This week sees new releases from Joan Armatrading, Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party, Royal Southern Brotherhood and the Malawi Mouse Boys.
Joan Armatrading – Starlight (Hypertension)
This is Joan’s 20th album in a recording career spanning 40 years and Starlight continues to ring the stylistic changes, that have recently led to Joan being the first female UK artist to debut at number one in the US blues charts, also picking up a Grammy nod for Into The Blues. This time she turns her attention to jazz and although a jazzy-lilt was felt as early as her breakthrough single Love And Affection, she isn’t simply revisiting familiar turf and dropping into a comfort zone. Expansive playing (all Joan) and tricky time signatures abound.
Still certain Armatrading signatures are immediately recognisable, her voice for one, which if anything seems to get better, not that she’s ever struggled as a singer. Then there’s the lyrically rewarding content as she has a knack for making maximum emotional contact by picking fine details. The opener, Single Life, finds her exploring the duality of living alone, the freedom to just be yourself against the solitary need for companionship. Close To Me suggests a companion has been found, but it’s not so simple and all of love’s complexity seems to be wrought through these songs, hope, doubt, jealousy, infatuation and passion. [Reviewed by Simon]
Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party – Orfeo (Topic)
Featuring a stellar line-up of Jon Boden, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron, Andy Cutting and special guest Martin Simpson, Fay Hield’s band The Hurricane Party deliver spirited playing and singing for her second album Orfeo. Fay’s matured into a fine singer since her acclaimed debut Looking Glass and regular gigging with her fellow musicians is evident in the tightly honed arrangements and flawless vocals here.
Stitching together stories and tunes from folk song books, old manuscripts, recordings of Anne Briggs and Frankie Armstrong and the collections of Peter Kennedy and Iona & Peter Opie, as well as writing new tunes and tweaking the old to fit the new, Fay and her band have put together a striking collection of songs. The album’s rich in imagery and folklore, from the story of American Timothy Myrick of Springfield Mountain, who was bitten by a rattle snake in 1761 and died along with his wife-to-be who tried to suck out the poison with a rotten tooth (Wicked Serpent), to the “medieval retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice… mixing Greek myth and Celtic mythology” in the 26-verse ballad Sir Orfeo.
There’s plenty of variety in the arrangements too: interweaving banjo, fiddle and accordion drive the opening Lover’s Ghost, the beautifully understated arrangements on Henry provide the perfect setting for this deeply moving tale, while the band’s harmony vocals on Pretty Nancy are a delight. Orfeo‘s a hugely impressive follow-up to her debut, revealing the depth and breadth of Fay’s talents as a singer and song interpreter. [Reviewed by Sofi]
Royal Southern Brotherhood – Royal Southern Brotherhood (Ruf Records)
The headlines will doubtless write themselves as two of the US Sooth’s greatest musical dynasties, the Allmans and the Nevilles are brought together. In this case it’s Devon and Cyril, fronting the Royal Southern Brotherhood, with guitarist Mike Zito (a lesser known name in the UK, but clearly not here just to make up the numbers) and a rhythm section of Charlie Wooton and Yonrico Scott. The Zito/Neville penned New Horizon opens and sets out the agenda as Cyril sings “We’re the light at the tunnel’s end, with us is where the future begins,” over a brooding, funky blues that allows both guitar slingers to, er(!), sling. Bassist Wooton contributes to the Latin-tinged Fired Up, while Devon seems to be on the money with the soulful, country-blues tinged Left My Heart In Memphis, to which Wooton adds a surprising and effective fretless bassline.
Moonlight Over Mississippi and The Dead’s Fire In The Mountain slink into classic Little Feat territory, with the rolling gait of the latter embellished with some tasty slide, bringing some preposterous air-conga-ing and serious hip wiggling from your critic. Gotta Keep Rockin’ is slow and moody southern rock turned up to 11. Storming stuff! [Reviewed by Simon]
Malawi Mouse Boys – He is #1 (IRL)
Let’s get the back story (which every credible ‘world music’ act has to have) out the way first, and then we can get down to the more relevant matter of the music. The band get their name from the fact that they sell mice on sticks (presumably nicely seasoned and then barbequed) to people who pass by their village. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries in the world and so entrepreneurial ingenuity of this kind is just a fact of life. But back story or not, the album they’ve made with Tinariwen’s most recent producer Ian Brennan is a vibrant, moving experience in which powerful vocal harmonies, reminiscent of those heard in South African township jazz, are set against the loose metallic rattle of vigorously strummed home-made guitars (another example of the make-do ingenuity of these young kids) and wonderfully casual hand claps. But the thrilling rawness of the sound cannot disguise the yearning melodies which exude the hope and optimism you need to survive in an environment like this. This album is both a balm to the soul and a stimulant to the feet.
[Reviewed by Howard Male]