Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

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

Advertisements

Anna & Elizabeth: The Invisible Comes to Us

March 29, 2018

The Invisible Comes to Us is the third album by Anna & Elizabeth who have been championed by this blog for a long time. The two have a special love for Appalachian mountain music and Elizabeth LaPrelle is the finest living traditional ballad singer bar none. It has been three years since their last album and this new release takes their exploration of old songs into groundbreaking new territory.

With their feet still firmly in this world the partnership moves forward to embrace some pioneering experimental arrangements. Multi-instrumentalist Anna Roberts-Gevalt recently immersed herself in the Brooklyn avant-garde community and this is co-produced by her and Benjamin Lazar Davis. As a result many of the songs are presented with hints of woodwind, brass, synths and new technologies that subtly complement but never overwhelm the stories being told.

In the sleeve notes the duo writes: “These are songs we first heard in small archives in our home states, Vermont and Virginia. Recordings made in living rooms and kitchens, of songs learned in childhood. The characters, and the landscapes they occupied, grew rich in our minds. This record grew out of the desire to show you the world we saw in these songs.”

Among many standout tracks are ‘Black Eyed Susan’ and the old Vermont hymn ‘Mother in the Graveyard’ which find the pair on relatively familiar ground. The superb ‘By the Shore’ with its jazzy opening backdrop and Anna’s overlapping vocals even has echoes of Brecht and Weil not to mention Laurie Anderson. It was experimental enough to disturb my cat who normally takes no notice of the many sounds that waft around our home.

Anna & Elizabeth have done a wonderful job of reimagining these songs for a modern audience and most of all they have made a sublimely enjoyable album. Folk song contains universal truths and though the times may change the same concerns continually engage us. This is strikingly brought home in the words of the song ‘Jeano and Jeanette’ that opens the album and also closes it with a crackly fragment of a recording from Margaret Shipman whose voice speaks to us from the past:

“If I were Queen of France or still better Pope of Rome / I’d have no fighting men abroad nor weeping maids at home / All the world should be at peace and the right should be the might / I’d have all that made the quarrelling the only ones to fight.”

Anna & Elizabeth are currently touring the East Coast of the USA and their final date is in New York City on 23rd April with guests Jim White, Susan Alcorn and Benjamin Lazar Davis. Then in May they tour the UK and Ireland ending with dates in Sheffield (15th) and London (16th).

The Invisible Comes to Us is released on 30th March by Smithsonian Folkways.

www.annaandelizabeth.com

Laybricks: People People : We’re All Diamonds

February 13, 2018

People People : We’re All Diamonds is the new album by Korean alternative rock duo Laybricks who are based in Seoul. The band has already released a five track EP that was reviewed here after their performance at last year’s Trans Asia Music Meeting Showcase in Naha. Now they are back with an album and another visit to Okinawa where they played two sets at last weekend’s Sakurazaka Asylum festival.

Once again all songs are written by singer and electric guitarist Kwangmin Seo. On stage he is accompanied only by Hyejin Yu on drums but for this album there is also the addition of some bass, piano and strings as well as extra backing vocalists. It makes for a slightly fuller and more polished sound than before but without losing any of the essence of their bright shiny music.

Kwangmin Seo’s songwriting is as catchy and strong as ever and the lyrics are sometimes in Korean, sometimes in English, and often in a mix of the two languages. There are plenty of big engaging melodies and positive upbeat sentiments. The song ‘Ocean’ finds them in their most distinctive Laybricks sound but it isn’t all high energy and on a couple of songs they play acoustic guitars as on the reflective final track ‘Life’.

Laybricks are best seen live and their life-affirming music is sung with great passion by Kwangmin Seo alongside superbly skilful and energetic drumming from the remarkable Hyejin Yu.  The only slight disappointment is that the album is so short at barely half an hour. Let’s hope they continue on their upward path and that we don’t have to wait too long for another visit to Okinawa.

People People : We’re All Diamonds is released by Laybricks and distributed by West Bridge Entertainment.

https://www.laybricksmusic.com/

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

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