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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John McCusker. Hello, Goodbye. Under One Sky Records

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Since he first came to attention as a 17 year old prodigy invited to join The Battlefield Band back in the early nineties John McCusker has become a cornerstone of the UK folk music scene. His fiddle playing has graced many an album while his production and arrangement skills have seen him work with numerous artists and ensembles, one off projects, television and film work. Regularly nominated for (and often winning) all sorts of folk awards he is as often to be found working with rock and pop musicians and regularly tours as part of Mark Knopfler’s band.

Hello, Goodbye is his sixth solo album and it features a fine cast list including James Mackintosh, Ewen Vernal, Ian Carr, Michael McGoldrick, Andy Cutting, Tim O’Brien, Phil Cunningham, Jarleth Henderson and McCusker’s partner Heidi Talbot (heard briefly as the album opens). Coming 13 years after his last solo effort it’s the first to be recorded at his new home studio, a converted bothy next to his Borders home and is a welcome return to the frontline for this folk Renaissance man.

Aside from a (very) brief sung part as the album opens, it’s all instrumental with all of the tunes written by McCusker. Having said that the album is as traditional as the hills, jigs, reels, waltzes and laments all represented, sounding as if McCusker has grasped them from the very air, melodies of the ages, reshaped by each generation. There are modern elements in there, the funky bass line of FooFog for example or the nod to the American duo The Milk Carton Kids on the same titled tune, a fiddle lament with acoustic guitar gracings.  Throughout the album McCusker duets with various musicians on more fiddle, mandolin, guitar or flute as the rhythm section skip merrily along defying the listener to sit still. From the titles of the tunes it’s apparent that he’s written these almost as a musical diary, the titles reflecting life events, his own or of friends. It’s A Girl, The Wedding, A Trip To Roma, Molly’s Waltz/Heidi’s Waltz  and Tune For Nana probably all resonate strongly with McCusker and his family and friends but there’s no sense here of exclusivity. Instead it’s indicative that, despite his impressive CV, McCusker has kept close to his roots, as happy to write a reel to celebrate a friend’s wedding as he is to share a stage with Bob Dylan. A cert to be on the lists of top folk albums by the end of the year.

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Dark Green Tree. Secret Lives. Haven Records

The story of Dark Green Tree is one of serendipity. Chance meetings and a decade of collaborations lie behind this album which was recorded in 2014 and since then the original duo have become a trio. You could actually claim that there’s four folk behind Secret Lives as producer Boo Hewerdine co-writes several of the songs here along with added guitar duties noting that his involvement with Dark Green Tree’s Ross Cockburn began ten years ago at a workshop in a “drafty hotel in Perthshire.” Cockburn found the voice for his songs in Jay Brown and with Hewerdine they set about recording along with some gifted musicians including fiddler John McCusker. Looking for a female voice they happened upon Cera Impala at a house concert in Edinburgh and apparently she is now a fully-fledged member of the band. A somewhat tangled tale perhaps but in essence this quartet of star crossed strangers have conspired to deliver an album that is somewhat akin to the musical meanderings of Mazzy Star or the nocturnal ramblings of Lullaby For The Working Class.

The album opens with the ringing guitar jangle of Yearn For Love, a song soaked in a whisky tinged Americana that swells with keyboards adding a fine soulful feel but Brown’s vocals appear strained and slightly uncomfortable here. A teething problem only however as for the remainder of the album the band head into a darker hinterland allowing Brown’s breathy husk to grow. The brisk Rolling Wind, fiddle and banjo driven with sweet guitar interludes, is more suited to Brown and the addition of the close harmonies from Impala is the icing on the cake. From here on in the album is tremendous. Skin and Bone is a shiver of a song, dread and dark with the insistent pulse of a cello at odds with the fatalism of the lyrics. Lay Me Down rumbles morbidly with fiddle and slide guitar adding a sinister touch while Heart Of Winter is appropriately frosty.

The intimate vocal pairing of Brown and Impala is superb on the limpid slow waltz of Secret Life while the countrified Sarah, a tale of a Bonnie & Clyde type pair that goes awry saws away wonderfully with McCusker’s fiddle playing excellent. However the highlight of the album is their cover of Ryan Adams’ When The stars Go Blue which bursts into view with a spectacular and sparkling guitar intro before Brown and Impala croon away.

With a full release date next week and lots of radio play locally hopefully we’ll be hearing more of Dark Green Tree. They’re’ appearing at this weekend’s Americana Cavalcade at Perth Racecourse at 2 pm so if you’re going get there early.

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Ruth Moody. These Wilder Things. True North Records

Taking some time out from her regular gig as a member of the Wailin’ Jennies Ruth Moody releases her second solo album just in time to promote her UK tour which includes a six night stint at the Royal Albert Hall as a special guest of Mark Knopfler. Knopfler appears on These Wilder Things along with Jerry Douglas and our very own John McCusker along with Mancunian whistle player Michael McGoldrick. A little less folky in its overall sound than its predecessor, The Garden, These Wilder Things showcases Moody’s wonderful voice and there are some excellent moments such as on One Light Shining which features Douglas on Dobro along with Aoife O’Donovan on harmony vocals. The Celtic tint on Life is Long adds an air of mystery and mists to a song written by Moody but which sounds as if it’s been sung in bothies over the centuries while Trouble and Woe which opens the album is a rousing skirmish with banjos and fiddles flying about. While the remainder of the album fails to reach these heights there is plenty to enjoy with the title song featuring a mournful brass band while Knopfler’s guitar adds some laid back twang to the song Pockets.

Aside from the starry guest list David Travers-Smith (who produced), Adam Dobres and Adrian Dolan provide some excellent picking and playing throughout while the closing song, the plaintive and restrained Nothing Without Love pares the backing down to ukulele and piano allowing Moody’s voice to shine. There is one fly in the ointment, a cover of Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark. Although it’s given a credible run-through the jaunty mixture of the regular acoustic instruments with a cello seems somewhat misguided and its very familiarity causes it to stick out like a sore thumb here. Perhaps one that would have been best kept as a live audience pleaser.
Speaking of which Moody is currently touring the UK. Dates are here and she plays Glasgow on Friday 24th May at the CCA.

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Heidi Talbot at Celtic Connections

Another Blabber’n’Smoke favourite who’s appearing at Celtic Connections is Heidi Talbot. Irish born she was a member of America’s Cherish The Ladies before returning to the UK and hooking up (professionally and personally) with John McCusker. With a new album, Angels Without Wings, set for release she plays the Old Fruitmarket on 27th January, sharing the bill with Paul Brady. We haven’t heard all of the album yet but the four songs on display below show that she’s building on her fine 2010 debut , The Last Star which found her finding her own songwriting skills.
Angels Without Wings was recorded in the Gorbals Sound Studios with her regular team of Ian Carr (guitars), Phil Cunningham (Accordion), Michael McGoldrick (flutes/whistles) James Mackintosh (percussion), Boo Hewerdine (acoustic guitar) and Ewan Vernal (bass). It features guest spots from Mark Knopfler, King Creosote and Karine Polwart.
When we reviewed The Last Star we thought that there was a similarity in the sound and feel to Richard and Linda Thompson’s early recordings and the title song of the new album confirms this as the accordion and brass would sit easily within Hokey Pokey. When The Roses Come Again meanwhile has that heartaching quality that Linda Thompson was so good at conveying.
Proper Records have autographed copies of the album for sale at http://www.propermusic.com/product-details/Heidi-Talbot-Angels-Without-Wings-Ltd-Autographed-Edition-146125

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