This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
BÉLA FLECK & ABIGAIL WASHBURN Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn Rounder 1161-36262-02
Photo: Jim McGuire
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn
“This record was created by us in our basement,” say Mr & Mrs Banjo, who, after a decade of shared gigs and five years of marriage, now deliver their first duo album, with foundations in ballads, gospel tunes, blues and other traditions from the American Bible Belt. “We didn’t want any other instruments on there, because we’re into this idea that we’re banjo players, and that should be enough,” stated Fleck.
In addition to their familiar five-stringers, the pair variously wield baritone, bass and ukulele variants, eschewing overdubs in favour of honest, direct performance. If this lack of instrumental diversity suggests a one-dimensional listening experience, think again. In Fleck and Washburn’s hands, banjos riff like guitars on Railroad, ripple like pianos across Washburn’s Ride To You and ring like harps on a set of two short tunes by Fleck’s namesake Béla Bartók.
Washburn delivers the songs in the voice of an Appalachian angel. Her reading of And Am I Born To Die (accompanied by a solitary banjo) is enough to make a stone-hearted atheist weep, while Pretty Polly (in a version learned from EC & Orna Ball) chills the blood. The murder theme is continued through her own Shotgun Blues which sees a gender-reversal from the familiar protagonist/victim theme. Little Birdie is a new song with an old title, while Fleck’s What’cha Gonna Do is a climate change Which Side Are You On? which asks: “what’cha gonna do when the land goes under the water?”
Instrumentals like New South Africa and Banjo Banjo showcase Fleck’s justly-acclaimed virtuosity but, more importantly, are just terrific tunes.
Fleck and Washburn have created something very special in their basement. Celebrating the arrival of their first child and honouring the memory of departed loved ones and linking generations by making new songs old and old songs new, this album is musical testament to concentrating on what’s important, keeping it simple, and getting the details right.
• www.belafleck.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
CHRIS SMITHER Still On The Levee Signature Sounds SIG 2066
The subtitle of this double CD is “A 50 year perspective” and it features 25 songs that Smither has written over his long career; most of the songs familiar, although some I haven’t heard for a long time. They include a welcome reprise of Love You Like A Man
, the song Bonnie Raitt recorded all those years ago, a riotous version done with immense gusto: “The men that you’ve been seeing keep their balls up on shelves/you know they can never love you, they can’t even love themselves”. There are contributions from a variety of session musicians, with some great percussion and particularly fine close harmony vocals on Devil Got Your Man
and Don’t It Drag On
. It was a nice surprise to hear the unmistakable tones of Loudon Wainwright III on What They Say
, and the sombre Train Home
is positively uplifted by joyous upbeat piano from Allen Toussaint. And the chilling atmosphere engendered by the fragmentary No More Cane On The Brazos
actually makes the hairs rise unbidden on the back of my neck.
The fact that it was recorded in New Orleans was in rather small print that I didn’t notice till after I’d listened to it, but perhaps helps explain why a couple of images from that excellent series Treme flitted through my mind whilst listening. Smither grew up in New Orleans and although he’s spent most of his adult life in Massachusetts he still sings in a fine husky Southern drawl.
The whole album has a wonderful relaxed feel about it – the lyrics are by turns witty, thoughtful and dark, but almost every song gives the feet an irresistible urge to tap. No Love Today manages to combine sad reflective lyrics with a highly infectious chorus quoting the cry of a street-seller of fruit and veg remembered from Smither’s NO boyhood. Lovely! And what a great idea – two quite different versions of my favourite Leave The Light On appear at the end of each CD. Going by the subtle adjustment of the lyric in the final verse, he’d aged almost a year between recording them. “I’ve been left for dead before, but I still fight on/don’t wait up, leave the light on / I’ll be home soon”.
A great album, which will definitely join a select list of favourites regularly played in the house.
• www.signaturesounds.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
ROBERT PLANT Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar Nonesuch 7559-79537-3
Photo: Ed Miles
Long-domiciled in the USA, the return to UK shores of golden god, multi-Grammy award-winning Americana artist and lifetime vice-president of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, Robert Anthony Plant CBE is cause for celebration in these parts, folks.
The Sensational Space Shifters (Justin Adams, John Baggott, Juldeh Camara, Billy Fuller, Dave Smith and Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson) may be a new name, but the majority of its constituent musicians have worked with Plant, on-and-off, for the best part of a decade. While his contemporaries tend to stick to the tried-and-trusted to pay the central heating bills in their rock star mansions, Plant and his versatile crew fearlessly blend ancient and modern musical technologies, as bendir and djembe wallop alongside drum programming and loops, and riti, banjo and kologo nestle comfortably alongside electric guitars.
It’s a pulsating record, which, for all its blues-groove, griot and trance elements, also shows that Plant’s lost none of his fondness for a classic melody, with (Tyson’s Britpop hit-makers) Cast recalled in Somebody There. He’s in (predictably) superb voice throughout, supported by the Fulani vocals of Camara also on several tracks and the empyreal Julie Murphy, who guests with a Welsh language verse on Embrace Another Fall.
His maturity as a lyricist is evinced both in the knowing re-contextualising of lines from his Led Zeppelin songs in Pocketful Of Golden (“If the sun refused to shine…”) and A Stolen Kiss – “the western shore,” and in the confessional honesty of Turn It Up (“I’m lost inside America, I’m turning inside out. I’m turning into someone else I heard so much about”).
There are a couple of folk songs here too, in Poor Howard (derived from the Lead Belly song) and exultant album opener Little Maggie.
One doesn’t expect many surprises from rock’s ‘dinosaur’ generation, but this album delivers. None more so than the sudden realisation that Robert Plant and his mates, tearing up final track Arbarden (Maggie’s Babby), reminded me of absolutely nothing and no-one so much as Joe Strummer & The Mescalaros. Watch the BBC TV footage of Adams’ son dancing on stage with the band under the Glastonbury Pyramid, and it’s easy to imagine glimpsing a punk rock warlord, rocking approvingly in the wings.
• www.robertplant.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
KATE IN THE KETTLE Swimmings Of The Head Own label 3 777209 075647
Kate Young (sometime fiddle/singer in Carthy Hardy Farrell Young, sometime Moulette) heads up this trans-traditional web of sound, focused on her own songwriting, alongside the solid craftsmanship of Marit Fält on låt mandola, Victor Solana on percussion and Daniel Moser on bass clarinet. It is a bold and idiosyncratic sound experiment: part sinew and bone with Young’s sparkling, visceral fiddle playing (rhythmic, percussive and imbued with sublime melodic ease) and part an immersion in improvisational mood-pieces (Indian raga flights, ringing Scandinavian harmonies, Scottish lilt and spirit).
Above the lushly multi-textured arrangements, rooted in the natural world (birdsong and crickets thrown in for good measure), Young’s golden-toned vocals glide and soar. She both revels in vocal play, trills and nonsense sounds, but also has a molten singing style which blurs diction. As such it’s easy to lose yourself in the ‘feel’ of the songs, rather than the detail of her environmentally themed songwriting.
The album balances instrumentals with songs: driving polskas such as Såb Jon’s or Salmon (Satie makes an appearance with a Swedish/Indian-flavoured Trois Gnossiennes No 1) balance Young’s earth-bound, but ethereal-tinged, songs. The Richard Greene style chop-driven Green And Gold is a triumph, complete with oud-style mandolin, as are the twists and turns of Grow Down.
Fearless, intense and rather wonderful.
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…
The Incredible String Band Ducks On A Pond (2 CDs & DVD) (Secret Records SECDP106)
Don’t be misled – this is the re-formed version of the ISB (minus Robin Williamson but with added Dando and Fluff), captured in concert in 2003 at Salford’s Lowry Theatre. Their cheery parade of classic material from the band’s halcyon days either turns out convincingly inventive or else falls victim to over-zealous reinterpretation. www.secretrecordslimited.com
Sleepy John Estes Live In Japan With Hammie Nixon (Delmark DE 835)
These recordings made at concerts in Tokyo (1974 and 1976) and Kyoto (1976) represent some of the last music blues pioneers Estes and Nixon made together. Sleepy John is as wonderfully rough and emotive as he always was, while Hammie’s accompaniment on either harmonica, jug, or kazoo is rather hit or miss, but the concert atmosphere and Estes’ rhythmic drive and unique singing style make this a valuable document that previously had been released only in Japan. www.delmark.com
The Lords Of Thyme The Lords Of Thyme (Sunstone Records, no cat no)
Four track EP by the rapidly-rising stars of pastoral English psychedelia alternates (singer-guitarist) Joe Woolley and traditional folk songs. Standout opener Park Song, with its added cello and violin, is a perfect evocation of the hazy Witchseason vibe. www.sunstonerecords.co.uk
Skullthuggery Skullthuggery (Rowdy Fargo RFSTO11)
Punk pirates anyone, heavy metal on the galleons? No thanks, I’d rather walk the plank. No yo ho! But then, pirates from Peterborough? The prosecution rests m’Lord. www.destructors.co.uk
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down