by Banjo Joe (aka Gus Cannon), Mississippi John Hurt’s Payday and his own Too Long (I’ve Been Gone). Simpson fortuitously suggested tackling Peg Leg Howell’s Coalman Blues, not knowing that Flemons had sung the song for many years, but never learned a guitar part for it.
Proof that the dynamic duo actually did their EFDSS-assigned project work in Cecil Sharp House is provided in Short Time Come Again No More – a Stephen Foster parody concerning the American Civil War’s impact on English cotton factories, and Champagne Charlie – an English music hall song that somehow wound its way into the repertoire of Blind Blake.
The musicianship is, as expected, exemplary, with each performer supporting and enhancing each other’s songs – Simpson with guitar and banjo, Flemons with those plus bones, quills and harmonicas. Even on an audio recording there’s a real sense of joy taken in each other’s company and contrasting performance styles, and a palpable appreciation from the audiences. If you saw Simpson and Flemons on tour, you’ll already want this. If you hear this first, you’ll be hoping that they tour again soon.
• fledglingrecords.co.uk | 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…
Amazing Blondel Restoration (Talking Elephant TECD330)
Worthy dusting off, Amazing Blondel had been apart for over 20 years by 1997 and this marked a resumption of activity. More classical than their Island years, nonetheless if you’re going to gently blend early music with acoustic rock pretensions then this is a prime blueprint and a reminder of Blondel’s effectiveness. talkingelephant.co.uk
Banda Nella Nebbia Banda Nella Nebbia (Unzipped Fly UFCD 009)
Polish ten-piece: four brass, slappy bass guitar, reeds, oud, frets, drums. Quirky, jumpy, funky, lurching between Balkan and other roots-influenced brass and Zappa-ishness. Clever, snappy, powerful, fun, and evidently impressive live; pack and website lamentably info-deficient but the band won the 2015 Polish Radio New Tradition prize. www.uzf.com.pl
Connla River Waiting (Connla)
Debut album from new Derry/Armagh-based quintet swiftly following their initial EP release. River Waiting is complex yet accessible mixing swift-footed instrumental work with sweetly cascading vocals. Recalling Tamalin and early Lúnasa, their Celtic/pop/ambient crossover works convincingly. www.connlamusic.com
Tuuletar Tules Maas Vedes Taivaal (Bafe’s Factory MBA 013)
Horrible, tacky, winking-posey cover. Subtitled “vocal folk hop”. Finnish female a cappella vocal quartet, one of whom beatboxes, in glossy US-recorded Swingles/Rajaton type arrangements of own non-trad but Värttinä-ish compositions. Clever but terminally irritating. www.bafesfactory.fi
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down