Terry Dolan. Terry Dolan. High Moon Records

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Terry Dolan was a 60’s folkie from Connecticut who took himself to San Francisco in 1965 throwing himself into the burgeoning music scene there. While he never hit the headlines he had an uncanny knack for forging friendships and alliances with numerous musicians who did have successful careers with many of them regular members of his long lasting band Terry & The Pirates.  Chief among these were John Cipollina and Nicky Hopkins, the Quicksilver guitarist virtually a full time member and Hopkins sitting whenever he wasn’t off somewhere bashing the ivories for The Stones. Cipollina’s death in 1989 took the wind out of The Pirates’ sails, they only played sporadically after that and Dolan himself passed away in 2012. While The Pirates recorded several albums they were virtually unknown out with the Bay Area (aside from a fanatic following in Germany). Dolan himself had a shot at fame shot down when he was signed to Warner Brothers in the early seventies, recording this album in 1972. For reasons unclear it was never released leaving Dolan free to run what may have been the best bar band on the planet for the next 20 years.

The release is an obvious labour of love helmed by High Moon Records and Dolan’s fan and eventual friend Mike Somavilla who badgered Warners for years regarding these lost songs. It’s a handsome package with Dolan’s story and the tale of the album’s torturous recording fully recorded in the 48-page booklet included here. Aside from Cipollina and Hopkins (who produced half of the songs), it features appearances from Pete Sears (who produced the remainder), Lonnie Turner, Spencer Dryden, Neal Schon, Greg Douglass, Prairie Prince and The Pointer Sisters.  San Francisco rock aficionados will need no introduction to these names and it’s these self same folk who are probably the target audience. Had the album been released as intended back in 1973 it’s likely that it would now be remembered with a fond affection with original copies somewhat desirable, as it is now it’s a time capsule that deserves investigation but sadly it’s not what one might call a lost classic.

That said it’s a fine album which captures the funkier roots type of rock that was replacing psychedelia, bluesier with a side of soul as played by the likes of Delaney & Bonnie and Leon Russell or even the grittier side of Elton John way back then. Piano (by Hopkins and Sears) dominate the songs with Dolan singing and playing acoustic rhythm. Cipollina, Douglas and Schon add stinging guitar runs and the female backing voices add a gospel feel to several of the songs. The album was recorded in two bursts. Side One (as was) with Hopkins producing and Cipollina on board, the second set six months later with Sears producing (Hopkins had been called away by his Satanic Majesties) with a smaller line up, Schon in place of Cipollina. Fans of the latter day Quicksilver Messenger Service will latch onto the first four songs as Hopkins does play a storm especially on the frantic Rainbow as Cipollina goes a wee bit apeshit on slide guitar. Dolan’s signature song Inlaws And Outlaws (which he recorded several times) is a powerful example of west coast rock romanticism with Dolan singing about Gypsies and outlaws and dreaming of living free with the music a claustrophobic clutter of squirreling guitar and Gospel harmonies. Angie (not the Stones’ song) is a love song to his wife that veers ever so close to MOR balladry but is saved by Dolan’s passionate vocals and some excellent bass playing from Lonnie Turner. Listening to this it is possible to imagine that, had it been released back then, that it might have been a hit as it hits all the buttons I remember from ’70’s Top Of The Pops.

Side Two (as was) opens with another strong ballad, Purple An Blonde…?  that again has a powerful nostalgic pull for those who might have been listening to the radio back in those days and it’s not dissimilar to the songs that propelled Jefferson Starship into the charts in the mid seventies. It kind of fizzles out after this however with Burgundy Blues (dedicated to the J Geils Band) a rockin’ blues boogie while a cover of J.J. Cale’s Magnolia offers a fine vehicle for Dolan’s voice and features some fantastic keyboard playing from Pete Sears but it’s let down by some lumpen drumming.

An album then for fans of the era and of the players on the album but there’s an added bonus of six songs, all different takes from the first session that are well worth listening to with an alternative version of Inlaws And Outlaws particularly blistering and probably more akin to the music he ended up playing with his pals.

High Moon Records

Heidi Talbot. Here We Go, 1,2,3… Navigator Records

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In the space between her last album, 2013’s Angels Without Wings and this, her fifth release Ms. Talbot has undergone several changes, the birth of her second child, the passing away of her mother. More mundanely, she and husband John McCusker have built their home studio in the Scottish borders. Here We Go, 1,2,3… reflects some of these changes. There’s a contemplative aspect to several of the songs, a looking back and forward aspect. In addition she describes the new recording set up as being, “in your own environment, you’re comfortable, you’ve got all the time you need and the kids can come over.” Fittingly then she has written or co written eight of the ten songs here, a departure from previous albums where she relied mainly on traditional covers or songs from her extended musical family.

While Talbot’s (and McCusker’s) folk roots still underpin the songs with Uillean pipes and tin whistles prominent on Time To Rest and The Willow Tree, the album continues the slight shift into the mainstream that was evident on Angels Without Wings. Talbot here is closer to Eddie Reader than to Julie Fowlis and the beauty of songs such as A Song For Rose (will you remember me) and Tell Me Do You Ever Think Of Me recall the days when Linda Thompson was still singing the songs penned by her then husband Richard. Talbot’s voice is, as ever, a thing of joy. Light and clear with a youthful vulnerability to it she soothes as she sings, indeed there’s a childlike anticipation on the uplifting lilt of the opening title song despite it being about meeting in the afterworld. Likewise, A Song For Rose (will you remember me), written while her mother was ill, reaches into the past with a childlike refrain with Talbot’s daughter joining in briefly on the last chorus. While such a venture could easily become maudlin here it’s managed with grace and tenderness, the song  beautifully realised with warm strings. Throughout the album Talbot draws pictures that are evocative and warm. The Year That I Was Born sparkles with a nostalgia that anyone digging through old photographs will recognise while Tell Me Do You Ever Think Of Me starts off like an old grandfather clock brooding over Talbot’s tentative love song, the ensemble playing here just excellent, percussion, strings and horns all wrapped cosily together.

The musicians (including the hubby, Louis Abbott, Michael McGoldrick and Donald Shaw) conjure wonderful sounds throughout. Gossamer like on occasion, elsewhere gently swelling, all captured in a great clarity. It’s a comforting album, one to be savoured at length and perhaps late at night cosseted by a fine beverage.

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The Handsome Family. Unseen. Loose Music.

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The Gomez and Morticia of Americana, Brett and Rennie Sparks AKA The Handsome Family have long delighted with their singular vision. Rennie able to spin words from weird dreams, bizarre history and extrapolated incidents, Brett voicing these in his monotone baritone, all wrapped up in a strangely comforting low key country styled exotica with ancient keyboards and autoharp nestling amid the guitar and banjo.

Critically acclaimed and with a devoted following The Handsome Family burst out of the niche world of Americana when their song Far From Any Road (from way back in 2003) was chosen as the theme music for the hit TV series True Detective. Online at least they were stars, downloads and viewings of the song hitting millions, a gratifying tale indeed and hopefully some of the moolah has found its way to them. Certainly when Blabber’n’Smoke last saw them they seemed somewhat gratified by the episode but, comfortable within their unique universe, their first album release since the brouhaha, Unseen, carries on as usual with no hint of cashing in with only one song approaching the lush desert storm of Far From Any Road.  A case of Stay Calm and Stay Weird.

They open with that trademark sound on the glorious Gold, a border tale suffused with imagery, “Got a tattoo of a snake/And a ski mask on my face/But I woke up in a ditch/Behind the Stop-N-Go/Lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut/Watching dollar bills go fly away in the dust.” An image sparked when a dollar bill blowin’ in the wind smacked Brett in the face in a car park, fine fodder for Rennie’s imagination. Indeed the album title came from another episode when Rennie, sitting in an airport seat was then sat upon by a businessman who failed to see her. Contemplating her invisibility, she writes as a detached, unseen observer, dreams, occurrences and false memories feeding her fantasies.

The Silver Light is a woozy neon lit country waltz which describes fly blown bar flies addicted to slot machines seeking nirvana in the reflected glow of the tumbling wheels hoping that their angels will line up. This netherworld, a reflection of hopes dashed appears again in The Red Door, a Hitchcock like admonition not to open the door under the stairs and on King Of Dust where the protagonist, hung upside down in his truck after a collision sees himself flying over the desert. Rather than going to a heaven all he sees is barren parched lands, bones bleached in the sand, an Icarus of despair.

Elsewhere they bemoan a lost innocence on Back In My Day and visit a funway in dashed expectations of seeing the world’s tiniest horse, the mournful fairground gaiety of Tiny Tina recalling a baleful clown’s sadness, a painted face hiding his pain. Gentlemen  is true gothic, a song swaddled in the bizarre psychedelia of Farewell Aldebaran as Brett sings of  a 19th century medium who hoped to vacuum up spirits like so much dust, inventing a machine to do just that.  They close with the yearning romanticism of Green Willow Valley which comes across like a wraith tempting his love to cross over into his world, a mirror version of The Green Leaves Of Summer, a love song that graced the John Wayne movie The Alamo. Here it’s a skeletal Wayne beckoning from beyond the grave.

 

An album begging for epithets such as crepuscular and spooky it transcends these. In short it’s another trip into the odd and extremely attractive world of Brett and Rennie Sparks. The duo are lining up UK dates for early 2017 and in the meantime you can get Unseen on a limited edition transparent green vinyl LP here.

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Betse & Clarke. River Still Rise

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Last we heard from Betse Ellis, the firecracker fiddle player of The Wilders, was on her fine solo album High Moon Order (which we reviewed here ), an album that portrayed her very fine skills in the world of traditional American music while dipping its toes into more contemporary waters as on her cover of The Clash’s Straight To Hell. On River Still Rise she’s teamed up with banjo player Clarke Wyatt for an entertaining journey of sorts through traditional and old time songs and tunes, their band name and the album title deliberately recalling the exploring duo of Lewis & Clark as the duo carry out their own explorations.

With Ellis on fiddle, viola and vocals and Wyatt on banjos and cello they provide a conduit to the past, the music here (aside from three originals) plucked from a canon that includes the Child Ballads, Charlie Poole, Clarence Ashley and the still with us centenarian Violet Hensley. These old songs and tunes are rearranged by Ellis and Wyatt with brio, there’s a vitality and a sense of fun that prevents the album from becoming a history lesson although part of the enjoyment here is in actually reading the history of the songs and to this end there are extensive notes on the selections available here .  While the pair can easily let loose on songs such as Diamond Joe, Take A Drink On Me and the rollicking Rolling River (with Betse’s vocals whoopin’ away) elsewhere there’s an elegiac grandeur, a reverential nod to those pioneers who created such great music in such hard times. This is probably most evident on the pair of tunes associated with Ms. Hensley, Jericho and Fill My Way With Love, the former almost a chamber piece, delicate and awe inspiring.

There are pieces which will be familiar to folk such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Requiem For Little Sadie and the John Hartford inspired The Quail Is A Pretty Bird, others much more obscure but each and all a delight. With occasional support on upright bass and guitar from the band Brushy Creek Betse & Clarke sail through the album with aplomb, keeping tradition alive. Overall the album is an essential purchase for anyone interested in old time mountain (and river) music.

River Still Rise is available now and Betse & Clarke are currently on tour in Ireland, dates here.

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Fraser Anderson. Under The Cover Of Lightness. Membran Records

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Blabber’n’Smoke first encountered Scots musician Fraser Anderson when he reissued his album Little Glass Box back in 2014. That album featured the legendary Danny Thompson on double bass inviting inevitable comparisons to the late John Martyn. True, Anderson had some of Martyn’s blend of folk jazz and blues about him but his songs raised him far beyond any such comparison.  At the time of recording Anderson was living in France with his family but in 2014 he relocated to Bristol and set about recording Under The Cover Of Lightness. The result is an album that sees him travel further into the tenebrous world of folk jazz; burbling bass, woody cello and supple guitar work all entwined with keyboard, accordion and violin adding colour, his voice with a slight Scots accent an instrument in itself. There’s less of a pastoral feel this time around, the songs darker at times, Anderson reflecting on life love and loss.

Some of these songs are truly beautiful but Anderson quests further throughout the album exploring other avenues,  his new life in Bristol reflected perhaps in the Portishead like reverie of Beautiful Eyes and the street rap of With You All motored by an insistent urban beat. This exploration reaches its apogee on the techno beats of Go On Wide (Part 1), a jarring explosion of keyboards and synthed percussion with Anderson’s vocals reverberating. It’s an audacious number in relation to its neighbours (in particular the languid liquid guitar work of Go On Wide (Part 2) which follows), the two songs a yin and yang pairing of a tumultuous relationship perhaps.

It’s a presumption of course but the album seems to chart Anderson’s life, the opening sumptuous horn and organ fuelled Simple Guidance a young lover’s dizzying ascent into romance, hindsight allowing that perhaps it happened all too soon but the singer has no regrets. Beautiful Eyes is a Parisian dawn tale, the heroine wandering home to listen to Piaf dreaming of her time to come with the beautiful people.  As Anderson narrates, the chorus, sung wonderfully by Bex Baxter, is dreamlike, buoyed by swooning keyboards and trippy effects. Please Let This Go is starkly wonderful. Pizzicato violin underpins Anderson’s pained recollections of failed love before a limpid rhythm and string section draw the song to a close. There’s some healing in the lovely The Wind And The Rain, another string driven threnody that opens with a fragility that’s eventually supplanted by a soulful organ as Anderson reflects and gathers the strength to forge on ahead. Feel is darkly claustrophobic, a menacing blues cluster with savage guitar work (from Ali Ferguson) that recalls John Martyn on I’d Rather Be The Devil. Anderson rushes through the words, his voice billowing like Tim Buckley’s.

As the album approaches a conclusion Anderson bares his soul on the exceptional spoken word With You All. A Beat poem with a naked soul, Anderson recalling Jackie Leven and even Renton’s Choose Life rap from Trainspotting in his delivery as he describes the photographs he took of his first born son and recalls the highs and lows of his life. The final three songs are contemplative reflections, Anderson returning to the chamber folk of Please let This Go peppered with some electronic burblings which add to the atmosphere. Crying From My Heart weeps majestically, the instrumentation simply superb. Five Days is gossamer thin, dappled with spare guitar, Anderson’s supple voice suffused with emotion. The closing song, Rising Sons, rises from an electronic morass growing into a tender salute to his children, now grown but still close to his heart as Anderson closes the disc singing, “I’d choose broken bones over broken homes, I’m here for you my boy”.

There’s an emotional heft to this album that raises it well above the bar. Anderson recalls his peer, Blue Rose Code’s Ross Wilson not only in their shared explorations of the hinterland of jazz and folk (and their expeditions into dance and rap) but also in the ability to convey hurt and loss with an aching beauty. Under The Cover Of Lightness is not, despite the lushness of some of the songs, an easy listen but will reward the earnest listener well.

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Glasgow Overture . Kevin P. Gilday & The Sea Kings

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It’s coming up for Record Store Day, a fine enterprise that was designed to get people back into their local musty vinyl emporium. There are mumblings that corporate greed has now weighed in and the enterprise might suffocate under limited edition Justin Bieber crap but locally it’s still an opportunity to get out there and pretend you’re an extra in High Fidelity. Aside from the insane idea that your local shop might have only two copies of that ultra rare item ( and the probability that it will appear, vastly inflated, on Ebay pretty soon) it is an opportunity to celebrate music in itself and it’s nice to see that Glasgow’s Love Music have actually co optioned two nearby pubs in order to let some local bands play.

Anyway, reason for this post was to mention a RSD release that celebrates Glasgow. A double A-side single collaboration between Glasgow spoken word artist Kevin P. Gilday, and The Sea Kings. As they say, “a marriage consumated behind a manky Gallowgate pub, Kevin P. Gilday and The Sea Kings bring you their debut collaboration. Kevin P. Gilday (The Man Who Loved Beer), an award-winning spoken word artist, and The Sea Kings (Woke In The Devil’s Arms), a critically lauded Bad Seeds for tomorrow,bring you their treatise on their home city of Glasgow. A double A-side offering, capturing the twin existence of the crumbling second city of the empire”.

It’s released on Iffy Folk Records and, aside from being pretty damn good, is a fine example of grass roots enterprise. For the true music hunter, a chance to stick a finger up to the media moguls and to support some local talent.

Trembling Bells. Wide Majestic Aire. Tin Angel Records

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Trembling Bells are in the grand tradition of folk musicians who roam far and wide in their influences and subsequent styles. Perhaps best known for collaborations with Mike Heron (of The Incredible String Band) and Will Oldham they take elements of traditional music, sixties and seventies experimental folk, classical music, psychedelia and Velvet Underground fuzz blending it all together in their particular alchemical pot. Their last album, The Sovereign Self, was Stuart Maconie’s favourite album of 2015; Maconie of course is the curator of Radio 6’s Freak Zone and therein lies the rub. It’s all too easy to consign the ‘Bells to the “weird” zone, labelled as a tough listen but folk who remember (or are catching up on) albums such as Shirley Collins’ Anthems Of Eden, Kevin Ayers’ Whatevershebringswesing, Richard Thompson’s Henry The Human Fly or The Albion Band’s Rising Like The Sun will find much here to comfort them. Wide Majestic Aire doesn’t sound like any of these but the spirit of adventure and quest that informed works like these is very much alive here, the band unafraid to mix soaring guitar solos with pump organ sounds, unaccompanied voice and Baroque classical influences.

Wide Majestic Aire is a seven song mini album, its feet firmly anchored in two of the band’s (or more properly leader Alex Neilson’s) homelands, Leeds, his birthplace, and Carbeth in Scotland. The opening title song revisits Neilson’s formative years living close to the river Aire, reading Lorca and Blake as he walks the river banks, the dismal council estate he comes from replaced by Elysian Fields. The song flows like the river, a grand romantic sweep that takes him to the dreaming spires of Oxford, the buildings golden brown and ochre as Lavinia Blackwall’s voice commands attention, her mannered delivery nicely set against a rickety instrumental break. It’s an inspiring song and one of two here which most recall the pomp years of classic folk rock, Sandy Denny on Liege & Lief and solo recordings perhaps. The second song to do so is the closing Marble Arch. Again the band cleave to a rock sound, a solid rhythm section backing Blackwall’s majestic voice, guitarist Mike Hastings adding a fuzzed up guitar screech throughout.

No such firm footing on the capricious England Was Aghast, a song that veers from sonic rumblings with guitars and cymbals crashing to an electronic hornpipe of sorts as Blackwall declaims an England that is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Show Me A Hole (And I’ll Crawl In It) musically recalls the Incredible string Band as a reedy organ dominates although there’s a decidedly medieval feel present. Lyrically obscure there are some fabulous images conjured.  “There’s a line of beauty that starts at Roland’s wrist and ends at your mouth which I kissed and even Rodin showed an envy for that ruinous bliss” while later, up on Dionysian hills, “a butterfly dashed itself against a riot shield.” The organ pumps away until, towards the end, the band dash in in full prog folk glory, Celtic fuzz guitar and Keith Emerson keyboards to the fore. Swallows Of Carbeth is a simpler affair, a seemingly straightforward paean to the bucolic attractions of this off grid haven, the band nicely rolling and tumbling along initially. However it’s a lost love song, the delights soured by a leaving and the music darkens and becomes more frenzied, the fiddle blazing away. There’s more travelogue on the appealing I Love Bute, a lovely kenspeckled number that recalls the music that added so much to the original Whickerman. Finally Alex Neilson offers the unaccompanied voice song, The Day That Maya Deren Died, inspired, he says, from seeing The Watersons. As befits this unique writer however he gathers obscure references (Deyer was an avant garde filmmaker), place names (Kelvinside) and surrealistic images (a self immolated soldier) and weaves them into a song which kind of defies description but is also self referencing as it ends with the singer stating he’ll write a song about London’s Marble Arch, that song following and closing the disc.

Trembling Bells are out and about in April promoting this record. Dates are here.

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