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December 2007

A promise kept

Promises made and all that. I said I would have no hesitation in amending my Best Albums of 2007 list if late arrivals inspired a change of heart and as you will have guessed from the most recent postings, that change has occurred.

Salut! Live feels dutybound to find room in its wholly unofficial, unashamedly subjective year-end chart.

There was one problem: what to exclude from the original list to make room for two of the latecomers. And there was also a solution, a clumsy one and a cop-out but a solution nonetheless. My top 10 remains my top 10, but there are now three joint No 10s. This is slightly unfair on the add-ons, both of which in an ideal world would have occupied higher places. I simply did not want to drop any of the starting line-up.

Plenty of you will still disagree with me. That is what such lists are for, to stimulate dicussion or at least thought. I will look back over the comments posted in recent weeks to decide whether I owe anyone a competition prize but in the meantime wish a very merry Christmas to you all.

Continue reading "A promise kept" »

The albums Salut! Live overlooked (3)

Delayed by the demands of a day-time job, accommodation hunting beneath the Arabian sun and playing with a new blog - go there only if the North East of England interests you - Salut! Live has taken its time to complete this series.

But here goes with the remaining reviews of albums brought to my attention by the recent thread I opened at Mudcat.

Duncan McFarlane Band All Rogues and Villains (Dunxmusic)

Sometimes an album is so impenetrable on first acquaintance that repeated hearings, a non-negotiable part of the fair-minded reviewer's duty, become a dreaded chore. Then there are the ones you want to go back to again and again even when you know you should be listening to something else. All Rogues and Villains falls squarely into the second category. Records are good for all sorts of reasons; this one is especially good because everything that is going on strikes just the right note. McFarlane's lead vocals, a combination of qualities that can be very roughly placed somewhere between Robb Johnson and the Oysterband's John Jones*, are perfectly suited to the task. The arrangements are flawless. And from the opening track Botany Bay onwards, the choice of material achieves a splendid balance of vigour, melody and pace. Usually a sucker for a strong female singer in any folk-rock band, I found myself unjustifiably irritated when the fiddler Anne Brivonese popped up as lead vocalist. The annoyance had nothing to do with any shortcomings on her part; I justed wanted more of McFarlane. Great stuff, straight to the top of the Salut! Live Overlooked chart.

Studio credits; Duncan McFarlan (lead & backing vocals, acoustic guitars, bass guitar, cittern, electric guitar); Tony Rogerson (bass guitar); Nick Pepper (drums); Anne Brivonese (fiddle, lead & backing vocals); Steve Fairholme (melodeon, backing vocals); Geoff Taylor (electric guitar, cittern, mandolin); Matt Peel/Duncan McFarlane Band (producers).

Wendy Arrowsmith Now Then? (Arrowsmith Music)

Far from impenetrable, Now Then? nevertheless required that extra attention described above. Wendy Arrowsmith came so highly recommended that I was perhaps expecting too much too soon. The effort, I am glad to say, has been worthwhile. I have conquered initial doubts about the quality of the recording and gradually warmed to the vocal texture.
So now that I've found her, what works best? Without hesitation, the answer - for this reviewer - is the outstanding batch of traditional songs. The Great Silkie, MacPherson's Farewell and Smile In Your Sleep are all familiar from early folk club experiences, and she does them full justice. Not all of her own compositions made quite the same impact, though I was greatly impressed by her Iraq war lament To Be A Soldier, an intriguingly different look at slavery (Skipio) and a spot-on reminder (Are We Nearly There Yet?) for all parents who have undertaken long car journeys en famille .
Perhaps as a function of being thousands of miles from Wendy's Scottish roots and present North Yorkshire home, I have a suspicion that she is best encountered in live performance, and it is difficult to imagine anything other than pleasure from an evening spent listening to her. The worst that can be said about the album is that while it is excellent in parts, she probably has a better one in her.

Studio credits: Wendy Arrowsmith (vocals, guitar, whistles, mandolin, co-producer); Paul Arrowsmith (banjo, backing vocals); Jon Bunce (fiddle); Liam Haicead (Uillean pipes); Rod Baxter (backing vocals, co-producer).

* Apologies to John Jones and Ian Telfer, who initially merged as Ian Jones in this review. Sloppy error, rectified after sharp rebuke from Angela at talkAwhile

The albums Salut! Live overlooked (2)


Steve Ashley Time and Tide (Topic)

I am indebted to Steve himself for the time he put into ensuring that I heard what he believes to be his finest album to date. It had been inadvertently left behind when I started the complicated series of moves that led me to Abu Dhabi. Happily, a spare copy was waiting when I briefly popped back to the UK.

Ashley will not complain if I say that his work is unlikely to find a slot on the Easy Listening shelves. These are, for the most part, serious songs and they require close attention. But the effort is repaid over and again; Ashley is strong on environmental issues, and also displays plenty of joined-up thinking on war (Still Waiting and Ships of Shame).
There isn't a better song on the album than Down the Line, the story of Ashley's grandfather, a railway signalman killed on the line all of 87 years ago. But you will struggle to find a weak link anywhere on this impressive, thoughtful and musically literate record.

* Studio credits: Steve Ashley (
vocals, acoustic guitars, mouth organ, drum, bells, whistles, producer); Dik Cadbury (bass, five-string fretless, keyboard, percussion, backing vocals, engineering, mix down); Robert Kirby (orchestration); Chris Leslie (fiddle, mandolin); Paul Manning (piano accordion); Simon Nicol (guitar); Dave Pegg (bass guitar, mandolin); Tommy Scott (piano, drums, keyboard, engineering); Martin Mitchell (engineering, final mix down, mastering); Staccato Strings (violins, viola, cello); Steve Trigg (trumpets); Robin Williamson (harp); John Wilshaw (hurdy gurdy).

Ruth Notman Threads (Mrs Casey Records)

The name of Ruth Notman entered my consciousness during conversations with Kate Rusby for articles posted at Salut! Live and her own website. A recommendation from her carries a lot of weight in these parts, but since she'd also praised Ronan Keating when we spoke, I wondered whether the phrase "fantasic, really special" might turn out to be an exaggeration of the Nottingham teenager's talents.

It was not. Threads presents conclusive proof of the health of British folk; it is packed with more maturity and style than could reasonably be expected from a girl of 18. The singing, acccompanied by Notman on guitar, piano and harp and supported by a strong studio team*, is pure and instantly attractive, with a slight tremolo providing a charmingly individualistic touch. If a quick look at the track listing raises doubts about the need for yet more versions of Dougie MacLean's Caledonia and the Richard Thompson classic Farewell Farewell, the delivery is powerful enough to make both worthy inclusions. Notman's respect for her key inspirations - notably Nic Jones, Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy and June Tabor - is evident throughout a stunning debut.

* Studio credits: Saul Rose (melodeon); Hannah Edmonds (cello); Roger Wilson (fiddle); Bella Hardy (vocal harmony); Ich Mowatt (guitar, banjo, keyboards, bass, co-producer); Joe Heap (drums, co-producer); Jim Walker (fiddle); Danny Hughes (guitar); Rachel Doherty, Elizabeth Foan, Bethany Mofat and Amy Periam (choral voices).

**** Reviews of Wendy Arrowsmith and the Duncan McFarlane Band to come****

The albums Salut! Live overlooked (1)


When I alerted readers of the Mudcat folk forum to my highly personal list of the best folk CDs of 2007, I was introduced by some of the replies to a number of excellent albums that might otherwise have escaped attention.

One of the artists mentioned in the thread was Duncan McFarlane, pictured here with his band. Subsequently, I received a perfectly reasonable response from him, asking how many records I had actually heard during the year and what criteria guided my choice of CDs to be evaluated.

The answer, during an interesting exchange, was essentially a reiteration of the nature of the "best of 2007" project, namely that I am a fan who happens to have a platform. Whether I offer criticism or praise, my opinion is not necessarily any more valuable than that of any other listener.

How many albums do I get to hear in a year? Well, even when I was working as a professional critic, it was only a part-time commitment and I had to rely on the albums sent to me by record companies, agents, public relations people or the artists themselves.

Rightly or wrongly, I felt I was well enough known as a folk writer to expect people involved in the music to work out that it was probably worth sending review copies my way.

Living in France, as I did until recently, I was perhaps even more dependent on those contacts than when I was still in the UK. But my list was never intended, in any case, to be more than a guide to one man's preferences.

Fortunately, I am now fully acquainted with the 2007 albums by Duncan McFarlane's band, Ruth Notman (who was first mentioned to me by Kate Rusby), Wendy Arrowsmith and Steve Ashley.

My reviews have been delayed by my recent holiday and return to work last week in the Middle East, but will appear - in two parts - at Salut! Live before this weekend is out. Inshallah.