We’ve had a few opportunities in 2023 to join Brian Player in the Wey Valley Radio studios for his Acoustic Cafe Radio Show (broadcast live on https://weyvalleyradio.uk/radioplayer/, Tuesdays, 8-10 pm, and available afterwards on Mixcloud). Brian always gives out ‘homework’ to his studio guests in the form of a newly released album to review and we weren’t spared. Although we’re complete novices at this, it turned out to be a very enjoyable sort of homework and introduced us to some new artists. So thank you Brian for letting us have a go.
Here are the transcripts of our reviews and we will add more as we do them here.
Fìrinn - The Long Lunch - a shot of the musical equivalent of sunshine! (New - broadcast 6 Feb 2024)
Simon Mayor - Carolan - a wonderful showcase of Simon’s expressive playing.
Gnoss - Stretching Skyward - not only is it a great listen, it is also a good read!
RURA - Dusk Moon - RURA should get paid a commission by the Boat of Garten Tourist Board.
Amy Thatcher and Francesca Knowles - Emergency of the Female Kind - A surprising, joyful and thought-provoking album.
Support the artists, not Spotify! We've included a link to the recommended track on each band's Bandcamp page where available. Please support these artists by buying their music and going to their gigs. Spotify might be good for listeners but it's rubbish for the musicians.
Fìrinn - The Long Lunch
Over the bleak, dark days of a British winter, checking in on the Australian Summer folk festival circuit can be a real tonic. So it was a welcome surprise when an album from Fìrinn, a five-person neotrad Celtic band based in Sydney, dropped into my inbox.
Tom Morris, the band’s electric bagpipe player, tells me that they have played all the big festivals in Australia. Setting out from Marrickville - which Time Out ranked the second coolest neighbourhood in Australia in 2022, Firinn went forth to entertain the crowds with their rock-infused Celtic music. But what sets this band apart are the different cultural influences that they have brought together, with Highland Scots, Coptic Egyptian and Tamil Sri Lankan in the mix.
The album opens with a couple of sets of traditional and original reels to get you on your feet, but perhaps not at the crazy frenetic pace that I’m more familiar with from Northern hemisphere bands. A harmonium provides a rolling drone, almost like a string section, and there is also a subtle layering of electric guitar. It’s a good trick of light and shade, because when the bagpipes and drums kick in you’re immediately lifted by the shift of energy.
After the first two thumping tracks, the third Out of the Air / Organic Ross opens with some earthy percussion before switching to a full-on rocking back beat as the band goes into the second tune. The tempo comes down for the title track The Long Lunch. It’s a beautifully languid piece, one of their own compositions, which conveys the vibe of a lazy afternoon sharing a meal with friends. More rocking reels and a set of jigs follow before things calm down with a little gem of a tune, Hazel’s Tune, that almost takes flight at the end of the album.
I liked the crisp, clean sound that Firinn creates with each instrument playing a distinct and discernible role. The original tunes fit well with the traditional stuff and if you have a look on the band’s website, firinnmusic.net, you will find the dots of their compositions, which is a really nice touch.
At under 25 minutes long, there is just enough of the character of the band in here to give you a sense of what they are about.
So thanks to Fìrinn for a shot of the musical equivalent of sunshine here in gloomy Britain. I can feel my Vitamin D levels rising!!
Recommended track: Smelling Fresh / Aye Right
Simon Mayor - Carolan
Fantasias on themes by Turlough O’Carolan
Anyone who plays traditional music will most likely have at least a handful of O’Carolan tunes in their repertoire. And there are many familiar tunes in this album, including Princess Royal, which although it may not have been written by O’Carolan, was very much on his set list. What I didn’t realise was that before it was ‘majorised’ and adopted as the national anthem of Morris dancers, Princess Royal was found in Scottish tune collections.
So much for the tune nerdery! I was really looking forward to hearing Simon Mayor’s own interpretations and arrangements of these much loved tunes.
A quick scan down the track list and the first thing I noticed is that Simon is credited with at least 2 instruments on every track bar one. Although he had the wonderful assistance of Florence Petit on cello and Hilary James on basses and vocals, it must have been quite a task to use all the instruments he played, including violin, viola, guitar and all sizes of mandolins, on this multi-track recording.
The album opens with a joyful, quick waltz on fiddle accompanied by guitars and mandolins. Like many Carolan tunes, it was simply named after a patron, in this case, a guy called Hewlett. The fuller title of the tune is “Fine Toast to Hewlett’s Health”, and I thought Simon turned what was characterised as a ‘bawdy drinking song’ into a rather refined, and beautifully performed piece.
Princess Royal follows at a nice high tempo. The variations he played so crisply on the mandolin brought a smile to my face. Perhaps I was also thinking of the red faces of Morris dancers that would have resulted if they tried to dance along to this!
The Snowy-breasted Pearl is the only song on the album and a real highlight with the brilliant clear voice of Hilary James shining through.
Simon’s solo guitar version of Carolan’s Dream deserves a special mention. This more reflective interpretation of one of Carolan’s favourite pieces is a lovely contrast to the preceding track, a multilayered arrangement of the session favourite Si Bheag Si Mhor, in which Simon plays 6 instruments.
At the end of the album, Carolan’s Dream is reprised as an arrangement for a string quartet. It brought to my mind the wonderful Woodworks album of Scandi folk tunes by the Danish String Quartet (who happen to be one of my obsessions).
If I had to pick a favourite track from Carolan, it would be Dolly MacDonough. This slower piece is a wonderful showcase of Simon’s expressive mandolin and guitar playing with a simple but beautiful cello accompaniment from Florence.
I absolutely loved the folk-classical fusion of Simon’s album. It is a masterpiece that will appeal to instrumental music fans who like their trad embellished with Baroque.
Favourite track: Dolly MacDonough (sample on Acoustic Records)
Gnoss - Stretching Skyward
Gnoss is a band that found their own sound very early on in their formation. They are a product of that wonderful hothouse for trad music, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Aidan Moodie, Graham Rorie, Connor Sinclair and Craig Baxter have all flourished in Glasgow and are all involved in a number of projects. But when they come together as Gnoss, they stand out for the intelligence they bring to creating new material.
The first thing that struck me on their latest album is that not only is it a great listen, it is also a good read! Each track has a story about change that inspired the music. And the theme of change is the thread that pulls this album together.
Instead of going through each track in sequence, I’m going to go straight to my favourite, a song called Honey Wine. It raises the issue of injustice faced by the Nawken, an indigenous traveller community, who have ranged across Scotland since the 9th century. The song is written by Aidan Moodie and has a line in the second verse so powerful and perfectly formed it brought tears to my eyes.
I got to see Aidan perform solo at the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition this February in Glasgow. He said he entered the competition for the first time because he thought he might now have something to offer as a solo artist. Well, he certainly is worth following closely if he can write lyrics like that!
All except one song on this album were written by members of the band. They have taken inspiration from places where they grew up, places with a rich history of Norse sagas, folk tales, shipwrecks and displaced communities. Every track has an interesting or thought-provoking story behind it, equally matched by a gorgeous soundscape of compelling lyrics and great tunes. There are electric guitars and synths layered on acoustic instruments. Coupled with strong lead vocals from Aidan, this is a lovely feast for the ears.
If you like Celtic music delivered by a group of consummate musicians, you will enjoy this album. But it’s worth getting a little bit deeper into each track by reading the stories in the booklet.
So find yourself a cosy corner, pour yourself a dram, pop your headphones on and let Gnoss take you on a journey of discovery.
Recommended track: Honey Wine
RURA - Dusk Moon
RURA is a band that I can listen to on repeat play for hours. And I have taken their latest album, Dusk Moon, with me on several long journeys over the past few weeks. Steven Blake, Adam Brown, David Foley and Jack Smedley are all exquisite musicians, and they have the ability to take my mind to wonderful places. Listening to RURA always seems to make the trip go much easier.
The album opens with an epic piece with a gorgeous swirling melody on flute, pipes and fiddle, which Steven Blake wrote as the soundtrack for a short film. Called Journey Home, it’s a fitting overture for an album full of tunes that give the listener a sense of the places, people and events that mean something special to the band.
I thought the first half had several really beautiful uplifting tracks, particularly “Think of Today”, which Jack wrote for his wife Fiona, and “The Soft Mist Over All”, a wedding gift from Dave Foley to his great friends.
The tempo rises after this and we’re taken on an alcohol-and-adrenaline fuelled trip with the band, visiting one of Adam’s favourite Glasgow haunts, riding in a rib with Jack on a treacherous sea crossing, just to get to a gig, and, staying on a nautical theme, stopping off at a village called Boat!
It seems that most of the album’s tracks were arranged while the band was staying in Boat of Garten, a village in the Cairngorms. The seventh track “Hollow Ground” was inspired by walks in the forests surrounding the village. And the final tune of the final track is named after the place.
After listening to this album, I’ve put Boat of Garten on my must-visit list. I hope you will give it a listen and plan your trip there too! And perhaps RURA should get paid a commission by the Boat of Garten Tourist Board!
So take Dusk Moon with you on your next road trip and lose yourself in the Scottish Highlands to my recommended track, Hollow Ground.
Amy Thatcher and Francesca Knowles - Emergency of the Female Kind
Every track on the debut album, Emergency of the Female Kind, by Newcastle duo Amy Thatcher and Francesca Knowles grabbed my attention. The first thing that struck me when I played it was the sheer musical talent of this pair, both as instrumentalists and as vocalists. I did seek out videos of their live performances to see just how two people can create such a richly varied sound.
The magazine MOJO described Amy and Francesca as a “folkie White Stripes”, and yes, Francesca’s drumming does give them an edgy, contemporary sound. And there are discernible folk influences woven through the album too, especially in the 3 songs. Your listeners may know Amy Thatcher’s other music projects, which include playing with Kathryn Tickell, The Shee and Monster Ceilidh Band. But what was so arresting about their music is that it is unashamedly genre-defying. Jazz funk rhythms, beautifully touching ballads, hard rocking instrumentals, and inspiring songwriting fuse together brilliantly because they are executed with such skill. A surprising, joyful and thought-provoking album.
Favourite track, instrumental : A Little More Compassion