This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
SPIRO Welcome Joy And Welcome Sorrow RealWorld CDRW206
Photo: York Tillyer
Hot on the heels of Spiro’s splendid ‘George Butterworth meets Michael Nyman’ suite of Copper tunes at Cecil Sharp House comes the band’s fourth album, whose title comes from a Keats poem. Other track titles feature lines and phrases from TS Eliot, Ted Hughes, Kenneth Koch, Robert Graves and John Stewart Collis, showing how important the written word is for this instrumental group. A contradiction? Not in this case: in the same way as words can rise to heights and plumb depths, the music here is a wild ride of emotions and impressions, difficult to pin down and define, but let’s try ‘acoustic techno early chamber minimalist music’ as a starting point.
All the elements from previous recordings are there – the complex interplay of instruments producing a greater, simpler final effect (I Am The Blaze On Every Hill), the fluttering, soaring violin and mandolin of Jane Harbour and Alex Vann, always in motion and changing (The Vapourer), the insistent building of layers of sound (Burning Bridge) and monolithic blocks of guitar and accordeon that underpin everything (Marineville, named after the underwater base in Stingray, hurrah); but this time there is more purely original material and the compositions explore further afield.
The sounds on this album are also wider in range: at times Jason Sparkes’s accordeon settings sound like electronic instruments, stabs and flashes of sound contrasting with his more usual long, rich lines and countermelodies. Vann’s mandolin can sound like an insistent synth drum or, on the semi-anthemic title track, tuned percussion, while Harbour’s violin and viola can be romantic and harsh in equal measure; Flying In The Hours Of Darkness starts like a million birds wheeling before cello and accordeon bring in a slow melody. Jon Hunt’s circular guitar work, always spot-on and the essential ‘secret weapon’ that underpins whatever else is going on, is at the same time lush and soft, driving and expressive – on Blyth High Light he manages to be a snare drummer, bass player and guitarist all in one.
Of course there are traditional roots – you can spot fragments of Tulloch Goram here, The Oyster Wife’s Rant there, and Will You Walk The Woods So Wild is held over one chord until the tension is almost unbearable, until sweet, deep guitar changes set it free into trademark ascending violin stabs. But the self-penned pieces show just how fully Spiro have absorbed their source material and blended it with ever more adventurous work. Folded In The Arms Of The Earth has that minimalist movement where one picks up on what any single instrument is doing for a short while before it is subsumed into the whole, out of which something else emerges, seemingly endlessly. Again with such intelligent music (not intellectual, note), just a chord change or tiny shift in the balance can sweep everything up joyously or bring it down suddenly – try The Still Point Of The Turning World with its early music violin style and sound, cello counterpoint and piano triplets like drops of water, or the delicate duet Thought Fox with the mandolin’s bell-like patterns brought into order by the violin.
There are virtuosity, extraordinary group playing and dynamics on show, wedded to a strong musical vision and a sense of what instrumental composition can achieve. They’ve done it again: welcome joy, indeed.
• www.realworldrecords.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
ELIZA CARTHY & TIM ERIKSEN Bottle Hem Hem/Navigator 092
Photo: Judith Burrows
Eliza Carthy & Tim Eriksen
Whatever else, you’ve got to love the catchphrases accompanying this little gem – ”dream duo” and “hardcore Americana meets hardcore Anglicana” – while Eliza’s always-illuminating notes include the observation (on the title track) that there are “not enough mediæval songs about orgasm in my opinion…”
Hardcore is right. In material, in style and – especially – in attitude, this is not for the faint of heart. Carthy has a full-blooded approach to everything she does and in Eriksen she has an accomplice who matches her daredevil spirit every inch of the way.
They meet head-on somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Carthy’s characteristic, charging fiddle clashes vigorously with Eriksen’s acerbic guitars and banjo over a rugged selection of songs from both of their traditions, sharing vocals with equally uncompromising fervour. Murder and mayhem is rife – be it in the swashbuckling distorted fashion of Buffalo or the morose narrative of Logan’s Lament and plenty of tragedy at sea, whether it befalls the animals of Cats & Dogs or the poor, suffering Sweet Susan.
We do get some gentle respite with the unaccompanied harmonies of May Song and Love Farewell, amid explosive versions of Sacred Harp songs, insistent guitar thrashes, weirdly wonderful effects, plenty of love gone wrong, darkly hypnotic harmonies and a nice bit of sauce on Sailor’s Wedding. With Eriksen sounding like he’s come to chop you into little bits every time he opens his mouth and the occasional eccentric arrangement to keep you guessing (offbeat claps and dysfunctional banjo included) and a couple of live tracks, it’s a fierce beast alright.
It’s seldom pretty, but then nor is life. Or death. A powerful antidote to the determined prettification of folk song.
• www.timeriksenmusic.com | www.eliza-carthy.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
CANZIONIERE GRECANICO SALENTINO Quaranta 40 Ponderosa Music & Art CD128
Photo: Judith Burrows
Canzionere Grecanico Salentino
It’s 40 years since Mauro Durante’s father founded Canzionere Grecanico Salentino in Puglia, the area that’s the heel in the boot of Italy. They’ve built and grown in those four decades, much as the country itself. But the biggest changes to the band have come since 2007, when Mauro look over the leadership. They’ve become lauded not only for their music, which combines the local tradition with some highly political original songs, but also for their storming live performances, and they’ve been rightfully praised to the rafters in these pages.
Quaranta doesn’t see them resting on any laurels. If anything, all the plaudits have pushed them to produce music that’s even more intense. No-one else sounds like them, and few can match their intensity. The voices and the dry pounding of the frame drum hark back to a rural past, but many of the lyrics are in the here and now. The build and burn of Solo Andante, for example (lyrics by Eric de Luca), deal with the waves of immigrants seeking something hopeful as they cross the Mediterranean (and die in uncounted thousands – it’s no coincidence that the album carries an Amnesty International logo).
It’s definitely an album that overwhelms the listener, sonically and emotionally. The musicianship is superb (kudos, too, to the excellent production by Ian Brennan) and they’re not afraid of self-deprecating humour – witness I Love Italia – but this is music to send you shuttling back and forth through the ages, from the brooding lullaby of Ninna Ninna to Taranta, a bitingly modern take on the dance for which Salento is famous, which could happily have lasted another ten minutes. This is co-written with famed composer pianist Ludovico Einaudi, who also contributes piano to the track.
The a cappella Mara L’Acqua won’t be bringing the Watersons to mind, but will stir down to the bones, as rough-hewn as a mediæval well, while No Top – with added Fanfara Tirana – is like Lo’Jo refracted through a thousand broken fun-house mirrors, very apt for a piece slating the system of modern Italy. It’s an album that’s constantly at boiling point, and filled with instrumental surprises, like the brief title cut, yet always in touch with its roots, a remarkable balancing act. The melody and gorgeously reverbed bouzouki (Salento was a Greek province long before the Romans existed) of the traditional Pu È To Rodo T’Orio would fit easily in English folk. And then the lyrical, loving finish of Respiri, just to round things out.
Do they live up to all the hype they’ve received? Hell, yes! Are they one of the best bands in the world at the moment? Without a shred of doubt. And keep going for the bonus cut. Jake Thackeray on a foreign holiday.
• www.canzonieregrecanicosalentino.net | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
NIYAZ The Fourth Light Six Degrees 057030 12222
When US-Iranian project Niyaz emerged onto the international scene a decade or so ago, they sounded like yet more heavy-handed purveyors of the ethno-techno/global dance sound which was just reaching its fag-end at the time. Subsequent recordings have shown a growing focus and lightness of touch and this, their fourth album proper, is their most consistent and satisfying to date.
Niyaz’s not-so-secret weapon is front-woman Azam Ali who combines an attractively powerful voice with a striking look (best described as Middle Eastern gothic) and who, along with multi-instrumentalist Loga R Torkian, makes up the core of Niyaz. Their stock-in-trade is soaring vocal and instrumental trance-inducement, heavily influenced by Sufi culture. It’s a tightrope-walking balancing act of deep roots and digitalism and on The Fourth Light they have the combination of Middle Eastern instrumentation (oud, kanun, rahab, santour, riq, kopuz etc), Western guitar, bass and drums and electronic programming balanced to a tee. Of the nine tracks featured, three are original compositions, the remainder being radical reinterpretations of traditional songs and poems from Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey (the album was part recorded in Istanbul, but mostly, strangely enough, in Quebec). They’ve always had their moment, but those moments have never come as thick and fast as they do here.
• www.sixdegreesrecords.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…
Cesária Évora Greatest Hits (Lusafrica/Sony Music 888430636–42)
Fans may argue over ‘greatest’ but these 20 tracks from her nine Lusafrica releases do justice to the greatest 20th Century singer of Cabo Verde (even given a lack of notes to orient the listener from another planet, just landed to discover Évora for the first time). www.lusafrica.com
Michael Chapman Savage Amusement (Secret Recordings SECCD115)
Reissue of 1976 album, recorded by Stax producer Don Nix. Toughened-up band versions of Shuffleboat River Farewell and It Didn’t Work Out alongside well-chosen covers make for an exciting roots-rock record. Four bonus tracks, sixteen-page booklet. michaelchapman.co.uk
Souad Massi El Mutakallimun (Wrasse WRASS330)
Sad to report this once promising young Algerian artist lost in France in search of the plot. She almost catches its tail in places but mostly drifts clumsily from sub-Paxton folkiness to cringeworthy ’60s girl group pop, bad rock guitar, French chanson and Braziliana. Being told it’s full of significant Arabic poetry is not a lot of help to the linguistically challenged. wrasserecords.com
Various Artists Folk Awards 2015 (Proper PROPERFOLK16)
It’s that time of the year again, with Proper parading the usual suspects on a reasonably-enough-selected two discs’ worth of award-nominees. As ever, though, the real interest lies in talent-spotting on the four bonus tracks featuring Young Folk Award contenders. www.propermusicdistribution.com
If you follow the click through to Amazon from the links here and buy anything at their usual excellent prices, fRoots will receive a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you, and helps to support the resources on this web site.
There are lots more reviews in this month’s issue of fRoots. Subscribe!
This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down