ALBUM REVIEWS

MARTYN JOSEPH - THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO SAY

MJ What I Want To Say

Martyn Joseph songs are like dominoes falling. They are just thoughtful couplet after thoughtful couplet bombarding us with depth charges for the head, the heart and the soul.

And so with This Is What I Want To Say. Folding is a song about the unfolding of life and a perfect opener:

 

I am folding like a kit that has lost the wind

I am holding to the remnant of these sins

To a vast goodbye and a lost hello

I am folding, folding slow

 

That vast goodbye is his father Brian Edward Joseph leaving the planet. The small hello is his son Jack Brian Joseph’s arrival. Joseph’s previous record 1960 was a reflection on his entire life. This one is about now.

So, from those openers the dominoes fall, bombarding us in the most melodic of ways with wrestling, vulnerability, anger, proverb, thanksgiving and the prophetic.

Pacific Northwest, a geographical area familiar in Joseph’s writings, is a man seeking hope in the heart of humanity; I’d Take You Out is a man prepared to lose his soul to take out those who oppress and violently scatter injustice; Waiting For The Rain is the opposite, a very much Welsh welcome and hopefully heal asylum seekers; Don’t Need No Cathedral is about finding life transcendent outside of the structures of religion; and Gratitude a near hymn of thanksgiving.

There’s a lot of love in the make of these dominoes. There’s Joseph’s own love in the closing You’re Still Here and Without You, the piano and the latter played by his wife Justine. Take Me To Love, the simplest lyric here is like a prayer for love and the ability to be that love.

In Albert’s Place, written on commission by the BBC 21st Folk series, Joseph nails it in the prophetic:

 

And the measure of a country’s prosperity

Is not the wealth it holds

But in the absence of poverty and equal opportunities for all

 

The song expresses all of the album’s hope for love in a simple but profound image:

 

Albert’s Place has seen it all

The meat and coal when the big ships called

But maybe now its greatest day of all

Brings tea and a cup of love

Tea in a cup of love

 

Tea in a cup of love. I can’t tell you how much a I love that.

Everything Martyn Joseph does is top quality songwriting, with deft guitar skills and a whole lot of life experience well discerned. 

1960 was in my opinion Joseph’s finest work. This Is What I Want To Say is a very fine companion piece. It’s strength of content is revealed by a more stripped down production. As the years go by this man gets it closer and closer to perfect. 

First review of the year and I can say with utter confidence that by year’s end it’ll be up there as an album of 2024.


STOCKI'S TOP 40 FAVOURITE RECORDS OF 2023

Joe Henry 2

40. FAR FROM SAINTS

A fascinating collaboration that gives Kelly Jones a little more nuance than Stereophonics do.

39. ANTHONY TONER - GHOST NOTES VOL 2

Toner does his second covers record. Fascinating and wonderful interpretations.

38. BRIAN KENNEDY - LOVE LETTERS TO JONI; VOLUME 2

Belfast's Kennedy does Joni Mitchell songs so well and here is another beautiful batch.

37. HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER - JUMP FOR JOY

Joying it up this time.

36. NATALIE MERCHANT - KEEP YOUR COURAGE

That voice and great songs. I just didn't get enough time to let it marinate or it could have been much higher.

35. HANNAH WHITE - SWEET REVOLUTION

One of our best up and coming writers continues her trajectory. 

34. SISKIN GREEN

Musically inventive, spiritually potent, lyrically robust, Siskin Green’s debut is a joy mingled with sorrow and challenge with an over all feel of hopefulness.

33. CAT POWER - CAT POWER SINGS DYLAN (The 1966 Royal Albert Hall)

Cat has done Dylan so well before and her audacious attempt to recreate Albert Hall 1966 is in the main a success. 

32. NOEL GALLAGHER - COUNCIL SKIES

I hated Oasis but I kinda like this guy.

31. JOE HENRY - ALL THE EYE CAN SEE

Another deeply meditative work of Joe Henry’s love and revelation. 

Black Rainbows

30. JOY OLADOKUN - PROOF OF LIFE

This young lady’s debut was my actual Album of 2021… didn’t click just as much this time but still great and a duet with Noah Kahan who Jasmine says is the best out there just now…

29. GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV - APPALOOSA BONES

An acquired taste, I need to get more into this guy than I am… Beautifully reflective…

28 KING CEDAR - EVERYTHING MORE & OTHER STORIES

If Jackson Browne had been born in North Down then he might’ve sounded like Bangor man Stephen McCartney did when he wrote and recorded in California…

27. STEPHEN FEARING - VEJPOESI

One of my Favourite Canadian writers goes band and solo and live with of course magnificent songs…. Even a cover of Early Morning Rain for the year that was in it…

26. RHIANNON GIDDENS - YOU’RE THE ONE

At last Giddens lets her voice go… so eclectic… and Jason Isbell features too.

25. GRAHAM NASH - NOW

We lost Crosby and got a new Nash record where he is still on it at 80…

24. KATE RUSBY - LIGHT YEARS

Rusby’s soft but authoritative voice graces her 6th Christmas record… one for all the year round… as incarnation should be.

23. IRIS DE MENT - WORKIN’ ON A WORLD

Songs for social transformation and spiritual resilience…

22. DAVID FRANCEY - THE BREATH BETWEEN

Another Canadian songwriter of top notch quality, introduced by my mates Eric and Mary Whyte just a month ago… what a writer… what a wise human. 

21. CONNIE RAE BAILEY - BLACK RAINBOWS

What an astonishing reconfiguring… Bailey Rae shouts it out with a prophetic force…


KATE RUSBY - LIGHT YEARS

Light Years

Kate Rusby’s new record has herself on the cover with black fluffy angel wings in a snow season landscape that, knowing Rusby, is no doubt somewhere in Yorkshire.

It perfectly describes the music within. Rusby’s appearance is a retake on the nativity stories of Christ’s birth which Rusby’s songs do so well. Set in a contemporary pastoral setting is what Rusby does with all the traditions of the story. 

For the uninitiated this is not Kate Rusby’s first Christmas record. Nor her second. This is her sixth…. And still as fresh as new falling snow. 

Kate Rusby has so many things going for her. She has a poetic lyricism as seen here on the original song Glorious, as strong as any song in this collection; she is such a wonderful interpreter of songs; her husband, Damien O’Kane from Coleraine, is a great player, arranger and producer; and she has that voice, set in her English folk singing tradition but not confined.

It is actually a perfect voice for Christmas which might be why we have six records. She can sound angelic but always grounded in that Yorkshire accent and setting. Incarnational.

Then there is the seamless way that she moves from the manger of the nativity to the tree of the seasonal. Her own versions of carols like Nowell Nowell and Rusby’s Shepherds sit seamlessly alongside It’s The Most Beautiful Time Of The Year and Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree/Sleigh Ride. The latter too are all filled up with brass to feel the pulses pump without raising the blood pressure. Perfect.

My favourites are the opening Spean, a traditional song that I was unaware of and the closing Joseph, giving air time to a man who deserves some, this time of year. The latter has the most exquisite accompaniment with her husband’s lone guitar. Sublime.

 


STANDING UP FOR BOB DYLAN LIVE AT BUDOKAN

Bob Budokan

To the tune of an Ulster Rugby crowd chant I want to shout “Stand up for The Budokan”. Bob Dylan’s live album Live At Budokan album from back in 1978 is getting re-assessed or re-trashed as a box set called The Complete Budokan which has just been released. I want to defend it because of how crucial it was in my personal discovery of Bob Dylan.

I wasn’t a Bob fan in 1978 though I was on the cusp. Baby Stop Crying from 1978’s Street Legal was a favourite song and after my intrigue about Hurricane from 1975’s Desire, showcased in my favourite TV music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test. 

I remember the fuss about the Budokan record. Supposed to be a Japan only release in August 1978, a guy in school (Frank Delargy me thinks!) had bought it at a ridiculous price on import only to be rather annoyed at a world wide release in 1979 that we could all afford. 

Just a few months later Slow Train Coming arrived and Bob had come to a Christian faith, almost at the exact same time as I had too. That common faith caused me to play that one until I had acquired the taste for Dylan’s voice and set off in looking back across the 17 years of records that I had missed.

In that time of research Live at Budokan was a gift. It allowed me to grab almost 22 songs from every era of Bob on one double album.

More than that the very accessible way that Dylan arranged those songs at Budokan, made them easier for a young fella to hear them rather than say the much raw and rougher edged Hard Rain live album from 1976. 

I am not sure what Bob was wanting to do with this particular line up. The fiddle had encroached towards centre stage on The previous Rolling Thunder tour. Now, though the fiddle stayed, Bob had added flutes and particularly a saxophone. 

If 1978 Dylan fans were unsettled by this I wasn’t. As a Moody Blues and at this stage Horslips fan I was more than up for a few flute riffs. The saxophone though was put Bruce Springsteen. The Big Man Clarence Clemons was Springsteen’s foil and a very big presence on the cover of that iconic 70s record Born To Run.  Why shouldn’t Dylan give it a try. 

Reggae versions too. Again I was used to such arrangements. Bob Marley had become another of the rock icons of the 70s. Eric Clapton had covered Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff and even done his own reggae version of Knockin On Heaven’s Door that Dylan repeats here.

Above all of this. As Bob looks back and around for his Budokan muse so too he looks forward. The female Gospel vocals would become the major feature of the next few years of Dylan’s live shows. Where he is with Jesus at Budokan is anyone’s guess but the Gospel singers are ready!

So, why shouldn’t Bob Dylan bring a plethora of contemporary ideas into a career known for its reinvention. For me there is a hint of musical snobbery in those who dismiss these Budokan concerts.

So, I was thrilled that there would be a box set of the complete Budokan. Now we can hear 1978 versions of songs like Ramona, I Threw It All Away, The Man In Me and Tomorrow Is A Long Time as well as rarities Repossession Blues and Love Her With Feeling 

With such releases I quickly glance across the track listings and the prices to see which I will purchase. As I am currently buying vinyl I am going to actually buy the double vinyl Another Budokan 1978 at £35 as I think £190 is utter madness for 4 CDs especially when fans have almost two of them. 

In the next few weeks I am looking forward to listening to 1978 Bob Dylan. I hope at times it will take me back to my teens and those early Bob loving days but also back into that Dylan catalogue in which I am always discovering.  


DAVID FRANCEY - THE BREATH BETWEEN

Breath Between

Here’s the story. My Canadian friends Eric and Mary are driving around Cape Breton and a song comes on the radio. It is the title track of David Francey’s twelfth album The Breath Between. 

I can understand. When Eric and Mary lived in Belfast we talked a lot about poetic songs with great lyrics and a spiritual underbelly. I can imagine my friends turning a corner on the Eastern Canadian coast and hearing Francey sing…

 

Another year

That's had us see

The passing into

Memory

Souls and hearts

And voices stilled

Before that sun

Could climb the hill

 

We hold them close

And we carry on

In the breath between

The here and gone

 

… before shouting “Stockman would love this.” So much so that I got that rare email every 10 years or so, telling me so.

My immediate investigation into the record had me asking how this Scot who moved to Canada at 12 and didn’t start releasing records until his 40s had passed me by.

Even better than that title tracks I was salivating at how Francey delicately sets theology into song too. I love the everyman (and woman) faith of:

 

The sky was crying long and hard

And Jesus wept by the hospital stairs

And I stood and lit a cigarette

Burnt offering in place of prayer 

 

Francey is a revelation. There nothing fancy. He’s a rustic conversational storyteller in the traditional songwriter sense with a wee sprinkling of the Scottish in occasional fiddle, touch of accent and soul.

Elsewhere Narrow Boats has the sense of place of fellow Canadian Bruce Cockburn, I Called It Love is look back at moments of love in maybe the most radio friendly song and Time For The Wicked To Rest is a sermonette on the mount:

 

Too many lies too many years

Too much hatred too much fear

Too much avarice too much greed

To ever satisfy the need

 

It's time for the wicked to rest

It′s time for the wicked to rest

Sooner or later

Sooner the better

Would be best

Time for the wicked to rest 

 

Again I am loving the cleverness of the word play, words that seem to tumble naturally out of a discerning and gifted man sharing with us his insights on love and loss, that short life we live in The Breath Between.

I have said for 30 years that I am drawn to Canadian music because it still has the song at its heart. Here’s another huge dollop of evidence. My new songwriting hero David Francey sitting snugly alongside Cockburn, Fearing, Sexsmith and Edwards. 

Thank you Eric and Mary.


THE BATHERS - SIRENESQUE

Bathers

A new The Bathers’ record! There’s a musical treat for 2023. One of that plethora of Glasgow bands glutting up record deals at the end of the 80s with a wide variety of imaginative takes on the pop song.

Chris Thomson threw his Bathers into the deep end of Chamber Pop, lush strings surrounding songs of heart and soul and geographical place. Add Thomson’s voice, deep edged like the crag on a tiny Scottish island with a Bowie affectation and it is a sound that seeps into your aesthetic streams like acquiring the taste of whiskey.

Sirenesque starts with a beautiful lonely piano before the majestic melancholy of the title track. Thomson writes like a painter, the clue is on the front cover.  Every song is poetic, dropping rare place names across Scotland and even across Europe, painting images of birds and fauna and streets and buildings, weather and  bays. Indeed there might be a European feel all round as Thomson asks what love is, where it can be found and how it might last.

Garlands, the lead off single is a radio friendly thing for sure but there are no weak songs on this record. The delicate piano with tasty electric guitar in Welcome To Bellevue is another highlight. She Rose Through The Isles takes us out with a string strewn waltz, almost like a film soundtrack when the credits could rise…

It has taken 20 years for us to be given such a record of consummate elegance to wallow in. My fear is that it will be such a well kept secret that so many people who would love it beyond compare might not hear it. 


THE ROLLING STONES - HACKNEY DIAMONDS

Hackney Diamonds

Celtic or Rangers? City of United? His or Hearts? Everton or Liverpool? Arsenal of Spurs? The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?

Well, 60 years (SIXTY) after they changed the world The Beatles release a new single and The Rolling Stones a new album and I, a Beatles fan above the Stones for almost 50 of those years, have to say that The Stones win this one. The album is as good as the hype!

These Hackney Diamonds are not roughly hewn. The rock n roll lines are loud, melodic but cut neatly, strong and shining like a diamond should. For me this is all that I love about The Rolling Stones. The last record that I felt was this strong from cover to cover was Tattoo You, 42 long years ago!

It’s a record that is pure Stones with a variety of hues of their distinct colour. The lead single Angry is like a  Start Me Up and Depending On You a kind of Waiting On a Friend. Mess It Up would have made Emotional Rescue a better record and with Whole Wide World they have an anthemic sing along about hope against the odds. I can almost hear U2 cover it.  

Where it gets really tasty for the Theo-musicologist is when Jaeger goes all Bob Dylan in his lyrics. Live By The Sword picks up Jesus phrase in Gethsemane and adds a list type lyrics that might be a You Gotta Serve Somebody part 2:

 

If you live by the sword, gonna die by the sword

If you live by the gun, you gonna die by the gun

If you live for the knife, well, you’re gonna get stabbed

Run into the law, well, you’re gonna get nabbed

If you live for revenge, gonna feel the backlash

If you live to be cruel, gonna bite you in the ass

 

If you think the boys are getting spiritual there wait for the collection’s most astounding piece. Sweet Sounds Of Heaven is a joyous seven minutes of pure Gospel with Stevie Wonder’s Rhodes keyboard and Lady Gaga voice adding deluxe, making the hairs on the back of my soul stand up in a state of blessedness. 

 

Bless the Father, bless the Son

Hear the sound of the drums

As it echoes through the valley

And it bursts, yeah

Let no woman or child

Go hungry tonight

Please protect us from the pain

And the hurt, yeah

 

I smell the sweet scents, sweet

Sweet scents of Heaven, Heaven

Tumblin' down, tumblin' down

 

These Hackney Diamonds are shining a light.


THE BEATLES - NOW AND THEN

Beatles 23

I very rarely listen to the radio but Janice had it on and I found myself caught u in the countdown to the new and last Beatles’ single.

It is exactly 50 years ago since I heard a couple of Beatles’ songs at my first Ballymena Academy Christmas Party. A few years later and I was in love with all things Beatles and have been for the most part ever since. 

So the idea of a new song was thrilling. My 15 year old self was buzzing if my 62 year old self a little more measured in expectations. 

The first play through was far from thrilling. I wasn’t even sure it was of the quality of Free As A Bird or Real Love, the 1995 fixes of John Lennon demos. Then again those songs took time… give it time Steve.

And I have. And…

Well, it is not bad at all. Lennon’s voice is so good when it gets isolated. This is a demo in his bedroom. Yet it can be used in a song that makes number 1. Fair play.

The sentiment seems almost over the top. John, the alienated recluse claiming to think of his old estranged mate Paul, now and again. 

It could be. It was recorded in 1977, so Yoko and Lennon are together. He’s not thinking of her now and again. When Lennon picked up a guitar in the Dakota, half way through retirement you can understand that he might think about his old mates. 

That it was Yoko who gave George these tapes of her husband’s demos brings The Beatles’ story full circle. Did she break the Beatles up? She certainly gave them the means of working together again!

Conclusion. I am glad that Now and Then is out there in the world. I particularly love the video. There is a warm and deeply feely weely nostalgia in seeing The Beatles. It takes me back to the first time, discovering music, and with their music hit after hit, the very best music. It is magical.

If I had a choice it would not be dropped into a compilation of the very best songs of all time. It will not sit competitively in that batch of pure pop genius.

It would have been so much more perfectly set in a Lennon album like Milk and Honey or the box set Anthology. We have been used to posthumous Lennon songs and to have this one that his mates came in to help him finish would have been enough.

I will continue to think that the last Beatles' song was one of those on Abbey Road. Keep The Beatles for pop music holiness!


DUKE SPECIAL - BLOOD FOR GHOSTS

Blood For Ghosts

Duke Special is a unique artist in a plethora of ways. One of the ways is how his unique talent made him adaptable. In an era when the record deal was disappearing and musicians needed to be creative in what they did with their creativity Duke Special was born for such.

Blood For Ghosts is proof. This is not your common or garden songwriter record. The last time His Dukeness did that was Look Out Machines in 2015. This is his third record since that, the other two being a collaboration with Irish trad musicians Ulaid called A Note Let Go and the other called Hallow when he made songs out of  a number of legendary Belfast poet Michael Longley’s poems.

In and around these releases Duke can be found collaborating away, while doing special concerts around the music of Nilsson or Tom Waits and as well as endless theatre work. 

As well as all of that he went back to University. While teaching songwriting and performance at Queens University Belfast he took on a PhD. That took him to asking how music translates, particularly sheet music and so here we are…

Blood For Ghosts is the work of a man who pillaged Princess Grace Irish Library of 1682 songs, stole these 10 and made a most fascinating record.

The majority of the songs are from around 1910 and Duke Special’s vaudeville sound sets them off perfectly. Our wee country's gem of a pianist Ruth McKinley brings her poise and poignancy to the hymnal The Bird Of Christ and the Hushing Song. She also plays on Retaliation but on the latter is accompanied by what Duke describes in the sleeve notes as a “drunken band”. 

There are so many highlights. The aforementioned The Bird Of Christ, the Foggy Dew with a different lyric than we are used to, The Minstrel Boy with new music and the wonderful By The Light Of The Silvery Moon. Oh yes!

Thee shift away from big record contracts has led Duke Special down a road. It has become like a path through very fertile fields all around him. It means we need to wait for more “just songs” but it also means that not enough people are hearing the exceptional music that this unique artist is producing. 


GLEN HANSARD - ALL THAT WAS EAST IS WEST OF ME NOW

Glen

I am surmising that All That Was East Is West Of Me Now is Glen Hansard most important record as well as the one who title I might never get right.

Hansard is 53. He has been releasing records for thirty years. This past year he has played live with his first band The Frames, done an American Tour with his old love Markéta Irglová as The Swell Season and by Christmas I’ll have seen him twice this year under his name Glen Hansard. It was at his Mandela Hall gig in March that I got excited about these songs.

In those different formats I always felt Hansard had an outlet for those different sounds. Never did I imagine the three things blend as they do rather brilliantly on All That Was East Is West of Me.

Musically robust and diverse, at times driving like The Frames, at times soft and tender Hansard then takes on the angst of the world of his day. Since his last experimental record The Wild Willing, most present here in atmospheric Between Us There Is Music, the world has dealt with Covid, a war on European Soil and in Ireland Brexit.

Hansard sets up a near apocalyptic mood in the opening Feast Of St. John:

 

See a man of good standing pushed to the ground

And his lover attending and her arms all around

And hеr anger, and her ire, and hеr blood raging full

Muster, muster to the depths of your soul

 

The terror builds but resistance too in Down on Our Knees :

 

Pandemic, famine, war, privation, mass migration

Four horsemen riding, knights of the apocalypse

We'll all go down on our knees

Won't we all go down on our knees

Eventually

 

In this one there is a near congressional chorus, Hansard touching Gospel

 

Throw your arms to heaven

Throw your arms 'round me

Throw your arms to heaven

Give, and you will receive

 

There’s No Mountain ups the resistance and the hope that threads its way through it all

 

But we climbed it, and we scaled it

And when the wind and the weather were with us

I knew we wouldn’t fail

And we see it, and we take it

And if we fall by the side at least we’ll know that we tried

To leave a little light on our way

 

The album sets out in the rage and then calms and slows. Sure As Rain shifts the direction. Leonard Cohen’s influence enters the set and love wins.

From here it is about what we can do in a Short Life. How we can contribute to Bearing Light. What light we can leave. A man coming out of the world as it has been with a pram now in the doorway. Fascinating time to make a record. We all benefit from it. This is urgent and helpful and sounds great.