This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
FALSE LIGHTS Harmonograph NIAG
Photo: Ian Anderson
Their first album, Salvor
, was a cracker, breathing welcome fresh air into the long stale, much maligned form of electric folk, creating much anticipation about the next episode from the foraging minds of Sam Carter, Jim Moray and their merry gang.
This one is, well, different. Salvor had a sort of gleeful innocence which radiated their joy in playing together. This is the wholly more wizened, more calculated sound of a band taking themselves a little more seriously. There’s a different line-up for one thing – Moray, Carter and fiddler Tom Moore joined here by Archie Churchill-Moss on melodeon, Barnaby Stradling on bass and Stuart Provan on drums creating a big sound full of crushing climaxes. Been grappling with it, to be honest.
William Glenn explodes with genuine bravura, Captain Kidd swiftly launches itself into an impassioned crescendo of noise and drama and slowly but surely the power within is unleashed to convincing levels that make me yearn to add the word ‘headbanging’. And let’s face it we can all benefit from a bit of folk headbanging. But maybe it was the slightly thin sound of opening track Babylon – it should blow your head off but doesn’t – which at first set this up to be a disappointment; while Black Velvet Band is set to a new tune that sounds a little leaden.
Sam Carter comes into his own indulging his passion for shapenote hymns on the beautifully arranged Far On Distant Lands and – always one for a bloody narrative – makes a decent fist, too, of The Murder Of Maria Marten. With a crazed instrumental, The Ombudsman, and huge choruses like Drink Old England Dry and, indeed, Babylon, it has the hallmark of an album designed as a great live set… though maybe the sort of album where you say, yeah it’s good, but not as good as seeing them do this stuff live.
• www.falselights.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE Medicine Songs True North TND681
Photo: Matt Barnes
This was a very welcome surprise. A couple of the songs on this album I first heard on Buffy Sainte-Marie’s very first one, It’s My Way
, from 1964. I must have acquired it in 1966/67, one of only a handful of vinyl discs I owned, out of which it was my undoubted favourite. I must have worn it out.
There are thirteen tracks on the actual CD plus another seven downloadable; out of the 20 almost half are new versions of previously recorded songs. The over-arching theme is of politically charged protest and she delivers the songs like a force of nature. She does a stripped-down guitar-plus-vocal version of My Country Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying, just as she did it on the Little Wheel Spin And Spin album in 1966 (over 50 years ago), but with even more passion and rage in her voice. Then there’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee about the “theft of uranium lands from the Pine Ridge reservation”, with an immensely powerful arrangement – my goodness, I look forward to hearing what she’s writing re the current US administration (particularly if anyone refers to her as Pocahontas…).
The new songs are very impressive too: You Got To Run, which she performs with Tanya Tagaq; the thunderous Power In The Blood in which she sings her modification of the Alabama 3 lyrics (with their blessing) over their basic track, and the striking War Racket. The latter, chanted almost in a monotone, reminds me somewhat of the excellent Jim Page in style, furious but articulate.
“…and that’s how it’s done war after war/You old feudal parasites just sacrifice the poor./You’ve got the cutting edge weapons but your scam’s still the same/As it’s been since the Romans: it’s the patriot game./It’s the War Racket.”
I think her singing has improved – there’s more light and shade in it, but the power is completely undiminished. Ah, just thought to check – she’s singing songs about a tone lower than when she recorded them 50 years ago.
She was quoted on the sleeve notes of Many A Mile (1965) as saying “I intend to sing forever, when I’m old and have no figure and no long hair and an ancient face, then I will still be singing”. Carry It On, Buffy!
• buffysainte-marie.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
CHAVELA VARGAS La Llorona Éditions Milan Music 399962–2
For those who may have come upon Costa Rican-born Mexican chanteuse Chavela Vargas late in her career (she died in 2012 at 93, having last sung in concert at 87), this reissue of her recording debut at age 42 (with RCA Victor Mexicana) will come as a revelation. The 1961 sessions, arranged by her singer-songwriter friend José Alfredo Jiménez, whose own work defined the canción ranchera genre, marked Vargas’s national arrival after a quarter-century of street singing and being fêted in artistic circles frequented by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Agustín Lara, Juan Rulfo and others of the intelligentsia of her time.
Vargas’s appropriation of the bolero and canción ranchera to a defiant female perspective – stripped of orchestral affectation, the dramatic range of her voice accompanied simply on acoustic guitar, tragic, direct, vulnerable, and yet unbendingly proud – endures as among the most dramatic expressions of what the nation’s intellectuals have invoked as México profundo – deeply rooted Mexico.
The dozen songs on La Llorona reflect the disenchantments and passions of the singer’s own troubled life. The title track is a traditional Mexican folk tale of the nocturnal mourning of a woman’s ghost wandering by the river, crying for her drowned children. In Paloma Negra (Black Dove) Vargas reproaches a female lover for toying with her affections (Kahlo’s parents referred to their daughter as a dove, although Vargas also took numerous other female lovers). Vargas conveyed an uncompromising independence, here through the breadth of her artistry, pride sustained at whatever cost in terms of personal suffering. These renditions, which convey her compelling artistry at the height of her powers, are essential to grasp Vargas’s ascendance to the status of enduring Mexican cultural treasure.
• milanmusic.fr | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
EFFRA Below Ground Effra Source130717
Effra’s second album finds the London-based trio intrepidly venturing into the very bowels of the earth, seeking inspiration in the subterranean tunnels beneath Box Freestone Mine and trekking to the source of the underground Effra river. The group is violinist Tom Newell (Sam Lee, Ceilidh Liberation Front), guitarist Alex Bishop and accordeonist Aidan Shepherd – who’s also credited with piano, synthesiser and bicycle (the last an instrument most closely associated with Frank Zappa – search for it on YouTube!).
The arrangements, which combine the intricacy of their classical training with the inventiveness of jazz and dynamics of rock, are dense, powerful and sometimes claustrophobic – as befits the circumstances of these compositions. Lighter moods are invoked by the likes of Impatient For Nostalgia – a one-and-a-half minute mood piece of rippling solo (and uncredited) banjo, worthy of Sandy Bull or George Stavis, and the gorgeous, flamenco-style guitar that graces the cinematic Contra. Traditional influences manifest in tunes like Molly, which Shepherd performs with the rhythmic ‘oomph’, of a Cotswold morris tune.
Things move above ground in Cadman’s Rest – a descriptive piece commemorating an 18th Century steeplejack who plummeted to his death from a church spire in Shrewsbury, the melody of which ascends slowly and (guess what?) descends rapidly.
Their most ambitious and (for me) satisfying track is the closing The Source, which begins with a field recording of the flowing waters of the river Effra before spatial synths open out into a stately violin march before returning to the water. It’s an effective conclusion to a bold album that carries the promise of plenty more to come.
AND THE REST… The albums - good, adequate and plain bad - which didn't get the full-length treatment, contributed individually by a selection of our various reviewers cowering under the cloak of collective anonymity. For example…
Helen Dorothy Light Time & Sound (Helen Dorothy)
New Zealand-based singer-songwriter delivers pithy, observational lyrics and memorable tunes. Arrangements are acoustic Americana (dobro, double bass, pedal steel) enriched by Paul Symon’s harmony vocals and Neil Billington’s exquisite harmonica playing. Perfect late night listening for grown-ups. helendorothy.com
Jim Kweskin Unjugged (Hornbeam HBR 0005)
Well recorded and played, Kweskin ages well. However this is too much like a folk club set from the 1960s. Chorus songs, singalongs, humour, well-known standards, an instrumental and so on. Valiant but dated. hornbeamrecordings.com
Rafiki Jazz Har Dam Sahara (Riverboat B072HXKZ5P)
Longstanding Sheffield-based band mixing influences from Asia, West Africa, the Middle East and beyond with an emphasis on devotional music. Its heart is very much in the right place, even if the results are decidedly mixed. rafikijazz.co.uk
Quimantú Cantos (Quimantú)
Chilean exile Mauricio Venegas-Astorga founded Quimantú in London in 1981. The quartet (voice, guitar, charango, violin, panpipes, bass, percussion) performs its own compositions and material from the Latin American folkloric to Violeta Parra and Nat King Cole. quimantu.net
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down