This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
SHIRLEY COLLINS Lodestar Domino
Well, that’s album of the year sorted then.
The thing is, where do you draw the line between emotional goodwill and genuine quality? Inevitably, reaction to Shirley Collins’ first album for 35 years by the probably the greatest-loved single figure in British folk music is destined to be positively warmed by knowledge of her celebrated back story since the earliest days of the revival and the dysphonia which silenced her for so long. With her game-changing albums, her books, awards, lectures, honours, celebrity testimonials and a documentary film in the works, she has long been a veritable national treasure… and then some.
But even taking all that into account, this is… impossibly wonderful. Her voice is deeper, a little cracked in places maybe – no bad thing when you’re singing traditional songs of death, murder and betrayal – but she palpably remains the Shirley who’d inhabit any song with such gentle ease. When she sings Death & The Lady, it is spine-tingling stuff; Shirley at 80 exhibiting the same lived-in, stripped-down rawness Johnny Cash struck singing Hurt.
So much credit, though, must go to producer/musical director Ian Kearey, who refuses to entertain any notion of this becoming mere nostalgia-fest with a series of clever and telling accompaniments. There’s a startling opening statement of intent during all manner of musical twists and turns as Awake Awake develops into something of a mini folk opera in its own right, morphing from hymn to May Day celebration. Kearey’s restrained slide guitar on Death & The Lady offers the perfect disquieting setting of doom and foreboding for Shirley to deliver her tale of an encounter with the Grim Reaper. Not dissimilarly, the ghastly saga of Cruel Lincoln (hear it on this issue’s fRoots 61) unfolds, with gripping simplicity, over the sound of innocent birdsong and gentle acoustic guitar, and Pretty Polly is accorded telling bouncy percussion. Even more hauntingly, vocal frailty melds potently into strings on The Silver Swan. She still knows how to tell a story, that’s for sure.
It’s not all dark and tragic – Old Johnny Buckle is jauntily fiddle-driven; we get a spirited blast of Cajun at the end of The Rich Irish Lady and, she even tackles – rather charmingly – the French language song Sur Le Borde De L’eau by Louisiana cult hero Blind Uncle Gaspard.
So… emotional? Yes. Nostalgic? No. Excellent? Definitely.
• www.shirleycollins.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
RUTH THEODORE Cactacus Aveline AVREC001
So, with a billion-and-one singer-songwriters in the world, both female and other varieties, what makes Ruth Theodore a cut above? Well, everything really. The magnificent The Carcass & The Pride
strongly recalls Anaïs Mitchell and it’s easy to make parallels with Mitchell and AniDiFranco given that her Californian producer Todd Sickafoose has worked extensively with both; but ultimately she’s just different. And, on this third album – which he produced with lofty confidence and wholehearted belief – she makes the big leap from someone agreeably left-field and eccentric into a rounded artist, with an accumulation of method accompanying the madness.
Yes, the album is awash with endearingly unintelligible lyrics, random whoops and unconventional arrangements and instrumentation, but Sickafoose has shaped it into a relative coherence perfectly exemplified by the outrageously infectious You Can’t Help Who You Love. The songs aren’t quite as willfully obtuse, either, this time round… there are still liberal reference to water and the solar system with Man Of The Land (you heard it on fRoots 60) sounding like a very big and likeably irreverent song indeed, re-writing the history of the universe and everything. Yet amid the scattergun humour and surreal imagery, her interest appears to have been piqued by matters of the heart, albeit the love she contemplates on Wishbone, Kissing In Traffic and Everything Is Temporary is jagged and laden with cynicism.
Her pen is a force of nature, but even if you can resist an opening scenario like “I saw you in your fancy dress with your feet on the chair looking bored to death/I had a brand new pocket with the same old holes and I felt like a whale in a goldfish bowl” (on Buffalo), the slide guitar she drags into it will have you rolling around on your back kicking your legs in the air. Because beyond the colourful narratives, jaunty tunes and chummy delivery, it’s easy to overlook how much is invested into the music. A lovely barrage of jazzy brass piles into Kissing In Traffic, thoughtful backing vocals decorate Wishbone, Scavengers is escorted along by attentive piano/organ/harmonica and Theodore provides a dramatic semi-classical piano setting for The Carcass & The Pride (a title alone worthy of a thesis).
I used to think Ruth Theodore was destined, at best, for the dreaded cult status. Now her horizons suddenly seem much grander.
• ruththeodore.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
ALDEN, PATTERSON & DASHWOOD Call Me Home Alden, Patterson & Dashwood
Alden, Patterson & Dashwood
Since Rhona Dalling’s CD turned up last year, I am often eager to discover the contents of a simple, handmade CD cover when it arrives. Today’s offering delivers. Alden, Patterson and Dashwood, from Norwich, have ‘understated’ stamped through them like a stick of wallflower-flavoured rock, and yet…
Christina Alden leads on the lion’s share of these unadorned and charming folkish, original songs; tender songs of homecoming, of the sea, of seasons turning, of simple blessings. Her clarion voice is resonant of Olivia Chaney in its cool, flowing-water vocal clarity. From the opening, ringing tones of Call Me Home, I am lost in it. The homespun tales – endearing, poignant, sometimes comic – are framed by subtle, skilled old-timey musicianship: gently picked guitar from Alden, fluid fiddle (and mandolin) from Alex Patterson, and sweet, mellifluous dobro and hearth-spun harmony vocals from Noel Dashwood. The trio sounds comfortable in its skin, comfortable in its shoes and at ease in its synergy.
“Cool and clear is the water that runs…” sings Alden. And I feel immersed in its enveloping embrace.
ALSARAH & THE NUBATONES Manara Wonderwheel Recordings
Alsarah & The Nubatones
Nubia meets New York in this intoxicating blend of East African traditionalism and globetrotting modernity, the second album from Sudanese expat Alsarah and her Brooklyn-based backing band.
Their sound is spare but colourful, with percussion (and sometimes handclaps) beating out the distinctive Nubian rhythms, around which oud, trumpet and the odd understated wash of synth or samples are added. Alsarah’s voice is definitely the ace up their sleeve: pure, passionate, letting rip or holding back in all the right places. New recruit additional vocalist Nahid is there for the call and response.
So what’s she going on about then? This is exile music, travellers’ music (Alsarah and the band have been consistently touring across the globe for the last couple of years). Lyrically concerned with notions of home, as a place and a concept. What it means to leave it and how you keep the spirit of it alive once you have. I know all this from having just read the press release, although I picked up a sense of longing from the vocals and a combination of cultural roots tempered with the sounds of her adopted homeland in the arrangements. Not that you need to know about any of that to enjoy what’s on offer here. Hear a track on fRoots 61.
• www.alsarah.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…
Georgia Ruth: Fossil Scale (Navigator 099)
With Georgia swapping harp for piano for a more expansive, ambient pop sound, Fossil Scale is still worth a mention for her global view and classy songwriting. Drawing on native Welsh language and landscape to inspire her writing and sound, she also absorbs influences from her journey along the road, including Suhail Yusuf Khan’s lovely sarangi playing. georgiaruthmusic.co.uk
The Goat Roper Rodeo Band: Cosmic Country Blue (Aveline Recoirds AVREC002)
Welsh high energy acoustic trio. Original songs but singing cannot be taken seriously. Americana, Alt Country, Ard Work. www.avelinerecords.com
Jo Lepine & Friends: As The Blackbird In The Evening (Rif Mountain RM022CD)
Welcome debut solo release from clear-voiced former Owl Service singer, featuring her late collaborator, hurdy-gurdy player Philip Martin (aka Drohne). Dolphins, porpoises and seals abound in stately traditional ballads and a surprisingly apt Country Joe & The Fish cover. jolepine.bandcamp.com
The Changing Room: Picking Up The Pieces (TCR Music TCRM75068)
Second full-lengther from Cornwall-based Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain, who, aided by a host of musician friends, further proudly and passionately explore the regional-historical themes of its predecessor, and with even greater success. This collective goes from strength to strength. thechangingroommusic.com
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down