This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
STICK IN THE WHEEL Follow Them True From Here
Photo: Toby Amies
Stick In The Wheel
Last April, just before the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Simon Mayo presented “the top ten most played folk tracks, in heady anticipation of the folk-iest night of the year”. Of those ten, only one (Bellowhead’s Roll The Woodpile
) was actually a folk song. Stick In The Wheel aren’t ‘folky’ (which presumably accounts for their absence on “the folk-iest night of the year”) but are passionate interpreters of English folk songs. Intensely independent, they’re beholden to no-one but themselves. Previous album, From Here
, deservedly won our 2015 Critics Poll, but also attracted opprobrium in some quarters for its flagrant use of toy melodeon and general disregard for folky niceties. This, then, is a record safely described as ‘highly anticipated’.
Follow Them True – an album that “examines Rituals and Cycles; how we have the power to change ourselves and the world around us, the past repeating itself, ghosts and death, land and place, thieves and beggars,” sees these five musicians’ disparate skills and musical backgrounds (folk music, visual and sonic art, underground electronica, contemporary classical and metal) fully coalesce into a coherent and unique group identity.
It retains all the excitement and urgency of its predecessor on tracks like (opener) Over Again and White Copper Alley, but there’s real, affecting beauty in the likes of the waltz-time Blind Beggar and Red Carnation – a song that Nicola Kearey delivers with a breadth of emotion to compel anyone foolish enough to dismiss her as a Cockney bawler to fall to their knees in penitence. There’s a wonderful solo, unaccompanied version of Unquiet Grave, a terrific, mass-chorus singalong on Poor Old Horse, a joyous tip-of-the-hat to Bagpuss on Weaving Song and even an instrumental Abbots Bromley.
It’s the title track, 100,000 Years and As I Roved Out that will inevitably draw the ire and incomprehension of some in the folk(y) world, for their (startlingly effective) auto-tune-as-instrument vocal manipulations and electronic ambience. But this isn’t an extravagant studio creation – it’s an album self-recorded in a warehouse and office complex in Basildon. Stick In The Wheel don’t merely tweak existing formulas, but present folk song as something thrillingly current. If we’ve learnt anything about recorded music from Canadian progster’s Rush – via their 1980 hit Spirit Of Radio, it’s that: “It’s really just a question of your honesty.” Stick In The Wheel are a folk group as honest as the day is long. Hear a track on this issue’s fRoots 67.
• stickinthewheel.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
MELROSE QUARTET Dominion Melrose Quartet MQCD03
Three years after their debut with Fifty Verses
, Sheffield neighbours Jess and Richard Arrowsmith, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan return brimming in harmonies and a lively mix of fiddles, melodeon, bouzouki and guitar to drive them along. Blending traditional material with modern songs and uplifting tunes, it sounds a far more relaxed affair than its predecessor and, to these ears, far superior.
An unaccompanied Appalachian song kicks it off into a brave arrangement of Dominion Of The Sword, part-written by Martin Carthy and one of the most powerful things he has ever recorded, with potent additional words from James Fagan. They just about get to grips with the quickfire wordplay, but it’s the vigorous instrumental blast of the glorious Breton pipe tune which Carthy set it to that really knocks it out of the ground. Neat idea, too, to follow it by tagging Dave Swarbrick’s Carthy’s March on to a James Fagan tune A Generous Man.
Indeed, the instrumental interplay is perhaps the album’s greatest strength, eschewing obvious patterns and rhythms on tracks like Fagan’s Low Quebec while The Gallery/The Venus Of Levenshulme fairly rocks along with serious intent; and Richard Arrowsmith’s understated melodeon pinpoints the real beauty of the Scottish tune Rosslyn Castle.
They’ve put together a highly unusual version of Seeds Of Love (featured on this issue’s fRoots 67); Jess Arrowsmith offers wearied wryness and wit in the heartfelt Anthem Of A Working Mum, as well as a persuasive vocal lead on Paul Davenport’s poignant Davy Cross; and, as ever, Nancy Kerr soars both as a singer and songwriter at strategic moments. They also show admirable taste in reminding us of the wonderful songwriting of Paul Metsers – not Farewell To The Gold this time but a great little song, Good Intentions.
• www.melrosequartet.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
MARTIN HAYES QUARTET The Blue Room 251 Records
Martin Hayes Quartet
That there Mr Hayes doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet, does he? Having seduced Ireland, Britain, America and many other lands besides with the consummate artistry and unmitigated delight of his work with the adventurous band The Gloaming, he’s back with a very different, but equally compelling new quartet.
His loyal, longstanding chief lieutenant Dennis Cahill is here, of course, offering that delicious percussive guitar style he has made his own, alongside New Yorker Liz Knowles playing hardanger d’amore and viola, plus – most innovatively – New York composer, arranger and clarinetist Doug Wieselman, known for his avant garde work with Laurie Anderson and Antony & The Johnsons, among others. Apparently they all sat down together in the library of an 18th Century house in Bantry Bay, West Cork, and this elegant, refined, restrained work is the result.
Very different to The Gloaming. Very different to anything he’s done before, in fact, the music shimmering and cascading in cohesive patterns that perhaps owe more to classical music than the Irish tradition. Yet the classical style arrangements are neither pretentious nor artificial – this does have the feel of a group of musicians instinctively responding to one another rather than pursuing any pre-ordained meeting of minds.
Wieselman’s bass clarinet is certainly the most fascinating element, painting its own mellow washes and giving the music a fresh new outlet as the strings get busy along more conventional paths. It’s an experiment, says Hayes, and a bold one at that; but it’s an experiment assembled with tenderness and love that creates a mood of chilled subtlety. When Hayes and Cahill build up a head of steam, the foot gets tapping alright, but the respective contributions of Knowles and Wieselman invariably rein it in and re-direct it into more mysterious alleyways.
Indeed, a lovely collection made for quiet fireside quaffing and chess in the early hours. Hear a track on fRoots 67.
• www.251records.net | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
BAO SISSOKO, MOLA SYLLA, WOUTER VANDENABEELE Tamala Muziek Publique 09
The album starts with Bao’s kora setting out one of those magnificent slow Manding grooves. When that is established, we hear Mola’s voice; it only takes a few notes of his singing to realise that here is an exquisite singer. The third component is Wouter’s fiddle, nicely understated playing gently filling just some of the spaces that this song Salubrité allows.
Albums involving Wouter’s fiddle playing with various Belgian bands have been reviewed on these pages fairly often but this project with Senegalese jalis, both now based in Europe – Belgium and Holland – takes him in a different direction. Mola has been in Europe since the 1980s; Bao arrived more recently having worked in Dakar with a number of leading musicians including Baaba Maal.
The booklet gives a synopsis of each song in French, Dutch and English which is very helpful in linking the appeal of the performance to understanding of the message of the lyrics. It also tells us that all the items were written by these performers. Of course, in Manding music, this often means that the material is inspired by or adapted from earlier compositions. For instance, Géej Diu Malika has the musical feel and structure of Mali Sadjo – another track to match the inspired standard of the opener. Such high spots are enough to merit much repeated listening. Hear a track on this issue’s fRoots 67.
• www.muziekpublique.be | 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…
Tre Martelli 40 Gir 1977–2017 (Felmay fy 8247)
The highly successful band whose name has become, over 40 years, synonymous with all that is the best in carnavale and other aspects of Piedmontese music. Every good record collection should have at least one album by Tre Martelli – and this compilation would be a good place to start. felmay.it
Sweeney’s Men Sweeney’s Men/The Tracks Of Sweeney (BGO Records BGOCD1298)
The epochal 1968 debut album by Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods marked Irish music’s turning point between the ballad group and Celtic supergroup eras. Re-released on double CD with its (Irvine-less) 1969 follow-up, it remains indispensable. bgo-records.com
Jivan Gasparyan Duduk Ensemble Yeraz (Buda Musique 860317)
The serene sound of four duduks led by the instrument’s most famous player, in the rich acoustic of a mediæval monastery. Mostly material collected in Armenia in the late 19th Century by Komitas. Beautiful, despite an unnecessary Ave Maria. budamusique.com
Otis Taylor Fantasizing About Being Black (inakustic INAK 9147 CD)
Doom-laden lyrics laced with some heavy chords and riffs, mark Otis Taylor’s personal exploration of the black person’s place in American society from slavery to the civil rights era. Serious vocals are delivered/intoned over some compelling rhythms. One of Taylor’s best and most heartfelt albums. otistaylor.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