Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Big Eyes Family Players And Friends - Folk Songs II

Stellar modern readings of traditional English, Scottish and Irish folk songs. Featuring James Yorkston, Heather Ditch, Alasdair Roberts, Nancy Elizabeth and more!

Currently residing in Sheffield, The Big Eyes Family Players are loose collective centred around James Green and his favoured core group of musicians. They evolved from Green's previous Big Eyes project. In 2009 they released Folk Songs,
a collection of old English, Scottish and Irish folk tunes. Three years on and they're releasing Folk Songs II, having drafted in a number of their favourite singers to choose songs and sing on the record. Too often folk albums are staid and boring affairs but this album has a freshness about it, enough to re-ignite even the most jaded folkie's love of traditional song.

The songs themselves are proof of the rich folklore of these islands, countries which have spawned music as mysterious and enticing as any incense filled eastern temple. If that wasn't enough the treatments of these songs is truly something special and despite the revolving door of vocalists flows well as a collection. It's also a timely reminder that there's more to our national identity than petty football rivalries, TV soaps, and our love/hate relationship with the tabloid press. It's difficult not to be stirred by these songs, such is their deep resonance. The arrangements are irreverent and sprawling and as such infuse the songs with the spirit and life they deserve.

Take for example Greenland Bound, a whaling ballad sung here by Adrian Crowley. Its tale of loneliness, hard work, danger and isolation from family and friends is lent weight by the addition of distant whistling. Mary Hampton and Sharron Kraus double up for vocals on A Man Indeed, a song derived from an old English rhyme called Sandy Dawe to which they've written a new melody. Fans of the original 1973 film The Wicker Man (and who isn't!?) will love this track, along with pretty much everything else on the album.

The record hits its stride with Looly, Looly a beautiful and beguilingly catchy song featuring James Yorkston on vocals. Its arrangement features an intoxicating blend of instruments including glockenspiel, slide guitar, viola and harmoniflute. Heather Ditch then sings The Clyde Water, perhaps the most radio-friendly track here, complete with a psychedelic synth break worthy of any mid-'60s acid band.

For my mind the album highlight however is The Coast O' Spain, a Scottish travelling song sung here by Alasdair Roberts. It's melody is beautiful enough in itself but with the gloriously clangy guitar backing, along with backing vocals from from Green and Heather Ditch it becomes a truly spectacular reading. Lack of space stops me from mentioning the rest of the album but there's not a bad track among them. Other vocalists include Nancy Elizabeth, James William Hindle, Elle Osbourne and James Green himself.

The album closes with a rendition of a baudy Irish song called Maureen From Gippursland, which marks Alasdair Roberts' second lead vocal, complete with industrial power tool noises at a particular point in the song. For my money there's unlikely to be a finer traditional folk album this year. It's available as a standard 12 track album and also as a special limited edition containing an extra 3 tracks and postcards. Well worth looking out for.

Click here for the Big Eyes' website.

The Soul Rebels Brass Band - Unlock Your Mind

Up on the floor for some good times, it's party time New Orleans style.

“I've been searching for the young soul rebels, I can't find them anywhere, where have you hidden them?” That was the impassioned question posed by Kevin Rowland on the first Dexy's Midnight Runners album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels. Well Kevin, it would appear that they're alive and well and have been honing their craft in a New Orleans brass band for the best part of twenty years. Brass bands of course being a completely different thing in America. 

Over here the associations are Hovis bread, coal-mining, ice creams and deck chairs in municipal parks on a Sunday afternoon. In America, or more specifically New Orleans, brass bands developed through the jazz tradition, the emphasis being more about dance rhythms and partying. And like a well cooked Louisiana gumbo, on this release there are a few other ingredients thrown into the mix, such as soul, rap, funk, and the quintessentially New Orleans tradition of second line and jazz funerals.

Several albums into their career The Soul Rebels Brass Band unleash their latest entitled Unlock Your Mind. Knowingly or not it's very title references the Funkadelic maxim of “free your mind and your ass will follow” meaning this is not a record to be taken sitting down. Resolutely upbeat in mood, the album comprises for the most part of original tracks though there are a couple of fine covers; an inspired version of Eurhythmics' “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This”, and an instrumental interpretation of Stevie Wonder's “Living In The City”.

Album opener “504” is a reference to the New Orleans telephone area code, which was on its way to becoming obsolete but was reinstated in several communities post hurricane Katrina. Urging the listener to “get up on the floor and enjoy yourself”. The party vibe continues throughout, most notably on the rap driven tracks “We Gon' Take Your Body” and “Showtime”.

The title track is a gently comforting soul/reggae groove complete with a pleading soul vocal which sits nicely at odds with the faster pace of the rest of the album. The band recently toured the UK and judging by the YouTube footage it looks as if the stage is where they truly shine.

New Orleans has taken a physical and psychological battering in recent times as a result of hurricanes and the global economic downturn but judging by this album optimism and fun are still high up on the agenda way down south.

Click here for The Soul Rebels Brass Band website.

Muddy Waters Blues Band - Mud In Your Ear

First time on CD for this album of ragged, loose & funky blues from one of the genre's giants.

OK, so first the bad news – Muddy Waters does not sing on this album. Recorded with producer Alan Douglas in November 1967, at a time when Waters was still contracted to Chess Records, the vocal duties are shared between guitarist Luther 'Snake' Johnson and harmonica player Mojo Buford. There's a definite Muddy Waters stamp over the album however, with the man himself on guitar, adding those unmistakable embellishments, as well as having penned several of its tracks.

In other good news, this is the first time this album has had a CD release. The material contained originally came out as two separate vinyl releases, one featuring Johnson on vocals, the other featuring Buford. This coming together results in a bumper package for blues lovers. It's also one of those rare releases worth owning for the artwork, a Mati Klarwein painting depicts a trippy, beatific Waters emerging with his bouffant intact from some primordial gloop. Add to this the fact that the playing is superb and the band features the legendary Otis Spann on piano and things start to sound pretty promising.

Just check out the piano fills on the slow and mournful Remember Me, a track written by Waters and given a fine reading here. Elsewhere the Muddy Waters brand of electrified Chicago blues, though out of step with the time it was recorded in, appears in rude health and has aged well. Title track Mud In Your Ear is basically an instrumental reworking of Got My Mojo Working, and is quintessential Muddy Waters; proud, virile and driving. Other highlights include Johnson's almost stream of consciousness vocal on Long Distance Call, and Water's biting snarly solo on Coming Home Baby.

The album was recorded hot on the heels of the psychedelic Electric Mud, a record which Waters hated. No doubt with the resentment of Chess having forced him to make that album still fresh in his mind, on Mud In Your Ear the musicians sound like they're playing the music they love and believe in, and belief is an essential attribute in the blues. Thankfully passion and performance take precedence over perfection

For blues beginners seeking their first purchase of the mighty Muddy Waters, this album is not the one. A good entry point would be a compilation of his prime era Chess releases or the Johnny Winters produced comeback LP Hard Again. For blues fans in general however this is a fine album, with not a bad track on it. And despite Muddy not singing on the album, his personality and spirit permeates all the tracks, it sounds and feels like a Muddy Waters album. And you can't ask for more than that.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Various - Electric Eden (Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music)

Excellent 2CD compilation to accompany Rob Young's book. Documents folk rock's high watermark, and more arcane tributaries.

In 2010 Faber & Faber published Rob Young's book Electric Eden, a beautifully hefty brick of a book that authoritatively examines the British Isles' love of folk music and how it has mutated through the years, seemingly with one foot in an often idealised past, and one eye looking towards a more visionary, exploratory future. It's the sort of book that can have you seriously denting your bank balance as you head over to Amazon to purchase albums by the artists he covers. The book's main thrust deals with the folk rock boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when folk moved away from its purest roots and moved towards something more in keeping with the boundary pushing mood of the times. Cue sitars, communes, drugs and the plugging in of electric guitars. Brit-folk's very own “Judas” moment as it were.

It's music from this period that makes up the bulk of Universal's new 2CD compilation released as a companion piece for the book. All of folk rock's big hitters are here – Sandy Denny (both solo and with Fairport Convention and Fotheringay), Bert Jansch (solo and with Pentangle), John Martyn, Nick Drake, Steeleye Span, The Incredible String Band et al, along with lesser celebrated names such as Shelagh McDonald, COB, Comus and Trees. This music has its shoots in the present day via American artists such as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Fleet Foxes which is testament to its enduring resonance.

There have been other similar compilations, notably the Bob Stanley curated Gather In The Mushrooms and Early Morning Hush, Rough Trade's psych-folk collection, and Andy Votel's Folk Is Not A Four Letter Word. What marks this compilation out is its more scholarly take on the music with informative sleeve notes by Rob Young himself, and the fact it's divided up into two CD's, the first entitled Acoustic Eden being more innocent and trad (though still packed with fresh ideas), whereas the second, Electric Albion points to progression and possibilities.

If anything this collection has a slightly more mainstream slant than those previously mentioned, though there are plenty of pleasant surprises too. I'd been unfamiliar with Welshman Meic Stevens yet his sitar-infused track Yorric is one of the stand-out tracks. Comus' Diana sounds like it could have been recorded last week, and wouldn't be out of place on some modern bespoke festival stage. There's even room for a pre-fame David Bowie imitating Marc Bolan's folk warble on Black Country Rock.

The book has a broader sweep than the CD's, taking in folk-song collectors such as Cecil Sharp, classical composer Vaughan Williams and artists that Young considers to be later keepers of the flame such as Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk, all of whom are absent from this collection. I'm not sure why that would be, perhaps it wouldn't have flowed as coherently. It is however an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to investigate this particularly fascinating era of music. It's the sort of collection that can open up many musical avenues and once heard you probably will end up heading to the Amazon website, at the very least to buy the book.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Wolf People - All Returns video + tour dates.

One of the most anticipated albums of 2013 (well, round my house at least), must be Wolf People's 2nd long player Fain, due for release on 29th April. Until then at least we can whet our appetite with the video for lead single All Returns. Shot in their rehearsal space in Caledonian Road, London, the video is Wolf People in performance mode; Says director Phil Poole: "Our main objective for the video was to display the band in it's purest form, capturing abstract pieces of performance played out in their stark rehearsal space. Seeing the music played out in this bare, natural state allowed the song to dominate and remain the focus throughout."

Tour dates around the album have just been announced including a new London show after their April date sold out within 3 days.

Sun 24 – Arts Centre, Reading, UK
Thu 28 - Esquires, Bedford, UK
Fri 29 - Contintental, Preston, UK
Sat 30 - Detestival Festival, Sheffield, UK
Wed 10 – Sebright Arms, London, UK - SOLD OUT
Fri 3 - Sound City, Liverpool, UK
Thu 9 - Hare & Hounds 2, Birmingham, UK
Fri 10 - Sound Control, Manchester, UK
Sat 11 - The Exchange, Bristol, UK
Sun 12 - Blind Tiger, Brighton, UK
Thu 16 - Holy Trinity Church, Leeds, UK
Fri 17 - Think Tank, Newcastle, UK
Sat 18 - Stag And Dagger Festival, Glasgow, UK
Sun 19 - Portland Arms, Cambridge, UK
Thu 23 - PIAS Nite at La Fleche D'Or, Paris, France
Fri 24 - Zurich Kinski Klub, Switzerland
Sat 25 - Brussels VK, Belgium
Mon 27 - Gebäude 9, Cologne, Germany
Tue 28 - White Trash, Berlin, Germany
Wed 29 - Molotow, Hamburg, Germany
Thu 30 - Doornroosje, Nijmegen, Netherlands
Fri 31 - Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Sat 1 - Trix, Antwerp, Belgium
Mon 3 - Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, London, UK

Comedian, journalist and Wolf People fan Stewart Lee has written a Non-Press release for the band:
Click over the jump to read Stewart Lee's "non-press release".

Alfa 9 - Gone To Ground

Warm sentiments for a cold climate. Harmony drenched, folk-rock jangle from Newcastle-Under-Lyme's finest.

The enduring power of mid '60s folk-rock, most notably made by The Byrds, continues to resonate down the years. That irresistible blend of melody, harmony and treble-turned-up guitar jangle has, at least since the early '80s inspired many a band, becoming a starting point, a sonic template for these bands to take and twist and make their own.

Seven years on from their debut long player Then We Begin, (yes seven years! Beat that Stone Roses!), Alfa 9 are releasing a follow up on Blow Up Records. Gone To Ground takes its main inspiration from The Byrds et al, adds a classicist approach to song writing, (hooky choruses, quality middle eights and all that) and injects it all with a decidedly British sideways glance at life.

Take for instance Old Man Blues, a blues-harp driven driven, humourous account of ageing and looking back at life. It's difficult to imagine a self-obsessed Californian band coming up with such a track but if you're from the Potteries such things no doubt come easier.

Into The Light, along with Green Grass Grows sees the band at their most Byrds-like, the first being imbued with a chirpy, life-is-good feel. Conversely the latter has a melancholic, how-will-I-be-remembered sentiment. Both are mighty fine.

Elsewhere there's some indie-fied country rock (Birling Gap, Nothing Feels, Ferry Song), uptempo psychodrama (El Morocco), and swirly psych-pop like Noel used to have a stab at (The Castle). The album has a similar feel to Teenage Fanclub's Songs From Northern Britain, not just in its sound, but also that it's full of warm sentiments for a cold climate. Let's hope the band don't leave it another seven years till the next album. In the meantime if we get a summer this year this would be a fitting soundtrack.

Click here for Alfa 9's website.
Click here for the Blow Up Records website.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Five Horse Johnson - The Taking Of Black Heart

Down 'n' dirty blues rock. The wild west conjured up via some boogie 'n' roll. Features guest vocals from Cheap Trick's Robin Zander.

Anyone with too sensitive a nature may want to give Five Horse Johnson a wide berth. The Toledo five-piece make music that doesn't pander to namby pambys. Instead they make hard, driving blues-rock that conjures up the pioneering spirit of the wild west; hard working, hard drinking, unapologetic and not to be messed with. Of course, some of us have a constitution that can handle that stuff. If that's the case stick around for tales of stubborn horses, wanted posters, hangmen, hard living, hard loving, and eye-for-an-eye retribution.

The band's seventeen years together has seen them release seven albums, the latest of which, The Taking Of Black Heart, maintains their trademark sound of electrified, heavy blues. The Job opens the album with vague, whale-like noises lulling you into a false sense of security before the drums and Zep-style riffs kick in, the guitar lines bolstered by some close following blues harp. “Will I stay on the road till I get what I'm owed?” sings vocalist Eric Oblander, neatly summarising the position of many a dues-paying rock band. Well, that's the road for you! As addictive as nicotine!

And that's the place where this album works best. I've given it a fair few spins over the last couple of weeks – at home, at work, even in bed. But the place where it makes most sense is on the open road, or in my case the A63. And a companionable travel buddy it is too, full of one-chord boogies pitched somewhere between Junior Kimbrough and ZZ Top. Of extra appeal to the older rockers out there will be the guest vocal appearance by Cheap Trick's Robin Zander on the soulful and funky You're My Girl (I Don't Want To Talk About It). One for the road anyone?

Click here for Five Horse Johnson's website.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Demons Of Ruby Mae - Heliacal EP

Coldplay with attitude! Leicester 3-piece release their debut EP of subtle and affecting indie.

One album that's helped sustain me through the extended winter months has been the debut LP from Cumbria's Kontiki Suite. (You can read my review here.) It was released on Size Records UK, a small boutique label/collective based in Wokington, Cumbria. I like the fact they're based in Cumbria, far from the perceived musical hotspots. My guess is that being based on the outer periphery allows your musical taste to be based on quality rather than on fleeting trends. So it would seem after hearing the label's latest release, the debut EP from Leicester 3-piece Demons Of Ruby Mae. While there's nothing groundbreaking or challenging about their sound, the emphasis is on quality songwriting and musicianship, with their piano-led songs similar to those of Coldplay, Keane or Noel Gallagher at his most introspective and melancholic.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf  opens the EP with a descending piano motif before the song grows into something more strident and muscular, with strong lyrics and from-the heart vocals. You Got It Wrong's sparse instrumentation and falsetto vocal give way to a heavier chorus. Hope Is comes across as a more street tough version of Coldplay, downbeat but defiant. Volcanic Mouth is perhaps my favourite of the four songs, simultaneously haunting and anthemic.

Size Records UK operate an admirably noble policy in that the artists take 100% of any profits, so buy with confidence that it's money well spent.

Click here for Size Records UK on Bandcamp.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Robyn Hitchcock - Love From London

He's back with a brand new long player! Out now!

Robyn Hitchcock is one of the most idiosyncratic songwriters around. He also made one of my all-time favourite albums, Moss Elixir, an absolutely perfect record which I must write about at length sometime.

For now though let's concentrate on his latest record, Love From London, which is released this week on YepRoc. The man himself has very kindly made a track-by-track guide to the album, neatly broken down into side 1 and side 2. Check out the videos below to find out where his head's at. Or even better, get along to a show.

Love From London - Track by track, side 1 - 

 Love From London - Track by track, side 2 -

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Maston - Shadows

Frank Maston's the man with the studio tan! LA-based baroque-pop classicist releases his debut album.

Studio auteurs, you gotta love 'em! Not least the California based producers who made their mark in the 1960s. They remain a truly fascinating bunch. As the world gets ready to see Al Pacino play Phil Spector in the upcoming TV biopic, and Brian Wilson announces that the recent Beach Boys live outings are unlikely to be repeated, (perhaps indicating that once more he'll retreat into the safe space and sonic possibilities of the studio), the time is right for a new maverick to highlight just what is achievable when sat in the producer's chair.

Enter Frank Maston. His debut album Shadows, on the increasingly excellent Trouble In Mind Records has echoes of the big names mentioned above, along with touches of those other west coast wizards Burt Bacharach, David Axelrod, Arthur Lee and Van Dyke Parks. Though rather than directing a studio full of musicians, Maston plays all the instruments on Shadows, with the exception of the harp on one track. He's effectively a one man Wrecking Crew, Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell and Carol Kaye rolled into one. Seemingly masterful with any instrument, be it brass, woodwind, string, organ or percussion. It's such skill and ability coupled with his taste for inventive melodies that makes this album one of the most arresting so far this year.

Though the album does owe a great deal to the classicist, intellectual studio work of the '60s, in particular the arrangements and instrumentation of Pet Sounds, there are other sounds to be heard. Several instrumentals have a cinematic feel and there are shades of both mariachi and muzak (in a good way), along with an indie sensibility not a million miles away from such bands as Real Estate. The album walks a tightrope between warm comforting jangle and a more edgy, unsettling eeriness.

Maybe it's the air-conditioned retreat from LA's climate that makes the studio such an attractive place out there on the west coast. If that's the case maybe global warming does have some positive side effects. Out of the sun and into the shadows indeed.

Click here for Maston's Bandcamp page.
Click here for the Trouble In Mind website.

The Shook-Ups! - Bad Reception

Snotty, fuzzed up garage punk from the North West.

It's odd to think that a musical genre that was so short lived and financially unrewarding for many its originators continues to be the template of choice for so many current bands. I'm talking of garage punk, and those '60s US bands that formed in that short period after the decline of the beat era, but before psych became flower power. Those bands whose forgotten, poor selling singles were collected up and reissued the following decade, most successfully on Elektra Records' Nuggets series.

It's that style of music that's made by The Shook-Ups! who hail not from the American mid-west, but from Wigan, a town more famous for its pier, its association with northern soul, The Verve, and er well... pies. That could all change though with the release of Bad Reception, The Shook-Ups! debut album. It's garage punk played and sung exactly as it should be. With plenty of fuzz guitar played through Selmer or Vox amps, and simple lines on a Farfisa organ, it's anti-intellectual, defiantly non-progressive, yet packed with hook-laden songs from start to finish. Any solos are short, sharp and serve the songs.

The subject matter sticks mainly with the small-time psychodrama of girl trouble and dissatisfaction, with lyrics more sneered than sung, yet the songs are so catchy and infectious it makes it seem that such a mindset could almost be fun. And it is, at least while the album is playing. Fans of the Nuggets compilations, The Sonics, The Seeds, or in fact any music that doesn't take itself too seriously will get a kick out of this album. 

Click here for The Shook-Ups! website.