Tag Archives: British

Review : Alasdair Roberts “The Wyrd Meme” 12″/CD (Drag City, 2009)

Wyrd_Meme_Coverby Raymond Morin

Alasdair Roberts has earned his reputation as a respectful interpreter, having adopted and re-imagined many well-known British Isles ballads (see his excellent “Lord Ronald”, from 2005’s No Earthly Man). The Scottish singer/guitarist has deep roots in traditional music, but in the US, he is equally associated with modern indie-rock. Roberts has toured and recorded with many top performers from both worlds, and his own music is something of a hybrid, a blending of those sensibilities. He usually sings in a taut yet gentle tenor, not unlike that of American contemporary and label-mate Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie Prince Billy). While Roberts and Oldham share certain undeniable similarities in cadence and timbre, it would be a good idea to end the comparisons there… Roberts is on his own path, and through his long association with the Drag City label, has built one of the most consistently satisfying catalogs in indie-folk. The trend continues with The Wyrd Meme, a mini-album that follows on the heels of this year’s full-length Spoils.

This four song set possesses all the hallmarks of the singer’s unique style: flowery, borderline archaic language, traditional or traditional-derived melodies, varied and refreshing arrangements, and clever turns of phrase never in short supply. On opener “The Hallucinator and the King of the Silver Ship of Time”, Roberts paints a detailed portrait of the curious Hallucinator, and her visit from the King of Time, at the bottom of the ocean. Both the narrator’s point of view and the purpose of the meeting are nebulous, yet the imagery is so vivid that it’s hard not to get drawn in.

While that fantastical setting of “Hallucinator…” sounds something akin to a fable, second track “The Yarn Unraveller” seems to describe an imminent separation of the common human variety, one person leaving on a journey while the other is left behind. The song finds precedent in the Child Ballad “The Trooper and the Maid”, which has a similar premise and melodic arc, but as with many of Roberts’ re-castings, there is an appreciable immediacy and warmth that keeps things from sounding dated.


Alasdair Roberts – “The Yarn Unraveller”

Though the collection has it’s share of achingly sad and beautiful moments, there is also a welcome thread of levity woven into the songs. Closer “Coral and Tar” takes the form of a lullaby, and contains some real gems of wordplay, as Roberts mixes up self-deprecating humor, modern asides and naturalistic themes. Alliteration-rich lines such as “I’m no pine, I’m a man in my prime and I’m pining” and the twisting “…to join with the pine and to join with the oak in their blood oath to choke up the garden” are classic Roberts… seemingly world-weary, but with a wink.

The Wyrd Meme is a short yet worthy addition to Alasdair Roberts’ healthy discography. Existing fans won’t find any real surprises, but they will most certainly not be disappointed, and for the uninitiated, Meme would be a fine starting point.

Buy the 12″ or CD from Drag City
Buy the 12″ or CD from Insound
Alasdair Roberts’ Website
Alasdair Roberts’ on Myspace

Pierre Bensusan, New Box Set and Documentary Film

Pierre Bensusan

Pierre Bensusan

French-Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan is a unique and fascinating player. After cutting his teeth in bluegrass bands, he switched from mandolin to acoustic guitar, adopted the DADGAD modal tuning as his “standard” tuning, and began a long musical journey. Along the way, his dizzying technique and boundless musical scope have proven that almost anything that can be imagined can be played on the guitar.

After releasing a handful of albums on Rounder Records and Favored Nations in the late 70’s and into the 80’s, Bensusan set about purchasing back his master tapes, and started his own label, DADGAD Records. Now, to mark the 35th anniversary of his career in music, Bensusan is releasing a box set of his entire recorded output : Complete Works, 1975-2010.

…and what a body of work it is! Bensusan’s first few albums (the classic Pres De Paris, 2 and Musiques) found inspiration in the folk music of the British Isles and France, with the young Pierre steadily expanding on the instrumental innovations of Brit-folk revival giants like Martin Carthy and Davy Graham. Bensusan also proved himself an exceptional interpreter of Irish melodies, as evidenced in one of his most popular pieces, “Merrily Kissed The Quaker”. This track shows Bensusan’s agility on the instrument, effortlessly adding ornament in every voice of the chord, including the bassline.

As time went on, the sound that Bensusan developed drew from many sources… classical, folk, world, new-age and rock ideas were seamlessly fused together and played in his singular, elegant style. The guitarist began restlessly experimenting with both sonics and song structure, adding a variety of tone-altering effects to color the sound of his Lowden acoustic, as well as a phrase sampler so that passages could be looped, layered and improvised over. These techniques can be heard on the atmospheric Intuité and Altiplanos albums, as well as on Spices, which features Pierre bouncing ideas off of a group of world-jazz musicians.

Pierre_Box_Set

Though the box is attractively designed, the price of the collection (99,90 Euros, roughly $150 USD) might be a little prohibitive. There is no new material on offer, and for the most part all of these albums are still available, with the few out-of-print titles coming up regularly on sites like Ebay. (UPDATE — according to DADGAD Records, the discs Wu-Wei and A la Carte both contain bonus tracks. Also worth noting, there will soon be a US manufactured box, which should retail for closer to $120 USD + shipping!) I think this package will appeal mostly to collectors, gift-givers with a guitarist in their lives, and perhaps those hoping to replace original vinyl records. Don’t let me discourage you, though… Pierre Bensusan’s music is an absolute treasure, and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in folk music, world music or the acoustic guitar. I’m frankly stunned that so many of the younger guitar players that I talk to these days have yet to discover Bensusan’s work. Hopefully that will start to change with the release of Complete Works and with the upcoming new documentary about Bensusan, entitled Strings Without Borders.

The feature-length film is being directed by Roger Sherman, of Florentine Films. The work is currently in production, and fans and supporters can donate to the project here. Donors who give in excess of $100 will be featured in the film’s closing credits. From the selected preview scenes featured below, it looks like it’s going to be a great documentary!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

When a release date is announced, I’m hoping to talk to both Pierre and Roger Sherman about the film. In the meantime, to learn even more about Pierre Bensusan, I highly recommend this interview, conducted by Todd Ellison. For guitarists, there is also The Guitar Book, Bensusan’s thoughtfully prepared printed collection of (challenging) sheet music, tablature, recipes, poetry and philosophies about life and music.

Review : Dave Evans “Sad Pig Dance” CD (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2009)

Sad_Pig_Dance_Coverby David Leicht

Constancy is one of the charms of the solo fingerstyle guitar category. In contrast to the rip-it-up-start-again ethos of musicians from various other genres, the notable fingerstyle guitarists have openly emulated earlier players while carefully making their own mark. Nonetheless, the category transforms, with resonant changes occurring when a particular player can effectively bring unique attitudes of his/her time to the story. So it was with British fingerstyle guitarist Dave Evans, his classic Kicking Mule album from 1974, Sad Pig Dance, re-issued this fall as an expanded CD collection by Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop.

At the outset of the 1970’s, Dave released The Words In Between and Elephantasia, both solid examples of singer-songwriter music from the period, with a few instrumental numbers added to the mix. “Ten Ton Tasha” and “Elephantasia,” from the latter, both feature whimsical, delay-treated overdubs sounding akin to progressive rock music, which was in its heyday at the time. I asked Stefan Grossman — producer of the Sad Pig Dance sessions, co-founder of Kicking Mule Records and tireless champion of Dave’s guitar playing — about the shift in emphasis from songs and multi-layered arrangements to unaccompanied guitar:

“Kicking Mule Records featured guitar solos and Dave had quite a few solo instrumentals he wanted to record. He and I wanted to present these as solos as the tunes were so interesting and did not need any other instruments to clutter up the melodies”

The incredible opening cut from Sad Pig Dance, “Stagefright” is one of Dave’s signature works. Aptly described by Grossman as a “tour de force in guitar playing,” it shifts through an array of moods in a short time (under four minutes). The introductory passage, a playful assemblage of hammer-ons and pull-offs, ushers in the Celtic-tinged verse, which is gradually subverted by increasingly chaotic runs before giving way to the triumphant, strummed passage and repeating in full. The performance of “Stagefright” featured on the Vestapol DVD Fingerstyle Guitar: New Dimensions & Explorations 2, is one of the most charismatic pieces of solo guitar footage I’ve seen:

My favorite cut from the album is “Morocco John.” This tune has an emotional, sketch-like quality that I find very moving. In the notes from the LP sleeve, Dave describes it thus:

“For John who rented a beautiful house overlooking the Atlantic for three pounds a month. I spent a week with him, living on chick pea soup, brown bread and olives. He taught me to play…”

Herein is another charm of the solo fingerstyle guitar (or any instrumental) category… its narrative power. As with “Morocco John,” a hint from the composer, embedded within the title or liner notes, can move the listener to imagine the narrative as the tune unfolds.


An excerpt from “Morocco John” by Dave Evans

In 1976, Kicking Mule released the follow-up to Sad Pig Dance, a mix of songs and instrumentals entitled Take a Bite out of Life. Stefan Grossman, who again served as producer for the sessions, recalls:

“When we came to the second album of his songs we tried to get other companies interested that focus on singer/songwriters as Kicking Mule certainly did not. But no other record company was interested so we decided to try our best on KM.”

As with Dave’s first recordings, there are some fine songs on Take a Bite out of Life. Still, its standout cuts are the four instrumentals (all of which appear as bonus tracks on the Sad Pig Dance CD reissue). I’m not sure it would be fair to characterize Dave as “the gifted guitarist who was compelled to sing,” though one might conclude it from studying the arc of his recording career, which effectively ended in the late 1970’s (Dave now lives as a potter in Belgium). Either way, in my mind, he was one of the rare players whose command of traditional material was virtually unmatched, yet also possessed the flair and imagination to weave elements of his time into the music, leaving the tradition richer.

Raymond Morin / Pairdown September Tour Dates

J_Rose_Flier_93009

Work & Worry’s own Raymond Morin will be going out on the road at the end of September, touring in support of this year’s “Holykyle” LP by Pairdown. He’ll be playing songs from Pairdown, his solo work as The Instances, some new instrumentals and a few chestnuts from the British folk and blues revival. Morin will be joined by Micah Blue Smaldone on a couple of dates, as well as old friends Shrinking Islands and Quoins.

9/25 – Skylight 307 (w/ Shrinking Islands, Heirloom) 307 Market St (upstairs), Philadelphia PA… 7PM
9/26 – 421 Bigelow Hollow Rd (house show w/ old friends! Invite only!) Eastford, CT… 8PM
9/27 – The Apohadion (w/ Micah Blue Smaldone, Listo) 107 Hanover St, Portland ME… 8PM
9/28 – Zuzu (w/ Micah Blue Smaldone, Quoins) 474 Mass Ave, Cambridge MA… 9PM
9/29 – Pete’s Candy Store (w/ St. Cloud, Underscore Orkestra, Tori Sparks) 709 Lorimer, Brooklyn NYC… 8PM
9/30 – Morning Glory Coffee (Pairdown duo, w/ Jack Rose) 1806 Chislett St, Pittsburgh PA… 7:30PM

For more info or directions, please email sortofrecords at gmail dot com.

Check out Pairdown on Myspace
Buy Pairdown’s LP from Sort Of Records

Review : Ben Reynolds “How Day Earnt Its Night” CD (Tompkins Square, 2009)

Ben_Reynolds_How_Day_CoverBy Raymond Morin

Ben Reynolds is a member of the Scottish folk-rock band Trembling Bells, who are currently making a name for themselves on the European circuit. They’ve recently appeared at the yearly Green Man Festival, have a new record out on Honest Jon’s, and every press bit that I’ve seen has made mention of legendary producer Joe Boyd’s affection for the group. Not too shabby!

Mr. Reynolds busies himself with a great many projects, and has amassed a deep discography of noise and improvised recordings on such labels as Last Visible Dog, Strange Attractors Audio House, Beyond Repair, Dancing Wayang and others. The venerable Tompkins Square label tapped him for the third installment in their indispensable Imaginational Anthem compilation series, and this summer the label quietly released How Day Earnt Its Night, an instrumental acoustic guitar record and Reynold’s highest-profile solo outing to date.

Upon listening to the album and digging deeper into his back catalog, it’s clear that Reynolds has many interests, and that being associated with a a single style isn’t one of them. Thus, there is a little of everything on How Day Earnt Its Night… and though the recording quality is warm and clear, and Reynolds is a more than competent picker, there is a certain lack of direction that keeps many of these tracks from being home runs.

The songs generally fall into two categories : shorter, British Isles-flavored vignettes and extended Takoma-inspired explorations. Opener “Skylark (Scorner of the Ground)” takes the former approach, as Reynolds easily picks through some pleasant, stately figures. Though nothing revolutionary, the songs in this style are some of the best on the album, even if tracks like “Risen” and “England” rely more on the moods that they evoke than on any concrete melodic ideas. Reynolds builds most of these British-style songs around a simple alternating-bass with hammer-on riffs in the high strings, generally falling back on picking patterns and ignoring the harmonic possibilities in the chords’ middle voices. “Kirstie”, as lovely as it is, repeats the formula one last time, feeling a little like a song waiting for a singer.


Ben Reynolds – “Kirstie”
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Most of the remaining tracks move in a decidedly more American (Primitive) direction, and the results are, sadly, a little underwhelming. “Death Sings” is bargain-basement Takoma, borrowing liberally from the vocabulary of John Fahey but adding nothing new to the conversation. “The Virgin Knows” is an over-long bottleneck dirge, piling on almost nine minutes of hammer-ons and meandering slide riffs, but never really going anywhere. Reynolds tries to channel Lightnin’ Hopkins on “All Gone Wrong Blues”, but the tune’s recycled blues runs and ever-present harmonica make for a pretty tedious listen.

Ben Reynolds

Ben Reynolds

The wild card on this collection is definitely the title track. “How Day Earnt Its Night” is the album’s centerpiece, sitting somewhat conspicuously between two of the aforementioned British-style tunes. “How Day…” opens with haunting three finger triplet-rolls on the high string, filling in over the course of the next few minutes with stark harmonics and staccato melodic fragments. The results are really pretty enchanting, reminding me of the hammer-dulcimer compositions of one of Reynolds’ soon-to-be-tourmates, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tamburo. Reynolds drops in some downtuned bass-note melodies, coloring the piece harmonically and adding more tension, before the still-blazing triplets are unceremoniously cut off around the eight-minute mark. The breakneck pace slows, and Reynolds noodles somewhat aimlessly for the remainder of the song… a disappointing anticlimax to what began as a very engaging and promising piece.


Ben Reynolds – “How Day Earnt Its Night” (excerpt)
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I’ve got a few discs from Reynolds’ back catalog on their way, and am looking forward to seeing him live this autumn. While How The Day Earnt Its Night lacks originality, it does present Reynolds as a restless and intriguing picker, with both solid technique and an internalized knowledge of a few beloved acoustic guitar styles… and because Reynolds stands to grow exponentially as both a player and a composer, I plan to follow his progress closely.

Buy this CD from Insound
Buy this CD from Tompkins Square
Check out Ben Reynolds on Myspace