This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
STICK IN THE WHEEL From Here From Here Records
Photo: Judith Burrows
Stick In The Wheel
Stick In The Wheel’s first album is one of those records you can’t really ignore. Well, you can, but that would just be foolish. Drenched in attitude and intent, they make good their loudly trumpeted manifesto… “We play the music of our people. We sing in our own accents. We record in our kitchens and living rooms. This is our culture, our tradition.”
It’s not always pretty – in fact it’s never pretty – but Nicola Kearey’s confrontational vocal style certainly makes you look upon these mostly well-known traditional songs anew. When she sings “What care I for me goose-feather bed?” on Seven Gypsies, the snarl is so fierce you imagine her husband is reduced to a quivering wreck on the spot. It’s scarcely the tone of a lord’s lady, but that’s maybe the point.
It’s this vivid sense of reality which applies such a genuine vitality and urgency to familiar old songs (the frenzy engendered on Bows Of London is immense) that makes this such a compelling album. In Kearey’s hands, the defeated sadness and resignation usually offered on The Blacksmith suddenly sounds like a bitter call for revenge; the feigned madness of the various vagrants, outsiders and mental patients incarcerated in the famous London asylum is all too believable on this frenetic take on Bedlam; and their very real rawness not only attaches a genuine sense of despair and helplessness to Hard Times Of Old England, it makes the old Copper Family favourite firmly relevant today. A relevance emphatically underlined when they follow it with their thoroughly modern morality tale Me N Becky, inspired by the London riots.
Despite the stripped-down starkness, it’s not devoid of subtlety or technical prowess. Sparing they may be, but Ian Carter’s sensitive accompaniments on dobro and guitar bring plenty to the party, as does Fran Foote’s gorgeous harmony singing. Some earnest percussion and astute use of handclaps add to the overall impact of an album which, despite – or maybe because of – its apparent simplicity strikes well-aimed and far-reaching blows to our perceptions about traditional song.
• www.stickinthewheel.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
KAIA KATER Sorrow Bound Kingswood Records KWR1502
Originally from Quebec, and now based in Toronto, Kaia Kater also spends extensive time in West Virginia, exploring Appalachian music, dance and culture, and the complex racial history of the mountain traditions that range from eastern Canada to Alabama.
Familiar songs like West Virginia Boys are made fresh, while her own compositions are both elegant and eloquent. There are plenty of young artists who have mastered the techniques of traditional music, but few whose original work seems so naturally a part of the traditional continuum. Opener When Sorrows Encompass Me Round borrows a line from an old-time song to begin a new story, “delving into slavery and longing”, while En Filant Ma Quenouille is affectingly sung in French, and Moonshiner is delivered unaccompanied (with additional vocals by Melanie Brulee and Jadea Kelly).
Salt River and Rose On The Mountain are fine fiddle and banjo tunes, played with producer Chris Bartos, who elsewhere variously adds baritone electric guitar, five-string fiddle, six-string electric violin, acoustic and electric bass, piano and moog in just the right measures; subtly embellishing Kater’s soulfully unaffected vocals and terrific old-time banjo playing with a modern groove more implied than stated.
Sorrow Bound is a remarkably assured debut album which both honours tradition and declares Kater’s credentials as a distinctive, original artist. Listening to it I’m suddenly struck by the thought: ‘if Robert Plant hears this, it’ll flip his legendarily leonine wig!’. The inclusions of Anna Roberts-Gevalt, Elizabeth LaPrelle, Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens among those to whom “special thanks” is given, show that she’s already garnering plenty of impressive peer-endorsement.
We’re going to be hearing a lot more from Kaia Kater, so remember the name, folks.
• www.kaiakater.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
JOHN RENBOURN The Attic Tapes Riverboat TUGCD1089
The Attic Tapes
Photo: Brian Shuel
is a superlative hour-long collection of previously unreleased recordings and early works by the late John Renbourn, one of the guitar world’s key innovators. In the words of the man himself, this collection represents “what was happening to me at the time and a reflection of the general scene,” – the relevant vintage being around 1963-64, two or three years before Renbourn’s first album for Transatlantic, convincing early tryouts of a few of whose tunes appear here.
The back-story is that these recordings originate within a tape-box recently discovered by John’s old friend Mac MacLeod in his attic. MacLeod, we learn, was the man responsible for Renbourn’s first encounter with Davy Graham’s iconic Anji – although Renbourn states apocryphally in his booklet notes that Mac got it from Mick Softley who’d been in Paris at the same time as Davy. Whatever, Renbourn’s “unstable” (his word, not mine!) version of Anji (apparently dated 1962 on the box) is of considerable interest, as are the various self-penned instrumentals like the wonderful Celtic-baroque-folk-meets-Lead Belly opus Rosslyn.
And likewise the remainder of the items on this disc, a mixture of home tapes and live gig recordings. The former category contains a couple of tracks (Cocaine and It Hurts Me Too) featuring MacLeod, whereas in the latter category, two (Picking Up The Sunshine and Come Back Baby) feature Beverley Martyn (then Kuetner), while Spider John Koerner appears on Blues Run The Game. In the vein of late-night cabaret-style finale, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out features Davy Graham on vocals. The live category also includes a Les Cousins runthrough of I Know You Babe which is anything but routine, brilliantly exemplifying Renbourn’s natural mastery of the art of creative and meaningful self-accompaniment.
Inevitably, the sound quality of several of the recordings might be judged a touch rudimentary, but the immense historical interest and the classy, unassumingly virtuoso musicianship on display transcends any small deficiencies in these unexpectedly-well-turned-out masterings. The only minor drawback, perhaps, is the difficulty of identifying individual live recordings within the disc’s wide time-frame.
Sadly, John Renbourn died shortly after completing this project, but there can be no more fitting memorial, for it’s an outstanding collection all round, and yes, an essential purchase.
• www.worldmusic.net | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
STEVE TILSTON Truth To Tell Hubris HUB008
So… John Lennon sends you a fan letter at the height of Beatlemania. It gets lost in the post but re-surfaces several decades later and Al Pacino plays you in a movie loosely based on the story. What happens next? Nowt dramatic. You just carry on, as ever, writing and performing quality songs reflecting various aspects of the human spirit based on personal encounters, powerful memories, and shared experiences. When you write and play with such clarity, wit and ingrained emotion as Tilston, it tends to be enough.
Opening track Grass Days, for one, is a beauty, poetically reflecting – with liberal reference to his peers and borrowing lines from their greatest hits – on his early days as a struggling musician in London. There’s plenty of pain, too, on this album, especially with The Way It Was, a tribute to a fallen friend, the violinist and composer Stuart Gordon. This recurring theme of thoughtful melancholia is further reiterated by the gently lyrical The Riverman Has Gone, partly inspired by and partly delivered in the style of Nick Drake, conjecturing bleakly on the values of modern society. There’s more sombre reflection as he maintains one sad eye on the past in Bygone Lands and another, more fearful one of the future on Running Out Of Road.
One of the most tragic songs in the traditional canon, Died For Love, is also executed with shivering intensity; and yet the album as a whole isn’t as bleak as this may all make it sound. Lasting Love comes with an engaging African rhythm; despite its theme of parting Yo Me Voy has a beguiling freshness; and when all else fails, the intricate guitar instrumental Pecket’s Well offers tranquil refuge.
And, if Pick Up Your Heart might be interpreted as the older musician having a rueful conversation with his younger self, there’s a degree of resigned satisfaction about the lot of the travelling troubadour in All Around This World. You like to think John Lennon would have loved it. Not so sure about Al Pacino.
• www.stevetilston.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…
Various Artists Land Of Hope And Fury (Union Music Store UMS009)
A host of roots singer-songwriters swiftly volunteering to donate (and/or specially record) their incredulous responses to May’s election result. Gems from Mark Chadwick, Lucy Ward, Moulettes, Luke Jackson, Grace Petrie et al, emphatically proving that protest song ain’t dead. www.landofhopeandfury.uk
Soap Kills Best Of (Crammed Discs Cram 260P)
Drawn from the three albums which the trip-hop influenced Lebanese duo recorded between 2000 and 2005, on which ambient electronics and Arabic folk melodies mix to middling effect. Nothing on here sounds as distinctive as the music singer Yasmine Hamdan has gone on to make in her subsequent solo career. www.crammed.be
We Banjo Three Live In Galway (WB3CD 003)
Stacked with guests and laid down over two fun-packed nights at the Roisin Dubh, obviously located in Galway, We Banjo Three cement their reputation for trad Irish Americana crossover done with taste and verve. Rich testament to their skill and challenging agenda. Great craic! www.webanjo3.com
Daby Touré Amonafi (Cumbancha CMB-CD-35)
After two albums with Peter Gabriel’s Real World, the smooth-voiced Mauritanian turns up on Cumbancha with a (French) home-recorded CD. He has been compared to Cat Stevens, which makes a certain sense, and Nick Drake, which doesn’t. Light pop; no angst. www.dabytoure.com
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down