Category Archives: album reviews

Folk: album review – Na-Mara ‘Sisters & Brothers’

Na-Mara have built a formidable reputation for bringing their translations of songs from the Breton, French and Quebecois traditions to English-speaking audiences, alongside their original and captivating interpretation tunes from the Celtic regions of Spain and France. There’s more to them than that, of course, and their repertoire has always included self-composed material written in the style of the folk tradition.

With Sisters & Brothers Na-Mara’s Rob Garcia and Paul McNamara return with a fine mix of each of these three elements. The self-penned title track gives a nod to the proud history of songs about economic injustices in the past while providing us with a rallying call for the present: “What was done to our fathers and brothers is now being done to our sisters and brothers.” We also have new translations of songs from France and Quebec, such as long-lost soldier/returning sweetheart story The Recompense, and there is an elegant tune-set, including the lovely An Dro from a collection of Breton folk tunes.

Garcia’s mandolin and McNamara’s guitar work and gentle, sincere vocals give the duo their trademark sound and it’s clear throughout the album there is no shortage of inspiration for new material.

Na-Mara continue to make a vital and distinctive contribution to the UK folk scene and Sisters & Brothers is another highly-accomplished offering.

Released: March 2019

http://www.na-mara.com/

S&Bcover

Folk: album review – Odette Michell ‘The Wildest Rose’

While there is never any shortage of debut albums from folk singer songwriters being brought to the attention of fRoots reviewers, for endearing melodies and evocative song-writing in the English folk tradition Odette Michell presents us with a really rather impressive debut here. It helps, of course, that she has one of those beautiful voices that’s just perfect for English folk but with so many releases from emerging artists, being in possession of a beautiful voice, alone, is not necessarily a stand-out quality on the contemporary folk scene these days. Michell is clearly a talented musician and gives us some lovely guitar and bouzouki playing on this album, too. What really sets The Wildest Rose apart from many of the other debut albums that will undoubtedly be released over the course of the year, however, is Michell’s knack for writing songs that could easily have been collected over a hundred years ago. She does seem to have a gift for this and gives us nine original songs plus one interpretation of a traditional number without ever falling into the cliche of twee pastiche.

Lyrically, Michell’s songs cover a range of historical, romantic and pastoral themes from ‘folk fairytale’ The Banks of Analee to Light Up London Town exploring the Gunpowder Plot. Besides Michell herself, the album features Stu Hanna on mandolin, violin, bass and percussion who also does a suitably empathetic job on on production duties. In addition, none other than Show of Hands’ Phil Beer contributes to a handful of tracks as does Toby Shaer who has played with Cara Dillon and Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys.

Beautifully written, beautifully sung, beautifully played and beautifully produced The Wildest Rose deserves acclaim as one of the stand-out debuts of 2019.

Released: April 2019

https://www.odettemichell.com/

71c6DI3A0yL._SS500_

 

Folk: album review – Thea Gilmore ‘Small World Turning’

This review was originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

After several albums exploring a variety of musical pastures, Thea Gilmore returns to her folk roots with Small World Turning – and what an album of brilliant, classy, exceptional contemporary folk she has given us here.

The breath-taking beauty in her vocals combines with equally breath-taking musicianship from the supporting cast. The now twenty, thirty and early forty-somethings who make up latter-day folk royalty, the likes of Cara Dillon, Seth and Sam Lakeman, Ciaran Algar and more, line up to back Gilmore on the album .

Moreover, Gilmore’s writing is as sharply perceptive as her voice is enchanting. While some stabs at modern folk addressing contemporary themes can end up coming across a little jarring and contrived in their execution, Gilmore’s vocals are so perfect and so natural and so unforced that that even when she’s singing about foodbanks or Jägerbombs it’s delivered with the same timeless eloquence as if she were singing about shapeshifting demons or the peasant’s revolt.

Indisputably one of the best folk albums released this year so far, Gilmore holds up a spotlight to the modern world while embracing the storytelling and musical traditions of the past and bottling up that spirit of defiance and resilience that has kept the best folk music alive across many generations.

Released: May 2019 Shameless Records

https://www.theagilmore.net/

611g5NE7a0L._SL1200_

Folk/Americana/Bluegrass: album review – Wood, Wire & Words ‘The Boy With The Smile’

Wood Wire & Words are a three-piece from the south of England formed around 15 years ago. The trio are David Rozzell – songwriter, guitarist and lead vocalist; Clare Rozzell – harmony/lead vocals, double bass and melodeon; and Pat Francis – Dobro, mandolin and guitar. Now on their third album, the band’s sound has been described as a blend of folk, bluegrass and acoustic Americana.

While their previous album (2015’s It’s a Barbecue Day) was a nice slice of home-grown Bluegrass/Americana, with this latest album ‘The Boy With The Smile’ I detect a much broader range of influences coming to the fore. Indeed, they kind of remind me of a Bluegrass-tinged interpretation of the modern-day incarnation of Fairport Convention. David Rozzell’s deep, rich vocal delivery is not unlike Fairport’s Simon Nicol’s, by the way.

Eleven of the twelve songs are Rozzell’s own compositions. He clearly has a fine ear for melody as well as being a forthright lyricist – with themes covering war, love, depression, politics and poverty amongst others. It’s not all sharply-observed social commentary, however. A couple nod to more pastoral themes in the folk tradition. ‘Toast The Harvest’ was written for Ely Cathedral’s harvest service, while ‘The Oak King Rises’ was originally written for a local pagan yule ceremony. The one non-original song is a beautifully mellow cover of Richard Thompson’s ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightening’.

Much as I enjoyed their previous album The Boy With The Smile feels like a significant step forward in the band’s creative journey. Anyone with an interest in folk or Americana will find much to like in this album.

http://www.woodwireandwords.com/

320x0w

Folk-rock: album review – Julie July Band ‘Lady of the First Light’

The Julie July Band and their reinterpretation and celebration of the music of Sandy Denny have been proving quite a hit on the festival and live folk circuit in recent years. So much so that last year they released a tribute album ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ – an album that certainly caught my attention along with other reviewers.

However, as extensive as Sandy Denny’s back catalogue is and as impressive as Julie July and her band’s interpretations are I doubt that there is an entire recording career to be built around simply recording more and more of her past material. The question then comes as to what form a follow-up album would take. Would it be covers of traditional songs that are given a suitably Sandy-esque treatment? Would the band seek inspiration from other singer-songwriters of that era? Would there be some new material, perhaps?

In fact, the band have opted for the latter approach with Lady of the First Light presenting eleven originals, each penned by various members of the band. Musically, it’s probably more within the vibe of Denny’s early to mid 70s solo singer-songwriter albums than, say, the more overt folk rock from her time with Fairport Convention and Fotheringay. However, it’s worth stressing that this is far more than simply a Sandy Denny pastiche or a North-Star-Grassman-and-the-Ravens-by-numbers. The Sandy influence is there, of course (and why not she remains one of the greatest singer-songwriters this country has ever produced) but it’s an influence rather than a straitjacket. There’s some quality songwriting here and, combined with Julie July’s beautifully clear voice and the strength of the band’s musicianship, the album more than stands up in its own right.

Title track, the upbeat ‘Lady of the First Light’ is an absolute stunner. More rockier than some of the other material with some gorgeous lead guitar and Julie July in fine voice, it’s not impossible to imagine a parallel universe where it’s a recently-discovered track from Fairport’s Unhalfbricking sessions. Likewise, ‘The Ballad of Rory Starp’ could equally have come from some long-lost session for the Liege & Lief album. These provide a nice contrast to the more sombre and reflective, yet no less gorgeous, material like the opening number ‘Broken Wing’. The end result is a lovely palette of contrasting textures, emotions and influences. The anthemic ‘Shine Together’ finishes the album in a pleasingly celebratory mood.

If the last album was a gorgeous tribute to the songs of Sandy Denny then this one is very much a celebration of the influences that combined to make the late 60s and early 70s such an incredibly exciting, vibrant and creative time for British music. Buy it!

Released: June 2019

https://juliejuly.co.uk/

Lady-of-the-First-Light-cd-cover

Previous review:

Julie July Band – Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

Folk – album review – Birichen ‘Hush’

This review was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

Birichen are Catriona Sutherland (vocals), Iain-Gordon Macfarlane (fiddle and guitar) and Robert McDonald (dobro slide guitar) and this five-track EP is their debut release. Named after the settlement in the Scottish highlands that serves as their base, the trio’s music is steeped in the influences of Scottish folk but there are other influences at work, too, most notably Americana.

The EP opens with the sound of birdsong and running water, but regardless of whether it’s Drumnadrochit or Montana it really doesn’t matter, the opening song Holding On To Each Moment immediately transports the listener to somewhere that is soothing, laid-back and breathtakingly beautiful. Gordon-Macfarlane’s fiddle and McDonald’s slide guitar serve to clearly lay out Birichen’s musical mission from the outset and both players provide the perfect accompaniment for Sutherland’s clear voice and gentle, evocative delivery. The country influences come even more to the fore with a cover of Guy Clark’s LA Freeway but on the jazzy Gonnae Get Good and the poignant Smile In Your Sleep the emphasis is very much on Scottish history and culture, the latter an emotive lullaby recalling the brutal and traumatic impact of the Highland Clearances that touches on the history of the Birichen settlement and Sutherland’s own family history.

A beguiling blend of Scottish folk and American country Hush sees Birichen announce their arrival in splendid form. A fine debut EP.

Released: October 2018

https://www.facebook.com/Birichen/

41s3YtPHSHL

Folk: album review – Rachel Croft ‘Hours Awake’

This review was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of fRoots magazine

Celtic-influenced melodies, lush instrumentation and pure yet ever-so-sensual vocals serve to make Hours Awake a highly attractive debut album from the York-based singer songwriter. The album collects together songs that Croft has been creating over a three-year period between 2014, when she first started writing, and 2017.

Only Dreams, which was also released as Croft’s debut single back in 2017, is one of the standout tracks on the album. Beautifully atmospheric instrumentation combines with powerful lyrics and captivating vocals in a Sandy-Denny-meets-Kate-Bush sort of way and showcases Croft’s considerable vocal range. Opening track, the moody and haunting Old Climbing Tree is another stunner. In addition to Croft, herself, on acoustic guitar a group of talented musicians contribute to making this album something special. The playing of Emlyn Vaughan on double bass, Rachel Brown on cello and Emily Lawler is particularly noteworthy.

Nicely packaged and beautifully illustrated the inside cover-art features some of Croft’s own striking black and white pen and ink work.

The album is not quite perfect. Some slightly weird production mars the second track Hear Me somewhat and the final track Can’t Replace Your Perfect, a big, soulful, gospel-tinged number stands up perfectly well on its own and certainly helps demonstrates the vocalist’s versatility but seems a little out of place here. Nonetheless, Hours Awake is a beautifully impressive debut from a talented vocalist, musician and songwriter.

Released: 8th February 2019

https://rachelcroftmusic.com/

Album+cover+Hours+Awake+Rachel+Croft

20190517_194921 (1)

Hard rock: album review – Spitfish ‘Penny Dreadful’

Ask me about Gdansk and I’d immediately think of Polish shipyards, Lech Walesa and the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union and the anti-communist protests of the 1980s. In fact that’s the sum total of my entire knowledge of the place – but it’s also home to Spitfish.

A brooding industrial early 70s Sabbath-like feel combines with more upbeat classic rock elements and a taste of 90s grunge to produce a fine album of hard rock.

Formed three years ago by vocalist Boris Karloff the line-up now features Karloff on vocals and bass, Cyril Delevanti on guitar and A.J. on drums. The rumbling hard, heavy riffs meld nicely with Karloff’s warmer, more melodic vocals to produce something that’s both atmospheric and catchy.

Spitfish’s on-stage persona and album cover-art pays homage to old-school horror movies and there’s clearly a love of the theatrical but, importantly, there’s some serious quality hard rock behind the imagery.

“Even though only members of the band know the dark concept of Spitfish, it’s worth listening to their music,” their publicity blurb tells us. That I would agree with. I knew little of Gdansk and nothing of Spitfish but I’ve been giving Penny Dreadful numerous plays since the CD arrived through my door. It is, indeed, music worth listening to.

Released: October 16th 2018

https://www.facebook.com/spitfishband/

a0627300250_10

Folk/rock: album review – Crooked Weather ‘Are We Lost’

In spite of originating from the windswept landscape of East Yorkshire, you don’t need to spend very long at all listening to Crooked Weather to work out that the band’s spiritual home is so evidently the sun-blessed uplands of America’s west coast, circa 1969. Warm harmony vocals, catchy acoustic guitar melodies, delicious interjections on the slide guitar and that sunny laid-back country-meets-folk Americana vibe that combines musical intricacy with seemingly effortless execution, Are We Lost is an impressive and highly likeable album.

Based around the vocals and guitar playing of both Holly Blackshaw and Will Bladen, the duo are backed by a stellar cast of supporting musicians in the shape of of Rob Burgess, Beth Nicholson, Dave Tomlinson and Tom Skelly. Song-wise the album is mainly a vehicle for the talented writing of Bladen but there’s also a deeply lovely arrangement of the traditional English folk number ‘Hares On The Mountain’.

The album climaxes with Bladen and Blackshaw’s ‘Easy’ an undulating and dramatic slice of epic folk-rock which also serves as the band’s current single.

“Easy was one of those songs that just wrote itself and it’s hard to say where this kind of a song comes from. It had been fermenting away in the background for a while and ideas would come now and again when outside cutting the grass and things like that. Then one afternoon it pretty much came out fully formed. It’s probably best not spending too long thinking about where it came from,” says Bladen.

It’s not at all difficult to close your eyes and imagine these as summer festival favourites – and having had quite a few such appearances under their belts they will be well worth checking out if you have a chance to see them. And obviously, do check out this album, too.

Released: 12th April 2019

https://www.crookedweather.com/

a2966065672_10

 

Folk: album review – Band of Burns ‘Live From The Union Chapel’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Originating out of the Burns Night gigs that ran at East London’s Wilton’s Music Hall for several years, Band of Burns came about when key members of the team (musicians Alastair Caplin and Dilar Vardar, and promoter Sophie Bostock) decided to put a more permanent touring outfit together. Featuring twelve musicians, this double live album was recorded at one of the band’s celebrated gigs at North London’s iconic Union Chapel and was released thanks to a successful crowdfunding appeal.

As the band’s origins and name suggests the influence of Scotland’s most celebrated poet casts a major presence over the entire project. It would be a mistake, however, to assume the album was focused solely on the work of Robert Burns.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume it was focused solely on the Scottish folk tradition either. Those involved in the Band of Burns come from a variety of different backgrounds and musical traditions, hailing from England, Wales and Ireland as well as Scotland and from as far afield as Turkey.

The result is a delightful collection of songs and tune sets from a fantastic array of musicians. From songs based on Burns’ own writing like My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose, Now Westlin Winds and Parcel o’ Rogues, through to other traditional numbers like Banks of Red Roses as well as songs like Richard Farina’s The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, there will be much that many folk enthusiasts will be familiar with here. However, the range of voices, both male and female, together with the exceptional standards of musicianship has resulted in Band of Burns producing something very special here.

Moreover, it is definitely a collaboration that lends itself well to the live album format. Although overflowing with talent, it would be difficult to imagine the album having quite the same impact had the recording been studio-bound. The awed crowd reactions to the ballads and the rapturous responses to some of the tune sets wonderfully capture what must have been an incredible atmosphere in Union Chapel on the evening of 29th January 2017.

Although nicely packaged a little bit more information on the background to the song choices and the playing on each track would not have gone amiss. However, with information about both the sizeable number of musicians and the concert itself to cram in there is probably a limit to how much additional information can be squeezed in.

Two discs, twelve musicians and one magical night, Live From The Union Chapel is a wonderful celebration of the life and work of Robert Burns.

Released: Ord Ban Music  19th January 2018

https://www.bandofburns.com/

a2818742866_10