Matthews Southern Comfort. Like A Radio.

matthewssoutherncomfort_likearadio_300px72dpiThe name certainly transports us back to 1970 when Matthews Southern Comfort hit the number one spot in the charts with their cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, perhaps the first record featuring pedal steel that Blabber’n’Smoke bought. A rare moment in the spotlight for singer/songwriter Iain Matthews, Woodstock is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his illustrious career. A founder member of Fairport Convention, he released three albums under the Southern Comfort band name before going solo and releasing a magnificent series of solo albums commencing with If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes including a collaboration with Mike Nesmith on Valley Hi. Alongside this he was a member of Plainsong who released one of the best “forgotten” albums of the seventies, In Search Of Amelia Earhart, (do search it out) but as time progressed changing fashions and record label shenanigans led to him take more of a back seat in the industry. Moving to The Netherlands in the early noughties Matthews has been involved in various reincarnations of his past bands over the past decade and this album finds him working with guitar wizard B.J. Baartmans along with Bart de Win on keyboards and guitarist Eric Devries.

It’s a mellow affair, the band affecting a late night vibe for the most part aside from the clumsy opener, The Thought Police, a diatribe against the sort of Big Brother situation we are in these days but lyrically kind of stuck in an early seventies agit rock rant, Edgar Broughton could probably punk it up well but here it kind of sticks out. The title song follows and it’s more successful although it still cleaves to an earlier age, its jazz cool and slight LA funk reminding one of Ben Sidran while de Win’s piano playing adds a touch of class. While there are some asides to folk and jangled pop scattered throughout the disc Like A Radio sets the template for much of the album. It’s well played and thoughtful music with Matthews in fine voice but several of the songs fail to quicken the pulse.

There’s some fine stuff here mind you. Bits & Pieces is an excellent band performance,  Been Down So Long (a nod to Richard Farina) tackles oppression from a historical viewpoint and manages to raise some sparks while Phoenix Rising benefits from Baartman’s sinewy guitar lines while Matthews’ vocals recapture some of his seventies recordings. He actually revisits the original Matthews Southern Comfort albums with a new version of Darcy Farrow (recorded on Second Spring) which is delivered with a sparse arrangement allowing his voice to shine while Carole King’s To Love is given a sparkling new arrangement with Baartman throwing out some slinky guitar solos. Our review copy has three bonus songs with James Taylor’s Something In The Way She Moves (again recorded on Second Spring) just sublime, Matthews’ voice as clear and unsullied as all those years ago while the band play it beautifully.

It’s nice to hear Mr. Matthews again and while the album doesn’t break new ground it’s a grand late night listen and a fine opportunity for folk to catch up with him.

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Richard Thompson. Acoustic Rarities. Proper Records

arRichard Thompson’s decision, back in 2014, to record some of his back catalogue with just him and his acoustic guitar (Acoustic Classics) might be one of the best of his career. Hailed immediately by fans and critics he recently followed it up with Acoustic Classics Vol. 2, another cracker, and now, just two months later, he unveils a third instalment.  Essentially, there’s no real need to read further on if you enjoyed the previous volumes. Rarities stands beside them, tall and proud.

The format is the same. Thompson, voice and acoustic guitar, revisits his catalogue. Here the bait (if any was needed) is six previously unreleased songs and a few recorded by others but not previously by Thompson. Alongside these he digs deep into his recorded past revisiting Fairport Days, his obscure solo debut, Henry The Human Fly, and two numbers originally recorded with Linda Thompson.

Sloth, originally a lengthy electric folk dirge on Fairport’s full House, is stripped back but still sends shivers down the spine with Thompson’s unique guitar style a triumph. Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman (a song that was recorded for Full House but which didn’t make the final cut, only emerging some years later) allows Thompson to stake, yet again, a claim to be one of our finest troubadours in the folk medium. From the duo years with Linda, Thompson selects the dark Never Again and the even darker, End Of The Rainbow, the latter given a magnificent reading and as relevant today as it was back when it was recorded, a bleak prophecy for a fresh faced bairn.

Henry The Human Fly (his first solo album in 1972) was, allegedly, the poorest selling album ever released by US label Warner Bros/Reprise and Thomson was reportedly dissatisfied with it. This reviewer still has his copy bought back then and still thinks that The Angels Took My Racehorse Away and Roll Over Vaughn Williams stand amongst Thompson’s best songs. Here he selects The Poor Ditching Boy for a royal makeover with accordion accompaniment, a version which begs the question as to whether, for a future instalment, Thompson could deliver the whole of the album acoustically.

As for the unreleased songs, some will be familiar to gig goers over the years such as the humorous Alexander Graham Bell, here given some Django like guitar runs, while Push And Shove was a live favourite some twenty years ago. Rainbow Over The Hill was offered to The Albion Band and it’s a neat reversal of the rainbow metaphor from The End Of The Rainbow with its optimism. What If is a fine example of a spiky Thompson diatribe while She Played Right Into My Hands rolls along with a fine pub session folk feel and They Tore The Hippodrome Down wanders down a nostalgic alley. Best of all however is the stark folk ballad Thompson offered to Blair Dunlop, Seven Brothers. Here he revisits his reimaging of classic folk ballads that helmed Liege & Lief and Full house with a song suffused with portents of doom.

So, number three in an excellent series. Wholly recommended to Thompson fans and hopefully not the last of them to surface.

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Richard Thompson. Acoustic Classics II. Proper Records

58Richard Thompson pleased a great many people with his 2014 release, Acoustic Classics, where he handpicked several of his songs and delivered them solo stating at the time,  “I really wanted something that would reflect the acoustic shows but we didn’t have anything like that, Just some old, slightly scratchy recordings of solo sets that I wasn’t really happy with.” It seems that he was happy with the result as he’s gone and done it again with this second volume where he again goes through his extensive back catalogue coming up with 14 gems and this time he’s included his Fairport Convention days with three of the songs taken from that period.

He opens the album with the acerbic She Twists the Knife Again which is perhaps the least successful of his renditions here although his staccato guitar runs reflect the jagged lyrics.  The Ghost Of You Walks which follows is more representative of the album as a whole as Thompson settles into his familiar melancholic mood while his guitar playing is expressive and tender as is his singing. The first of the three Fairport songs, Genesis Hall, follows suit with Thompson reining in the Fairport waltz arrangement unveiling it as a modern folk classic with the words (written about a raid on squatters with Thompson’s police officer father participating) allowed to ring free. Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair and A Heart Needs A Home, both from his partnership with ex wife Linda, follow with the latter particularly affecting.

It’s of note that Thompson can invest songs that were originally recorded with full rock band arrangements with as much power and drive using just his acoustic guitar. Here Pharaoh and Gethsemane (from Amnesia and The Old Kit Bag respectively) pack a punch with Pharaoh in particular stern and glowering, its message undimmed and particularly apt for these benighted times. Guns Are The Tongues, another powerful protest song is the one song here that has added instrumentation with a mandolin added to the guitar and again Thompson invests it with a powerful dignity.

He goes all the way back to one of his earliest and best known songs when he tackles Meet On The Ledge and while the original can probably not be beat it’s great to hear Thompson sing this. The biggest surprise on the album is with a song of similar vintage, Crazy Man Michael. Originally released on Liege & Lief when Fairport were digging deep into folk music it proved that Thompson and co-writer Dave Swarbrick were able to deliver songs that reeked of tradition and here Thompson is just perfect as he maintains the eerie folk magic that informed the original.

It’s another triumph then for Thompson and a must for his many followers. And for those wanting more there’s another disc of Acoustic Rarities available via his Pledge Music Page here.

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The Unthanks. Mount The Air. Rabble Rouser

Mount The Air, the first album from award winning folkies The Unthanks in four years opens on a bold note, one is tempted to say a Blue Note as the title song is introduced with a melancholic trumpet reminiscent of Miles Davis circa Sketches Of Spain (although Miles had left Blue Note by then for CBS). It’s a surprising sound for a folk album but The Unthanks have been busy over the past few years collaborating with artists such as Adrian Utley of Portishead and exploring the music of Robert Wyatt and Anthony & The Johnsons and Mount The Air is an ambitious marriage of folk, jazz and even trip hop. Rachel and Becky Unthank continue to mine familiar folk tropes, lost loves, wayfaring strangers and magical animals but the arrangements by Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally launch the band into unfamiliar waters at times. It’s tempting to think that the album is an attempt to capture some of the sense of adventure and shock achieved by the Fairports way back when they unleashed their folk rock magnum opus, A Sailor’s Life. Had The Unthanks continued in the same vein as the opening song then there might have been a chance of this but overall the album fails to live up to the adventurous opening.

The song, Mount The Air is a pinnacle. This age old song from the Cecil Sharp collection is stretched to almost ten minutes with Becky Unthank, a changeling looking for a lost love, only occasionally heard amid the Iberian strains of trumpeter Tom Arthur and fiddle from Niopha Keegan. With driving percussion and sweeping strings it’s cinematic in its delivery and somewhat breathtaking. Foundling is another lengthy song that tells the tale of an 18th Century Foundling Hospital but it cleaves to a more traditional style, piano led with Rachel Unthank’s lyrics and vocals the highlight here. Flutter is more adventurous with debts perhaps to Utley’s work with Portishead, electric keyboards and skittering percussion buoying up the otherworldly vocals.

Overall it’s somewhat churlish to concentrate on the more experimental aspects of this album. At their best The Unthanks are a somewhat unique crew, true to their North East roots (the album was recorded in their Northumberland studio), they’re perhaps the best current embodiment of folk music with one foot in tradition and the other in the modern world. Their rendition of Magpie here is haunting with just voices and harmonium transporting the listener into a mystical Albion while Hawthorn is simply delivered and breathtakingly beautiful.

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Jo Bartlett. 9 x 7. Strike Back Records

Jo Bartlett was a co founder of The Green Man Festival (held in Wales) back in 2003 and with partner Danny Hagan has released four albums as It’s Jo and Danny along with fronting a “psychedelic” instrumental band, The Yellow Moon Band. 9 x7 is her second solo album, deriving its title from the nine songs performed by seven musicians contained therein. With her past music described as “folktronica” in the press release it was somewhat disappointing to hear the opening song here, Dying Kiss, washed as it is under swathes of electronic keyboards with programmed percussion pinging and popping as if the eighties never went away. A pity, as the song and Bartlett’s voice are actually quite fine. Fortunately over the course of the album Bartlett relegates the synth like noises to the background allowing her songs some room to breathe although they never quite go away.

Measure Of the Storm has some proper strings and rippling guitars to guide it as Bartlett sets out on a folk rock voyage which has some of the urgency and dynamics of seventies folk rock about it. She repeats this on the breathless Rising To The Bait which has some rich guitar undercurrents churning under the lyrics. There’s a return to the rubber band percussion pops and synth strikes on Driven Away and again there’s a sense that unadorned this would pass muster, a feeling reinforced by the following ballad, Highway Found, which is delivered almost as if Sandy Denny were singing it and Jerry Donahue playing the guitar solo. A triumph then for this song and Bartlett follows it up with the superb instrumental Olympic which is an acrobatic tumult of strings and guitars that would not be out of place on an old Pentangle album. What Do You Say To That is a bold experiment with Bartlett’s voice echoed over gnarly guitar and insistent percussion that has its roots in John Martyn’s echoplex ruminations but it just doesn’t take flight. Advent is more successful as Bartlett revisits early Fairport territory when the Fairport’s were trying to be the UK equivalent of Jefferson Airplane or The Byrds. There’s a shimmer to the guitars, some sproinks and oinks from the electronic gizmos and a great throbbing bass line. To cap it all the album ends with the airy and billowing Suitable Drama which again bears comparison to the late Denny. Overall 9 x 7 is indicative of a fine singer and songwriter who has to decide which side of the fence she is on.

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Will Varley. As The Crow Flies. Smugglers records.

26 year old Will Varley is an author, artist and performer full of piss and vinegar, occupied with the Occupy movement and involved in the DIY ethos of his label Smugglers Records. To promote his first album he didn’t play the usual circuit, instead he embarked on a 140 mile walking tour playing to anyone who wanted to listen.
As The Crow Flies is his second release and showcases his strong vocals, guitar dexterity and his fine song writing skills. Varley works in the folk tradition and he proves he can deliver in the traditional fashion with the powerful and chilling tale of a Shaman’s deception on Blood and Bone which could have graced the likes of Traffic’s John barleycorn album or any one of Fairport Conventions latter efforts. For the most part however he reflects the sixties singer/songwriter revolution and he succeeds spectacularly well in this with some songs that are wonderfully crafted. Where The Wild Wind Blows opens with a description of a bucolic Eden the singer has to leave for an uncertain future. Similar to the early poetry of Dylan with a nod to Roy Harper it’s a fine curtain raiser. Weddings and Wars continues down the same road as Varley sums up Man’s achievements over the ages and finds them for the most part destructive and deadly. His voice spits vitriol here and again one is reminded of the angry young Harper when he sang songs such as I Hate The White Man. Soldiers on The Wall is an apocalyptic vision of the future which envisions states from Morocco to New York policed by the titular guards. Delivered in a hazy fashion we’re unsure if this is a dream or a vision but it’s a powerful message.
There are several songs which sound more personal although political nuances are never far away. The title song is a wonderful piece of nostalgia as Varley recollects images and instances from his youth as he goes back home while She’s Been Drinking is the sorry tale of a promising life going down the drain due to addiction. His lyrics are evocative and engaging with some excellent imagery throughout while the accompaniment from fellow Beggars Records artists Cocos Lovers cocoons the songs with a delicate touch.
Finally we must mention two songs that offer some levity to offset the gloom that pervades the album ( although we must say that gloom is good). Both are in the vein of Dylan’s humoresque talkin’ blues with I Got This E-Mail a genuinely funny tall story where the protagonist is sucked into a Nigerian scam, eventually marches on Whitehall only to find that David Cameron has fallen for the same scam. The scabrous Self Checkout Shuffle will appeal to all who use these automated supermarket guardians and anyone who fantasises about supermarket romances.

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Fairport Convention. Rising For The Moon: Deluxe Two-Disc Edition

By 1974 Fairport Convention were far removed from their trailblazing days as the band which largely introduced folk rock spawning a whole new rock subculture. A revolving door syndrome had seen members come and go and the departure of Simon Nicol in 1971 saw them with no original members. Fiddler Dave Swarbrick took up the baton of leadership for a few albums before the arrival of guitarist Jerry Donahue and guitarist/vocalist Trevor Lucas (both from Fotheringay, the band Sandy Denny had formed on her departure from Fairport) introduced a less folky sound and even some transatlantic influences courtesy of Donahue’s guitar. The return of Denny to the fold in ’74 produced a frisson of delight in the music press with high hopes for this gifted line up and their new album. Sadly Rising For The Moon was beset with difficulties with drummer Dave Mattacks quitting during recording and it turned out to be the swansong for Fairport Convention with their next album credited to Fairport which saw an end to their time on Island records.

Island Records have unveiled this “deluxe” edition of the Rising For The Moon album having given facelifts to many of its predecessors. It comprises the original album along with demos and unreleased songs coupled with a complete live set from the LA Troubadour that apart from some Denny songs has never been officially released. Listening today to the album there’s a schism between the songs Denny brought to the sessions and the earthy folkiness of Swarbrick’s offerings. Swarbrick continues in the vein of his Babbacombe Lee or Rosie songs with his distinctive voice and fiddle playing to the fore although there are no jigs or reels on offer here. Denny on the other hand lends a majestic feel on the seven songs credited to her as the band abandon the Brummy Swarbrick’s inflections and go into full fledged FM rock mode. The closing song on the album One More Chance is a would be epic with flailing guitars and it’s not too fancy to imagine that had this been picked up on then Fairport rather than Fleetwood Mac could have become a colossus in the States. Stranger To Himself is a nod back to classic Fairport as Denny delivers a folky narrative over a martial beat while Dawn and What Is True build on the style she forged on her solo albums. Strangely enough the song chosen as a single release and perhaps the most successful one here is the Swarbrick penned White Dress, a delicate love song that has Denny singing at her lilting best. A live studio rendition of White Dress is the highlight of the additional material on the studio disc showcasing Denny’s vocals perfectly while the band excel in supporting her while the alternate version of Dawn is less dramatic allowing Denny’s voice to shine.

The live disc is a welcome addition to the ever increasing Fairport archive and while it features some vintage material such as a cracking version of Matty Groves, a Swarbrick driven Hen’s March Trough The Midden and an excellent She Moves Through The Fair they spend much of their time delving into Dylan’s dustbin coming up with fine versions of Down In The Flood and Knocking On Heavens Door. Denny sings several songs from her solo albums including Solo and Like An Old Fashioned Waltz. Trevor Lucas waltzes in for The Ballad of Ned Kelly (a song from his Fortheringay days) and has a go at introducing our American cousins to the genius of Richard Thompson with a rendition of Down Where The Drunkards Roll. Their version of John The Gun pulls out all the stops and is the best live version from them that we’ve heard with Swarbrick’s fiddle rasping away. Topping it off they offer rollickingly good versions of That’ll Be The Day and Six Days on The Road that sound as if they would have had the audience on their feet and allow Donaghue to show off his chops.
While this release is probably a must for any Fairport completist it’s fair to say that the live album is a glistening bait for any waverers and on a personal note it reminds us of seeing this very line up at Glasgow Uni where we were surprised to hear them playing Six Days On The Road expecting to be dancing to fiddle tunes for most of the night.