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

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