OK, we’ll get the cliché out of the way first; apparently Sarah MacDougall’s name has to be prefaced by ‘Swedish-born’ in every review of her work. In this case, it helps to explain why there’s a Swedish-language song on the album (and a particularly beguiling one, at that), so I’m claiming that there’s a justification this time, but let’s just start with a bit of background. “Grand Canyon” is Sarah’s third album, following 2009’s “Across the Atlantic” and the award-winning 2011 album “The Greatest Ones Alive”. A quick look at the credits shows that the sound of the album is very different from her previous works; besides MJ Dandeneau (bass and double bass) and Shawn Killaly (drums and percussion), there’s a long list of guest singers, and players covering brass, keyboards, guitars as well as a string quartet.
The album’s first song opens with sparse, almost martial, drums and acoustic guitar and builds up with addition of bass, keyboards and multi-layered vocals to a climax followed by the reiteration of the first verse. “I Want to See the Light (Lost from our Eyes)” is the first exposition of a theme which recurs throughout the album; there’s a much simpler life which we could go back to if we chose to. “Sparrowhead” is a much more percussive affair, again looking back to simpler times, which builds to a climax with a mantra-like vocal and a trumpet riff; there are a lot of elements new to Sarah’s work, but it all fits together perfectly. “Malmö I Mitt Hjärta” (yep, it’s Swedish but the sleeve notes have a handy translation) is a bewitching piece, with echoes of Sigur Ros, carried along on minimalist percussion and a lovely string quartet arrangement, all supporting a powerful vocal performance; it’s utterly compelling. And the title track; well it’s the poppiest song on the album, with skittering percussion, keyboards, clean and dirty guitars and a melody that just grabs you and won’t let go; and it’s about going back to something more simple.
“The Story of Pippi and Lionheart” brings out another of the album’s themes, the powerlessness that we feel in dealing with real world with a series of fantasies identifying with superheroes from Pippi Longstocking to Robocop; it’s a relatively straightforward song, which is followed by the most complex song on the album, “Baby It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll”. We’re not talking about rock ‘n’ roll music so much as the lifestyle, and the song bears this out, starting with finger-picked guitar and strings, moving through another martial drum pattern until a snare backbeat finally appears in the third chorus to hint at r’n’r before dissolving into a string quartet to close the song. This song and the remaining two, “Devil’s Gap” and “2012” feel like a trilogy dealing with different aspects of the same failed relationship although “2012” brings the album to a positive close with massed vocals and brass.
“Grand Canyon” feels like a big musical step for Sarah MacDougall; the acoustic guitar is still there, but it’s joined by poppier keyboards, percussion and string quartet providing support for her emotive songs and distinctive voice. This is a little classic of an album packed with powerful lyrics, catchy hooks and evocative arrangements.
“Grand Canyon” is released in the UK on August 7 on Rabbit Heart Music Music (RHM02) and Sarah will be touring in November 2015.
WOMAD line ups never fail to excite and this year was no different. It distinguishes itself from the rest of the festival circuit by being more inclusive and contemporary; other festivals either pride themselves on being of a certain era (Reload, etc) or tolerate a high proportion of artists now on the chicken-in-a-basket gig circuit. Any veterans playing here had better still be hitting their stride.
A well organised affair, even the rain didn’t stop play with Bellowhead on the main stage on Friday, they played their optimistic blend of folk-rock that started the umbrella dances. Attendance was down for campers as some opted to just come for the day on sunny Saturday.
Saturday was therefore a different story weather wise and the energy lifted. Hassam Ramzy from Egypt delivered smooth, soundtrack-ready grooves.
Cheikh Lo was surprisingly first up on the main stage, and having got there early, we were treated to an extended sound-check with all of the band. He came on and the clouds parted. According to the radio coverage, Cheikh brought a hair-drier with him, not to dry his now knee-length dreads, but to warm his hands. Although only five albums in, he has toured Europe extensively over the years (especially France and the UK) so he knew to come prepared for British Summer Time. I caught him at London’s Jazz Café in the mid-nineties and had a great time in the half empty venue; years later, Cheikh Lo now commands the size of audience he deserves.
A man pushed his way to the front next to me, then said, ‘Who is this guy, is he any good?’ I would have forgiven him except he stood for most of the set with a finger in one ear and his phone clamped to the other. In Dakar, where Cheikh Lo has both a street and bus stop named in his honour, there is no doubting who this humble man of the people is.
Here he treated us to a set that was neither promoting his new album particularly, nor a greatest hits package, just dancey Afro-Cuban Jazz as he refers to it. Perhaps he was rather restricted from playing much of his recent release “Balbalou”, as he didn’t have his vocal collaborators from that album with him and was short of an accordion, kora and piano on stage. Cheikh, himself a talented multi-instrumentalist, played high-hat and guitar at the front, before evicting his kit drummer to take it on himself for a couple of songs. Tracks from the album he did play included the title track, “Balbalou” and the wonderfully stop/start “Gemou Ma Ko”, a rarer love song. Live, Cheikh Lo is blessed with as many grace notes as grace-pauses to underline his rhythms. The translations of his song titles sound like a manifesto for peaceful change: “The Pacifist”, “The Truth”, “Enough of Revolutions”, “Lower The Weapons”, and so on. There is no fist in the air however, just pretty melodies and hip-swinging rhythms.
After over an hour of wonderful Senagalese music, I went to meet him to get my CD signed, I only managed a hurried, ‘Merci beaucoup’ as I shook his soft hand. He wrote on the CD “Good vibes” which summed up the whole experience.
We had a sneak preview of this one a few weeks ago when we reviewed the lead track, “The Confession”, as a single, but this time around it’s the full four track EP with additional songs “All for the Best”, “The Fear” and “Together Alone”. Previous Sound of the Sirens work has focussed on two voice/two guitar/stompbox arrangements that can be recreated live as a duo, but “All We Have is Time” features upright bass, violin and a little bit of piano, which add a few more colours to the palette. Lyrically, there are a few familiar themes, including breaking or broken relationships and encouragement to fulfil our personal potential, but it’s fair to say that “All We Have is Time” is a step forward into new territory.
We reviewed the stomping, violin-driven “The Confession” a few weeks ago, so I’ll skip over that and start with “All for the Best”. Violin and piano dominate the intro, creating, with vocal harmonies, a very traditional, folky sound which ebbs and flows to illustrate the theme of a relationship which was once beautiful but has run its course. “The Fear” is where the introduction of violin and upright bass has the greatest impact, combining with a very catchy vocal hook to create an uptempo Eastern European feel as the lyrics delve into the attempt to create the perfect physical and spiritual union. Several key changes towards the end of the song ratchet up the tension before the resolution comes in the final phrase, ‘Go all the way’. The final song, “Together Alone” is already a live favourite and it’s easy to see why. The song demonstrates the assured use of dynamics with changes in volume and tempo, and finishes with a show-stopping a cappella ending. Add that to a lyrical message that we should all try to transcend our limitations and you’ve got yourself an anthem.
When you listen to Sound of the Sirens, you hear two voices which work really well together (they do homophony and counterpoint beautifully); they have a tremendous understanding of the construction of songs and live performance, but they also write lyrics which reference the darker themes found in folk music and stories. “All We Have is Time” is a pretty good introduction to the Sound of the Sirens, but you should do two things: listen to their album “A Long Way to Fall” and make an effort to see them play live. You can do the first one any time and their next live appearance will be at Chris Evans’ Carfest this weekend. We’ll keep you posted.
OK, just hold that front page for a minute, I’ve got a scoop here. There’s more than one band in Croydon attracting attention and I want to be the first to say I’ve discovered the Croydon Scene, so just remember where you heard it. We reviewed the Yeti Love single a few weeks ago and now we’ve got another Croydon band, CoffeePot Drive, releasing their first single “Hey Suzy”, which you can hear on the link above. The band’s sound harks back to a time in the late sixties and early seventies when blues, funk and soul regularly crossed over, creating interesting hybrids with funky guitar riffs, Hammond B3s and soulful vocals.
The members of CoffeePot Drive have worked in various line-ups on the live circuit in the past and the quality of the playing shines through, particularly in the guitar interplay; it could easily be early Fleetwood Mac or The Black Crowes, but there’s a very special ingredient. The voice of Lady Oracle softens the hard edges of the guitars, supplies layered backing vocals and cuts through at the high end of the frequency range. There’s a nice use of dynamics as well, with the breakdown at the two-thirds mark where everything drops out except cymbals and guitar arpeggios before building back up through a couple of choruses to a guitar and vocal coda.
As a lead track for the album, it works well; it grabs the interest with the guitar and vocal interplay and leaves you wanting to hear a bit more. Job done, I think.
“Hey Suzy” is released on August 17, with the album “Edge of Town” following on August 31.
Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal supported by Dean Owens at The Union Chapel; now there’s one that ticks all the boxes. The sound in the venue is outstanding for acoustic performances (it is a working church after all), the audience is receptive and the atmosphere’s always warm and friendly; even the security staff are pleasant. If ever there was a perfect venue for Dean Owens to play his biggest London show so far, this was the one and he wasn’t about to disappoint.
He opened with “Shine like the Road after the Rain” and immediately had the audience on his side; none of this polite applause nonsense, this was a crowd that immediately recognised great songwriting and performance. With only a thirty minute slot, Dean chose his songs carefully with four from his new album, the intensely personal “Into the Sea”, which we reviewed earlier this year. The gentle longing of “Valentine’s Day in New York” set a few toes tapping before the triple emotional whammy of “Virginia Street”, “Evergreen” and “The Only One”. The last song should have suffered from the loss of Will Kimbrough’s studio harmonies, but it didn’t; the audience listened entranced and gave the song the best response so far. Which left enough time to fit in “Raining in Glasgow” (just one of Dean’s anthems) and a completely unplugged crowd-pleasing romp through Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”. And leave them wanting more…
Rosanne Cash is a bona fide country legend, regularly bracketed with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and with good reason; she’s written some superb songs and also recorded some fine interpretations. The current European tour, with her husband, guitarist and songwriter John Leventhal, is nominally in support of her last album, the double Grammy winner “The River & the Thread” but it’s obvious that the show is much more than that. It’s about the links between that album, the delta, the blues and the history of the Southern states, and the various tributaries gradually joined up as the set progressed.
So, not surprisingly, songs from the latest album were heavily featured, particularly at the start of the set, which opened with “Modern Blue” and featured “Etta’s Tune”, “The Sunken Lands” and “The Long Way Home”. “The River & the Thread” featured again towards the end of the set as we heard “When the Master Calls the Roll”, “World of Strange Design” and “Money Road”, while the middle section featured some of the greatest hits including “Tennessee Flat Top Box”, “ Sea of Heartbreak” and “The Way we Make a Broken Heart”. The obligatory “Seven Year Ache” made an appearance towards the end of the set after many audience requests (and there’s a very personal story behind that one which I’ll share with you another day) but the focal point of the entire set, where the rivers and threads were gathered together, was a Bobbie Gentry song.
Rosanne and John’s performance of “Ode to Billie Joe” was heart-rending, the minimalist guitar picking underpinning the lyrical contrast between domestic banality and sensational events which are never fully explained. The song silenced the audience and drew the best response of the night while joining the dots in the overall picture the duo created; if you need a definition of tour de force, this was it.
Predictably enough, there were a couple of (well-deserved) standing ovations to round off an evening of powerful songs delivered by three gifted performers and everyone left happy and emotionally drained. Doesn’t that just define a great gig?
To round off the mid-term report for 2015, we thought it would be good to have a look at some of the people we’ve discovered this year. Some of them are relatively new and some have been around for a while but they have one thing in common; they’re all very good.
We heard about Mollie Marriott last year when she did backing vocals (along with Izzy Chase-Phillmore) on Jim Stapley’s debut album “Long Time Coming”. She’s had a couple of singles out (“Ship of Fools” and “Transformer”) and the first album’s just about ready to go. She’s been collaborating with some exceptional songwriters and her live band (Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley, Sam Tanner, Alex Reeves and Henrik Irgens) sounds stunning. Top that off with a voice which can do the pure pop, but has a raw, soulful edge as well and you’ve got something a little bit special. The only way is up.
Discovering Sound of the Sirens earlier this year was proof that turning up for the support band can pay off. They supported Mad Dog Mcrea on a few dates earlier this year, including The Half Moon in Putney and they were superb. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood create a huge sound with two voices, two guitars (or guitar and mandolin) and two stompboxes. If you insist on attaching a genre tag to Sound of the Sirens, ‘twenty-first century acoustic anthems’, is pretty close to the mark; it works for us anyway. But don’t just take our word for it, in the last couple of months, Abbe and Hannah have played at Glastonbury, have secured a BBC Introducing slot and are appearing at Carfest. And they’ve got a new EP out.
The guys in Jupe are Dublin-based and they’ve been together for a while, but now that their line-up has settled they’re just starting to get the attention that their anthemic soul/pop/rock really deserves. The Riot Squad saw Jupe at a showcase gig at The Garage in Islington a few weeks ago and they were the band that got the entire audience on their side. The sound is contemporary and commercial but it’s backed up with rock-solid musicianship and a charismatic singer who knows how to work a live crowd. The single “Rocket” is out on August 3.
Hannah Aldridge released her jaw-droppingly good debut album, “Razor Wire” in 2014; it’s a collection of intensely personal songs written from the perspective of a writer who has walked the darker side of the street. She toured the UK recently in support of the album and won over audiences with her stripped-down solo versions of the album material, including a storming version of “Howlin’ Bones”. The album and the live performances of the “Razor Wire” material alone would secure Hannah’s inclusion in this feature, but there’s even more. During the show at Green Note, Hannah played a new song called “Gold Rush” which held the audience in hushed awe. If the rest of the next album is even close to the standard of “Gold Rush” it’s going to be an album to grace anyone’s collection.
Three years ago, we were seriously impressed by Natalie Duncan’s debut album “Devil in Me” and her stunning live performances. Things went a bit quiet following the initial promotion for the album and the major label deal didn’t really work out, but Natalie’s a strong character and a formidable talent; she’s been working on new material and, over the last year or so, she’s been playing to a mixture of album material and new songs to appreciative audiences all over London. The new songs from her “Black and White” EP are much more edgy than her earlier material, using vocal loops and samples as part of the backing tracks and they seem to be attracting a new audience to augment her original following. Anyway, she’s sounding better than ever and you should give her a listen.
And, if that’s not enough to be going on with, there are a few other bands that you should keep an eye on. Black Casino and the Ghost release their second album later this year, Space Elevator’s brand of theatrical melodic rock is attracting wider attention, The Jar Family are reaching wider live audiences with their well-crafted songs and energetic gigs and Jim Stapley (Mollie Marriott collaborator and astonishingly powerful rock singer) is working in New Orleans on new material for that difficult second album. By the time you’ve checked out all of those, we’ll be doing the year-end review.
Following successful appearances at Latitude and Dartford festivals over the weekend and with Fuji Rocks coming up a week later, things are pretty hectic for Stone Foundation at the moment in the run-up to the release of “A Life Unlimited” in early August. The album looks set to be their biggest to date and the fanbase seems to be growing by the minute, so it was great to be able to have a quick chat with bass player and co-songwriter Neil Sheasby about the band’s roots and the events of the last year or so.
Allan – So Neil, tell us a bit about the origins of the band.
Neil – It started around the friendship between me and Neil Jones (Stone Foundation singer and co-writer). He was in a band previously that supported a band I was in and I was immediately impressed with his voice and when the band I was in broke up, the first thing I wanted to do was to get a proper vocalist, so we started writing songs together, fifteen years ago probably. But it took so long because we knew we always wanted it to be a heavy-hitting band with the horns and Hammond and it took a long, long time for us to be able to get the right line-up together. We had the vision and the thoughts and the ideas but it took ages to get that line-up and for it to come to fruition.
Allan – The fact that it’s taken a long time, does that keep you grounded about the whole thing?
Neil – Absolutely, we would be anyway, because first and foremost we’re music fans. Both of us have got big record collections and we create for the buzz of it. We’d be doing it anyway whether people were paying attention or not. So we’ll always be grounded really; it doesn’t matter how much media attention we get or how many people come through the door at gigs and buy records, there’s no reason for us not to stay grounded.
Allan – Over the last couple of years in particular, a lot’s been happening for you and it’s gone crazy over the last six months, so how does that feel after all the time you’ve spent grafting at it?
Neil – It’s heartening and humbling and encouraging for us because you know you’re making a connection: you know you’re not fooling yourself really. We try and do the best we can and we try and make records that we really believe in; fundamentally we’ve got to like them. It’s a cliché that you make music for yourself and if someone else likes it, it’s a bonus, but you do want people to like the records and you do want people to make that connection. Fortunately, the last couple of records, especially “To Find the Spirit” found us a really wide audience and I hope the new record “A Life Unlimited” will broaden it; I think it’s our best work to date. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t care if anyone liked it or not; we do. We want as many people as possible to like it. It’s humbling and encouraging and it means we can carry on. If no-one was interested and no-one bought the records there would be no point in us staying together; this keeps us working, keeps us together and keeps us moving forward.
Allan – I think it’s interesting that your fans are a lot like Dexys fans, for example, they seem to be a very loyal bunch and they really buy in to the whole package.
Neil – Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. When I was younger I used to follow bands like Dexys and The Jam around; you wouldn’t just go and see one gig, you’d go and follow the tour around, but there’s hardly anyone that does that now and I think we are that sort of band. You never know what you’re going to get from night to night; I think people see that in us and maybe we remind them of things that they’ve grown up with and that’s a good thing; we’re really lucky to have that fanbase that are loyal and just get what we do.
Allan – I think it says a lot about the respect that you have from other musicians that you can pull in such great guest artists on the albums as well.
Neil – Definitely, but that’s not something that we do just for the sake of it. We’ve been fortunate to work with people like Nolan Porter who came over from America and we were his backing band, but while he was over we did some things in collaboration. People like Carleen Anderson and Graham Parker, they don’t do just anything; they have to like what’s in front of them, what they’re hearing, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
The Carleen Anderson thing “When You’re In My World” was written with that Marvin Gaye duet kind of vibe; that’s how we heard it and we approached Carleen on a whim really. It’s beyond our expectations to be working with people like that, but it’s a massive compliment to what we’re doing that they say yes and get right behind it as well. They believe in what we’re doing as well and they say some very nice complimentary things about our thing and it’s as much of a surprise to us as it is to everyone else; it’s a lovely thing to happen.
Allan – So how did you manage to land Graham Parker?
Neil – Funnily enough, I was at a book launch. I’m really good friends with Paolo Hewitt and I went to the launch of his last book and Graham was there. I just approached him as a fan because I‘m a big fan of Graham Parker and the Rumour and I’ve got all their records. We got chatting and we just hit it off, really. We just started talking, and we never stopped talking so we exchanged emails and numbers. I had a song called “The Night Teller” and it was a bit of a late night phone-in thing like the cover of “The Nightfly” by Donald Fagen, which you mentioned in your review, didn’t you?
Allan – Yeah, I did…
Neil – You got that exactly, nailed on, which really surprised me; it was exactly that, it was a late-night helpline with two people phoning in having a conversation so we needed another voice and I thought Graham’s voice would be absolutely bang-on for it really, so I put the suggestion to him, sent the track and sure enough he went for it. It was one of the bonding things with me and Neil when we started Stone Foundation, we had a few jumping-off points and Graham Parker and the Rumour was certainly one so to have him on our record was fairly incredible really.
Allan – And it sounds great, it really works well for the song.
Neil – As I say, it’s not just for the sake of it. It’s because you can hear it happening.
Allan – One thing that always fascinates me, and I always try to ask songwriters about this, is do you and Neil have a particular creative process, do you always work in the same way?
Neil – No, not really; we collaborated a lot more on this last record. We write separately and sometimes it’s like finishing off each other’s sentences. Neil will have an idea and I’ll think ‘I’ve got this bit that’ll probably work with that’ or I’ll have a song that I haven’t got a bridge for and he’ll have something that just fits hand-in glove, so there’s no real process; we don’t sit down in a room together or anything, there’s various ways it can happen. It can start from a little groove or we can come in with the lyrics first or even the title, as in the case of “Beverley”. We’d had that little hook for a while and we wrote the song around that, so there’s many different ways we work. Also, the band play a part in the arrangements as well. Phil, the drummer, has a great ear for arrangements but there’s no set ways. Sometimes it just happens, when we share the vision and the ideas. It’s sometimes difficult for me and Neil to get the sound out of our head that we want, but the musicians that we’ve got around us now know us well enough to have an understanding and they grasp it really quickly and we get the ideas in our head out and on to the record. We’re very fortunate in that respect.
Allan – The horn section’s sounding really good on this record, although I kind of miss the trombone live, but I guess that’s one of those things about having a big band.
Neil – Well we didn’t want to hide behind the last record, “To Find the Spirit”, so we wanted to make subtle changes. Spencer (Hague, trombone player) played on the last record, but he’s taking a break from the band; he’s having a family and he’s got work commitments. The more the band’s successful, the more the demands of gigging, the more the band’s going through the gears, the more pressure there is on people to give up time to do it because they’re all working guys as well. Spen’s taken a back seat but who knows, never say never, he might be back, but I think it’s nice to have a change with the horns as well and have a different dynamic. We’ve brought in a baritone sax (Adam) and Gareth on trumpet; it’s nice to have a change in dynamic and it’s healthy to keep changing from record to record and I’m sure it’ll change again because it’s inevitable with big line-ups.
Allan – Thanks very much for your time, Neil and good luck in Japan next week.
“A Life Unlimited” is released on August 7.