Buffalo Blood, Buffalo Blood, Eel Pie Records

album-cover-pic-smallBuffalo Blood is the collaborative work of three American musicians and a Scot who set out to capture some of the legend and history of Native Americans, victims of a genocide which rivals that of the Nazi’s against the Jews. The collective – Dean Owens, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman – were drawn to the project after Owens, a man from Leith, raised on cowboy movies but lured to the plight of the Native Americans after visiting their sacred lands, mentioned a batch of songs he had written as a result of his fascination, to Hubbard. Hubbard, a Grammy nominated producer and, along with Britt and Spillman, a member of The Orphan Brigade, a band who seek out unusual recording opportunities, got on board and the newly formed quartet decided to collaborate in the writing and recording of what became Buffalo Blood. A project long in the making, it eventually saw all four decamp to New Mexico, along with sound engineer and photographer, Jim DeMain, to record the album in several iconic locations. Aside from the recording, they captured the outdoor performances on film as they followed what is known as the trail of tears, the historical forced marches of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to reservations. The resulting album is heavy on atmosphere with ambient sounds trickling into the songs, many of which reflect the arid conditions of the New Mexico desert.

There’s no narrative as such although some numbers mention the likes of Custer and Crazy Horse (Land of Broken Promises) while others portray the repressive regime which tried to wipe out their culture as on Carry The Feather, inspired by the habit of forbidding Native Indian children to speak their own language at schools which taught a white curriculum. There are a couple of mood pieces. The excellent Ten Killer Ferry Lake (named after a reservoir on Cherokee land) opens the album and sets the scene perfectly combining a ghost dance like lament and mournful whistling. The whistling (by Owens) returns on Ghosts Of Wild Horses, a tune redolent of spaghetti western soundtracks, a sly nod perhaps to what, for most of us, was our first exposure to the American west via the movies. Whatever, it’s another strongly suggestive piece of music casting up images of sun blasted parched lands, bleached bones and the unique strangeness of the frontier. Similarly, Buffalo Thunder, a wordless chant with ambient wind sounds throughout, transports the listener to late night campfires among the tepees.

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There’s an inherent sense of drama throughout the album. War Among The Nations is portentous, warning of calamity ahead and Reservations bristles with indignity singing of the white men’s lies. Comanche Moon captures the fury of the tribes as they fight back against the white man who considers them “all just savages,” while Buffalo Blood is a powerful number which rings out with a fierce sense of pride amplified by the native chant which surrounds Owen’s strident vocal delivery. There’s a resigned air to Daughter Of The Sun, White River and Bones, songs which reflect the sense of loss and identity suffered by the Native Americans while Land Of Broken Promises just about sums up the series of injustices dealt to them as treaties were torn up and they were moved further westward.

Throughout the album the quartet perform excellently. The primary sound is of acoustic guitars and mandolin with percussion and keyboards filling out some of the numbers. The harmonies are wonderful as the band inhabit the spirituality of well-worn chants brilliantly. Owens says that as they recorded in the desert, under clear skies and amidst stunning red rock formations, they felt the presence of the spirits which permeate the locations. They capture this perfectly on Bones, an excellent song with a mournful organ base which is suffused with suffering and a simmering anger. Overall, Buffalo Blood is a bold venture which sets out to portray a particular injustice but it burns with a contemporary relevance as one realises that the plight of the Native Americans is not far removed from the forced migrations and exploitation of indigenous people which continues to this day. From the pipeline protests at Standing Rock to refugees fleeing brutality in Africa and South America, the story continues.

Buffalo Blood is released on February 15th as a download and, in the UK, a double vinyl album. £1 from the sale of each vinyl album will be donated to the Redhawk Native American Arts Council , an organisation which is dedicated to educating the general public about Native American heritage through song, dance, theater, works of art and other cultural forms of expression.

Celtic Connections will present the live world premiere of Buffalo Blood in performance tonight at The Mitchell Theatre. Details are here while the project’s website is here. For more information on the project check out this interview.

 

 

 

 

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Eleanor Underhill. Navigate the Madness

soloalbum-wtitleSome folk here might be familiar with the rootsy charms of Underhill Rose, a fine banjo and guitar duo who we have written about before and who we saw play an excellent set at last year’s Celtic Connections. Late last year Eleanor Underhill released a fine solo disc which really has slipped below the radar but it certainly deserves mention so here we go.

Navigate The Madness is a world away from the folky homeliness of Underhill Rose as Underhill uses an array of instruments along with her signature banjo over an inventive and intriguing musical backdrop. Along the way she is beguiling and hypnotic, some of the songs dark mysteries while others are infused with an almost Portishead like trippiness or come across like a new breed of folk rock similar to that of The Mammals. There’s a sense of the experimentation of Joanna Serrat and even John Martyn in the opening Imperfect World which acts as a doorway into this Eleanor in Wonderland album and by the time of the second song, Stranger Things Have Come,  a voodoo infused chant with a rumbling and spooky bass line, we know we’re not in North Carolina anymore. A discordant piano appears midway through taking the listener further down this rabbit hole while a host of incidental instruments including celeste remind one of sixties spy movies and David Lynch like weirdness. Across this peculiar and ominous backdrop Underhill intones some bizarre and weirdly unsettling scenarios and this sense of being somewhat off kilter in the modern world is repeated elsewhere in the lyrics across the album.

Stranger Things Have Come is certainly the most unsettling song here but Underhill continues to confound expectations as the banjo led Hard To Find is suffused with wisps of synthesiser zooming around. Captured In Arms, another banjo led number starts off as if it’s Appalachian in origin but it soon kicks off with a thumping bass line driving it along and the impressive tale of life on the road on Before I Head West Again soars away in a sophisticated folk rock manner with Underhill’s voice here particularly impressive. Never Meant To Say Goodbye is another impressive ensemble piece with the double bass standing out while Underhill’s voice performs some acrobatic leaps but best of all is the cinematic torch song Cold Wind Blues where a blowsy saxophone and exotic Latin tinged rhythm section merge into a kaleidoscopic swirl which recalls the work of the Italian band Sacro Cuori delving into the sixties heritage of Eurobeat. Finally, Into The Unknown is another song which defies expectations as it folds old time banjo, field hollers and jazz and blues signatures into an almost lysergic amalgam.

It might be a far cry from the porch front style of Underhill Rose but here Eleanor Underhill has delivered a magnificently eclectic album which pushes the boundaries of what we usually call Americana

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Neilson Hubbard. Cumberland Island. Proper Records

We continue the sweep up of albums from last year we unfortunately missed at the time…

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Neilson Hubbard is perhaps best known as an in demand producer with Mary Gauthier’s Rifles And Rosary Beads his most recent triumph. He’s also been involved over the past couple of years in what has been a burgeoning cottage industry, working with Ben Glover and Joshua Britt in The Orphan Brigade and with Britt and Dean Owens in a new venture called Buffalo Blood. Cumberland Island, his first solo album in 12 years, has Glover and Britt again involved along with Will Kimbrough but it’s a rare opportunity to hear Hubbard himself over the course of an album.

As with The Orphan Brigade albums, Hubbard has a hook to hang the album on, in this case, a visit to the titular Cumberland Island, an island off the coast of Georgia. Redolent with American history – native Americans, conquistadors and slavery – and with the ruins of a mock Scottish baronial castle (built by the brother of Andrew Carnegie and called Dungeness), the island is now a national park and the visit by Hubbard with his new (and pregnant wife) inspired this collection of low key and beautifully measured songs.

For the most part it’s a contemplative album with only the brisk rockabilly attack of That Was Then raising the pulse while there’s a grand old time country feel to Old Black River with Eamon McLaughlin’s fiddle sawing away over a tugboat rhythm. Elsewhere some of the songs almost stumble from the speakers. How Much Longer Can We Bend, graced with weeping fiddle and restrained piano, shimmers with a spectral beauty while the title song is a haunting evocation of the natural beauty of the island with its feral horses invoked as free spirits. Love, in its various permutations, features in several numbers as on Save You which slowly builds to a climax from its tentative tiptoeing opening as Hubbard’s finely cracked voice offers salvation to his soul mate. My Heart Belongs To You is a tender love ballad reminiscent of a sweeter Tom Waits while Don’t Make Me Walk Through This World On my Own is a magnificently mournful supplicant’s prayer. The spare, piano led songs, Let It Bleed and Oh My Love, stand out in the sense that Hubbard here is baring his soul. The former aches with loss while the latter finds him seeking and perhaps finding hope. Two sides of the coin perhaps but both songs are delivered with a wonderful sense of vulnerability and the musicians excel in capturing this.

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M.G. Boulter & The Froe. Blood Moon. Hudson Records

Clearing the way for a new year, some discs were retrieved from a dusty shelf which we really should have mentioned before. So, the next few posts won’t be topical but might remind folk of some albums which were and still are, well worth getting.

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First off is this excellent EP from the esteemed chronicler of the Thames estuary, M. G. Boulter, recorded with Birmingham string quartet The Froe in tow. Recorded in the historic Fishermen’s Chapel in Leigh-on-Sea, the disc finds Boulter’s delicate tenor vocals tenderly supported by darting violin and the woodier timbres of viola and cello. As on his well-acclaimed album, With Wolves The Lamb Will Lie, Boulter beguiles the listener with the beauty of the arrangements while he writes with some finesse on darker themes than one would expect from the bucolic settings.

Blood Moon swoons with a stained romanticism which bundles together Blake’s Albion, late night Texaco garages and the lure of the moon. It’s a wonderfully baroque song in a sixties folk manner which leaves the listener wondering if the protagonist is prowling the streets with murder on his mind. Frances Forlorn is darker in tone musically with the title character ploughing a similar furrow to that of Eleanor Rigby while Giving Up The Ghost is a most crepuscular song, the pizzicato strings creating a dusky insect chorus. The strings tiptoe delicately throughout Night Driving, a wonderful paean to driving on starlit ribbons of motorways in the pitch black with Boulter’s lyrics as evocative as some of W.G. Sebold’s ruminations. The EP closes with Boulter’s guitar and lap steel more upfront on Soft Light but again he evokes the allure of darkness with only distant circus sounds and moon reflected waves able to guide him. It’s a wonderfully fragile song which almost defies gravity.

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John Kilzer. Scars. Archer Records

61BLOyK6jJL._SY355_Blowing in from Memphis, John Kilzer has a ton of baggage tailing him. An academic and a Minister of Divinity, he’s known hard times with substance abuse but has also had some success with several of his songs covered by various luminaries. Scars finds him in pensive mood, reflecting on his past and ruminating on the current state of affairs in his homeland, in a manner which reminds one at times of a combination of John Hiatt and Paul McCartney.

The album opens with the well mannered sixties pop sensibilities of Flat Bed Truck, a song which sounds as if McCartney was reminiscing about a Texas truck stop as opposed to Penny Lane all those years ago, a trick repeated on Woods Of Love. However, there’s some meatier stuff to be heard here as Dark Highway boogies along with some fine piano playing and The American Blues slopes in slyly as Kilzer gets a bit snarly when describing the state of his nation with a fine note of paranoia thrown in. On a more introspective note, the title song is a tender number laced with acoustic guitar and subtle keyboards as Kilzer accepts and acknowledges his past while the trenchant Time, with stark piano and biting guitar, seems to point out that he’s there to guide others stuck in a dark past.

Kilzer closes the album with a lopsided love song, Rope The Moon. Here he remakes/remodels George Bailey’s declaration of love in It’s A Wonderful Life adding a degree of modern angst and an excellent arrangement as the song builds to its climax. Overall, an interesting album which grows on repeated listening.

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