Various Artists (AKA Some Christmas Elfs). Won’t Be Home For Christmas. Hemifran Records

album_2017-50_xmasHo, ho, ho. It’s that time of year again and you can’t go to the shops without your ears being hammered by the usual festive suspects – we won’t name them but you know who they are. Over the past couple of years however there’s been a groundswell of Christmas songs that one can actually listen to and enjoy and this compilation from Hemifran Records is the best we’ve heard in a while.

Label owner, Peter Holmstedt, decided it was time to put out a decent collection Christmas songs, “I’m a big fan of compilation albums, and I had the idea of reaching out to singer songwriters I know and admire, and asking them to write a song with a Christmas hook…I was interested to hear what interpretations they would come up with and I was delighted at the response.” What he ended up with was 18 songs which hover around the season, some more so than others, for the most part devoid of sleigh bells (Keith Miles, Citizen K and The Refugees are the guilty parties but we forgive them) and certainly with none of the enforced jollity or fake sentiment that seems de rigour for a listen under the mistletoe.

Opening with a song about a bi-polar cousin visiting and threatening to kill you bodes well for the album and Elliott Murphy’s Five Days Of Christmas is darkly humorous but the remainder of the album consists of that spirit of Christmas that seems to affect so many folk these days – loneliness and past memories. So, aside from the rockabilly swagger of Fayssoux’s Christmas Ain’t Christmas and the jiving This Christmas from The Refugees, we’re well into Joni Mitchell River territory here. As such, Annie Gallup offers up her tale of a long and lonesome journey enlightened when the passengers began to Carol on Christmas On The Train, a song that reminds one of The McGarrigles, while Jude Johnstone’s piano ballad, I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way, hits all the Mitchell buttons as does Janni Littlepage’s chilly Now That Winter’s Come. The guys here can also hit those buttons with Kenny White’s Christmas Day another lonely travelogue and Paul Kamm’s Where Are You Going Tonight a nice folky evocation of chilly winter nights. And while Keith Miles and Jack Tempchin go down the smoochy ballad route (successfully one must say) there’s some grit on the road when Bob Cheevers unveils his growling and bluesy The Spirit Of Christmas which roams around homeless folk hunkered down just trying to survive the season.

Finally, Citizen K conjures up a Brian Wilson like production on his I Won’t Be Home For Christmas while My Darling Clementine deliver probably our favourite here, Miracle Mabel. It’s their own update on their own nativity tale and it’s wonderfully done. Slyly resisting the bible (that book with Cain and Abel), they celebrate their own child in a perfect facsimile of a Christmas song. It deserves to stand up alongside Christmas staples such as watching It’s A Wonderful Life.

So, if you’re looking for an “alternative” musical accompaniment to your Turkey dinner, seek no more. It’s here and it’s a bit of a Christmas Cracker with a hidden song at the end.

Hemifran

 

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The Raving Beauties. Raving For Bap. Farm Music

a0856084030_16It’s just over a year now since Bap Kennedy died from cancer. Since his death his family have been raising funds for Belfast’s Marie Curie Hospice where he spent his last days and this unique tribute to his music is an opportunity for you to join in.

Raving For Bap is a five song EP performed by Brian Bell of The Raving Beauties and The Dreaming Spires (readers with a good memory might recognise these names from The Paisley Overground mini album they conspired on some time ago). Bell, a long time friend of Bap had been planning on recording with The Spires but in the wake of his passing decided a tribute disc would be apt. However, these disciples of jangled Byrds’ like pop declined to ape Bap’s performances, speaking to The Irish News, Bell said, “We didn’t want to just do ‘straight’ covers of Bap’s original arrangements, so tried to choose songs that would showcase his wonderful song craft and melodic flair, but in a very different way.” The result is five songs, including two from Energy Orchard days, that sparkle in a way that will be familiar to listeners of The Beauties and The Spires.

The streetwise suss of Hard Street, the country blues of The Way I Love Her and the unabashed romanticism of Moriarty’s Blues are here all awash with12 string jangled guitars and sweet harmony singing along with whiffs of mild psychedelia. That all five songs (Walk In Love and Lonesome Lullaby are the other two) are successfully reimagined is testament not only to the band’s skills but also Kennedy’s song writing skills – it’s tempting to imagine him here as the Dylan to the Raving Beauties’ Byrds. Mind you there’s a fine Beatles like guitar feel to Lonesome lullaby, a nice touch given the Liverpudlian affinity with Ireland while The Way I Love Her has a punchier attack more akin to later Paisley Underground bands such as The Long Ryders.

Although it’s over far too soon, the EP is a tremendous listen. With Christmas coming up it’s a perfect alternative (and almost the same price these days) as a charity festive greetings card. All proceeds from sales will go to Marie Curie. You can download the EP here but there is also a limited edition 10″ vinyl disc available here.

Bap Kennedy website

Marie Curie website

The Wailin’ Jennys. Fifteen. True North Records

305Six years on from their last release The Wailin’ Jennys celebrate 15 years as a band with this very fine collection of cover songs. With all three Jennys now mothers to young children and living on opposite ends of the Americas they say it has taken some time to coordinate enough time off to make a record, the decision to record a covers album however was not down to a lack of new songs but rather down to fans’ requests for some popular live covers to be recorded.

Fifteen sticks close to the Jennys’ trademark sounds. All three (Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse) sing wonderfully while their harmonies and vocal interplay is at times astounding. A couple of the songs are sung a capella, the others, for the most part, are accompanied with very spare instrumentation, guitar and banjo (played by Moody and Mehta), double bass, viola, violin, mandolin and electric guitar on one number. The one song with more than a smattering of instrumentation is Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, a live favourite and here replete with guitar, fiddle and banjo. Recorded before Petty died it wasn’t intended as a tribute but nevertheless stands as one, the band’s delivery now incredibly poignant. Much of the album is similarly moving, songs by Jane Siberry (The Valley), Emmylou Harris (Boulder To Birmingham) and Patty Griffin (Not Alone) are sung beautifully with sensitive and glowing arrangements as emotions are wrung from them. Warren Zevon’s Keep Me In Your Heart, a song he wrote towards the end of his life, is sung here with a bittersweet beauty.

The album opens with a traditional English song, Old Churchyard, previously recorded by The Watersons. The Jennys inhabit the song wonderfully, their voices accompanied only by a sombre viola. Dolly Parton’s Light Of A Clear Blue Morning is sung a capella and is more restrained than Parton’s version but retains its sense of freedom and rebirth. The Jennys also tackle Paul Simon’s Love Me Like A Rock a capella and again they take control of the song, changing the gender and sounding like Laura Nyro backed by Labelle on Nyro’s Gonna Take A Miracle album. They close the album with the first song the trio sang together, Hank Williams’ Weary Blues From Waitin’, another a capella tour de force with the three women singing as if they were on a prison chain gang.  Altogether a very fine listen.

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Daniel Gadd. As If In A Dream I Drifted At Sea.

daniel-gaddSometimes the story behind an album is just too slick, as if it’s pilfered from a film script – music moguls discover the next big thing by accident as he sings his songs in a late night bar – too Hollywood for real surely. Well, whether Daniel Gadd is the next big thing we don’t know yet but it’s true that this young South African was playing in a bar in London one night where two PR chaps happened to be. Impressed, they followed up and discovered that Gadd had an album already recorded and just waiting to be released here. The result of their talks is this release which Gadd had recorded by the ocean at Cape Town a few years earlier and it’s very impressive. A truly solo effort, just Gadd, guitar and harmonica, bohemian folkies and lovers of that Greenwich Village troubadour sound of the sixties will surely be queuing up to buy this album once they a whiff of it.

There’s no escaping the overall feel of early Dylan and Cohen which underpins the eight songs here. Gadd’s melodies are simple, folk based, reminiscent of the unadorned yet intriguing tunes which Dylan was pilfering in his early days. His guitar playing is quite accomplished, more akin to the UK folkies of the time while his voice is somewhat lonesome and beguiling, evoking both Tim Hardin and the nascent Cohen. Lyrically he hits all the spots. Deeply romantic in a bedsit fashion, the elements, nature, a restless highway urge, lovers lost, lovers remembered, they all feature here.

All eight songs are impressive but there’s something of a dichotomy here. When Gadd picks up his harmonica and forlornly blows into it, Dylan immediately springs to mind. Sleep Turns Her Face and Just Like The Road are prime examples, lovely songs but the harmonica breaks are just too Dylanesque. The closing song, Somedays Down a Highway, resolves this as the harmonica is fully woven into this quintessentially weary slice of folk existentialism.  However when it’s just voice and guitar Gadd really shines. Siri Lynn, which opens the album, is as tender, poetic and romantic as Cohen’s Suzanne while Some Time Ago (On A Cold Winter’s Night) is a chilling song which harks back to Child Ballad tales of beguiling sea creatures with the stark melody and delivery recalling Lennon’s Working Class Hero, a strange mix but it works.  Perhaps the best song here is The Trail I’m Tracking which manages to join the early romantic Dylan to his later work on Time Out of Mind, a simple guitar motif repeated as Gadd, sounding wonderfully weary, tries to find his way.

As If In A Dream I Drifted At Sea is an astonishing work coming, as it does, from a young unknown artist. It’s a late night reverie, a bedsit delight, and hopefully just the first from this very promising young songwriter.

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davesnewbike. The Tin Can And The Flood

a3522224156_16A Scottish band who claim they play, “rootsy pop for grownups,” davesnewbike are the vehicle for Tom Houston’s song writing with his literate words propped up by the guitar of Kris Jozatis (The Folk Devils) along with bass and percussion from Sam Wilson and Simon Jaquet respectively, both of them having a folk background. The Tin Can And The Flood is one of those albums that draws the listener in over repeated plays, there are no immediate hooks or singalong choruses, however there is an attractive mix of European cool and street level Scots poesy allied to some driving rhythms. One gets whiffs of Brel and Cohen occasionally along with a baser note of Scottishness reminiscent of Arab Strap.

The opening title song is a slow tango which is darkly romantic with big boned guitar flourishes and a siren wail and it recalls Tav Falco’s fascination with a Harry Lime themed Europe. Candy Floss has a similar approach although here it’s more waltz like with the lyrics adding a slight fairground air despite their somewhat voyeuristic element. Hanging On Like Salt directly addresses Cohen, alluding to Suzanne in the opening words before moving in a more Brel like direction while No. 26 throbs with incipient drama as Houston inhabits a morose bus traveller railing against the other half and their “soft French cheese and wind frickin’farms.” One gets the sense here that, with its epic reach and dramatic dynamics, No. 26 is a live highlight.

In a jauntier mood, The Cobbler finds Houston in impish form boasting, albeit with a thinly veiled sense of menace, as the band deliver a skittish update on rockabilly with Jozatis’ guitar thrilling on his solo. In My Face is a new wave like romp which at times reminds one of Rockpile although surely neither Dave Edmunds nor nick Lowe would have sung repeatedly, “pishing with rain.” Nevertheless it’s a cracking number that invites one to dance along to it and has some of the best lines regarding a doctor’s diagnosis we’ve heard in some time.

Elsewhere the band don’t always hit the target. Lady Macbeth And Me attempts to marry Houston’s narrative with a bustling and too busy folk rock arrangement that has too little folk and too much rock while Black Box is marred by its reggae beat. However there is the very nice Stone, a song that sits somewhat out with the rest of the album in terms of style, but, with its dappled psychedelic sheen and Byrds guitar licks, serves well as a note of missed opportunity for anyone who has wished they were at Woodstock or the heyday of hippie music.

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Hans Chew. Open Sea. At The Helm Records

51yvn-azhwl-_ss500On his three previous albums Tennessean Hans Chew marked himself as a piano playing rootsy musician, happy to hammer out an engaging blend of good old fashioned R’nB shoehorned into a contemporary sound. Open Sea finds him ditching this for a new approach although it’s still a good old fashioned approach. Seems that Chew’s been hunkered down listening to a bunch of live albums from the early seventies – The Dead, NY & Crazy Horse and The Allmans  along with some feted singer songwriters from that era – and decided that he could pretty much do that. Although his piano playing is still featured, Open Sea finds him fretting away, in collaboration and in competition with Dave Cavallo, the pair of them duetting and duelling on guitar on several of the songs here. Talking to Uncut magazine Chew explained, “I read a couple of bios (on Neil Young and Bert Jansch) and they really inspired me to start playing a lot more guitar. I’d also been hanging out with Michael Chapman who showed me an open C tuning of his, hence the album title.”

The album therefore is an intriguing blend of Chew’s recent influences.  Cruickshanks, the second number, rolls out like a cross between The Allmans and The Doobie Brothers (back when they rocked) while Freely’s gossamer guitar lines recall Richard Thompson’s liquid guitar work in primetime Fairport Convention,  Chew’s piano (at its most prominent here) brings to mind the Witchseason productions of Joe Boyd. At nine minutes long, Freely meanders wonderfully, Chew’s personal Sailor’s Life. The majority of the songs are somewhat lengthy allowing Chew and Cavallo plenty of space to extemporise, indeed the closing skirl of Freely can be compared to Television’s Verlaine and Lloyd duel guitar attack.

Give Up the Ghost is perhaps the most perfect hybrid on show here. With Chew’s pronounced drawl rooting the song in a southern vein it opens as a gritty acoustic Americana ballad on drug addiction before the band weigh in with some Garcia like cosmic guitar licks over the funky rhythm section. It’s a perfect opener with its whiffs of Leon Russell and Dave Mason intoxicating for anyone familiar with their 70’s work. While the title song flows as freely as a hippie’s hair in the wind over the SF Bay area, Who Am your Love could easily sit on a Steve Stills album. The closing song, Extra Mile, is a bit of a barrelhouse bluesy rocker – again it stirs memories, this time of Sal Valentino’s Stoneground- as Chew’s voice approaches a Gospel fervour on a song written about his father who died when Chew was just a youngster.

Open Sea might be an album replete with its seventies antecedents but it’s an invigorating listen. Definitely recommended for anyone who recognises the many names scattered throughout this review (and on rereading I’ll add Steve Winwood’s singing on the Blind Faith album) but it is well capable of standing on its own two feet.

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Head For The Hills. Potions And Poisons

h4th_pp_cover1_final3_545_560Another one of those bands who are taking Bluegrass into a more formal arena, Head For The Hills, a Colorado four piece, eschew the frantic scrubbing and speedy solos one associates with the tradition. In some ways they are similar to The Punch Brothers although nowhere near as formal and there is a warmth at the heart of their playing, something which this writer feels is sometimes absent from Chris Thile’s crew. This is perhaps most apparent on the title song which has a strong musical architecture – the melody flows, the harmonies are great, the playing refined yet delivered with a fine zest – and there’s a sly humour in the lyrics with singer, Adam Kinghorn, admitting that the potions and poisons in question include candy, coffee, cocaine and coitus!

Several of the songs do have that Punch Brothers’ habit of changing time signatures in a song while the instruments approximate the various sections of an orchestra in miniature. The woody timbre of the fiddle (and occasional cello and viola) is used to great effect but there’s less debt to classical composers with more than a hint of Tin Pan Alley here and there, Telling Me Lies being a good example. The opening song, Afraid Of The Dark, is a murky gun fuelled tale that might be a murder ballad although the words are somewhat opaque. The overall sense of menace is relieved by a weird waltz time instrumental break (with a backwards sound effect included) towards the end. Suit And Tie is zippier with the band taking flight on their strings and things despite the morbid lyrical content. Give Me A Reason is a sturdy foray into lost love with the guitars predominant amid an Appalachian air while Kings And Cowards opens as if it were a singer/songwriter confessional before a lovely string arrangement weighs in transforming the song into a mock baroque folk song with Bonnie Paine (from Elephant Revival) adding some wonderful harmonies. Bitter Black Coffee is almost a sister song to the aforementioned Potions And Poisons although here it’s a song about the difficulties of resisting temptation.

While there’s much to delight (and to think about) throughout the songs herein the band do offer up two extremely fine instrumentals in the shape of Floodwaters and Bucker (which closes the album). Again there’s a sense of refinement around these, no instrumental abandon but a display of virtuosity in the playing and, most importantly, a real sense of an ensemble who are in touch with each other.

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