With the benefit of hindsight I should have played this record all day yesterday; which was St. Patrick’s Day as I can’t think of anything more quintessentially ‘Irish’ than this, Eamon Friel’s latest release. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that this is ‘fiddly-dee,’ music by numbers for the tourists or worse still; dreadful songs about the ‘Auld Brigade’; but actually a series of warm, personal, mature and insightful songs and stories from a man who has ‘lived a life’ and makes no pretence about hiding his natural N’orn Irish brogue. As the simply constructed first track, The Old Songs drifts from the speakers I defy listeners of a certain age’ not to let their bottom lip quiver; as Eamon remembers meeting up after school singing the hit songs from the radio with his mates; and now whenever he hears these ‘old songs’ on the radio he romantically wonders if these friends who are spread around the four corners still ‘sing them today.’ That’s the beauty of Eamon Friel, he takes a simple thread of an idea and rolls it around in his special brand of musical magic to make it into a lovely romantic Folk Song. Normally I would close the curtains on a day like he describes in Wind and Rain; but the singer makes it into a powerful metaphor for love; and that word ‘romantic’ springs to mind again; and not for the last time among these 11 songs. Plus any song that features a man whistling in tune get a bonus mark at RMHQ! Mrs. Magpie turned to me and furrowed her eyebrows when she first heard Benediction, last week; but by the time this clever song ended she was actually smiling and looking off wistfully into the middle distance, as Friel’s delicate words hung in the air around us. Tucked away in the middle of the album is a really fascinating song; Unspoken Love; a song that is so deep and personal I sat in awe as I pressed ‘repeat’ to take in all of the nuances this enigma of a love song throw up. Two years ago Friel released a 4 track EP called Takeaway and the quirky and humorous title track makes another appearance here; but I urge you to find this gem to hear the other three songs too. In the modern idiom it’s not easy to pin-point Eamon Friel, as he is certainly a Folk Singer, but I think there’s a lot more to him than that restrictive title bestows; as he has a lot more of the observational singer-songwriters Randy Newman’s and Northern Ireland’s finest, Bap Kennedy in his songs The Hammer, Street of Song and the fragile title track Atlantic Light. ATLANTIC LIGHT is a fully formed grown-up and even intelligent album, that needs the listener to close their eyes and listen intently to it’s contents; none more so than the song that has captured my heart and is therefore the RMHQ Favourite Song; Between The Day and Night. It’s a love song Jim; but not one as you know it. This is an Irish love song that captures the poetry of loving, losing and never giving up hope that no other nation can dream of writing in such a manner. Perhaps Friel’s ‘modern romanticism’ comes from being born in London to Irish parents; one from the South the other the North and then moving to to the Six Counties as a young child where he has since made a succesful career in radio; or perhaps it’s just in his genes.
Danny Schmidt Standard Deviation Live Once Records
A New Benchmark For American Folk Music?
I thought I was a fan of Danny Schmidt before this arrived at RMHQ in early January; but a week later I was was head over heels in love with not just his amazing voice; which now sounds like crushed velvet, but his fascinating, bright and strangely mature songwriting skills; which I’d more or less forgot about. As usual it was the opening chords to an opening song which caught my attention, as Schmidt’s guitar playing is sadly under valued; but it would be when he has so many other talents; and when he purrs his love song to his new baby in Just Wait Til’ They See You, I realised that I have no skill with words at all, compared to this man. “She holds my finger Like I hold my tongue.” Come on; can you describe such a love any better? Me neither. Danny Schmidt encapsulates every thing I love about singer-songwriters; he can take a myriad of unrelated subjects and put words and an intricate melody together to create a song that will touch the hearts of a million or more people around the world; and make it all appear so effortless. Prime examples are the love songs Black-Eyed Hole In Time, Bones of Emotion and the punch to the heart that is We Need a Better Word; which sounds like Schmidt must have immersed himself in James Taylor and Tom Paxton’s back catalogues before sitting down and writing this beauty. As with all music; people listen in different ways; and none are wrong (as long as you’ve paid up front!), and with Danny Schmidt’s honeyed voice and gentle guitar playing, coupled to some wonderful backing vocals and harmonies by a lovely young girl called Carrie Elkin (as well as the lovely lo-fi orchestral backing) make this album all too easy to take for granted and use as ‘background music’ on a Sunday afternoon; but then you would miss the clever and intelligent intricacy he inhabits the title track Standard Deviation and Mrs. Magpie’s Favourite Song, the bittersweet poetic drawl of Words Are Hooks, which surprised me, but when I think about it she occasionally does like songs she has to think about. Finding my own Favourite Track wasn’t easy at all; but after listening really intently this morning on the headphones, I’m going for the finest Folk Song I’ve heard in decades; Newport ’65, which took it’s ‘giveaway’ ghostly harmonica and Hammond B3 solos for the penny to drop that this beautiful song is actually about Bob Dylan’s groundbreaking performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and the effect it has had. I did say Danny Schmidt was a clever songwriter, didn’t I? This guy should write Spy Thrillers…… I would never guess ‘who did’ it until the last page. I hope, and even feel that this album could be a ‘game changer’ for Danny Schmidt; there’s more than enough songs here to catch the attention of Radio and TV people who still have the capacity to ‘make him into an over night sensation’ after all these year.
Released USA March 8th 2019 Released UK March 29th 2019
Serious Sam Barrett Where The White Roses Grow Ya Dig? Records
Americana Influenced Folk Music; Made In Yorkshire.
In theory I’m averse to this type of Traditional English, or in this particular case ‘Yorkshire’ Folk Music. (Did Sam mention he was from Yorkshire? He hardly ever mentions it.) But, Sam has been a regular visitor to the Jumpin’ Hot Club in Newcastle over the years and has somehow won me over to his distinctive and, it’s fair to say, evocative singing style. Sam’s first actual Solo album in three years opens with some sparkling banjo playing on the Americana flavoured title track Where The White Roses Grow, which owes more to the Hills of Kentucky than it does his normal hills and Dales of Yorkshire, which are the setting for many of his songs. Funnily enough that Americana flavour runs through Sam’s tale of the legendary Robin Hood in the Last of The Yorkshire Outlaws, and Sam’s lightning fast guitar picking really comes to the fore on this track too. The man most normally associated with Nottingham, makes another appearance; as does Barrett’s distinctive guitar picking style on the traditional Folk Song, Robin Hood & The 15 Foresters, which is sung with great passion and zeal too. Our Man from Addingham treads the a’cappella tightrope for the first time on record with the rather beautiful Holmfirth Anthem, which he learnt note for note from a Watersons LP many years ago and then closing the record with the plaintiff Darling Where You Are too . He picks up his guitar again for a song I myself learnt at Junior School half a century ago; and apart from a version by local legend George Welch I can’t think of anyone who has made Waters of The Tyne sound so evocative as when Sam Barrett sings in such a mournful manner. I suppose there are surprises around every corner here; especially the Bonaparte’s Love Song and Tennessee Line which both show how gifted Barrett is on a variety of acoustic instruments, and how his many visits to the US of A are now influencing his songwriting. A big part of me wanted to choose that local Folk Song as my favourite here, but in all honesty the powerful story of the Bramhope Tunnel Monument, is not just an absorbing history lesson but the type of crossover Folk song that leaves you quite speechless. Plus, Bramhope is an area I’ve visited many times and vaguely knew of this harrowing tale of how men’s lives where held in such little regard in the middle 19th Century. Possibly because of the Rootsy Americana edge to many of the intrinsically English Folk songs here, Where The White Roses Grow has meant I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this album and now I’m excited about seeing him on his tour to support this special release.
Reflective, Powerful and Heartfelt Folk that Occasionally Rocks.
Regular readers will know by now how much I like an eye-catching cover on my albums; and this one is so lovely I’d like it framed on the bedroom wall. Enough about my decorating tips, onward to the music! When it first arrived, all I knew about this album was that it was Matt Owens’ solo debut but a cursory look at the track listing and ‘artistes involved’ puzzled me…… especially the inclusion of Thea Gilmore, Michael Blair and Friend of RMHQ Sir Robert Vincent. Hmm, something suspicious here, methinks. Then a little extra research unearthed the fact that Matt Owens was actually the singer in Noah and The Whale! Not a band I actually know; but I certainly know of them. Thankfully, because of my ignorance this won’t and can’t be a ‘compare and contrast’ review…… just me talking about what I hear and how it makes me feel. There’s a delightfully warm majesty to opening track Lay Down Honey which lends itself to the commercial end of Indie-Folk (if such a thing exists) and has a pedal-steel sliding in and out of the big ole backing. I probably first fell in love with this album via second track Little Tornado. A rather fine and wordy love song with very, very clever imagery, about a wild and strong willed young woman; presumably the singers partner (?) but reminded me of a couple of women in my own life. For a singer-songwriter slash Folk album; there’s a big sound here via Nigel Stonier and Seadna McPhail’s production and mixing; which adds extra sparkle and life to relatively simple songs like the charming Piano at the Greyhound, American Girls in London and the subtly passionate title track, Whiskey and Orchids. Rob Vincent makes two guest appearances; first on Too Far Gone, another complicated and slightly twisted song of love and desire; and the other is one of two dark songs about Christmas time. This one; One Fuck of a Year will appeal to many of us who get tangled in the false bonhomie that abounds; when not everything around us is really shiny and rainbowish. Owens slides in some accurately sharp observations in every single line …… not one for Radio 2 by any means; but a contender for Song of the Year! Christmas Eve follows a similar starkly lit path; but is a lot more personal and come from the dark recesses of Owen’s battered heart. Choosing a Favourite Song for you hasn’t been easy (it very rarely is) but I’m going to toss a coin between two that use ‘sports’ as a metaphor. In Match Day Matt compares being in a band to supporting your football team; “She hates me going Gets me through the week Seems I’m fighting all For this losing streak When you get that feeling I should just stick to dreaming” It’s very maudlin, but very clever too and certainly tugs on the old heartstrings. This album couldn’t close with anything finer than Last Play of The Day, a haunting story of growing old that verges on poetry set to music. So, I’m going for the latter as my Favourite Track on this sublime album. It’s kind odd and perversely funny ‘discovering’ Matt Owens so late into his career; but this sounds and feels like a whole new chapter for him……… and hopefully an even more succesful one.
Various Artists Songs & Rhymes From The Mines (an East Midlands View) Trent Editions/Nottingham Trent University
A Glorious and Heartbreaking Collection of Coal Mining Stories, Songs and Poems.
I had big plans for today, and started off so well until this mysterious package arrived. To those who don’t know me very well wouldn’t understand why a book of poetry and local industrial history from a region in England quite alien to me, and it’s accompanying CD of Folk Songs (several are the finger in the ear variety) would a) interest me b) reduce me to tears several times c) make me as proud as Punch! Well, dear reader I come from three generations of Coal Mining stock dating back to the turn of the 20th Century and my own Father working down our village pit for nigh on 40 years, only disrupted by his time serving in the Navy during WWII; plus two brothers who also spent their best years hewing coal too. This project is part of Nottingham Trent University’s project to keep their local dialect alive while teaching schoolchildren of their heritage too. The CD is a complex mix of short stories, poems and old and relatively new songs about Coal Mining; with a couple already in my collection, from The Most Ugly Child, who’s intricate and beautiful My Pony which opens the CD, through my mate Al’s DH Lawrence Vaudeville Show ‘kitchen sink drama’ Sons and Lovers and the mighty Misk Hills Rambler III’s sadder than sad The Dance of the Miner and the powerful history lesson of When Coal Was King. There are plenty of songs here that tell very local stories from the East Midlands; but if you come from a similar community in NE England or the West Coast of Scotland or anyway in Wales; or even North America, Australia, Holland or Germany you can tape over the village in the song and replace it with your own on Bill Kerry’s anthemic Folk Song The Greatest Loscoe Miner and the sorrowful Annesley Headstocks sung by the King of Rome (who I must search out more from). The King of Rome turns up again with Tiny Giant, which reminded me so much of my own father’s story and alongside the haunting ballad The Deaths of Child Miners sung a’ Capella by Bill Kerry both had me blubbing as I listened while reading poems from the book. Choosing a Favourite Song isn’t fair on the others here; but choose one I must. It could easily have been Terry Faulkner’s heartbreaking and unaccompanied Working Man and perhaps should have been the beautiful Cob a’ Coalin’ by Jennifer Reid (trad. with additional lyrics by the Heyman Primary School) but with a deep breath I’m picking…….. John Stafford’s Mine Eyes; because it reminded me so much of the men my Dad sat and drank with in the Legion on a weekend; and yet again brought me to tears the first two times I played it. I’ve flicked through the book; and need more time to really devour everything here; but several poems tugged on my heartstrings like dead weights…… especially Mina Ahmed’s Because Nothing Comes Close, which is on the very first page and you can’t help getting a lump in your throat too reading Barry Harper’s Father of Mine, or especially the poignant The Striker’s Wife (1984). Perhaps the biggest (and best) surprise is reading the names of the people who wrote the poems. Several are actually ex-miners who had never previously been involved in anything like this but found great solace in putting their words onto paper and having strangers; educated ones at that telling them how good the work is. But; there are many family names here who obviously never worked down a pit, especially later Mina Ahmed (again) with her intricate and intuitive My Tiny Hands at Work and if I had to pick a Favourite Poem it would have to be The Bevin Boy by Sandhya Sharma; a wonderful tale of a 9 year old questioning a 92 year old about why people call him The Bevin Boy. Read it and weep! There are photos a’plenty too and some charming drawings from the children at Heymann Primary which will bring a smile to your face as they did mine. SONGS AND RHYMES will always have a special place in my heart and my collection; and I hope that someone will do a similar exercise in County Durham and Northumberland; but in fairness everyone has done such a quality job here…. it may not actually be necessary.
Gordie Tentrees & Jaxon Haldane Grit Greywood Records
A Sparkling Live Album From Two Wonderful Troubadours.
I remember being pleasantly taken aback by Gordie Tentrees 2015 offering, LESS IS MORE and here I am 3 years later taken aback again! Why? I guess it’s the timeless yet contemporary way Gordie alongside Jaxon Haldane build so much into their simple sounding Folk songs, which were recorded across five nights at gigs across Western Canada; so much so I found myself checking the CD cover several times to confirm that there really were only two people and their myriad of acoustic instruments were on each song. The opening song Armand, a Haldane/Tentrees co-write is powerful stuff indeed as Gordie sings about his friend the Dutch Folk-Singer and political activist Herman George van Loenhout aka Armand. Spiky and tender are very rarely used together; but that’s the best way to describe this thoughtful song. This the type of Singer-songwriter/troubadour fayre that I was first introduced to in the early 1970’s by my big brother Brian and even now it never fails to impress me the imagination and creativity musicians have to enable them to create songs like Bottleneck to Wire and the wonderful Holy Moly (not least for its musical-saw solo); both of which are older songs from Tentrees lovingly dusted off and tenderly sung for the delectation of people across the world. Some people think that these records are just slung together; but nothing could be further from the truth as the 2004 Tentrees song 29 Loads of Freight, which was inspired by his love for Fred Eaglesmith’s songs leads straight into the Tentrees/Eaglesmith co-write Craft Beards and Man Buns which in lesser hands could have been syrupy twee; but here it’s almost a protest song! Certainly the deadly duo seem to feel the same way about trendy-bendy things that some deem ‘cool’ annoy them as much as they do me. There are two ‘muso’ songs here too; well songs written about the sad and lonely life of the touring musician, and both will appeal to all of my musician friends, with Sideman being a 70 mph Bluesy blast on the banjo and National Steel and the sad ode to missing your children growing up, Junior will surely bring a tear to a bass players eye. Selecting my Favourite track here was a straight choice between a Willie P Bennett song Willie’s Diamond Blues, which is as sharp as a razor and as dark as night, and Tentree’s own smart, slick and savvy love song Lost; and I’m tempted to go for the latter as it’s the type of song I mostly associate with Gordie Tentrees (and now Jaxon Haldane too). Cleverly recorded with occasional applause and laughter, this album really does capture the magic that these two musicians create on stage; yet unlike ‘live albums’ of old won’t date.
Beautifully Intense, Eloquent and Just the Right Side of Melancholic Singer-Songwriter.
I don’t know an awful lot about Singer-Songwriter Dylan Rodrigue; but I’d love to meet his Dad. Apparently the family lived in a Hippy style, Yoga based community in Northern California, with the young Dylan being brought up on a diet of `’quiet, peaceful and introspective music’ until……. when he was aged 7 his Dad snuck a copy of Who’s Next into the kids bedroom! Let’s just say it changed his outlook on life! Leap forward to today and Dylan is now releasing his second full-length album of self-penned songs that criss-cross both genres from his early life discovering music. The opening song White Moon is a timeless and powerful four minutes that captures the attention and opens the door to a collage of musical delights. For me Rodrigue is very much at his best with an acoustic guitar in his hands, especially when the windswept production and ethereal harmonies combine on Some Kind Of Heaven and especially the red raw, articulate and introspective Living in Color which closes the album. Somewhere deep inside his chest I believe there’s a poets soul lurking; how else can you explain the delicate stories on Self Love and the fragile piano led, tearjerker Living This Way? Be under no illusions Dylan Rodrigue isn’t a self-pitying songwriter, these songs while deeply personal sound like they are for and about anyone and everyone; none more so than the Alt. Rocker Money Game, which had my car speakers shaking in the dashboard! Perhaps it’s the post-Christmas funk I’m in; but two songs have really touched my heart; it may have been the third or fourth time I played the album when It’s So Funny caught me unawares and Rodrigue’s world weary and pleading voice made me listen very intently to his words; and I felt blessed at discovering such a richly talented wordsmith. But it’s the other song, Minimize The Damage which has taken the title of RMHQ Favourite song on a rather excellent album. It’s certainly intense and just the right side of melancholic; but there’s also something darkly beautiful and empowering in the way Rodrigue fights back the tears as he pours out his shattered heart and dreams to only you (and me). Who knows if Dylan Rodrigue will go on to win a Grammy or earn a million dollars from his music; but what I do know is that everyone who buys Cat’s Game will cherish it for life.
This end of year Top 10 Albums malarkey is proving ever more difficult…….. so far we have posted 279 reviews covering Americana, Country, Alt. Country, Cow Punk, Soul, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Rock, Blues Rock, singer-songwriters, Folk, Alt. Folk, Nu-Folk, Ska AND Reggae! Each individual album is here on it’s very own merits and we wrote about them because we liked ’em and passionately believed they needed to be heard around the world (speaking of which…….. we had visitors from 371 different countries during 2018!!! 371???? I didn’t know that there was that many!) At one stage the spreadsheet for my Top 10 featured over 50 titles; such has been the quality of releases in 2018; but after a lot of deliberation and heartache, here is my own personal Top 20 albums that were released this year and each ‘surprised or fascinated’ me when I first heard them……….. sorry if you aren’t included.
Kim Richey – Edgeland
Malcolm Holcombe – Come Hell or High Water
Big Boy Bloater – Pills
Stephen Fearing – The Secret of Climbing
Curse of Lono – As I Feel
Gem Andrews – North
Ruby Boots – Don’t Talk About It
Bennett Wilson Poole – Bennett Wilson Poole
Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy
Prosecco Socialist – Songs From Behind Bars
Kid Ramos – Old School
John Hiatt – Eclipse Sessions
Susie Vinnick – Shake The Love Around
Abe Partridge – Cotton Fields and Blood For Days
Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore – Downey to Lubbock
So many albums to review and so little time has meant some absolute gems have fallen by the wayside this year; and this flawed diamond nearly followed suit; but even a cursory play in the car on a sunny afternoon over a month ago meant I knew that I had to come back to it sooner or later; as you need to hear this…..you really, really do. A haunting slither of what will probably be described as Alt. Folk in the mainstream press; actually follows in a long line of very intense, quintessentially English singer-songwriters starting with Nick Drake right through to the more recent Martin Longstaff aka Lake Poets. Luke opens his record with an instrumental, of sorts called From The Drove. A hybrid of background noises followed by some kind of acoustic guitar noodling brilliantly leads into the first actual song Snares & Traps. Not for the last time here I can picture the singer clenching his eyes closed as desperately stops himself screaming his very eloquent words out; painfully pouring his heart out alongside some very taught guitar playing. The mood picks up ever so slightly on Speak To Me; and here the guitar playing is almost Spanish in origin which gives this sad song quite an exotic texture, which I wasn’t expecting. The claustrophobic Rabbit Hole is tucked away in the middle; which has a lot going on behind William’s sorrowful voice, but never so much that it ever interferes with the song or indeed, words and story; because this is a song that the sad and lonely at this time of year should listen to……. or perhaps not. At only six tracks and five songs long; I felt a little bit cheated tonight as the brooding You Are The Captain filtered away; as this and especially the winsome, but delicately powerful Still In Bed, which is the RMHQ Favourite here more than hints at a talent that is on the cusp of blossoming into something very special indeed. I don’t know much about Luke James Williams as his e-mails have both been quite short and straight to the point; but in DROVE, from the very first time I played it; (in very much the wrong setting) gave me a shiver down my back, just like the first time I heard Nick Drake and The Lake Poets. As the hipsters would say “Luke James Williams is the Real Deal.”
Released 21st November 2018 http://www.lukejameswilliams.co.uk/
The Most Emotional Break-Up and Make-Up Album You Will Ever Hear.
It must have been 2011 or 12 when I first encountered Annie Dressner as a support act at the Jumpin’ Hot Club, sitting there mesmerised for the full 35 minutes or so of her set, and it’s stayed in my memory bank ever since.
Then we have to leap forward to a couple of weeks ago when she got in touch after a friend recommended RMHQ as a possible place to send her latest (and only second!) album BROKEN INTO PIECES.
It’s still not clear why the long wait; but when you hear opening track Fades Away and what follows, you will come to the conclusion that this is a nearly perfect album of love songs that describes the roller coaster of emotions we all feel from the powerful beginning to the (eventual) Break-Up album. Fades Away is a soft, gentle and heartbreakingly beautiful love song about the time it takes to get over a break-up that she didn’t see coming, and will leave you occasionally forgetting to breathe; as it did me as she purrs out the story.
What a stunning way to start an album.
Although the musical mood picks up in the melody on the next song couple of songs, starting with Don’t Go (25th July) the sentiment in the story is as dark and brooding as I’ve heard in years and sounds just perfect for radio as does Heartbreaker which has the killer line “There’s the smell of cigarettes seeping through the curtain door/as your mother made us dinner/made my favourite thing of all/but I won’t be back again.”
Dressner’s observations of the minutiae in a once passionate relationship are staggering at times; but as the adage goes….. ‘be very careful when you break up with a songwriter; they get to write songs about you that will last forever!’
It obviously wasn’t just Annie’s songs that captured my heart that night in Newcastle but her wonderfully expressive voice that has the warmth of Nanci Griffith coupled to the softer edges of Tift Merritt; and her songs follow a similar if even more intimate path than either at times.
While all of the songs here are pleasingly feminine in origin; of course they would be – she’s a woman! But the depth involved in songs like Over and Over, the winsome Paper Moon and Numbers will resonate with many men who have gone through the same type of complicated relationship; such is the way Annie’s genuine sensitivity keeps shining through.
Me? I’m in a very strong and stable relationship (41 years and counting) but I knew heartbreak as a young man and have seen friends and family crumble as complicated relationships go wrong; not everything is black and white. So we can appreciate and sympathise with where Ms Dressner is coming from on the tearjerkers Morning and more pertinently Falter which sort of sent a shiver down my spine.
The first time I played Kentucky I had to stop it half way through and go back to the start, just to confirm what my ears had heard. I’m not going to spoil the surprise or indeed twist in the tale; but tucking this song away in the middle is a very clever trick indeed.
Then, there is a song so clever and personal that it will get standing ovations whenever it is played in concert; which is why Bruise Beneath My Bones is my Favourite Track here. It, like many others isn’t actually an ‘easy listen’ and nor is it intended to be; but boy has it got a sting in the tale ….several in fact, as Annie goes into full on Tarantula mode to let him know how she really, really feels!
For an album that is probably on the Folkie end of the Americana spectrum BROKEN INTO PIECES has more S.O.U.L than anything you are going to hear from just about anyone else this year or many more to come.