A Comprehensive Collection of Sam Baker’s Songs, Played Live With No Safety Net.
I can’t remember exactly when I ‘got into’ Sam Baker. It was a while ago and probably one of his regular shows at the Jumpin’ Hot Club in Newcastle, I don’t think it was via an album. But now, like so many others I’m a bonafide acolyte of several years standing, poring over his every word and note. Mrs. Magpie can’t stand him! Right from the songs on his 2004 debut album Mercy, Sam deliberately sets out to challenge the listener in many ways, not least emotionally, and if you come out the other end unscathed you can count yourself a ‘fan’. While I can’t think of one, I’m still surprised that is Sam Baker’s first ever Live Album; especially as his concerts are invariably memorable in many, many ways; and that is the case with this raw and exciting performance which finds Baker completely alone on stage in Buffalo NY in July 2018 with just his guitar, harmonica and a wood board to click the timings on as his safety net . In fairness Baker could have opened the concert with just about any of songs and it would have been ‘nearly perfect’ so the biting lyrics that make up Boxes fits the bill perfectly. What follows is a comprehensive collection of songs from throughout the songwriter’s relatively short career; and while the studio versions may not fit together quite so appealingly, stripped back to bone and sinew Baker draws you into songs that were written over 10 years apart like Waves and the magnificent Same Kind of Blue sound like he’s somehow plucked them both from the ether earlier in the day and is performing them for the first ever time. In this particular format Sam Baker occasionally sounds like he must have been a Beat Poet in an earlier life, as he makes no attempt to ‘sing’ in the traditional manner; but that just makes Angel Hair and Broken Fingers even more intensely beautiful and articulate than ever. With so many great songs to choose from across his career to fit in I can understand why they’ve had to edit out most of the applause and all of the ‘stories behind the songs’ which is a bit of a loss as they are integral to any Sam Baker show ……. would a Double Album have killed you? Hey ho, that’s only a tiny criticism; as what is here has made choosing virtually impossible as each and every one could and should be my Favourite Track; how can I not choose Mennonite? Come on ……. Odessa? But, it’s a song for our times! Sorry, but I’m going for a song that is an essential inclusion in any Baker gig; Iron from that very first album Mercy and is sadly still as relevent today as it was way back then. I can’t think of a better way to start your own discovery of Sam Baker and his songs than this album; if you come out the other end unscathed you are going to absolutely love his studio albums!
Harry Harris I Feel Drunk All The Time Self-Release
Scottish Americana that Criss-Crosses Indie, Folk-Rock and Classic Folk.
It seems like 100 years ago that I reviewed Harry Harris’ debut album (2010) for a magazine (which shall remain nameless!) and out of nowhere he got in touch a couple of weeks ago asking if I’d give his latest and 3rd release an airing. Well dear reader, a lot has happened to young Harry in the intervening years; he no longer resides in Wales….. now it’s Ye Olde Edinburgh where he sells himself as a singer/songwriter/journalist now; where the latter job includes RMHQ Favourites Nylon, Vice, Mundial and more. While I vaguely remember the first album as being on the cusp of the Folk bracket; now I’ve played I FEEL DRUNK ALL THE TIME quite a few times I’d definitely now describe him as being an all encompassing Singer-Songwriter as the songs here are a lot more rounded and contemporary with a foot in several camps, starting with the powerful Marathon; a deep, dark and brooding tale that uses that ‘sport’ as a metaphor for dear life itself; and it manages to tick a lot of Americana and Post-Indie boxes too. Perhaps the use of a saxophone in the Memphis gives it a hint of Grown-Up Blue Eyed Soul; but don’t think you can really dance to it; as it’s the type of song you will find yourself wallowing in late at night while you try to mend a broken heart with a bottle of wine. Harris’ songwriting is universal, and as this album more or less came about following the death of his best friend at an unfeasibly young age; everyone will find not just solace but a kinship in Bloodletting and the title track itself I FEEL DRUNK ALL THE TIME, and the gently rolling guitar in the latter l take your breath away. For a Welshman; there’s a distinct Scottishness to the whole album; as it sounds like it couldn’t have been written or recorded anywhere else with the starkness of Things John Hated and Free Italian Food managing to take melancholy into a stratosphere originally inhabited by Donovan and Bert Jansch but more latterly Eddi Reader and Kris Drever. When you have such a rich and expressive voice as Harry has, ‘Folk Music’ is always going to be the first thing you think of; the bouncy Deadliest Warrior and All My Worst Ideas (both with a band in tow) criss-cross Indie, Folk-Rock and even the latest wave of Scots-Americana with ease and indeed, rhetoric. To a greater or lesser degree I FEEL DRUNK ALL THE TIME has caught me ‘at the right time’ as my ‘head hasn’t been in the best of places recently’ and one song in particular caught me off guard and has had me going back to it again and again; making the bucolic and brittle Making a Go Of This my Favourite Song here; although the off-kilter subject matter may not appeal to everyone; but the sentiment will keep you coming back peeling away the layers until you crumble like house built on sand too. It may sound odd calling this collection of deeply personal dark and brooding songs a ‘pleasant surprise’; but it has been as Harry Harris is a mighty fine songwriter and singer too; and I’d have been very disappointed if I’d missed this rather beautiful and brittle album.
While not normally a fan of ‘traditional Folk’ music; Scots singer-songwriter Karine Polwart holds a special place in our hearts at RMHQ. So we are delighted to bring you her new video for ‘Chance’ ; the latest track plucked forth from her upcoming album ‘Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook’ – a curation of covers spanning 50 years of Scottish pop, from John Martyn to Chvrches & Biffy Clyro. The LP follows her widely-praised live set of the same name at 2018 Edinburgh International Festival, and will be released Aug 2.
This is a sparkling re-imagining of Dunfermline’s Big Country’s classic track, an immortal band for many Scots growing up at the same time as their sweeping, mobilising sound and Stuart Adamson’s especially gritty lyricism – Karine included. “Big Country transformed Thatcherite brutality into melancholic anthems, on guitars that reeked of bagpipes’” says Karine; “Their cinematic narratives nailed the emotional fallout of abandoned shipyards and factories – Big Country documented their own people and place, in the way that folk songs everywhere do.”
Karine has a particular affinity towards ‘Chance’, after her experiences working for Scottish Women’s Aid charity supporting victims of domestic abuse. “‘Chance’ is – as I read it – about getting pregnant too young, about domestic abuse and unemployment, which was all around me growing up in the Thatcher era. There’s this undercurrent of despair and violence.”
I don’t know where to start? Kete Bowers’ back-story I presume; as being born on the banks of the River Mersey and leaving home when the last ‘years of austerity’ in the North bit hard; and subsequently marrying and divorcing colour his songwriting like a very fine black permanent marker. Even getting this album recorded was fraught with despair; as a financial backer disappeared without trace days before the original recordings were to start. But being the dogged character he is, Bowers sent out even more e-mails and a Canadian record label picked up the challenge alongside Michael Timmins from Cowboy Junkies agreed to be Producer too. So; hopefully you’re not expecting a happy go-lucky collection of dance tracks after that are you? The stone cold beauty of this collection of songs is the combination of Bowers’ heartfelt and often gut-wrenching songwriting with a distinctively rich voice and Timmins trademark crisp production that forces the listener to listen intently to every damn word and chord progression. Northern Town which starts the album and sets the mono-tone was originally conceived as a commentary about living in and eventually leaving Birkenhead between 1976 and 81; but sadly could have been written any time in the last 5 years as it’s just as pertinent and observational today in 2019. It’s no surprise at all to find each and every song is desperately person in tone, word and deed with each and every one being tragically beautiful too; with A Place By The River and Ghosts visiting themes many others have attempted to capture; but never in such an extraordinary manner as Bowers uses his words and Timmins his magic touch on the emotional dashboard. It’s a long time since I heard anyone use their voice in this deeply sensitive way to convey their feelings from the very pits of their soul, as Kete does on A Fine Day To Leave and later on You Stole My Joy, which uses imagery in a way I would normally associate with film directors Ken Loach and Shane Meadows. As this is only Bowers second ever album, and nine years after the first it’s unlikely you will ever have heard of him before this review; but I will throw a couple of names into the ring as to whom he reminds me of; Canadian Stephen Fearing and legendary English Folk Singer Ralph McTell; a strange combination, I agree …… but listen and tell me I’m wrong. Normally I would avoid a ‘single’ as my Favourite Track; but Winner is such an emotional and heartbreaking narrative; sung with raw passion how could I select anything else? We all know talent isn’t enough on it’s own to become succesful these days; but Kete Bowers just needs a smidgen of good luck and a couple of TV appearances to make this album into some kind of chart hit for this exceptional singer-songwriter.
In a week when I’ve reviewed albums by Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and Chuck Mead, this latest release by English singer-songwriter Paul McClure has possibly excited me more than all of those releases by household names. While I’m truly flattered for my opinion to be considered by those record companies; it’s the likes of Paul that makes this reviewing malarkey worth while. I had to stop doing what I was doing and start the CD again when I first heard the deeply personal and brittle opening song The Morning and My Love, which finds McClure pouring his heart out while he plays a piano in what sounds like an empty room. Just like that first song there’s an intensity and deep felt pain in several other songs here; even though the pace picks up on Sing To The Stars and This Is What They Mean (When They Sing About The Blues) which kick what we normally think of as Folk Music into a ditch, as McClure criss-crosses traditional genres with ease. Unlike Paul McClure on title track Market Town, I couldn’t wait to leave my original Home Town as a young man; moving 10 miles away to a shiny new dormitory town; which I’ve lived in for 40 years so can empathise with his deep held love he has for the Market Town he has never left and will fight to the death anyone who would ever criticise it! There are joys a’plenty in the characters in songs like Sing To The Stars; about an old chap McClure met at a gig and got around to telling the songwriter that his biggest regret had been been working day and night to put food on the table; but it had meant he missed his kids growing up; and McClure manages to get that pathos across in every line and stanza. As a died in the wool ‘romantic’ selecting a Favourite Song was quite easy, with the charming Grandad’s Pants just getting pipped at the post by Daddy Will You Hold My Hand. ‘Swoon’ McClure’s story swept me back to my own days as a young father; but also made my heart swell as I thought of my two sons and their own children as Paul McClure with Ally McErlaine supplying slide-guitar tug and squeeze at the listeners heartstrings like a hand in a velvet glove. While we get excited by the romantic imagery conjured up by our American and Americana friends; Paul has gone back to what he knows best ……. living, loving and working in an English Market Town; and his personal songs will catch the attention of even our friends across both the North Sea and the Atlantic because each and everyone of these tiny stories are actually International and deserve such a widespread audience.
A Charity Album That Goes Way Beyond The Average Call of Duty.
As my Mother used to say, “There’s no such thing as a bad charity.” But, the way the Western World is these days far too many people are depending on Charity and Charities for everything from Cancer Research right through to basic necessities like food. RT Projects is based in the beautiful Durham City and cares for people in the local area who suffer from Anxiety and Depression using ‘Art To Save Lives’ and baring my own history, how could I not agree to listen to this album that is designed to both raise funds and awareness? The artistes involved are all from the North of England and all are associated with our friends and Music Promoters LeftFieldDurham aka Down By The River; with some being more famous than others but who have all donated their songs free of charge, as have the acts performing at the Launch Party in Durham City on June 1st. The first song here, Someday I Won’t Feel So Strange comes from Scott Wainwright’s 2015 album STRANGERS HERE, and features his warmly gruff voice and some really neat slide guitar on a song that builds and builds until it becomes quite Gospellish by the end; and made me realise why he has been causing ripples across the local pond for a few years now. I’ve not heard of Lee Maddison who immediatly follows with his passionate modern Rootsy Song; Crying In The Wind but; alongside quite a few others here, will certainly check him and his band Maddison’s Thread out in the next few weeks. That’s the strength of albums like this for me; sometimes I can put music to names I’ve only heard of; such as George Boomsma and his pleasantly brooding Brother of Mine and local Folkstess Natalie Stern with Queen Bee who certainly lives up to the hyperbole that a friend described her with following a recent gig in Newcastle. Then there are some brand new acts who with only one carefully selected song have managed to not just pique my interest; but in the case of Raghad Haddad and Sam Slatcher’s semi-classical baroque instrumental Under Ancient Skies and later Simon Wood and Tamara Kazziah’s almost choral and hauntingly beautiful lo-fi Gallo Negro…… totally blown me away! Both of these tracks are well worthy of inclusion in some dark and disturbing psychological drama on the TV. On another day The Violent Chimes (whose combined history goes back to my own heady Punk days!) Post-Teenage Fanclub missive Falling Granite would deserve to be my Favourite Song here; as would the fabulous Thomasina by the legendary Martin Stephenson or, of course Lungs by Gem Andrews; of whom my love has been unrequited for far too many years (Mrs. Magpie knows btw.) An awful lot of thought has gone into the selection of each song here; with some being more ‘literal’ than others, with Steve Pledger’s very dark and personal Me and the Silence emanating memories of John Martyn circa Solid Air and just about anything from The Lake Poets! Another is the haunting Swallow Song by Peg Prowler; a Folk Band from the People’s Republic of Teesside who have donated an incredibly clever and thoughtful song, that will played out in total silence whenever played in concert; I’m sure. But, I’m going with two songs by artists I’d not heard of last Saturday but both of whom I intend championing with a loudhailer over the next few weeks. The Kets are the on/off brainchild of Peterlee song-smith Michael Arnell and his/their song Things is the sort of cool, articulate poppy-Indie Folk I’ve spent a fortune on over the years; yet here is a proud purveyor on my very own doorstep. T’other is the lusciously constructed Lilac Time by Anne-Marie Sanderson; a classic Folk song that will stop you dead in your tracks; and deserves a bigger audience than I can supply. Over to you at BBC 6 Music and BBC Newcastle! The title track, written and performed especially for this project by Steve Pledger and artist Beano, will send a shiver down your back as the duo tell of the artist’s own struggle with the darker edges of life; as do many of us ……. sometimes silently. This song and, indeed this whole album is for them.
Joy Williams Front Porch Sensibility/Thirty Tigers
A Modern Day Classic That Weaves a Colourful Tapestry of Emotions.
When I received this CD last week the name Joy Williams was familiar; but I couldn’t quite place a face to the name, so it’s sat in the pile on the desk waiting for an opportunity to go into the office CD player. Time has been of the essence, so it wasn’t until today when I was heading for the hills to clear my head, that it went into the car alongside two others I felt could be worth a listen. Suffice to say the other two are still unheard and I’ve rushed home to write about Joy Williams’ second solo release ………. since leaving the Civil Wars. DOH! Of course that’s where I knew her name from and it only took thirty seconds of opening track Canary for the penny to drop. What a way to start a new record; haunting, ethereal and crystal clear production all combine with some really imaginative lyrics to not just pull at your heartstrings but stir your Soul too. In theory this type of music shouldn’t be the perfect accompaniment for a car journey; but songs like When Does a Heart Move On and Hotel St. Cecelia felt like old friends giving me a hug; although they were actually strangers meeting me for the first time. For an acoustic album that errs on the side of American Folk with an acoustic Country edge there’s not just a lot going on the words of each song; but the emotions that they create defy the simplicity of Kenneth Patengale’s production. Several songs here are quite stunning; and even breathtaking the first time that you hear them (occasionally the second and third time too) with The Trouble With Wanting and When Creation Was Young both sounding like I will need to sit with my headphones on to get the very best out of them, as they are sure to unravel even more as time dictates. First and foremost you will be swept away by Joy William’s pearlescent voice, which when she reaches for the high notes doesn’t as much ‘hit them’ as catch them and caress them into submission …… which I’ve only ever heard opera singers do before. Being as contrary as I am, I try to avoid title tracks or singles as my Favourite Song; but here you can’t get past Front Porch as the one and only Favourite as it will just sweep you away as it has me (I repeated it 7 times at one stage; like a lovesick teenager!). It’s one of those songs that will mean something different to everyone who hears it; and they won’t all be wrong; just not necessarily correct with their personal interpretation ….. that’s how great a song it is. The album is neatly tied up with the short and sweet closing song Look How Far We’ve Come; which is the nearest to a Country song that’s here and even then it has a gorgeous Gospel edge to it if you listen carefully. I’m a ‘man of a certain age’ and I ‘get it’, in the exact same way that I ‘got’ Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ nearly half a century ago; and it’s no stretch of the imagination to compare this album to those two Classics in my opinion; but what I fear is that there could/will be a lot of pretentious twaddle in reviews by the hard-line Feminist Movement when they hear Front Porch. Yep; there is a definite femininity to each song here and pulled together they create an album that women of all ages will love and cherish and try to decipher; but trust me…….. music loving men will cherish these songs just as much.
Captivating Lo-Fi Folk From a Windswept Irish Poetic Songwriter
Regulars will know how much stead I hold first tracks in as a signal for how much I’m going to like an album; well thankfully (for me) my trusty old I-Phone 5 stumbled on two other beautiful and charming tracks yesterday which drew me to this debut album from Co. Cork singer-songwriter Anna Mieke. Now I’m in for the long haul the rather claustrophobic opening track Parallel isn’t quite the Dolores O’Riordan ‘sound-alike’ I first thought it was, and would have dismissed a wonderful album far too quickly, because of my shallowness! The song actually captures the ethereal essence of this young singer, her stories and her wonderful voice in the most contemporary of manners. If I’m going to continue using The Cranberries as a counterpoint; any youngster listening to songs like Aurillac and Warped Window on IDLE MIND for the first time will undoubtedly have the same feelings of hearing a really special talent in its infancy just like we did when we heard NO NEED TO ARGUE for the first time; this is a voice that will change lives! The two songs that my phone found for me, Arbour and Keep It Whole are both quite ethereal and possibly even Lo-Fi in a poetic Irish kind of way and will insist that you take time out of your hectic day to actually listen to every word, note and chord progression without any other distractions. I’m no longer sure an album like this needs singles to promote it; and the two that have already been released (Arbour and Parallel) don’t sound like anything I ever hear on Smooth or Magic FM! Then there is The Whole One, which is coming out to coincide with the album release and gets to sit alongside the title track Idle Mind as joint RMHQ Favourites; as back in the dark ages I can imagine John Peel, Johnnie Walker and the youthful Bob Harris all falling in love with both, as I have and force feeding them to students and young lovers snuggled up in their bedsits. Please let there be someone with a wireless show that is brave enough to play these poetic missives to a new generation of starry eyed teens. The album closes, as it starts with two songs in a similar manner. If and Epitaph allow the listener to delve deep into their psyche (and possibly Anna’s too?) trying to unravel her words which could have come from immersing herself in Yeats, Heaney and O’Conner (of course) before plucking up the courage to write her own powerful and challenging songs. It’s all too easy to file this album under Folk; it is, but there’s so much more here in the way Anna Mieke creates her compositions and delivers them in a way that both ardent feminists and grumpy old men will be able to enjoy equally as well.
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