Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

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.

freedirt.net

http://www.jakeblount.com

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.

www.atatak.com

www.suezan.com

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

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

IDER: Emotional Education

October 23, 2019

IDER are Lily Somerville and Megan Markwick, two British women in their twenties who sing, write songs, and make some very fine sounds in the region of synth-pop. The pair met in Cornwall while at university and are now flatmates in London where they collaborate on songwriting and have just made their debut album Emotional Education.

This summer the new album from Shura was reviewed here and the IDER album was released around the same time. This is more than a loose connection as it was through Shura that IDER first came to our attention when she produced a song for them on a previous mini-album – there are also some musical similarities.

The eleven songs on the new album are full of rich melodies and a generally melancholic feel as the pair sing of the hopes, fears, and troubles of young people growing up in the 21st century. Far from this limiting the album’s appeal, the songs are ultimately cathartic, and the emotions surely universal.

Opening track ‘Mirror’ draws us in immediately with its fine tune and angsty mood while ‘You’ve Got Your Whole Life Ahead of You Baby’ is an irresistible earworm. It’s not all synths as there are hints of folk, roots, some unusual harmonies, and a live brass section on more than one song. The album’s title appears in the lyrics of the outstanding penultimate track ‘Saddest Generation’. It’s a fierce, honest, and ultimately wise song about mental health and more. It shows off best of all what they have achieved up to now.

IDER will soon be very busy touring live. Starting on 28th October they will play in Oslo, Norway, and then in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Berlin. The tour continues in November throughout Europe ending on the 26th in Edinburgh, Scotland. Full details on their website.

Emotional Education is out now on Glassnote Records.

www.glassnotemusic.com

www.weareider.com

The Revelers: At the End of the River

October 8, 2019

To say that The Revelers are a Cajun band from Louisiana tells only part of the story. Their new album At the End of the River ~ Au bout de la rivière brings together a heady concoction of musical styles. In addition to the well-known Cajun sounds of their home territory they throw in some swamp pop, zydeco, and blues, and there’s also a sidestep into country music.

It might seem a bit all over the place at first but growing familiarity with the album has convinced this listener that the band knows exactly what it’s doing and at the very least the members are all excellent musicians. The songs are divided almost equally between English and French language vocals with six sung in French and five in English.

They come out firing on all cylinders with the opening track ‘Au bout de la rivière’ to create the perfect party mood. And just at the point when we think we know exactly where this song is going there is the unexpected addition of saxophone.

The blending of accordion, fiddle, and saxophone appears on many tracks and is used almost as a kind of substitute brass section. It makes you wish you could see the band perform live as their music is exhilarating and clearly very danceable. While accordionist and songwriter Blake Miller is at the forefront of much of what is best here, all six members contribute greatly in various ways.

It isn’t all played at a breakneck pace and one of the best tracks is ‘Bonsoir, petit monde’ a slower song with a French vocal and a superb blend of fiddle and saxophone. The two country songs are also surprisingly effective: ‘She’s a Woman’ and ‘You’re Not to Blame’ both feature prominent accordion and slide guitar and are written in a style not a million miles away from Willie Nelson.

The Revelers (Photo: Sandlin Gaither)

The moody, brooding and bluesy ‘I Wouldn’t Do That to You’ is another change of direction that works well. These sudden shifts in rhythm and style are not jarring at all and they provide a nice contrast on an album where there is a lot of upbeat music.

It’s easy to see why they are so popular in their home base of Lafayette where Cajun music has its heartland. In fact, the band are unofficial musical ambassadors for Lafayette where they run the annual Blackpot Festival involving the whole community in songs, music, dancing and food. This year’s festival will be held on the 25th and 26th October.

By their own admission, The Revelers are dedicated to the ‘holy trinity’ of Cajun culture: hot music, all-night dancing, and great food. With this album they have succeeded very well in making a new sound by synthesizing many different elements of music from Louisiana and beyond.

At the End of the River ~ Au bout de la rivière will be released by The Revelers on 8th November.

www.revelersband.com

The Hackles: A Dobritch Did As A Dobritch Should

September 24, 2019

This is the second album by Oregon-based American guitar and banjo duo The Hackles. The pair Kati Claborn and Luke Ydstie met in 2008 and have been making music together ever since. Their musical projects also include being members of the band Blind Pilot.

Now their own songs are given full reign again on this new album and their musical style is described in their own press release as ‘melodic, shimmering indie folk’. The ten tracks cover a range that comes close to both Appalachian-style folk roots and country inflected pop without ever going full tilt into either. This is no bad thing as they have their own way with words and music that is satisfyingly understated.

Claborn says that in these songs they want to “look at the big picture through individual lives” and to make sense of the present by looking to the past. The eccentric (some might say irritating) title of the album is therefore a reference to 20th century Bulgarian circus impresario Al Dobritch whose eventful life came to a sudden end in the USA when he jumped to his death on the Las Vegas Strip. It appears in the story song ‘The Show Goes On’.

The Hackles

At various points they flesh out some of the songs with the addition of strings, fiddle, piano, percussion and slide guitar but always it’s the song and the singing that remain at the core. The two share vocal duties and frequently sing harmony with Claborn taking the lead on the bulk of the songs. The country influenced ‘Dreamer’ is aptly titled as much of the album has a dreamy atmosphere with some tracks running naturally into each other.

At the centre of the album, and positioned back to back, are its two finest songs ‘Peaches’ and ‘The Empty Cups’. Like several of the others, ‘Peaches’ is a simple guitar and banjo-led composition with harmony vocals but above all it contains some lovely turns and musical developments. It ends too soon but is then followed by the equally simple and subtly subdued ‘The Empty Cups’.

For no discernible reason the singing and songs of both Linda Thompson and Mary Chapin Carpenter were conjured up at times in this listener’s mind but The Hackles are making music that is distinctly their own. This set of tranquil, idiosyncratic songs will do just fine.

A Dobritch Did As A Dobritch Should will be released by Jealous Butcher Records on 8th November.

www.jealousbutcher.com

Shura: Forevher

August 20, 2019

Forevher is the second album by English/Russian singer and songwriter Aleksandra Denton better known as Shura. Born in Manchester, she played football as a youngster for Manchester City before deciding to pursue a career in music. Football’s loss is music’s gain as the talented Shura has come up with a very assured successor to her debut Nothing’s Real which was listed here as a favourite album of 2016.

Up to now she has been best known for her electro-pop style with its echoes of the UK of the 1980s. For this album, recorded in London, there is a slight change musically as the synths are still there but there is also piano and generally a much broader sound palette. She borrows from various musical styles but updates these in ways that make the new album both very contemporary and uniquely Shura.

Lyrically too the concerns have shifted from the angst-ridden songs of three years ago to a more confident celebration of life and love. Some weighty topics are touched upon throughout, not least religion and death, but the overriding themes are to do with falling in love and the logistics of maintaining long-distance relationships. Clearly these have been triggered by Shura’s own relationship with her girlfriend in New York.

At the heart of the album is a trio of outstanding tracks. ‘BKLYNLDN’ is a love song that drives along infused with that wistful long-distance theme as she sings: “This isn’t love, this is an emergency”. It’s followed by ‘Tommy’ a song inspired by an 89-year old widower met in Texas and opens with a minute of his spoken word sample. It’s a touching, moving piece that flows along with a lovely melody.

Then comes ‘Princess Leia’ a reflection on death and more that all takes place while the singer is nearing the end of a plane trip. (Flight is another motif that appears on more than one song). The craft and precision of the song’s execution is reminiscent of Paul Simon. Only after listening did I realize the coincidental connection – Carrie Fisher, referenced in the song, was once married to Simon.

Elsewhere the (almost) title track ‘Forever’ begins as if it could be an outtake from ABC’s classic The Lexicon of Love while ‘Religion (u can lay your hands on me)’ is gloriously blasphemous with nuns kissing and smoking cigarettes in the official music video. The album’s cover image evokes Joni Mitchell with its shades of blue.

This is a very fine album that pays its dues to pop if not roots history while being refreshingly original. There are a couple of songs from Nothing’s Real that are just as good as anything here, if not better, but this is a real album to be listened to from start to finish.

Forevher is released by Secretly Canadian.

www.secretlycanadian.com

www.weareshura.com