This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
MAARJA NUUT Une Meeles – In The Hold Of A Dream Own Label MN0001
Photo: Kaupo Kikkas
Maarja Nuut’s 2013 debut album Soolo was promising. Since then she’s gained a great deal of attention; I won’t bore you with the music-biz details, but after a magical WOMEX showcase her equally riveting performances at Tallinn Music Week made her the delegates’ favourite over all the event’s mass of music of all genres, a vision for them of Baltic otherness, clear and uncluttered. During the last three years she’s been developing and refining her performances, and it all comes together here in a great unity.
The music is misty, perfectly reflected in the misty forest images used through the whole CD pack, the pale blue-green an aspect of her distinctive individual colour sense. Not the wispy, fey kind of mistiness but a perfect balance of simultaneous self-effacement and firm, poised confidence in her unique, individual and very exposed solo path. Just her voice, unforced, often intimate, sometimes whisper-soft but with a deep strength, and bowed or plucked violin, a standard or a rough-hewn one, multiplied with subtly blended loops.
Lots of people mess around with loops, but they tend to disappear behind them; Maarja rises through them like the white samite-clad arm of the Lady of the Lake brandishing Excalibur. Her looping is seamless, in the service of the essence of the song, and on stage invisible, with no clicky pedal-stomping nor sense of machinery. Live sound engineer Kaur Kenk, with whom she works in obvious great empathy, takes care of all that offstage – so it’s just her, poised, alone in the spotlight, untrammelled by leads or mic stands, with great stillness or turning in dance – and this time he also recorded and mixed the album.
She intensifies and celebrates the minimalism and makes magnetic the repetitiveness of the Estonian traditional song and dance melodies, whose spirit her music illuminates in a way that no-one else has done, except the people of the villages who have sung them and knew they weren’t really minimal – they were for them totally satisfying and compelling, hypnotic and everlasting, full of tiny variations, the character of each person and the memory of those from whom they learned them. Hear a track on fRoots 59.
• www.maarjanuut.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
HARP AND A MONKEY War Stories Own Label
Photo: Judith Burrows
Harp And A Monkey
Numerous artists have released albums to commemorate the ongoing centenary of the First World War, but none can claim the erudition of Harp And A Monkey singer Martin Purdy, an internationally-recognised WWI expert and author of three books and numerous academic papers on the conflict. Rather than the tragically familiar themes of remembrance and “the glorious dead”, these songs largely explore the stories of “the forgotten men” – the ones who (like my own grandfather) survived and came home. Half of them are re-workings of traditional or popular songs of the time.
Banks Of Green Willow, with its attention-grabbing opening line, “three ragged soldiers were walking…” sets the scene and asks: “who will remember those proud survivors’ songs and who will sing them now they’ve gone?” A Young Trooper Cut Down serves as a salutary reminder that not all fatalities were the result of military action. The Postman’s Song tells of the emotional burden of a civilian charged with being the bearer of sad tidings, and Ghosts Round The Table communicates immutable bonds, forged in the worst of all circumstances.
A former Daily Express writer and editor of The Oldham Advertiser, Purdy possesses a journalist’s instinct for locating and articulating the emotional core of these human interest stories. Particularly effective use is made of the archive interview recordings of Daniel Laidlaw, VC-decorated piper of Raise A Glass To Danny, and Connie Noble whose father and his brother are reunited on the battlefield, only to be forever parted by red tape in The Long, Long Trail.
More than just an exceptional work of storytelling, this is also Harp And A Monkey’s most musically accomplished recording. Purdy and his multi-instrumentalist comrades Simon Jones and Andy Smith have thoroughly honed their distinctive blend of acoustic and electronic sounds on this meticulous, compelling and profoundly moving album.
BELLOWHEAD Bellowhead Live: The Farewell Tour Navigator 095X
Photo: Tom Barnes
So that’s that then. The most powerful force in British folk music in the 21st Century have left the building. Characteristically they depart in grand manner with an expansive live double album – plus supporting DVD – which includes most of their big productions, New York Girls, Gosport Nancy, London Town, Jordan
et al. Strictly speaking it’s drawn from their penultimate rather than their last tour but we’ll let that pass as, in the cold light of day, we can fully assess the wondrous vision, energy, showmanship and technical ability that collided so spectacularly to pull in audiences that wouldn’t otherwise have touched traditional music with a bargepole.
I hate live albums as a rule but the stage was essentially Bellowhead’s raison d’être and listening to these recordings of pinpoint quality far from the roar of the madding crowd, you get to appreciate the full extent of their complex arrangements and rich sound. What you lose in not being able to watch Sam and Benji’s salmon leaps you gain in admiring the things you miss amid the frenzy of the live experience – John Spiers’ oh so important box work, the often intricate asides of the string section, the wit and muscle of the brass and, most underestimated of all, the brilliant, inventive drumming of Pete Flood, whose threatening arrangement of The Wife Of Usher’s Well still stops you in your tracks.
Given the crazy musical ambitions of the whole thing and the ridiculous pressures of making an eleven-piece big band economically viable, the concentration on epic sing-along choruses is not only understandable but necessary, even though it sometimes came at the expense of the darker side they did so well. But then my favourite Bellowhead album, Matachin, was their most forbidding and least successful.
There’s still so much to appreciate and discover here – that totally bonkers re-arrangement of one of the biggest chorus songs ever, Old Dun Cow, into something wilfully unsingable; the beautifully-crafted elongated intro to Haul Away; the regal beginnings leading into the scampering mischief of What’s The Life Of A Man; the pounding re-structuring of the shanty Let Her Run; the endearing and rather lovely version of Byker Hill; Jon Boden attacking the frankly peculiar Black Beetle Pies like a circus ringleader; and Boden again singing with creeping guile on the dastardly Greenwood Side.
Populist? Sort of. But groundbreaking too. Roll on the reunion tour…
• www.bellowhead.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
M’TORO CHAMOU EK BANN KREOL Punk Islands Le Cri de l’Ocean Indien MTC06/1
You don’t hear a lot of music from the Comoros Islands, the archipelago situated to the northwest of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Unsurprisingly, the roots of the musics from that end of the big red island and those of Mayotte, the nearest of the group to it, are similar – a little of the Malayo-Polynesian ancestry of the Malagasy, a good dose of black Africa from nearby Mozambique and Tanzania, traces of the old Swahili trading culture from the north. Mayotte also shares the status of La Réunion – further out in the Indian Ocean – as a department of France and so there are other connections in the region too: musicians from La Réunion and Mauritius have taken to reggae like ducks to warm tropical water, for example.
I first came across M’Toro Chamou more than a decade ago when a friend in Réunion was supplying CDs from the region as research for my Rough Guide To The Indian Ocean compilation, and I wrote in the notes to that set that “M’toro Chamou is part of a new generation of Mahorais musicians fusing traditional music with modernity – bringing new life to m’godro (the best-known rhythm of Mayotte, related to Malagasy salegy) and the ancient instruments. He’s been playing since his childhood, firstly in reggae and rap groups, but it took a visit to Paris to realise that Mayotte’s roots sounds had their place in the world music palette.”
In the decade since, he’s just got better, with a really tight band and production that uses western instruments and solid influence from rock and reggae but still sounds excitingly local. It has focused guitar – big acoustic and solidly beefburger electric sounds, ear-catching songs (with strong political messages) and melodies, effective backing vocals, infectiously snappy rhythms and his really distinctive voice. There’s nothing tentative or neither-fish-nor-fowl ‘fusion’ about his blend of global with the local: it’s clearly something which now comes completely naturally.
Strangely, for something so tropically rooted, this also works really well as motoring music – turn it up, wind down the windows and put your foot to the floor.
You can hear one of the more pared-down acoustic tracks on this issue’s fRoots 59 compilation
• www.mtorochamou.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…
Tim Jones And The Dark Lanterns The Oyster Girl (Cotton Mill Records)
Likeable London folk scene activists return with an acoustic EP of four new songs by Jones with guitar, mandolin, concertina and fiddle. The title track, in praise of the city’s narrowboat dwellers, utilises the traditional tune of the same name. www.cottonmillrecords.co.uk
Ana Moura Moura (Blue Wrasse 4776746)
Fado-rooted-ish glossy mainstream from the very popular smooth-voiced Moura. LA-recorded, Larry Klein produced, with the likes of Dean Parks and Vinnie Colaiuta surrounding the guitarra, featuring Lilac Wine in English and a duet with Omara Portuondo. Fado – and in this variant certainly – isn’t “Portuguese blues”. www.wrasserecords.com
Josie Nugent Modal Citizen (Own Label JNBS002)
Horrible punned title, chalk-scraped-across-a-blackboard fiddle tone, Bartók inflicted upon Irish music, trite compositions (some featuring someone in the background apparently slapping cardboard boxes), dreadful woolly production… and that’s just the first three tracks!
3Hat Trio Dark Desert Night (Okehdokee Records, no cat no)
These guys create from raw essentials (banjos, guitars, violin, upright bass, foot percussion) an individual sub-genre they label “American desert music”. Maverick, wayward, spookily soulful, often slightly scary, and also uncannily evocative of the natural world of their sacred homeland. www.3hattrio.com
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down