Pete Coutts is a well kent musician in the folk world of North East of Scotland and he first came to Blabber’n’Smoke’s attention as one third of Ballad of Crows whose 2015 album we reviewed here. While that album had some roots in American music for his solo debut Coutts sticks firmly to his homeland and traditions, singing in the local tongue, Doric. A northeastern version of the Scots language Doric has an extensive history in literature and song stretching back to the 15th Century (many of the Child Ballads can be traced back to here) and its earthy kailyard utterances fit perfectly into Coutts collection of fine folk songs and tunes.
Singing and playing guitar and mandolin Coutts is assisted by a fine cast of top players from the Scots folk world who add whistles and pipes, fiddle and accordion, bodhran and cittern. The result is a nimble and excellently played series of instrumentals and songs that burst with energy as the players engage with each other as only the best folk musicians can creating a concatenation of strings and things. As with the finest Celtic music Coutts conjures emotions and memories of the land, sea and air along with the folk who dwell within. The instrumentals have a wonderful sense of restrained gaiety as the musicians parry with each other summoning up images garnered from the televised Transatlantic Sessions. Allathumpach opens the album and immediately the listener is transported into a bothy session, a sense heightened by In & Oot. Boink!, despite its title, is somewhat more mannered initially with Coutts’ mandolin and the guitars gently bolstered by the fiddle and whistles before a grand entrance from the pipe ushers in a sense of grandness. The last tune on the album, Strichen Gala/The Road To Aikey Brae, closes the circle as once again one feels as if you are surrounded by a fleet of fine players and the ale is flowing fast.
These instrumentals are scattered throughout the album with Coutts’ songs standing proud amongst them. With occasional seabird sounds interspersed adding to the atmosphere Coutts’ strong voice delivers a powerful set of songs that take in the pride of fishermen returning home with a full catch (Sail & Oar) and the backbreaking work of cutting peat (Castin’ The Peat). Will Ye Byde is a glimmering gem of a song that sounds as ancient as the Caledonian Forest with Coutts accompanied only by a sonorous accordion on a love song which invokes the likes of Rabbie Burns and Lewis Grassic Gibbon with Coutts standing tall beside such keepers of the folk tradition as Martin Carthy. This is reinforced on Belhelvie, a gutsy rendition of a fatal accident involving a traction engine falling into a dyke which is both stirring and emotive. all the more so as it’s apparently based on a true family tale.
The title song is a bit of an anomaly here and presumably something of a tribute to its writer but Coutts handles Nick Drake’s Northern Sky with some aplomb. He sings it wonderfully and the slight Celtic air afforded it remains true to the melancholic feel of the original. It’s probably the best cover of a Drake song we’ve come across. Whatever, it sits well within the album which overall is a blissful winter listen. If you’re looking for some Celtic music to air around this New Year then is thoroughly recommended.
Decades after his death Nick Drake ploughs on. After several years as a cult artist he was given a posthumous push courtesy of, of all things, a car ad. Alongside a relentless reissue programme that recycled and recollected his small oeuvre, by the mid 2000’s he was a hip name to drop with the value of the original vinyl albums on sites such as Ebay soaring. Thus it was that his sublime, fragile and unique songs found a new audience and influenced a new generation of artists and this album showcases a selection of his peers and new found followers celebrating him.
Way To Blue captures concerts in London and Melbourne that were curated by Drake’s chief torch bearer, Joe Boyd, a legend himself who has produced so many influential albums over the years. Boyd had long toyed with the idea of a tribute to Drake and eventually the idea came to fruition with a moveable feast that over several years performed fifteen shows. Boyd selected the artists stating “Selecting singers has been one of the most rewarding parts of this exercise. One criterion was that none of them should sound like Nick.” With a core band featuring the legendary (sorry about so many legends here but this is deserved) bassist Danny Thompson ( a man who played with Drake, Martyn, Buckley and Jansch, part of his legend), Zoe Rahman on piano and drummer Martyn Barker, alongside a string section with Kate St. John managing Robert Kirby’s arrangements Drake’s sound is effortlessly captured in a live setting.
There are 15 songs, all by Drake, interpreted by a fine line up of singers. Their various takes on the originals adds a to the album. Some are reverential, cleaving to the blueprint, others take off on a tangent imposing the interpreter’s viewpoint. Of these the most successful is Lisa Hannigan’s Black Eyed Dog which transforms the song into a vibrant sea shanty while retaining the original angst of the song. Vashti Bunyon, alongside Thompson the one performer who knew Drake, offers a fragile take on Which Will which perhaps comes closest to most folks vision of Drake as a wounded troubadour. However all of the performances have merit with Australian Zoe Rendell capturing Drake’s vocal mannerism’s excellently while Krystle Warren adds a gospel touch on her offering. While Teddy Thomson, Shane Nicholson and Scott Matthews all pass muster the listener is perhaps more intrigued to hear Green Gartside’s (of Scritti Politti) version of Fruit Tree which he delivers delicately with his reedy voice surrounded by sumptuous strings and Robyn Hitchcock’s Parasite , a wonderful, spectral and spooky offering. Both of these are excellent with the Hitchcock song the standout on the album, a pity he has only the one opportunity to shine.
For a live album the sound is excellent and there is no audience applause throughout allowing one to wallow in the songs without interruption. A great document of what is a fine enterprise from Mr. Boyd, always striving to keep Drake’s memory alive which is what this disc does.
A Californian songwriter Geoff Baker came to our attention a few years back with a sparkly entertaining EP that had a fine mixture of quirkiness and melancholy about it. Three years later this full-blooded album appears, upping the melancholia on a selection that often refers to loss and sadness. Baker says of it
“This album starts between midnight and dawn, on a dark street in Berlin in the fall of 2001, days after the death of a close friend and partner in musical crime, seven sheets to the wind, stumbling home, guitar in hand, Nearing your front door a few minutes later, out of breath and out of paper, you find an empty pack of cigarettes on the sidewalk and write, on the only side of the foil that will ever let you write, “Where are you now?” It’s half honest and half rhetorical.
In short, this became an album about people you miss, places you’ve been, things that went wrong, and things you did wrong. But it’s also about how powerful memories are, where to look for the good, and how no thing, no place, and nobody that ever mattered to you can ever really be lost. “
The first thing to strike one here is the overall sound of the album. Despite his stateside status the majority of these songs have an autumnal English feel to them Paul Simon did this in the sixties and Baker follows in his footsteps. While he plays the majority of the instruments himself he’s assisted on a few songs and when the cello parts, played by John Mescall appear there is a definite whiff of Nick Drake in the air. Although there are some uptempo songs (the title song, Girl From Kinnelon and Continental Drift) even these maintain the overall theme of loss.
The woody tones of the opening song One step Further Than You have Ever Dared To Go sets the scene. Its rippling guitars and husky vocals invite the listener in and set up themes that are revisited. On Barbwire Fences in Kansas adds a touch of Americana with some plaintive pedal steel from Bruce Kaphan. A meditation on memorials there’s a touch of Jay Farrar’s style about it and Baker captures a fine sense of desolate locations and sadness. The sense of loss and loneliness culminates in the unadorned Not To Worry (Even Jesus) where Baker sings accompanied only by a solo guitar on a beautiful song with lyrics that are baffling, almost haiku like. “Light that I caught beating on my window, Was you and telling me to move along, You were saying not to worry, What has been can never be gone, Not to cling so fiercely to the earth, When I don’t know what anything is worth.”
The effect is mesmerising. Baker follows this up with a stunning song, The Middle of Nebraska, which starts off with just guitar accompaniment and gently builds up with mandolin and then fiddle and cello cosseting the song. Although this is the highpoint of the album there are several other gems. All The Same has a definite Drake feel in the arrangement while In the First Week of April is an old fashioned narrative ballad concerning a veteran of the Gulf wars who relives his traumatic memories. The closing song When I Was Young I Never Wanted The Sun seems to point to a feeling that runs through the album, a sense of displacement, of being out of joint when Baker finds himself living outwith his native California. On his website he notes where he was when he write these songs, places like Amsterdam, Cork, Berlin, Kansas and New Jersey. This might go some way to explain the wintry feeling to these songs and although it might be tough for Baker to forego the sunshine state if his sojourns are responsible for these beautifully crafted songs then here’s to him spending more times in colder climes.
The Middle of Nebraska
We’ve said it before and here we’ll say it again. One of the pleasures of reviewing albums sent from God knows where is that amidst the chaff there is always some wheat. An album that tumbles into our lap unannounced but which has that essence, that pull which reaffirms our belief that music can be transcendental, beautiful, moving.
From the moment Dandelion Wine poured from the speakers the ears perked up. A skeletal banjo joins a simple guitar line, mournful and desolate before a string section joins in. Isakov ‘s voice floats over this, warm and comforting before it is joined by his sometime vocal collaborator, Brandi Carlisle. A beautiful song it sets the scene for the remainder of this album which envelops the listener in an aural feast. Isakov cites Iron and Wine, Kelly Joe Phelps and Leonard Cohen as his influences but there are elements galore here of Tim Hardin, Nick Drake and the relatively unknown Hobotalk. Overall there is a sense of melancholy delivered with a resigned air as Isakov sings tales of lonely souls, travellers and lost lovers. His lyrics are rich but cloaked in poetic smoke and mirrors, his voice is for the most part wearied and relaxed and on several of the songs he is accompanied by Carlile who harmonises well. The true beauty of the album however is in the textures of the sound. For an album “recorded in many different locations, a closed down bookshop, my apartment, the studio and our friend Brandi Carlile’s house” there is a fantastic sense of dynamics. The songs ebb and flow with an organic feel and the playing is excellent. While most of the songs rest gently on an acoustic guitar bed the instrumental trimmings, be it piano, vibes, banjo, violin, viola or cello support and at times lift the songs into a sumptuous space that is at times mesmerising. He ends the album with a fine cover of a Leonard Cohen song, One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong where he and Carlile capture perfectly Cohen’s miserabilist approach.
Isakov is playing in the UK in June however at present there are no Scottish shows which is a pity.
(Edit) Been informed that there is a Glasgow gig at Brel on June 1st.
that Moon Song