What’s a multi talented artist such as Martin Simpson to do when everything around him shuts down? Answer – hunker down, and record an excellent album. In his illuminating sleeve notes, Simpson explains how he chose what to put on this collection of covers and a few of his own songs, relating several of the choices to the situation concerning Covid. With time to renew his banjo technique and finding delight in arranging familiar songs in a particular tuning (CGCFCD if you need to know), Simpson seems to have found the exercise something of a refuge amidst what he describes as “the chaotic, greedy and ultimately near murderous way that populist right wing governments” have managed the crisis.
The album is an impressive showcase for Simpson’s voice and instrumental skills (on guitar, banjo and Ukulele) as he roams through UK and American folk traditions with ease. Several instrumentals, in particular, the Ukulele tune, Augmented Unison (recorded on Simpson’s phone while sitting on his garden deck), are simply superb, while the better known covers (The Times They Are A-Changin’, Angel From Montgomery and October Song) are all worthy additions to the many other versions recorded of these hallowed songs. However, it’s when Simpson delves into the real folk tradition that he really excels. 3 Day Millionaire/Don’t Put Your Banjo In The Shed Mr. Waterson is a lovely tribute to the late Mike Waterson and the banjo driven Child Ballad, House Carpenter is quite spine chilling. The pinnacle of the album is Simpson’s reading of The Plains Of Waterloo which is as atmospheric as Ry Cooder’s work on Paris Texas.
Simply put, Home Recordings is an album which is quite gorgeous from start to finish. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it to be – just listen to it or delve in and research the notes – and it’s certainly a fine way to while away your time as you wait for that vaccine.
Glasgow singer and songwriter Robin Adams released his latest album, One Day, on his own HameWork record label last Friday. Recorded in his home studio, some of it during lockdown, it’s an excellent collection of gentle acoustic songs and it furthers the notion that Adams is one of the most talented musicians working in Scotland these days. A recipient of several song writing awards over his career, he has released six solo albums with Q magazine at one point describing his music as, “strummed ruminations worthy of John Martyn.”
While the John Martyn comparison kind of passes us by (unless it’s the innocent looking chap on the cover of London Conversations), Adams certainly evokes classic singer songwriters such as Nick Drake with whom he has also been compared to by others. Here at Blabber’n’Smoke we were much taken by One Day which we reviewed here. We were also able to catch up with him to discuss the album just as was preparing for a virtual launch gig which was to filmed at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe. We started off by asking Robin who had played on the album.
It’s all home made with me playing all the instruments with my friend Amanda Nizic helping out on vocals. I think that her voice is a really important part of the sound on the album and lifts it up. I’ve known her for several years know after we met at a party and sang together and she’s appeared on stage with me. She also plays the musical saw but unfortunately, there’s none of that on the album.
Your main instrument on the album is acoustic guitar along with very quiet piano and some percussion but I was wondering about the sounds you created towards the end of the last song, One Thing. Is that a string section?
It’s actually a mellotron and it allows for a really nice closure to the album. One Thing was actually the last song I recorded and the songs, as you hear them, are mostly in the chronological order I wrote them. The first half of the album was actually recorded some time ago and initially they were for an EP, which I never got around to releasing. Instead, I put them up on YouTube but then decided I could do a bit more with them. And then when lockdown happened I decided to try and write ten songs in ten days so I recorded a big batch of songs and for some reason I just felt that some of them fitted naturally with the first five songs which had been floating around and it just all came together quite naturally.
Listening to the album, I was reminded of artists such as Roy Harper and Alan Hull. I wouldn’t say that it’s a folk album but it has that element of the folk tradition that singer songwriters in the seventies were digging into.
I think it probably does have some of that influence in there but I also think that I’ve been able to put in some Neil Young Harvest like stuff in there, especially on Black Cloud. I mean I do like Roy Harper and artists such as Karen Dalton but I do feel that, in relation to my other albums, this one has a lighter feel and there’s definitely a seventies flavour to it.
You say there’s a lighter feel to the album but I thought there was also a melancholic air about the album. Black Cloud, which you mentioned, seems to me to be about fighting off a depressive mood.
Well, that’s something I’ve struggled with, like many other people. I was actually playing Black Cloud before you called, getting ready for the live show, and I think that it’s a song which will resonate with a lot of people and it’s a song which is going to last.
Although you live in Glasgow there’s not really what I would call an urban feel in your songs, you seem to take more inspiration from nature and the great outdoors.
I definitely prefer to be outdoors. I remember my big brother Chris taking me up north when I was a teenager and we’d climb mountains and stay in a bothy and that introduced me to this new world which really opened my eyes and inspired me as a writer. I think that due to my experiences up north and being close to nature that my songs just grew as did I as a person.
Of course, you can be in a city and still get close to nature. You made an album a few years back called The Garden which you said was inspired by looking out onto your garden from your bedroom window.
Well, there are a lot of themes on that album but that was part of it. I think you can get a lot from just seeing the subtleties in the atmosphere around you. The garden was another album I recorded at home but it was in a different house and there was a different atmosphere around. It was actually the house I grew up in and there was a slightly ethereal quality to recording in there.
Getting back to One Day, one of the songs, From A Dream, seems to be about the struggle between nature and urban blight as you sing about a wee Robin struggling to be heard above all the background noise. Although it was one of the songs recorded well before our pandemic lockdown, listening to it I was reminded that back in spring, as lockdown happened, birdsong appeared so much more apparent as traffic disappeared.
I think that at the beginning of lockdown, a lot of people were appreciating that aspect of it. I have a friend who saw a deer out in the street and it was kind of an eye opener as to how much we affect the world but then when we’re absent, nature starts to creep back in. It was a kind of bittersweet feeling but then when lockdown ended another friend of mine, George Tucker, who I played with in String Driven Thing, posted a picture online of a street littered with MacDonalds’ wrappings and said, “Ah well, back to normal.”
Talking of String Driven Thing, you have one of your father’s songs on the album, Market Covent Garden (Robin’s father is the late Chris Adams who had chart success in the seventies with his band which also featured his mother, Pauline).
That was a song he had written back in the sixties but he never recorded it. When was ill with cancer we were talking about his songs and he was quite sad as had never got around to recording this one. So we sat down and went through it to see if we could work out a version he liked. He pointed out bits and pieces of it and told me how he would have done it and finally I recorded it and let him hear it. I’m glad that he liked it, he actually said it was like a bird trapped in a cage and that I had set it free for him. It’s a beautiful memory and I’m always reminded of that time together whenever I sing the song.
That’s quite wonderful that Chris got to hear your version and it’s quite poignant hearing it on the album. It might be cheeky to ask but do you have a favourite song on the album?
Well, having said all that it definitely has to be my dad’s song, not one of mine. However, I think that Black Cloud has some kind of resonance but that might be just for now. I do think that the first five songs flow really nicely into each other and seem to be seamlessly related which is quite a difficult thing to achieve. But as a standalone song it’s probably Black Cloud.
Can I ask you about the cover art? I’ve been trying to figure out what is actually is.
While I was doing the ten songs project, I needed some image to put up with the songs on YouTube. There was a dollhouse sitting on a shelf in my house and underneath it there was an electrical box which a previous owner had covered with old wallpaper which I really liked so I just left it there on the wall. And my girlfriend took a photograph of me which I didn’t really like but in the background was the doll house and the wall paper and I thought that it would be interesting if I just cropped that section so I did and it really worked. So, basically, it’s just an old dollhouse on a shelf. Funnily enough, I really only had one song done at that point and I think that the image itself kind of inspired some of the songs from then on such as All Your Money, which is kind of light-hearted and you can see that the song and the picture are related. It’s the first time that I’ve ever had a cover before the album is finished so I was able to draw on that for inspiration.
You’re releasing the album on your own label, HameWork. Can we expect any other artists to join you on the label?
It’s called HameWork because everything’s done at “hame.” I record the music and then make the CDs at home and I’m hoping to have some other artists join me on the label who also have that DIY type of attitude. You mentioned Roy Harper earlier and when I was supporting his son Nick at a festival I met a guy called Nicky Murray who I’ve been talking to about releasing something on HameWork.
And with that we wrapped it up as Robin prepared for his show. You can see his launch show at The Glad Cafe via their Facebook page and you can buy One Day via Robin’s website here or from Bandcamp here.
While it’s Nashville and The South that most people turn to when thinking of Americana music, it’s instructive to dig into the recent archives and to consider how much great music has been coming out of Portland, Oregon, these last few years. Nina Yates is the latest to arrive on record and while her debut album has been a long time coming, it’s a balm for the musical soul.
The seeds of the album were sowed when Yates attended a weekly Open Mic song challenge, hosted by Taylor Kingman, leader of TK & The Holy Know Nothings, at the legendary Laurelthirst Tavern. Mike Coykendall, a local musician had offered to record some the participant’s songs and these sessions went so well that Yates asked him, “Hey, how about we make a whole album? Are you willing?” Fortunately, he was, and so here we have this ten song album which is by turns beguiling and bewitching.
It’s a low-key affair with Coykendall adding guitar, keys and percussion to Yates’ plaintive vocals and delicate acoustic guitar, while another local, Paul Brainard, adds pedal steel on one song. The end result is an album which will surely delight fans of Joni Mitchell, and, from a more contemporary angle, Courtney Marie Andrews. Too True, the beneficiary of Brainard’s steel playing, is a wonderfully delicate but steely dismissal of a former lover delivered in a hypnotic swoon and very reminiscent of Andrews’ recent “break up” album.
Yates opens up emotionally straight from the beginning with the excellent title song which is a bittersweet message of love from a mother to her daughter as she describes the father as a man who “slashed and burned my life apart, so I could be reborn with a mama’s heart.” Amid the song’s gentle folk melody Yates gently rails against the male sex and affirms the bond between mother and child. She certainly has a way with simple yet memorable melodies and refrains. Witness Fear No More, a pitch perfect portrait of a young woman suffused with ennui which is perfectly embroidered with gilded guitar stylings while Jolene’s Lament finds Yates inhabiting Dolly Parton’s nemesis and offering her apologies.
Halfway through the album, Yates delivers a song which is quite astounding. Just A Girl is, on the face of it, a bootlegger’s song about a hidden whiskey still, but this moonshiner is a girl whose boyfriend has been targeted instead for the crime. Here Yates rides roughshod into Bobbie Gentry territory on a song which is soaked in Southern gothic with snakelike guitars and glowering percussion. It’s worth the price of entry all on its own. Also reminiscent of Gentry is the patina vignette of Player Piano with its tinkling piano and atmospheric synth grumbles emphasising the sense of loss of the protagonist.
Cheerfully enough, Yates closes the album with a song called Death. It’s the obverse of the opening song, this time the mother saying farewell to her child. Cleaving closely to the likes of The Child Ballads, Yates here turns in a modern folk classic as she challenges the grim reaper and the band deliver a suitably sombre and spooky folk backdrop.
For an album birthed from an informal open mic setting, Mama’s Heart is quite astounding with Yates proving to be an immensely gifted songwriter while her voice and performance are both to be noted. Have a listen and spread the word.
There’s a well-trod tradition of fragility and nuance in the singer songwriter folk tradition, Nick Drake being perhaps the best-known example. Delicate musings, as friable and beautiful as a spider’s web on a frosty morning can catch many emotions although they tend to veer towards introspection. For some reason, nature, and in particular, the seasons feature often, the writer observing their surroundings, more likely to be comforted by birdsong as opposed to hale and hearty greetings.
Glasgow’s Robin Adams is one such artist and at Blabber’n’Smoke we were mightily impressed by his impressionistic album, The Garden, back in 2015, where he delivered a fine set of songs inspired by the outlook from his window onto his garden while musing on his own struggles with his state of mind. One Day surpasses this as Adams offers up ten songs which follow a similar path but, to our ears, eclipse the earlier album.
The album opens with Adams almost whispering over an attractive soft shoe shuffle on A Friend Of Mine. His mild Scots’ brogue, the delicate guitar and subdued piano with brushed drums along with wispy harmonies set the scene for much of what follows. Recorded at home with Adams playing all the instruments and ably assisted by Amanda Nizic who adds her superb vocal support to Adams, the disc is one of those for which the word bucolic was coined but beneath the feather light delivery there is a seam of melancholy.
Dancer In Your Eyes has some of the lyrical qualities of early Incredible String Band woven within it while No Reason Why is somewhat breathtaking in its almost Presbyterian solemnity with Adams’ coming across as if he were a sweet voiced Ivor Cutler fronting Pentangle. That Cutler sense is maintained when a brief spoken interlude, a very proper sounding vintage BBC reporter, bridges into the next song, From A Dream, another excellent number which is perhaps the most folk like song here. Lyrically, Adams sets out the struggle between nature and civilisation as his “wee red robin” strains to be heard amidst the city sounds. With a rousing refrain, this song deserves to be heard far and wide.
While there is some gaiety on the winsome All Your Money, the remainder of the album is stolidly rooted in melancholy and, on a song written by Adams’ father, nostalgia. Market Convent Garden was written in the sixties by Chris Adams (of String Driven Thing fame), but never recorded. Adams Jnr. does his dad well as the song comes across like a hidden gem from the heyday of bedsit albums. However, the highlight of the album is perhaps Adams’ most personal song, Black Cloud. In its perfect simplicity and brevity, Adams approaches the darkness which clouded the likes of Nick Drake and Syd Barrett but here he is defiant as he rallies against it.
Simultaneously low key and spectacular, One Day is a delight to listen to.
Somewhat stealthily, Ireland’s Ben Glover has gradually built up an impressive body of work, as a solo artist and also as an inveterate collaborator, be it with outfits such as The Orphan Brigade or via song writing partnerships, the most celebrated being that with Gretchen Peters. Their co-write, Blackbirds, was awarded song of the year in 2017 by the AMAUK. Sweet Wild Lily, a four song EP reflects much of this displaying as it does Glover’s warm performance glow along with contributions on the writing front from Peters and Matraca Berg.
A child of covid, the EP came about as Glover, deprived of touring, dashed off two songs and messed around with two other songs that had been sitting around for a while. With some transatlantic gimmickry, Colm McLean added guitar from Belfast to Glover’s Nashville recordings while Ms. Peters and Kim Richey added thier vocals. The result is somewhat tremendous.
Sweet Wild Lily is a song about a free spirit (not dissimilar to his early heroine, Carla Boone) and it is suffused with what we generally call Celtic soul these days. The honeyed guitars gliding amidst the bustling percussion and impassioned vocals remind one of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, it’s an intoxicating listen. Arguing With Ghosts, a co-write with Peters (who recoded it on her Dancing With The Beast album) is slowed down and given a more elegiac feel with Kim Richey adding close harmonies. Also written with Peters, Broke Down is somewhat akin to Glover’s recordings with The Orphan Brigade as a spangled banjo leads a jaunty rythym section with spectral slide guitars adding some spookiness. Finally, Fireflies Dancing, a song inspired by the myriad displays of the said bug which fascinated Glover when he hit the American south, is a wonderfully realised song of hope and wonder. With a whiff of the late John Prine hiding within Glover’s simple evocation of a warm July night, it’s a lovely song which speaks to us all.
Another victim of the pandemic, A Different Song was recorded and all set to be revealed to the world back in March with a series of launch gigs. Well, we know what happened to all our best-laid plans back then. Instead, this latest disc from Glasgow’s The Hellfire Club, kind of snuck out in September as the band were fed up waiting for a window of opportunity to play live again.
The Hellfire Club are a fine example of our home-grown bands who fuse elements of American music with their own Celtic inheritance and then shake it up a bit, indeed, on their Bandcamp page they describe the album as Glaswegiana. Fitting then that the album opens with 1984, a fine rabble rouser of a song with hints of New Jersey grease in its grooves and which toys with the idea of Orwell’s Winston and Julia meeting up in Glasgow’s Griffin Bar, an old haunt of the band. There’s a Clemens’ like sax solo in there and horns predominate on several other songs here. Hadn’t Been For You has a Stax like propulsion while Country Blues allows Ivan Marples to wail away like Bobby Keyes as the band stoke away evoking blue eyed country soul music. Meanwhile the massed horns of Autumn Leaves gives the song a huge heft, recalling the manner of Blood Sweat & Tears who were a hybrid of rock and big band sounds.
The lonesome fiddle of Nick Ronan introduces Fragile, leading one to expect a Celtic folk number but instead the song wanders into fine laidback New Orleans territory however the following Roving Eyes certainly has a folky jollity to it as Helen Brown takes front vocals and gets all sassy on her philandering partner. There’s a Tex-Mex lilt to Another Independence Day while Redwood, one of the highlights of the album, allows the band to stretch out somewhat with the keyboards adding a lovely touch of Garth Hudson like magnificence. Close to the end, there’s the finely burnished rockabilly of Red Dresses which zooms down the highway with the verve and oomph of Jace Everett.
It’s an eclectic listen, compounded by the closing song, Morning Train. Here, the band deliver one of those ballads which just twist higher and higher as they progress. With shades of McCartney and Gerry Rafferty, it builds from its simple piano and harmonica intro as the band and harmonies weigh in before climaxing in spiralling guitar and sax solos. It’s quite inspiring.
Sam Morrow’s previous album, Concrete & Mud, allied to heavy touring, certainly gained him a dedicated following here in the UK and on the continent. Like many others, Morrow was sucking from the teat of southern murky rock, soul and blues along with a healthy dose of serious country but, importantly, he was doing so with some élan. Gettin’ By On Gettin’ On is a much more slippery creation as Morrow gets somewhat funky and in particular, hits on the syncopated slitheriness of Little Feat back in their heyday.
The opening song, Rosarita, is Little Feat to a T as slinky slide guitar and clattering percussion drive the groove (and there’s a sly nod in the lyrics to Sailing Shoes) and later on, Wicked Woman, while more toned down in the boogie stakes, is again reminiscent of good ole Lowell George in his more salacious mood. Not to push the comparison too far but the cowbell and funky keyboards of Make ‘Em Miss Me, really could be an outtake from The Last Record Album.
Of course, the album isn’t simply a retread of hallowed Feetness. While the template pretty much remains throughout, Morrow gets good and rowdy on Round ‘N’ Round while Money Ain’t A Thang reverbs with an urgency somewhat akin to Bob Seeger’s bullet days as Morrow rages against the lot of a travelling musician. Golden Venus has a Meters’ like strut and the grand Sit Crooked, Talk Straight is a Muscle Shoals deep country groove with its dart pointed straight at the heart of duplicity. Morrow discards his fellow syncopaters to sign off with an acoustic number, I Think I’ll Just Die Here which is finely jaded as he inhabits a character who has seen his life’s work turn to nothing.