Amy Speace with The Orphan Brigade. There Used To Be Horses Here. Proper Records

On this follow up to her award winning album, Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne, Amy Speace delves into her personal space for a truly intimate album which was written in the space between two life changing events, her son’s first birthday and then the death of her father. One event life affirming, the other a loss, a dichotomy which informs the songs here which are suffused in memories, some happy, some less so.

Speace is accompanied throughout by The Orphan Brigade (Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Joshua Britt), the accomplished trio whose own albums lend themselves to place and time and it’s a match made in heaven. Their delicate and impressive colourings caress the songs wonderfully while a string quartet adds to the quiet beauty of several of the songs here. One listen to the magnificent edifice of One Year will confirm that Speace has picked her musical partners well.

The album opens with sweeping strings and gentle mandolin ripples on Down The Trail as Speace heads back in time, recalling family journeys from her childhood. It’s as evocative as a faded old family photograph and sets the scene for much of what is to follow. There are echoes of Joni Mitchell in the writing, and her vocal delivery, from hushed to exclamatory, is quite brilliant. The title song is another snapshot from the past but within it there is a sense of anger as her childhood memories of pastures are confronted by the modern reality of urban blight – her father’s spirit no longer resides there. It does reside within yet another sepia toned memory on Father’s Day which is based on an actual photograph from a day out in 1972 with Speace reflecting on her fear that her memories will eventually fade and wishing that her father was still around to celebrate another father’s day. It was not to be and Grief Is A Lonely Land is an incredibly touching elegy which deserves to be heard far and wide as it knocks any Broadway melodrama off of its perch.

On a more affirmative note, there’s the bustling and bluesy skiffle of Hallelujah Train which can be considered as a kind of a grand send off to the deceased, gone but riding into glory. River Rise is delivered in a similar vein and Shotgun Hearts (with guitar from Will Kimbrough) is a defiant shout out with a little bit of Springsteen hidden within its pulse. Mother Is A Country, the second last song, returns to the personal as Speace waxes poetically on the havens a child can find in its mother’s embrace and love, while allowing for the mother’s sense of emotional turbulence in the wake of giving birth.

The album closes with a warm and cosy rendition of the late Warren Zevon’s Don’t Let Us Get Sick. It’s a come together anthem here, enlivened by the always excellent band playing and a fine two fingers to the pandemic which has blighted all of us. A fine end to an album which is full of the milk of human kindness and which is a glorious listen.

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Ben Glover. Sweet Wild Lily. Proper Records

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.

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Amy Speace. Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne. Proper Records

as.ccdcoverprintListening to the title song which opens Amy Speace’s latest album, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is a newly discovered relic from the heydays of singer/songwriters, that halcyon time when Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Judee Sill were really at the cutting edge. Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne is a starkly beautiful piano ballad with a striking string arrangement, written when Speace was in the city of Aachen where the bones of the emperor are entombed. It’s a magnificent capture of road travel weariness, the comedown after the gig, asking ultimately the question, why?

Aside from the singer/songwriters mentioned above, the treatment of the song recalls the baroque folk of Judy Collins who is credited with discovering Speace many moons ago and this album confirms once and for all that Collins is a talent spotter par excellence, remember, she “discovered” Leonard Cohen. Anyhow, Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne, coming after a string of excellent albums from Speace, is perhaps her pinnacle. Recorded in the final days of her first pregnancy (she dedicates the album to her son, “In my belly as I was recording”) it is at times quite intense as she rails against various injustices or soul searches, while there are also some sublimely tender occasions, some of those however having a sting in the tail. Listen to the initial 60’s folk like naiveté of Pretty Girls which finally erupts with crashing guitars as Speace obliquely comments on this Instagram age.

There’s a defiant grandeur in the wonderfully recorded pulsations of the “protest” song, Standing Rock Standing Here, her commentary on the long standing Native American tribe’s struggle with the US government at Standing Rock. Back In Abilene strips back the music to just acoustic guitar and sparse piano in a snapshot of the days following the assassination of JFK. Meanwhile there are more intimate moments as when Speace uses words written by Emily Dickinson on This And My Heart Beside to create a pastoral love letter while the closing song, her version of Ben Glover’s Kindness (described by Speace in the liner notes as, “the most beautiful lullaby I’ve ever heard”) probably touched her then unborn child’s heart as much as it will you, the listener.

Produced by Neilson Hubbard and with contributions from Will Kimbrough, Beth Neilson Chapman, Ben Glover and Eamon McLoughan, Me And The Ghost of Charlemagne is the work of an artist who is at her prime. Mature, thoughtful, engaging, and it sounds wonderful.

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The Orphan Brigade. Heart Of The Cave. At The Helm Records

ath201317_cover_artTwo years ago Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Josh Britt got together to record The Orphan Brigade – Soundtrack to a Ghost Story, an album recorded in a “haunted” antebellum mansion on a civil war battle site. Touring the album in Europe they landed in Osimo, Italy, a town with its own ghostly past and a warren of ancient caves under its streets to boot. Taken by the place they returned for a ten day stay later and recorded this album in those caves with Glover explaining, “I had a profound sense that we were stepping into the past, into a mysterious and ancient world.” As on the previous album the trio enlist assistance (Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh, Kris & Heather Donegan, Dan Mitchell, Dean Marold, Will Kimbrough, Natalie Schabs, Eamon McLoughlin, Audrey Spillman and Kira Small) and while many of the songs relate directly to the history and myths of Osimo they retain their distinctly American sound that resonated throughout the earlier album. Mandolin and softly strummed guitars predominate although there are strings and horns and some wonderful vocal arrangements.

Although it opens with a brace of spritely numbers the album overall is dark and reflective.   The opening Pile Of Bones is a primeval workout, a chant over scrubbed instruments and a tribal thump as a massed chorus sings, “we ain’t leaving but a pile of bones” An invitation to reflect on our mortality and not dissimilar to Patti Smith’s Ghost Dance. Town Of A Hundred Churches is resolutely set in the Italian town they’re in but it swings with a fine mid western breeze and, as the notes state, could as easily have been written about Nashville. Similarly their song about a 17th century local mystic who could levitate, Flying Joe, is given a fine string band gospel arrangement. There’s a return to a primeval stomp on Alchemy but the remainder of the album is of a darker hue.

Osimo (Come To Life) has the pace of a funeral procession and is suffused with images of death being just a gateway to a new life with its final refrain a nod to the many carvings in the walls of the caves. Meanwhile Pain Is Gone, a hushed affair sung over a simple acoustic guitar for the most part, again delves into the mysteries of death. This flirtation with mortality might be partly explained by the fact that as the band were recording the album Italy suffered several earthquakes with loss of life. This may have informed the pair of songs, The Birds Are Silent and The Bells Are Ringing, that sit at the centre, the former has the earth shaking and urgent descriptions of people clawing at ruins looking for survivors in a chilling song that rattles along like a south western bandit ballad full of cinematic drama. The Bells Are Ringing, by contrast, is a firm rejoinder to celebrate the destructive power of nature and is given a rapturous delivery.

The album closes with four powerful songs. Sweet Cecilia is moored firmly in that dark Americana vein populated by ghosts and dead lovers while Meet Me in The Shadows is a dolorous affair, ghostly voices singing from Stygian depths.  That glimmer of hope that death is the not the end is revisited on There’s A Light That Never Goes Out, the one song here that sounds truly cavernous with the piano and percussion reverberating amidst ominous sound effects with the ghost of Leonard Cohen hovering somewhere nearby. Donna Sacra, with a wordless female voice, is a rapture of sorts. A close to the album emphasised by the final sound snippet of an Italian train service announcement as the band come back to the surface.

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Ben Glover. The Emigrant. Proper Records

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Although Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t previously reviewed any of Ben Glover’s albums his is a name which has cropped up several times.  He co-wrote Gretchen Peters’ wonderful Blackbirds, winner of ‘International Song of The Year’ at the UK Americana Awards back in February and he was one third of The Orphan Brigade who released the very fine Soundtrack To A Ghost Story around a year ago.

An Irishman who has lived in Nashville since 2009 Glover was drawn to consider the theme of migration as he was going through the process of getting his Green Card. Of course Ireland has had waves of emigrations over the centuries but the current political climate, dominated by the plight of refugees across the globe and the ensuing backlash and rise of xenophobia assures that this resulting album has a topical purpose. For all that it’s far from a polemical album. Instead Glover has reached back to popular and traditional Irish songs that evoke feelings of displacement and exile  and to these he has added four songs, three co-written with Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier and Tony Kerr, the title song, commenced in Ireland and finished in collaboration with Peters being the starting block for the album.

Co produced with fellow Orphan Brigadier, Neilson Hubbard, the album stays close to its Irish roots, the instrumentation is spare; acoustic guitar, piano, fiddles, Uilleann pipes, whistles the primary instruments. Glover skilfully wrests the traditional and cover songs from any cosy sense of familiarity, the arrangements breathing new life into them while the presence of his own songs prevents the album from becoming a set of “well kent” Irish songs, the album as a whole a powerful listen.

Opening with a stirring rendition of The Parting Glass, the upbeat tempo belying the air of farewell within the song, Glover immediately takes us into an Irish heartland, a fiction perhaps of a jolly lot managing their loss through alcohol, oft posited by numerous screenplays. Aside from a slight return to a toe tapping moment on the traditional Moonshiner, another song with drink at its centre, the rest of the album is a more sombre affair, the reality of alienation and loss hitting hard. A Song Of Home, one of the originals is a magnificent effort, glover’s voice yearning, at times approaching Van Morrison’s stream of consciousness repetitions, the song celebrating the landscapes, mists and mysteries of a remembered homeland. The title song follows opening with plangent piano, a Tom Waits’ like moment considered perhaps but it then swells with Uillean pipes as Glover dissects with his poet’s scalpel the curse of the emigrant, “to be cut loose from all you knew, beyond the pale, beyond the blue…the restlessness, the discontent…” It’s a deeply moving song that stakes its claim immediately to be considered part of the folk canon. The co-write with Mary Gauthier, Heart In My Hand, is a roving fiddle fuelled ramble while Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers is a very brief reiteration of the lines inscribed within the album sleeve, Glover’s alternative to Emma Lazarus’ words welcoming emigrants to the USA.

Woven between these bitter pills are the familiars. Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here, Glover more impassioned than McTell’s original, more bereft. The Auld Triangle wrings out all the emotion it can from this well travelled song with a touch of Shane McGowan to be sure in here. The Green Glens Of Antrim closes the album and again Glover summons up ghosts and memories, an emigrant looking back through rose tinted glasses, delivered here like a Hibernian Tom Waits. Finally Glover manages the almost impossible task of breathing new life into a song that through familiarity has somewhat lost its original impact. He tackles Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda with a raw vocal and a tremendous arrangement, half Waits, half Weill as he snarls and rages, finally collapsing into a bereft croak, the band playing on.

It’s not that often that an album captures such a terrible zeitgeist but Glover here lays down a powerful challenge to those who just see immigrants taking up their council houses and jobs. Several of these songs should accompany news items but that’s too grand to ever happen. Still, there’s social media there to spread his message. On a more local level we should mention that Glover is appearing at next week’s Glasgow Americana Festival performing in the round with Boo Hewardine and Roddy Hart (information here).

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The Orphan Brigade. Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. Proper Records

Two Americans and an Irishman walk into a haunted house… No, it’s not the opening line of a joke but the punch line for the story behind The Orphan Brigade. The three (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Ben Glover) have built an album around the tales and histories of characters from the Civil War period, notably Confederates housed in and around a plantation house named Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky, sixty miles north of Nashville. The Hall still stands, spared from immolation by the Northern troops, an antebellum reminder of the horrors of war and slavery and reputed to be the “most haunted house in America.” With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the trio set up shop in the haunted house to write and record the album with assistance from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, Heather Donegan, Dean Marold, Eamon McLoughlin, Dan Mitchell, Barry Walsh, Carey Ott, Brad Talley, Zach Bevill, Jim DeMain and Ryan Beach.

It’s a fine back story and the cast tell tales of spooky happenings during the recording, much of it captured on a documentary directed by Hubbard and Britt. However, entertaining as this all is it’s much more than an Americana version of American Horror Story, the good news being that the album stands up to scrutiny whether the listener knows the origins or not. It’s not a retelling of the era in the vein of White Mansions although there are songs that refer directly to the experiences of the historical protagonists. Rather it’s an impressionistic capture of the spirit (sorry) of the times delivered in a variety of styles that gather in musical influences but are rooted in modern music. One could imagine that The Band or a solo Robbie Robertson might have made the album.

The war does loom large on the wheezy accordion tooled I’ve Seen The Elephant, the delicate harmonies of Last June Light and the martial numbers, The story You Tell Yourself, decorated with slight mandolin and throbbing guitar and We Were Marching On Christmas Day which captures excellently the tribulations of the foot soldier in a wintry waste. On a more optimistic note The Good Old Flag points to the reconciliation required after a bitter war and is delivered as an excellent mid tempo ballad buoyed on some fine guitar flourishes and sublime harmonies.

There’s a wealth of styles here, a sea shanty on Cursed Be The Wanderer, an Irish Lament with Paddy’s Lamentation and some slide driven Southern grit on Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet). Whistling Walk appears at first to be an oddity, a whistled instrumental with a jazzy cornet and guitar it ambles into view with an unexpected jocularity but when one reads that it’s inspired by the fact that slaves carrying food from the kitchen to the table were ordered to whistle in order to prevent them eating any of the food then it falls into place.
As we said earlier, the album stands on its own two feet but there’s a wealth of information to be had for anyone wanting to delve, either into its making or the history it commemorates and is heartily recommended.

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And just because it’s Halloween