Thursday 31 December 2015


CD Review

This, That & The Other

Marina Florance is just one of the coolest women on the folk circuit at the moment. The Londoner hasn't done the conventional route into music, starting quite late in life, but it shows in her unconventional sound. 

Marina Florance
Her style is a cross between Leonard Cohen and Peggy Seeger with a sort of retro 50s feel reminiscent of great singers such as Ketty Lester and Patti Page
Her music crosses boundaries between folk, country, blues and Americana and on occasion has a definite continental feel to it.
Florance has such a distinct sound which has the ability to make you feel nostalgic without even knowing why or what for. Opening with I Told You My Troubles you have the gentleness of her voice which belies the strength of character in the lyrics and rhythm. It almost has the feel of a native American anthem and seems to come with its own history.
What follows is Little Black Cloud which has all the feeling of a torch song and which you can imagine being sung in the back of a candle-lit cavern full of beatniks and the air thick with the smell of Gauloises. 
The Wedding Song again harks back to singers such as the great Patsy Cline and her frock wearing contemporaries. This is a gentle offering and although it has the light feeling of song that wouldn't be out of place in Mary Poppins, Florance has that ability to give it a depth of feeling which puts her on a par with peers such as Kathryn Roberts and Ange Hardy.
The subtle use of strings in her creation A Better Song is so precise, not a single note is wasted. It's a beautiful ballad, the only questionable part is Richard Pierce's call to Florance's response, the addition of which doesn't really add anything to the whole.
Take A Little Time begins as a simple sound which adds layer after layer as the song progresses and has again that built-in retro sound which sounds like something you once heard and reminds you of a better happier time but you don't quite know when. Listening to Florance is like having your own musical time machine, however you can't quite set the dial to pinpoint the exact time. It's a quality she should nurture because it makes her stand out.
She plumbs for the pretty much contemporary country sound with When The Past Came A Callin' and by now you come to realise her talent doesn't just lie in her notable singing and playing, but she is a fine songwriter keeping her lyrics simply but effective.
You feel she has honed every song until there is simple no room for anything superfluous or which adds nothing to the whole. You get an inkling they are musical sculptures where she has chipped away at everything which doesn't sound like the finished song. Carried away is almost the sister song to the previous offering and even has shades of Dolly Parton in it as the mandolin carries her voice along at a canter.
She is at her most Cohenish with Bring Me That Sweet Thing Called Love, you can feel on this track she is really pushing her voice to the limit of its range and she isn't found wanting. It's another perfect example of how economic she is with her music and singing, you just hear that every note played and sung has been handcrafted to fit in its place in the whole. And of course exhibiting the mark of a craftswoman by making it sound so easy.
Florance's new album
Had the doo-wop feel of the A Room Of Your Own not been written by her it could easily feel like it was plucked straight from the 1950s. You can almost see the glitterball highlighting the frocks and Ben Sherman's as couples indulge in the last dance of the night.
I'll Remember You carries an uncanny resemblance to unchained melody and is just as lovely a ballad but with Florance's trademark minimalist style. She has this remarkable way about her which makes you want to hear every word of the verses like being engrossed in the pages of a gripping novel. In this track too, more than any other, her voice seems to exude an incredible vulnerability.
The final track is an instrumental version of track three which is light, cheerful and just lovely to indulge in. 
For all the albums which are due out in 2016 this will be among the first and if all the others match the distinctiveness and enjoyability of Florance's then folk fans are in for a fantastic year of music and song.

This, That & The Other is available to download on January 1 from Folkstock Records with the official album launch on January 16.

Thursday 17 December 2015


CD Review

Open Airs

Right from the first note this album from Kyrre Slind produces such evocative gentle music that it's almost like listening to something spiritual. Initially it would be easy to mistake Slind's playing for the expert fingers of someone such as Martin Simpson, he has that same relaxed but masterful style.

Kyrre Slind
At more than eight minutes Oysterhaven is a serene introduction to the Norwegian's musical diary of his travels through Norway, Ireland and Scotland.
This really is a beautiful guitar piece which shows you just how subtle the instrument can be.
Coming soft on its heels is Remembering, where Slind gives his strings something close the sound of a harp. There is definitely an ethereal quality both about his playing and composing. This is musical massage, it's incredibly therapeutic so much they should even consider selling it in pharmacies as a tension buster.
Gaupskaret has more of a middle eastern/Turkish sound to it with Slind using some very primeval singing to accent what is an incredible composition.
Leksa has the sound of the past in its notes sound like it has arrived from a Europe of medieval times with a sound which Ian Pittaway also expertly reproduces as part of The Night Watch.
Sandra's Melody seems to incorporate the styles Slind has already put on show with a very folky rhythm but still that eastern twang to it and he even throws in what could tribal throat singing. This is followed by Tunnsjo which is onomatopoeic as Slind uses the guitar to recreate and be inspired by nature. You get the feel of the wind creating ripples across a mountain lake; of the warmth of the sun and of the rainstorm. It really is an inspired and clever piece of music making. Braien's Melody brings with it precise picking where every note is released with laser deftness in a gorgeous flow to make a lilting whole.
Another melody, this time Kevin's follows this and again there is that precise picking which, in this case sounds so familiar and yet so new.
The tune changes almost imperceptibly gentle segueing into borders where the strumming becomes more thoughtful and restful, moving in and out like a tide. And like the sea, the tune is slightly unpredictable and changes according to the ebb and flow of the water. Towards the end, the style of play is akin to the sitar giving it the sound of a raga. The final track is in complete contrast.
Under Water does convey a world which is hampered by the viscosity of the medium, the slow pace touches slightly on the melancholy and does have a feel of the middle section of a Pink Floyd piece.
Slind is undoubtedly an expert when it comes to massaging the strings and does have a remarkable ability to spark emotions and create images with his sound.
What you get with this album is not only some unique and inspiring compositions from Slind but his experience of travelling into Ireland and Scotland mapped out for you in his musical notation and, while they were borne personally from his travels, he has left them open enough for the listener to interpret and find their own forms and visions.

Open Airs is available now through Slind's website, Bandcamp, Spotify and iTunes

Friday 11 December 2015


CD Review

The Hebridean Sessions

There are occasions when you could accuse Scottish traditional music and particularly bagpipe music of being too harsh, loud and aesthetically tooth grating but none of that applies to Daimh and their new album.

Celtic super-group Daimh
It would be easy to use an analogy and call this a great single malt of music but that wouldn't do it. Like the majority of the whisky most of us drink, the album is actually one of the finer blends.
Angus MacKenzie, Gabe McVarish, Ross Martin, Murdo Cameron and Ellen MacDonald have put together every shade of Gaelic music including the incredibly subtle, the bordering-on-spiritual and the wonderfully evocative sound of the Hebrides. To add to their achievements they have recently won Scottish Folk Band of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards known affectionately as the Trads. The tracks on this album carry the essence of the northern islands of Mull, Skye and South Uist where they were recorded, so both the musicians and listeners would get a deeper understanding of the genetics of Scottish/Gaelic music.
Opening with Locheil's Away this mixture of quickstep and reels has that sharp wail of the drones but MacKenzie's skill takes the slight edge off it showing just how versatile and multi-layered the sound of the pipes can be, especially when married to Martin's guitar and Cameron's mandola. It's a wonderful introduction to anyone who has a prejudice against the pipes. These don't wail they serenade.
This is followed by the beautifully lilting sound of Dhannsamaid Le Ailean where you first get to hear MacDonald's died-in-the-wool folk singing. Along with McDonald's voice there is a very special blend of pipes, whistle, fiddle and mandola which is as carefully crafted together as the whiskies which come from the north.
Ellen MacDonald
McDonald has a depth to her voice which bounces alongside the instruments holding her own against the strong sounds which envelope her.
O Fair A-Nall Am Botal gives McDonald a further chance to show the range of her singing skills. The song starts almost like a Gaelic blues but quickly slips into a minimalist sound as her vocals take centre stage. Her singing has a lightness to it but there is always a tinge of brooding melancholy in her voice.
Instantly recognisable as traditional Gaelic Bog An Lochan wonderfully shows off McVarish's understated fiddle playing. McVarish grew up in California but you would never know it from his playing. Even though his playing is not overpowering he takes pride of place with Cameron keeping an even lower profile on his guitar until they are both upstaged by MacKenzie's drones. With the opening of Pattern Day Jigs it's hard to know where the fiddle begins and the accordion ends, as again Cameron and McVarish race along in perfect sync, this time being hurried along by MacKenzie on the whistle to make a really enjoyable whole which shows the subtlety of their musings. Cuir A Nall gives little away to start with but when the repetitive sound of MacDonald's singing slides in gently you realise the musicians have paved the way for the singing perfectly. By now you realise, as a band, how much they have captured the vast range of sound, emotions and traditions which are as individual as the mountains, valleys and lakes which make up the highlands that have been such an inspiration. MacDonald's voice builds up apace like a steam train snaking through the region until like the mist across the lochs, it suddenly disappears. Gur E Mo Ghille Dubh Dhonn is one of those songs where, unless you know the language expertly, you have no idea what MacDonald is singing about but nevertheless you are glad she is singing it. The album has these wonderfully quirky symbols, rather like emoticons on the web, whereby they tell you not only the content but the amount of particular content too. For instance this one is about drink, a boat, a child and heartbreak.
Harris Dance is a beautifully lilting tune led by MacKenzie on the whistle and highlighted by McVarish on fiddle along with Martin and Cameron before they step back and allow the latter loose with the bellows. On this track, more than any others,  they have the blend of traditional and contemporary about as near to a single malt as you can get. It's the contemporary which kicks off Oran an Tombaca the distinct strumming of the guitar overlaid quite strongly with whistle before MacDonald's voice comes dancing in for the song about tobacco. The beauty of this track is that it's a very simple tune which is executed wonderfully with all of the musical elements weaved into a harmonious strand, much like the tweed or tartan associated with the region and, once it's finished, you can see how the individual strands have combined to make whole.
The new album
With a similar intro to the previous, the final track uses the guitar again to lead the way for the whistle to bring in Dunrobin where McVarish seems to be having some fun on the fiddle before it all comes to an end. Not to be outdone MacKenzie makes his presence felt on the pipes with Martin keeping it all moving along at a brisk pace.
If you thought all Scottish/Gaelic traditional or highland music sounded the same then this album should change your mind. The collection of musicians who have come together to produce this musical menu is impressive and with the tracks being recorded on three different isles the music has captured the individual spirit of Skye, Mull and South Uist. So if you can't get there yourself then this album will allow you to take a musical journey into the far north and the land of breathtaking scenery.

The Hebridean Sessions is available now from Goat Island Music through the band's website.