Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher

June 25, 2020

Punisher is the second solo album by 25-year old American singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. It arrives almost three years after the Los Angeles musician made her debut with Stranger in the Alps. In the time between she has been busy collaborating with other musicians on several projects.

Most notably, she formed the trio Boygenius along with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus and they made an ‘EP’ in 2018. She also made the album Better Oblivion Community Center as an indie-rock duo with Conor Oberst on which their shared vocals and co-writing complement each other perfectly.

Baker, Dacus, Oberst and many others (including famed drummer Jim Keltner) all have a role to play on Punisher and the disparate parts all come together to make a fine set. Bridgers plays acoustic and electric guitars and each track is different as she draws on many influences to create her own sound. But as she claims when talking about Punisher in an interview with NPR:

“There’s nothing avant-garde about it: it’s a singer-songwriter record, even though there’s kind of a metal section. I think I’m pulling from a lot of different places, stealing from a lot of different people.”

If true, then she’s a very skilful thief who has created a recognisable niche of her own. An integral part of this is her singing and a voice that frequently evokes both sadness and tension. The closest to a straightforward pop song is ‘Kyoto’ (which almost, but not quite, reaches the dizzy heights of the sublime ‘Motion Sickness’ from her debut album). It may be about touring Japan, which she did last year, but it also has a darker underlying theme.

The most rootsy offering is the lovely ‘Graceland Too’ which employs banjo and fiddle on a country-flavoured song. The final track, ‘I Know the End’, starts as a quietly wistful love song then radically changes direction to become an apocalyptic vision with Bridgers screaming her head off.

Phoebe Bridgers looks likely to have a big impact. Sadly, that may mean she never finds time to come to Okinawa. All the same, her new album is quite an achievement.

Punisher is out now and is released by Dead Oceans.

Cinder Well: No Summer

June 1, 2020

No Summer is the new album by Amelia Baker who performs as Cinder Well. The Californian musician spent time on the music circuit with Irish trad-punk group Lankum and as a member of the anarchist folk project Blackbird Raum. She moved to Ireland to study Irish traditional music performance and now lives in the town of Ennis in County Clare.

The album contains both original songs and reworkings of traditional Appalachian songs. There is also an instrumental on which she plays fiddle on an American version of an Irish set tune. For the most part though she performs alone, mainly with guitar, and occasionally with two other musicians on vocals, viola, and violin.

The recordings were all made, mixed, and mastered at Nich Wilbur’s studio in a converted church in Anacortes, Washington. The overall tone is meditative, sombre, and slow. It might come across as dreary to some listeners but that’s the point really as the songs capture a mood of quiet, solitude and isolation that is perhaps all too relevant in these times when a pandemic has forced us to rethink many aspects of life.

The outstanding traditional track here (as well as the best known) is ‘The Cuckoo’. This version of the much recorded and performed song was learned from Kentucky singer Jean Ritchie and is played with guitar rather than the more common banjo accompaniment. Baker’s confident take on it makes us focus more than ever on the lyrics.

On this point she says: “I gravitate towards ballads from a strong female perspective, usually about critiquing men and marriage, and about the struggle and desperation of being a woman in older times. ‘The Cuckoo’ for example, sends the listener a message to be wary of men, to be whole, proud, unscathed.”

Cinder Well (Photo: Jim Ghedi)

There are strong original songs too with some poetic words that resonate. On the title track she begins: “Rain trippin’ down my brittle dry hair / Gazing at the water pooling on the concrete / the steeple makes shadows, dancing with the streetlights / Listening to him sing in a language I don’t understand.”

Elsewhere ‘Our Lady’s’ is a ballad written from the perspective of an abandoned mental asylum discovered not far from the singer’s home. And ‘From Behind the Curtain’ is a fine song to end the album as she sings: “The sky is lavender in Los Angeles, and it is darkening in County Clare.”

With its echoes of quarantine, isolation, and madness No Summer is not exactly a light listen, nor is it intended to be, but it is a rewarding one for those prepared to immerse themselves in the world of Cinder Well.

No Summer will be released on 24th July by Free Dirt Records.

Trad.Attack! – Make Your Move

May 12, 2020

Make Your Move is the third album from Estonian trio Trad.Attack! who gave a superb live show here in Okinawa in 2018. Not even a global pandemic can stop them, and they have an even bigger sound now despite being an acoustic band with Sandra Vabarna’s bagpipes, Jalmar Vabarna’s 12-string guitar, and Tõnu Tubli on drums at the heart of most tracks.

The blistering opener ‘Rikas Sittus / Rich Man Shat’ contrasts the lives of the poor with those of great wealth. It sounds bang up to date but its lyrics, by Sandra Vabarna, are based on a traditional song. The lyrical sources throughout include many other old Estonian songs and chants, and there are wedding songs, children’s games, a prayer for rain, and a Siberian lullaby.

All are played and sung with the expected verve, skill, and excitement that anyone who has listened to a live Trad.Attack! show will already know…and then some. ‘Varesele Valu / Pain to the Crow’ would not be out of place on any hard rock album. At least, if it weren’t for the Estonian bagpipes that come in halfway through.

It’s not all hard and heavy as the band are far too astute for that and some of the best songs are very different. ‘Tehke Ruumi! / Make Room!’ would make a great pop single with the bagpipes taking it to another level. Also outstanding is ‘Kus Mu Suda On… / Where is My Heart…’ on which the trio are joined by a string quartet. It’s a song that derives from the tradition of asking the ladybird that lands on your hand for a wish to come true.

And so, Trad.Attack! still push the boundaries as they make great music and revitalise traditions. Their inspiring notes are a manifesto that cajoles others to follow. They say: “We are born from courage to jump right in at the deep end of the pool. We took something sacred and dragged it out to the daylight of the 21st century. In our hands this mystical something has revealed its long-forgotten roots in a graspable modern way. In-your-face, no begging, no pleading.”

There isn’t much to add to that except to mention that the album comes with English translations of all the songs as well as the original Estonian lyrics. Unlike so many Okinawan releases, this is available in various formats and the band’s website has music videos plus vlogs of their tours around the world. You can also listen to their albums before buying.

Make Your Move is out now on CD and vinyl, and is self-released by Trad.Attack! The digital version is self-released in conjunction with Made in Baltics.

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn

May 8, 2020

American singer and banjo player Abigail Washburn is a great favourite of the Power of Okinawa and two of her previous albums were reviewed here. Now she is back again with an album on which she plays in a duet with Wu Fei, a Chinese musician originally from Beijing but now based in Nashville.

The album was released last month and has already been drawing a lot of positive reactions from critics. It’s an unusually successful mix of two very different cultures and, as Washburn’s website states, it merges “American old-time music and Chinese folksong, from the hills of Appalachia to the prairies of Western China, each tune flowing seamlessly into the next.”

Washburn’s Chinese influences were hinted at on her earlier solo album City of Refuge but this new release takes it much further. She has gone on to become a kind of musical and cultural ambassador for uniting American and Chinese relations – something sorely needed now when the president of her country is doing his best to destroy them.

On these recordings she plays clawhammer banjo (an instrument most associated with Appalachia but originally brought to the US by West African slaves) alongside Wu Fei’s guzheng, an ancient 21-string Chinese zither-like instrument that also has an affinity with the Ryukyu koto.

The songs are both American and Chinese, with music and languages frequently overlapping on the same track. This is typified from the outset with ‘Water is Wide / Wusulu Boat Song’. The traditional Scottish song has been recorded by many, including an Okinawan version by Chihiro Kamiya. It blends here with the Chinese song that follows it and the interweaving vocals are spellbinding.

There is one instrumental track, and an unaccompanied song ‘Who Says Women Aren’t as Good as Men’ with the two singers uniting on vocals. The album’s centrepiece is the eight minutes of ‘The Roving Cowboy / Avarguli’. This manages to mash-up a 1920s composition from North Carolina with a song from the Uyghurs of North West China. (The official video for the song is on Wu Fei’s website).

It all adds up to a very superior mix of banjo and guzheng with intertwining voices singing in English and various Chinese dialects. It’s an album that deserves a big audience. And as the press release rightly says, this is “music of our shared world, highlighting our shared humanity and the transformative power of song.”

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn is produced by Bela Fleck and released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Teddy Thompson: Heartbreaker Please

April 29, 2020

Heartbreaker Please is the new album from singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson. The New York based Englishman has built a strong following in his adopted home. For, if you were not already aware, he is the offspring of famed British folk-rock musicians Richard and Linda Thompson. Both parents have had albums reviewed here and Richard Thompson himself pops up briefly on the title track of Teddy’s record with some of his unmistakable electric guitar work.

The album is produced by Teddy Thompson who also sings and plays guitar “and other bits throughout” (as he puts it). The ten original songs are characterised by good playing, singing and production. ‘Why Wait’ is a fine start with some bright horns, guitar, bass, piano and drums. It’s a break-up song that sets the general tone and is followed by more heartbreak with ‘At a Light’, and then ‘Heartbreaker Please’ the standout song on the album.

There are slower songs too and ‘No Idea’ continues the sad theme with the lines: “I’m a house with no foundation / I’m a field that’s turned to dust”. Elsewhere there are some strings on one track, while ‘It’s Not Easy’ veers into rock ‘n’ roll with a bit of saxophone which is well done but a little too generic to be a highlight.

Teddy Thompson (Photo: Gary Waldman)

For the most part these are very well-crafted country-tinged songs. Thompson’s own musical taste has always been eclectic. Here he admits to a liking for the early pop songs of the 1950s – the Everly Brothers are also an influence – and he manages to harness this spirit and catchiness to songs inspired by a real-life break-up so that they never become dirge-like but instead are always uplifting.

As he says: “I’m completely enamoured with the three-minute pop song. Maybe it’s conditioning if you hear enough of it, but the brevity of those songs, I thought it seemed perfect to me. Those songs emerged at the beginning of a certain type of pop music, where the song itself was important and would live on. If it was great, people would cover it. So I am still drawn to that, trying to be succinct and witty, but also cut to the heart in a matter of two or three minutes.”

This is his sixth solo release and his first since 2011. He has also produced albums for his mother Linda Thompson and last year for Dori Freeman. In his aim, with Heartbreaker Please, to make catchy songs that are both succinct and witty he has been entirely successful.

Heartbreaker Please will be released by Thirty Tigers on 8th May.

Pharis and Jason Romero: Bet on Love

March 23, 2020

Bet on Love is the fifth record from Canadian duo Pharis and Jason Romero. The husband and wife team have built a strong following, not just in their homeland but overseas too where they have already toured the UK and were featured in fRoots magazine. Their previous album Sweet Old Religion received numerous accolades and won the Juno Award in Canada for best traditional roots album.

They come with a rising reputation and Bet on Love doesn’t disappoint. In a way, it’s almost a relief that there are no big surprises and no great departures here from what they’ve done before. This is simply a straightforward life-affirming bunch of ten original songs (and one instrumental) firmly rooted in the best bluegrass and old-time music traditions.

One of the most attractive features is the superb singing. Lead vocals are mostly by Pharis with just a couple from Jason, but the pair blend their voices so effectively on everything that their harmonies form the backbone of many songs. To this is added the duo’s banjo and guitar with a bit of help from a couple of musicians on bass and mandolin.

‘We All Fall’ is a perfect example of words and music combining in a seamless way on a Pharis-led song with a country flavour. Title track ‘Bet on Love’ is full of drama and a slow-building gentle power. And ‘Kind Girl’ is sublime with lovely singing and melodic shifts and some flowing guitar and mandolin interplay – and it all ends with a sparse banjo coda. It’s the album’s standout track.

Pharis and Jason Romero (Photo: Laureen Carruthers)

As well as being active touring musicians, the Romeros operate a business making handcrafted banjos at their workshop in the woods in the tiny town of Horsefly, British Columbia. In fact, the album was recorded in their own banjo shop with the help of producer Marc Jenkins. In line with their traditional approach everything was played on acoustic instruments and recorded live.

This is bound to engage anyone with the slightest interest in North American roots music. The focus in their songs is on hope and community and the relationships between place, people, and time. When not on the road, the couple appear to be living the kind of natural existence in the wilds that is reflected so well in their songs.

The deceptively simple and timeless quality of Pharis and Jason’s music seems more essential now than ever in these troubled times.

Bet on Love will be out on 15th May and is self-released.

Jake Blount: Spider Tales

March 6, 2020

Spider Tales is the new album by Jake Blount, an American singer, fiddler and banjo player based in Providence, Rhode Island. It contains an equal number of songs and instrumentals, and one of the guests on many tracks is fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves who is at the forefront of bright young musicians in Appalachian music.

The title of the album refers to the trickster spider ‘Anansi’ found in the Akan people’s folklore of West Africa. The stories from this mythology celebrate unseating the oppressor and on several of these tracks Blount draws on the coded pain and anger in the songs to give voice to those who were shunned from America’s musical canon.

“There’s a long history of expressions of pain in the African-American tradition,” Blount says. “Often those things couldn’t be stated outright. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person back then you could die from it, but the anger and the desire for justice are still there. They’re just hidden. The songs deal with intense emotion but couch it in a love song or in religious imagery so that it wasn’t something you could be called out about.”

Accordingly, the recordings here focus on tunes and songs found by Blount during his research into the black and indigenous roots of Appalachian music. There are stark raw songs, modal keys, and confounding melodic structures. It’s all played on fiddle and banjo with the occasional addition of other instruments. Some of the pieces, such as ‘English Chicken’ have unusual melodies and a deliberately discordant tone.

Jake Blount

‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ may be thought of as an Irish song (recorded by The Dubliners and numerous others). But the instrumental version here is different, much older, and was learned from recordings by brothers Osey and Ernest Helton who were a 1920s Cherokee banjo-fiddle duo. It’s played with such a joyous rhythm and swing that it makes you wonder nevertheless if Donal Lunny didn’t have a hand in it somewhere.

The most familiar track is surely the old Leadbelly song ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. Others have more obscure origins and the final song ‘Mad Mama’s Blues’, originally by South Carolina-born blues singer Josie Miles, has an arrangement that wouldn’t feel out of place on Dylan’s Love and Theft or one of his later albums.

Blount relates easily to songs that are focused on retribution and loss, from his own experience as a queer activist starting in high school. On Spider Tales, he has gathered a small band of mostly queer artists, including himself, to showcase these fourteen tracks. It’s by no means a dry research project but is instead an album of music to be listened to, engaged with, danced to, rather in the manner of those similar interpreters of old-time music, Carolina Chocolate Drops. It also demonstrates along the way how ideas of Appalachian roots music are changing as many of its hidden or forgotten origins are rediscovered by new generations.

Spider Tales will be released by Free Dirt Records on 29th May.

Pascal Plantinga: Blind on Bikini

January 6, 2020

Dutch pop artist Pascal Plantinga is known as an electro-songwriter who couples experimentation with a singular way of musical storytelling. No stranger to Okinawa, in 2014 he collaborated with Shoukichi Kina to produce the startlingly different Washinnayo recordings. He subsequently performed solo at Kina’s Niraikanai Matsuri, and more recently created the score for the Japanese music documentary Tsugaru no Kamari.

Blind on Bikini is Plantinga’s latest album and contains 13 relatively short new songs. As well as vocals he plays bass and Vox organ and is joined at various times by trombones, sousaphone, trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, saxophones, clarinets and piccolo. There isn’t a guitar in sight but there’s a significant contribution from long-standing working partner, German electronic music pioneer Pyrolator.

The songs hang together to create a loosely thematic whole that is referred to as ‘Pascal’s musical heartbreak memoir’. On the opening title track the upfront but deadpan vocal echoes Leonard Cohen but at other times it couldn’t be more different as the singing changes with distorted angsty electronica to take on different guises. Musically we are sometimes close to Bjork’s horn territory with an effective use of light and shade, loudness and silence.

On the song ‘Blind on Bikini’ Plantinga sings: “When blind in love be blind in Bikini” and the vaguely Pacific island backdrop resurfaces here and there. The lyrics – and there are quite a lot of them – are reprinted in the CD booklet and repay close attention as the focus is mainly on them and on the soundscape rather than on melody.

‘Jesus Christ Superfuck’ is the closest we get to a pop song and is also one of the album’s standout tracks while it all ends with another highlight ‘Snowed in at Kokusai Dori’, its gently tuneful beginning then exploding with the sound of fireworks as the singer vows: “I’d never board a plane for love again”. This is a fascinating set of songs and almost certainly Plantinga’s best work to date.

Blind on Bikini will be released tomorrow (7th January 2020) by Ata Tak and Suezan Studio.

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.

There is also an album trailer:

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:

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