Hilary James English Sketches Acoustic Records CDACS059
Although Hilary James usually works with partner Simon Mayor, this album is derived from a series of concerts based on the English traditon at the Museum of Rural Life in Reading, and is a return to the folk sound that forms the backbone of her work. Her stunning vocals are ably accompanied here by Mayor, Paul Sartin on oboe, and Phil Fentiman on double bass. All the material is drawn from the English tradition, such as the brilliant Beneath the Willow Tree, Winter, the dark but wonderful Bredon Hill, and The Two Ravens, and is neatly bookended by the wonderful A Song & Jig For Good Measure (the complete version is included as a bonus track as well). Throughout the album James's voice enchants and beguiles as she treats the songs with the respect they deserve, interpreting them in fresh ways that make this an organic record filled with life and death, light and dark, and all four seasons. Her approach turns what could have been merely a worthy exercise into a superb album that celebrates the very heart of our culture, so often neglected. This is a masterpiece of skilful playing and interpretation.
Peter Bellamy Oak, Ash and Thorn/Merlin's Isle of Gramayre Talking Elephant TECD174/TECD178
Raiding the legendary Argo records vaults, Talking Elephant bring these two lost folk classics to CD. A legendary folk iconoclast, the late Peter Bellamy was a one-off, a true character with his unique vocal style and refusal to follow trends. Throughout his career his name was entwined with that of Rudyard Kipling. These albums were the first on which Bellamy either set Kipling's poetry and prose to traditional tunes or altered the tunes to fit them. On these two releases, which take material from the Puck stories, Bellamy is assisted by some of the finest names of the folk scene at the time, including artists like The Dransfields, Bellamy's erstwhile companions in the Young Tradition Royston and Heather Wood, Nic Jones, Dik Cadbury and Dolly Collins. Bellamy's notes for both releases state that as Kipling lived in Rottingdean, home of the wonderful Copper family, it is not inconceivable that some of his poems were written specifically with certain folk tunes in mind, which is why they adapted so well. Any fan of seventies English folk music will love these records, and it is a joy to rediscover some of Bellamy's finest work. The phrase 'long-lost classic' is overused, but in this case it fits perfectly.
The Amazing Blondel Dead/Live in Transylvania Talking Elephant TECD171
Recorded live on their millennium reunion tour, this is the Amazing Blondel trio at the peak of their powers, with a set running the whole length of their career, including versions of songs from their Restoration album that have never before been recorded live. The versatility of the trio is obvious: material like Cawdor, Under the Greenwood Tree, Willow Wood and Pavan are performed with a vitality and style that comes with maturity. This is a fantastic release for any Amazing Blondel fan or for those looking for something a little different from the usual folk fare.
Cyril Tawney A Mayflower Garland Talking Elephant TECD176
The legendary folk singer Cyril Tawney's legend casts a long shadow over traditional music, and rightly so. His performances in a career lasting over forty-five years were memorable, with peerless songs like The Grey Funnel Line and his interpretations of traditional South West material. His talent is amply demonstrated on this album originally released on the Argo label in 1969, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower's voyage to America. On tracks like Rounding the Horn and Truro Agricultural Show, Tawney's voice is in full flow. The material is fantastic, sourced entirely from Devon and Cornwall, with three original compositions, including the brilliant Second-Class Citizen's Song about life in the West Country. This release is rightly regarded as a gem in Tawney's canon, and the magnificent Bell-Ringing is worth the price of admission alone. Lovingly remastered and restored, and released for the first time on CD, it seems criminal that albums like this are often left in the vaults. Full credit to Talking Elephant for rediscovering it.
Yes Fly From Here Frontiers Records
Classic progressive rock band Yes release their new album Fly From Here after a ten-year absence since 2001's Magnification. Former vocalist Jon Anderson is gone, and is his place is Benoit David, who was discovered singing in a Yes tribute band. Two members return—Geoff Downes is on keyboards for the first time since 1980's Drama, and his former Buggles bandmate, legendary producer Trevor Horn, reclaims his place behind the mixing desk from 1983's 90125. With the continuing core membership of Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White on guitar, bass and drums, the basic Yes sound hasn't changed. However, with Downes and Horn back on board the album is closest in style to 1980's Drama, and in fact its centrepiece--the superb Fly From Here Suite, which resurrects everything that is great about Yes, from the complex vocal harmonies to the majestic keyboard sounds and the stunning guitar work--is based on a demo that was never selected for Drama. With other material like the Buggles offcut Life On a Film Set, Howe's acoustic Solitaire and the mighty finale Into the Storm, this is classic Yes, re-recorded and reinvigorated. It is probably their strongest record since 1996's Talk, a great return to form and one which new and old fans will love.
Isotope Isotope ECLEC2272 Illusion ECLEC2273 Deep End ECLEC 2274 Esoteric Records
Fully remastered and with extensive sleeve notes, these three albums from '74-'76 showcase the jazz rock sound of Isotope. Formed in 1973 by guitarist Gary Boyle, who had worked previously with artists like Dusty Springfield and had decided to venture into the sort of jazz rock that bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Soft Machine were pioneering. He is joined by three other jazz scene luminaries, Nigel Morris on drums, Brian Miller on keys and Jeff Clyne on bass, and their self-titled debut album is a classic example of jazz fusion, with excellent tracks including Upward Curve and Honkey Donkey.
By the time Illusion came out, the lineup had change: Miller and Clyne had left and bassist Hugh Hopper, recently of Soft Machine, joined along with keyboardist Lawrence Scott. Hopper brought his unique style and strong songwriting abilities to Illusion, which, released in 1974, is a step up from their debut. Unsurprisingly, Hopper's bass is to the fore, and he particularly excels on tracks like E-Dorian and Marin County Girl.
On Deep End, issued in 1976, the lineup had changed again: Hopper and Scott had both moved on, leaving the Boyle and Morris core, augmented by Frank Roberts on piano, Zoe Kronberger on keys and Dan K. Brown on bass. Kronberger's arrangements and two keyboard players brought a different dynamic to the music, and Deep End is particularly wonderful.
Like so many bands, Isotope folded due to lack of management support when the financial plug was pulled on them. Luckily Esoteric have remastered and reissued these albums, here on CD for the first time, showcasing a lost corner of jazz rock.
Sandy Denny 19 Rupert Street Witchwood Media WMCD2053
After Island's massive trawl through the archives gave us a nineteen-disc set earlier this year, you would think that there is nothing left to be released from the late lamented Sandy Denny. For fans this is a true gem, an archive recording (lovingly remastered and released by David Cousins of the Strawbs) of an impromptu 1967 jam session with Alex Campbell in Glasgow, recorded by Danish tourist Carsten Linde, who was a friend of Campbell's. It brings a new intimacy to the music of Sandy Denny, with early versions of Who Knows Where the Time Goes as well as more trad material like The Midnight Special. This is a collection of true beauty, revealing a previously unseen side of Denny, and should be treasured and enjoyed as the spontaneous ad libbed session that it is.
Red Sky July Red Sky July Proper Records
This self-titled debut album from Shelly Poole (Alisha's Attic), husband Ally McErlaine (a guitarist from Texas) and Charity Hair (The Alice Band) is a real lo-fi alt folk treat. Initially started in 2009, the album was finally finished this year after McErlaine recovered from a brain aneurism. Aided and abetted by Mark Neary, the group recorded it live, adding magic to the music. There are superb performances from all the musicians, and the twin vocals of Poole and Hair intermingle and beguile to create a beautiful whole.
Martin Simpson Purpose + Grace Topic Records TSCD584
Folk Renaissance man Martin Simpson, probably the best guitarist you've never heard, is currently releasing some of the best albums of his career. Following the excellent Prodigal Son, this is another major progression from one of England's finest interpreters. A stellar cast of friends adds to the mix, with June Tabor, Dick Gaughan and Fay Hield joining Simpson on vocals, whilst Richard Thompson weaves his electric magic on three tracks and BJ Cole plays steel guitar as only he knows how. With Simpson originals like Banjo Bill mixed in with intrepetations of Richard Thompson's Strange Affair, Bruce Springsteen's BrothersUnder the Bridge and the trad. arr. of In the Pines, Barbry Allen, and The Sheffield Apprentice (close to my heart for a number of reasons) this fine album shows Simpson continuing to expand his musical horizons, while retaining strong traditional foundations.
Sadie Jemmett The Blacksmith's Girl Wildflower Records
Incredibly talented, Sadie Jemmett has channelled her disrupted early childhood into a strong collection of contemporary folk songs that is a singer/songwriter delight.
It includes songs such as Up on the Heath, The Blacksmith's Girl and Ghosts, an amazing version of Ever Fallen in Love by the Buzzcocks, which shows off Jemmett's versatility and musical skill, and virtousic displays of songwriting ability on the beautiful Entirely and the brilliant Another Way to Be (written for Jemmett's own daughter Thalia). A joy from start to finish, this is an album as they were meant to be made. Find yourself a quiet room, your headphones and the hour or so needed to enjoy the experience: you will not be disappointed.
Peter Knight's Gigspanner Doors At Eight (Live) GSCD002
Steeleye Span mainstay Peter Knight is also part of the multi-talented trio Gigspanner, with Roger Flack (guitar) and Vincent Salzfaas (congas and djembe). Formed in 2009 as a group of friends enjoying themselves around Hastings, the band has taken on a life of its own, and gives Knight a certain feeedom to perform in a different style to his Steeleye Span work. This live album follows on from 2009's Lipreading the Poet. All three musicians play superbly, working with an interplay which demonstrates that they trust each other implicitly, and allows them to expand on the sound—and what a sound it is, sometimes giving the illusion that half a dozen musicians are present. With material including Bonny Birdy, Sharp Goes Walkabout, Two Constant Lovers and many more, this is a brilliant piece of work from the traditional scene's first power trio.
The Sallyangie Children of the Sun Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22294
A welcome reissue, in a double-disc expanded edition, this is Sallyangie's debut and only album, originally released in 1969. The driving force behind the duo was singer/songwriter Sally Oldfield, then a student at Bristol University, who had a spiritual experience, leading her to put together demos with the help of her younger brother Mike Oldfield. As an album this is very typical of its time: the pastoral folk melodies and the lyrics to Children of theSun show that it could never have come from any other era than the late sixties. Throughout the album there are guitar licks and riffs which foreshadow what Mike Oldfield would do with his opus Tubular Bells of 1973. Sally also has a successful career as a solo artist. Whilst this album and its style is very different to what the Oldfield siblings are doing today, it is an excellent curio piece which shows how they began and how far they have come.
Envelopes of Yesterday: The Manticore Records Story 1973-1976 Esoteric Recordings MANTCD21013
Every band worth its salt at one point or another has a vanity label. Manticore belonged to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and this extensive two-disc set pulls together the best of the label's output. If you are expecting out-there prog rock, you will find it in a brace of ELP classics and rarities (Karn Evil 9, Jerusalem, Hoedown) and Greg Lake's festive favourite, I Believe in Father Christmas. The singer/songwriter material of Keith Christmas shines, a welcome antidote to the prog of PFM and Banco, whilst those who only remember Peter Sinfield as a Bucks Fizz lyricist will be pleasantly surprised by his contributions to this set. Lovingly packaged and with comprehensive sleeve notes, this scratches the surface of the Manticore catalogue that Esoteric are reissuing with their usual care and attention, and is a perfect introduction to a vanity label that honed and developed diverse talent.
Navaro Home is Where Your Heartlands Leading Horses Records LHREC01
English band Navaro, who have supported acts including Fairport Convention, Phil Beer and Little Johnny England, have been highly rated since the release of their 2008 album Under Diamond Skies. This latest album came out of the group's Heartlands project, in which they would perform in an old building that was sometimes used as a film set. Accompanied by friends like Little Johnny England's Gareth Turner and Guy Fletcher, James McNair and Miles Gilderdale, the intimate and atmospheric setting is reflected in the intimacy of the songs, with superb singing from Beth Navaro, Pete White and Steve Austin. Their voices create a harmony that harks back to the mid-seventies and is currently in vogue thanks to bands such as The Pierces. With a brace of five bonus tracks from the sessions, this is a superbly-made album, including the fantastic opening My Favourite One Night Stand, Walking With Ghosts, The Time Will Pass, and a stunning cover of JD Souther's Wishing On Another Lucky Star. This is a perfect record for long winter nights around an open fire with a good bottle of wine and good company.
Gavin Adam Wood Souls Apart Banania Records BANO2CD
Wood has been playing guitar since he was 15, writing and performing throughout the nineties and noughties. In 2009, following success at the second annual Cambridge Buskers and Street Performers Festival, he was invited to play at bigger events, such as the 2009 Cambridge Folk Festival. In 2010 he worked in Haiti for the UN after the earthquake, and started to record this album while home for the summer. After spending the rest of the year in Pakistan, he returned to the England and finished this superb album in 2011, making a stunning return to the fourth Buskers Festival. It features a strong collection of ten great strongs, from the storming opener Gentle Moon, written for his sweetheart, to Until the Stars Fall, which has been chosen by the Italian organisation IMMAGINE&POESIA, which focuses on poetry and art's mutual inspiration. --James Turner