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