Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

Guy Sigsworth: STET

April 10, 2019

STET is the new album by UK producer, composer and musician Guy Sigsworth. In fact, it’s his first solo album and he is better known for his contributions to the work of other artists. The list is a very long one and includes a wide variety of musicians from Talvin Singh to Imogen Heap and from Bjork to Madonna. He came to Okinawa in 2015 and gave a concert with Norway’s Kate Havnevik and has maintained a long interest in Okinawan music.

This new 16 track album contains a mix of songs and instrumentals. All the music is composed by Sigsworth who plays celesta, clavichord, piano, triangles, ring modulator and synthesiser. There are also some co-written songs including three with Anil Sebastian, who also sings, and one with Okinawa’s Mika Uchizato.

What does it all sound like? Well, STET is viewed by Guy Sigsworth as a modern ‘classical’ album with underlying Ryukyuan influences. On the one hand it is probably best listened to in its entirety as a complete album as the tracks evolve to create a distinctly atmospheric musical journey but there are also some standout songs that hold their own with the very best in pop music.

The album begins with ‘Sing’ a track that builds gradually with the introduction of a vocal and a melody that stops, starts and turns unexpectedly in the manner of the band Dirty Projectors. It’s followed by the best pure pop track on the album ‘Barely Breaking Even’ with a vocal by Anil Sebastian. He sings again on ‘Lydian’ a song that could have escaped from Bjork’s Vespertine.

There are hints of and excursions into pop, jazz, classical, electronica and experimental music but nothing gets too cluttered or unfocused and the production (naturally by Sigsworth) is beautifully clear and precise. And just when the instrumental tracks seem in danger of becoming a little too ambient we are presented with ‘Night Song’ a piano-led composition with a wonderfully sad and haunting melody that sounds as if it should be on a movie soundtrack.

The Okinawan influence is signalled by ‘Nirai Kanai’ and comes fully into its own on the two final tracks. These are the instrumental ‘Mono No Aware’ and the song ‘Shurayo’ with lyrics in Uchinaguchi by Mika Uchizato but sung here by British singer and long-term Sigsworth collaborator Imogen Heap.

‘Mono No Aware’ plays with light and shade, and the jazzy discord is juxtaposed with rich melody and a very Okinawan feel. Better still – and probably the outstanding track on the album – is its final song ‘Shurayo’. It could all have gone perilously badly but Imogen Heap does a great job with the Okinawan vocal while the stirring addition of cello and violin to Sigsworth’s superb melody fittingly ends the album on a high note. (‘Shurayo’ and another song co-written with Uchizato is planned for separate release as an EP with Mika’s original vocals).

Because of its breadth and ambition this could have been a risky undertaking but STET overcomes the potential pitfalls with style.

STET will be released by Mercury KX on 7th June.

www.mercurykx.com

www.guysigsworth.co.uk

 

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Michael Chapman: True North

March 6, 2019

A couple of years ago Yorkshire-born English singer-songwriter-guitarist Michael Chapman made the album 50 (reviewed here) to celebrate half a century as a professional musician. With 50 he achieved a late career high and some attention from a new younger audience. It was a fine album of new and reworked old songs recorded for the first time in America with a small band of musicians including producer Steve Gunn.

Chapman first gained a formidable reputation as an innovative guitarist on the UK folk club scene though he was never a typical folkie and was more influenced by American jazz, blues and roots music. Along with Richard Thompson he has a guitar style that is instantly recognisable and all his own. He is also a gruff-voiced singer with a gift for creating poignant songs about love, loss, regret, and life on the road.

50 seemed a fitting end to a long career but Chapman obviously had other ideas and he isn’t finished yet. At 78 he is back now with a new album recorded this time in rural West Wales but with Steve Gunn returning as producer and guitarist. Also on board are Bridget St. John (vocals), Sarah Smout (cello) and B.J. Cole (pedal steel).

True North follows a similar formula with recordings of new songs plus a few older ones and there are also a couple of guitar instrumentals. The album is more atmospheric and minimalist and is generally not as loud or intense as its predecessor. The addition of some lovely colours from cello and pedal steel really brings out the best in allowing the songs to breathe and in complementing Chapman’s vocals and guitar.

No-one coming cold to this album would be entranced by the vocals on first listen but this is Michael Chapman and his admirers know exactly what to expect and rightly wouldn’t want it any other way. His laconic phrasing is exactly what’s needed and then there is always that gorgeous deep acoustic guitar sound which gets under the skin whether on the instrumentals or on the melodic and melancholy songs

Not surprisingly Chapman’s concerns here are most often focused on memory and regret and there is an elegiac and reflective note as he comes to terms with it all. Titles such as ‘It’s Too Late’, ‘After All This Time’ and ‘Youth is Wasted on the Young’ tell their own tale. On ‘Vanity and Pride’ he sings: “if only time were on my side” but this and another song ‘Hell to Pay’ are in fact re-imaginings of songs from his 1997 album Dreaming Out Loud.

Despite the sombre tone this is never a depressing album, rather it’s an uplifting one as Chapman really gets into his inimitable stride. The longest track ‘Truck Song’ is the centrepiece of the album and in its lyrics and languid rolling guitar phrases it encapsulates everything that is great about the man and his music. Its images evoke a Giorgio de Chirico painting of lengthening shadows and the distant sound of a train. True North is his strongest work for a couple of decades and stands up there with the very best of his many recordings.

True North is out now on Paradise of Bachelors.

www.paradiseofbachelors.com

www.michaelchapman.co.uk

Kaia Kater: Grenades

October 30, 2018

Grenades is the third album by Toronto-based singer Kaia Kater. Both of her previous albums were reviewed here and the second, Nine Pin, was one of my favourite albums of 2016. On that album Kater sang a mix of originals and traditional songs from North America, her speciality being her banjo playing and her emerging talent as an interpreter of Appalachian songs and music.

With Grenades she rightly doesn’t rest on her laurels but instead delivers an album quite different from previous recordings. The sound is very accessible and almost lush at times as she surrounds herself with a small band of musicians and the lap steel of Christine Bougie is prominent on several tracks. Kater adds acoustic guitar to her familiar banjo skills and nearly all the songs are her original compositions. The album is produced by Erin Costelo.

What sets this apart most of all is the thread running through the songs which all have poetic lyrics and an underlying connection to Kater’s upbringing and heritage with musical influences evident from Quebec, the Caribbean, and Appalachia. The themes are concerned with personal identity, memory and discovery and they form part of a journey that Kater made between her home in Canada and her roots on the island of Grenada where her father was born.

In the album’s booklet she writes: “My father’s story of immigration was omnipresent in my childhood, in his teachings and counsel. He was quiet but firm in insisting that I had a warm and vibrant home and a plethora of family far from Canada’s wintry grasp. Yet like many people, I have felt alone and out of place for most of my life, stumbling forward blind and rootless. I wrote Grenades to trace the life line from my palm and trace the way home.”

In addition to the eleven songs there are three brief narrative interludes in which Deno Hurst, her father, speaks of the complex situation in Grenada that led to his arrival in Canada as a very young political refugee. In one he speaks of the sheer terror posed by the invading American forces and it’s an oddly chilling reminder of what Okinawans must have felt when American military power landed on Okinawa in 1945.

Despite its serious themes this isn’t a difficult album at all. Kater has grown as a songwriter and creates the most gorgeously melodic choruses, as on ‘Canyonland’. She sings in French and English on a traditional Grenadian melody for which she has written new words, and completely unaccompanied on another song, ‘Hydrants’. There are a couple of slow soulful songs, a masterly title track and there’s ‘Meridian Ground’ which contains lines reminiscent of some of Paul Simon’s best storytelling – “My auntie died in a one room house on the top road / With the candles cold and a smile upon her face”.

Grenades marks Kaia Kater’s continuing development as singer, musician and songwriter. It will make you want to learn more about Grenada but is first and foremost just a great listen.

Grenades is released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

www.folkways.si.edu

www.kaiakater.com

Trad.Attack!: Kullakarva

October 16, 2018

It’s easy to forget that Trad.Attack! are a trio and not a big band. Last weekend the Estonians won over their audience at Sakurazaka Theatre in Naha with an astonishing display of virtuosity on the final concert of their Japan tour. With all acoustic instruments they filled the hall with glorious sounds and pulsating rhythms at times reminiscent of a rock band.

It wasn’t just their singing and musicianship that impressed. The trio managed the remarkable feat of totally engaging the Okinawan crowd with traditional songs sung in the unfamiliar Estonian language. That they succeeded so well says a lot about their great openness, friendly attitude and willingness to learn about and engage with Okinawan culture.

Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) is their second and latest album. It was recorded last year and is now receiving a very welcome first release in Japan. Many of the songs and instrumentals from their concert in Okinawa are included on the album.

The trio comprise Sandra Vabarna on Estonian bagpipes, jew’s harp, zither and a variety of whistles; Jaimar Vabarna who plays 12-string acoustic guitar; and Tõnu Tubli on drums, zither and glockenspiel. All three share vocals. Crucially, some of the songs sample archival recordings of the traditional singers of the past and these include Jaimar Vabarna’s great-grandmother.

Technology that might have been thought of as the enemy of traditional song is used here to bring the old singers back to life by allowing these recordings of their voices to be listened to by new audiences around the world and in new and often thrilling musical settings. Trad.Attack! also add new music and arrangements to traditional folk songs as well as composing their own originals. It’s impossible to see the join.

The album’s opening track ‘Talgo’ (Working Bee) sets the tone with an energetic work song not unlike some of those found in Okinawan music. ‘Kabala’ verges on rock but is, in fact, based on a traditional song and melody. ‘Imepuu’ (Magic Tree) is another that uses archival vocal recordings and it drives along into what appears to be a hard rock workout until Sandra Varbarna’s bagpipes come in and lift us into another dimension. They can be gentle too and ‘Sade’ (Spark) is an original instrumental of spellbinding beauty.

Kullakarva is simply a wonderful album. It is also worth mentioning that the CD version of the album is extremely well packaged and contains information in Estonian, English and Japanese. The Trad.Attack! website is exemplary too with many videos of the band and information in no less than seven different languages. It stands as an example to those in Okinawa of how to promote music overseas.

Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) is released in Japan by Meta Company.

www.metacompany.jp

https://tradattack.ee

Geoffrey Keezer Trio: On My Way To You

August 8, 2018

American pianist and composer Geoffrey Keezer has a strong connection with Okinawa. In 2007 he joined Yaeyama singer and sanshin player Yasukatsu Oshima to record an album of Okinawan songs in a New York jazz setting that has since become a classic collaboration. Keezer had been a fan of Okinawan music for some time before that and his trio recorded the Sadao China composition ‘Koikugari Bushi’ two years before his meeting with Oshima.

Sadly for us, Keezer has not returned to Okinawan music but the door is always open for the possibility in the future. What he has done is to build on his already high reputation in the jazz world with more recordings and live shows. On My Way To You is a new album on which he plays piano and keyboards together with his working trio (Mike Pope on bass and Lee Pearson on drums) plus guest singer Gillian Margot.

The album’s ten tracks are a mix of songs and jazz arrangements, mostly of well-known pieces but also three brand new originals. What makes it different is the wide range of sources that Keezer’s inventive trio draw on. These include Thelonious Monk (‘Brilliant Corners’) and Stevie Wonder (‘These Three Words’) as well as Jimi Hendrix, Jerome Kern, and Michel Legrand.

Most satisfying of all is the closing track which manages to successfully combine and reimagine John Lennon’s ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Meanwhile Gillian Margot’s soulful contribution elsewhere adds even more variety and she provides some fine vocals on the five songs including Ewan MacColl’s much loved ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

On My Way To You is out now on MarKeez Records.

www.geoffreykeezer.com

Olivia Chaney: Shelter

July 12, 2018

Sadness, poignancy, clarity, and elegance are just some of the words that spring to mind on listening to the new album Shelter from England’s Olivia Chaney. This is her second solo album and it follows 2015’s The Longest River. Chaney has been busy touring and recording ever since signing with American label Nonesuch and her releases have included a foray into folk-rock last year with The Decemberists under the banner Offa Rex. That and her previous solo album were both reviewed here.

Shelter shines with the clarity of Chaney’s lovely voice but she is also a multi-instrumentalist and the ten songs that make up the album are notable also for her accompaniments on guitar, piano, harmonium, electric dobro and pump organ. There is nothing cluttered or unnecessary and the only other significant musical contribution is from Jordan Hunt on violin. The album was produced by Thomas Bartlett and recorded in New York.

The sound is nothing like her folk-rock collaboration and there are no folk songs this time. Instead eight of the compositions are Chaney’s own. The others are Henry Purcell’s ‘O Solitude’ and the Tex Ritter country song ‘Long Time Gone’ also popularised by the Everly Brothers. The former shows off Chaney’s classical training and the latter her eclectic taste. However, they are sideshows compared to the more important bulk of the album which is built around her excellent original songs.

The album opens very strongly with the songs ‘Shelter’ and ‘Dragonfly’ – Chaney playing guitar on the first and piano on the second. ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ cleverly weaves the refrain from the traditional Irish song ‘Molly Malone’ into its coda. Perhaps best of all is ‘Roman Holiday’ with its insistently catchy piano and its lyrical beginning: “Love is on this balcony / Naked, where I rest my feet / We roam Roman ruins / Swifts, swallows, swoop and screech.”

Her poetic lyrics are carefully constructed and could stand alone but are at the same time always economical and precise. We aren’t going to rock the house and annoy the neighbours with this thoughtful album but that is clearly not the intention. The overriding feeling conveyed – to return to the beginning – is one of poignancy but there are other subtle underlying moods too. With Shelter she has created her most satisfying work to date.

Shelter is released by Nonesuch Records.

www.oliviachaney.com

Hedy West: From Granmaw and Me

April 16, 2018

Hedy West was one of the greatest of all Appalachian singers and banjo players. She died in 2005 at the age of 67 after a lengthy career with much time spent away from her roots which were in the hill country of northern Georgia. After making two albums in America in the early 1960s and gaining a reputation as a leading light of the folk revival, she moved to England where she stayed for seven years performing regularly and releasing more albums before moving on to Germany in the 1970s and then a final return to America.

West was from a background of poor hill farmers and was about as authentic a traditional singer as could be imagined which set her apart from the more city based contemporaries of her generation such as Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Despite being ‘the real thing’ her albums gradually went out of print and by the time of her premature death she had become neglected and in danger of being forgotten.

This all began to change when three albums recorded in the UK for Topic Records were released again in 2011 as the double CD Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians.  The release (reviewed on this blog) won the fRoots award that year for best re-release/compilation and helped spark a renewed interest in her work which led to her two American albums being re-released on CD soon afterwards.

Now that her reputation is being rightly restored comes the release of this short album  From Granmaw and Me – a  collection of songs she learned from her grandmother Lillie Mulkey West (hence the title). The album is previously unreleased and contains some of her last recordings. Granmaw was a great influence on the young Hedy who was always learning songs from her family, and her grandmother not only chose the selections but also narrates as we hear her voice between some of the songs.

This could have been an unwanted intrusion but turns out to be quite the opposite. In fact the use of these spoken recordings only enhances the atmosphere rather than detracts from it and this strangely puts it much in line with work being done by contemporary revivalists such as Anna & Elizabeth with their sampling of voices from the past.

The song selection is diverse and although we’re treated to some of Hedy West’s gloriously rhythmic banjo playing – especially on ‘Sally Carter’ – there is also the addition of some guitar and fiddle by Tracy Schwarz (of New Lost City Ramblers fame) and harmony vocals from his wife Eloise. The opening track ‘Lil’ Old Mountain Shack’  is co-written by Hedy West and her father while all other songs are traditional. Outstanding among many are ‘Two Sisters’ (part of which evolved into Bob Dylan’s ‘Percy’s Song’) and the gospel song ‘The Uncloudy Day’

From Granmaw and Me is released by Fledg’ling Records.

www.fledglingrecords.co.uk