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Reviews

A sampling of reviews from the current issue

THE SWEET LOWDOWN Chasing The Sun  SLD2014
 
The Sweet Lowdown
 
Photo: A Akins
The Sweet Lowdown
The fourth album in six years from the Victoria, British Columbia, trio of Amanda Blied, Shanti Bremer and Miriam Sonstenes captures a band who have spent the best part of 2014 on the move, an experience revealed in lyrics like: “What town is this? I think I know by how far we’ve come,” and “I am leaving I am leaving, don’t you cry, it won’t be long.”

Extensive touring can, of course, simply tire a band out, but The Sweet Lowdown appear to have been energised, as here they’re brimming with confident creativity. Featuring the kind of concise, dynamic arrangements that only come from prolonged experience of performing to audiences, Blied’s guitar, Bremer’s banjo and Sonstene’s fiddle interact beautifully, while guest musicians Adrian Dolan, Darren Nicholson and Sam Howard effectively contribute mandolins and bass without ever compromising the core trio sound.

There’s an unassuming strength in their writing, and it’s easy to envisage an appeal beyond the aficionado bluegrass and old-time country music audiences.

Sonstenes’ title track is the kind of lyrical fiddle tune that Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas shift truckloads of Transatlantic Sessions DVDs with, while Blied’s You Can Find The North possess the kind of melodic hooks that Kacey Musgraves and her Nashville chums would gladly give their rhinestoned buckskin mini-skirts for. The celebrated vocal harmonies that set our editor all a-quiver (in his fR376 Root Salad feature) are showcased in all their unaccompanied glory on Leaving.

Arriving too late to feature in anyone’s albums of the year list, this original material with traditional musical values nonetheless provides heartwarming fare for the long winter evenings.
www.thesweetlowdown.ca

Hear River Winding Down on this issue’s fRoots 52 compilation.

Steve Hunt


AMIRA MEDUNJANIN Silk & Stone World Village 450029
 
Amira Medunjanin
 
Photo: Judith Burrows
Amira Medunjanin
Amira Medunjanin is a genre-defining talent. In 2004 her Rosa started a good number of listeners off on quests of discovery. The places that musical discoveries can transport us to are surely some of the finest available to the human mind. Judging by Silk & Stone, the Bosnian singer’s fifth album with her name in the title credits, it appears that she has been on active quests of discovery herself. Why Amira Medunjanin is so extraordinary is not one of those sweet little mysteries of life and music that give up their secrets slowly. The evidence begins with her opening shot, Eleno Kerko (Helen Darling) – one of the choicest opening tracks in a decade.

One card that will no doubt be overplayed in reviews is the sevdah aspect. Sevdah is a current, a feeling and she taps its passion wondrously. She communicates sevdah’s ineffability in ways that only need open ears. No command of ‘Foreign’ is necessary. That opening earworm, Eleno Kerko is underpinned by Bojan Z’s cascading piano part. Bojan Z(ulfikarpašic)’s jazz-tinged piano adds a real sense of movement to the narrative. A Macedonian morsel, its lyrics are shorthand-like in translation, oblique the way traditional lyrics get worn and polished by handling. The instrumental arrangements – piano, – double-bass, oud, kanun and guitar – perfectly complement the stories Amira is telling. Whether tales of sorrow and that “devilish girl”, sorrow and herblore, sorrow and heartbreak, sorrow and exaggerations for effect…

Parenthetically, a personal preference would be for straight, as opposed to (Adlen Šiljak’s) re-poetised, unnecessarily rhymed translations.

From Rosa’s tomboyish Amira, she has gone to Silk & Stone’s beballgowned diva look on the cover. That said, the essence of her singing and interpretive skills remain. Not unchanged, more like matured. In an ever-expanding world of music and complexity of musical opportunities, a musical firmament without Amira Medunjanin’s voice would be nightmarish. One of the year’s finest albums, it was released after fRoots’ cut-off point for 2014’s ‘Best of’ poll. A masterpiece of contemporary, tradition-based Bosnian music, a choice counterblast to turbo-folk, and a sure-fire carry-over for 2015
www.amiramedunjanin.ba | Buy from Amazon.co.uk.

Hear Cula Jesam Da Se Dragi Zeni on this issue’s fRoots 52 compilation.

Ken Hunt


SPIRO Pole Star RealWorld CDRW204
 
Spiro
 
Baby Spiros, mid '90s.
For those of us outside God’s own city of Bristol, Spiro’s first Real World album, Lightbox, came seemingly out of nowhere back in 2009. Part of its appeal was the complete self-assurance that inhabited all the music, which obviously came from a lot of playing together and working out the intricate total sound of violin, mandolin, accordeon and guitar, each of which could take on a new life in the mix. Then it transpired that Spiro had been an entity for a long while, originally as the Famous Five, and had recorded one album, Pole Star, which had been released independently in 1997: the Great Lost Album, no less.

Now it has been brought back into the canon, and fascinating it is, too.

All the elements that make Spiro so damn marvellous are present: the use of as little as a single line or as much as a whole traditional tune as a springboard for exploration and development (The Iron Way and Gilles Chabanet’s Florinda particularly); the almost unbearable control of Gingling Geordie, which builds up its own interior tension; and the circular, cinematic sweep of Heartsease, which feels as if it’ll never finish (and you wouldn’t want it to). In the Hungarian Gabor’s Tune, the progression from a simple melody into the mesh of Spinning Jenny, has Jon Hunt’s percussive acoustic guitar patterns beating away against Jason Sparkes’s long accordeon lines and Alex Vann’s mandolin, with Jane Harbour’s violin wheeling and turning away over it all. And there’s the extraordinary sound of the original The Sky Is A Blue Bowl which appears to be the band playing backwards but isn’t; the Velvet Underground/Steve Reich four/four pulse of The Lily, which mutates into The Grouse Was Dead (When It Hit The Queen) via some very Beatles-y moments. Most typical of all, there’s Gillan Na Drover, with the four parts spinning like components of an expensive Swiss watch or the tiny, complex kinetic sculptures of Arthur Ganson, each playing a perfect part of a greater whole. And that ain’t all, folks…

With a new studio album in the offing for 2015, this is just the right moment to discover what Spiro sounded like all those years ago – what they’ve added in the interim is the ability to make everything sound bigger and more enveloping, but Pole Star stands up on its own merits and is still streets ahead of almost anything else around. It’s that good.
realworldrecords.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Ian Kearey


AMPARO SÁNCHEZ Espiritu Del Sol World Village WVF 479101
 
Amparo Sanchez
 
Amparo Sanchez
Since winding down her brassy goodtime band Amparanoia in 2008, Spanish singer-songwriter Sánchez has moved into twangier, moodier territory for her solo career, most fruitfully in collaboration with Mexi-Cali mood masters Calexico, who feature prominently here (appearing on almost every track). Their low-slung reverb-laden guitar sound and spare drumming adding much to an album of plaintive melodies and dust-blown atmospherics. There’s Hammond organ on some tracks, accordeon on others. Sometimes mariachi horns add heft and colour.

Vocally Sánchez sounds relaxed and at home on these recordings made in late 2013 and early 2014 at studios in France, Spain, Argentina, Mexico and the US. She had a hand in writing nine of the twelve songs (the covers include a take on Manu Chao’s Long Long Night). Combining Spanish and Basque influences with US folk rock and Mexican boleros, Espiritu Del Sol doesn’t really find Sánchez trying anything that she hasn’t delivered on previous solo releases, but offers up her highest hit rate of good songs and finely honed arrangements yet.
www.worldvillage.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Hear Mi Gitana on this issue’s fRoots 52 compilation.

Jamie Renton


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…

Various Artists The Greenwich Village Folk Scene (Not Now Music NOT3CD168)
Budget three-CD selection of 1940s revivalists – Seeger, Guthrie, 1950s stars – The Tarriers, Kingston Trio, and 1960s young rebels Dylan, Baez, Paxton, Peter, Paul & Mary, plus Doc Watson, Rambin’ Jack and many others. Perfect introduction for newcomers and the folk curious. www.notnowmusic.com

Piers Faccini & Vincent Segal Songs Of Time Lost (No Format)
Cellist Segal has done wondrous things with kora player Ballake Sissoko but here is teamed with a dull as ditchwater Nick Drake-esque Franco/Italian singer/songwriter. Accurate title doesn’t express this reviewer’s annoyance at not being able to get it back. www.noformat.net

Various Artists Feedback Madagascar (ARC Music EUCD 2539)
If you aren’t acquainted with Malagasy music, start here. Wild and giddy rhythms, sweet and insistent voices, wheezing accordeons, the tubular valiha zither that chimes and some of the most extraordinary guitar playing you’ll ever hear. Half the proceeds go to reforestation, Madagascar’s biggest need. www.arcmusic.co.uk

Mariza Best Of Mariza (World Connection 2564631532)
Womex Artist 2014 Mariza needs no introduction, but this all-in-one compilation offers her best-known fados plus an English-language interpretation of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile and for Spanish speakers, duets with Concha Buika, Miguel Poveda, and José Mercé. www.mariza.com

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