Dan O’Farrell & The Difference Engine
Cleverest song title of the year goes to late entry Tempus Fugitive and I Am Afraid is the happiest song about existential dread you’ll hear all year. This fella would give Billy Bragg a run for his money in terms of socio-political commentary. Previously of indie-band Accrington Stanley, Dan is joined by Chris Walsh (drums) and Rick Foot (double bass), produced by Andy Lewis (Paul Weller) with numerous overdubs and guests – and they play an exhilarating mix of early REM, aforementioned Bragg, and sundry unnamed alt-folk or indie-pop styles.
Sparklingly morose, jauntily protesting, I am told this is an intentional quantum leap away from deep political angst (album one) and state-of-planet sadness (album two). There’s a confidence and attractive variety of moods and styles on the album, and even if O’Farrell’s vocals are lack breadth they’re honestly sung/spoken. Motivating.
BTW Richard Scarry was a ridiculously popular children’s author and illustrator back in the 70’s. Lowly Worm, anyone? (Google him if his books aren’t lodged in the dusty corners of your childhood memories).
Tim Grimm – Gone (EP)
This is a family band, with two sons Connor (bass, piano) and Jackson (banjo) joined by Jason Wilbur (John Prine) on guitar, and with a mood captured in song of the angst of the world. “..with lots of time on my hands I begin writing, and GONE comes…. influenced by social distancing…almost complete shut-down of live performance spaces, and the scramble to make streaming online concerts a viable alternative…..the evidence of the ever-expanding chasm between two sets of American ideals, leading to the both hopeful…and dreaded November election.“
And if that’s not enough, Tim elaborates, “but there is more we are dealing with —the shocking loss of so many American folk artists – David Olney, Eric Taylor, John Prine, and Michael Smith…and finally the exhaustion of living four years under an Administration that is devoid of poetry, music and art…. And Grace. Well, these are the thoughts that created GONE.” Hypnotic, thoughtful, a near 6 minute intense story painted in words, it’s perceptive and resonates. Engaging.
Los Brujos – Alchemy
Michael Spaly and Chuck Melchin have been playing music together on and off for most of the last decade, having met through the vibrant Cambridge, Massachusetts roots rock scene. They’ve shared gigs, large and small, and played on each other’s albums. Both are main songwriter and front person for their respective bands. Chuck fronts alt-country collective the Bean Pickers Union and Michael the folk–bluegrass-psychedelic jam band Green Monroe.
Remote recording gives an eerie and somehow medieval or retro air. Both are multi-instrumentalists, and together play most of the instruments on the record, with help from a few friends. Harmony vocals and guitar / mandolin interplay recall Woodstock era CSNY. A poignancy pervades, but with wisps of hope through arrangements such as rolling banjo and buoyant harmonies in juxtaposition with sombre lyrics, or asearing fiddle / mandolin theme elsewhere. Hope and tension are resolved by the EP end. Thoughtful.
Here’s three worthy releases that passed me by:
Shapeshifters – Good Lovelies (2019)
Kerri Ough, Caroline Brooks and Sue Passmore are the Good Lovelies. Around since 2006, first EP in 2007, first album in 2009 (Good Lovelies), they have issued three more studio albums, a live album, and an EP. Shapeshifters was their fifth studio album, and their first since 2015’s Burn The Plan. Producer Daniel Ledwell was a new producer for them, and the result is an expansion of their sound. A bit slicker than previous albums, whilst retaining their immaculate three-part harmony, their sound is set in different situations and different arrangements
The trademark sounds of the Good Lovelies are still there. Harmonies, melodies, and that touch of folk/roots music. But what has changed is their presentation. They have taken their genre and bent it a little to include more pop or rock sounds. “I See Gold,” co-written with Robyn Dell’Unto, is a powerful example, some ethnic touches, great harmonies and tune. Musically, the Good Lovelies get to show off their musicianship on Shapeshifters, playing instruments not heard on a Good Lovelies album previously, and arranged to create atmosphere and highlight the vocals and lyrics. Sweet.
Alden, Patterson & Dashwood – By the Night (2018)
Tradition and social politics with relationship and honesty at its heart. Christina Alden (vocals/guitar), Alex Patterson (fiddle/vocals/occasional mandolin) and Noel Dashwood (dobro/vocals) from Norwich UK, recorded this second album in late 2017 and early 2018 at home, self-funded, self-produced, self-released in limited numbers. The album is in a folding cardboard sleeve, designed by Alden – as intimate and lovingly crafted as the album itself.
There are gorgeous tone and textures to the album through wise instrument and arrangement choices, dripping with tradition. Not just ye olde english, but the dobro and acappella also evoke the American mid-west of decades gone by. Songs that require attention yet some are as peaceful and ethereal as a wispy cloud in a summer sky, others as uplifting and jaunty as a butterfly on that summer’s day. Honest.
Richard Durrant – Stringhenge (2018)
Stringhenge is Richard Durrant’s latest creative adventure – a wistful, peculiarly British, acoustic affair full of imagery and dense tunes. In Stringhenge the maverick guitarist and composer is living on the folk/classical cusp playing his own distinctive, solo guitar music alongside a fascinating collection of other English melodies. He also introduces his trademark arrangements of unaccompanied Bach juxtaposed, for the first time, with British Isles folk tunes to striking effect. It’s a double album of originality.
Stringhenge is beautifully produced and richly audio-visual as Durrant plays two intriguing guitars – a concert guitar (the Lincolnshire Luthier) built from a 5,000 year old black oak, and a four-string Tenor Guitar (check his website for more details). The instruments sound awesome, but it is, of course, the craftsman musician who gets the sounds and tunes out of them. Unclassifiable as simply classical or folk, there’s some jazziness, a baroque touch, occasional whimsy and at all times, an effortless fluency. The second disc adds some delicate supporting instrumentation (cello, shruti, mandolin, keys, accordion, morris dancer sticks and even vocals. This double album of elegiac music has deep roots and tells intriguing musical stories. Enlightening.
Anton O’Donnell – Christmas Ain’t the Same EP
Well, ain’t that stating the bleedin’ obvious?! Glasgow-based Anton & The Colts’ frontman fuses an intoxicating brew of Americana, country, blues, soul and jazz backed by a slew of fine Nashville players and more on this attempt to reinvigorate 2020, accompanied by blues singer Charlotte Marshall, who guests on two of the songs. ‘New Year or Halloween’ is a toe-tapping, joyful country rockabilly number about two lovers enjoying each other’s company. Soulful ‘Ain’t No Way (I’m Missing Christmas With You) , about a lonely truck driver, and evokes a nice combination of early Carrack/Rea/Faces. ‘Xmas Ain’t the Same’ has a nice chilled jazzy Sade vibe with nice acoustic and piano in a thoughtful song of a woman missing her fella while he’s working away pre-Christmas. Not a sleigh bell in earshot. Nice.