My Darling Clementine with Steve Nieve. Country Darkness Vol. 3. Fretsore Records

And so, after some Covid induced delay, here’s the third and final instalment of My Darling Clementine’s foray into the country and soul roots of Elvis Costello. Another four track EP, the disc finds the band again playing with Steve Nieve and the nucleus of Richard Hawley’s band. As before, Nieve’s contributions were relayed electronically but the band members had to wait until the national lockdown was relaxed before they eventually got into the studio.

When investigating Costello’s catalogue to find songs which displayed his Americana bent, the duo sought songs which would suit their own specific style, that classic male/female harmony and counterpoint in the manner of the great partnerships that have sailed across the country charts. To this end, they have a perfect example in the closing song here when they offer a superb reading of Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone ?, a song Costello wrote for Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) who, in the end, didn’t record it. The song appeared on Costello’s All This Useless Beauty album and according to Michael Weston King, in an interview with Say it With Garage Flowers, “There is a male verse which starts: “Why can’t a man stand alone?”, and the second verse is a female one: “Why can’t a woman be just what she seems? So that immediately felt right for a duet.” The original has its fair share of drama but My Darling Clementine add to that as they enter the song softly with their sweet dueting over a simple electric piano before slowly building to a crescendo, sounding for all the world as if they were starring in a Broadway musical.

Having delved deep into Costello’s backwaters, it’s a nice surprise to find that there are two songs here taken from one of the man’s most celebrated albums, King Of America. I’ll Wear It Proudly is perfect My Darling Clementine fodder, allowing the pair’s voices to entwine wonderfully while Nieve’s arrangement is quite colossal. Indoor Fireworks is a song which Lou Dalgleish has featured live for many years and the duo have recorded it pretty much as they deliver it live. Just the two of them and it’s the only song on the collection which does not feature Nieve and, as such, it depends on their vocal chemistry  which is, as the song says, as safe as houses. Again, it’s quite masterful as to how Weston King and Dalgleish transform Costello’s solo voice into a piece for two singers. Finally, there’s the rather raucous delivery of The Crooked Line, originally on Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. On the previous EP there was a Tex Mex influence on Different Finger with some Augie Meyer styled keyboard but on The Crooked Line, they wig out as if they were exhuming The Sir Douglas Quintet. With swirling Vox organ and oodles of twangy guitar replacing the originals bluegrass styled outing, it’s a grand listen and the band bring it to a storming close.

All in all, My Darling Clementine’s adoption of these songs has been an interesting and at times, exhilarating ride with Nieve’s participation a particularly welcome addition to their musical palette.

Country Darkness Vol. 3 is available on limited edition vinyl and download and the vinyl selection comes with a bespoke slip case to fit all three volumes. In addition, all 12 songs gathered on the EPs will be released on a single CD in November with a brand new My Darling Clementine song added. All purchase options are here.

Leyla McCalla. Vari-Colored Songs. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

This reissue of the debut solo album from Leyla McCalla, a former member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and one quarter of the award winning Songs Of Our Native Daughters, serves to remind us that McCalla is a powerful force in her own right and that she has been at the forefront of reclaiming Black culture for several years now, along with her former band mate, Rhiannon Giddens. Subtitled “A Tribute To Langston Hughes,” the album features McCalla setting several of the Harlem Renaissance poet’s poems to song but she also brings in songs celebrating her Haitian heritage and follows the immigrant trail from Haiti to New Orleans.

While it was the banjo which was at the forefront for all four participants on Songs Of our Native Daughters, here, McCalla uses her primary instrument. the cello (on which she was classically trained) on several of the songs. However, much of the thrust is similar in that the songs are quite bare boned with minimal instrumentation allowing the vocals to really engage. At times McCalla reminds one of the late Karen Dalton, a singer who always had a bluesy and bruised relation to her songs and the wonderful and woody timbre of her cello, sometimes offset by gliding pedal steel, allows the album a timeless feeling.

That cello and steel guitar combination dominate the excellent opening song, Heart Of Gold and it’s a perfect introduction as McCalla extracts words from the Hughes’ poem which gave her the album title as she evokes the traditional need to move on from racist climes to better pastures. Her own song, When Can I See The Valley, is something of a riposte as she reckons that those better pastures might be on the other side of life. There’s an undeniable power in the words of Hughes, and McCalla highlights this on the tenebrous threnody of Girl and on the stark evocation of a lynching on Song For A Dark Girl, a song which rivals Strange Fruit. However, away from this darkness, Too Blue is a given a fine old time string band arrangement which somewhat disguises the sheer hopelessness of the protagonist.

Hughes visited Haiti and McCalla ponders on whether he heard some of the songs she has reclaimed here. A chance encounter with an album of Haitian folk songs ignited a desire to add these to the album and so we have the wonderful Creole version of Mamman Mwen (with Rhiannon Giddens harmonising) and the excellent Mesi Bondye which is French chanson married to a Caribbean delight. Compounding this connection, Kamen Sa w Fe? , based on an Alan Lomax recording in 1937 of a Haitian musician, Ago Fixe, aches with the emotional power of Piaf in her prime. No slouch in her own writing, McCalla closes the album with a song which we presume alludes to the flooding of New Orleans on Changing Tide. Despite this tragedy, there is a sense of optimism and rebirth.

 Vari-Colored Songs was highly praised on its release back in 2014 with several publications nominating it for album of the year. It’s timely reissue on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (and nicely annotated in the liner notes) is to be welcomed in these turbulent times.

Kris Delmhorst. Long Day In The Milky Way. Big Bean Music

longdayinthemilkyway-cover

Somewhat stealthily, Kris Delmhorst has become one of those artists of whom any news of a new release is guaranteed to raise one’s pulse. Long Day In The Milky Way, her eighth release, does not disappoint as she leads the listener through 12 songs of captivating beauty. With most of the songs written at a songwriters’ retreat, Delmhorst worked in particular with a trio of gifted female singers (Rose Polenzani, Rose Cousins and Annie Lynch) and their glorious and ethereal harmonies cosset Delmhorst’s laidback delivery throughout the album. Surrounding them is a fine ensemble of musicians, a pocket folk orchestra if you like, adding gentle layers of sound, muted guitars and keyboards over a supple rythym section and strings.

The result is an album which washes over the listener, leaving a fine glow. There’s a luminosity in songs such as Wind’s Gonna Find A Way, Nothing ‘Bout Nothing and Flower Of Forgiveness which, like a moth to a flame, are somewhat irresistible. A cover of Rickie Lee Jones’ (one of Delmhorst’s guiding lights) The Horses, adds a bit more heft in its slight propulsion with the band moving up a gear and  they then turn the dial up a little bit further on the sly mix of funk and strings of Secret Girl. Crow Flies has a slight touch of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira in its arrangement while Golden Crown, which opens with a mesmerising keyboard motif and elaborate choralising has roots in Malian music. Harking back to her own folk roots, Delmhorst enlists her infant daughter as a co-writer on the comforting Bless Your Little Heart, inspired by the pair of them listening to a Michael Hurley song and the album ends with a song which Delmhorst describes as a letter to herself on Call Off The Dogs. It’s another gem of a song with rippling strings and perfect harmonies and, as with all the songs here, Delmhorst manages to connect her inner world, the wonders of nature and the eternal mystery of how to live one’s life and gather them all together into one all encompassing message. Essentially, Long Day In The Milky Way, is a glorious creation.

https://www.krisdelmhorst.com/