Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review - Sadie Jemmett, The Blacksmith's Girl

Sadie Jemmett

The debut solo album of a singer/songwriter who has traveled long and far in order to make this intimate self-penned album. You’ll remember it for a while.

It might be a bit bold of me to direct you somewhere else but if you’re interested in Sandie Jemmett, I would highly recommend that you type her name into youtube.com. You will find this little featurette, about twelve minutes long, recorded from a bunker underneath Metropolis studios in 2009. Three of the songs from the album are here, in live form. It’s an environment that really does suit her; the bunker’s acoustics show off every foray of her voice, very strong, very dynamic, and bring out the unusual chord arrangements in her songs. They are, for the most part, fairly calm, but by no means lacking nuance.

Thank goodness that Wildflower records have managed to transfer the same quality to THE BLACKSMITH’S GIRL, Sadie’s debut album. Up until about Another Way to Be, the third track, it is sedate but still draws you in, the intimacy working with lyrics like ‘And oh my little darling…I can see my mirrored walls are falling/And I know that you see deep inside of me’.

The great thing about Jemmett though is that she doesn’t rely on that intimacy. What surprises you on this Metropolis featurette is how much character she has when she performs. In interview, she’s quite small, quite British, but then in tracks like the titular Blacksmith’s Girl her acoustic voice conjures up this dramatic heroine, slinging a pistol over her shoulder. It’s then that you realise her accent, an inevitable off-shoot of her Cambridgeshire upbringing, hides an unusual life-story. Trailing from home to home as a child, picking up a guitar, Jemmett claims, was the first thing that really made sense. And the way in which she’s clung to it in times of crisis comes out in her music: ‘I feel like I’m falling down/So I begin by breathing out/So I begin by breathing in.’ Equally you see the character that got her through it and out on the road in all kind of fun and bizarre situations (she was a backing singer in a reggae band at one point).

This album’s been a long time coming, it’s been brewing for many years. I think the best thing that can be said of it, perhaps of any such album from a singer/songwriter that you feel like you’ve met her. And she really was quite something. Katy Browse

Monday, August 29, 2011

Review - Meg Baird, Seasons on Earth

Meg Baird
Wichita Recordings

Following a debut of covers that has been labeled as a cult classic, a young folk singer and guitarist tries out some of her own material.

Picking up my copy of SEASONS ON EARTH, my first response is a tinge of disappointment. Not through any flaw of the album itself, I hasten to add, but simply because I have a pre-release wallet, and therefore, no lyrics to read through while it plays. With some artists this tends not to be a problem but with Meg Baird, I will always listen carefully to what it is she is saying and not just the beautiful ethereal voice in which she is saying it. The community of musicians from whence she comes seems to demand a certain intelligence. To track Meg’s influences is to look not only to folk and its more psychedelic offerings but to such figures as New York Beat poet Kenneth Koch to whom Baird nods in the title of her album.

This being said this is not an intellectual exercise. Certainly her last album, 2007’s debut DEAR COMPANION, was anything but. Its surprising range of covers quite rightly earnt her a name as a solo artist outside of band Espers; it was an incredibly personal and emotionally wrought LP. So what to expect from her second album, four years down the line from DEAR COMPANION’s songs of love, betrayal and isolation and this time largely self-penned.

I wish I could have the lyrics in front of me, I really do. It sounds like a simple complaint but Baird joins the likes of Joanna Newsom and Joni Mitchell with a voice so tender that it often hides the beauty of her poetry. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself, I have poured over both Newsom and Mitchell’s album sleeves in the past and found a wealth of material to excited about. Yet it does mean, at this point, that it is difficult to get beneath the cryptic surface of her songs.

The surface itself is very accomplished, having brought in the talents of many guest musicians. And you do get tantalizing glimpses of Baird’s writing talent, such as the melodically bewitching Even Rain – ‘that night, when the clouds and the maidens go down, the fool and the fool come face to face…we’re all the same’. The album’s two cover version’s suggests themes that I have no doubt wait to be uncovered in her own songs. Mark-Almond Band’s Friends is a sharp contrast to them stylistically and speaks frankly of growing older, of the transition from an idealistic youth. It is followed by a gem, Beatles and Stones which was originally recorded by House of Love. Here, references to the troubles and the politics of the 1970’s are balanced out by memories of the bands that led the youth culture, remembered with fondness. When placed in Baird’s own chronology it is a beautiful, complex choice of song, I just wish I could get at the rest! Hopefully when the album is released at the end of this month my frustrations will come to an end. Katy Browse

Review - Jennie Stearns, Blurry Edges

Jennie Stearns

A young country artist releases an album written over a hard period in her life; her clever use of instrumentals makes her sound and her sorrows enchanting.

In the past few years, the light country music of New York singer-songwriter Jennie Stearns has changed somewhat. What was once a musical collaboration with banjos and cappoed guitars is something else entirely. She has always been generous to the musicians that she works with and inventive in their use. Their clever layering has been an integral part of her soulful songs, but here she is only backed by a piano and a lonely guitar, it leaves voice her voice fragile.

It sings of a sorrow that guides her new direction and tinges her lyrics, though she sets it out so beautifully that it never feels overbearing. I tend to find albums that dwell on heartbreak a little depressing, but Stearns’ is told in a complex portrait. It has glimpses of a life - ‘dancing to Neil Diamond/in a dive in New Hampshire’ - as well as of that life’s frustrations, namely an uninspired partner: ‘You, captive in your bed…watching the sand drip down’. These quotes are from the opening track, Shadows on the Water. From then her songs create flashes of scenes that are gone before you can figure them out and form tragic characters like Frida that intrigue you in their poetry. If you were going to distinguish Stearns from better-known artists such as Gillian Welch and Cat Power, you need only to listen to these enchanting lyrics. A genuine song-writing talent.

Blurry Edges, alluding both to the state of mind in which it was written as well as its soft style, is used to finish the album. It is another great song but it brings a final note of optimism: ‘Sing, sing, until you’re warm’. Katy Browse

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review - Cocos Lovers, Elephant Lands


Cocos Lovers

The second album of a Kent-based folk group of eight. A concept album of sorts.

If you wanted to make up Cocos Lovers from scratch you’d probably have to get the Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend into a pot and then add some choir boys. They embrace the idea of young folk where the instruments are graded by eccentricity and no song is complete without a harmony verging on the sublime. The fiddles, guitars, flute and percussions are handed amongst the family band and the result is an immediate intimacy. They recorded the album in the back of a converted caravan. They’re just…wonderful. Their first album, ‘Johanes’, was full of spiraling songs, to be danced to in a field (preferably with a little bit cider) or enjoyed at home for their life and unassumingly poetic lyrics.

In ELEPHANT LANDS the group has developed a significant wanderlust. The titular track begins with a guitar solo, laid onto which are maracas and drumming in the style of a convincing stampede; we are told to ‘run to the hills’. Okay, it’s a little bit like Lion King, a little bit more so when their harmonies take on tribal-like chants. But in an utterly charming way; they have morphed the countryside and wilderness themes of folk into a safari. The same spirit of adventure presides over Feral and Wild, Door to the Andes and Fortuna. And then in Blackened Shore they have some Spanish guitar and the traveling theme is played with in different ways. Like the traditional serenading of a lover who’s left port for the high seas (Days are Long), a lovely fifty second snippet of the girl’s vocals. But my hands-down favourite take on the idea is in Barcelona. We have a live feel, the band setting up, a fiddler and a Spanish guitar to set the scene for a gnarled story of someone who sounds suspiciously like a pirate. Who else is ‘born with no arms and a twisted mind’.

It’s an eccentric take on the concept album, I grant you, but I can’t stress this enough, they pull it off. After all, they are wonderful. Katy Browse

Review - Gurrumel, Rrakala

Skinnyfish Music

The second album of an artist whose indigenous voice broke into the music industry first-time round.

It is in the seventh track of Gurrumul Yunupingu’s album that his music is at its most powerful. Firstly because it is has his infamous soaring melodies, showing off his voice to its fullest (Sting once said that it was the ‘voice of a higher being’). But also because it is when the traditions of folk seem to collide fully with those of the his Aboriginal community. Djottara (the name given to all Gumatj women) tells of a girl’s distress at being parted from her home; ‘her thoughts’, the translation says, ‘[are] like the wail of a harmonica’. That her cries have to be translated, in itself, is another kind of isolation, adding to the feeling of someone far from home. Yet the voice which echoes ‘the wail of [the] harmonica’ shows that some sounds do cross linguistic borders and those of traditions.

Oh. The above sounds like a bit of cheap shot. Like I’m undermining Gurrumul as a musician. His last album won multiple awards at the Australian Recording Industry Association’s 2009 ceremony and went double platinum, this is not just a man putting traditional music on to tape. Since his last album’s success he has worked hard to delve into other genres and instruments within his own cultural context and RRAKALA shows his melodies and arrangements at their best. Yet you can also see a kind of personal exploration of what it means to be a figurehead, what it means to intersect with a wholly different musical world. And as my enthusiasm for the track that I mentioned above shows, it is possible to appreciate Gurrumul for more than just his undeniable spirituality. Katy Browse

Review - Dala, Girls from the North Country


Compass Records

An album from a Canadian folk-pop duo with the sweetest voices that you’ve ever heard.

It is easy to place Dala under the category of ‘likeable’. The songs they have picked to cover in GIRLS FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY suit their innocent harmonies and those they have written (Horses, Marilyn Monroe) are down-to-earth in a Taylor Swift kind-of-a-way. They write of fans they meet and the times that they have shared and, with the album recorded live, it all brings to mind a set at a summer festival.

Yet the girls negotiate the idea of ‘folk-pop’ really very well, and that likeable sound comes with its own degree of insight. I particularly like their cover of Joni Mitchell’s classic Both Sides Now; their vocals and guitars make it a heck of a lot lighter than the original but the experience and the poetry is still there. The same goes for the titular Girl from the North Country lifted from Cash and Dylan’s repertoire. And with their harmonies given some alto gravity by guest appearances from Oh Susana and Good Lovelies, GIRLS FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY is more than a pair of incredibly sweet voices. Katy Browse

Review - Beoga, How to Tune a Fish


Compass Records

Right from the first reel of HOW TO TUNE A FISH you know you’re dealing with something very different. A slippery customer, to continue the fishy puns with which their sleeve notes are stuffed. They are one of those bands that lurk in the murky waters beyond genre. Oh look, another pun.  The band originally formed after a heated ‘jamming’ session at the All-Ireland Fleadh and they have gone on to release four albums together (this being the fourth). They are made up of Damian McKee Seán Óg Graham, on twin duelling accordians, pianist Liam Bradley and four times All-Ireland bodhrán champion Eamon Murray with the later addition of Niamh Dunne’s smooth and mature vocals. Eclectic, intimidating skilled, Beogo have spent a long time honing their sound; it is music of many influences from straight out Irish Folk to Americana and the quirky Vaudeville performance. All of this helps them to live up to their name, ‘Beoga’, which, in translation from Gaelic, turns out to be ‘lively’.

The album starts with a titular track, a reel, an original composition like many of the album’s offerings. The fiddle introduces itself slowly, before being backed up with some sly piano chords, again tentative. As one accordion joins them a reel is set up. If there is one thing this band aims to do however, it is to constantly surprise the listener. Cue the second accordion joining/challenging the first, increasing the tempo of the song as they then head through a dizzy mixture of styles from something almost jazz-like to the more traditional. Never a dull moment.

To the craftsmanship of the instrumentalists is added Dunne’s voice. As I said previously, it is incredibly smoky and mature, a real addition to the band if not just for its depth. However, appearing after the first two tracks of HOW TO TUNE, both reels, in ‘Home Cooking’ she seems a little out of place, like a babysitter sent in to look after some precocious teenagers. This feeling soon disappears, however, as the lyrical bridge between the verse and chorus (‘Hear the dinner bell…’) is joined by a cow bell, and you can hear the smiling in her voice. When we hear her next, her undeniable vocal talent having been paraded just enough, it is in a track somehow more appropriate to the band’s feel. As she leads her bandmates through a rendition of the old Vaudeville classic ‘Come in Out of The Rain’ (originally recorded by Ada Jones) you can’t help yourself, in turn, cracking a smile. Katy Browse