Whisper it—well no, scratch that, shout it loudly— folk music is popular again. From the sixties and seventies revivalists, to the electric folk warriors and the underground that kept folk music alive in the mid to late eighties, in the year 2009 the scene draws on a wide range of influences and is probably more vibrant than at any time during the past twenty years. This mighty fine collection from the good people at Proper Records pulls together two discs of the greats, including the English Ceilidh sound of the Gloworms, BBC Young Folk Award winners Jeana Leslie and Siobhan Miller, Ruth Notman's exhilarating interpretation of Limbo, and the rather good Pillowfish. This compilation covers all the elements of the current scene, and is a fantastic introduction to some great acts.
Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity Streetnoise and The Mod Years Yellow Label SPV306322
Labelled one-hit wonders in the UK , this was in fact a band of many fine talents, including the elfin Julie Driscoll with her powerful voice and Brian Auger, one of the finest Hammond organ players. This double album pairs The Mod Years, a collection of their singles and B-sides, with their lesser-known 1969 triumph Streetnoise. The Mod Years includes their legendary version of This Wheel's on Fire, as well as other songs from that period such as David Ackle's Road to Cairo and the classic Cry Me a River, which also features the vocal talents of Rod Stewart and production by Eddie Offord. Streetnoise is a blues/prog/psych classic, with some great interpretations (Light my Fire) nestling alongside some classic originals (Tropic of Capricorn), while a fantastic run-through of the blues classic I've Got Life shows the band at their finest; this could be a contender for the most overlooked album of 1969. Forty years on, it's time to have a closer listen and recognise the quality throughout these recordings.
Trader Horne Morning Way Esoteric Records ECLEC2088
Or what Judy did next… Original Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble had worked with Giles, Giles & Fripp before they mutated into King Crimson, and in 1970 she hooked up with former Them member Jackie Macauley to release this, the one and only Trader Horne album. Its reputation has grown over the years as a lost classic reminiscent of Mellow Candle's Swaddling Songs (also on Esoteric, by the way) and it's clear why. Judy's crystal-clear vocals are at their finest on this album, and the music is folky and psychedelic in turn. This reissue gives us a chance to discover an album that should have been big on its release.
Jackie McAuley Jackie McAuley Esoteric Records ECLEC2110
Former Them guitarist and member of Trader Horne, McAuley's elegant debut album is released for the first time in the UK on CD, including, as bonus tracks, the A- and B- sides of his debut single. Originally released in 1970, this sees McAuley taking centre stage with his own songs, from the superb opener Turning Green and the very laid-back blues of Boy On a Bayou to story-led songs like Cameraman and Wilson & Holmes, amongst many others. The music is from an era when folk, rock and blues mingled to create something new, and this superb reissue is a great example of the musical fusion and creativity of the time.
Jimmy Campbell Son of Anastasia Half Baked Jimmy Campbell's Album Esoteric Records ECLEC2106/2107/2108
Recorded between 1969 and 1972 for Mercury Records, these albums are the total recorded solo output of legendary Liverpool singer-songwriter Jimmy Campbell. Previously a member of groups The Kirkbys and The 23rd Turnoff, Campbell released Son of Anastasia in 1969. With wonderful tracks like Michaelangelo and They All Came Marching Home, it is a superb debut, comparable to the work of Bill Fay. Its follow-up Half Baked is probably the most fully realised Campbell album, with its now-legendary pregnant clown sleeve and songs of aching emotional depth and maturity (In my Room, the title track, and Don't Leave Me Now). Jimmy Campbell's Album was pulled together from a selection of sparse acoustic numbers—to compare it to Nick Drake wouldn't be too far off the mark—and the record label hired sympathetic musicians to enhance the tracks without drowning the sound. A maverick talent, Campbell drifted back to Liverpool, leaving these brilliant records as a testament to his talent. He sadly passed away in 2007 with these albums as his legacy, and what a legacy they are.
The Xcerts In the Cold Wind We Smile Xtra Mile Recordings
This is another great record on Xtra Mile, which is quickly becoming the rock/alternative label to be seen on. The Xcerts hail from the North East and their first album has a lot of power behind it, containing the anthemic debut single Crisis in the Slow Lane, the epic Cool Ethan with its fantastic lyrics and powerful rock sound, and the excellent title track. This album brims with vitality and a subtle mix of light and shade: there are vocal harmonies one minute, and mind-blowing riffs the next. It is brilliant, and well worth investigating.
Elbow Jane 3-Side Island Fellside Recordings FECD223
One of the UK's finest acoustic live acts, Elbow Jane bring their mixture of contemporary song-writing and traditional folk to record. The band is made up of three multi-instrumentalists who are also fantastic vocalists: the harmonies are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, backed by some of the finest musicianship I've heard for a long time. The title track, about the Wirral peninsula, is fantastic, whilst the cover version of Tim O'Brien's Walk with Me is brilliant. This is a great debut album, worthy of discovery by anyone who is into new folk groups.
Glastonbury-based trio Little Black Number are already wowing audiences in the South West with their taut blend of funky grooves and superb guitar work. Now they present their debut EP, a definite statement of intent. Taking the classic rock power trio idea and adding some serious bass, soulfulness, and great vocals on Patience, and the title track Broken Skies, the band are full of verve. They should make their presence felt across the UK very soon.
Kilburn-based songwriter Sean Taylor explains that his impressive album Calcutta Grove developed through his live playing, and he has certainly worked hard to build up a loyal following through performances in Germany and Switzerland, as well as on three stages at Glastonbury and across the UK. The nature of the recording means that this album is an intimate, mellow affair, immediately bringing to mind Solid Air-era John Martyn. With a superb acoustic guitar style and ambient instrumentation, you'd expect to hear this over a glass of whisky in a smoky blues club late at night. Taylor's world-weary vocals add depth and emotion to these contemporary blues songs, including a stunning version of Skip James's Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, which fits in nicely with his own original material. The stand-out track is the eight minutes-plus Nightmares (with a superb trumpet contribution from Gemma Fuller, the only other musician on the record). This fantastic and complex album pulls you in and takes you on an emotional journey, as Taylor's words weave in and out of the music, the narratives of a born storyteller mixing with the musical stylings of a natural bluesman.
Craig & Willoughby Calling All Angels Cabritunes Records CAB002
Anyone who saw the Strawbs in the mid-nineties will remember the superb guitar playing of Bryan Willoughby. Since he left the Strawbs he has been recording with brilliant vocalist Catherine Craig, and this, their latest album, features one of their best-known pieces, the beautiful Alice's Song. With a mixture of traditional material (The Rejected Lover and The Green Glens of Antrim) and highly personal songs dedicated to and sometimes written about family members, the musical partnership of Craig & Willoughby is solid throughout on this excellent contemporary folk collection.
Fire The Magic Shoemaker Estoric Records ECLEC2117
Speaking of Strawbs guitarists, this is what Dave Cousins' long-serving lieutenant Dave Lambert did before he joined the prog legends. A traditional sixties power trio, Fire were one of the hardest-working live bands in London between 1967 and 1970, and in 1968 were signed to the Decca label. Their debut album (like so many others of the period) ended up as a concept album, about the shoemaker of the title. Lambert's spoken-word narration (told as a story to children on a bus) clearly marks it as a product of its time. The music hasn't dated, however: Lambert's distinctive guitar playing, Dick Dufall's bass, and Bob Voice's drums work well together, their tight playing enhanced by years of gigging that had made them a formidable musical unit. Included on this fantastic Esoteric reissue are A- and B-sides of all the singles released by Decca, the '68 psychedelic classic Father's Name is Dad, and the rocker Round the Gum Tree. If you are a Strawbs fan, this package is a delightful curio for you to discover.
Los Albertos Dish it Up Chief Recordings LA105
Add this to the other evidence—a big Specials reunion tour and a new Madness album—that 2009 is set to be the year of ska and Two Tone revival. Brighton-based ska-dance six piece Los Albertos have been around since 2002 and are favourites on the live scene, performing over a hundred gigs a year. Their third album gives the world some more of their unique mix of ska, rock, dance, and funk. Highlights include the sax-driven Carry on Regardless, the title track, and the electro funk of Phase. This fantastic, brassy album is a definite summer record, but one that is worth returning to.
Black Parrot Seaside Ain't it Grand? Spindrift Records Spin118
Originally formed in the mid-seventies at the tail-end of the electric folk revival, Black Parrot Seaside always kept things light: parody, satire, humour and a great tune were their trade marks. They eventually folded in 1982, but in 2006 they re-formed for a charity gig and enjoyed it so much that three years later, they are still together. On their latest release, the quartet of Geoff Veasey (vocals, tambourine, and swanee whistle), Mick Harris (mandolin, banjo, and accordion), Eddie Jones (fiddle, accordion, and pub piano) and Arnold Chave (acoustic and electric guitar) turn their humorous gaze on all sorts of subjects. They cover DIY on the opening track (with which I identify so much….I'll tell the story of the foot through the kitchen ceiling another time), nostalgically look back to the old days of the cinema (Odeon) and the steam locomotive (Requiem for Steam), and take the mickey out of the current trend for Mockney accents on the brilliant Cockney Power, with a brief medley of London songs. This amusing and affectionate look at the world today is an album well worth listening to.
Talented English folk duo Ivor and Kevan Bundell are firmly rooted in the contemporary tradition. They are more than ably accompanied by friends and family on this record, which opens with Mr Mitchell's Angel, a track celebrating the Spitfire and its creator RJ Mitchell. The war theme continues on the excellent Widow of War, dedicated to "the generation that lived through two Great Wars" and a lament for those who were lost. There is also the evocative and haunting Hanging Tree and the superb English Green, which celebrates English identity. The Bundell brothers have created a fantastic English folk album that sits nicely between the folk-rock of Fairport Convention and contemporary folk songs by Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. If you listen to it, you will certainly find a permanent place for it in your collection.
Little Johnny England Ten Years On Talking Elephant TECD142
As this apt new retrospective reminds us, it's been ten years since one of our finest (and most underrated) folk-rock bands started performing. Featuring the voice and inimitable guitar of PJ Wright, as well as some of the finest instrumentalists on the folk scene, this well-rounded retrospective takes the finest moments from their two studio albums and one live record and dishes up a two-disc treat. The stand-out songs include Johnny England (rewritten as a superb story of the twentieth century, and far more emotive than the recent Hovis ads) and Steve Knightley's haunting Widdecombe Fair. Mix in a few unreleased live tracks, and you have the perfect introduction to a fantastic band.
Amazing Blondel Mulgrave Street (TECD141) Inspiration (TECD140) Talking Elephant
After their move from Island in the early seventies, Eddie Baird and Terry Wincott dropped the 'Amazing' (restored here for these remasters), and abandoned their trademark mediaeval music sound to turn in a brace of fine acoustic rock albums. Special guests like Paul Kossof, Mick Ralph and Eddie Jobson fill out the superb narrative songs of Baird and Wincott. Not unlike Lindisfarne's work from that period, and with Crosby, Stills and Nash-like harmonies, these are two wonderful records. Tracks like Inspiration's Thinking of You or Mulgrave Street's Hole in the Head would easily fit on a 'Best of the 70s' compilation, if anyone knew about them. Now is their chance to find out.
The Phil Beer Band Mandorock 2000 Live Talking Elephant TECD143
On this live record, multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer takes an evening off from his normal Show of Hands activities and fronts a brilliant live band featuring talents like Gareth Turner, Nick Quarmby and Deb Sandland. The performance was recorded at the wonderful Huntingdon Hall in Worcester, and includes a mix of blues (Volcano, Goldwatch Blues), folk-rock (Dominion of the Sword, Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy) and covers (No Surrender, Frank and Jessie James) this is the sound of a tight band cutting loose and having an amazing time, with marvellous vocals, tremendous musicianship, and a great sense of fun running through the whole album. Most enjoyable.
Guitarist Steve Thompson—better known as Blabbermouth—has been making quite a splash on the music scene, and this latest CD in the singer-songwriter mode is set to continue that trend. I Return has a melancholy and mournful air, written from the perspective of a homesick ghost, whilst Death of a Songwriter is an almost Leonard Cohen-esque dirge about a performer whose songs are always played on the radio after his death, thereby giving his lover eternal grief. Whilst both are excellent songs, this two-fer is not likely to cheer you up much.
Andrew Morris's new EP is a quietly confident collection of superb songs, ably performed. Tipped as the new David Gray, Morris has already supported Marillion twice, and the driving pop melodies and memorable couplets on this release will raise his profile further. With tracks like Innocent and Wedding Song, this EP's style and maturity will soon see the comparisons to other artists disappear, as Morris establishes his own reputation as a unique artist.
Pope Tall Tales & Cheap Thrills Aspop Records
Former Chords members Buddy Ascot and Chris Pope return in their second full- length rock adventure (as Pope), accompanied on keyboards by Mick Talbot, who used to be with Style Council. Covering a range of topics including broken relationships (The Road I Never Took) and life in the capital (Get into London Town), this record was made the old-fashioned way: six weeks in the studio with some guitars and a few melodies. Following a debut like Grace of God must pose a challenge, but with this slice of rock-and-soul, Pope more than rise to it. This is one of the year's best records, with fantastic cover art as well—that rare thing these days, an album that is the whole package.
Karma Deva Disgrace Storm Door Records
This old-fashioned new-wave rock band is fronted by the darkly enigmatic JJ Stanness, whose vocals are somehow a blend of PJ Harvey, Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith. The band's Gothic music provides the ideal backdrop for her satirical musings and superb voice. Tracks like Disgrace, Forgive Me, Carry On and Lilac Park are all reminiscent of the early eighties' edgier side, and the performance is powerful throughout on this brilliant release.
Ben Walker Kill or Cure Peak Recordings
A figure on the folk scene in the UK and abroad for over ten years, playing gigs all over the world, Walker is now based in Bradford and launched his new CD Kill or Cure in Leeds. The excellent harmonies (notably the fantastic duet with Kate Peters on Hold on to Your Hard Times), great guitar-picking, McCartneyesque arrangements, biting lyrics reminiscent of Richard Thompson, and dizzying style shifts make this a stunning album.
The Liverpool Scene The Amazing Adventures of the Liverpool Scene The Liverpool Scene Esoteric Records ECLEC22138
The Liverpool Scene was formed when poet and painter Adrian Henri joined forces with a number of talented musicians: Andy Roberts, Mike Hart, Mike Evans and Percy Jones. They created an eclectic, rebellious, and intelligent poetry/pop/rock sound reminiscent in some ways of the Bonzo Dog Band's inspired anarchy. Highlights on this two-disc collection of the best material from their four albums and TV sessions include the stylish Love Is and Tramcar to Frankenstein, the pastichey I've Got Those Fleetwood Mac Chicken Shack John Mayall Can't Fail Blues, and the best and last track, Made in USA—a twenty-five minute-plus blues, rock, prog and pop epic that evokes the sights and sounds of Vietnam-era America, probably one of the best pieces of music that you have never heard. This eclectic and amazing set, full of undiscovered genius, is a wonderful memorial to the legendary Henri.
Fat Mattress Fat Mattress Fat Mattress II Esoteric Records ECLEC2134 & ECLEC2135
A rock-and-roll band from Folkestone, Fat Mattress was founded by Noel Redding, also the bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In the late sixties the group recorded two fantastic Polydor albums featuring a mixture of hard-rock, blues and psychedelia. Now remastered and reissued, both albums have a great full sound. The first includes the a- and b-sides of all their singles, while the second contains half a dozen tracks recorded for the album but never before released. These are important releases, showcasing the versatility and ability of Redding, who sadly died in 2003.
Dick Heckstall-Smith Dust in the Air Suspended Where a Story Ended Esoteric Records ECLEC2137
Tenor, soprano, and electric soprano saxophone-player Dick Heckstall-Smith had been part of Colosseum in the late sixties. After the group disbanded he put together this astounding debut album featuring the cream of the contemporary session scene, including Caleb Quaye, Dave Greenslade, Graham Bond, Chris Spedding and Chris Farlowe. This collection of progressive, sax-driven blues and rock has a fantastic sound, with bonus live tracks from the seventies including a stunning performance of Moses in the Bulrushes. Esoteric has done an excellent remastering job on this, the album's first appearance on CD.
Circus Circus Esoteric Records ECLEC2136
Mel Collins is more famous for being part of the first King Crimson line-up (and he also played flute and tenor sax for a myriad other bands), but this was his recorded debut, accompanied by Chris Burrows on drums, Ian Jeffs on guitar and vocals, and Kirk Riddle on bass. Circus developed a superb blend of musical improvisation and a proto jazz-prog sound that would later inspire bands like Soft Machine. This is a fascinating album, including an original interpretation of Norwegian Wood, and the unusual Pleasures of a Lifetime. --James R. Turner