UK Dispatch, Jan. '05
Rob Forbes
1/24/2005 6:04:25 PM

Was it Big Bill Broonzy who, when asked if he considered himself a folk musician, replied, (and I’m paraphrasing here), "All music is made by folk - you don’t hear no monkeys making music"? Now those old blues guys may have been raised with less schooling than was legal, but they were probably wiser than most. Certainly Big Bill had more wisdom and knowledge than my local CD peddler (some clues: 3 letters, ends with a "V", staffed by people who don’t like music) who are currently listing an album of whale song at number 14 in their Folk Chart. The whale’s song certainly doesn’t lack charm - possibly structure and tunes you can whistle to - but what it definitely wants for is folk. The reasons for this are numerous. Human vocalists tend to struggle when attempting to sing in open ocean, and whales are equally inept when placed in the studio, and it’s almost impossible to tour a human / whale album - the riders are prohibitive and they muss up hotel rooms something rotten. Although, Paul Simon could probably pull it off. I see he’s out playing with Art Garfunkel again, a man with a forehead that would rival many an orca for smooth lines and expansiveness. It would be a small step. Anyway, some albums:

Johnny Dickinson
Border Ballads

On Johnny Dickinson‘s website, he is described as "the most potent slide player in the UK", which, I believe, means he’s not overly flashy or ostentatious, but he does know how to set a mood and generate an atmosphere or two - for me, that’s what great slide guitarists do. Border Ballads (MWM) is his second album of Northumbrian roots material, a collection which he has approached with an informal, relaxed method to his playing and a blues style which is more suited to the rural south of the US, rather than the north of England that he calls home. It’s the traditional songs however, the border ballads of the title, that give the game away. Adapted from a book of poems, collected and written by 19th Century poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne, their earthy content, pragmatic themes and flowing lines are impeccably tailored to Dickinson’s rich, dark honeyed guitar style. The more upbeat material like “A Lyke Wake Song” and “There Gowans Are Gay”, are so likeable and utterly melodic that they come close to folk-pop crossover territory, heaven forbid, but it’s the slower songs that truly shine. “The Winds”, in particular, brings to mind classic period, late ‘60s / early ‘70s Fairport Convention, with Ry Cooder on second guitar. Something of a winning combination.

Fairport Convention
Over the Next Hill

Speaking of Fairport Convention, their latest Over The Next Hill (Matty Grooves) is a return to form. In the same way that I always enjoyed Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead’s take on traditional American roots music, I’ve always appreciated Fairport’s rendering of the British folk tradition. Through various line-ups and personnel changes, I’ve always thought of them as the English Grateful Dead, sticking to real ale and pints of porter rather than psychedelics, cocaine and opiates, but just as keen to open our ears to our musical heritage. It’s safe to say that the Fairport Convention of today isn’t the ground breaking act that they were in their prime, when Richard Thompson was earning his reputation for folk-rock guitar heroics and with the irreplaceable Sandy Denny on vocals, but they’re still a fine band, ripping it up regularly on the live circuit and every now and then delivering an album as good as this one. By all accounts, 2004 was a rough year for the band, with considerable upheaval and personal problems, but they’ve clearly bounced back with this great record. The musicianship is exemplary - a quick spin of the instrumental “Canny Capers” provides ample proof - and although their sound now can best be described as folk-pop, they’ve still got something to say. “Wait For The Tide To Come” In is a lively anthem for realists everywhere, and is as warm and comfortable as your favourite cardie, and their boisterous reworking of “Si Tu Dois Partir” is just stunning.

E.P.Onymous (Megafone)

If you’re not yet sick of Fairport Convention and folks that occasionally remind me of them, then read on. Bellowhead are the rising stars of the Brit-folk scene, thanks to their performances at the 2004 UK folk festivals - at one show the audience were so excited, they managed to break the dance floor - and their debut 5-track EP, which we have here. E.P.Onymous (Megafone) is a wonderfully vibrant collection, in which the ten piece band tackle five traditional songs, the earliest, “Jack Robinson”, dating from the 1650s. Fronted by the duo, John Spiers and Jon Boden, the band launch into these old songs with astonishing verve and vigour, empowered by full horn and string sections and an undisguised passion for the material. This is a really great folk-rock CD, too short of course at just over 25 minutes, but don’t ignore it because of that.

Clap Clap Clap (Jack And Danny Records)

With just enough hype, hard luck, good drugs and bad advice to make life interesting, and progress slow, Ambershades’ debut album is finally ready for release. It’s been a long time coming. 18 months, in fact, since their first single alerted pop fans there was a new band on the block, who knew their history and heritage, the Beatles and The Who, early Elton and Roy Wood’s ELO, who were at home in the studio, and left their cars in the garage. So, the indications were good, the live reports glowing, and the album, Clap Clap Clap (Jack And Danny Records), delivers on that early promise. 12 tracks of magnificent, ambitious pop, heavy on the keyboards and CS&N inspired, acid-fried harmonies, and tunes, if not to die for, certainly worth twisting your ankle or stubbing your toe really bad for. The songwriters, Davey La and Ben Castle, display a dark wit and considerable craft as they weave their magic; “My Darling” is McCartney with indie cred, “Spread Some Love” is pure ‘70s FM pop with what sounds like a theremin adding some extra spice, and “Stop The World I’m Getting On” is almost as good as its title suggests. This is the best pop album of the year so far, granted I’m writing this on the 21st January, but someone’s going to have to pull out a lot of stops to knock Clap Clap Clap off the top of the pile.

Brand Violet
Retrovision Coma USA (Riverside Records).

Spooky, gothic, surf, noir, rock ‘n’ pop - Brand Violet are already cult favourites in London and it’s not difficult to hear why. Frontwoman Sally-Anne Marsh sounds like an insane six year old with a grudge against society - in reality, she’s an insane twenty-something with a grudge against society - and the band whip up a noise which takes in all the above and comes out the other side like a hybrid of X, classic Blondie, Cramps and the Gun Club. Marsh’s baby yelp might not be to everyone’s liking, but most will get off on Retrovision Coma USA (Riverside Records). Guitarist, Baby Igor, unleashes scratchy leads like a rockabilly Daniel Ash, the rhythm section fall over themselves to lay down spine-tingly beats, and if nothing else, the songs’ll make you smile. Highlights are plentiful. “Flashlight” could have been written for the Rocky Horror Show, “Alien Hive Theme” rumbles along like a rockabilly rhino and "Head" is rocking power pop with real bite.


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