Review: Richard Dawson’s “The Ruby Cord”

By Sam Goldner

Richard Dawson sings as if he’s waging a one-man war against all of modern civilization. His broken-down style of English folk music feels like it was beamed in from another time, each frayed blemish possessing an ornate, worn-in beauty. All the missed guitar notes and accidental voice cracks betray an intricate design, a refined musicianship somewhere between the brutal virtuosity of Bill Orcutt and the classical elegance of Joanna Newsom. His paranoid voice booms and rumbles like a doomsday sayer hollering from the side of the road, but if you stop to listen, you’ll hear moving tales of squalor, cruelty, and tenuously held hope.

Though Dawson has regularly reconfigured his music into gnarled, sprawling shapes, he’s gradually sharpened his off-kilter style into something more concise and digestible as the years have gone on. His last two solo albums, Peasant and 2020, were twisted song cycles that chronicled the everyday struggles of characters dwelling in the forgotten underbellies of society. The former took us into the Middle Ages, following stories of grieving beggars and vengeful sex workers facing down the malice of their oppressors; the latter flashed forward to the present day, locating that same desperation in the suffering of Amazon warehouse workers and UFO conspiracy theorists. The Ruby Cord, on the other hand, envisions a distant future dominated by virtual realities, where metropolises have begun to decay while Dawson’s protagonists get lost in worlds of their own design. It’s a looser, more free-associative approach for Dawson—one that still bears his uniquely unsettling touch, even if he seems to lose his own way the further his songs drift into abstraction.

If Dawson’s music has previously hinted at a proggy sense of scale, The Ruby Cord launches it to towering extremes with its gargantuan 41-minute opening track, “The Hermit.” The song’s opening 10 minutes are its most entrancing: Dawson and longtime producer Sam Grant concoct a delicate sway of flowing folk music, as brushed drums, a faintly strummed guitar, and hissing violin strings creak and wobble together in unison like some great old barge about to collapse in on itself. Even as the song picks up steam when Dawson’s voice finally enters 11 and a half minutes in, the track never leaves this simmering mood, gently humming along through a capella passages and pedal-harp-laden bridges as if it really could go on forever.

Of course, with Dawson, the music is always only half of the picture—his lyrics are where his songs come alive, and it’s here where “The Hermit” starts to reveal The Ruby Cord’s lack of focus. Dawson’s propensity for surreal and surprising storytelling has been one of the most powerful elements of his music, his arcane vignettes depicting a fractured portrait of humanity at its most harrowing. Comparatively, “The Hermit” never quite finds itself, spending much of its runtime exercising Dawson’s esoteric wordplay as he describes lush swathes of undisturbed nature populated by “vaporous shafts of a burgeoning sun” and “patchwork meadows labyrinthed with hedgerows.” The tale gains a little momentum once Dawson’s narrator is mysteriously granted the ability to perceive his surroundings in unimaginable detail, being moved to tears over each individual follicle of the bees buzzing by and the mushrooms growing beneath his feet. But just as it seems as if the story is starting to go somewhere as the reality of Dawson’s world begins to crumble around him, the thread trails off into nothingness, and a vague 12-minute choral outro carries the song away into the clouds. As hypnotizing as its headspace can be, the song leaves the distinct impression that somehow, even after 41 minutes, Dawson still hasn’t really taken us anywhere.

The remaining tracks on The Ruby Cord offer more pointed parables, though some reward more than others. “Thicker Than Water” marks the album’s high point, as Dawson suddenly brings us into the middle of some kind of apocalyptic event, singing in his whimpering falsetto of how “at the end/I didn’t really comprehend that I/was saying goodbye for the last time/to all my friends and family.” Carrying the song on his bittersweetly fingerpicked guitar, Dawson pulls the rug out at the very end, as his protagonist returns to the city only to find his parents hooked up to a Matrix-like alternate reality device, his own unconscious body lying motionless next to them. It’s the kind of pit-in-your-stomach reveal Dawson excels at in his finest moments, the tremble in his voice conveying warmth and fear in the same haunted breath.

Elsewhere, Dawson struggles to deliver the same thematic punch, nor the musical inventiveness that’s made his past work feel so original. After “The Fool” opens with a skronking sci-fi stomp straight out of Mad God, it meanders into a fairly generic love story, and Dawson’s acoustic baroque pop fails to bring the song back to the unexpectedness of its intro. Meanwhile, the stately “Museum” paints some pleasant imagery as it follows a gallery tour guide chronicling the human race long after its extinction. Harps spiral as Dawson reads off his exhibit list with a genteel remove: “Throngs of cheering football fans/A doctor crying alone/Riot police beating climate protestors/Babies being born.” It’s never particularly profound, though Dawson’s skills as a bandleader carry some of the slack as he stretches the song past the eight-minute mark with a swelling, chorus-assisted backend.

As ambitious as The Ruby Cord is, its demanding hour-and-a-half runtime never pushes Dawson’s music to places it hasn’t gone before, even if it’s all executed with his typically handwoven sense of craft. The insights feel slightly stunted, as Dawson trades out the pained, everyday compassion that he’s conveyed so deeply in his more earthbound music for dystopian scenarios that can’t quite settle on a clear premise. Dawson’s vision of the future is a grim one, and without the human element that’s made his songs so gut wrenching, The Ruby Cord ends up like a colossal, corroding monument strangely devoid of a soul.

Source: Richard Dawson: The Ruby Cord

Review: Army Of Briars’ “Made From A Broken Star”

Army of Briars’ ‘Made From A Broken Star’ is one of those fabulous albums that comes along only once in a very long while. Explore and cherish.

By David Kidman

Made From A Broken Star is one of those album titles that straightaway intrigues and, when presented in a compellingly arty, beautifully designed and executed package, it has to be regarded as a rare must-explore artefact. And trust me, you’ll not be disappointed. This album represents experimental/psych-folk at its best, an outstandingly original disc in sound and concept. It’s a masterpiece of folk magic, which mixes into its overall folky ambience intense but delicate poetry and elements of psych and prog while boldly yet naturally flecked with jazz improvisation moves.

So who are the Army Of Briars? It’s a four-piece that, in broad terms, centres around the established Sheffield husband-and-wife duo Tim & Julie Cole, Egham (Surrey)-based multi-instrumentalist, electronica specialist and producer Martin Archer, and the imaginative and evocative lyrics of contemporary poet Keith Jafrate, an undeservedly obscure figure who I believe once led a succession of jazz-poetry and modern-jazz ensembles. From time to time, the foursome may bring in extra musicians as required to further augment the already selective palette with additional timbres – in this instance, grand piano, bass guitar, percussion, or a brace of string players who together may form a quartet or string orchestra.

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Bridget St. John: From There / To Here: UK/US Recordings 1974-1982

Animated by a sense of endless potential and patchwork charm, a new box set collects the influential British songwriter’s work during a transitional period.

By Stephen M. Deusner

Sparrowpit is the fanciful name of a small village in Derbyshire, a small cluster of old buildings located at a bend in the road almost halfway between Sheffield and Manchester. In 1973, the folk singer Bridget St. John settled there and wrote songs for what would become her fourth album, Jumblequeen, the centerpiece of a new box set, From There / To Here: UK / US Recordings 1974-1982. Judging by those songs—which chronicle divorce, grief, confusion, loneliness, and a very gradual recovery of self—she lived there during a period of extreme upheaval. “Her gentle man has left her after just four years of life, it became impossible to call her ‘wife,’” she sings on the song she named for that place. “Now she has no place she can call her home, has to start all over this time on her own.” “Sparrowpit” is a torrent of jigsaw syllables delivered against a runaway melody and a folk-funk arrangement. The music suggests a life moving too fast, and St. John sounds like she’d love just a moment of calm: “If you’d like to help her better, got to take her under your wing.” She might as well be singing that directly to the good people of Sparrowpit, asking for all the peace and quiet such a quaint village promises.

Jumblequeen is an album about emotional wounds, about feelings too extreme to corral or even identify. So why does St. John sound like she’s having so much fun singing these songs? “Sparrowpit” is almost jubilant, like a game she’s playing with the listener, especially when she dives into her lower register. Even on the saddest songs, though, she savors certain details, certain turns of phrase. She dispenses wisdom casually, especially on the devastating “I Don’t Know If I Can Take It.” Even at such emotional extremes, these songs make space for hope and possibility, as though St. John knows she’ll leave Sparrowpit stronger and more clear-headed than ever. “I want to be where someone loves me best of all,” she declares on “Want to Be With You,” and she makes it sound like the most perfectly natural desire of all, and a perfectly achievable one, too. Jumblequeen is, as its title implies, a piece-by-piece self-portrait by an artist who’s not quite sure how the final puzzle picture will look—but she relishes the process just the same.

Along with the dusky timbre of her voice and the bounding eccentricity of her phrasing, this is a crucial part of St. John’s appeal as a singer and songwriter: It’s not that she makes sad sentiments sound happy, but that she finds a kernel of creative joy in confronting such hardships. She seems to love turning pain into something useful, or beautiful, or fun. In other words, she doesn’t write simply to express herself. She makes music to move through the world. From There / To Here, which collects Jumblequeen along with several discs of rare and unreleased tracks, traces St. John’s movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recounting her story of moving halfway around the globe to find a community of like-minded souls, trying but failing to keep record labels interested, working with various producers and collaborators, and gradually settling into a more grounded life as a mother.

St. John was supposed to be a star. In 1968 John Peel started playing her music on BBC radio, in particular her single “To B Without a Hitch,” and he even started a new label—Dandelion Records—just to put her songs out into the world. Her ’69 debut, Ask Me No Questions, featured just her voice and her crisp guitar picking, and her second album, 1971’s Songs for the Gentle Man, added softly psychedelic flourishes of strings, horns, and flute. Like John Martyn and Kevin Ayers, St. John pushed against the strictures of British folk-rock, incorporating American country and R&B elements into her music, which made the press take notice even when the public did not. Dandelion had rocky promotion and rockier distribution, and the label folded mere months after releasing St. John’s third album, 1972’s Thank You For…, essentially marooning her and her potential hit single, “Nice.” Those albums were compiled on the excellent, if dully titled, 2015 comp Dandelion Albums and BBC Collection, which serves as preamble to From There / To Here.

If Sparrowpit is the “There” in that title, then the “Here” is New York City. After Jumblequeen performed no better than her previous albums, St. John was dropped by yet another label and moved across the Atlantic. She found a musical home in Greenwich Village, then more than a decade past its folk-revival heyday but still a bustling neighborhood for musicians, and she booked sessions with new collaborators and even recorded an album’s worth of material with Stuff, a popular crew of session players. It would take 20 years before those songs got a proper release on the 1995 comp Take the 5ifth, which is the second disc in this set. It shows an artist casting in all directions for inspiration, as though a new country presents a new set of possibilities. “Moody,” her first demo recorded in America, opens with a springy bossa nova riff, then blossoms into a lush arrangement with a chorus of saxophones and an electric guitar solo. But St. John wrings as much sound from the two syllables in that title, which only makes the key change at the end sound all the more ecstatic.

Occasionally Take the 5ifth and the unreleased demos on the set’s third disc sound a little too slick and professional, which distracts from her vocals and robs the music of its intimacy. The Stuff recordings in particular are moored in the marina of yacht rock, a curious development for St. John, but it brings out something in her voice and pushes her in new directions. She adopts an accusatory tone on “Chamille,” her voice like barbed wire in such a silky arrangement, and by rounding out her vowels and drawing out her consonants, she tries to stop time on “Song for John,” a eulogy for the Beatle, written and recorded in the wake of his death in 1980. What could easily have been a maudlin ballad quoting “Working Class Hero” and “All You Need Is Love” instead becomes a weirdly affecting eulogy not for the man but for what so many saw in him, all the possibilities he perhaps reluctantly represented. “This is more than a light put out,” she insists. “This was more than fire dying.”

That sense of endless potential is what makes this music so lively and rambunctious nearly half a century later, and it’s perhaps why a new generation of folk artists—including Ryley WalkerWilliam Tyler, and Steve Gunn—has found inspiration in her work. She thrives on all these different sounds and styles: an artist in love with all the possibilities of music, the infinite ways she might sing a single syllable and all the subtle gradations of emotion a melody might convey. That makes From There / To Here a patchwork set, but St. John has always been the queen of jumble.

Source: Bridget St. John: From There / To Here: UK/US Recordings 1974-1982

Review: At 17, Nora Brown Taps Into Past Generations With Her Banjo

On Long Time to Be Gone, her third full-length album, Nora Brown’s approach is imbued with an irresistible authenticity and energy, a style clearly steeped in history.

By Spencer Grady

From the instruments Nora Brown plays and company she keeps, to the research and knowledge enabling her to fully occupy the music she interprets, it’s evident the bloodlines of banjo lore run thick in this young prodigy’s veins. Just 15 when she recorded Long Time to Be Gone, her third full-length album, Brown’s approach is imbued with an irresistible authenticity and energy, a style clearly steeped in history, its origins firmly rooted in pre-Civil War song and inhabited by the not-too-distant echoes of the ancient instruments of West African griots.

Black and white photo of Nora Brown sitting on a leather sofa playing banjo

Nora Brown (photo by Benton Brown)

A collection of traditional tunes and Appalachian instrumentals, Long Time to Be Gone finds Brown, now 17, showcasing several banjo models (including her great-great-grandfather’s 1888 Ludscomb and one belonging to her late mentor John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers) as well as her penchant for airy up-picking, pinched harmonics, and spacious two-finger techniques. Avoiding the percussive clutter of many showier gutbucket exponents, her notes hang decorously in the cavernous space of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church, where these cuts were captured. The environs of the historic Brooklyn Heights church lend an indisputable atmosphere to an album that appears to incubate every hammer-on, slide, and blues-derived lick, allowing simple melodies to gestate, blossom, and bloom on tracks such as “Southern Texas” and the micro starbursts of “Miner’s Dream.” This unfussy approach extends to Brown’s occasional vocals, which, on the closing medley of “Little Birdie – Rye Whiskey,” recall the understated, but subtly evocative, tones of Sally Anne Morgan.

Even when the frailing becomes frenetic and the pull-offs feel particularly spring-loaded, as on the blustery “Po’ Black Sheep” (performed on a fretless banjo made by Brown’s father), there’s still that kernel of serene clarity at the tune’s core, where more obvious contemporary clawhammer tyrannies and ostentatious flummery cede to something altogether more matter-of-fact and meaningful.



Long Time to Be Gone is a quietly important record — not simply an enthusiastic chunk of reverence to an old-time ethos, but a work that marks its teenage creator as not only a fine musical talent, but also an educator and evangelist, a living, breathing vessel for the nurturing of a rich and remarkable tradition.


Nora Brown’s Long Time to Be Gone is out Aug. 26 on Jalopy Records.

Source: ALBUM REVIEW: At 17, Nora Brown Taps Into Past Generations With Her Banjo

Record review: Angeline Morrison “The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs”

‘The Brown Girl’ is one of those rare records that feels perfectly weighted, entirely free of anything extraneous…the whole thing feels lighter than air.

By Thomas Blake

Folk music has a unique kind of liveliness that springs from its adaptability, pliability and ambiguity. No two interpretations of a traditional song are alike because no two performers share precisely the same experience. As a black singer working in a category of music largely associated with white voices, Angeline Morrison’s perspective is – due in part to historical marginalisation – particularly uncommon. Morrison is a vocal advocate for increased diversity in British folk music: later this year, she is due to release The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience, an attempt to redress the imbalance of history by writing black people’s stories back into the UK’s musical heritage. But first, we get to hear The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs, Morrison’s more orthodox take on a collection of ten traditional songs.

Recorded in Cornwall, where the Birmingham-born Morrison has long been a resident, The Brown Girl is an intimate experience, musically minimal but full of warmth. A cappella opener, The Green Valley, is a beautiful introduction to her singing, which has a clarity and sweetness that belies the moral twists and ambiguities at play in the lyrics. Although this and most of the other songs here do not deal with explicitly black protagonists, lines like ‘Am I bound or am I free?’ take on deeper layers of meaning in Morrison’s rendition, proof of how vivid and mutable folk songs can be.

The multi-tracked vocals of Our Captain Cried have a bewitching and otherworldly quality and also serve to emphasise the song’s multiple perspectives, while the title track sees her joined by co-producer Nick Duffy (of the Lilac Time) on spidery acoustic guitar. It’s a combination that brings to mind Shirley Collins’ work with Davy Graham or, more recently, Stephanie Hladowski and C. Joynes’ album The Wild Wild Berry.

Morrison has dabbled in folk horror, 60s-style psych and hauntology in her Ambassadors Of Sorrow guise. This affinity with the more eldritch reaches of the British musical landscape is there in abundance on the spooked recorders of The Cruel Mother and the drones of When I Was A Young Girl. The Well Below The Valley revels in its dark themes of infanticide and incest: Morrison’s voice is eerily confiding, strangely present, insistent even at its quietest. The brutal violence of Lucy Wan is rendered with a soft immediacy that makes it all the more chilling. Morrison has stunning control over the emotional depths of these songs. Her musicianship is equally impressive – Idumea (an eighteenth-century hymn written by Charles Wesley) floats on a rippling gauze of dulcimer, and a brisk, autoharp-led run-through of Bonny Cuckoo is bright and blossomy.

The Brown Girl is one of those rare records that feels perfectly weighted, entirely free of anything extraneous. Every multi-tracked harmony or subtly plucked string has its place, and the whole thing feels lighter than air. That is a remarkable achievement, given the gravity of the subject matter in many of these songs, the layers of history they have accrued over time, and the wholly new perspective Morrison brings to them. By the time of the final, contented exhalation that puts a seal on the closing track, Must I Be Bound, it’s almost as if a satisfying but mysterious journey has been undertaken, one that will lead ultimately to many further destinations.

The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs is out now.