Friday, 20 October 2017

Megan Henwood - River : Dharma Records

The new album by Megan Henwood epitomises some of the real strengths that exist today within the realm of artists that set out from a folk music base. This is not necessarily purely in the traditional form, but more from an alternative/contemporary angle where conventions wither in a tide of creative whim. To shed some light on the song style that lends itself to the material that forms RIVER, think of Megan co-habiting in the territory that has yielded exceptional albums from Laura Marling and Lucy Rose this year. This is British music almost boring a new hole to create a yet unnamed genre. Essentially, it’s innovative acoustic music, luring an audience with a captivating vocal appeal proving the ideal vehicle for deep meaningful songs.

Megan first caught my ear a couple of years ago with the release of her second album HEAD HEART HAND. If the judge is the number of plays far exceeding those required for review evaluation, then RIVER is surpassing the previous record and proving an essential album for a variety of moods. Without putting an overriding emphasis on a single particular quality, the hushed vocals exude both a warm and fragile emotion, whilst enriching a hypnotic listening experience. A compulsive beat and liberal sprinkling of engaging melodies will further push this album into the listening sphere of folks looking to expand from their comfort base.

All twelve tracks are self-penned efforts and in line with the connotation of the album title, have an aqua flavour. A brief delve into some of Megan’s thoughts towards making the album reveal more of this inspiration including the contrasting water features associated with past and present existences in Oxford and Cornwall. The quality of the songs, whether in implicit or explicit mode, will keep an inquisitive listener busy for a considerable amount of time; this is not exactly an ordeal when the music is so satisfying.

High spots from this record are aplenty, but few will argue against the immense effect of the opening two numbers. ‘Fresh Water’ just about edges ‘Join the Dots’ partly due to its chorus inducing shivers, but the preference is marginal. The choice may also be influenced by the inclusion of some trumpet, thus edging further away from the folk starting point.

Megan focusses on her home city of Oxford in ‘The Dolly’, repeatedly calling out ‘I’m not ready to leave this city yet’ amidst references to locations like the bubbling and bohemian Cowley Road. This is Megan probably at her most explicit, in contrast to the following track ‘Seventh’ and one, which leaves the listener room to dissect the evolving nature of yet another fascinating chorus.

Further into this album, the delightful ‘Rainbows’ and the moderating ‘Peace Be the Alien’ catch the ear to maintain the momentum right up to a slightly different sounding track to bring the record to a finish. ‘L’Appel du Vide’ translated to ‘the call of the void’ fills this spot, successful in displaying the delicate vocals unaccompanied before the faint music kicks in for a final time.

At times RIVER does straddle the line between cultured pop and a more abstract piece of art. It sets out to court listeners on an artist’s terms and for me that siphons out those designed on chasing trends rather than leading them. Megan Henwood falls entirely in the camp of the innovator and any accrued success for this album will entirely justify the approach to wander creatively. Mature, intriguing or any other descriptive elements only begin the process of where this record can register on the listener scale. Road testing it is an opportunity to be grasped.

Dori Freeman - Letters Never Read

Dori Freeman does not need an expansive canvas to weave her magical spell. In fact, the more minimalist the environment the better and LETTERS NEVER READ has provided the perfect vehicle to tantalise the discerning ear. Spreading its beauty in a concise twenty-eight minutes sees Dori skirting a touch with brevity, but the acute song selection and optimum production reaches out far from this homely base. Initial spins of this record gave a different feel to last year’s debut self-titled album, although closer aural examination yielded much of the same qualities. This is ideal, as the previous record was absolutely adored and the new one is racing to a similar status.

Similarities are also extended to the presence of Teddy Thompson once again in the production role. Dori’s velvet lined country vocals make the same delightful impact and totally own the airwaves from the moment the first bar is sung. The golden voice from Galax Virginia is the ideal strapline for Dori’s music, with its subtle roots underlay and pivotal position at the crossroads of traditional and contemporary roots music.

To grasp the structure of this album, it is worth analysing the impact of six original compositions mixed into the potpourri with four other tunes from a diverse range of sources. The listener is immediately exposed to the wealth of Dori’s song writing via a four-strong run of tunes led off by the sweet sounding waltz-like tones of ‘If I Could Make You My Own’. There is almost a seamless thread in this segment with ‘Just Say It Now’ carrying on the mantle of the opener. ‘Lovers on the Run’ follows, housing the album title in one of its lines and intimating that some songs written for past acquaintances never reach their intended destination.

One tempering feature that surfaces at this point is the more profound impact of the melody in the verses rather than the chorus. In the early stages of getting to grips with this record, it appears to lack a gem of a track in the vein that ‘Go on Lovin’’ illuminated the previous album. Maybe in time one will emerge, but if you’re seeking the ingrained earworm moments, the non-originals are more likely to deliver.

The Thompson family influence is extended to Dori decorating her adorable vocals around the classic ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ from the brilliant pen of Teddy’s father, Richard. There can hardly be a more contrasting vocal experience than between the original and Dori's version. Take your pick or appreciate the value in both.

To shore up the roots impact of this album, a moving a Capella version of a song written by Dori’s grandfather Willard Gayheart ensures time stands still for a brief couple of minutes at the midway point. ‘Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog’ is a tale that you would only expect to find in the backwoods of the rural South and it certainly warms the heart of those listening from afar. To further re-enforce the southern feel, a banjo-led old time gospel tune in ‘Over There’ offers a communal feel with it harking back to humbler times. The fourth and final outside song that Dori wraps her vocal chords around is a version of Jim Reeves’ ‘Yonder Comes a Sucker’, complete with drum roll and a comfortable fit as the album closer.

Cold Waves’, ‘Turtle Dove’ and the twang laden ‘That’s Alright’ complete the set of originals; all well-equipped to showcase Dori's qualities without quite hitting the heights of the three previously mentioned self-penned tunes. This far from waters down the overall feel to the album and the ultimate congenial beauty in its sparsity. Dori’s song writing does contain some interesting structural parts to arouse those who like to explore this aspect of the art. Also this album errs more on the upbeat side of love, in contrast to what we have come to expect from the genre in which she is rooted.

It has taken a little under two years for Dori Freeman to emerge as a recorded treasure and she is positively flourishing musically in the current set up that she operates in. The sleek and concise LETTERS NEVER READ has the potential for her to continue to make a leap forward. It does leave a little of the innocence of the first album behind, but significantly builds on the imperious qualities that Dori possesses. 

Wild Ponies - Galax : Gearbox Records

Another first class independent record tumbles out of Nashville and guess what…Neilson Hubbard is on top deck again guiding the talent. Without hesitation, Doug and Telisha Williams aka Wild Ponies will be first in the queue to praise the diverse team of accomplices who have conspired to create GALAX, surely one of the most heart rendering records to hit the shelves this year. This is explicitly the album that Doug and Telisha wanted to make. From start to finish, the listener is enfranchised to become part of a simpler and more basic world where values reign supreme over any agenda.

Wherever you listen to this record, your mind and soul will be transported to a little place of timeless solitude in rural Virginia. A place where imperfections are re-configured to fuel what matters in life and music remains the voice of liberation. GALAX the record, houses ten varied tunes that encompass what is unequivocal about authentic country and rural roots folk music; Galax the location, is where these songs were initially recorded and the original home of Doug’s family. A recurring theme as the songs roll out.

Just to put a few facts on the page, Nielson Hubbard took the ten tracks recorded in a disused farm that used to be the home of Doug’s grandparents back to Nashville to turn them into a practical shared format. Joining Doug and Telisha on this album were a mixture of fellow contemporary musicians from the Nashville community including Will Kimbrough, and a bunch of local players. These are folks who will continue to be keepers of the traditional music flame, in communities like this and likewise across the land. Gearbox Records is the ideal outlet to get the music issued to the wider world, with their recent back catalogue of releases including a similar sounding record by Applewood Road last year. In addition, the ten tracks were a carefully chosen selection of covers, new and older originals, plus a traditional fiddle-led tune, which launches the album in a manner that is retained for the forty-minute duration.

There is extensive blurb online and within the liner notes documenting the background story to this record, but the true effect of any deemed commercial release is how this transpires to a listener not party to the recording process. On this account, the Wild Ponies need have no worries as its impact carries the intended weight. The clarity of the instrumentation stands out alongside the impromptu sound effects that breathe life into the project. You can take your pick for a favourite track, but if you are au fait with their latest album, there is a re-working of ‘Tower and the Wheel’, which also featured there. The song that jumped out to me from first listen and remains a key component as plays rally into double figures is ‘Jackknife’, a cover of a Jon Byrd song (not to be confused with Jonathan Byrd, familiar with many folks here in the UK). The track is so reminiscent of classic Kris Kristofferson and Telisha’s graceful vocals do the song justice.

Like all records with longevity traits, each play reveals a little more about the song and that is certain to be the case with GALAX. Telisha once again hits the perfect note with a version  of ‘Pretty Bird’ made famous by Hazel Dickens, while the idealistic sense of communal bliss perspires from the joint endeavours that go into the opening traditional tune ‘Sally Ann’. A song complete with toe tapping fiddle and the revelation of this being referred to locally as the 'national anthem' around these parts.

You have to wait until the final stages before this record cracks the code of its source. ‘Goodnight Partner’ acts as the penultimate track and is a song credited to Doug’s family members. Like much of the album, Telisha makes use of her outstanding vocal ability to convey the conviction of a song to take lead, in what is quite a musically diverse piece, complete with pedal steel leading it off. This perfectly sets up a fitting finale with Doug taking up the reins to deliver a thoughtful ballad titled 'Here With Me' adapted from one of his grandfather’s poems. The crowning glory of a record soaked in a vintage tipple.

Earlier in the album, further collaborations that are more contemporary spring up on the writing front. Fine writers in the guise of Amelia Curran, Ben Glover and Amelia White add their weight to ‘Hearts and Bones’, ‘Will They Still Know Me’ and ‘Mamma Bird’ respectively. The former lent heavily to the promotion aspect of the record via the featured video, but the tight containment of the songs meant any could quite conceivably have risen from the pack to spearhead the assault to drum up sales.

The remaining track is quintessential Wild Ponies and it is fitting that ‘To My Grave’ is a pure co-write between Doug and Telisha. It could quite easily have been lifted from the record that pre-dated the name ‘Wild Ponies’ and captures the very essence of the sound that is perceived they set out to create.

On last year’s Wild Ponies album, we were temporarily advised to ‘unplug the machine’. It appears Doug and Telisha have heeded their own advice, as far as you can go when making a record. GALAX scores highly in its intended aims and finding a fault remains a futile search in such a highly personalised piece of work. While the record is obviously steeped in the past, its ultimate appeal is how it illuminates the present. When both listener and artist enthuse on the same page, the job is done for now. Celebrating the frozen moment of the present is something we should never shy away from doing.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

John Craigie - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick, West Midlands. Friday 13th October 2017

John Craigie may not be a well-known name yet on the UK circuit for touring American artists, but this is set to change. While it is easy these days to seek recorded material online, the counter balance is the sheer magnitude of what is out there competing for your leisure pound and afforded time. Networking, connections and recommendations play a substantial part in spreading the word of an artist, more increasingly imperative when resources restrict the level of funded PR. However, the biggest stake artists like John Craigie can put in the ground is to get in front of folks and let the blossom of their talent takeover.

For this inaugural tour of our shores, John has secured a comprehensive list of dates the length of the country and one guarantee is that audiences will be captivated by the show he puts on. It helps if you possess an extraordinary flair for nailing the art of entertainment, especially when it comes to marrying the close alliance of wit, satire and conviction with the timeless appeal of the folk-inspired acoustic guitar.

As the tour reached the midpoint, there was no more appropriate place for an artist like John Craigie to be than the homely surroundings of a community library. Among the throngs of literary content, the wares of a travelling troubadour settle and prosper. Such wares mingle in the guise of stories and songs, often infusing a social awareness, while balancing the microcosm of personal experience with the progressive tendencies of a wider world.

The label says it all
Apart from a comfortable backdrop and warm welcome, Thimblemill Library, in the deepest confines of the expansive urban West Midlands, afforded John the spacious zone of over an hour and half in the spotlight. Maybe a touch different to thirty minutes supporting Jack Johnson in a twenty thousand packed arena, but the true test of any performer is to let your art work its magic in any environment.

At this point, readers can become listeners to grasp more about the music of John Craigie in the usual sources. This is highly recommended. Without preaching too much about the obvious, you will discover the archetypal American folk troubadour. A performer holding onto the traditional ideals that forged ahead in the sixties, while also applying a nod to Woody Guthrie, without harking back too much to the past. Most importantly though, John is fully embedded into the contemporary power of song.

As you would come to expect from a folk singer based in Portland Oregon, politics does play a small part, but it is probably a more general liberal outlook on life and perceived social commentary, which spearheads John’s songs and stage presence. Aside from the songs, many of which can be found on his albums, this show shed an entertaining light on growing up and residing on the West Coast and how its communities interact. Ranging from the relationship between Seattle and Portland, ordering a late night mac ‘n’ cheese to receiving a certain kind of university education and serving brownies at an election party, the lengthy interludes between songs never outstayed their welcome.

Right from the off, John played a bunch of songs that fluctuated from the humorous to the cutting. Each one made an impact, either to bridge a story or just put a Friday night smile on the faces of the audience. His only diversion from the self-penned effort  was an encore version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California’, poignant in its sentiment towards John’s home state and the proximity he was currently in regarding the roots of  the original’s lead singer.

To launch another successful evening presented by the events team at Thimblemill Library, Coventry based singer-songwriter Izzie Derry made a return appearance in the area to share her songs and prove an ideal opening act for John. Izzie is beginning to make a name on the local scene and what she brings to the stage is the innovation to stretch her talented vocals. The songs are showing positive signs of developing alongside how she utilises the acoustic guitar. She is definitely an artist to look out for as she forges a path for her music alongside life’s other demands. John’s continual courtesy towards Izzie added to the cordial atmosphere of an evening that resounded to the artistry that a single performer and their powerful plugged-in accomplice can weave.

In what can be a crowded world of the solo acoustic performer, even those crossing the Atlantic to reach out further, John Craigie commendably stood out from the posse with a welcoming left field effect. Hopefully, sufficient interest can be generated from this visit to make these trips a regular occurrence. Thoughts turn back a decade to when Otis Gibbs first made tentative steps to share his songs in our listening rooms. If John Craigie comes even close to replicating the onward trajectory that rolled out from that point, there will be a load of satisfied music fans throughout the land. Allow him the space and time, and this guy will deliver. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Good Lovelies - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 9th October 2017

Four years gone in the blink of an eye. Well, technically two since the Good Lovelies last hit our shores with a short curtailed visit to promote their last album. However, you have to go back to 2013 when they previously played the West Midlands and that never to be forgotten gig at Star City. The curiosity of that show has grown over the years despite not even being present, although over an extended weekend of that tour their sets in Oxford and the Maverick Festival were both delightfully savoured. So in effect, this Kitchen Garden show rolled out as a renewed Birmingham debut and the Canadian trio succeeded in impressing fans, both new and old.

The province of Ontario had been the original base for the trio of Kerri Ough, Caroline Brookes, Sue Passmore (although Kerri announced early in the gig that she now lives in New Foundland), and they have represented their homeland splendidly on the international music stage for close on a decade. Their affable style of harmony-blessed acoustic folk has warmed the hearts of many an audience with a sound that has ebbed from the staunchly traditional to a venture into a more contemporary pop feel. Possibly the biggest sonic step was the production vibes that steered the latest album BURN THE PLAN. Having missed out promoting this 2015 release in these parts on the previous tour, it formed the centrepiece of this evening’s twin sets. Opening with ‘Don’t Hold Back’ and closing the pre-encore segment a couple of hours later with ‘Old Fashioned Love’, the tempo of the newish songs was defined by the delicate strumming of Caroline’s electric guitar and the keyboard excerpts of Kerri, to complement her banjo and acoustic guitar playing.

One aspect of the Good Lovelies that is inescapable is their organic roots DNA. It only took the second song of the evening for Sue to step up from her percussion role to lead on ‘Made for Rain’, which was close to defining the traditional leaning sound that formed the material housed within the 2011 album LET THE RAIN FALL. Also from this record, ‘Crabbuckit’ sounded as fresh as its first airing a number of years ago, delivered with the sole accompaniment of MJ Dandeneau’s stand-up bass. In a burgeoning role as one of Canada’s top ‘go-to’ touring bassists, MJ has reunited a  previous stint of being the ‘fourth Lovely’ for this tour and continued to play an integral part of providing the framework for the songs to blossom.

Perhaps, the key factor projecting the value of the Good Lovelies is the impeccable timing and close-knit composition of their varied harmonies. These were prevalent throughout the show and closely followed by illuminous stories bridging into such revealing songs as ‘Best I Know’ and ‘Sleepwalking’. The informal chat was held in the same egalitarian manner as the way the vocals are shared. Vocally, it was hard to top the off mic encore version of ‘Your Long Journey’, although another foray into the works of others via a stunning rendition of the David Francey song ‘Torn Screen Door’ was almost its equal.

As you would expect in an intimate Kitchen Garden gig, invited polite audience participation came to the fore, ranging from murmured interludes to the infectious lengthy chorus of ‘Lie Down’. Outside the aforementioned songs, ‘Daylight’ came across as a strong offering and ‘Waiting For You’ possessed a more stripped down feel than the version that was heavily promoted with the last album. The future was also not left out with the band announcing a new album set for release in the New Year, whilst giving an insight to its wares via the tracks ‘I See Gold’ and ‘This Little Heart’. The most positive promise of the evening was Kerri keen to not repeat the significant gaps between touring comprehensively, although expanding families has been a valid reason.

To open for the Good Lovelies, a new name was presented to the Kitchen Garden faithful in Leamington Spa based young singer-songwriter Joe Dolman. An innate vibrancy adorned his acoustic style as he confidently displayed the traits and song writing adeptness to court a significant following. Possessing a smart mind to go along with an acute ear is a useful ally and one set to serve Joe well as he plots a strident course in what can be a crowded field.  

Knowing how to present a warm glow to an appreciative audience has long been a redeeming feature of the Good Lovelies. In the four years since last catching them live, none of the magnetism has faded. The songs continue to effortlessly breeze into a hushed zone and the often overused ‘less is more’ analogy has never been better suited than to the music that this band creates. Finally, if those harmonies can be bottled…

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Opinion Piece : The Death of the Negative Music Review

There is an increasing amount of talk in the chattering circles about the death of the negative music review. This comes at a time where the art of journalism is undergoing substantial structural change alongside the mode of publication being forever turbulent to the tide of technological advance. Traditional outlets, even in the online form, are no doubt under a constant threat of diminishing revenue streams, and thus the stranglehold of commercial reality over artistic integrity continues to strengthen. At this juncture, it would be moot to consider the impact of the favourable review over the one not so kind. With advertising revenue being the obvious king, the biggest driver is traffic, so therein lies the conundrum of what kind of review accrues the target numbers.

Descending several steps down the ladder, advances in technology continue to entirely democratise the independent voice and thus the proliferation of the amateur publication, which indulges in the timeless art of music criticism. Whether in the guise of the solo blogger or the more polished websites operating in the shadows of the pseudo content elite, opinion has never been more open and accessible. By and large though, this is almost entirely positive from top to bottom, even when the financial stake can only have a token effect.

From a personal perspective, I fall wholeheartedly into this solo category with seven hundred plus reviews in the book over the last five years. The ethos to remain positive and independent has evolved over time to become the main driver and writing guide light. Any change in the positivity tone has always been tempered by where do you start. Do you randomly pick an album you don’t like and then choose to dissect the rationale? This may be a record you perversely chose to purchase or likewise, chose to spend a lot of time listening to in order to come to a rational conclusion. On the other hand, it may be a promo where a publicist is keen to read a review – good or bad!

However, it is likely that if you are receiving promo copies for review there is a strong element of positivity in your writing. Developing a smart notion of the stakeholder in the music chain is useful if you enter some part of it. In addition, there is a chance that if a publicist is sending you multiple artists, the likelihood is that some are going to appeal. So if you reside in the finite world of leisure time, stark choices in the way you take to an album are presented in the review opportunities. Now there is the obvious route of balancing your output, should you choose it. This comes back to the previous assertion of allocating time to something, which doesn’t really appeal.

The whole value of a review is also something to ponder. These days it is easy to sample all material purchased, so any review is likely to be a signpost rather than influence taste. Of course, artists, publicists and any other stakeholders can feast on a positive review; some to greater extent than others do and not always, where you predict. Social media presents endless reach for the positive review. As long as it’s written from a genuine independent stance, they can be a force for good. The art of constructive criticism is a peculiar one in terms of it suggesting what would make a record appeal more to you – the individual. Although, you should never lose sight that all reviews are subjective by their nature.

If the demise of the negative review continues, does this signal the end of the review possessing any valuable credibility? The true test to its survival is in the quality of the piece and to the extent that the style appeals to the reader. It also must be totally independent to the PR blurb, which is increasingly being written with such flair. Perhaps an indication of the flight of the journalist to the other side.The strength of the positive review is to remain grounded, while indulging in the odd bout of hyperbole should the feeling arise. Stressing why you think a record has appealed should be the goal and perhaps why folks should come round to your trail of thought. Only after they have listened to it, mind you.

Developing an effective filter system is a good trait, should you get embroiled in the the web of PR and possess the desire to remain independent. I am fortunate to be in the position where submissions easily double the review limit that life imposes. Of course any publicist worth their salt will get a grasp on what moves you as a listener. This will obviously lead to more reviews in their direction, but this is not necessarily a major issue as long as your filter system is strong and working.

One danger of getting too embroiled in a publicist network is leaving too little time to use the power of your own feelers. Some bloggers choose to open up their reviews to the purchased content, this firms up the positivity angle, while strengthening the independent nature. Over the years, I have resisted this route. To this extent, I am quite pleased with the current balance of roughly 50/50 when looking at my evolving albums of the year list in terms of promo and purchased. The most important thing about music blogging is its freedom to do whatever you want. Over the years, I have toyed with following others by going down the content route. Gladly this didn’t prevail and now I am totally comfortable with the format of the near entirety of independent self-written album and gig reviews.

The art of blog and website analysis is to truly understand where a writer is coming from. Hits and traffic that massage an ego can be harmless and perfectly fine, especially for those who know the romanticism of their role. If the demise of the negative review is likely to continue, then it becomes more important to evaluate the product and substance of the source.

Essentially, there will be a response to assertions of demise from those who do actively partake in balancing the thoughts of their mind in print or online. It is important though to stand back and consider that we are all just playing a subjective game. Alternatively, it may be viewed that standing up to weighted interest is vital in this day and age. Regardless of your point of view, music reviewing should remain fun, especially when operating on the lower rungs of the ladder. However, being smart and astute is more fun.