Songs of blazing, redemptive faith follow grief for the torn open Cave. CD New Music review by Nick Hasted
After the bleakness in the parts of Skeleton Tree touched directly by his son Arthur’s death, and the desolate grief of the accompanying documentary One More Time with Feeling, this is Nick Cave’s statement of faith. Ghosteen is unlike any record he’s made before, often sung in a desperate, reckless, heedless, loving voice unheard till now. If his heart has had to be torn open to reveal its varieties of vulnerability – the bereft croon and shaking falsetto on “Spinning Song”, the absolutely lovelorn, unabashed full-heartedness of “Bright Horses” – they remain remarkable sounds. The chiselled lyrics of latter-day Cave, the sober working writer, meanwhile retain their craft, but feel illuminated.
A faint comet-trail of guitar seems to pass across the opening of “Sun Forest”, but otherwise there’s little sign of rock. Warren Ellis is Cave’s main collaborator, synth washes, loops, some piano and strings the ambient cradle for these songs. The man who recently said that atheism is no friend of the songwriter peoples them with ghost children, blazing animals, surely his wife Susie (“In the back room washing his clothes, love’s like that you know”), and God.
That last relationship has been Cave’s most intellectually complex and slippery. Here he simply releases himself into belief in a wondrous, supernal existence, a realm where many artists, religious or not, feel at home. It anyway makes more liveable sense than the alternative. “And we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are… Oh, this world is plain to see,” he sings in the defining passage of “Bright Horses”. “It don’t mean we can’t believe – and anyway, my baby’s coming back now.” If that baby is arriving on the train of a thousand blues songs, the child he lost also returns over and over, in visions and metaphors, and some kind of actuality. The New Testament promises (“I am beside you… look for me”) and crooned incantations of “Ghosteen Speaks” suggest near incarnation as a holy ghost.
Cave’s invigorated release from dismay finally allows the three long songs on Ghosteen’s second disc, the mysterious, nocturnal wander of “Hollywood” especially, which suggests yet another new writing freedom. It’s been a long, difficult path from The Birthday Party, and if the aesthetic quality of Ghosteen’s gusher of love seems hard, even irrelevant, to judge, Cave is back on firm, high ground.
The brilliantly unpredictable composer is back making rollercoastering solo albums full of irreverent experiments and serious innovation
Not many musicians are made an MBE before they’ve released their second album, but Anna Meredith was given the honour this summer. Yet to frame the Scottish composer’s career in terms of solo records alone is rather misleading. The 41-year-old already had a storied career as a divisively experimental classical composer when she released her 2016 debut Varmints, an album whose synth-heavy confections were so maximalist and frenetic they often felt frighteningly unpredictable.
Since then, Meredith has continued her acclaimed work in the classical arena, as well as diversifying into film scores (she recently wrote the music for Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade). She is also back making solo albums, including the “most bangery pop pop” she reckons she’s ever created.
Fibs has much in common with Varmints – the rollercoastering instrumentals that thunder and squeal their way through wordless narratives; the more conventional vocal-centric tracks that recall the cutesier end of Britpop – but it feels lighter and brighter. Opener Sawbones arrives in an amusingly bombastic flurry of hammering, high-pitched disco synths; by the end it has settled somewhere between happy hardcore, a vintage horror film score and a fast-forwarded prog epic. On Inhale Exhale, Meredith sounds like a hybrid of Claire Grogan and Harriet Wheeler as she sings wry, sage lyrics over insistently pounding rave synths, while Killjoy’s jerky sophisti-pop is a kind of Everything Everything But The Girl.
The effect of all this incongruity is like a hundred bolts from the blue: Fibs is brimming with contrary combinations, irreverent genre-bending and serious innovation.
Martin Simpson is our Artist of the Month, read our album review of ‘Rooted’ and watch his new video for “Trouble Brought Me Here”.
You really do get your money and time’s worth from a Martin Simpson album; there is so much variety in instruments used, musical cultures, tunes and musicians on Rooted, that it constantly surprises across thirteen tracks and fifty minutes. That said, it is clear that Martin and producer Andy Bell understand one another very well, because this is a very considerately arranged and recorded set that never feels crowded or over-loaded. Much like 2017’s Trails and Tribulations, which followed on with a fuller sound from the stripped back solo Vagrant Stanzas from 2013, Rooted takes care not to over-stuff and what we get instead are songs that celebrate music, instruments and players. In fact, Rooted feels very much like a continuation of Trail‘s journey, with Nancy Kerr prominent on the fiddle and John Smith and Andy Cutting also present, among others, but perhaps with a slightly lighter approach in parts, even when hitting on big themes.
Take ‘Born Human’, for example, written by Alaska based fisherman and conservationist David L Grimes partly in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. Continue reading →
Comprising six full albums and bonus tracks, all well remastered and housed inside the box in individually slip-cased mini-repros of the original LP sleeves. Plus a 24-page booklet setting the scene of those now far-off days that includes a sizeable chunk of memorabilia from the Folk Forum of Melody Maker and other sources. They’ve done a good job.
This was the era during which John Renbourn emerged as a scorchingly talented guitarist, with a diverse range of sources and influences – particularly Davy Graham, Wizz Jones, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie Johnson – before slowly getting diverted in a faux Elizabethan direction.
The three Renbourn solo albums here are his eponymously titled Transatlantic debut, its follow-up Another Monday and the oddly titled Sir John Alot Of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & Ye Grene Knyghte. Another Monday is the best of that trio: gobsmacking though his playing was on his debut compared with most other things around at the time, it had got much more assured by his second outing and his rather haphazard singing in a notably dodgy London-American accent was slightly more on the case too. The oboe on One For William is also rather nicer than the flute on the next album, Sir John Alot… by which time he’d abandoned singing altogether. Continue reading →
If there’s one name that needs no introduction on these pages, it’s Kate Rusby. With an audience that spans all generations and all musical tastes; and a repertoire that’s as rich, imaginative and, at times, adventurous, as any performer taking to studio or stage, Kate Rusby is one of our most talented and popular folk singers. Confirmation of just why that broad appeal has sustained for over twenty years is her latest studio album, released via her Pure Records label on 17th May, Philosophers, Poets & Kings.
The album’s opener, Jenny, is as typical as it is delightful. Kate takes the ballad of Creeping Jen, moves the eponymous horse to Yorkshire, and adds a chorus along with her own, perky, melody. From an understated opening, Kate’s clear voice rings out, before beats and brass build from a singalong chorus. Further enriched by the added voices of Ron Block’s banjo, and Damien O’Kane’s soft backing vocals, it’s a classic Kate Rusby approach to song that reaps wonderful rewards. Yorkshire Jenny is a joy. Deft programming from Anthony Davis, a big bass drum, and an irresistible backbeat make wonderfully light work of a remix (aye, a remix) later in the album too.
Philosophers, Poets & Kings pays melodious homage to Kate’s home, her family, and those who’ve inspired and encouraged her music, in a 12 track album of traditional and self-written songs – with a brace of well-chosen cover versions for good measure. Damien O’Kane’s production masterfully brings together the talents of the large gathering of usual suspects: Duncan Lyall (double bass, Moog), Nick Cooke (Accordion) Josh Clark (percussion) Gary Wyatt (cornet), and Rich Evans (Flugelhorn). Ron Block and Michael McGoldrick add their own inimitable contributions to Jenny, and there are even more guest appearances to come.
Kate celebrates the fruit of the vine by adding her own melody to another fine trad song, in the album’s title track, Philosophers, Poets & Kings. Driven, initially, by Damien’s acoustic guitar, there’s added impetus from Josh’s percussion for a song where Diogenes, Aristotle and Plato are held aloft as examples of the truth, laughter and, of course, cognitive dexterity that can be attributed to wine consumption. There’s another drop of something warming in The Farmer’s Toast, which Kate dedicates to the farming family who host the annual Underneath the Starsfestival at Cinder Hill Farm, Cawthorne. There are so many slight variations on this song out there, it’s a joy to hear Michael McGoldrick and Ron Block join Kate & co enjoy the song with such cheer. ‘The Lark is my daily alarmer‘ is easily my own favourite rhyme for ‘farmer.’
On a more sombre note, Bogey’s Bonnie Belle is a popular bothy ballad Kate recalls from her childhood. It’s a sad tale, sorrowfully told, and sparsely augmented by Damien’s electric tenor guitar, Duncan’s Moog, and typically elegant whistles of Ross Ainslie.
The first of the two cover versions on the album has been with Kate since she used to join her Dad at festival sound desks. No one takes on an iconic Richard Thompson song like Crazy Man Michael lightly, but one of Kate’s first solo tours was as his support, and this has been a favourite song since her childhood. Josh’s percussion adds an ethereal feel that’s enhanced by the dream-like, insubstantial vocal and Ross’s mournful whistle. It’s an absolute triumph, of course, but the far bigger surprise was Noel Gallagher’s Don’t Go Away. With just Kate’s voice and Damien’s electric tenor guitar, the song is superbly soft, beautifully sparse, and with an edge of plaintive appeal in Kate’s voice for the chorus. Seventeen albums on, there are still times when Kate Rusby’s voice gives me goosebumps.
Kate’s own songs for the album remind us that her gift for pairing fine lyrics with an enchanting melody never diminishes. Until Morning sparkles like starlight; a beautiful song of togetherness, of a bond that brings strength and solace; sung from the heart, with Damien’s soft harmonies. Until Morning finds its perfect partner in another song of comfort, As The Lights Go Out, where Sam Kelly’s mellow voice works beautifully alongside Kate’s, and Chas Mackenzie’s haunting electric guitar contrasts perfectly with Damien’s unobtrusive banjo.
The first of two locally inspired songs is a comic tale, The Squire And The Parson, based on an old story that Kate’s been singing with her Dad, Steve, for years; and they’ve finally decided it’s ready for a public outing. As Kate displays her usual winning way with a good story, Nick Cooke’s accordion and Michael McGoldrick’s whistles help animate the tale. In contrast, informed by Kate’s awareness of Alzheimer’s, The Wanderer is a beautifully gentle song, and perfectly unhurried.
To close the album, Kate takes us back to 1838, and a song written to commemorate the 180th anniversary of the Huskar Pit disaster, where twenty-six working children lost their lives trying to escape from the mine during a freak storm. Halt The Wagons was written as a lullaby to the 15 boys and 11 girls, aged 7-17, whose deaths led to reforms prohibiting underground working for children under 10 years old. Among the shivering sadness of the song, there’s warm brass and, far more evocatively, the voices of 26 members of the Barnsley Youth Choir. The choir, 15 boys and 11 girls, aged 7-17, joined Kate and the musicians underground at the National Coal and Mining Museum to record the song. Kate doesn’t sing this to break our hearts; she sings it to tell a story that has to be told, that we must never, ever forget. Nonetheless, tears will flow – and so they should.
It comes as no surprise that Kate Rusby’s 17th studio album should be such an impressive work. She continues to apply her exquisite voice to a meticulous selection of songs, including her own; and she maintains her drive to make tangential journeys into new territory while maintaining that unshakeable bond to her musical heritage. Philosophers, Poets & Kings doesn’t see Kate Rusby channel her inner prog to the same extent as we enjoyed on Life In A Paper Boat. There is, though, a rewarding balance between the comforting warmth of her acoustic performances, and the sonic opportunities offered by modern electronics, and those who wield them so effectively. Philosophers, Poets & Kings is an utterly delightful album; I begin to suspect that this is one of Kate Rusby’s finest albums. So far, anyway – the next 17 are sure to be full of surprises.