Tag Archives: female folk singer

Album review – Peggy Seeger: Everything Changes

10 Oct

Everything Changes: a bittersweet mix of memory and loss

Everything Changes: yielding fresh treasure with each new listen

Everything Changes: yielding fresh treasure with each new hearing

Just when you thought that every conceivable nuance and interpretation must have been wrung out of the Titanic long since, along comes Peggy Seeger with “Swim to the Star”, reducing the multifarious myths and facts surrounding the 1912 tragedy to a folk tale of poignant simplicity. And – sorry, Céline – what a breathtakingly intense and human moment it is.

This opening track on Seeger’s new album, Everything Changes, was originally written in response to a BBC commission to mark the disaster’s centenary, and it sets the tone for a remarkable set of contemporary songs, mostly written or co-written by this redoubtable artist and archivist. Fleshed out by her son, producer Calum MacColl, it distills experience into three minutes of near-perfection. Like a subsequent number, the spacious and edgy “Flowers by the Roadside”, it transports the listener into a world of lyrical clarity which is surely the legacy of Seeger’s life’s work in tracing and recording the legacy of 20th century folk music.

Everything Changes is not, as Seeger says, a folk album per se. Yet it reflects the tropes of folk effortlessly, dishing up lore, home truths, tales of death and ageing, and even salutary warnings about drug addiction – “Miss Heroin”, by Rutthy Taubb, is based on a 26-word verse which the writer chanced upon on the back of a toilet door in North Carolina – in thoroughly contemporary settings.

Not that Seeger is a stranger to innovation, as anyone who caught her 2012 collaboration with Broadcaster (Folksploitation) will recall. On that album, her voice had a shaman-like, hypnotic quality. Here, she ranges from girlish delight to seasoned cynicism and gentle wisdom, supported by a band which frames the songs with elegant, spare arrangements.

There is plenty of humour: “Do You Believe in Me?” is a heartfelt antidote to fairy tales and Santa Claus, and “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” a deliciously ironic, sexy take on seduction from the female perspective. But there are also deep veins of darkness: “When Fairy Tales End” considers what really happens in the happily ever after, while “We Watch You Slip Away” is a beautifully expressed observation of a loved-one fading into death. Then there is the quiet acceptance of the title track, with its bittersweet mix of memory and loss. Inspired and inspirational, this is an album which yields fresh treasure with every hearing.

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Album review – Emily Smith: Echoes

16 Aug

“My Darling Boy”: Emily Smith explores a new Scottish sound

Echoes: Emily Smith pushes at the boundaries of genre and interpretation

Echoes: Emily Smith pushes at the boundaries of genre and interpretation

Emily Smith has the kind of kind of voice that makes an effortless bridge between traditional folk and the moodier, noir-ish tropes of today’s folk idiom. And she’s in great company. From Ange Hardy and Lucy Ward to Eliza Carthy and Kathryn Williams, we are living in a golden age of young female singers who are constantly pushing at the boundaries of genre and interpretation, creating fresh sounds that are rooted in the ancient craft of telling richly textured stories in song.

Smith’s latest album, Echoes, is a case in point – a collection of 10 traditional and contemporary Scottish songs reinvented with a 21st-century sophistication that honours the heritage they represent while hinting at the growing influence of Americana and the great troubadours of our time.

 For a second, the twanging guitar that heralds the opening track, “Reres Hill”, seems determined to drop you somewhere in the heat of the Deep South before the Celtic harmonies sweep you back to Caledonia. The arrangements are lush and plangent, the pace assured and the emotional connection between the voice and material is insistent and compelling.

Smith describes the album as heralding a “new Scottish sound” – and Echoes has the discrete confidence of a singer who is completely at ease with the organic arc of a career that has come a long way in the decade and more since she was crowned BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year.

There is an aching beauty in her phrasing, underpinned by the playing of a great band of guest musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan and Rory Butler, which frequently tugs at the heartstrings  with a visceral urgency. The range of the material is absorbing, from the intimate tale of “The Sower’s Song” to the epic legend of “King Orfeo”, from the poignant account of “The Final Trawl” to the deceptive jauntiness of “Twa Sisters” – a story that ends in murder.

Album review – Kaz Simmons: Signs

8 Feb

For the Love of the Big L: Signs is a scintillating love letter to London

Signs: 'quirky' is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

Signs: ‘quirky’ is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

There are two stars of the show vying for top honours on Kaz Simmons’s new album Signs. The first is the singer/songwriter’s deceptively girlish voice, which weaves its way through this cycle of city tales with all the variety and flexibility of a seasoned jazz artist. The second is London itself, which emerges as an irresistible influence on her writing and is effectively the central character in a concept album that is far too mature in its themes and textures to be categorised with a glib ‘quirky’ label.

Simmons has raided the rich canyons of psychedelia for a sound that is also flecked with jazz, folk and show-tune references. The result is a constantly shifting musical landscape that evokes the sweeping pomp of symphonic prog rock one minute, a 1960s Marianne-Faithfull-Fitzrovia vibe the next. There’s even a hint of Sondheim when a slightly sinister organ undercuts a few bars of “London Loves” and briefly conjures Sweeney Todd.

This eclectic mixture might have overwhelmed the ambitions of a less assured musician. But Simmons has more than a decade’s experience as a session guitarist behind her, and this has clearly fuelled her dextrous ability to build unexpected bridges between different styles and techniques.

Take “I Know You”, which spreads like a pool of sunshine from its initial introspective folk idiom to an almost cinematic pan across the London skyline, encapsulating the frustratingly thin line between loneliness and a sense of belonging that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the British capital.

Similar tropes weave their way through “Your Love” and “For the Love of the Big L”, in which Simmons could equally well be singing about her intrinsically flawed relationship with the city as about an unreliable lover.  “We’re friendly people, honestly…” she insists, as her poetic lyrics pick their way through the complicated litter of urban humanity.

Occasionally, as on “London Loves” or the title track, people emerge from the cityscape – a parade of paramours with varying eye colours, each one more feckless than the last, and out-of-sync couples.

She has surrounded herself with a vibrant and sympathetic band, including guitarist Martin Kolarides, Will Bartlett (who is responsible for that edgy organ), drummer Tim Giles and Riaan Vosloo on bass.

The only cover is a sweetly melancholy take on the Pee Wee King pop classic “You Belong to Me”, which is calming balm after the frenetic, always-rewarding drama of the previous eight songs.

Signs is an album to have ringing in your headphones next time you set out for a stroll around the big L. Any other city might do at a pinch, but it is essentially a scintillating love letter to a place that exasperates and enthrals this singular talent (and anyone else who knows it) in equal measure.

Album review – Lucy Ward: Single Flame

7 Feb

The Last Pirouette: exhilarating dance of death

Single Flame: auspicious, deep and full of complex nuances

Single Flame: auspicious, deep and full of complex nuances

When Lucy Ward name-checks Melanie Safka and Bob Dylan in the opening track of her brooding, portentous album Single Flame, she is giving notice of the high standards she has set herself as a singer/songwriter – and signalling to her listener that the voyage they’re embarking on won’t always be comfortable.

It is testament to her skill that as she leads them into ever darker and murkier waters, the lyrics underpin her swirling, haunting melodies like seams of black diamonds, redolent with hard truths and acerbic observations, and she never compromises her intentions.

From “I Cannot Say I Will Not Speak” onwards, Ward proves she is right up there with artists like Ange Hardy, and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, who have brought a new kind of gritty realism to modern British folk music, utterly contemporary – and often devastating – in their themes of protest and injustice but equally true to the rich heritage of traditional story-telling.

There is a doom-laden quality to many of her songs that is never less than satisfying and is often bleakly tender, not least in the album’s masterpiece, “The Last Pirouette”. Here, the fading beauty of a washed-up prima ballerina becomes a metaphor for the end of the world. By rights, it should put you on your own suicide watch. Instead, it soars in exhilarating three-time, echoing in the vaults of the ceiling like a universal dance of death.

Other songs cover similarly traumatic terrain: “The Consequence” explores the chilling, seeping imprint left by domestic violence; “For the Dead Men” is a multi-layered exploration of the relationship between campaigners, the victims of injustice and the bystanders who do nothing – all dead, either in the cause or morally, through their inaction; “Rites of Man” is a shimmering eulogy to nature, the ultimate casualty of human folly.

Indeed, folly – of humanity, of war, or of the individual (check out “Icarus”, a sorry tale of desertion) – is one of Ward’s grandest themes. As we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, numbers like “Shellback” (Ward’s first composition) and the upbeat “Marching Through the Green Grass” (an adaptation of an Appalachian folk song) assume a heart-catching resonance.

But if all this sounds forbiddingly apocalyptic, the depth and beauty of the writing also generates shafts of hope that pierce the blackness. “Velvet Sky” is an anthemic explosion of colour and optimism.

With producer and occasional co-writer Stu Hanna, Ward has created the glorious, almost symphonic equivalent of a diorama in which characters spring to life and move against the backdrop of her assured musicality. This is an auspicious piece of work, which reveals more depth and nuance with each play.

Album review – Ange Hardy: Barefoot Folk

21 Dec

Forlorn Land: Ange Hardy’s 10-part harmony rings with relevance

Barefoot Folk: so timeless, its Facebook references catch you unawares

Barefoot Folk: so timeless, its Facebook references catch you unawares

It is a measure of Ange Hardy’s immersion in the art of folk-song writing that even the references in her social media-inspired number “Crafty Father John” are rendered timeless. Only as the song’s last strains fade do you do a double-take and catch yourself wondering if they really had Facebook in the ancient days from which it surely dates.

Hardy’s acoustic album, Bare Foot Folk, is some achievement. Each number is a testament to her gift for telling complete, emotionally engaging stories through lyrics crafted with careful economy and plangent melodies that resonate with traditional cadences, without a single hint of parody.

Her references are the experiences of a life that, as the biographical note on her website implies, has had its stormy times. She scatters them across a landscape of those meadows and glades that she says she sees in her mind’s eye when she’s listening to traditional folk music, and distils them into little jewels of song. Motherhood, loss, broken hearts, faith and the artist’s quest for recognition emerge as the strongest themes.

“Forlorn Land” rings with timely relevance as we prepare to mark the centenary of the Great War in an age blighted by new violence and uncertainty around the world. The ten-part harmony, with its intrinsic lament, is gorgeous. There’s a gritted-teeth lullaby (“Stop Your Crying Son”) that will strike a chord with any new parent and, among several tales of romance and separation, “It Can’t be So” and “The Old Maiden” command attention with their gleaming clarity.

The standout track, however, is “The Ghost on the Moors”, a brooding study of the artist’s essential loneliness and frustration. It’s a struggle that Somerset-based Hardy clearly understands. But with this, her second album, she has signalled her own very real presence in the diverse world of modern British folk music.

Album review – Anne Marie Almedal: Memory Lane

11 Jun

Winter Song: raises the hairs on the back of your neck (in a good way)

Memory Lane: multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies

Memory Lane: multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies

There are many gorgeous moments in Anne Marie Almedal’s album Memory Lane – the distillation of a host of folk and pop influences into a clean, uncluttered sound that draws equally on the inspiration of the landscape around her home in Kristiansand, which permeates the music and conjures a brooding, unsettled and occasionally restless atmosphere.

Threads of nostalgia are tempered by elemental noises and echoes that give the album an almost metaphysical feel.  The opening track, “Back to Where it Started”, with its soaring hints of Pentangle flute and guitar, is a tale for everyone looking in the rear view mirror, trying to recapture the mysterious moment when a relationship sprang into bloom.

With her British husband and co-writer Nicholas Sillitoe, the Norwegian singer/songwriter has crafted a fresh, contemporary, ambient take on modern folk that completely subverts the increasingly tiresome clichés which abound around Nordic Noir. Sure, there is darkness and unease in her often introspective lyrics, but there is also an acknowledgement – even a celebration – of the cleansing, focusing effect of proper cold, freezing everything in a breath of innocence as it does on one of the standout tracks, “Winter Song”.

If I say that this and the equally beautiful “Scars” remind me of Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow, the comparison is intended entirely as a compliment. They are songs in which the combination of simple yet multi-layered lyrics and sumptuous harmonies generated by strings, wind chimes, even a singing bowl, deliver a subtle acoustic blow that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

Lyrically, Almedal draws her inspiration from the relationship between human experience and landscape. It isn’t always an easy one: “And It’s the Loneliness” urges us to look always to the horizon in our effort to keep love alive, “One Day” faces up to the uncertainty of the future. But an underlying optimism lifts even the bleak moments, imbuing them with warmth and quiet calm.

In the company of her own songs, the two covers – of John Martyn’s “May You Never” and Bread’s “If” – seem almost superfluous. Where the latter is concerned, at least Almedal’s assured, fluid voice goes some way to exorcising the horrors of Telly Savalas’s spoken 1975 version, which continues to blight the song for those of us of a certain age.

Album review – North: Mary Dillon

30 Jan

North sampler: introducing a slow burner of an album

North: Mary Dillon's quietly magnificent return

North: Mary Dillon’s quietly magnificent return

Mary Dillon’s return to the music scene, North, is a slow burner of an album which insinuates itself into the listener’s ear with stealth and grace. After a couple of plays, the combination of her gently assured voice and a set of mainly traditional songs dressed in sparkling new arrangements and beautifully restrained accompaniment works its magic.

Haunting is a wizened old chestnut in the reviewer’s vocabulary. But in Dillon’s case, it’s hard to think of a more apposite word. Strains and phrases from these poignant, intensely romantic tales linger in the air long after the album has played out, gentle as a whisper but always insistent on being heard.

The lack of artifice is compelling. Dillon might have been absent from the studio for more than a decade since her days with Déanta, but so steeped is she in an enviable heritage of Irish traditional singing that there is no sense of her searching for her mark. There are no cobwebs to blow away. She hits the ground running with “When a Man’s in Love” and “Ballyronan Maid” (backing vocals supplied by sister Cara).

While the opening track and the equally carefree “The Banks of the Claudy” are laced with wry humour, the accents are generally dark and complex. Witness the tragedy of “John Condon”, the well-received single that heralded the release of this album, in which Dillon unpicks the tale of an under-age soldier’s fate in the First World War with gut-wrenching simplicity.

Dillon points out that the songs are all linked in some way with the North of Ireland and the musical influence of her homeland on her style and technique is clear. But like all fine singers, she instinctively highlights their universality. She approaches them from a subtle, modern perspective, steering them away from melodrama and the visceral influence of experience to a more intimate, contemplative place.

The devastating tale at the heart of “The Month of January” becomes a monologue of almost chilling rage as the voice of the wronged girl grows in certainty and she grimly forecasts the fading charms of her feckless lover. The traditional lament, “Ard Tí Chuain”, sung a cappella, ends abruptly, leaving the listener almost suspended in its aching beauty.

The sense of trepidation and foreboding that hovers around Dillon’s own composition, “The Boatman”, is one of the North’s strongest themes. Nothing is certain. Everything could be taken at any time. “Edward on Lough Erne Shore”, underscored by Neil Martin’s sympathetic string arrangement and resonant cello playing, epitomises the album’s thoughtful passage along the narrow divide between hope and despair. A quietly magnificent album.