ALBUM REVIEWS

MALOJIAN - LET THE WEIRDNESS CARRY YOU HOME

Malojian weird 2

When I listen to Malojian I cannot help thinking of Glasgow’s Blue Nile. Not that they sound like Blue Nile but that feeling of utterly loveliness, a sound that is like lying back in a big soft rug by the fire. Not that that means that this is easy listening. Oh no, Malojian shift gears and rhythms and conjure surprises in sound. You can hear the influence of middle period Beatles in some of their inventive effects. Not that they sound very like The Beatles either.

Malojian sound very much like themselves. Having recorded last year’s wonderful This Is Nowhere in the real rock n roll space of the Chicago studio owned by legendary producer Steve Albini of Pixies and Nirvana fame, they now found the least likely rock n roll place to record; the Lighthouse on Rathlin Island! Is that the puffins I hear at the end of Broken Light Company (Theme).

The emotional centre of Weirdness comes at the end. The penultimate track, Purity of Your Smile, with its sparse acoustic picking beginning and gentle strings that swell (strings are a success throughout). About songwriter Stevie Scullion’s young children, it is beautiful without being too mushy sentimental:

 

“You've got your mothers ways

That’s the way i hope it stays

Gentle innocent and full of grace”

 

The closing title track continues with a message to his kids about their weirdness:

 

“Your beauty comes from deep inside your bones

Let your weirdness carry you home”

 

Weirdness and children come together in A New Armageddon. Perhaps it is his new borns that make Scullion think of his own childhood and how life was simpler then:

 

“When we sat at the end of our street

‘neath the amp with the world at our feet

I knew where I belonged

I knew where I belonged”

 

He then plays on the apocalyptic Scriptural word Armageddon but sings it with word play on his home county… “ARMAGH…GEDON!” 

Another particular favourite of mine is Beard Song where the hipsters are the butt of the weirdness and humorous social comment:

 

“Just because you brow a beard

It doesn’t mean you’re cool

Anyone can do it”

 

Malojian are a local treasure. That they are ours and not from somewhere in Illinois or Minnesota. Goodness I am thrilled. They are currently ploughing a fertile, prolific imaginative furrow… or in “Armaghgedon” you might say the orchard has never been so ripe with the fruit of musical invention!


MARY BLACK SINGS JIMMY MCCARTHY

Black McCarthy

Now this is a treat I fell upon. Jimmy McCarthy is Ireland’s equivalent of Jimmy Webb, a consummate songwriter and Mary Black is his Glen Campbell, the voice that made Jimmy’s songs her own. They’re both called Jimmy for goodness sake. Mary Black has been singing Jimmy McCarthy songs for twenty five years. Indeed the reason I was buying Mary Black albums in the early 90s was to hear McCarthy songs. I cannot overstate how much I love his lyrical adeptness and deft touch.

That is all on show here. Mary Black is a great interpreter, maybe more Joan Baez than Glen Campbell to be fair! As well as McCarthy she has showcased other writers including Noel Brazil (check out Columbus and Ellis Island) and David Gray before anyone else was showcasing David Gray. It is McCarthy though who is most deserving of this complete album of covers.

Some of the songs are from Black’s catalogue of McCarthy songs, some are new and all is topped off with a duet with McCarthy himself, an RTE recording of As I Leave Behind Neidin

Jimmy McCarthy has this ability in his songs to make them personal, universal and somehow stay them as Irish. No Frontiers, maybe know outside of Ireland better by The Corrs cover, is like a modern Irish classic. It might be romantic or phileo love but the yes of the beloved open visions of heaven and justice and hopefulness. With McCarthy there is a lot of hopefulness:

 

“When fear will lose its grip

And heaven has its ways”

 

There is often faith and the divine too. Bright Blue Rose has been a companion on my journey for twenty five years. In his own book, Ride On, MacCarthy shares a story of illness, hospital, a faith healer and waking up on Easter Sunday reaching for his notepad. He writes, “I generally regard a chorus as a logical conclusion so, picking up my guitar, I sang the chorus which came to me spontaneously, put it on paper and said, “Yes, there is a God and thanks be to God.” He goes on to describe it as a mysterious piece and how anybody “will be glad when you sing it.” I am always glad when I hear it.

Of the new songs, it’s another oldie that thrilled me. Mystic Lipstick is maybe the best love song ever written for Ireland. I will admit that Mary Coughlan and Christy Moore versions might have the harder edged vocal weightiness that suits the melancholy of an island’s bloody and broken history:

 

“Chroi O mo chroi

Your heart is breaking

Your eyes are red, your song is blue

Your poets underneath the willow in despair

They have been lovers of your sad tune

Lovers of your slow air”

 

Jimmy McCarthy is a stunning craftsman and Mary Black shows him off perfectly. This record is a record of the best songwriting in Ireland at this time in our history.


NOEL GALLAGHER - WHO BUILT THE MOON

Noel Gallagher Moon

I couldn’t stand Oasis. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t sing a long to a chorus of Wonderwall if he was supporting U2 at Croke Park but for me they were always a Beatles Tribute band that shouldn’t have made it out of their local pub! There had to be something in the mid 90s zeitgeist that made Oasis dull unimaginative derivative plod popular; a PhD dissertation? Near the end though I couldn’t help thinking that Noel might actually be better than Liam is allowing him to be!

Liam? Well he might support Manchester City but that pseudo strut of an imbecile, hands behind back stretch for the microphone and dim witted drawl. Oh dear! Only my mate Iain Archer co-writing on his new album could get me even anywhere near streaming him!

Noel? Well I have been rather tempted with his High Flying Birds’ records to think again. Maybe? So, finally for me, and ironically in the midst of awful reviews, I am liking Who Built The Moon. Now, here is the other surprise to me. Perhaps the reason I am finding it more artistically interesting than anything else Gallagher has touched is the production of David Holmes.

Now, Holmes is a Belfast boy and we are proud. From a fifteen year old dj in Belfast pubs to Oceans Eleven and the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics. He’d our! But for me, his electronica and dj beats is just not my thing. 

Gallagher and Holmes together have grabbed my ears in a way that neither could a solo act. Who Built The Moon adds groove and beats and horns and even tin whistles to Gallagher’s songs and it means that for me there is always something drawing me in. It’s psychedelic and at times hypnotic. 

Holy Mountain starting with Roxy Music funk rides on lighter wings than the old Oasis clunk; Keep On Reaching is a little Stevie Winwood or maybe latter day Paul Weller, all horns and winsome; Be Careful What You Wish For slows it all down but still doesn’t plod; and If Love is The Law might be what he’s picked up from supporting U2 across much of 2017.

I am never expecting anything prophetic or originally poetic from even the smartest Gallagher but all in all, Noel has me. I think it will be a great album in the car. It speeds and slows and with Holmes’ musical scenery it keeps you interested until journey’s end. 

Liking a Noel Gallagher record. Goodness does that make him a guilty pleasure?


WHITE BUFFALO - DARKEST DARKS, LIGHTEST LIGHTS

White Buffalo

When I heard White Buffalo on Later… With Jools Holland I thought great voice, rocking band, but it seems a little on dimensional. Was I ever more wrong?!

White Buffalo is the moniker for songwriter Jake Smith. When your songs are as bawling and brawling as some of Smith’s using your own name like the introspective Jackson Browne or James Taylor doesn’t  seem right.

The first thing to hit you with Smith is his voice. It is a baritone that sounds aged, with a deep rasp like an Old Testament prophet must have boomed. Imagine Jeremiah fronting a southern states bar band reaching almost post punk on some songs here.

But what I have learned by falling on love with Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights is that Smith has way more than one dimension. White Buffalo songs shift in the few seconds between tracks from being as rowdy as a Saturday night brawl to the sensitive spiritual searching of a Sunday morning homily.

On Robbery we have “Guns blazing hell and steel” and a vulgar word, then on The Observatory we have a tender look into the soul of humanity, "Everybody cries, everybody dreams, everybody wants, everybody needs love – and I am one,"

Nightstalker Blues Explicit puts the foot down on a freight train and I Am The Moon is fragile midnight lullaby, on the rocking chair by the hearth. The Heart and Soul Of Saturday Night is a cousin of Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting in its hedonistic anarchy whereas If I Lost My Eyes is fragile yearning for love. I guess the contrasts are in the title of the record!

The other thing I thought watching them on Later… With Jools Holland was Steve Earle. That rugged organic Americana country rock sound. It would be easy to see Smith as next generation Earle. Part of me sees that as a fair assessment, a compliment to both. Another part of me thinks that White Buffalo might be a cut above, more variety on the palette, more genius in the artist. In the meantime Darkest Darks, Lights Lights is mouth watering anticipation of a great career. 

 


MAVIS STAPLES - IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK

Staples

Last year I was a seminar at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Right at the end an African American girl, Kye, poked her head out from behind an almost entirely white crowd and asked how long you go without fighting back. She went on to say that nothing had changed in 50 years so how long should she wait to fight back?

There is a new tension in the American race crisis. Kye was voicing the new frustrations. It all makes the music that speaks into the situation much more important than it has been for a while. Earlier in the year Rhiannon Giddens made her contribution and here is Mavis Staples putting in her tuppence (10 cents) worth.

Mavis Staples is not new to the race wars. Her singing family led by their father Pop Staples sang about civil rights and peaceful resistance back in the Dr King days. Now at 75 with a creatively fertile partnership wth Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy she has made a record that answers what Kye asked me back at Calvin.

If All I Was Was Black is Staples’ third collaboration with Tweedy, after taking a break on Livin’ On A High Note with M Ward. It is also the most far reaching. As well a producing Tweedy has written every song including three co-writes with Staples. His guitar playing must remind Mavis of our father Pop. Tweedy plays a blinder, with blues riffs, inventive solos and delicate acoustic on the reflective closer All Over Again.

But then everything is reflective on these songs. They are a state of the American nation on race issues, every song dropping depth charges. There is recognition that Kye is right that too much is the same as when Mavis and her family were raising issues of racism in the ‘60s. The opening Little Bit shares a too common story of a young black man getting shot by the police:

 

“Poor kid they caught him

Without his license 

That ain't why they shot him

They say he was fighting

So 

That's what we were told

But we all know 

That ain't how the story goes…”

 

A simple request to see past the colour of skin to our shared humanity is beautifully unpacked on the title track:

 

“If all I was was black

Don't you want to know me

More than that

 

All the love I give

(Got love to give)

I've got natural gifts

(Got natural gifts)”

 

Mavis would then give Kye an answer to that question she asked me at Calvin College. She is staying resilient and keeping the dreams of MLK are still alive:

 

“Oh I know I did complain

Even on sunny days

I know I moaned about

Some little things

But I kept my spirits up

And I set aside enough

Love to keep us dry

When it rains

 

Peaceful dream

Come and share my peaceful dream”

 

There’s also a humility as to how Mavis suggests young Kye goes about the dream. On Try Harder she confesses her own failings and the need to live in a forgiveness for all:

 

“I gotta live in forgiveness 

We gotta give each other hope

Cause there's evil in the world

And there's evil in me”

 

If All I Was Was Black is a cerebrally stimulating record. It is socially right on the pulse; a What’s Goin’ On for 2017. It is the best record that either Staples or Tweedy have released, maybe ever. Certainly the most important. It is a recycling and remixing of the spirit of Martin Luther King. It should also be noted that most of it was written by a white man! Had it been released before I met Kye in April 2016 I would have reached it to her as an answer to her question far more potent than anything I could ever say.


BOB DYLAN; BOOTLEG SERIES VOL 13 - TROUBLE NO MORE

Bootleg Series 13

It was July 1979. I was 17. I had been a follower of Jesus for about two months. I was sitting in the grass in the Toronto sun waiting for my cousin Deborah, who was at swimming lessons, and reading Rolling Stone. That was when I read that Bob Dylan had discovered Jesus too and was working on an album about our mutual faith.

I wasn’t a Bob Dylan fan. The cool kids at school were. I was a Beatles fan but Dylan’s wordy eccentric drawl hadn’t yet seeped into my soul. A few months later I borrowed a friend’s Slow Train Coming and I was hooked. It might be said that Jesus and a little Mark Knopfler guitar converted me to Bob Dylan.

1979 through 1981 became Bob Dylan’s born again years. In the summer of 1980 I sat and typed out every word of the Saved record. I was a naive new believer and Dylan gave it rock star cred but also a voice. These songs expressed the faith that I was discovering. It was simple, effervescent, evangelical, a little judgemental and far too saturated in Hal Lindsay’s crazy theology of the Second Coming.

Along with Dylan himself I outgrew that spiritual youthful exuberance. As my faith matured I wanted faith to see into all of life just as Dylan wanted faith to be a line or two in songs with wider reach. Infidels and Oh Mercy became my favourite Dylan albums. Apart from I Believe In You, Pressing On and Every Grain of Sand I left the Gospel years on the shelf.

In recent years as Dylan has released his Bootleg Series of live concerts and out takes I have always hoped that one of the Series would cover that 1979-81 period. At last, it is here; Volume 13; Trouble No More

Each of the Bootleg Series releases has been both a thrill to Dylan fans and a dilemma. The dilemma is which version of the releases to buy. There have regularly been an expensive multi disc and a two disc best of. The box set of the multi-releases have tended to be a little over priced. Downloading has been a cheaper option. 

With Trouble No More there have been many a Dylan fan discussion. This one adds a vinyl version somewhere between the two discs and the 9 disc box set. Oh what to do?

Booleg Series 13 2

In  the end though, this box set was too good to miss. It was either download or box. Dylan’s Gospel years only lasted three years, and three records, but it was a prolific period for Dylan and there are unreleased tracks aplenty here. Then there are the out takes. Beyond that what Dylan was doing live is fascinating and musically satisfying.

Having spent a few weeks now, saturating myself in the Trouble No More, reading Clinton Heylin’s book Trouble In Mind out just a week or two earlier (no coincidence there!), I have come to reassess the period in Dylan’s career. This was an intense time of fertile creativity. It threw up a unique stand off between the commitment that Dylan had to his fledgeling faith and the opposition from fans and bad reviews from the press. 

The lyrics are not Dylan’s most poetic. By 1981 those mysterious wordy allusions and metaphors returned in songs like Caribbean Wind and The Grooms Still Waiting At The Altar but in general the born again years seem lyrically a little clumsy and simplistic.

Yet, that might have been a lazy criticism. I remember what it was like going through the same initial energy of conversion at that time. Dylan has had an enlightenment beyond his hallucinatory drug experiences of the 60s. He is literally full of it. He is full of new beliefs, new Biblical passages and new enthusiastic rebirth. When we are listening to these songs we need to see how Dylan is using his wordy genius to pile into a few minutes all his new learning and texts, in ways that he hopes will have a conversion experience on his listeners.

It makes for some wonderful music. His band at this time cooks. Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Fred Tackett, who I think is the stand out player, on guitars and then a rhythm section of Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner. Add five of the most wonderful female singers and these songs have a fluid gospel sound that is in itself a genre adding collection in the Dylan career catalogue. 

Dylan and singers

Yes, Dylan can come across a tad judgemental and way too influenced by Hal Lindsay’s theologically askew book, Late Great Planet Earth, that still seems to be dogging Dylan’s theology 40 years later, but Trouble No More has given us more positive contributions like Blessed Is The Name and I Will Love Him that might be Bob trying to emulate the spiritual feel of his mate George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord et al. 

Other songs like Pressing On, Slow Train, Gotta Serve Somebody, Every Gran of Sand are excellent and are here in various guises. When He Returns brings out some of Dylan’s best and most personal vocals ever. I challenge you to listen to Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody without singing along. The inclusion of the London Earls Court concert of 1981, when he brought back the old songs too, is illuminating. Forever Young really is a prayer in this set list, Blowing In The Wind as a Gospel song is delicious, while Knocking On Heaven’s Door finds a perfect setting, with those vocalists sounding like angels welcoming you home.

All in all. Wow! Self Portrait, another seeming blip in Dylan’s career, was completely reassessed by Volume 10 in this series. Volume 13 is again reassessment time. 1979 to 1981 were vital years in Bob Dylan’s art. He might have left the lyrical style and evangelistic fervour behind as his faith deepened and widened but this box set cannot be ignored. I think even atheists could enjoy it… and of course… for those with ears to hear…!


YVONNE LYON - METANOIA

Yvonne Lyon

When a young woman sidled up to me, as I watched a gig at Greenbelt, and asked if she could play my late night show, I was rightfully cautious. “Of course,” I said and immediately decided that if I put her on as the last song of the evening then not much of my high level quality control would be lost. It was very, very late when Yvonne Lyon sang Come and I have to I was sorry it was. I would have given her another one! She was good! 

That was over ten years ago and in the decade between Yvonne has matured into one of Britain’s finest songwriters. If we were still in the days when Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin ruled the airwaves Yvonne Lyon would be a household name and maybe one of our biggest imports.

There is a literary flair to Lyon’s songwriting and she has a variety of musical sounds to set her sharp social observation and insights of the heart and the soul. Her voice can bounce along like on Everything’s Fine or crawl with yearn as on Where Echoes End. She can be straight off O Brother Where Art Thou on Where The Poor Find Gold, use contemporary beats on Hope and conjure up the ethereal on Farewell.

In everything there is reality and hopefulness, a peering into the dark without ever losing a glimpse off the light. Throughout Metanoia I cannot help but marvel at how much Yvonne Lyon has developed her craft since that night back at Greenbelt. She is now much better than good! I also couldn’t help but think that T-Bone Burnett would have more fun and creative riches producing Yvonne Lyon than he has just had with The Corrs! Now that is an idea!


CHRIS TAYLOR - DOWN A DEAD END STREET

Chris Taylor Dead End

My friend Lesley hates anyone covering Bob Dylan songs. Now, she is from Northern Ireland and we are what we call thran, an Ulster Scots word that means we will stand firm, irrationally if need be. She grew up in a conservative Church so maybe that has helped her thranness! Whatever, she will not budge in her bigoted prejudice against anyone who dares sing Bob songs other than Bob!

Now, there are rational reasons to not like covers of Dylan. Lesley’s evidence of Cliff Richard and The Nolans singing Blowing In The Wind via YouTube was a strong argument. Others have taken the attitude, punk and protest out of our Nobel prizewinning genius’s work for sure.

You see there is something about the terrain of a Bob Dylan song. The road of his rhythms and preposterously brilliant rhymes is never the smooth surface of a German autobahn. There is unique eccentricity to his craft. A voice that is smooth, even if fantastically good, can glide over the nuanced bumps and gaps, losing the grit and grime of the poet’s earthy realities. Cliff and The Nolans can just never work!

Chris Taylor really really works. Why I am setting this record up as one of the best ever Bob Dylan covers albums is because the voice and the artist that is Chris Taylor perfectly fits such an ambitious project. His voice has a strong rough hue that makes traction in Dylan’s quirks. That gives him the sensitivity to eek out the yearning and deep soul searching going on.

He chooses fascinating songs too. The opening What Was It You Wanted hooks you in. Taylor allows you to get caught with the brawn of the conversation immediately. Times Have Changed - oh my! The psychedelic guitar rage of The Ballad of Hollis Brown - phew! Blind Willie McTell is ghostly. The Man In The Long Black Coat is chilling storytelling. Pressing On has the spiritual resilience of a pilgrim weary but keeping on.

As a collection it is captivating. You cannot turn it off or skip tracks. Only nine songs and questions need asked about another volume but Chris Taylor has taken his favourite songs from his favourite songwriter and created the most artistically satisfying Dylan covers record that I have ever heard… and one of my records of the year! Lesley... only irrational thranness can keep you away!


DUKE SPECIAL - HALLOW

Duke Hallow

In a concert at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, earlier this year, Duke Special told us that he was writing an album of songs based on the Irish poet Michael Longley who was sitting in the front row of the said show. Quite a task and, as he proceeded to sing Lena, I remember thinking what must he be thinking as Longley listened and what Longley was thinking too. You need some nerve to mess with the sacred writing of a poet as revered as Michael Longley.

We shouldn’t be surprised at Mr Special taking on poems. He has written to plays and novels and my very favourite record of his is Under A Dark Cloth inspired by photographs. Indeed, on that record he worked with another Irish poet, Pádriag Ó Tuama. No, the Duke is a renaissance man musician, recent Artist in Residence at the Lyric Theatre and teaching songwriting at Queens University.

In the end Longley’s work suits Duke Special perfectly. It is the most successful poetry turned songs collaboration that there is. It is lyrical, it is full of images and asks some metaphysical questions. The opening Another Wren seeks “whatever the key in which God exists’ and on A Questionnaire For Walter Mitty my favourite lines:

 

“And Walter Mitty how would you define

The water walker who made the water wine
Was it Christ the God

Was it Christ the man?”

 

As well at the spiritual questioning and probing, that has been a recurring theme in Duke Special’s work, there are the characters, brothers, granddaughters and the aforementioned Lena Hardy.

Very best of all, and most moving, is The Ice-Cream Man about John Larmour who was looking after his brother’s ice cream shop, Barnum’s on the Lisburn Road, when he was shot dead. On this track, Longley reads the poem himself and then talks about getting a letter from the Ice Cream Man’s Mother and how it was one of his most treasured possessions. the power of the poem and the appreciation of the poet when he captures it is all in there in a cathartic poem about our Northern Irish Troubles.

If you want a wee bit more thought and literary brilliance with your music, then the Duke Special/Michael Longley collaboration is just for you! 


NEIL FINN - OUT OF SILENCE

Neil Finn Out Of Silence

Neil Finn, New Zealand’s favourite song making son has never made the same record twice. Whether with Split Enz or Crowded House or with his brother Tim as The Finn Brothers, with his wife Sharon on Pyjama Club, on his own or with a myriad of collaborators on 7 Worlds Collide, his natural McCartney-like melody making has been given a plethora of forms.

After his last solo record, the full out and rocking Dizzy Heights, here is a quiet collection of songs. The creation of the record was live streamed to fans and the recordings made in a very short period of hours. Yet, don’t think it might be any less meticulous. These are not demoes or unplugged. These songs are tenderly layered with strings and harmonies. It is beguiling and very beautiful. I was suggest Finn’s most beautiful record to date.

Finn’s lyrics are full of images and intrigue that are often times more cryptic than quotable. The recurring theme on this record is uncertainty. In the emotional love of the heart and on the streets of a world where music fans are targeted by terrorists it seems to Finn that God is rolling dice with us. I think the latter is a in image of the uncertainty more than it is a theological surmise. 

Whatever the injustices personal and societal there is a hopefulness in the last few lines:

 

“And I’ll stay with you, if you’ll let me

And the whole world, can forget me

I know that, we came closer

To believing, that we’re through

I know different.”

 

Out of Silence is quiet and reflective catharsis in a world that loud and bright and brash and beating us all up. To lie back in these layered quiet melodies can only be a helpful retreat. Let the beauty heal, orientate and give hope.