Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

Jon Boden: Afterglow

November 8, 2017

Afterglow is Jon Boden’s first solo album since the break-up of Bellowhead, the immensely popular English folk band he fronted for more than a decade. It might have been expected that after all the noise and mayhem of the big band, he would return with an album of quieter traditional songs but nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead he gathers a formidable bunch of musicians, including former Bellowhead members Paul Sartin (oboe, fiddle) and Sam Sweeney (drums), to make an even bigger sound with ten new songs all self-composed. What’s more, it’s part of a concept in which Boden imagines scenes and stories from an urban future world where the oil has run out and chaos rules while two lovers try to find each other in an abandoned city.

It isn’t immediately apparent that the songs are all linked in this way and there are no lyrics provided with the album to guide us. This is quite deliberate and it must be said is the better for it as we can make our own connections as listeners and imagine whatever we like or simply just enjoy the songs, music and boldly complex arrangements. And there is much here to enjoy.

Boden is a fine songwriter and the best of these songs are full of subtle and exciting musical and lyrical twists and turns. (It might also be the first time the word ‘iridescent’ has appeared in a song). ‘Moths in the Gas Light’ is a strong opener that sets the tone while ‘Bee Sting’ is probably the outstanding track.

Boden plays guitars, piano and concertina and his distinctively desperate vocals are also accompanied by an array of sounds including brass and strings. The final track ‘Aubade’ is the closest to something resembling traditional folk song.  This is quite a return to the studio for Jon Boden and Afterglow is a big ambitious adventure and a surprising success.

Afterglow is released by Hudson Records.

www.jonboden.com

Jon Boden performs ‘Bee Sting’ live in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj6SC-twU2U

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Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts

July 26, 2017

Offa Rex is a joint project by English singer Olivia Chaney and Oregon rock band The Decemberists. Colin Meloy of The Decemberists wanted to make an album of mainly traditional songs harking back to the great English folk-rock heyday of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Also an admirer of Olivia Chaney, Meloy enlisted her help as the main vocalist and arranger and the pair chose the selections together. Chaney also applies her skills to several tracks with guitars, piano, harmonium and electric harpsichord.

First of all, the recording and playing are exemplary and the album sounds both ‘old’ and very up to date. As soon as it begins with the title track we know we’re back in that world of folk-rock and ‘The Queen of Hearts’ works beautifully with Chaney’s lovely vocal and electric harpsichord blending with the other band members to create something that would surely have made the great Sandy Denny proud. Even better is Chaney’s delicate interpretation of ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ which is both the best thing on the album and the longest track at seven and a half minutes.

Three years ago I discovered a live video of ‘The Old Churchyard’ sung by Elizabeth LaPrelle and friends and it was so good it almost brought me to tears. It was the first time I’d heard this amazing old song and it turns up again on this album with a vocal by Chaney. So it was with some trepidation that I listened to this very different bigger version with harmonium, guitars, drums, viola and woodwind drone. To my surprise it’s almost as good as Elizabeth’s and that’s high praise.

Not everything is equally successful and this is perhaps inevitable given that it’s such a varied bunch of songs (and one instrumental) but the surprising mix of folk and heavy metal on ‘Sheepcrook and Black Dog’, with its nod to Black Sabbath, actually works rather well. ‘The Gardener’ is another unexpected triumph.

This is a fine album that shows folk-rock is still alive and well and it offers a unique combination of musicians from different musical and geographical backgrounds. Olivia Chaney is already much loved on this blog and her excellent solo album The Longest River was reviewed here a couple of years ago. Let’s hope it isn’t too long before she comes back with a new album – or indeed a second collaboration with The Decemberists.

The Queen of Hearts is out now on Nonesuch Records.

www.nonesuch.com

Chris Bromage & End of Empire: Man in a Minor Chord

July 16, 2017

Man in a Minor Chord is the second album by Chris Bromage and his End of Empire band. Singer-songwriter Bromage is from Leeds, England but also lived in Japan for several years and has been based in Canada since 2004. This release follows on from his debut End of Empire an album with a strong political edge.

The new album recorded in Vancouver has a broader agenda described as “a reflection on Trump, Brexit, love, the past and the insanity of the modern world” and Bromage sings and plays acoustic and electric guitars, piano and keyboards. On first listen there is nothing startlingly original about the standard musical line-up and song format but it soon becomes clear that it does work very well with “real” playing that harks back to an earlier analogue recorded sound.

The high quality of recording and production is matched by the songwriting which soon gets under the skin with its rhythms, unexpected changes and rich melodies. The ambitious seven minute opener ‘Belize’ focuses on the dichotomy between tourist paradise and the poverty, corruption and colonial legacy of the Central American country. It could easily have become overwrought but Bromage crucially understands having something to say doesn’t mean melody is neglected in favour of message. As he says, this is “lyrically driven misery you can dance to”.

One of the best tracks is ‘No Forty Acres There’s No Mule’ which touches on broken promises following the Civil War era in the USA. In contrast ‘Empty’ is at the same time about depression and a homage to Glasgow’s Postcard label and its pop bands. One of those, Orange Juice, is referred to again on the album’s best song ‘Tears in the Rain’ an irresistibly nostalgic look back with hindsight to time spent in Japan.

Chris Bromage has been many things in an eventful life including sports agent and entrepreneur. Three years ago he opted out of a conventional work life to concentrate on his music. Man in a Minor Chord deserves and will surely attain a wide audience and is solid evidence that he has made a good decision. It also sends a message that it’s never too late to change direction.

Man in a Minor Chord will be released on 11th August by CB Records.

http://www.numberonemusic.com/endofempire

Christine Primrose: Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris

July 3, 2017

The full title of this new album by Christine Primrose is Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris: Love and Loss – A Lone Voice and it contains eleven songs of unaccompanied traditional Scottish Gaelic sung by one of the great singers from Scotland who has travelled the world performing and teaching. There are also three bonus tracks chosen from earlier recordings.

It might seem a daunting task to sit down and listen for an hour to such sparse unaccompanied songs rendered in a language that will be unfamiliar to most people. However, if anyone is capable of dispelling our fears then it’s surely Christine Primrose whose long career includes being awarded Gaelic Singer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2009. With these new recordings she is out there on her own with no safety net and that she so obviously succeeds is a great testament to her art.

If there are any parallels with Okinawa it is with some of the timeless unaccompanied songs sung and collected in the local communities of these islands –  particularly those of Yaeyama and Miyako – as well as in the many songs of hardship, emigration and exile.

Primrose focuses here on sad songs of love and loss, some very old, others by known composers. In one case she adds a melody of her own to some words by the poet William Campbell. The final song is by John McGregor (in English: ‘Island of Lewis, I Travelled Afar from You’) in which the singer reflects on his native island after a long time away. As Primrose writes in her notes, “Like McGregor, you may never return permanently but it’s always home.”

Christine Primrose was brought up in a Gaelic speaking culture on the Hebridean island of Lewis where she sang in her native language from a very young age. On this album she gives a master class in how to interpret these songs. There is nothing remotely flashy or showy on display. Instead, the emotions of each song are conveyed with subtlety, clarity and a quiet power.

The album booklet contains Primrose’s explanations in English of all the songs. Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris: Love and Loss – A Lone Voice is released by Temple Records and is available directly from their website.

www.templerecords.co.uk

www.christineprimrose.com 

Oumou Sangaré: Mogoya

May 29, 2017

Malian singer Oumou Sangaré is one of the biggest stars in African music. She is also an icon for feminism and women’s rights in her country and her songs have challenged and cajoled on a number of social issues close to her heart. Now she returns to the recording studio with her first album since the magical Seya which was released all of eight years ago.

This is in many ways a very different album from its illustrious predecessors. Sangaré was previously with World Circuit but has changed record labels and is now with the French company No Format! The new album was recorded in Stockholm and Paris together with members of a Parisian music collective. This stripped back approach is heavy on rhythm giving this a more driving, direct and accessible sound than we’ve previously heard.

What has been achieved very well is the difficult balancing act between the rock guitars, keyboards and synths, and Sangaré’s powerful vocals and stylish presence and she is very much upfront throughout and always in control. Her music roots from the Wassoulou region are never far away either and instruments such as the traditional kamelengoni are present throughout. The female backing singers complementing the lead vocal are also an essential ingredient.

It’s a relatively short album at around 40 minutes (though my copy also contained a bonus remix track) but packs a considerable punch. Of the nine songs the upbeat ‘Djoukourou’ drives along superbly while ‘Kounkoun’ achieves the perfect blend of old and new. Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen features on ‘Yere Faga’ while ‘Minata Waraba’ is a tribute to Sangaré’s mother. The haunting title song ‘Mogoya’ (it means ‘people today’) is much slower with strings and guitar.

Mogoya is released by No Format!

www.noformat.net

Michael Chapman: 50

February 17, 2017

50 is a new release that marks half a century of touring and recording by England’s Yorkshire born singer, composer, and master guitarist Michael Chapman. It’s also the first time in his long career that he has recorded an entire album in America. For this he is joined by a small band of musicians including Steve Gunn (who also produced) and Nathan Bowles who plays drums, percussion, piano, organ and some excellent banjo.

cover

The gruff-voiced 76 year old Chapman revisits some of his earlier songs but also includes one or two new ones. The American influence has always been a strong presence in his work so there are no big surprises except for the simple and soon obvious fact that he sounds even better than before. The care and precision with which the other musicians play ensures a thrilling ride and one which is already being hailed as his late career masterwork.

Six years ago he released a double album of guitar instrumentals but this time the focus is entirely on the songs, all written by Chapman. His reworking of ‘The Mallard’ is delicately handled while at the other extreme the ‘The Prospector’ is an epic that almost enters Neil Young territory via Bob Dylan – except that it’s still very much Michael Chapman. There’s no-one quite like him and for this we can be grateful.

Michael Chapman 50 Recordign Session at Black Dirt. Photo By Constance Mensh

Michael Chapman 50 Recording Session at Black Dirt. Photo By Constance Mensh

‘Memphis in Winter’ is typically bleak while ‘Falling from Grace’ is another highlight. But the outstanding song is the album’s final track ‘That Time of Night’ which encompasses far more depth and emotion than its understated words would at first suggest. Going back to record past glories again isn’t always a good idea but in this case it seems somehow justified as the results bring out extra nuances and generally surpass the originals.

It’s as if Chapman has been heading here all his life and his time on the road and all his world weariness culminate among themes of travel, memory, mortality and redemption. 50 is a fine testament to his long-term achievement. The ten track album was recorded in New York and is released as a vinyl LP but is also available as a CD/download with two bonus tracks. He dedicates the album “to all those who didn’t make it this far”.

50 is released by Paradise of Bachelors.

www.paradiseofbachelors.com

50 album trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyLue1cpjbc

Anna & Elizabeth: Hop High/Here in the Vineyard

February 13, 2017

Appalachian influenced musicians Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are great favourites of this blog and both of their albums were reviewed here previously. Hop High/Here in the Vineyard is their new release and it comes as a 7-inch vinyl single also available as a download. For these two traditional songs they are helped by producers Benjamin Laza Davis and Alec Spiegelman who are members of New York experimental pop band Cuddle Magic.

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On these songs the two young women stay true to their traditional roots but they also add something new by surrounding the songs with different musical elements. These involve the use of pump organ, woodwind, strings and electronics and there are banjo tunings inspired by Indonesian gamelan so that what begins as old-time music ends up moving towards the avant-garde. The unexpected results are very good indeed and it left this listener wanting more. It’s definitely a case of onwards and upwards for Anna & Elizabeth.

Hop High/Here in the Vineyard is released by Free Dirt Records.

www.annaandelizabeth.com