Folk & Rock Reviews Little Johnny England Tournament of Shadows Talking Elephant TECD150
One of the finest electric-folk bands on the scene today, Little Johnny England release their third studio album following a five-year hiatus. Frontman PJ Wright has always been one of the best guitarists around, and here, after going solo and then collaborating with Dave Pegg, he comes back to LJE with a fire in his belly. A couple of superb tracks from his solo album (Lily of Barbary and Random Acts of Kindness) have been reworked in the LJE style, and sound like two new songs. Wright is a strong vocalist and on this album he really ups his game, holding together the amazing closing version of traditional classic The Plains of Waterloo, whilst the opening title track (about all the different wars in Afghanistan) and the Steve Knightley song Cutthroats, Crooks and Conmen really put the rock back into folk-rock. The whole band, including Wright, Guy Fletcher, Gareth Turner, Mark Stevens and Hugh Bunker, give 110 % on these and more personal songs such as Ginger Billy and Kenzi. This is a fantastic example of the genre, and one of the best albums of the year. It belongs alongside such legendary records as Fairport's Liege and Lief, Steeleye Span's All Around my Hat and the Albion Band's Rise Up Like the Sun.
The Albion Band Natural and Wild Talking Elephant TECD155
The Albion Dance Band Rockin' Barn Dance Talking Elephant TECD154
Here are a brace of Albion Band live albums from different eras in their long and illustrious history. Natural and Wild is from 1987 and captures the Cathy Lesurf, Phil Beer, John Shepherd, Trevor Foster, Eric Hine, and Ashley Hutchings line-up. Naturalist Chris Baines joined them on their Wild Side of Town tour of the album, based around what today would be known as green issues. Though some of the songs are fantastic (Woodlands of England,Harvest Anthem, Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer) some of the other songs feel as if they have been shoehorned in (Birdwatching, Tomorrow's Too Late). The performances are as amazing as you would expect, but sometimes the album seems more like a lecture than a concert, so that the (admittedly very important) green issues dominate and the music is pushed into second place.
Rather more fun is 1988's Rockin' Barn Dance, capturing another side of the versatile band: Simon Care and Pete Zorn add their superb musical talents and Polly Bolton's great vocals more than make up for the departed Lesurf. Recorded at a genuine barn dance, this is the more tune-led Albion Dance Band sound on full steam, complete with calling from Norfolk legend Sid Kipper.
Mr Love and Justice Watchword Homeground Records HRCD005
One of the bands I have most enjoyed reviewing for Albion is Mr Love & Justice, and this new album is another fantastic collection. Steve Cox's songs are brilliant slices of contemporary electric folk-rock; tracks like The Shilling Folk, We Raise the Watchword, and Sunday Morning Sunset Town are all brilliantly observed and superbly performed ,with an expanded recording line-up of Matthew Wood on bass, Marcus De 'Freitas and Nick Weaver on guitars, Brendan Hamley on drums, and Rob Beckinsale on piano accordion. Their superb musical abilities bring out the best in the songs.
Camel Breathless ECLEC2155 The Single Factor ECLEC2156 Stationary Traveller ECLEC2154 Esoteric Records
Esoteric are fast becoming my favourite reissue label, and as part of remastering Camel's Decca years, they have brought out three of the band's more interesting albums.
1978's Breathless saw the last performances of founder member Pete Bardens, and saw the band very much in a transitional phase. With Richard Sinclair from Caravan and saxophonist Mel Collins on board, it was inevitable that Collins' jazz fusion and Sinclair's whimsical style would make this a very different Camel album. The superb title song— Sinclair's fantastic Down on the Farm—the excellent Summer Lightning, and the final track Rainbow's End all benefit from the lightness of Sinclair's touch, the expert performance of Pete Bardens, and Andy Latimer's guitar playing.
1982's The Single Factor saw Latimer as the only remaining original member. Contractually obligated to deliver a new album, he was joined in the studio by a variety of different musicians including Dave Mattacks, Pete Bardens, Francis Monkman, and Chris Rainbow. Of course, with the band in a state of flux, a lot of the material (co-written by Latimer and his partner Susan Hoover) is about being at a crossroads, uncertain where to take the group. This is reflected in tracks like No Easy Answer, Lullaby, and the most self-referential song Camelogue. It is a great record, despite the difficult circumstances surrounding it.
1984's Stationary Traveller is a good old-fashioned concept album. Camel had now found a new permanent line-up, with Chris Rainbow on vocals, Tom Scherpenzeel on keyboards, Paul Burgess on drums, and Andy Latimer on both guitar and bass. The story by Susan Hoover, brilliantly executed by Latimer and the newly reinvigorated Camel, concerns a couple separated by the Berlin Wall (this was, of course, at the height of the Cold War), and would also work well as a film or play. Atmospheric, haunting, restrained and beautiful, this is probably one of Camel's finest and most underrated albums, with tracks like Pressure Points, Cloak and Dagger Man, Fingertips, and West Berlin.
Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream Esoteric Records ECLEC2149
Well-known as a one-hit wonder for 1969's Something in the Air, Thunderclap Newman were assembled by Pete Townshend to perform the songs of guitarist Speedy Keen, with Scottish teenage guitar whiz Jimmy McCulloch (later of Wings), and gas engineer and keyboard player Andy Newman. This solo album was sadly released far too late to capitalise on the single's success and it sank without a trace. Now, however, with its nicely remastered sound and bonus tracks, it can be reassessed as the true lost rock classic it is. Something in the Air is still as good as it used to be, whilst the follow-up single Hollywood # 1 is fantastic. All the tracks show what an underrated songwriter Keen was, and it is a great shame that both he and Jimmy McCulloch died before this album could be reappraised.
Mandalaband III BC Ancestors Legend Records
This is the much-belated sequel to the two seventies Mandalaband albums. Original members Woolly Wolstenholme, Ashley Mulford and Kim Turner are joined by many new musicians, including Troy Donockley and Craig Fletcher, to put together an old-school concept album about the different ancient civilisations. Superb vocals, great instrumentation and strong performances make this a fantastic musical journey.--James Turner