A Sensitive and Powerful Collection of Perspectives on the Nature and Treatment of Refugees.
At the core of this release is probably the song which is least explicitly about refugees – “Humble;” nestled away three-quarters of the way through the album. Here, the album’s genesis lies within – suffering from a year long illness caused by a gas leak in her apartment, forced Diana Jones to realise that “Life made you humble – all the living and dying,” and faced with the media demonization of those who seek home and safety, arose the inspiration for the album. Jones’ survival instinct mirrors that of those who seek to escape war and to find peace and she speaks “to” them to address negative media portrayals. The album opens with the Marty Robbins feel of “El Chaparral” – but darker lyrically because of its current subject matter – about one of the key crossing points on the Mexican/American Border, where infants were forced into squalid conditions away from their families. Jones’ isn’t afraid to use pathos and personal stories to trigger an emotional response in the listener – the Scottish air of the title track “Song For a Refugee” doubles the emotional layers in musical mood and lyrics with its wish that “May you be happy and full and grow old” – a loving wish for safety, as “None of us know where our footsteps will fall”. “Where We Are” takes the voice of a dispossessed child with “Number 47 on my shirt, on my arm” and “Santiago”, with its plaintive fiddle explodes the stories that arise out of the small details of personal possessions. Elsewhere, Jones uses the voices of refugees – stories from her encounters and friends and from news coverage – “Mama Hold Your Baby” uses old time fiddle and banjo to recount Elizabeth Warren’s passed on tale of a Guatemalan mother who’d carried her baby to the border, reflecting both the horror and strength in such a story. “I Wait For You” and “The Life I Left Behind” both speak with the voice of the refugee looking back on their former home. In the former, it’s the tale of a Sudanese woman forced to marry at 13, who, having escaped is now waiting – and hoping – to be reunited with her children, whereas in the latter, the refugee in their new land looks back at the destruction of their place of origin with sadness – both songs united by a Joan Baez-like musical delivery. “The Sea Is My Mother” and “Love Song To a Bird” both take differing aspects of refugees at sea – in “The Sea Is My Mother” there’s a “Dream of peace and something more / waiting on a distant shore” and the path to that destination is the sacrifice of family. “ Love Song to a Bird” takes the detached view of the refugee boat from above and the distance amplifies the danger of the journey – musically in both lyrics are to the fore, with largely fingerpicked guitar leaving the lyrics out front. One of the more uptempo numbers is “Ask a Woman”, which befits the positivity that the song proposes – set to a gentle country “boom-chick” rhythm, the strength of mothers and women are held up as being worthy of inspiration – not criticism, “Ask a woman – with a child in her arms.” “We Believe You” – has been the lead out track to the album in the media and it contains a loud message about the importance of belief and empathy in the refugees’ stories. Steve Earle/Richard Thompson/Peggy Seeger all take turns on vocals -the symbolism being that it isn‘t just one person believing in their stories of why they are fleeing – but “we”. The repeated title becomes a mantra to consolidate that message – it’s going to be a festival rabble rouser for years to come. The album ends, quite fittingly with “The Last Words” – Diana Jones talks of the shared experience of refugees and non-refugees “The stillness and the shadows come to steal our loved ones away” – we all seek safety and home and the refugees message is a Universal Message – we want home, safety and all that comes with it. I’d vote for that. In this album, Diana Jones has taken what could have been a one issue topic and exploded it wide, exploring viewpoints and narratives in and around the issue of refugees and putting the lyricism and poetry of those stories to the fore.
Grant Lee Phillips Lightning Show Us Your Stuff Yep Roc
A Perfect Musical Storm For 2020
At face value I’ve never known how succesful Grant Lee Phillips has been across his long and varied career. His albums always get favourable reviews in the ‘heavy hitting’ music media; and the three albums I already own are all easily on a par with with anything I own by his contemporaries; yet I don’t think I know anyone else who owns them; and he hardly ever, if ever at all gets mentioned in Top 10’s or essays by esteemed and knowledgeable journalist types. Perhaps we should refer to him as ‘under the radar’; but and you have to trust me here; that’s doing a great songwriter with a beautifully distinctive singing voice a huge disservice. Now; I’ve got that off my chest ……. onto the music! The first thing that caught my attention on the opening track, Ain’t Done Yet is the windswept melody, which somehow mixes a shuffling N’Orleans back-beat with some neat swinging Native American style drumming. Then of course there’s Phillips’ razor-sharp lyrics that are exactly what they say on the tin; he Ain’t Done Yet! Like most, but not all of his previous releases; there’s a melancholic yet ‘laid back’ feel to the album; with Leave a Light On or Lowest Low and especially Coming To being the type of song for kicking the shoes off for, and just wallowing in the hidden depths to Phillips’ personal stories. While very personal to him, songs like Lowest Low and Straight to The Ground will resonate with a great many people, especially in 2020. I suppose finer and more articulate writers than myself would describe Mourning Dove (which I had originally logged as Mourning Dave!) and the Lo-Fi grunge-Gospel of Gather Up as being about the ‘human condition’; which I would heartily agree with, if I really knew what it meant. To me, they are both crackling good songs tear at the heartstrings when your not watching! I first received this album 4 or 5 weeks ago; just at the end of ‘lockdown’ and played the hell out of it for three days; as it perfectly fit my mood – part relieved, part delirious and part reflective; and that’s where I’m going back to for the two songs I’m torn between for as my Favourite Tracks; the delicate and beautiful Sometimes You Wake Up in Charleston and Walking in My Sleep. I doubt when Grant wrote these songs he knew that they would be played as a Global Plague was still terrorising the world; but they are and the piano and tsch-tsch drums on his Randy Newmanesque Sometimes You Wake Up in Charleston just captured my innermost feeling so perfectly as the pathos in his metaphorical tale seem to flit between real life and fantasy. Walking In My Sleep, on the other hand is ‘definitive’ Grant Lee Phillips; swirling and strummed guitar shadowing his warm and road weary voice; as a pedal-steel occasionally drifts in and out like a prairie breeze on a Summers evening. Obviously everyone hears different things in music; and Grant Lee Phillips may not agree with what I’ve said about some of his songs; but when his young daughter said “Come on lightning, show us your stuff!” neither he nor her realised the perfect musical storm that they were instigating; and it is just that.
Emily Barker A Dark Murmuration of Words Thirty Tigers
An Intimate and Philosophical, Eco-aware Collection Focused on the Nature of Home and Self.
Following on from her last Memphis recorded album “Sweet Kind of Blue” Emily Barker has taken a more reflective, introspective yet outward looking turn on “A DARK MURMARATION of WORDS.” Opener “Return Me” sets the musical tone that is (largely) to follow with close-mic-ed guitar and vocals alongside brushed percussion, where she asks the question “I’ve been gone so long/Will you come?” a question that is both personal and universal in that it is about reconnecting with individuals and the natural world to find an emotional home-base. A sense of place and its effect on the individual is explored in “Geography” where a crystal pure vocal states that “home is where the heartlines meet.” The album title “A Dark Murmuration of Words” is name-checked too, reflecting how we are emotionally moved around by the effects of experience and place. “The Woman Who Planted Trees” which follows, is one of several tracks that deal with issues of earthly regeneration and caring for the only home we’ve got. “I can tell my age by the height of trees” is both a measure of ecological and maternal care for nature, but it also sounds a warning due to the fact that there has to be proactive action to grow them. The worst-case scenario of ignoring such issues is painted vividly in the post-apocalyptic regret of “Where Have The Sparrows Gone.” Electronic percussion and keyboards underline the fact that “took too much from the ocean/took too much from the earth” and tremulous vocal lines towards the end of the song emphasise the sadness and anger if such events were to unfold. “Strange Weather” is set further back on the same timeline and is a lyrical discussion of the difficulty in bringing new life into a world that’s diseased; “Hello to an angel we are yet to know”. The uncertainty of what lies ahead is seen in the deliberately mixed tense of “I get nostalgic for the future of children in the woods the peace of wild things” and an aching for “the beautiful places we thought would always last” the solution being that “We all need each other to survive.” “Machine” is a huge musical shift in tone – mechanical percussion and screeching, discordant guitar frame a deconstruction of the capitalist myth – the song’s voice declares that “I’m a celebrated sinner” who has “Justified my action by anthropology” and created systemic exploitation by class and race “this machine runs on its own”. Hope is voiced though as “a crack has appeared” that gives a glimmer of a future where the earth won’t die. The industrial construct which separates us from nature is explored in “When Stars Cannot be Found” , even in the midst of the metaphorical and literal city we can get closer to nature and thereby ourselves if we “turn the lights off” disconnect from the modern world and its clutter and get back to our truer, natural selves. What if we’ve systemically become strivers and achievers though and are caught up in the game and find it hard to do? Following track “Ordinary” explores that issue – many of us are “Doing anything to keep from being ordinary” but is it because we are wanting connection and feel that to achieve that “wanted you to see me as someone more than ordinary?” if we have “finally begun” “to see the beauty in things ordinary” finding beauty in that which surrounds us, then we escape the chase and have greater chance of being at peace. In “Any More Goodbyes” there’s an end of summer feel about living in the moment caught between the idea that “Whoever thought that this summer’s day would end?” and “I’m not ready for any more goodbyes.” Shared experience allows living in the moment- “Swallow my skin come drown with me” – endings are inevitable but there’s a way of doing them right. The album ends with a philosophical piano ballad on the nature of existence – a sonogram creates a picture by reflection of sounds against solidity – “We’re Cells and Water Like Every Living Thing,” but the picture we create is shaped by how we react – it’s our actions that spread into and shape the picture of the world we see and create our – and the world’s – identity. It’s a fittingly philosophical conclusion to a collection which takes on the big issues of self, home, nature, evolution and revolution and captures fragile moments in our current time and makes us query where we want ourselves and the world to go.
Oh Susanna Sleepy Little Sailor Deluxe Edition MVKA Records
Bonus Laden Re-Release With Six Gorgeous Extra Acoustic Tracks
Originally released in 2001, Oh Susanna’s “Sleepy Little Sailor” gets a worthy re-release with 6 added extra tracks. “River Blue” and “Kings Road” have been newly recorded with producer Jim Bryson, while “Sleepy Little Sailor”, “Sacrifice” and “Beauty Boy” are taken from the original demo sessions with producer Colin Cripps. The re-release is sequenced with the original album appended by the acoustic bonus tracks. In the almost twenty years since the initial release, the songs and production have stood up well – the Country Soul of the Otis Redding cover “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” sounds timeless in both style and execution. “King’s Road” with its descending “Passenger” riff is as vivacious as ever and the mid album trio of “All That Remains”, “Beauty Boy” and “Sacrifice” show off Suzie Ungerleider’s soaring vocals. “Ted’s So Wasted” mines territory more recently explored by the likes of Jaime Wyatt, whereas the intimacy of “St.Patrick’s day” and “Ride On” foreshadow the ethereal dream country pop of Erin Rae. The acoustic tracks begin with the title track and the close-mic-ed guitar and warm production make more of a showcase of Suzie’s vocal – and beautiful it is too. Original demo “Sacrifice” benefits from reverb-washed guitar and shows off Suzie’s silky soulful vocal depth. “Beauty Boy” possibly surpasses the original as the sparseness of the acoustic version gives it a gravitas beyond the full recording. Re-recorded “River Blue” is closer in tone to the original studio recording with trebly strummed/picked guitars – “King’s Road” is given a slower performance than the studio original and a bit more jangle plus a single note underscored beat. Final bonus track “You Win Again” is the Hank Williams’ classic – and taking the Jerry Lee Lewis soulful approach to the song, Suzie’s yodelling slides and the use of space gives the song emotional urgency. Seventeen tracks in total – if you don’t own the original release, this Deluxe Edition is an absolute no-brainer – if you were one of the wise folks who’s already invested in the original, then the gorgeous bonus tracks are a delight and add both perspective to the original recordings while standing alone as interesting re-interpretations.
Benjamin Adair Murphy LET’S MAKE A KING Self-Release
21st Century Subversive, Exciting and Very, Very Relevant Folk and Blues Protest Songs.
YIKES! I wasn’t expecting anything like THIS! Benjamin Adair Murphy is one of those artists that seems to flit around the world making music for an ever growing fan base without ever coming near to touching the mainstream; and that’s the mainstream’s loss! YIKES x TWO! Opening track Your Gun made my jaw drop the first time I played it a week ago. Phew, Adair doesn’t hold back on his Waitsian Rap about gun-control, or more poignantly ……. the lack of gun-control in the US of A. Sitting here in the comfort of my Northern English home, I’m left wondering why no one else has written so powerfully on this subject so close to America’s heart. Adair manages to address many other 21st Century ‘issues’ in a way that’s not always comfortable, but always accessible. One Hundred Pills Per Person and The White Man Gets Things Done are exactly what you’d expect to hear from reading the titles; but add a band that sounds like it has been force fed Zappa and Beefheart 24/7 and you get real Grown Up Rock Music that will frighten your Granny! I keep wanting to say Adair’s writing style is Poetic; but the more I listen the more I think he’s been influenced by Old School Hip-Hop …….. but co-opted it into the left of centre Blues and Rock fields. Nothing is ever straight forward; even the slow and moody acoustic tracks Back Pocket Blues and Teach The Christians are multi-layered and down right emotional, and will be interpreted quite differently by each and everyone who hears them. While never sounding like a parody, the Tom Waits ‘style’ of singing/talking comes across regularly here; and it is actually quite refreshing and brings out the nuances in Let’s Make a King and the stinging Alabama Goddam! like no other style could even dream of producing. While 99.999% of music fans will never hear Same Kind of Fascist, I think it should be played on daytime radio across the Western World each and every hour for the next ten years. Just saying. It’s fair to say Woody Guthrie will be proud of young Mr.Murphy for daring to not just write and record this missive; but actually release it into the wild too. Whenever I hear albums like this; and they are more common than you’d imagine …….. I always go back to the interview when Neil Young whinged and whined that no younger artists were writing protest songs any more; he obviously doesn’t get to hear the likes of Benjamin Adair Murphy when he sings the arse off U.S Custody, set to a stark yet melodic Native American melody and totally capturing the current zeitgeist. If you have got your breath back, the only thing left is my Favourite Track, which is an odd moniker on an album as deep, dark and angry as this …….. but Stupid Followed Evil is a really special song; combining the best of everything here, from the Hip-Hop melody through Zappa and Waits but distilling the very soul of Woody Guthrie in such a contemporary manner that will have them dancing in the aisle while raising a clenched fist in the air! In his accompanying letter Benjamin mentions his love of the Blues and how he keeps returning to it in his music. Well, that’s not always obvious; but that’s why I’ve had the album on heavy rotation this week ……… it is a Blues album at heart; but excitingly different and adventurous in many ways and never ever ‘obvious’, apart from the messages he tries to get across.
Singles? Really? Do they still have a place? Hopefully, yes and judging by the amount we get sent every week …….. singles may just be as popular as ever. Sadly, because of time and space constrictions at RMHQ we have to dismiss 95% without even listening to them …. as we are predominantly an Albums site; so when we do promote a single it has to be very, very special. And anything the combination of Ben Harper & Rhiannon Giddens put on vinyl has to be special, doesn’t it? So, when the dynamic duo record their version of Nick Drake’s Black Eyed Dog (which has always been a bit of a secret favourite around these here parts) well ……. it’s spine-tingling to say the least; but we will let you decide.
“I’ve always wanted to cover ‘Black Eyed Dog’, but the song was intimidating in its haunted perfection,” Harper says. “Only through collaborating with Rhiannon would I have ever attempted it. When I step back from it, this collaboration should’ve happened long ago, but I’m thrilled that it’s finally here.”
The Daintees SALUTATION ROAD (30th Anniversary) Lilac Tree Records
Teenage Angst Rekindled As Tender Middle-Aged Modernism.
I’m not sure if re-recording Salutation Road is the bravest decision Martin G Stephenson has ever made in his career; or the most bleedin’ obvious! The original album is still held in reverential terms by the singers loyal fans; yet I doubt he has sung any of these songs in their original format in the last 29 years! So, with the 30th Anniversary approaching Martin gathered the Dunn brothers Anth and Gaz alongside drummer extraordinaire Shayne Fontaine in a studio in downtown Airdrie, Scotland and has somehow managed to rekindle the original excitement that these songs produced way back when; but instill them all with thirty years of wisdom and reincarnations from all those concerts in-between recordings. There’s bound to be some trepidation when you first press ‘play’; but all worries are instantly cast aside when you hear Martin’s road worn and honeyed voice almost sighing the words to Spoke in The Wheel; and the warmth that the quartet produce is actually quite astounding. Fans will recognise every song here; but it’s best in my opinion to treat this as a brand new album; as ‘comparing and contrasting’ is as futile as it will be heartbreaking. To paraphrase someone famous, “they are playing all of the right notes; just not necessarily in the order you’d expect them.” For me, there’s a new depth to many of the songs; Long Hard Road and Heart of The City spring to mind, now oozing maturity in the way both are fashioned; and not least the timbre in Martin’s voice. As anyone who has ever seen MG Stephenson play live in any of his guises, you will know that he reinvents songs on a whim and often to suit the mood of the audience; which brings me to the Jumpin’ Hot rendition of Too Much in Love which features some scorching fiddle playing in the background from Neil James Morrison; and Morning Time now sounds like a glorious hybrid of Lonnie Donegan and Wes Montgomery with Matt Monro singing ……. bizarre, I know….. but this is Martin Stephenson after all! It’s no surprise at all to find surprises around every corner, with In The Heal of The Night sounding dark and brooding and almost epic, which is not how I remember it at all. We Are Storm on the other hand features some of the sweetest guitar picking I’ve ever heard on a Daintees record and Morning Time runs it a close second in that department, with Gaz Dunn surely being one of the most underrated players in the industry. A few songs on the original album appear to have faded from my memory over the years; but that just makes the delicate Migrants and the more jaunty Too Much In Love all the more refreshing when they came out of the care speakers. The two ‘Hits’ from this album are staples of any and every concert by the Bard of Brady Square; and here he’s turned both Salutation Road and Left Us to Burn upside down and inside out. The former is another very 50’s Jazz inspired re-interpretation and yet again Neil James Morrison manages to make his fiddle fizz and spark alongside Martin’s winsome vocal performance. Then, of course there’s Left Us To Burn. My first reaction was …… “Ooh! I’m not sure about that.” As it’s no longer the ‘piss n vinegar’ angry anthem of our youth, as Martin has deconstructed it and now made it sound like he’s looking back through the eyes of a Middle Aged Man, which he is and I am and you probably are too (unless you are a Middle Aged Woman ……. but you get my drift.) Two weeks in; I’m really, really loving it; especially the Jazz ‘scat poetry’ in the verses that make it ‘different’ in a cool way. I’ve surprised myself by not selecting either as my Favourite Track; as there is an absolute ‘musical diamond’ that I’d forgot about have, but has evolved beyond belief in the last 30 years. Big North Lights; always a ‘touching’ and romantic song, seems to take on a whole new resonance here with the band’s new ‘sound’ and the wailing harmonica does it absolutely no harm at all, either. But the constituent parts that the instruments play are very much second to MG Stephenson’s beautiful and charming lyrics: “Brighter than any neon lights Kinder than any London light Warmer than the New York lights Northern lights are humble lights my friend.” Which somehow sum up the album and becomes my Favourite Song by an edge. Martin Stephenson is such a prolific songwriter it’s difficult to keep up with him at times; but it sounds like he’s thoroughly enjoyed re-visiting his younger self and updated a Classic album in a way that certainly hasn’t harmed any songs; but by fiddling with the arrangements managed to give them all a new found gravitas that only comes with age and wisdom.
P.S Martin cuts a rather dashing figure on the new CD cover sporting a sexy Newcastle Utd scarf, whereas the Dunn Brothers rather lower the tone with their red n white ones.
Having seen CMA (that’s how she signs her autographs btw – I’m not being rude) with a band and solo, I know there’s a lot of debate between her followers as to which musical setup suits her best. Ever the fence-sitter, I can see virtue in both – and “Old Flowers” should satisfy both sides of the debate, as it’s a more stripped back band album than “Honest Life” and “May Your Kindness Remain” with only three performers – Courtney, Twain’s Matthew Davidson and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia – and this pushes the emotion and heart-rending soul in Courtney’s voice to the fore; piano dominated songs take up most of the album and create an ambience of beautiful melancholy. In pre-release interviews, Courtney has clarified that the album was “inspired” – such an ironic word under the circumstances – by her coming out of a nine year relationship. As a result, it’s cathartic and confessional. In lesser hands such subject matter could have resulted in navel-gazing but not here. Focusing on the small moments and making them universal, CMA makes the acute details of personal experience speak to everyone who’s been through similar emotions…and that’s a lot of us. In opener “Burlap String”, an early teaser release, she states she’s a “sceptic of love” and wishes for the gift of hindsight because “there’s no replacing someone like you” – it’s a razor sharp moment of regret. “Guilty” which follows discusses the difficulty of letting go and starting again as feelings are still there, based around a Neil Youngesque piano accompaniment. “If I told”, the tremulous first released track from the album deals with the danger of baring your soul and of the ineffable nature and mystery/uncertainty of attraction. “Together or alone” looks at the perseverance of feeling from the first moment onwards and there’s the speculation that maybe some time in the future that the pain of the current moment will be softened either “Together or alone” – there’s simultaneous hope and resignation throughout; it’s that moment when you’re not in or out of coping with feeling for the other person. Mid album there’s “Carnival dream” with its “I may never let love in again” refrain and funereal snare – I defy anyone not to well-up listening to this – it hits deep and hard and in the wee small hours it’ll have you in bits. Title track “Old Flowers” changes perspective “You can’t water old flowers” – it’s that point where there’s a realisation that something good has gone but there’s the germination of strength – “I’m on my own now – but I don’t feel alone”. In “Break the Spell” things get harder still – it’s about the push and pull of trying to make something work and the conflicts, truths and lies that we want to believe and yet, deep down know aren’t true – about being in limbo. If he could “break the spell”, then that would make things clearer and simpler. “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” takes the narrative into the realm of self-analysis and self-re-creation “I’ve gone bad but the world is good” with an underlying ache yet acceptance of one’s self. The intimate “How You Get Hurt” ends on a note of emotional shutdown – if you don’t “let your guard down/You make a move and then it doesn’t work out” then there’s no pain – simple as – no romantic illusion here. There’s a largely linear thread of an emotional journey throughout the album, but with ebb and flow as emotions well and subside on the path to separation – it’s an encapsulation of a pivotal point in life that many of us have experienced and in exploding the detail of her experience, Courtney Marie Andrews has created great beauty through her shared emotion. Album closer “Ships in the night” goes for closure and offers a pragmatic attitude and coping strategy and places the relationship in a longer term context.
Paul McClure I Love You In The Morning Clubhouse Records
We rather like the ‘Rutland Troubadour’ Paul McClure, here at RMHQ; as there’s something ‘special’ about his songwriting and softly expressive voice that appeals to us (Mrs Magpie & I). He skirts what we know as Modern Folk and Americana without sitting comfortably in either camp; so will will put him into the Singer-Songwriter camp; of old. We’ve been sitting on this release for a few weeks now, and my trusty i-phone keeps finding it and teasing me; as I’d promised to post my words on the eve of the release date. As is the fashion; and something of a necessity both the A-Side, I Love You in The Morning and the B-Side Shoe Song Blues were not just written but recorded during #lockdown; somehow using modern technology remotely to bring the band together; which still baffles yet impresses me. Whatever; these are two stunningly beautiful and simple love songs; something we don’t hear enough of these days; and the world is a slightly better place for their release.