Oliver Swain’s Big Machine. Never More Together

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I know that British Columbia is a big place but it seems to be packed full of excellent musicians with Oliver Swain the latest to pop out of the woodwork. Apparently he’s big over there in folk circles but Never More Together, his second album, is our introduction to him. He plays double bass, banjo and guitar (his banjo a nineteenth century goat skin creation), sings and at times, whistles. His brief whistling here  causing us to recall Andrew Bird but the fact is Swain is much more fun than Bird.

He’s paid his dues playing with early incarnations of The Bills and The Duhks and with Ruth Moody before setting out with Outlaw Social and then The Red Stick Ramblers. His debut album, incidentally called In A Big Machine, was a mixture of traditional and self penned songs and included a fine cover of Springsteen’s’ I’m On Fire which successfully transferred the Boss from his NJ streets to the Canadian pines.

So to Never More Together. It’s less folky than its predecessor and all songs are written by Swain who demonstrates a fine versatility here creating what one might call “chamber pieces” along with more regular fare. In addition to his instruments his voice is an important part of the jigsaw, a slight tenor, he can sound ethereal, swooping around like Rufus Wainwright at times and he uses this ability best on the closing eight minute Take Me Up, a richly textured piece.

The album opens however with the claw hammered banjo jaunt of the title song. Light and airy it occupies similar territory to fellows such as Pharis & Jason Romero or Morrison & West although instead of peering into the deep dark woods of Appalachia Swain is in a sun-dappled clearing. No Strange Thing sees Swain coming across as a sweet voiced soul singer duetting with Emily Braden on a string-laden swoon (arranged by producer Adrian Dolan) that is like a country cousin to Norwegian Wood. Maggie, Molly & Raul is an oddity indeed, a confusion of nursery rhyme like words and Beatlish chiming guitars it has a charm but might have been more suited to appearing at the end of the album with its coda extended as that does have a bracing, almost psychedelic, feel.

After this blip Swain really gets down to work. Gone is a tender and beguiling song, Swain’s voice enveloped by the gradual instrumental swell, a burbling woody swirl. The Moan is a short instrumental lead into Apple Sucking Tree, both sinister with cello and Swain’s double bass as evocative as any of the instruments on Peter and The Wolf, creating a dark wooded space, the song exploring a similar sonic ground as that commanded by Cam Penner, an atavistic response to the wildernesses these guys travel around in. There’s some brief respite on the gentle string driven caresses of Old Dreams, a song that ripples like a mountain stream before Swain wraps it up with the epic Take Me Up. Opening with a potpourri of stringed instruments somewhat akin to an orchestra tuning up Swains voice swoops in eventually as the strings coalesce and judder almost as if they were auditioning to play Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. There’s a delightful instrumental passage with Swain’s guitar picking to the fore before he and the  strings  hit a wonderful baroque folk  swing and then the song eventually collapses back into its primordial shape, a last gasp from double bass bowed low bidding farewell. It’s an audacious song but it works and is a fine end to what is a fine album.

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Trembling Bells. Wide Majestic Aire. Tin Angel Records

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Trembling Bells are in the grand tradition of folk musicians who roam far and wide in their influences and subsequent styles. Perhaps best known for collaborations with Mike Heron (of The Incredible String Band) and Will Oldham they take elements of traditional music, sixties and seventies experimental folk, classical music, psychedelia and Velvet Underground fuzz blending it all together in their particular alchemical pot. Their last album, The Sovereign Self, was Stuart Maconie’s favourite album of 2015; Maconie of course is the curator of Radio 6’s Freak Zone and therein lies the rub. It’s all too easy to consign the ‘Bells to the “weird” zone, labelled as a tough listen but folk who remember (or are catching up on) albums such as Shirley Collins’ Anthems Of Eden, Kevin Ayers’ Whatevershebringswesing, Richard Thompson’s Henry The Human Fly or The Albion Band’s Rising Like The Sun will find much here to comfort them. Wide Majestic Aire doesn’t sound like any of these but the spirit of adventure and quest that informed works like these is very much alive here, the band unafraid to mix soaring guitar solos with pump organ sounds, unaccompanied voice and Baroque classical influences.

Wide Majestic Aire is a seven song mini album, its feet firmly anchored in two of the band’s (or more properly leader Alex Neilson’s) homelands, Leeds, his birthplace, and Carbeth in Scotland. The opening title song revisits Neilson’s formative years living close to the river Aire, reading Lorca and Blake as he walks the river banks, the dismal council estate he comes from replaced by Elysian Fields. The song flows like the river, a grand romantic sweep that takes him to the dreaming spires of Oxford, the buildings golden brown and ochre as Lavinia Blackwall’s voice commands attention, her mannered delivery nicely set against a rickety instrumental break. It’s an inspiring song and one of two here which most recall the pomp years of classic folk rock, Sandy Denny on Liege & Lief and solo recordings perhaps. The second song to do so is the closing Marble Arch. Again the band cleave to a rock sound, a solid rhythm section backing Blackwall’s majestic voice, guitarist Mike Hastings adding a fuzzed up guitar screech throughout.

No such firm footing on the capricious England Was Aghast, a song that veers from sonic rumblings with guitars and cymbals crashing to an electronic hornpipe of sorts as Blackwall declaims an England that is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Show Me A Hole (And I’ll Crawl In It) musically recalls the Incredible string Band as a reedy organ dominates although there’s a decidedly medieval feel present. Lyrically obscure there are some fabulous images conjured.  “There’s a line of beauty that starts at Roland’s wrist and ends at your mouth which I kissed and even Rodin showed an envy for that ruinous bliss” while later, up on Dionysian hills, “a butterfly dashed itself against a riot shield.” The organ pumps away until, towards the end, the band dash in in full prog folk glory, Celtic fuzz guitar and Keith Emerson keyboards to the fore. Swallows Of Carbeth is a simpler affair, a seemingly straightforward paean to the bucolic attractions of this off grid haven, the band nicely rolling and tumbling along initially. However it’s a lost love song, the delights soured by a leaving and the music darkens and becomes more frenzied, the fiddle blazing away. There’s more travelogue on the appealing I Love Bute, a lovely kenspeckled number that recalls the music that added so much to the original Whickerman. Finally Alex Neilson offers the unaccompanied voice song, The Day That Maya Deren Died, inspired, he says, from seeing The Watersons. As befits this unique writer however he gathers obscure references (Deyer was an avant garde filmmaker), place names (Kelvinside) and surrealistic images (a self immolated soldier) and weaves them into a song which kind of defies description but is also self referencing as it ends with the singer stating he’ll write a song about London’s Marble Arch, that song following and closing the disc.

Trembling Bells are out and about in April promoting this record. Dates are here.

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Caleb Caudle. Carolina Ghost. This Is American Music

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As Mike Nesmith said back in the days, “and the hits just keep on comin.” Nesmith was back then an unrecognised country music pioneer, a pop musician finding his roots and accidentally leading some folk into the world of country music. Here Caleb Caudle stakes his claim to be the latest in the run of young guns who are similarly revitalising the genre. Caudle, from North Carolina, gained some acclaim for his 2014 album, Paint Another Layer on My Heart. On Carolina Ghost, recorded following a return to his homeland and a decision to give up alcohol (18 months clear now), Caudle digs deeper into his country vein, the music creamy with pedal steel, gurgling guitars and a Southern bedrock of organ and piano.

This new wave of country music is a multi headed hydra. Some head into Hank territory, some dig Waylon and Willie while others hark back to the Countrypolitan sound. Caudle seems to be divining the smooth radio friendly sound of 80’s acts such as Randy Travis and George Strait with a nod to the seventies in the shape of Gram Parsons and the Eagles (back when Bernie Leadon was a member and before they cryogenically altered their nasal passages). As such some folk might think that this is somewhat lightweight music but a couple of listens allows one to see some muscle in here, lyrically Caudle is darker than one suspects while the music, sweet as it is, is a honey trap.

The trap opens with the honeyed melody of Gotta Be with Brett Resnick on pedal steel to the fore as the song sweeps along as Caudle sings with some yearning of his perfect lover. He then muscles up on the gritty Piedmont Sky, a song that seems to about his travails over the years singing,”waiting on an agent to call my number,” before heading back to his hometown. Carolina Ghost is sublime, a whisp of a song carried along on gliding pedal steel and subtle keyboards, Caudle hymning his native soil as he recalls earlier days with a hint of mystery. Broken Hallelujah flies on a similar breeze, again the song flows sweetly, the guitars just so fine, the pedal steel keening expertly over a cracking rhythm section as Caudle begs for a second chance. Midway through there’s some very fine duelling between the pedal steel and guitar, elevating the song somewhat.

There’s some honky tonk swing on the broken love song Wasted Thursday while Dobro dominates on the classic melody of White Doves Wings, the strained teardrop of Steel & Stone and the closing valediction of The Reddest Rose, a song that recalls John Stewart in his prime. In the midst of this feast Caudle offers the most heartfelt moment of the album, the bruised ballad that is Tuscaloosa. Here Caudle comes across like an Alabama Springsteen as he captures the languid flow of the South while he also evokes memories of Joe Ely and his Flatlanders pals flying into Dallas.

Carolina Ghost has the rebel sense of 70’s rockers discovering country music and finding out that radio folk actually liked it while at the same time it provokes a sense that Caudle, like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson is rescuing country music from the pop orientated pap so popular these days. If justice prevailed these songs would be wafting from the airwaves

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Norrie McCulloch – These Mountain Blues live at Tron Theatre, Glasgow 18th March 2016

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Such is the way of the music business that it’s been four months since Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Norrie McCulloch’s second album, These Mountain Blues which only is released this week. It’s a beautiful album, the songs warm and expertly crafted, an opinion only reinforced last week when the limited edition vinyl album was delivered leading to several further listens.

The album was given an official release show on Friday night at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in the fine setting of their Victorian Bar. Part of the regular Seven Song Club nights, McCulloch was given special dispensation to go over the usual seven song limit, the album unveiled in all its glory and played by the cast who recorded it. With Stuart Kidd on drums and Dave McGowan and Marco Rea swapping piano and bass duties through the night before a sold out crowd there were a few nervous moments from Norrie particularly when one of his guitars appeared to be somewhat recalcitrant when being tuned. However the band stepped up to the mark, their camaraderie obvious as they gamely held the song aloft as he found his stride. The audience, it must be said, willing him on.

These Mountain Blues has been receiving rave reviews across the board and it was a treat to hear the songs tonight. The musicians have lived with these songs for a while and their expert playing offered a fine sense of grandeur to McCulloch’s song writing while he delivered the words with grace, his voice warm, able to sound weary or joyous, stained with his memories.

Calico Days was an excellent opener, a clarion call to believers much in the way that Fairport Convention rallied their listeners on Come All Ye on Liege & Lief, its punchy drive and elegant piano nailing McCulloch’s colours to the mast. This bracing folk rock vibe was continued on Pass By My Door again with the piano prominent particularly on the closing melody and it was the fine interplay between McCulloch’s guitar and McGowan’s stately piano playing that elevated the following These Mountain Blues into a thing of wonder. Written by McCulloch after a trip to Townes Van Zandt’s grave it’s the beating heart of the album and the standout tonight although it was run a close second by McCulloch’s solo rendition of Black Dust, a song written for his grandfather who was bruised and eventually died from his coal mining exertions. A song that could well have come from the pen of Van Zandt was given a local bearing as McCulloch’s voice was more noticeably Scottish here while his words recalled the late William McIlvanney’s stout celebrations of the stoic Ayrshire working man.

The songs flowed sweetly. The grim acceptance of fate on Hard To Be The Man You Are Not and the plaintive loss of New Joke (here given a lengthy rendition) and The Old Room were testament to the band, the songs and the singer as they floated from the stage. Cloudberry Flower was a brief return to a more upbeat feel before they closed with the heartrending When She Is Crying Too and Heart’s Got To Be In The Right Place. The latter tentative at the beginning but as we said earlier it was gently guided by the band into its rightful place as a grand finale to a superb suite of songs.

The Seven Song Club generally features three acts, each confined to seven songs. Tonight’s set was opened by Alan Tempie, a chap you might encounter busking in the city centre. Playing guitar and using a harmoniser pedal on his vocals he sang a mix of his songs and some covers. His renditions of The Divine Comedy’s Lady Of A Certain Age and Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talking certainly pinned him to a late sixties troubadour style, a style he carried off well with hints of chaps as varied as L. Cohen and Peter Sarstedt. His own Florence Foster Could Not Sing, a song about a 1940’s socialite who self funded her recording career in spite of her lack of talent, was a delight, a song that could sit easily on Findlay Napier’s VIP album.

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Everywhere were up next. A grizzled three piece they parlayed some songs that one would have termed “pub rock” back in the days, some funk, some Merseyside sparkle with guitarist/singer Jimbo MacKellar laying into his guitar. They then stretched back into a psychedelic haze that recalled The Pretty Things at their most deranged before ending with a cracking deconstruction of Bowie’s Jean Genie, the verses slowed down amid whip smart bursts of the chorus, the guitar shredded this time.

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Although the spotlight was on Norrie’s album launch, the two acts here offered up some fine appetisers.

 

Dropkick. Balance The Light. Rock Indiana Records/Sound Asleep Records

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It’s hard to believe that Balance The Light is Dropkick’s 14th album. The East Coast Scots certainly don’t sound (or look) like grizzled veterans of the rock’n’roll world while the album is as fresh as a daisy and brimming with energy. Over the course of 16 years they’ve gathered a well deserved reputation as purveyors of power pop and sunny jangled country tinged rock, an idiom that we rain sodden Scots seem to do well in (see Teenage Fanclub, Daniel Wylie, Attic Lights) while they are, to paraphrase Tom Waits, “big in Spain.” Their 2013 album, Homeward, saw the band, by then a five piece, expand their horizons with more keyboards in the mix, an occasional melancholic air and some tantalising glimpses of an almost psychedelic buzz. Balance The Light continues in this vein. There’s still a jangle in their stride but as befits a band with older heads on their shoulders that stride is more paced and measured, pausing to reflect.

Having said that Dropkick are still adventurous and this is evident on the opening song here, Save Myself. The song opens with a hazy shimmer, a guitar charged slow beat, the vocals delicate, almost strained although the harmonies remain in place. Halfway through a synthesised noise begins to beep and flutter as if the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop had popped in and the band step up the pace as the song reaches a crescendo in a thrash of sounds. It’s an exhilarating opener which recalls the more experimental side of Wilco and the sonic wizardry of Todd Rungren. It’s the most way out number here but its layers of sound are reflected throughout the album. I Wish I Knew shape shifts between Beatles like guitar harmonics and swelling organ notes with a fine McGuinn type guitar solo at its centre. Wake Me In The Morning is a gossamer thin confection which sits atop a repetitive synth sound, gradually replaced by stately piano chords and burnished guitar before returning at the end of the song.

Elsewhere the band continue with the groove they hit on Homeward. There’s a Neil Young kick on the closing Think For Yourself and Out Of Love Again flows along like a meeting of The Only Ones and The Byrds while they actually offer a song called Homeward which is suffused with the vulnerability of Alex Chilton and the chug along country soul of Neil Young. Here the guitars curl and the organ sweeps the rhythm along as Andrew Taylor sings like a lost soul. Again much of the words on the album continue in the vein of its predecessor, Taylor trying to salvage relationships, most nakedly expressed here on the gentle A Long Way To Go.

Despite the above litany of influences there’s no doubt that Dropkick have a sound of their own. They have a heftier take these days on their sunshine sound, the guitars more muscular, the backdrop more ornate. Before The Light sees Andrew Taylor’s brother, Alistair, leaving the fold (although he mastered the album). There’s a continuity of sorts however as he was replaced by Roy Taylor (no relation), returning to the band after a five year hiatus.

The album is released on 25th March. If you pre purchase it here you can get an additional three unreleased songs. The band are playing some shows in support of the album release including dates in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee in April. Dates here

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Matt Patershuk. I Was So Fond of You. Black Hen Records

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We’ve written about several acts who might be considered a new wave of young country bucks (Sturgill Simpson, Cale Tyson, Daniel Romano, Barna Howard etc.). They sidestep the current Nashville trends such as Bro’ Country and EDM and instead look back to classic country music, not the hillbilly type but the golden years of the fifties and sixties, their heroes George Jones,  Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Glen Campbell and John Hartford, artists who were mavericks but still able to turn in a hit song.

Well it’s time to add Canadian Matt Patershuk to this list. I Was So Fond Of You, his second album, is a breath of fresh air, an inhalation of healthy banjo, fiddle, pedal steel and guitars, all set to a fine shuffle from the excellent rhythm section and topped with his  sometimes honeyed, sometimes gravelly  vocals.  Recorded at producer Steve Dawson’s Nashville studio, the band, Mike Bub, bass, Gary Craig, drums, Fats Kaplin, fiddle, banjo, accordion and guitar along with Dawson on guitar and pedal steel, sat down together and played live with no overdubs. The cherry on the cake here is the addition of Ana Egge on harmony vocals, added later but knitted right into the songs.

The opening song, Back Against The Wall is a gritty slice of Southern slither with mean slide guitar and rasping fiddle. It’s a great opener but hardly indicative of what is to follow. Prettiest Ones introduces Egge’s voice, a perfect foil for Patershuk’s wearied tones on a gentle song that tiptoes along sprinkled with mandolin and sweet pedal steel. She remains on board for the mild Western swing of Smoke A Little Cigarette, Kaplin here superb on fiddle and Patershuk capturing the laconic songspeak of Bob Wills perfectly, a trick he repeats on the upbeat Burnin’ The Candles At Both Ends. Pepe The Cat Murdering Dog, an absurdist tale of sorts finds the band all jaunty and hitting a bluegrass stride while Mean Coyotes heads into Tex-Mex country on a Willie Nelson like ticket. Here Patershuk just hits all the right buttons, the harmonies with Egge beautiful, the band just on the right side of closing time at a cantina, reedy accordion setting the scene  on a mournful song that paints a rancher burying a pony, a victim of those coyotes, as he relates this to his own life.

There’s more equine content on Tennessee Walker, an epitaph to a beloved steed that recalls Doc Watson as imagined by Steve Earle and Earle comes to mind again on the revenge ballad of Harviestown. Here a “yellow bellied drunk man killed my darling girl” and the singer vows to go down to Harviestown where “I’ll use my two bare hands, I won’t need a gun.” It’s a great song, a fine addition to the old murder ballad tradition but it gains some extra weight when one realises that Patershuk is here dissembling a tragic moment of his own. His sister, Clare, was killed by a drunk driver in 2013 and he dedicates the album to her memory and in particular he describes his memory of this on the title song, a truly affecting piece which is given a respectful reading from the band, a slow waltz with Egge echoing his plaintive vocals. It’s tearstained indeed and sad to think that the song grew from a tragedy but ultimately (and here one does feel somewhat helpless, like a mourner not knowing what to say at a funeral) it’s a beautiful song and hopefully gives some comfort for those who knew her. Patershuk can certainly wring the emotions and he does so expertly on Little Guitar, a song that stands tall in the grand tradition of the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Jon Prine. Here he inhabits a veteran of world war II, bruised and battered, his brother killed in the war, blood flowing through his flaxen hair. He finds solace in his second hand guitar singing, “you can’t make a fist when you’re playing guitar.” It’s a monumental song delivered with grace by the players and well worth the price of admission on its own. A wonderful album.

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Blue Rose Code. And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing

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The third instalment of Ross Wilson’s testament to the glories of life and living, And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is a magnificent listen; a collection of songs with a beating heart, flurries of melodies with Wilson’s voice an instrument in itself. There is hurt and heartbreak, emotions that give the album some of its most affecting moments, but above all there’s a sense of celebration, a celebration of just being alive, of seizing the moment. The album title (from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), a reminder that life is fleeting so be grateful for each day. Wilson and his cast of supremely talented musicians have crafted an album that dips and soars like a murmuration of starlings offering the listener a myriad of delights.

There’s an organic flow to the album, the songs almost weeping into each other, the opening glimpse of the majestic single, Grateful, here in an abridged state, setting out Wilson’s agenda. Thereafter it’s a thrilling ride through folk and jazz tinged celebrations and wallows, the sinewy bass note that opens the free flowing box of memories that is Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails returning later on the free form closing moments of In The Morning Parts 1 & 2, a nod perhaps to one of Wilson’s heroes John Martyn and his experimentation on songs such as Bless The Weather. In The Morning returns in the guise of Part 3 as the closing song here, this time with Colin Steele’s trumpet leading into Wilson’s closing remarks which are blessed with harmonies from The McCrary Sisters, the Gospel troupe who raised Grateful from the great to the magnificent. There’s a thread here. Musically it’s Wilson’s debt to Martyn and Van Morrison (and if anything there are moments here which recall Veedon Fleece) while lyrically Wilson takes us from his first moments of recovery into his marital breakup and his current sense of purpose.

The billowing breeze of Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails leads into the confessional My Heart, The Sun, a false dawn of hope, the gentle pummel of percussion and lonely trumpet harbingers of what is to come. Rebecca is a spritely love song with some fine guitar work from Wild Watt Wyatt, a respite of sorts as Wilson then heads into the brokedown palace of Pokesdown Waltz, his naked exploration of his marriage ending, a song that bursts with regret, the words so emotive, the delivery stunning. Steele’s lonesome trumpet and Danny Thompson’s burbling bass introduce the centrepiece of the album, Glasgow Rain, an impressionistic journey though the West End as desolate as watching rivulets of rain running down a window as a storm lashes around you. Here Wilson unleashes his love of jazz and experimental music, trumpet, double bass and piano delicately tracing his voice before swelling into a mild cacophony as John Lowrie’s scattered percussion and Lauren MacColl’s violin join in, a ghostly spoken part here delivered by actor, Ewan McGregor. The music then gradually subsiding into rain swept sound effects with a final farewell from the bass and piano washed away like chalk on a pavement. A song of misery and self loathing with Wilson pleading “I try and I try and I try but I told you darling, I’m no good” it’s elevated into a thing of beauty as his voice trembles and pleads, the repetition and phrasing recalling Van Morrison on classics such as Listen To The Lion and Linden Arden Stole The Highlights. Aside from Morrison the song recalls the work of Robert Wyatt and his collaborations with Michael Mantler and Carla Bley while its rain swept Glasgow vista will also beg comparisons to The Blue Nile.

It’s truly a testament to the wonder of this album that even after the emotional blitz and sonic adventure of Glasgow Rain the listener can be transfixed by the following songs. In The Morning Parts 1 & 2 returns to the spritely breeze of Brave Cedars and Rebecca, the band skipping along with a refreshing spring in their step as Wilson and Wrenne and The McCrary Sisters celebrate a new dawn, the words uplifting as Wilson describes a rebirth of sorts. It’s a joyous song and as it heads towards its dissolution in a welter of bowed bass, skittering keyboards and gliding pedal steel, the vocals just peeking through, there’s an undeniable sense of willing Wilson on,  urging him to carry on and cast his demons aside. The following track, Love, alleviates this concern as he delivers a most tender and affecting paean to Cupid’s arrow, the mournful, almost brass band opening giving way to a song that most recalls the late John Martyn with Wilson sounding at his most vulnerable. The chorus with Wrenne wrapping herself around Wilson’s voice like a bountiful siren is just gorgeous, the band’s playing hypnotic, a song to savour. Favourite Boy is an almost playful aside, a Harry Nilsson like ballad balancing shadow and light, hopeful for the future but with a sense of gloom ever present. Again The McCrary’s are on hand to enhance the song. The curtain draws with the closing In The Morning Part 3, Steele’s trumpet coolly recalling the likes of Miles Davis before Wilson looks to the future over a lonesome picked guitar, the band gradually joining in, fiddle to the fore and The McCrary’s back in the fold for the blossoming swell at the end. The words here, as throughout the album are poetic and inspiring, indeed, had we quoted some of the gems from the album this review would be twice as long. Suffice to say that Wilson here sings, My best days they still lie before me, a sentiment that his very dedicated following will surely subscribe to.

And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is an album of import, a personal statement from Ross Wilson which is suffused with a humanity and grace that one generally attributes to a great novelist. Wilson is a rare animal these days, his music vibrates with a life-force sadly missing in much of the music offered to us. On stage he has an uncanny ability to draw an audience into his world, an Odyssey of loss and redemption and the album does capture that. A definite contender here for album of the year.

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