Sunday 14 September 2014


CD Review

This Land

Without any hint of being patronising Kelly Oliver seems to have matured so much in such a short time it almost defies the laws of nature. If there was a crossroads for folk singers you could easily suspect she has waited there for you know who. 

Kelly Oliver
All joking aside, rubbing shoulders with some of the legends of the folk world not least of which is Dave Swarbrick couldn't have done any harm either.
Oliver may not have been around that long but she has slotted right in and looks and feels at home on the folk circuit like a veteran but having the advantage of her fresh and vibrant sound.
This Land seems to have a retro element built into it and the opening track Witch of Wakeham is a perfect example.
There is something just so familiar about her voice and yet so new. It  has a freshness about it and yet you could take her back to the iconic festivals of the 60s and she wouldn't be out of place at all.
While it would be a little presumptuous to say she is the new Joni Mitchell there is a good chance Mitchell fans will see a great similarity and warm to her.
The opening of Diamond Girl is just so attention-grabbing, it has those gentle uber-folk chords and this time Oliver's voice has overtones of the incredibly talented Kate Bush. It's simple, effective and just a real pleasure to listen to.
There doesn't seem a great deal of difference between the previous track and Mary and the Soldier, it has the same cadence and easy melody. And once again Oliver's gentle and girlish tones make it just one of life's simpler pleasures to sit and listen to it. Mr Officer is another that seems almost like a cover of a Mitchell song except for this time you have the added bonus of Oliver showing her talent for the harmonica.
This is without doubt one of the best tracks on the album and shows the depth to Oliver's singing which is underpinned by the mildly throbbing beat of her guitar which seems to double up as the rhythm section.
In contrast she goes back to the gentle rhythm with Far From Home which is the kind of lovely ballad Oliver does so well.
The great Joni Mitchell
This is accented wonderfully with the easy rasp of the harmonica. The tune again is very simple but what makes it is Oliver's clear and feminine tones and the more you listen to her the more her voice becomes familiar and enjoyable.
One of the drawbacks with Caledonia, an ancient name for Scotland, is it has been covered so many times, sometimes better sometimes not so. If you are going to do a version of such a well-known anthem then you really need to bring something new or clearly stamp your mark on it.
Oliver sticks to the standard version and while the execution is perfect and Oliver has the voice to carry it off it's no better or worse than many other versions.
The young performer is a superb ballad singer, her voice is perfect for that gentle folk sound and if you want evidence of this then just listen to A Gush of Wind.
Off to the Market is another which feels like it could have been lifted from the Mitchell catalogue but then she comes in with the Dylan-style harmonica and you suddenly realise, Whoa! this is something different. You feel also there is a harder edge to her singing just waiting to be let loose but for the moment it's being kept under wraps.
It may sound bizarre, but she does some absolutely beautiful guitar intros to her songs they are just so mellow, pleasant and invoke memories of things from your past. And while you can't quite put your finger on something specific you know you are recalling an enjoyable time.
Quite how Oliver seems to make nostalgia contemporary is something of a mystery but she does it so well and so easily that is doubles the pleasure of listening to her.
Kelly Oliver's debut album This Land
Granpa Was a Stoker is a perfect example, it has all the elements of the traditional folk telling the tale of ordinary people and their trades and yet somehow connecting you to your own ancestors and the trades they carried out. This is something Oliver needs to keep, she has this ability to reach people at a deep emotional level with her singing.
The final track, Playing With Sand,  is a narrative of family life and finds Oliver at her most animated musically.
Her guitar playing has a harder edge not seen in any of the other tracks on the album.
This is a debut album many would be proud of and rightly so.
There is an element of playing it safe which is understandable for a first album but just listening to Oliver on these tracks you know there is so much more to come.
She is fortunate in having talent by the bucketload and others have taken years to reach what is Oliver's starting point.
At the very least this is a laudable debut but moreso it's started the musical salivation for the second.

This land is released on October 27

You can see Kelly Oliver at the Folk21 West Midlands Regional Day at the Newhampton Arts Centre, Dunkley Street, Whitmore Reans, Wolverhampton on September 20.

Other links:

The Mike Harding Folk Show

Saturday 13 September 2014


CD Review

Stories Still Untold

There is a group of performers such as Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Christy Moore, Kate Rusby where as soon as you hear their first utterance you can identify them and to this list you can add Scottish singer/songwriter Ewan McLennan.

Ewan McLennan
His mellow and almost melancholic tones are unique and with his strong accent, which thankfully he keeps when he sings - and doesn't try to hide it behind a faux US tone, is like no one else on the folk circuit.
McLennan's latest album has a touch of the oxymoron about it as it's essentially an album of traditional musical stories which he tells, and so well.
The other element of course which McLennan from Edinburgh, brings is his superb classical-style and laconic guitar playing which is mellow, laid back, precise and perfectly attuned to his soft tones. Stories Still Untold is McLennan's third album and follows in the wake of his critically acclaimed The Last Bird to Sing. His latest offering is likely to be just as well received.
When you listen to McLennan both in the songs he chooses and writes you realise that the strands of traditional folk music is in safe hands. He opens with a traditional narrative, A Beggar, and just like the troubadours of old he keeps the tricks of the trade firmly in place such as rhyming knee with eye (it has to be done in a strong Scottish accent to work).
This is such a gentle yet rich song where McLennan's voice takes centre stage and is carried along perfectly by the careful use of his string chords where not a note is wasted or superfluous.
In the great tradition, the song is about a maiden who incurs the wrath of her parents by running off with the beggar of the title.
Out of the Banks is the first self-penned offering on the album and is essentially McLennan recounting his childhood. It is a gorgeously soft tune were you can hear the nostalgic yearnings in McLennan's voice and this time his precise chord work is under-girded by the gentle but distinct sound of Beth Porter on cello.
The following track has traditional written through it like a stick of rock even down to ending the lines with "My bonnie lassie-oh".
Beth Porter
The Shearing which has been done and converted in many forms over the years is something of a contradiction in the tune is gentle, mellow and slides along like melted chocolate but the story is of backbreaking work in the fields and once again the ever-present folk theme of doomed love is thrown in for good measure.
By this point on the album you realise what beautifully crafted songs McLennan produces whether writing them himself or adapting the traditional renderings.
His voice and guitar playing is like a musical massage for the soul and spirit.
Aye Waulkin O is no different, here McLennan adapts a love song by Robert Burns and once again produces a beautifully constructed ballad with the slight tremor which he has in his voice, full of emotion and this is made all the more poignant by the gentle string play of his guitar. This is a song for romantics everywhere it speaks of sunset walks along the sea's edge, of sheltering from the summer rain or just sitting looking into the distance on a lovely and lazy sunny day.
Keeping another tradition alive Song of the Lower Classes has a political edge and as if to make the point McLennan's voice takes on a stronger tone and harsher feel.
The song comes from the 19th century and is about the plight of miners, workers and their exploitation with McLennan adding his own tune.
It is a melancholic tune with Lauren MacColl adding a rasping lament on her viola underneath McLennan's a cappella singing.
Still telling of real lives and the people who are around us if we only take the time to notice and listen, Tales From Down at the Harp is a much lighter song which captures snapshots in a montage of lives which come and went from the pub of the title.
Inge Thompson adds some lovely inserts between McLennan's singing and playing with Porter fitting in the gems of her cello accents.
"There was alcohol, rats and fighting in the streets..." the picture McLennan paints with his words in what is essentially the title track of the album, although he calls it The Ballad of Amy Nielson, is wonderfully detailed and the longest on the disc.
His narrative here again outlines the lives of ordinary people who have left their homes for a better life, the sort of people George Bailey explained to Potter in It's a Wonderful Life as, "This rabble you're talking about, do most of the living and paying and working and dying in this community. Well is it too much to have them live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?".
Lauren MacColl
These are stories which are untold, the stories of ordinary people which are overlooked by history but who were the driving force of every day events and change.
It's another gentle ballad which carries an edge and with a minimalistic use of the instruments it's almost as if McLennan wants to force you to concentrate on the narrative. Not that it takes that much because McLennan is as good a storyteller as he is a guitarist.
The well-known folk anthem Rattlin' Roarin Willie, which is close to 300 years old, is another attributed to Burns.
Most versions of this song take its title literally and get the song rattlin' and roarin' along however, McLennan has done a very laid back version of it with some lovely colour added with MacColl's viola and Ross Ainslie's whistle, you can also hear the dexterity of McLennan as he makes his guitar come to life throughout the tune.
In McLennan's own words The False Young Man is a short but moving ballad into which he tried to work in the huge range of emotions inherent in the text. The song originated in Appalachia and McLennan does justice to the beautiful words such as "When you were mine, my own true love, and your head lay on my breast, you could make me believe, by the falling of your arm, that the sun rose up in the west."
That gentle tremor he has in his voice is perfect for conveying strong emotion and again the minimal use of his guitar complements it perfectly.
No folk song would be complete without a murder ballad and Prince Robert is McLennan's. He tried to put his own mark on the tune but in the end opted for adapting a traditional Irish tune to tell the story and none but McLennan himself would notice any joins. It's a story which should be enjoyed in the telling almost to the point where you don't need the music just McLennan's voice although he plays the guitar so well it's always a bonus to be able to enjoy his music.
The Scottish balladeer goes back to the overtly political with The Granite Cage, a reference to Peterhead Prison. This is a contemporary tale with hard-hitting and poignant lyrics from Alistair Hulett and yet the tune McLennan plays seems remarkably light in tone but again maybe this is to stop proceedings getting too heavy.
He gives it a clever and stingingly cold ending which mimics the final shut of a prison door.
The critics and the naysayers can go whistle because any folk album which includes good banjo playing deserves a listen and Henry Joy is a real gem on a great album.
The song is about rebellion in Ireland and Joy's involvement which ultimately lead to his death when he refused to betray his fellow rebels.
Ewan McLennan's new album
The tune and McLennan's style on this track remind very much of the late, great Pete Seeger. Although as likeable as this track is McLennan's voice doesn't sit so comfortably with the sound of the banjo as it does with his guitar but perhaps that's because the banjo tracks are just rare treats.
Like so many of his gigs McLennan ends this album with the gorgeous Coorie Doon or The Miner's Lullaby from Matt McGinn.
It is a just a beautiful song the title of which means to snuggle down. McLennan's voice is perfect for it too and if that wasn't enough it's given a further strand of emotion with Siobhan Miller's backing harmonies and MacColl's viola.
It's one of those tracks you can't just listen to once and the perfect song to end what is a near perfect folk album.
In this one album alone McLennan is keeping hundreds of years of folk traditions alive and the same could be said about Scottish folk tales, and when some performers are diluting the folk sound with other styles to the point where the traditional strand is being lost, McLennan and Stories Still Untold is an oasis from which everyone with an interest in folk music should drink.

Stories Still Untold is released September 29 through Proper Music and from

Ewan McLennan will be playing in Birmingham on November 19 at The Red Lion Folk Club, King's Heath, tickets are £11.

Other links:

The Mike Harding Folk Show

Friday 12 September 2014


CD Review

Steer In The Night

There is something wonderfully chilled out and mellow about TODS and sometimes their sound wouldn't be out of place in the jazz and beatnik gatherings of the 50s.

Robin Beatty
Somehow they have managed to capture that essence and yet keep very much a contemporary folk feel to what is a full, colourful and innovative sound from essentially a small orchestra who have the intricate sound of The Moulettes joined with the versatility of Bellowhead but without their brashness.
Steer In the Night was recorded while the septet of Robin Beatty, Helen Lancaster, Samantha Norman, Aaron Diaz, Laura Carter, Adam Jarvis and Jim Molyneux was on tour in London, Bristol and Birmingham and if you were at any of those gigs you will already know the engaging sound they produce using a wide range of instruments and gizmos. There are other genres such as funk, classical and jazz which can claim them for their own camps but there is still a definite strand of folk in there, mostly lurking in the inspirations which are drawn from the very fabric of life in which they wrap themselves.
The album opens with Blue Horse from drummer Molyneux and which was inspired by his Citroen Berlingo. This track is almost the TODS setting out their stall and straight from the off letting everyone know the range of sounds and styles they can produce and integrate into their performance.
There is the funked up and laid back jazz sound of Diaz on trumpet mixed with Lancaster and Norman on violin driven underneath by Molyneux on skins.
Craigie Hill is the first of the tracks which features Beatty's distinctive and slightly high pitched but gritty singing style.
Diaz gives this track an almost lazy feel with his mellow horn playing which is so just so cool, this is wrapped around by the gentle undertone of Norman and Lancaster on the strings and goes on a wonderfully understated and smooth slide into the ether.
The Enlli light is another of the instrumentals they do so well. This time there is more of a Celtic feel about it and while you can hear it's dyed-in-the-wool folk it does have a clean modern beat to it which sees it skip along.
Like so many of TODS offerings there are what are almost musical interludes where they take the music off at a tangent as if telling a story within a story before bringing the whole thing back to the main sound, and this is what happens with this track. You almost get a sensory overload with the mixture of sounds manoeuvring in and out the track.
The Old Dance School
Beatty's voice comes back for one of their well-known tracks, Sula Sgier, which is actually about a granite rock where gannets gather.
Taking advantage of this the locals from Ness on the Scottish mainland harvest and eat them in an annual ritual which has more than put the RSPB's nose out of joint but they refuse to give up their tradition.
This is a narrative tune telling of the ritual without taking sides, it has that Celtic sound thanks to the strings section but mostly it's Beatty's voice telling the story. Sounding not unlike Blazing Fiddles with its opening, From The Air is another of TODS' trademark instrumentals where they create a rich vortex of sound which dips and peaks through myriad phases to take you on a musical boat ride.
There are all the elements associated with TODS, cool jazz brass and the darting and erratic sounds of the fiddles pushing the melody along.
They slow it right down for Silver Tide with the gorgeously deep sound of Lancaster's viola which brings that rich, haunting sound that just carries you away on a cloud of sound or on the back of a seabird skimming just above the crests of the ocean.
It almost has the quality of a lullaby but never quite lets you drift into slumber, the gorgeous strands of sound keeping you aware of your senses.
Molyneux's accompaniment on the accordion mixed with Carter's whistle playing brings a magical quality to the whole proceedings.
Of all the professions you could write a tune about taxidermy is perhaps one of the more obscure. The track, written by Robin Beatty, is as unorthodox as the title and the inspiration, which was a recently deceased hare Beatty encountered and instead of walking on like most people, he took the cadaver to be stuffed.
It starts off quite sombre which as you can imagine is mourning for the dead animal but then picks up almost as if the tune is revisiting the vibrancy of the hare while it was still alive.
This is a more jazzy number than most on the album and Diaz is given free reign almost defying the pace which is being set by the drums and fiddles.
The new live album
The bands voices and harmonies come back for The Real Thing. Beatty is up front with the singing with Lancaster and Carter providing much of the backing harmonies.
This is about as fast-paced as TODS gets with precise folky inserts from the fiddles adding little gems to enjoy between the verses.
The noticeable thing about their voices is they never quite blend smoothly which gives them a very individual sound as a whole but which keeps clear boundaries between their individual vocals.
North Edge is a beautiful old-style Celtic sound through which comes Beatty's slightly effeminate tones. The sound fills and empties like a bellows where you have a full strand of notes which then drop off to a minimal tune just discernible under Beatty's singing. The gentle guitar and precise pizzicato opening to Wen is just the start of the build of another instrumental which has very simple but effective rhythms all underpinned by the gentle growl of Jarvis' double bass while Carter is allowed to play with the shrill whistle to dance in between the other instruments. This gives ways to a Tubular Bells-style insert which lasts for some time and builds up slowly like a surfing wave before crashing over and exposing the fiddle playing and whistle which carries the tune on to the finale which goes out with a slightly ethereal almost sinister sound created by Diaz on his gadgetry.
This segues into the traditional tune of John Ball.
TODS version has a minimal but effective opening with just the merest hints of the instruments underneath Beatty's singing. This is one the only track where the voices take star billing and it works very effectively with Beatty's distinctive, almost smoky tones taking pride of place and is held up yet again by some unobtrusive but distinctive harmonising.
Swifts and Martins is a real end of gig tune with the whole band clearly just having fun and almost jamming with this fast-paced and toe-tapping tune which has a built-in encore.
This album is as close as you will get to enjoying TODS live without actually attending a concert. In the collection you get the feel for the talent and precision with which they perform. They have the ability to be eclectic and experimental without once letting go of their love of folk.

Steer In The Night: Live is available now from the band's website.

The Old Dance School will be playing the Theatre Severn, Shewsbury on October 23; The Red Lion, King's Heath, Birmingham on October 29; The Courtyard Theatre, Hereford on November 1; Artrix, Bromsgrove November 2 and Subscription Rooms, Stroud on November 7

The Mike Harding Folk Show