- November 06, 2020
- Devon Léger
- Album Reviews
by Devon Léger, Folk Alley
Only two more Bandcamp Fridays for the year, friends! It’s been a rough year for sure, so be sure to support the artists you’ve loved a long time or have newly discovered. We’re all struggling now, but it’s guaranteed that artists will be the last to return to work and were some of the first to lose their jobs under COVID, so they need all the help we can give them. For November’s Bandcamp Friday I took a look at some of the powerful new albums coming out of the UK and Ireland. With most of these albums there’s a kind of tribalism tied to the topography of the lands, sometimes a strain of environmentalism bordering on animist. The UK and Ireland have long lived in closer proximity to the other realms than we have in the US, that’s why their folk songs are full of faeries, spells, and bloody ballads. With the seasons turning to winter now, let’s turn to these sea and storm swept landscapes to listen to tales of the old ways.
A legend of UK (and American) folk music, Shirley Collins pulls off a triumphant second return with her new album, Heart’s Ease. Her 2016 album, Lodestar, marked the surprising return of Collins after over 30 years disappearance. In the late 70s, following a painful divorce, Collins lost her voice, or found herself no longer able to sing. If that sounds like a story you might find in an old traditional ballad, it leads one to wonder how tied to this music Collins is. She seems to embody a spirit of traditional British balladry, either through the hardships in her life and her resilience in the face of adversity, or possibly in her closeness to the liminal space of British fae and folklore. Heart’s Ease brings Collins back to the old songs and, though her voice is deeper, there’s a focus in her singing that’s unparalleled. We’ve all heard “Barbara Allen” so many times before, but Collins sounds like she’s there in person, telling us about two old friends of hers. There’s some kind of magic at work in this album and I wonder if Collins herself knows what it is.
It’s a measure of how terrible this year has been that climate change is not really a main topic of conversation anymore. Despite the West burning, despite hurricanes pounding the Southeast, despite SO many indications that the planet is failing, our immediate political concerns are seemingly greater and have overshadowed the real issue of our age. Sam Lee hasn’t forgotten. On his 2020 album, Old Wow, he digs deep into his repertoire of traditional song to look at age-old meditations on a world growing dark and passing on. It’s not really a protest album of sorts, but more of a meditation on our impending loss. There’s hope here, but hope we’ll need to earn and we certainly haven’t yet. As always, Lee is a virtuosic folk impresario. Here he weaves common songs like "Green Grow the Rushes" or "Wild Mountain Thyme" into rarer ballads, some from British traveller traditions, with his stark, haunting, intensely powerful vocals shining throughout.
Though only one third of this band - Nordic Fiddler's Bloc - is British, there’s a lot of great UK-based music to pick up on in this release from three very different fiddlers. Representing the UK, Shetland fiddler Kevin Henderson has spent his time in this power trio diving into the similarities between Shetland and Scandinavian fiddling. Since Shetland lies between the Scottish mainland and Norway, the music there has always been a blend of Celtic and Scandinavian roots, a kind of Scottish fiddling that whorls through tunes with more drones and crooked rhythms than you’d expect. Along with Swedish fiddler Anders Hall and Norwegian hardanger fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva, Henderson explores the triangle of music between Sweden, Norway, and Scotland. It’s hard to make a compelling album with more than one fiddler. Too often the fiddles blend together into a kind of sonic mush. But here the trio experiment with densely packed and carefully built arrangements, generating a propulsion from each fiddler that’s enviable. Great tunes too! The Swedish tune “Bas-Pelles Eriks Brudpolska” from historic fiddler Pers Westberg has been making the rounds in the US thanks to fiddler Lena Jonsson (check out this great version from mandolinist Tristan Scroggins and guitarist Molly Tuttle) and shines here. Shetland tune “Up Da Stroods Da Sailor Goes” and Norwegian tune “Dravbakken” are also highlights for me. If you’re curious how Scandinavian and Scottish music have interacted and influenced each other over the centuries, this album is a great place to start!
Bonus: Another UK folk group mixing English and Scandinavian influences are The Rheingans Sisters. Much acclaimed in the UK, they have a new album out now, Receiver, that mixes gorgeous Scandinavian fiddle tunes and harmonies with shimmery British folk song.
Though I don’t trust “indie folk” in general, thinking it often a rather nebulous concept that was made to support indie rock artists making acoustic records, I do trust The Journal of Music in Ireland. They cover all genres of Irish music with special love for the tradition and are great writers, so when they wrote a lovely review of the new album from Galway singer-songwriter Niamh Regan, I jumped right in. Regan comes from the trad scene originally, having studied Irish flute and guitar at the University of Limerick, but this album hews more towards coffeeshop lounge folk songwriting (in the best way). The songs are deftly written, but it’s Regan’s voice that’s the star here. Her vocals crackle, waver, soar, and command the stage. She has a focus and clarity to her singing that’s enviable in any singer, and you find yourself hanging on every word. She builds her songs to showcase her voice as well, fitting in quick drops and halting rhythms that bring voice and words together into a third kind of art. She’s a grand new discovery from Ireland, an artist to watch carefully as she continues to rise. “Two Seagulls” and “Something So Good” are especially beautiful songs from her.
Bonus: Just stumbled on this really lovely album, So Ends the Day, of seafaring songs inspired by the long history of whaling vessels from Irish singer Éilís Kennedy from the coastal town of Dingle. Most songs here are her writing based on old letters and historical records, but she weaves in traditional whaler songs as well.
I’m such a sucker for the Irish concertina. For one, it’s so cute! A small hexagonal accordion, concertinas have a very special kind of reed that makes them sound quite different from other accordions. The Irish concertina has a different note on the push and the pull, making for a kind of wrestling motion from the concertina player as they wrangle this little animal under control for the listener. Many of the best concertina players have always been women, and the legacy continues today with artists like Caitlin Nic Gabhann, Edel Fox, and Caroline Keane. Keane hit the scene with a particularly fiery band called FourWinds, racing through breakneck reels with uilleann bagpiper Tom Delany. Her and Delany had a killer duets album in 2017, but Keane’s 2020 album of solo concertina finds her coming into her own as a musician. She’s got a powerful lilt to her playing, at once careful and thoughtful about the melodies of these tunes, but with a bit of an edge as well. She tosses out ornamented flourishes with the aggression of an errant elbow to the ribs in a crowded pub, breaking somewhat from the overly fluid modern tradition of Irish concertina playing. Shine sees her diving into Irish reels and jigs, but also polkas, waltzes, slides, and hornpipes. It’s definitely her “arrival” album and I can’t think of a better introduction to this wonderful little instrument.
Bonus: There’s been some great Irish trad albums on Bandcamp this year, like this one, or this one, or this one, but jeez the biggest surprise for sure is this mysterious album of Irish session tunes with anime influences (?) from Japanese band Casket! I’ve been trying to figure out who they are and coming up short, though there is a lot of love for Irish trad in Japan. Enjoy the mystery!
The son of Orkney folk legend Ivan Drever, Kris Drever has been at the forefront of the Scottish folk revival most of his life and is easily one of the best singers on the scene. His work with the band Lau is absolutely groundbreaking, and as a songwriter he’s spectacularly good. I’m a huge Drever fan though his music can be hard to find in the States. His new album feels almost effortless, another collection of thoughtful, beautiful songs inflected with Drever’s thick brogue and his sensibility for the many facets of love in traditional music. Though Drever’s easily one of the best UK folk songwriters, I love his music because he has such a deep knowledge of the rhythms of traditional music. His albums with Irish tenor banjo player Éamonn Coyne are revelations of how joyful and fun the tradition can be. On Drever’s new album the standout track to show this rhythm is “Hunker Down / That Old Blitz Spirit” which seems a bit of a sardonic take on the current political climate in the UK. All the same, it’s Drever’s soft vocal delivery and thought-provoking lyrics that keep bringing me back to his music time and again. On the title track, he sings “You can buy affection for gold, you can sell ideas for pounds and pounds, there’s much that’s certain in this world; love’s not obliged to make much sense.” He’s right, and it helps to have such an eloquent songwriter to explain this to us.
Bonus: My favorite trad album of last year was from the brilliant Scottish bagpiper Brìghde Chaimbeul, and now with this gorgeous album, Landskein, of solo Scottish fiddle from Lauren MacColl, I’m wondering if there’s a movement of Scottish master instrumentalists creating groundbreaking albums focused on acoustic tone and drone-filled old traditional tunes and songs. If so, I’m here for it!
The UK and Irish folk scene seems overall to be very white, which is strange considering the many immigrant communities that have long called these countries home. Part of that might be my own lack of knowledge and connections, and after talking with Sam Lee, he did suggest some amazing artists who he’s booked at his renowned Nest Collective (I’m very intrigued by Haitian songwriter/fiddler Germa Adan) including West African griot and kora master Kadialy Kouyate, who lives in London. Kouyate comes from the Senegalese griot world and pays homage to his roots in his new album, Nemo, which means “blessings” in the Senegalese Wolof language. Griots in West Africa are tradition bearers, oral history keepers, master musicians tied to nobility. It’s a hereditary position and commands great respect artistically, even though griots are somewhat lower in the social structure than you might think (much like musicians in Western cultures unfortunately). For a deeper look at the role of the griot in West Africa, check out American bluesman Corey Harris’ excellent recent biography of Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré which turned around my own thinking on the subject. Kouyate himself is a powerful kora player, able to translate the cascading runs and virtuosic brilliance of this harp-like instrument into a Western setting, as he does here, incorporating a full band with heavy bass and even electronic elements, plus fiddling from British fiddler Griselda Sanderson. Kouyate has extensive experience fusing Senegalese traditions with British/Celtic traditions; he was a member of Afro Celt Sound System and was part of Mumford & Sons’ surprisingly great 2016 EP with African legend Baaba Maal. Nemo sees him taking time for himself and for his own vision and is a wonderfully engaging look at what West African’s griot traditions sound like in London today.
I’m not usually one for podcasts, but I’ve been enjoying Podwireless from British folk music journalist Ian Anderson. He’s the editor of the tragically defunct folk music magazine fRoots and has great taste in UK folk (also an excellent and interesting folk musician himself). Ian’s recent Podwireless turned me on to the new album from UK indie folk singer Jayne Dent who records electronic-influenced folk under the name Me Lost Me. Dent is quick to assert that her new album as Me Lost Me, The Good Noise, is not really folk, but I think it’s hard to deny that her voice taps deep into the tradition. From the vocal ornaments, to the structure of the songs, to her samples drawn from folklore (including her concertina playing), the album certainly sounds like a 21st century British folk album drenched in electronica. It’s beautiful throughout, a trance-like meditation on what modern folklore might sound like. Dent describes her music as “topographic,” which I love. There is a certain geography to her music, not in terms of where she’s from, but in terms of the fact that her assemblage of all these disparate parts seems almost like a worldview creation. It’s complex stuff and quite beautiful as well, well worth a listen!
Bonus: Speaking of geography in folk music, the lovely new album from Irish trad singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh takes the Irish sea as its thematic focus. The songs are traditional and have powerful stories behind them. Nic Amhlaoibh is well known for her work previously as Irish trad band Danú’s lead singer, and her solo work has been quite a bit more experimental.