Hi all, I have had a large number of EPs sent in my direction and have not yet had the pleasure to talk about what I have really enjoyed this fine year, so here we are. As usual with my EP reviews, time and space takes a backseat to my appreciation of what comes through; so it’s all wibbly-wobbly, but no worry!
Whether it came out last week or last year your music is equally due to be gently served (but not viciously skewered) into tasty shish-kebabs, so without additional theatre and setup let me instead dive headfirst into these little musical snapshots that have played through my speakers as of late.
Robert Nottingham – An Unwanted Man EP
Robert Nottingham is a folk/alternative musician from Manchester. Since his 22 years there he has moved southward and now lives in London, travelling south and from the sounds of it bringing a lot of influences with him. An inventive man his website talks of his use of a self-made instrument setup “The Nottingham Jangler”, a variation on the Suitcase Drum which he uses (with tambourines too) on his guitar case to cover more instrumental bases in his performance. He has one LP under his belt “14&28” (2016) and now returns one year later with a five track EP called “An Unwanted Man”, does it fare as well as his transition to the Capital?
The tracks are characterised by a strong guitar throughout and a nice range of song styles that fall into Nottingham’s musical shopping trolley. It feels very “first-person” and wholeheartedly embraces the people of which the tunes are describing. “Run Like the Wind” seems like the fun-loving evening party-goer, “You Don’t have to Worry” is the irreverent but downtrodden man, and “An Unwanted Man” is an enigmatic sort of person. Each a shade of character; each surrounded by an urban Manchester haze that pounds through the pores of this work in the best possible way.
“Run Like The Wind” is a jovial number. It swings, it rolls down the stairs and sounds like a continental race in minis. The guitar and drums in the tune chase like the heat in a sweltering Scoville-filled curry; there are flashes of other strings too. It is a wonderful, lovable clash of fun. Think of an Ocean Colour Scene song but ramped up, elevated to it’s maximum pace and played over the film In Bruges. Tightly woven but also chaotic the song points at some interesting thought processes behind the writing of this work,giving it meaning and making it a worthwhile listen. The whole disc is well produced on the whole and the sound mixing is really good too. “An Unwanted Man”, the title track, has some great bass and a slightly Britpop soundscape that in it’s melody evokes scenes of wonder and reflection while also being intangible and airy like the 70s. It is hard to pinpoint the track on the disc that highlights the high level of production, but this one comes close.
“Mother” comes with even more psych-reverb on the voice. The guitar is crisp, Nottingham’s voice is expressive like a dark conscience. At first it sounds slightly shamanistic and how you might imagine the call of the Druid through history, but as you listen it creeps into the mind like a perfumed smoke. Sprayed with melancholy and disharmony, a growing sinister shade appears and you wonder if Nottingham is singing about a person in difficult times on the beginning to being a drug addict, “I will be your mother/keep you safe and warm /you feel no pain and suffering and you will be reborn.” Perhaps it is just me seeing the more shadowy undertones, but nevertheless it paints an interesting atmosphere which Nottingham’s EP has in bundles throughout.
Admittedly a surprise to me. Robert Nottingham has a few tricks up his sleeve, and with this offering it seems like he has a few yet to deliver.
Hickory Signals – Noise in the Waters – EP
Hickory Signals is an immensely balanced outfit. In it’s ranks are Laura Ward (vocals, flute, shruti box), Adam Ronchetti (guitar, percussion), Tom Pryor (violin and strings), Scott Smith (banjo, lap steel guitar), and Debs Stacey (backing vocals). Laura Ward has a delving, free and energetic voice which grasps the words and truly takes possession of them; the instruments dance bringing a natural shine to an interesting indie folk ensemble that feels like it wears the quality of tradition on it’s sleeves.
A stupendous opener, their version of James Joyce’s poem “All Day I Hear The Noise of Waters” belongs as the opening track on a full album, not just an EP. They have taken the magical solemness of the poem and added to it creating a colourful ravine of green and tambourine energy. The steady beat and euphonic flute are at interplay with the mild background drone that sounds like it represents the black heart of mystery in the depths of the poem. Hickory Signals allow this to remain and thus rise from their rendition. It’s pacing is Irish, it’s tone rather fetching and it has a strong, resonating voice that doesn’t let off. It refuses to be chained and is Joycean in beauty through and through, great in every sense of the word.
“Here I am” is a banjo-laden second track. It is fantastic and the backing flute brings an immense dancing joy sounding much like the tune of Miss McLeod’s Reel (a reel close to my heart at the moment). Springy and with a lightness of touch, it also contains some great lyrics, “with my mind’s eye roving, in my next life I’ll be bold and free” that will stir the darkest of souls. There is so much variety in the EP and each song feels in it’s place and yet distinct from each other. Track 6, “Irish Ways” once again changed tack, as it plays like a war-cry with an exceptionally low shout of anguish for the working man. It describes farmers being shot, blood being spilled, and strongly references the Easter Rising of Ireland’s history as it progresses it’s black story. The strings are cutting like barbed wire, the vocals full of regret and the anger of historical memory are enshrined by this affecting and modern written number, a surprise because you could swear it’s an old song. The EP covers a lot of ground as it runs and never seems to slow.
The starkness continues in their version of “Unquiet Grave.” Ward’s voice is at the forefront as it folds outwards; traditional it brings a kind of operatic violin to the mix that washes waves of sadness over you. On listen, it feels like the song is coming from the front of your mind from a close spectral conversation as the vocals come dead centre and buzz in a particularly effective manner. Overall a nice addition and one that sits well amongst traditional renditions, individuals may have varying opinions on how elaborately an artist is allowed to dress up their version of a song but I feel they get this quite right here without over-stepping the mark.
One of the more “folky” of the EPs I have examined this time, undoubtedly one of my favourites too, check out their website and do not miss them.https://youtu.be/bY8Z5e-7DrU
Velvet & Stone – The Storm EP
Released last year, Velvet & Stone’s EP of “The Storm” carries some interesting influences on it’s nautical bomber jacket. Having played at Cambridge and Sidmouth Folk Festivals, and more recently Celtic Connections and Balcony TV (I love Balcony TV), their listeners and popularity are growing. The leading ladies, Lara Snowden (vocals, guitar) and Kathryn Tremlett (violin, piano, vocals) are being supported by new additions Barry Muir (double bass), and Roger Styles (guitar, percussion) which bring a rather heady mix of moods and feelings to their first of two EPs coming this year, this one being “The Storm”.
Like the shifting, amber hues of a fire shared on a cold night, the music triggers a tangible sense of warmth and familiarity from the first track right through to the last (number 6). It is interesting to note though that it is not the familiar heat of complacency or your “go to” hot drink that produces this, it is rather the fire of passion, an alloy of genre heated to make a stronger substance. Take “Fisherman’s Blues” (the first track), it could simply be a love ballad about a sailor and boat coming in and indeed lyrically it sounds that way, “I would walk down by the shore, it was there I met my fishing boy / he was bonny, brave and pure.” There are some affecting and complementary vocal harmonies, but it’s choice of a slightly subdued violin, omnipresent percussion, and some cascading bass that shakes down the spine and makes it stand out. The minnow of a folk song looks more like a pink, heavy tuna on the plate when prepared by Velvet & Stone.
There aren’t any missteps here. The EP is like a fishing net which has caught the whole sea in terms of genre, but performs each influence to it’s character with some lovable skill. “Patchwork” is an indie folk track describing the kinship of two people and their lives together which stands out through it’s strong violin, gentle piano, and an optimistic, voice; “Same Old Record” is a 20’s nightclub number with jazz overtones, a wry look at the theme of a repeating life, being stuck in a rut. The strings darkly mock the subject as well cutting down like a film noire rainstorm. Track 6 “The Storm” sounds like a gusting breeze sweeping Eastern Promise through your speakers. A song seemingly describing inspiration and turbulence you could close your eyes and see a path littered with long flowing red robes in a cherry blossom grove. The Asian instrumentation and hooks are very stirring, imagine the quiet movement of water over stone walls from antiquity and you are someway there.
It can frustrate when a disc tries too much and fails, “The Storm” does anything but. It enjoys itself and relishes it’s wicked arrangement, and most of all, it succeeds . My writing is but a small sample of the quality here.,”The Storm” is a collection of emotions, feelings, and places that reach and touch the soul at numerous points. I don’t want to say any more in case I ruin the experience, I would like to leave a space for the listener to get their hands on the disc and experience the rest firsthand.
Sharon Lazibyrd – “Opium of the Masses”, “What Time is Later?”, and “Not Blue”
Sharon Lazibyrd is an artist from Somerset playing contemporary folk. Currently putting together the tracks for her well named album, “Half Shame and Half Glory” she has released some previews on Bandcamp.
The thing that strikes the most about these songs is that it is a continuum. Illustrating a mind in the midst of collecting and executing some good ideas and inspiration on her path to music making, Lazibyrd has put some effort into realising her dream. There is a lot to like about these trio of song releases (that can be heard on Bandcamp here), “Not Blue” has some impressive backing credentials with Damon and Kate Bridge (Owl in the Sun) and Lukas Drinkwater on instruments; it is these components and an interesting and slightly unusual setup that brings the big kick to the lyrics. The atmosphere and sense of loneliness are created here quite well; the arrangement does show the thought that has been put in. It certainly helps set the scene, though to my tastes Lazibyrd’s voice is not at it’s strongest here. detracting from the overall track. It feels that a little more variety in the register might go some way to alleviating this.
“What time is later?” once again comes together as a good sum of it parts. The piano, Lazyibyrd’s own ukulele, and other strings do a good job of painting an inner mindscape and giving the song a slightly more epic, universal sound like a great ship descending into fog. “Opium of the Masses” highlights Lazibyrd’s voice at it’s best form from these three songs. Quite possibly the best marriage of words, instrument, and voice brings it further towards a song with legs of it’s own. There is a slight tonal shift for the chorus which rather gently conjures images of Karl Marx (the accordion does harken to a sound from lands to the East) as an originator for the phrase and song title too. Part of me longs for the song to go more into this mythology and make it a more political piece, it’s lyrics are quite interesting though , “No-one to talk to just the phone, we’re all sucked in we’re in its’ ‘thrall”, the choice of words once again pointing to good foresight of song structure.
The three track list is a gentle clash of accordion, drum and piano that goes some way towards drawing the listener in. Undoubtedly there is an ear for arrangement and composition as Lazibyrd’s strengths, with more time and reflection I think she will begin to press the silver through the custard skin and into the rich, underbelly of contemporary folk.
Matthew Thomas Thompson – “Bird” and “Carbon Star”
Being part of “BBC Introducing 2017” and reaching the semi finals of the “UK Songwriting Contest of 2016”, Matthew Thomas Thompson has released a few tracks (with some more from his upcoming album, “Songs for Little Boy Wonder” here. From Cambridge (one of my old haunts) Matt hails and approaches the music scene with the presence and allure not unlike a carnival hustler, a folkster with a glint of knowing and observation. This comes in his performance and song writing and brings enough force of character to knock apart my prejudice of sing-songwriters who have nothing interesting to say. As part of this post I wanted to take a quick look at two of his tracks available online on Soundcloud, “Bird” and “Carbon Star”.
Entering with “Bird” there is some pretty free-wheeling, serpentine, and darkly emotional lyrics. Thompson’s voice and subject reaches the onyx depths of the track like a bucket lowered into the cold rinse of a stone well. Simple in structure, Thompson’s sound is a grey worldly mosaic being fit together underneath a thorny bush; pretty and flowing but also prickly. Finding some surprisingly good rhymes such as “ruthless beast” and “geese” (never thought I’d hear that) it is not just entertaining, but also a morally ambiguous work as Thompson sings of the jealous emotion, “strangled like a frightened little bird” in one sentence, and appealing for it to be taken care of in a following lyric. Quick but thoughtful the song is swimming in jealousy, and structurally destructive emotions. It is not an excessively gruesome work though his guitar is like the steel wire of an emotional cage for the subject involved. It is quite an ensnaring track.
“Carbon Star” is something else altogether. An acoustic, urban songwriting rap that describes parts of the life of James Brown “at the height of his fame”, it is a brave and bold subject matter. With some interesting steps, lightly touching guitar and a hint of theatrical villain in it’s pacing, it prowls quite gleefully for all to see much like the man did himself. Quite dizzying in talk, the guitar and drum sing the story of a celebrity circus, of fame and a man moving on the crest of a wave of paranoia. As he announces, “Trust no brother, but me.” you feel and think, and Thompson has opening a door into a place and a character quite successfully.
These two songs alone show a great versatility and that Thompson has some interesting gremlins that are speaking original ideas and songs to him. He is sounding great, these tunes showcase a great promise for his upcoming album.
Honey & the Bear – About Time Too EP
Having been together as a group for two years, “Honey and the Bear” are folk and roots duo Lucy Sampson (guitar, ukulele, bass, banjo & percussion) and Jon Hart (guitar, bass, mandolin) who have toured around Europe combining some of their previous own works, and interests to produce a rather gentle, timber-fresh sound. Hailing from a number of places at different times such as Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk they have also performed away from the continent and closer to home as part of Ely Folk and Maverick Festival too.
There is some compelling guitar work here in it’s indie folk influence, though for myself the harmonies make all the difference. They are pretty much the cherry in the black forest gateaux of this work. Vivid and emotive, “Wrong Side of Me” is a showcase of the interesting dynamic between the two artists. Hart and Sampson almost go head-to-head to see who has the sweetest voice (I honestly would not know where to lay my money in a bet). Rather than offering vocals that compete with pitch or intonation there is a complimentary almost symbiotic nature to their voices as if they are bringing different views from the same person rather than from a couple in debate,”caught in between, reality and dreams.” Similarly “Pick it Up” boasts some sunny interplay between the two, describing the meeting and joy between two people and it’s transformative power as Hart remarks,”not so long ago I was washed up.” It feels like a man and wife’s thoughts, the joy and comfort of reliance and support, a recollection and awareness of how much better one’s life has become.
If other tracks are honey, “Jack” sounds a bit like the sugary molasses, and Honey & the Bear make some serious rum with this. The song starts almost with an edge of reggae and Western influence, but it truly has the heart of folk music. The guitar covers a nice range of sounds being the predominant sound that is displayed on the song’s sky, and it all keeps a good tempo and your attention while it does. About two minutes in it takes a more traditional turn as the pace changes down a notch and it feels like the relief and warmth of a well-earned rest amongst pine trees, squirrels lightly rapping chesnuts on bark in the background.
A warming, strong vocal duo who I bet bring the love on a live gig, check them out!