Thursday, 14 December 2017

Sofia Talvik - When Winter Comes - A Christmas Album : Makaki Music

Maybe it is the scar of Bono’s infamous 1984 line healing or a timely visit from one of those Dickensian spirits, but a record clambering for room in the crowded seasonal market has burrowed into one’s mind to conjure up a few end of year thoughts. Original Christmas music can often present a crossroads for those artists tempted to indulge in it, either pop down the safe populist route or score some points with an alternative stab. It does not take too much deduction to expect someone from a folk-Americana slant to adopt the second stance and this collection from Sofia Talvik resides firmly in this camp. Regardless to where you stand on this type of themed music, the offering from this Swedish singer-songwriter is rather impressive and well equipped to soothe any cynics in the room.

This album has been a project ten years in the making, with Sofia maintaining a self-pact to write a new song each winter that attempts to throw a light on some of the less salubrious issues associated especially within a Northern Hemisphere Christmas. On the surface, a proliferation of titles containing the words: winter, cold and Christmas does suggest a little drift into cliché status, but the old adage of ‘do not judge the contents by the cover’ has never been more pertinent. What the album does reveal is a hour-long exhibition on how to blend a vocal style packed with glowing warmth into the sombre instrumental triangle of soft piano, morbid cello and haunting pedal steel. Yes, the subject content does focus away from a joyous tendency, exactly what would expect from titles such as ‘When It Rains on Christmas Day’, ‘Cold, Cold Feet’, ‘Clothe Yourself for Christmas’ and ‘A Carol for the Lonely’.

While a Nordic charm adorns these tracks, you cannot escape the Americana influence that has formed an artist who spends a large degree of her touring days stateside. Perhaps, this is the ultimate appeal alongside spending a captivating hour soaking up the ambient nature of these songs. Obviously, the shelf life of such a record is limited, but with it taking a decade to surface in this collective format, filing it away in a convenient place for retrieval in twelve months’ time should just be a small part of the preservation process.

Outside this seasonal release, Sofia Talvik is a highly active touring and recording musician, best known in the UK for the release of her 2015 album BIG SKY COUNTRY. Mainly, though it is continental Europe and USA that has been the geographical focus for her music, but you never know motives may change. There is ample evidence on this record to suggest there is a great deal more to come in conventional surroundings.

Whether WHEN WINTER COMES – A CHRISTMAS ALBUM opens the door for a deluge of seasonal releases to spark a response is highly unlikely. However, this Sofia Talvik album has found a chink in the armour and its blessings, sentiment and elegance have been embraced. So at a time when many of the favourite releases of the year are given one final spin to confirm their position on the annual wrap, there may just be a slight deviation into a record that adds a touch of credence to a maligned genre.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Robert Vincent and Dean Owens - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 4th December 2017

United by a record label; united by the rhetoric of song and now united in planting the roots firmly in the ever-popular songwriters’ round. Robert Vincent and Dean Owens are far from novices on a UK circuit that branches out from a core of Springsteen, Dylan and Young. Their latest venture is to team up with the Worry Dolls for a Roots in the Round tour that leaves Nashville out of the title, but is forever tinged with the song writing spirit that epitomises Music City. Midway through this string of early winter UK dates, the guys set about appearing in a couple of duo-only gigs; more roots in the semi-circle than the round. Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden has seen its fair share of highly crafted singer-songwriters pass through the brick-walled interior in 2017 alone, but sufficient room was made for a couple more, and our two protagonists perfectly fitted the bill.

At The Helm Records is the operation responsible for Robert’s award nominated 2017 album I’LL MAKE THE MOST OF MY SINS and if the wheel of fortune pays heed, similar acclaim may await Dean’s upcoming release SOUTHERN WIND, likewise a debut effort on this South Coast-based label. Both records offered material for this evening’s show as each artist set about stripping down a bunch of songs to expose their raw bones to a respectful audience. While there was ample synergy in how these two songwriters ply their trade, significant markers of differentiation enabled this show to flourish without the feel of a procession. Dean has a far more literal side to his art and a grounded vocal style greets the subject of his compositions on a platform of terra firma. In contrast, there is more flair to Robert’s style. This begins with a vocal range that cuts a rock thrust amidst material that appears to veer further in an abstract direction. Both artists were refreshingly candid about their influences that frequently were born from a deep personal experience or feeling.

It was no surprise in deducing Robert’s acoustic version of ‘Demons’ being the prime moment of the evening. Although it was closely followed by, ‘I’ll Make The Most of My Sins’, which seemed to evolve as a country piece when all the full-band faculties were stripped out. Probably the pick of his older songs was ‘The Passage’, and it was of added interest to get an insight to the origin of ‘The Bomb’.

An older song, with a combination of personal connections, titled ‘Man From Leith’ came out tops when reflecting upon Dean’s contribution, which amounted to around eight rotated songs in a brace of sets. It also bodes well that two new picks from the upcoming album, ‘Southern Wind’ and ‘Last Song’, came across as impressive live efforts, the latter constructed in association with legendary Nashville operator Will Kimbrough. Dean was the keener of the pair to invite the inevitable audience participation, with this number in addition to ‘Lost Time’ presenting opportunities for folks to offer a muffled accompaniment.

On an evening where the cast had to re-adjust to their temporarily slimmed down tour set up, there were certainly no complaints in hearing more Robert Vincent and Dean Owens, especially as Birmingham has not been on their touring horizon in recent times. What we were privileged to witness were two outstanding exponents of filtering the ware of their creative inspirations through the precious medium of song. Rob especially has spent a fair amount of time with his band this year and this solo show spun his music in a new and welcome light. Dean often ventures south from his Scottish base in solo mode, but you never know, the new album may present band opportunities this side of the border in the New Year.

Three key North American legends were namechecked in the opening paragraph, but lately, and in sad circumstances, Petty has been the go-to cover in the last month or two. ‘Learning to Fly’ may have lacked the Worry Dolls harmony vocals, but it crowned an enjoyable evening. Conclusively sealing a view that Robert Vincent and Dean Owens are two singer-songwriters fit to enrich any scene that they frequent.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Willie Campbell and The Open Day Rotation - New Cloud in Motion : Invisible King

The first advisable rule for making an album grab a listener’s attention is to toss in a memorable opening track. Obviously, this needs to be followed up with the remainder of the content being of a similar quality; a feat that has been achieved with the brand new album from Scottish –based singer-songwriter Willie Campbell. Along with the assembled ensemble billed as The Open Day Rotation, this artist -more specifically from the Outer Hebrides- has produced an extremely engaging and accessible album that never veers off a high plane highway. NEW CLOUDS IN MOTION greets the listener with a striking sky image on the cover before unleashing a dozen original tracks in a mature transition from artist to listener. Perhaps by design, not an album for genre purists, but definitely one for those possessing an open ear.

For descriptive purposes, take this record as a fringed-pop piece of adult contemporary rock, moulded into a package that would appeal to fans exploring the outer edges of folk, country and Americana. Where the record does score high is on the plentiful supply of chorus friendly melodies, occasionally heading into anthem territory, but never coming across as trend-chasing efforts. Willie’s experience working with Craig Wiseman in a Nashville song-writing role around a decade ago is certainly evident in the standard of song construction. The superior level of Music City song writing is indisputable in its ability to meet the needs of different markets and its imprint is found on these songs.

This album’s strength is that most of the tracks could be singled out as the focal point, but for me the two strongest are the superb and engaging opener ‘Mary Rest Your Head’ and the character-led high tensile metaphorical ballad ‘Winter Late in Spring’. The latter ends on a subtle twist and indicates a depth to the writing.

Throughout the duration of the record, which gets close to the hour mark, the fullness of the band sound makes a significant mark. An organ/sax input adds spice to ‘Going Through the Motions’, while the cello gives a sombre folk feel to ‘Circles’. If you want a connotation for these two tracks settle on The E Street Band meets Blue Rose Code. In other words, contemporary working class America with a classic Scottish twist.

While Willie takes control on a majority of the vocals, he does stand aside for Fiona McLeod to adopt the lead on ‘Toxic & Sweet’. The feel of this track raised comparisons with Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers, who made a similarly excellent album a couple of years ago. There is a slight switch in the overall tempo in a couple of tracks towards the end of the album especially in ‘What We Are Now’. Interestingly, the key feature of this nostalgia-inspired song is the line ‘mortality hit me at 30’. Oh for the thought!

Critically, this is an album free of formula, despite coming across as an easy ear friendly listen. It succeeds in drawing in those who make an enquiry into its worth and prospers by holding their attention. One possible amendment could have been slicing ten to fifteen minutes off the listening time and thus making the quality ultra-focussed. To Willie’s credit, I would not know where to make the cut.

While this album falls into the sizeable category of acclaimed Scottish singer-songwriters, to name Justin Currie, Roddy Frame and Ross Wilson to get the list underway, it is packed with credentials to spread far from the domain of its homeland. NEW CLOUDS IN MOTION does not indulge in a populist chase, but with the prevailing winds of good fortune, it will resonate with many people who it comes into contact with. Whatever your prior experience of Willie Campbell and The Open Day Rotation, the songs enrich the listener and make this a late candidate when considering releases that have made a significant effect in 2017.