Archive for November 2019

Seamus Egan: Early Bright

November 27, 2019

About twenty years ago USA-based Irish band Solas toured Japan to promote their album The Words That Remain. I saw their excellent live show in Osaka and was also lucky enough to meet vocalist Karan Casey later that evening. She instantly became (and remains) one of my favourite women singers in any genre.

There was an Irish music boom in Japan at the time and Solas along with Altan and the Donal Lunny Band were at the forefront of those who toured here. Solas included multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan who had also produced their album and had previously made a solo record of his own.

Now after all these years Egan is back with another solo album, Early Bright, which shows off his enormous musical skill and virtuosity on a wide range of instrumental compositions. Egan excels again and while there is a wide range of influences the overriding one is always from Ireland.

There is a healthy dash of the livelier Irish traditional sound that has become universally recognised, but Egan’s compositions hit their peak with his quieter reflective tunes, worked on and developed at his new home in rural Vermont. ‘Everything Always Was’ starts slowly and has a beautiful sad melody while ‘52 Hertz’ is another with a slow, warm beginning and subtle changes.

Seamus Egan

The classical influence is most evident on the two final tracks, ‘Two Little Ducks’ and ‘Under the Chestnut Tree’. The second of these is the more interesting with its sad but ultimately hopeful melody. Egan is joined by a handful of musicians for the recordings as well as by the Fretless String Quartet. There are string arrangements by Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist.

Although a versatile musician – he plays banjo, nylon string guitar, low whistles, mandolin, keyboard and percussion on this record – he decided to focus on the melody first and to make each arrangement an exercise in subtlety and restraint. So, there are no musical pyrotechnics here and the album is all the better for it. This is Seamus Egan’s first solo work for 23 years and it was worth the wait.

Early Bright is scheduled for release on 17th January 2020 and there will be an album launch concert on the same day at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland as part of the Celtic Connections Festival.

www.seamuseganproject.com

There is also an album trailer:

https://youtu.be/gybr5ZfZPAo

Sunny War: Shell of a Girl

November 19, 2019

Sunny War grew up on the punk scene of Los Angeles. She also had a tough time from a young age and was living homeless on the streets for a while. Last year she released an album of her own songs and Shell of a Girl is the follow-up on which she reflects on those earlier days but with a fresh, almost nostalgic look at her past.

In fact, the new album sounds almost mellow and relaxed – at least on first listen. Her acoustic fingerpicking guitar style is prominent throughout. To that is added a simple backdrop of bass and percussion. There’s some harmonica on a couple of songs, a little bit of piano, some understated electric guitar. It all sounds warm and comfortable, but this is belied by the hard-hitting lyrics of many songs that are more in tune with her punk upbringing. It all adds up to an unusually effective blend of delicacy and passion.

‘Drugs Are Bad’ attempts to reconcile her own medicated childhood and the culture of medicating children in general, with parents who think that the only drug addicts are those on the street. Her time spent hopping trains and travelling around is the inspiration for ‘Soul Tramp’ a song with a timeless feel that showcases her most typical guitar sound.

Sunny War (Photo: Randi Steinberger)

‘Off the Cuff’ meanwhile offers the biggest statement on the album. It has some of the most blistering words on the failings of democracy and on a world “run by pimps and tricks”. It’s also fleshed out a little more in terms of music with the addition of Micah Nelson’s organ and drums.

One of her most confessional songs is ‘Rock n Roll Heaven’. This is anything but a rock song. Instead she sings, “It seems I’ve made it past 27 / there goes my ticket to rock n roll heaven”. With most of her travelling friends lost or dead through substance abuse she wonders why she gravitated towards these kinds of people and what happens now she has survived. It’s an appealing song with some of her trademark fingerpicking and is played in an almost jaunty way.

Listening to all this it’s hard not to be reminded of Tracy Chapman’s debut back in the late 1980s when she stunned everyone with her raw acoustic power and socially aware songs. Sunny War’s music comes at us with more stealth but her songs, intricate guitar work and punchy direct lyrics can also make quite an impact.

Sunny War is currently touring North America and her final concert is in Boston on 23rd November. She recently did a Tiny Desk concert for NPR and the video can be seen here: https://www.npr.org/2019/11/13/778307942/sunny-war-tiny-desk-concert

Shell of a Girl is out now on Hen House Studios with vinyl release by Org Music.

http://www.sunnywar.com/

Fanel: Human

November 12, 2019

French singer Bera also goes under the name Fanel and this is how she presents herself on her debut album Human. Originally from Toulouse and currently based in London, she will already be known to many in Okinawa as she came here to perform concerts in April this year as well as some shows in mainland Japan.

Her music is a mix of Western pop and Japanese traditional music with just a hint of Okinawa. More recently sanshin has been added to her live project and in Okinawa she was joined by Mutsumi Aragaki (sanshin) and Kumiko Higa (percussion). Fanel blends instruments from Asia and Europe with electronics to achieve her sound and frequently adds taiko, shamisen, and harmonium.

The opening track here ‘Stop Breathing’ is at first a bit reminiscent of Norway’s Kate Havnevik (another electro musician who has visited Okinawa) but as the song and the album progress, a more Asian side is revealed. The adoption of musical styles from Japan is very effective. In fact, it’s on one of the more Japanese influenced compositions ‘Inori’ that the album peaks with an atmospheric song that is also a very good blend of musical cultures.

Some of the songs on Human have English lyrics and some are in Japanese. The Japanese language vocals are sung very naturally and with apparent ease. The final track is a departure from her own compositions with Fanel’s version – a very different one – of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’.

It all creates a relatively short but dramatic album with many songs typically starting slowly before building to a crescendo. There’s a slight tendency for this to be a bit one-paced but there is plenty of light and shade within individual songs. As for themes, Fanel is concerned with “what makes people human, their magnificent imperfection, the relationship with self and others in this highly (dis)connected environment.”

Human can be recommended to anyone with an interest in how some very different musical cultures can be successfully tied together. The album will be released this week on 15th November by Yatta Records.

http://www.fanelmusic.com

And here’s a link to the music video for ‘Stop Breathing’:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lwpx6VGaGu4

FC Ryukyu’s Last Home Match of 2019

November 11, 2019

FC Ryukyu played their final home match of the J2 football season yesterday against promotion chasing Kyoto Sanga. It was a very warm and sunny late afternoon kick-off in front of a good crowd of 7,500 but Ryukyu were unable to finish on a high note, losing the game 3-0 despite dominating possession for large periods.

Above from top: a scene outside the stadium; a banner calling for the rebuilding of Shuri Castle; the teams before kick-off.

None of this seemed to matter all that much, however, as Ryukyu had already secured safety for a second season in J2 next year. Following the match there was a ceremony in which Ryukyu staff and players lined up on the pitch to thank everyone for their support throughout the season.

The team is currently 15th in the 22-team league. The aim has always been simply not to be relegated and that has been achieved. The loss of many of the players who had won the J3 title was a blow and Ryukyu were favourites to finish bottom at the start of the season. During the season, top players Nakagawa and Suzuki also left to join J1 clubs and so manager Higuchi’s job became even more difficult, but he has finally guided them to safety.

The club’s swashbuckling attacking style and shaky defence has led to much excitement (and anxiety) in this first season in J2. Recent higher attendances have been very encouraging as Okinawa is still in the early stages of developing a football culture. The club has ambitions to push on and there is even talk of a future in J1. There has already been an announcement of increased ticket prices for next season in order to generate more revenue.

What is most needed really is a purpose-built football stadium where spectators are closer to the action and are under cover, so they don’t get soaked to the skin on rainy match days. Better access is also essential. We spent more than an hour yesterday driving around attempting to find a parking space within walking distance of the current stadium.

Above from top: ceremony after the match; manager Higuchi makes a speech; thanks to supporters.

On the pitch it would be nice to think that Ryukyu will not always have to sell their best players. 22-year old local boy Satoki Uejo has developed into an outstanding talent and was a joy to watch this season but already there has been speculation among supporters as to how long the club can hold on to him.

But enough complaining. The match day experience at FC Ryukyu is always enjoyable and there is a welcoming and friendly atmosphere both outside and inside the stadium. Congratulations must go to all at Ryukyu for a successful first campaign as a J2 club. There are still two away matches to go and a chance to get some more points on the board.

http://www.fcryukyu.com

Hirokazu Matsuda

November 7, 2019

The news has come through that singer and sanshin player Hirokazu Matsuda has died at the age of 72. His death yesterday (6th November) is reported in the Okinawan media today. Matsuda was a mainstay of many Okinawan music events, a highly respected singer of traditional songs, and a songwriter and teacher.

Hirokazu Matsuda in 2007 on the cover of his solo album Sanshin Zanmai

He was born into a musical family in Chatan and his daughter Shinobu is also a well-known singer and sanshin player. Matsuda was a member of the group The Fere and he had a solo album released nationwide when he was 60. Earlier this year he joined forces with three other singers for the release of the double album Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 and in September he performed at the album release concert in Naha.

This sad and unexpected loss will be deeply felt throughout the music community in the Ryukyu Islands.

Kelly Hunt: Even the Sparrow

November 5, 2019

This one slipped out unnoticed earlier this year but has now been brought to my attention for a much-deserved review. Kelly Hunt is an American songwriter raised in Memphis, Tennessee who taught herself banjo as a college student. She is now based in Kansas City where this album was recorded over a period of two years, along with collaborator Stas’ Heaney.

It can be said straight away that Even the Sparrow is a joy from start to finish. There isn’t a weak track or a misstep anywhere. Perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that it has been recorded so honestly with no excess instrumentation or unnecessary embellishments. The twelve songs are always at the core and the arrangements have obviously been made to fit them in the best possible way.

The first track ‘Across the Great Divide’ comes at us like an early Dylan song with just Hunt’s vocal upfront, and her banjo, and it achieves an austere beauty. As her press release states, she ‘turns an otherwise traditional account of spurned love into a philosophical epic of the ethics of forgiveness and freedom…’

Kelly Hunt (Photo: Lori Locke)

She plays a 1920s tenor banjo throughout that sounds warm and mellow as she moves around the American roots field with great confidence. There’s a lovely rhythmic swing when she plays with guitar, fiddle, bass and percussion on ‘Back to Dixie’. And there are moments here and there when we are reminded of musicians as diverse in time as Rhiannon Giddens and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

For the most part though this is a quieter set of songs that only rips it up when it really needs to – and then does it with some style. The chilling ‘Delta Blues’ is sung over percussion only, while several other songs contain vocals supported just by banjo and sometimes a touch of fiddle. She changes the mood with her voice which can be both strong and hushed, sometimes within the same song, as in the seemingly timeless ‘Nothin’ On My Mind’.

Like much of the very best roots music nowadays this sounds both old and new, traditional and very original at the same time. Kelly Hunt is obviously a very talented singer, songwriter and musician and she has made a pretty flawless first album.

Even the Sparrow is released by Rare Bird Records.

www.kellyhuntmusic.com

Totally Obscure Records?

November 2, 2019

The late lamented fRoots magazine used to have a regular feature known as Rocket Launcher in which the same list of questions would be fired off to a roots person – usually a musician. One of these questions was always: ‘Which totally obscure record do you most treasure and would like more people to know about?’

I often pondered what my answer to that might be. Some of my friends would say my favourite records are all obscure to them. After some thought (but not too much) I’m going to indulge myself and choose not just one but five albums that I still really like. Most, if not all, could be described as obscure in one way or another.

At the top of my list is an Okinawan album, Miwaku no Duet by Yuki Yamazato and Minoru Kinjo. In fact, I’ve been going on about this recording for a few years now and boring anyone who will listen about just how good it is. Certainly, the artists themselves are not unknown, on these islands anyway, and for my money Yuki Yamazato is still the best of all the many wonderful female singers from the Ryukyus.

I discovered Miwaku no Duet quite by chance on CD at Bisekatsu’s fine Campus Records shop and bought it not really knowing what to expect, but the first few tracks brought me close to tears (in a good way). The CD has very little information and no details of the original recording or release dates. Never mind, it’s a cracker.

Moving from Okinawa all the way to Scotland, the next choice is an album by Dick Gaughan. (Dick and I have something in common as we share the same date of birth – what an auspicious day that was!) He is best known for his 1980s album Handful of Earth, chosen by fRoots as album of the decade. I’m going for a lesser-known record of his made in the same decade – True and Bold.

Its full title is True and Bold: Songs of the Scottish Miners. Not exactly a title that promises lots of fun and laughter, but it’s a wonderful collection of songs about the mining community. There are some lovely melodies and delicate acoustic guitar playing along the way as Gaughan shows off his uncompromising support for the miners and their struggles.

Next, a Japanese album, Ullambana by Tadamaru Sakuragawa. This was originally released in 1991 and is the only album he made. Sakuragawa is from Osaka and he sang in the goshu ondo style at obon festivals. He is joined on this remarkable album by the band Spiritual Unity who frequently played as live backing musicians for Nenes. The original Nenes also appear, all too briefly, to sing the Indonesian song ‘Bengawan Solo’.

Apparently, Ullambana has since been re-released as a 2 CD set so it might not be quite so little known now as it was when I started dancing to it in my head.

Mike Heron will be known as an original member of The Incredible String Band. In 1971 he made a solo album that sank almost without trace until released on CD at the beginning of the 21st century – when it sank once again. It’s called Smiling Men with Bad Reputations and is Heron’s diversion into rock music.

It took me over 30 years to pluck up the courage to buy Heron’s album. In the end I succumbed when I saw it in a record shop in London on a visit back to the UK. What a surprise to find it’s actually pretty good. It’s all over the place, of course, with many guests and wild changes of style but I always liked Mike Heron. Despite the rock agenda, quite a bit of it sounds like the ISB without all the Robin Williamson noodling and meandering.

Back to the Ryukyu Islands for my last choice, Takao Nagama’s Umi Dunan. Nagama was a member of Shoukichi Kina’s Champloose back in the day and was married to his sister. (Kina’s sister Sachiko, that is, not his own sister – that would surely have been illegal). He then left and formed Ayame Band. He also found time to make this solo album with members of Champloose in 1982. It was recorded in mono and was only on tape until finally released on CD in 2006.

Umi Dunan sounds more like a bunch of demos but for me it captures the spirit of Okinawa and especially of Nagama’s island Yonaguni. Even the great Shoukichi Kina himself would surely be pleased to have made it. Or maybe not. It’s totally obscure anyway.