Hillfolk Noir. Pop Songs For Elk

It’s junkerdash time again folks as the ever excellent Hillfolk Noir unload another album of slightly unhinged old time music and set off on another tour of the UK commencing this weekend. They’ve been a Blabber’n’Smoke favourite ever since we heard their 2011 album Skinny Mammy’s Revenge while 2013’s What’s That Hat For set a standard for raw boned backwoods string band music.

On Pop Songs For Elk Hillfolk Noir remain a three piece with Travis Ward at the front end, writing the songs, playing guitar and banjo and singing with partner Alison M. Ward on banjo, saw, washboard and vocals and Michael P. Waite on bass. As is their norm they recorded the album live with no overdubs before it was mixed in mono creating a wonderful melange of strings and things that pours out of the speakers with a joyful clarity. Travis Ward tackles tradition with his songs sounding as if they could have been written anytime in the past 100 years although his lyrics are definitely contemporary. Jug band, talking blues, hillbilly and ragtime are all filtered through the Hillfolk Noir sieve with some exhilarating results.

They open with a stramash, guitars mauled before the eerie saw sound from Alison wails around the punk folk of North Idaho Zombie Rag allowing them to sound like a hillbilly Gun Club. It’s a tremendous opener, spooky and thrilling. Round I Sing/Mile On Up harks back to a formal string band dance number with Travis and Alison’s duetting not dissimilar to The Handsome Family as the lyrics range from religion to sniffing glue, one can imagine clog dancers gainfully dancing away while they try to comprehend the lyrical content with some disbelief. Poor Man’s Love Song is a delightful solo effort from Travis that would not shame the pen of Woody Guthrie and he goes solo again on the banjo plucked weirdness of Getting Late where he describes a rural community with everyone from the chickens to the mayor on some sort of drug. Getting high is the raison d’ĂȘtre of Sniffing Glue Blues, a simple song that has added space age reverb inviting comparisons to those sixties freak folk The Holy Modal Rounders and surely destined to end up on the playlist of the Dr. Demento radio show.

Elsewhere the band offer some solid licks with Uncle Jake a muscular jug band tale that starts off with a description of“a mean old man he washes his socks in a frying pan, you don’t want to go fisticuffs with Uncle Jake” while Little Red Caboose romps along with some glee as Waite’s bass powers the song along. Shimmy is old time rag music with the singer’s sister shimmying like jelly on a plate and delivered with a magical old time feel almost as if it were the soundtrack to an old Betty Boop cartoon.

All 12 songs here are gems which reinforce our belief that Hillfolk Noir are simply superb, running with an historical musical genre and banging it right up to date. While the album is of course recommended there’s an opportunity to see the Hillfolk Noir experience live over the next two weeks as they tour the UK and Ireland, dates here.

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Mark Billingham & My Darling Clementine. The Other Half. Hachette Audio.

On their two albums as My Darling Clementine Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish have celebrated the country tradition of singing songs about ordinary people and their day-to-day trials and tribulations, wrecked romances, succour in a glass of booze, trying to retain a dignity in the face of ongoing emotional blows. Their template has been George Jones and Tammy Wynette who, despite their successes, had their own troubles to deal with which were played out in the glare of publicity. My Darling Clementine’s triumph is their ability to inhabit the same world as George and Tammy in song with How Do You Plead and The Reconciliation almost mini soap operas peopled by life’s losers.

The Other Half takes this approach a tad further as My Darling Clementine offer a soundtrack to crime writer (and country music fan) Mark Billingham’s series of vignettes of life in a Memphis bar. The main protagonist, Marcia, is an ex Vegas showgirl, her beauty now fading and her circumstances reduced as she caters to the regulars who all have their own back stories. Billingham tells their tales as extracted by Marcia in her chats with the drinkers along with her imagined embellishments as she attempts to fill in the blanks the customers are unwilling or unable to complete. They all share a loss, a partner gone, in jail, with someone else perhaps; they all share a solitary existence stuck with their memories. Marcia is no different, she struggles to pay for her elderly mother’s care, her daughter has run off with a musician and she daily awaits a phone call from her own missing partner. Billingham weaves these tales together in a deadpan style that readers of Willy Vlautin will recognise.

While the stories are printed in the CD booklet allowing one to read The Other Half in the traditional style the disc consists of Billingham reading each short story with a song from My Darling Clementine at the end of each one. The songs, the majority of which are reworkings from the two previous albums, cleverly reflect the preceding story in Marcia’s imagination; No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him) follows on from Donna’s admission that her husband is on Death Row while Going Back To Memphis is a rare ray of light as Marcia’s partner eventually gets back in touch. The narration by Billingham is punctuated by the characters’ voices played by King and Dalgleish along with David Morrisey, Graham Parker and Florence King. As always, King and Dalgleish sing wonderfully together with the pared back acoustic setting giving songs like No Heart In This Heartache and The Other Half a new lease of life. The backing by the Brodsky Quartet on No Matter What Tammy Said adds piquancy to this tale of domestic abuse. There are two new songs. Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel describes the secret love trysts of a couple which end when the married male doesn’t turn up one week leaving the guilt-ridden woman to believe “she got what she deserved.As Precious As The Flame, co-written by Billingham and My Darling Clementine, ends the album on an upbeat note recognising that while the fires of young love might not burn forever it’s possible to retain a passion albeit tempered by reality as King and Dalgliesh sing, “It’s slowing up, it’s messing up, it’s cleaning up and saving up. Remembered thrills, It’s tales all told, it’s paying bills and growing old.” By allowing for the hope of a happy ending the song mirrors Marcia’s journey as she moves on. The result is an engaging listen, perfect for a car journey or to savour at home and whets the appetite for the next full album from our very own first couple of country music.

My darling Clementine and Mark Billingham are touring The Other Half around the UK. Dates are here including three appearances at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

My Darling Clementine website

Mark Billingham website

The Other Half website

Mairi Orr. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Sunday 28th June 2015

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Morar raised, Edinburgh based Mairi Orr released her debut album this week and she was fortunate enough to have two launch parties celebrating this achievement. She played Edinburgh last weekend and tonight it was Glasgow’s turn. Reviewing the album, Jenny Does Burn Blabber’n’Smoke mentioned that Orr had gathered together a “dream band” whose playing, along with her fine voice and writing skills raised the album well above the bar. For the launch shows she was able to retain the majority of this gifted bunch with Steven Polwart on guitar, Dave Currie, Dobro and guitar, Nico Bruce double bass and Mattie Foulds on percussion while Danny Hart’s fiddle parts were handed over to a fellow Morar musician, Eilidh Shaw. From the off it was clear that the all acoustic ensemble were something special, the opening song, The Drover delivered with a haunting sense of mystery with Polwart’s guitar and Currie’s Dobro slyly weaving together over cymbal washes and delicate mallet playing from Foulds. As the song slowly unfolded they were spellbinding, memories of Fairport Convention, The Pentangle and other stalwarts from the heyday of folk rock were summoned up. The song itself is a tremendous invocation of ancient days but the playing was, simply put, gobsmackingly brilliant, sending shivers up the spine.

They played all of the songs from the album although the running order was rejigged. It was a hard task to follow the opening number but the brisk fiddle led country romp of Don’t You Wed Another Man, Maggie was up to the job allowing Eilidh Shaw to shine and featuring some fine counterpoint singing. The title song swayed exotically and hearing it live one felt that it was reminiscent of the late Kirsty MacColl’s ventures into Latin American music. In fact hearing the album fleshed out live offered insights into some of the songs that were not immediately apparent from the record. I’m Not A Gambling Man revealed its debts to Hank Williams and Western swing while Just A Fallow Year seemed to have more of Richard Thompson’s bleakness than was apparent on the album.

Orr was engaging as she introduced several of the songs explaining their origins. She spoke about growing up in Morar on Silver Sands, family memories on The Piper of Peanmeanach and Summer On The Clyde and of her mother’s search for a cluster of Ragged Robin flowers. The delicacy of the band playing amplified the sense of nostalgia (and sometimes, regret) embodied in these songs although there was also some welcome bawdiness on the rousing The Drinker’s Wife. However they kept the best to the last with an astounding version of Letting It Go, a song of regret that on the album again harks back to Richard Thompson like melancholy. Here the band slowly built to a climax with the instruments meshing together anchored by some muscular bass playing from Bruce as the fiddle skirled and Dobro snaked away to create a devilish din with Orr raising her voice over the maelstrom. A cracking performance it bookended the show perfectly. There was time for an encore and they ran through a grand version of Dirk Powell’s Moonshiner with Dobro and fiddle battling away and a definite Celtic air to the delivery.

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