Blabber’n’Smoke received a copy of Rob Young’s exhaustive history of, for want of a better term, British alternative folk and folk rock, Electric Eden last Christmas. As a long time listener of the likes of the extended Fairport Convention family tree, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Pentangle at al we devoured the book wondering at the vastness of it all and greedily devouring via Spotify and YouTube numerous artists we’d either forgotten about or had never heard in the first place. Young uses the early chapters to explore the late 19th and early 20th Century roots of the folk revival in some detail to advance his thesis that this ties in with a uniquely British innate desire to return to and commune with a bucolic faerie fuelled past. He then tops off the book with a look at the likes of Kate Bush and Julian Cope in the eighties but the meat of the book is in the blossoming of a new type of folk, fuelled by the beatnik, hippie and rock movements of the 50s to the 70s. As a true companion to the book this album would have been required to be a box set of some sumptuous proportions, sadly it is not so however Young has compiled a fine primer which manages to balance familiar and obscure relics of the highwater years from 1966-1979.
With the two discs subtitled “Acoustic Eden” and “Electric Albion” there’s a rough division between those bands and artists who upheld more traditional sounds and those who plugged in and with drums, bass and a rock’n’roll heart. A mite misleading as some of the electric songs are much more traditional than the acoustic ones with Comus (acoustic) scary as hell and Shirley Collins & The Albion Country Band (electric) sounding as if they were conjured from a Thomas Hardy novel. That quibble aside the 36 songs here capture the spirit of adventure and daring that allowed such songs as Tim Hart and Maddy Prior’s False Knight On The Road to rub shoulder to shoulder with prog and Krautrock on the late John Peel’s radio shows. While the likes of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Pentangle, John Martyn and Steeleye Span are well represented here the real thrill is in hearing names that have been thrown up as influences by the freak folk crowd but are rarely represented on compilations. Thus Bill Fay, Peter Bellamy, Meic Stevens, COB, Shelagh McDonald, Mick Softley, Trees and even our very own Archie Fisher (with a wonderful rendition of Reynardine complete with sitar) are offered a moment in the sun with around a dozen others. Even David Bowie gets in here with Black Country Rock. Nicely packaged with liner notes by Young it’s an engaging trip down a mystic country lane for those who remember those times and a great place to start for anyone wanting to dig deep into what the likes of Devandra Banhart is on about.
1. Peter Bellamy – ‘Oak, Ash and Thorn’
2. Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’
3. Bert Jansch – ‘The Waggoner’s Lad’
4. Fairport Convention – ‘Stranger to Himself’
5. Archie Fisher – ‘Reynardine’
6. Bread, Love and Dreams – ‘Brother John’
7. Bill Fay – ‘Garden Song’
8. Water Into Wine Band – ‘Stranger in the World’
9. Tudor Lodge – ‘Willow Tree’
10. Comus – ‘Diana’
11. Meic Stevens – ‘Yorric’
12. Magic Carpet – ‘The Dream’
13. Sweeney’s Men – ‘The Pipe on the Hob’
14. Tim Hart & Maddy Prior – ‘False Knight on the Road’
15. Dr Strangely Strange – ‘Dark-Haired Lady’
16. Albion Country Band – ‘I Was a Young Man’
17. COB – ‘Music of the Ages’
18. Roger Nicholson – ‘The Carman’s Whistle’
19. Bridget St John – ‘Fly High’
20. John Martyn – ‘She Moves Through the Fair’
1. Richard Thompson – ‘Roll over Vaughn Williams’
2. Steeleye Span – ‘The Lark in the Morning’
3. Unicorn – ‘Country Road’
4. Fairport Convention – ‘A Sailor’s Life’
5. Trees – ‘Glasgerion’
6. Fotheringay – ‘Gypsy Davey’
7. David Bowie – ‘Black Country Rock’
8. John Martyn – ‘Glistening Glyndebourne’
9. Mike Cooper – ‘Paper and Smoke’
10. Shelagh McDonald – ‘Mirage’
11. Spirogyra – ‘Disraeli’s Problem’
12. Mick Softley – ‘Time Machine’
13. Shirley Collins & The Albion Country Band – ‘Murder of Maria Marten’
14. Pentangle – ‘Jack Orion’
15. Incredible String Band – ‘Painted Chariot’
16. Nick Drake – ‘Voices’
The USP for The Emperors of Wyoming is the presence of Butch Vig, ace producer and Garbage drum peddler with the smoke signals billowing headlines such as “Butch Vig makes country rock album!” Well it ain’t exactly like that. Truth is that back in the eighties Vig and the other Emperors (Phil Davis, vocals, guitars, Pete Anderson, bass, guitars and Frank Anderson, lap and pedal steel guitars, keyboards and banjo) played in a couple of Madison, Wisconsin bands before going their separate ways. In 2009 Anderson enlisted his pals to help him realise a bunch of tunes he had been working on. Scattered across the USA they agreed to join in however there was no grand “class reunion” but rather a welter of emails and wav files tossed back and forth until they came up with this, the finished product, a band who haven’t played together in the same room so far.
Despite this remote way of working its fair to say that The Emperors have come up with a classy product with the overall cohesiveness belaying any concerns regarding the recording process. It isn’t country rock in the sense that Poco or the early Eagles were, instead it tends to ape the likes of Tom Petty, Chuck Prophet and the Stones in their country guise. Davis’s voice strains at times although he can sound a little like Petty and there’s even a touch of Jagger’s sneering drawl on I’m Your Man. From the Neil Young like strummed guitar that opens The Bittersweet Sound of Goodbye (and lets not forget where the band name comes from) to the thunderous and monumental riffing of The Pinery Boy the album is corkful of very radio friendly sounds.
While Avalanche Girl may be a little formulaic lyrically it yearns to beam over the airwaves with its familiar Petty like jangle, similarly Cruel Love Ways hits all the right buttons but fails really to take off. The band more than make up for this elsewhere, upping the ante both lyrically and musically. Cornfield Palace starts off with a piece of lyrical corn
“I’m in love with a girl with a cornfield palace/she’s the queen of West Alliss/ in her SUV/ she like’s to watch Dallas on her big TV”
but it swings like a tipsy Dixie Queen dancing to Crazy Horse at the sloppiest best. Brand New Heart of Stone has a narcotic feel with evil sounding guitars and a percussive drive that almost lapses into dub at times. One gets the feeling that Keith Richards would love this song. Sweep Away is almost a country ballad albeit one that has been stewed in a goat’s head soup for some time and there’s even a touch of the stones’ whoops from Sympathy For the Devil towards the end. The album’s highlight however is the majestic and stately Never Got Over You which builds to a fine climax with fine pedal steel and guitar interludes.
Mention of folk music almost inevitably leads to discussion of protest songs with the folk form almost exclusively linked to the notion of expressing political or social concerns in song. On this latest release from Karine Polwart, doyen of Scots folk singers, the first two songs certainly fit the bill. Cover Your Eyes rails against the capitulation of Aberdeen’s finest in allowing media mogul millionaire Donald Trump (he of the hair) to trample over local opposition and despoil an area of natural beauty. Fittingly Polwart invokes here the power of nature to achieve a vengeance of sorts. With a cold beauty it makes its point without haranguing the listener. King Of Birds which follows is a hymn to the Occupy protesters who camped outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. Here Polwart utilises metaphor with the titular king of birds, the wren, representing the architect. A powerful song it grows in stature as it progresses thanks to the wonderful production by Iain Cook and ultimately it becomes a song of hope. Throughout the album Cook manages layers of sound, understated mild electronica and pulses of traditional instruments which ebb and flow under Polwart’s faultless voice which has a comforting Scottish burr.
Despite the pointed message of the opening songs much of the album is derived from Polwart’s pesonal story, writing about her upbringing in Falkirk on Tinsel Show and the devastation of the death of a cousin on Strange News, a simple stark tale with sombre backing and ethereal vocals. She sings about her elderly neighbour on Salters Road, painting a simple life and capturing it in miniature with evocative place names while the sombre brass band backing tugs nostalgically.
An album to be savoured, mulled over late at night with the beautiful melody and voices on a song like Tears For Lot’s Wife comforting and shivering at the same time Traces places Polwart at the forefront of contemporary Scottish folk music. She closes the album with another song that belongs to her own story but this time dredged from many years ago. Half A Mile is about the kidnapping and murder of a young girl 30 years ago. A contemporary of Polwart she lived only a few miles away and Polwart paints a vivid picture of the innocence of youth and the alarm raised after the event. Chilling in its execution with dramatic use of percussion it’s a powerful song. A bitter end to a fine album but in its way a commemoration of, as Polwart says “the kinds of love and longing and loss that shape all of our lives.”
Finally mention must be made of what might possibly be the best opening lines of an album this year…
I was Farrah Fawcett
You were Steve McQueen
And we rode your silver Grifter half the way from Aberdeen.
Although Blabber’Smoke tends to wallow in the sounds of Stetson wearing honky tonkers, fiddling mountain dervishes or bruised and angry troubadours we pride ourselves in having an eclectic ear. Over the past few months several albums of the folk variety have tumbled in and we thought it was time to give them an airing.
First up is Bard whose album The Springtime Fool has been gathering plaudits and airplay since their successful appearance at Celtic Connections. A five piece band whose traditional sounding songs are coloured heavily by an almost klezmer sounding clarinet they weave songs that draw from the country and the city with a jaunty spring in their step. Born In London Town is an almost skiffle like number while the opener Violets is reminiscent of Pentangle at times. An encouraging debut.
Encouraging as it is to hear a young band like Bard take up the baton of modern folk if we go back ten years or so there was a blossoming of folk sounds influenced by world music. Much of this was delivered by the generation below sixties masters such as Martin Carthy and indeed Carthy and his daughter Eliza are very much present in The Imagined Village’s third release, Bending The Dark. A conglomeration led by Simon Emmerson The Imagined Village blend world tunes, dub, Afrobeat and traditional folk into a beguiling stew. Although the recording of this album was beset with problems including the departure of Chris Woods they’ve delivered a fine set of songs and tunes that derive from the traditional and embroider them with layers of exotica. Percussion, sitar, studio trickery all play a part here but the lyrics cleave to traditional subjects while the band are a virtual commonwealth of sounds. Brave and adventurous it is and with the voices of Eliza Carthy and Jackie Oates grounding it the album is well worth hearing. A highlight is Get Kalsi which imagines the Get Carter theme tune as if it was actually on the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire.
While the Carthy family has engendered numerous albums and various groupings the Lakeman’s appear to be catching up on them. Best known is Seth Lakeman, a past Mercury prize nominee whose latest album, Tales From The Barrel House, is a truly solo effort with him playing all of the instruments. The songs pay tribute to the rural professions that have been plied over the ages but are in danger now of dying off. Recorded in a barrel house (or cooperage) his fiddle scrapings and clattering percussion can threw up images of the blacksmith hammering at the anvil or the claustrophobic atmosphere endured by copper miners. The fine Salt From Our Veins is an impressionistic portrait of the travails of fishermen while Brother of Penryn is a rousing stomp that forsakes the artisan tributes for a good old fashioned folk narrative with murder and mayhem on its mind. The Blacksmith’s Prayer however stands out with some fine lyrics and the best use of an anvil in a song we’ve heard for some time.
Seth’s brother, Sean, steps into the limelight along with his wife Kathryn Roberts on Hidden People. The pair have played together since their days in Equation, a band that included Kate Rusby along with three Lakemen brothers. Sean has kept busy over the years in bother Seth’s band and honing his production skills on numerous albums, skills that allow this album to shine sonically. While Roberts handles the vocals throughout the album she’s joined at times by Caroline Herring, Jim Moray and Dave Burland while Seth and Sam Lakeman both add their tuppenceworth along with Sam’s wife Cara Dillon. It’s a family affair indeed.
The result is an album sounds as modern as tomorrow while still celebrating tradition. There are tales of vengeance, fairies and mystical creatures. . The opening song, Hundra (in Scandinavian folklore “hidden people”) is composed almost entirely of Roberts’ voice multi tracked with some assistance from Swedish band Baskery’s Greta Bondesson. While several of the songs sound traditional including Hang the Rowan, Lusty Smith and the tremendous The White Hind the outstanding pieces have a broader base. Standing At My Window almost has a Bo Diddley beat while Oxford, N.Y. allows Lakeman’s guitar to shine coming on like Richard Thompson in fiery form. The central piece is The Ballad Of Andy Jacobs. Stripped to the bone with only Roberts’ voice and piano accompaniment it’s a moving and intimate telling of the human consequences of the miners’ strike. Signing off with Jackie’s Song, another bare boned affair only with guitar replacing the piano that recalls Thompson again its fair to say that this album places Roberts and Lakeman well up in the current folk pantheon.
We mentioned Anna Coogan on Blabber’n’Smoke last year noting that her salt water infused album of songs inspired by the sea, The Wasted Ocean was a bit of a delight. This follow up is a bit of a side step for her recorded as it was in two days with Italian guitarist Daniele Fiaschi with whom she’s been touring over the past year or so. Despite their lack of a common language the pair gelled well together and decided to see if they could cut it in the studio. With Coogan on vocals and acoustic guitar and Fiaschi providing electric and acoustic guitars the result is this fine set of songs which is warm and intimate, perfect for late night listening. Revisiting songs from her two previous albums the stripped down arrangements allow Coogan’s voice to shine while Ffiaschi fashions some fine sonic soundscapes with his strings. A marine biologist by trade Coogan can’t seem to escape the sea with one of the cover songs here, a version of Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald sounding haunted and forlorn with squalls of guitar echoing wind and waves. Streamers, from The Wasted Ocean is given a particularly delicate delivery with Coogan singing like an angel as the guitars caress her voice, a beautiful moment on an album that in its hushed moments recalls the vibe of The Cowboy Junkies sepulchral Trinity Session. A live version of Phil Ochs’ The Crucifixion ends the album allowing the listener a glimpse into the chemistry the pair enjoy on stage. As on her studio version on The Wasted Ocean Coogan sings this song with a passion while Fiaschi’s guitars ensure that the studio band arrangement is not missed.
Coogan and Fiaschi are touring the UK in September and October with dates in Glasgow and Falkirk.
Mention of Jacques Brel in a rock context usually ends up praising Scott Walker although here in Scotland fans of a certain age will swear blind that Alex Harvey’s rendition of Next is somewhat akin to the Second Coming. However its nice to hear his songs delivered in a cabaret/chanson setting that can transport the listener to a cramped Gitanes ridden fleapit with a small orchestra crammed together in a ramshackle, parping and wheezy fashion. Strangely enough Dead Belgian hail from Liverpool, a place more commonly associated with sweaty beat cellars but they carry off this continental drift in fine fashion. With Fionnuala Dorrity delivering most of the lyrics in French folk not acquainted with Brel might be a bit lost for those familiar with the songs the translation will be easy. The instrumentation which includes guitar, ukulele, mandolin, accordion, saxophone, flute, clarinet and percussion captures the atmosphere perfectly. Vibrant and vital or sleazy and salacious as required it’s a great listen. All the usual suspects are present, Next (Au Suivant), Ne Me Quitte Pas, Amsterdam, Le Moribund, Jacky and My Death among others. A must for Brel fans it tempting to think that perhaps Dead Belgian can be persuaded to turn their sights on Georges Brassens next.
Devon Sproule is a name I hadn’t heard in a fair while, not really since her album “Keep Your Silver Shined” gained a fair bit of airplay back in 2007. Although she’s released three albums since then she seemed to have slipped out of sight although by all accounts she has a sizeable and dedicated fanbase. Now with a short Scottish tour commencing later this month it’s as good a time as any to cast a critical eye (and ear) on her latest recording, I Love You, Go Easy.
Recorded in Ontario with Canadian trio The Silt it’s a quirky listen. With a very warm sound and eschewing a traditional band line up the signature notes here are swatches of analogue synths, woodwind and meandering guitars. At times the arrangements are reminiscent of the bucolic ramblings of Kevin Ayers when he was backed by the Whole World band. The burbling bass playing and Sproule’s vocal delivery also recall Joni Mitchell at times while the wordiness and storytelling adds to this sensation. The inclusion of a cover of a song by The Roches (Runs In The Family) nails the Canadian connection and places Sproule directly in the lineage of literate and well arranged modern folk with an emphasis on the vocal contributions.
The lazy paced delivery of the opening If I Can Do This pretty much sets the scene for the remainder of the album with Sproule hovering over a deceptively simple arrangement that gently pulses, a great start. The title song features a jazz influenced piano lead with Sproule’s voice mutlitracked towards the end to great effect. The Unmarked Animals ups the tempo sounding like something Kate Bush could have come up with both in its lyrical obliqueness and its sub reggae shuffle while there’s a gloriously goofy guitar solo midway through. Monk/Monkey has a brave guitar and trumpet duet along with some lyrical whimsy that repays repeated listening. Sproule’s lyrics are interesting throughout. The Warning Bell could be autobiographical as she describes in some detail her environment and lifestyle while The Evening Ghost Crab almost falls over itself with metaphors and similes, all successfully realised. The Faulty Body was inspired by the death of a close friend and recalls their moments together with a wry smile. The Roches’ Runs In The Family is given a faithful rendition which fits into the feel of the album like a jigsaw puzzle piece falling into its place but the other cover song, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Body’s In Trouble stand out as a superb rendition, simply executed and a fine companion piece to the earlier The Faulty Body.
The last song, Now’s The Time, starts off with a more traditional country rock sound although its not long before some instrumental idiosyncrasies pop up. Finally an unlisted coda employs horns and woodwind on an enigmatic and disturbing recall of bad times and memories that brings the album to a puzzling end.
As we said at the beginning Sproule is touring around Scotland later this month, dates are below. So if anyone gets the chance to, please ask her what that final songs means. We’re intrigued.
Wed Aug 22: Woodlands Hotel, Broughty Ferry
Thurs Aug 23: Cromarty Old Brewery
Fri Aug 24: Woodend Barn, Banchory
Sat Aug 25: Byre Theatre, St Andrews
Sun Aug 26: Stereo, Glasgow
Mon Aug 27: Douglas’s Studio, Edinburgh
Tues Aug 28: Old Library, Kilbarchan
Wed Aug 29: The Tolbooth, Stirling
Thurs Aug 30: Acoustic Music Club, Kirkcaldy