Music Reviews, Reg Meuross

Reg Meuross – England Green And England Grey

On England Green And Grey Reg Meuross has put together a full band line-up including long term collaborators Jess Vincent (vocals) and Roy Dodds on drums and percussion. This is the satisfying sound of a group of musicians very much on the same wavelength, presenting a collection of songs that vary in style yet fit and belong together like the many and varied elements of a bespoke suit.

The opening three tracks set the tone of the album in that they relate aspects of England old and new in terms of both regret and celebration. Firstly, “What would William Morris say, if he could see England today?”, Meuross asks. The answer while not explicit is implied in a lyric describing the replacement of pianos in pubs with karaoke machines and the disappearance of farms to make way for big industry’s warehouses. The current trend towards mass disenchantment with politics (perhaps it was ever thus?) is encapsulated in the line, “Liars all speak politics with poison on their tongues”.

Balancing this take on the decline of communal culture and the lack of esteem in which politicians are held today is “Tony Benn’s Tribute To Emily Davison”, in which the writer’s admiration for these two pioneers of English society in the century just gone is evident. The swishy pitter-patter of brushes on drums and a piano picking its way lightly forward recreate the furtive movements of the suffragette as she crept through the Palace of Westminster to protest in support of universal suffrage by taking up residence in a broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census in that House which back then admitted no female representation either in person or in votes.
Meuross is, like Ray Davies, a perceptive chronicler of the moments, events and characters who conspire to shape the great sweep of England’s social and cultural history. England Green And England Grey’s title track, for instance, could be put to work by innovative teachers up and down the land in the service of sparking debate among and firing the interest of drowsy teenagers who would otherwise be snoozing through their dull, dank Monday afternoon history class. Coincidentally, the writer’s soft, clear voice sounds not at all dissimilar to the that of the Kink as observations such as “Austerity and slavery – I thought they were behind us” trip off his tongue.
The music takes on an American, countryish sound for the middle chunk of the album. Given the influence that the States have had on English culture – music in particular – over the last sixty years and more, this is pleasingly apt. There’s the magically evocative tale of a traveller whose “future lies in ribbons of river, rail and road”, which with Mike Cosgrave’s piano bass notes rumbling forebodingly beneath warm layers of vocals and Phil Henry’s lush dobro, feels every bit like the latest incarnation of Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson’s Highwayman.
Many’s the album that peters out with a few weaker songs towards the end. In the case of this one, though, the quality remains staggeringly high throughout and the emotional highlight arrives on the tenth track. The Band Played Sweet Marie is a touching, heartbreaking song imagining the thoughts and feelings of Maria Robinson, whose fiancée Wallace Hartley was one of the 1,500 people who drowned in the North Atlantic’s icy water when the Titanic went down. Hartley, the ship’s bandleader, had been given a violin  – engraved, as an engagement gift – by Maria, which was later found and returned to her in its leather bag that it’s thought he strapped to himself in his final moments. This beautiful, tender love song imagines and captures Maria’s almost unbearable sadness, and with it therefore the devastating sense of loss that thousands suffered following the ship’s demise. “Every note my darling played took further away my love from me.”
See the title track’s video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdewAuU3nMc
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Kelly Oliver, Music Reviews

Kelly Oliver – Far From Home EP

In Kelly Oliver the British folk music scene is witnessing the emergence of a bright new star. What a coup it is for the new independent label Folkstock Records to have her debut EP as its first release. In turn the Folkstock label, known predominantly for its support of emerging singer-songwriters, is the perfect home for Kelly in the early stages of what Far From Home indicates will be a long and sparkling career.

Kelly’s mature voice belies her young age. The natural melancholy in it is well suited to the title track, a song about a seemingly doomed love affair but which leaves the door slightly ajar for fans of a happy ending. “He was always far from home, but he knew he’d always come home”. Her singing bears favourable comparison with Joan Baez, rising to land on higher notes with ease and unerring accuracy. When she holds long notes the effect is as fresh and vibrant as a warm summer breeze.

Far From Home leads into Keilan Are You Coming, an upbeat track dipping a toe into folk-rock territory. The subject of the song is a boy in a shanty town. The singer of the tale is invited into the boy’s mother’s threadbare home to eat. What happened before and what happen after are left to the listener’s imagination. This is artistry at it’s best – like a good play or film it makes you think. That’s often everything an artist hopes to achieve. Mission accomplished.

The EP’s closing track, Brazil Song, has much in common with Keilan Are You Coming in that it’s likely a postcard from time spent travelling. This one (well timed in World Cup year) records the writer’s experience of the first and developing worlds meeting and the contrast is startling: “You know great, I’ll show you small. You know wealth, I’ll show you poor.”

Grandpa Was A Stoker sounds like in time it will come to be seen as the EP’s highlight. It does one of the things that folk songs that stand the test of time often do – it tells a story that can be passed on to future generations – a story that might be lost forever were it not recorded in this way. As such it can be a valuable source of material for social historians. This song vividly describes the travails of a ship’s stoker who endures back breaking, mind bending toil to provide for his loved ones, and so as the ship can sail. It showcases Kelly’s guitar playing, harmonica and vocal skills. Her voice is softly and enigmatically accented into a smooth blend that sounds neither entirely British, Irish or American – more all three at once – like Judy Collins for instance. As she sings she picks out a counter melody on the guitar which adds an extra layer of depth to an otherwise stripped back sound. The song progresses into a Donovan’s Catch The Wind style strummed rhythm and takes in some tidy harmonica too. All the elements are tied together and balanced beautifully by the other youthful individual involved in this recording, producer-engineer Lauren Deakin Davies (also of the folk-pop group Delora).

Folk music needs artists like Kelly Oliver. She’s one of a new breed of young singer-songwriters who take their influences from the folk greats of old, like Bob Dylan and Luke Kelly. Most importantly, she’s injecting new material into a genre which, perhaps more than any other, needs constant renewal and development to survive.

I fully expect Kelly to be receiving nominations and picking up gongs for Best Newcomer, if not Best Vocalist and Best Song/EP outright, when the awards season returns at the end of the year.

Far From Home is available to hear and buy now: http://folkstockrecords.bandcamp.com/album/far-from-home
It will also be released on iTunes and Amazon on 14th February 2014.

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Music Reviews, St AlbanDs

St AlbanDs vol.3: Minnie Birch, Indi Forde & The Vegas, Starseedz

MINNIE BIRCH

Understated, delicate, sensitive. This is Minnie Birch’s style. She lays bare her feelings on matters of
the heart with the sparsest of musical accompaniment – rarely more than gentle acoustic guitar, occasionally individual piano notes dropping like splashes of colour onto an almost blank canvas.
It’s said that it’s the space between the notes that makes the music and Minnie’s use of it gives an unnervingly intense quality to her sound. Conor O’Brien (Villagers) comes to mind as an example of this type of hypnotic
music that captures your attention precisely because it isn’t screaming for it. Minnie’s recordings draw you in completely if you will but let them.

Her live shows are no different. Rare is the performer who can hush a festival tent without raising her voice above the crowd – but Birch’s aura and the gentle power of her pure voice and personal lyrics turn heads without the need for anybody to go “ssshh”.
Recommended listening is Sea Shanty and Fight Song from Minnie’s Settled EP, produced by George Shilling whose sound engineering credits include Billy Bragg, Teenage Fanclub, Texas, The Corrs and many, many more.
Also check out Glitter, Minnie’s new video single.

On Saturday 18th January Minnie Birch will play a FREE entry gig with donations welcome to help raise funds for Watford Hospital Radio. The event is at Watford Museum 194 High Street Watford Herts WD17 2DT.

http://minniebirch.bandcamp.com/

INDI FORDE & THE VEGAS

It’s no overstatement to say this band’s debut ep, Fair Fight, is brilliant. You could listen to the radio all day and not hear anything as hot as this. There’s a tension running through each song – the urge to rock. The band satisfies this desire excitingly without fail, lurching into Museisms of riffery with the bass and drums free to wander and thrash until satiated. It’s all done in the best possible taste, the band never straying into indulgent territory. All their songs stay on target with choruses as their focus and admirable brevity in the face of the ever present temptation to go off piste. Prog/rock and metal influences are channelled into short, snappy, thrilling portions of radio friendly guitar pop. An extra funky Sterophonics might be a reasonable comparison.

Indi Forde has those qualities people speak of when discussing Jimi Hendrix – in admiring his original, natural, skilful guitar parts it’s easily overlooked that here too is a vocalist of the highest order. Power, energy, subtlety, unpredictabilty and innate musicality combine to produce a singer with a voice that’s gold dust in pop – you know who it is within an instant of hearing him.

Indi Forde & The Vegas will play The Live Music Project on Saturday 25th January 2014 at Trestle Arts Base, St Albans. Free entry, doors open 7.30pm

http://indiandthevegas.bandcamp.com/album/fair-fight

STARSEEDZ

In the month during which we lost Phil Everly it’s worth reaffirming just how good it is to hear voices singing in perfect harmony. Even more so, perhaps, when it’s a male/female blend such as that of Starseedz who remind me of St Etienne and Dubstar in their pomp.

This duo has a delightful sound, easy on the ear, enthralling and very much the kind of thing we should be hearing day in, day out on BBC Radio 2 or Magic FM, say. It’s atmospheric in a summery way. Listening to Starseedz is like opening the curtains on a July morning and letting the sun in. Their sound is light, bouncy, soft, bright. The lead vocals are shared by songwriters Catrine O’Neill and Jonothan Willoughby, which makes for good variety. Their voices are matched incredibly well and like Lineker and Beardsley (outdated football reference – sorry) the pair have an obvious understanding of how they play off each other to great effect.

Starseedz’ songs and recordings are easily radio quality and it’s a minor outrage that none of their material is available on iTunes or similar yet. Can’t be long now though, it’s to be hoped.

Starseedz will play The Live Music Project on Saturday 25th January 2014 at Trestle Arts Base, St Albans. Free entry, doors open 7.30pm

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Music Reviews

Never Die, by Campbell Young

Pop music’s early purveyors hoped they’d die before they got old. Later generations realised happiness can exist beyond – in some cases only be experienced after – youth’s departure. Never Die is a prime example of this maturing of the 20th century’s favourite musical genre from adolescents’ rebellion into food for the soul of the modern adult.

Campbell Young is from Oklahoma via Kansas City. The lead track from his debut EP captures a moment in time that everyone feels, or certainly hopes to, at some point in their life. “My life is at the mercy of happiness, Where I’m seeing all the things that I used to miss. I know I’m so happy that I could cry – that I just hope that I never die.” In putting his epiphany down in song he gives the listener proof that joy is there for the taking once you see life clearly.

This recording is defiantly rough around the edges, as are heaps of Bob Dylan’s most affecting records. Ditto early Billy Bragg. There’s an exuberance in Never Die that hasn’t been lost to excessive overdubs or piecing together of different takes. On occasion Young’s vocal is double tracked. It lends a summeriness to his Billy Joe Armstrong style delivery that will extend its appeal beyond punkers. His willingness to let an “imperfect” guitar part remain is to be applauded, giving as it does charm and character similar to that which you hear in Nirvana’s Unplugged cover of The Man Who Sold The World (the bit when Kurt Cobain, beginning the instrumental outro, lands beautifully on a “wrong” note).

The only criticism I have of Never Die is that its intro lacks the dash of colour, and therefore individuality,
that a hook, riff, or any kind of noise – perhaps from Young’s voice – would add. That minor gripe aside, I can confirm Never Die is a worthy and life-affirming addition to pop’s canon.

The Campbell Young EP will be released on January 7th 2014.
Hear it (and pre order if you wish) at http://campbellyoung.bandcamp.com/

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Music Reviews, St AlbanDs

St AlbanDs vol.2: Tom Craven, Broken Boat, The Neverists

A shade apologetically Tom Craven says his repertoire contains “the inevitable acoustic stuff” – the consequence I imagine of his influences including Idlewild, Turin Brakes and Alanis Morrisette.

In so doing he reveals an awareness that mid-nineties britpop morphed into late-ninetiesbuskrock and spawned an ocean of earnest acoustic noodlers largely indistinguishable from one another among their six minute strumathons of morose introspection.

Happily for Mr Craven, advance apologies prove unwarranted. Of the material he’s made available to hear on Soundcloud, imho his most memorable set is 2010’s Ocean EP. Acoustic!

With one, sometimes two guitars as the sole backing for Craven’s vocals, his melodies and lyrics are laid bare to stand or fall on their own merit. They don’t fall.

Subject matter is varied and the tunes and voice are strong. The guitar playing is confident, assured and dynamic enough to hold the listener’s attention from start to finish – no mean feat on an all acoustic ep. You get urgency of sound and optimism of spirit in Heads Rule Hearts followed by their flipsides – a ballad of loss and despair that is A Last Time For Everything.

Then the track which has left the biggest impression on me – (Parisian) Trial By Fire. This compares well with some of the stuff James Dean Bradfield does on the Manics’ Everything Must Go album – I’m thinking in particular here of songs such as Removables and Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier.

It’s spiky, angry even, and its most memorable line describes a character in the song as being “likeshowrooms on the Champs Elysees – unnecessarily antisocial”. Good eh?

Tom Craven plays Trestle Arts Base on January 25th 2014.

https://soundcloud.com/tomcraven/parisian-trial-by-fire?in=tomcraven/sets/oceans

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Broken Boat

Rich layers of sweet sounding goodness await at http://www.brokenboat.co.uk/ Here you’ll find a sample of the music of St Albans and Harpenden’s Broken Boat.

Broken Boat’s sound brims over with a sunshine and joie de vivre that’s summed up in the refrain of “I’m aliiiive” towards the end of Small Defeats, the first of the two songs on their website sampler.

There’s Hammond organ throughout, a bit of jaunty brass (a real case of what’s-not-to-like?) and it’s a gift for any band to have the option, which this band does, of equally good male and female vocals.  Broken Boat make use of them to quite thrilling effect in the second song, Morning Rain.

Morning Rain is a duet, if you like, featuring these two components alternating the lead at first before joining on the melody in unison an octave apart and then together winding two distinctly separate yet entwined vocal lines. With accordian featuring strongly and a small dollop of brass again, this is a collage of a track that succeeds in delivering a wealth of audio colours and textures and, like Small Defeats, by its close has left you feeling  undeniably uplifted.

Accomplished folk-pop. https://soundcloud.com/brokenboat/sets/peace-and-quiet-sample

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The Neverists

The pang of unrequited love is apparent from the wistful beginning to the explosion of ache near the end The Best Thing I Never Had, one of a few tracks on Soundcloud by The Neverists, a band from Hertford, Stevenage and London who are recording an album as you read this.

If you’re in the “Radiohead’s music is depressing” camp, then read no further and listen no more to The Neverists, as there is some out and out misery set to music here. Gloriously and elegantly so.

The best songs often take human heartache and present it in such a way as to enthral, and I love how The Neverists do that on this track. Singer Simon Williams’ voice resonates in its mid to lower range a little like Brad Roberts (Crash Test Dummies).

On November In Brooklyn, Williams’ vocal shows itself capable of a more tender sound on higher notes, a tad like Semisonic’s Dan Wilson. In this song’s key words, “Time doesn’t heal, it just takes its toll” the Neverists’ outlook appears Beckettian in its bleakness but again their music takes sadness and transforms it into something beautiful. Can’t wait for the album.

https://soundcloud.com/the_neverists/the-neverists-november-in?in=the_neverists/sets/the-ones-the-world-forgot

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With thanks to Denise Parsons of Trestle Arts Base for introducing me to these new sounds.

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Trestle Theatre
Music Reviews, St AlbanDs

St AlbanDs vol.1: Nick & The Sun Machine, Chameleon Boy, The Tuesday Club

The town of St Albans is the hub of a growing live music community in Hertfordshire. In September the county hosted the Folkstock Acoustic Festival which brought 77 folk/roots/acoustic acts from the local area and as far afield as Orkney and Copenhagen to four stages in Aldenham Country Park. Back in St Albans Denise Parsons of Trestle Arts Base runs the volunteer led Live Music Project at The Trestle Theatre, bringing live original music into the area all year round. Each week three local acts perform in the theatre, giving them a high quality venue in which to showcase their music and local people pleasant surroundings in which to enjoy it. Denise sent me some music by three bands who have played at The Live Music Project.
The first act I listened to is Nick And The Sun Machine. This band is the sound of a free spirit in touch with its surroundings and with itself. From the opening lines of White Chalk, “High above the slopes we did climb, Drinking up the patchwork skyline”, Nick Stephenson’s strong voice remains at glorious full capacity throughout. There’s something of the rugged wanderer who will not be tamed about it. The words “I’ve got no mind to be tied down or be defined” in Baby A imply this may indeed be the case. Not a word is wasted, each one sung with gusto and with diction such that there’s no wondering what the lyrics are. At times the band – guitar and drums in particular, play with a freneticism that fills their recordings with vitality. Moments of abandon when the guitar gets its delay on and drumstick smashes ride cymbal see the band wigging out to arena sized proportions which match Nick’s stadium sized lungs. They squeeze all there is to squeeze out of each second of sound, pumping the tracks full of an effervescence which fizzes out joyously from their folk-pop sound and lust for life lyrics. Nick And The Sun Machine are notably inventive with their backing vocals and should they continue to develop this it could be quite a hallmark of their sound, much in the way it was for Queen. They have it in them to do this in a way that’s beyond the capabilities of many’s a group. Nick And The Sun Machine’s 4 song EP “Wide, Lying Smiles” can be sampled on soundcloud. It’s a taster of what’s to come on their imminent album.
Next up are Chameleon Boy, a four-piece who scale down to an acoustic duo as the occasion requires. Of the songs available
to hear on Soundcloud via their website www.chameleonboy.co.uk I feel the standout track is Never Too Late. It’s a melancholic
take on the idea that you don’t realise what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. This full band recording encompasses the whole scope of their sound, from the pared down, sparse guitar introduction to the middle section where the drums go big and the guitar lets loose. Chameleon Boy’s sound is pleasing to my ear as I loved Don Henley’s Boys of Summer way back when and the tasty rimshot and hi-hat combo from early on in Never Too Late puts me in mind of that song. The sparkly steel string acoustic guitar layers also hark back to the sound of the 80s pop charts, crystal clear and bright as in Spandau Ballet’s Through The Barricades. Chameleon Boy’s sound is mainstream radio friendly. Top down on the convertible, AOR FM rock – a fine thing in my opinion.
Download and hear tracks from Chameleon Boy’s debut ep http://www.chameleonboy.co.uk/#!downloads-page/c9wt
The Tuesday Club are a modern new wave/punk band. Because of this I was expecting to listen to one or two of their songs and then get bored, much as you can do with any number of punk throwbacks any night of the week at The Hope & Anchor of London legend. But no, The Tuesday Club are an exciting, intelligent, humorous and inventive group. Sonically they resemble Blur when Graham Coxon was allowed to do what he wanted and the potentially harsh sound common to this genre is softened by the male/female vocals. Top drawer vocals they are too. Listening on Soundcloud to the handy “short but nifty snippet sized bundle” that takes you through excerpts of their debut album is a joy. There’s a wealth of varied sounds, moods, textures and tempos on offer. Nods to Jilted John and Gary Numan are nestled in among welcome updates on the bass, drums and guitar template. You get lovely bleepy synthesizer, you get rock n’ roll piano and you get humour that’s genuinely funny as well as the essential raw punky guitar stylings which, a la Green Day, are a façade for some quite touching lyrics. This is an album I’m looking forward to getting (on CD, though the white vinyl is tempting). I hear they’re brilliant live as well, so whenever they’re next in London I’m there with bells on.
Get See You Next Tuesday on CD or LP here: http://thetuesdayclub.tmstor.es/
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Music Reviews

Reg Meuross – My Name Is London Town

Saturday 28th September 2013

No finer setting could there have been. Reg Meuross launched his new single My Name Is London Town in St James’ Church, Piccadilly this evening. Tucked away inconspicuously only yards from the neon and bustle of London’s famous thoroughfare, this 17th century Christopher Wren church was the venue for a flawless, seamless concert by a master of storytelling in song. As did the craftsmen of old carve ornate designs into the oak pews from which his audience listened, so did tonight’s performer weave beautiful and varied melodies through each of his songs.
In his rich tenor voice Meuross sang songs from his 20 year solo career accompanied initially by just his stylish acoustic finger picking.
Later Emma Hooper and Bethany Porter added gorgeous colour, shade and rhythm on viola and cello respectively for the second half of of the concert. Jess Vincent, who earlier had played a fine support set of songs from her new album Seesaw Dreams, made the trio a quartet for the encore, augmenting the layers of music further with her vocals and baritone ukelele.
My Name Is London Town continues a tradition in English folk that every couple of decades comes up with a song capturing the ever changing nature of this city at a given moment in time. So to Ralph McTell’s 1960s Streets Of London and Richard Thompson’s Sights And Sounds Of London Town from the 90s we can now add this definitive portrait of life in London in the 21st century.
Like each song of London before it, this one provides an update on themes that remain constant through the generations. Multiculturalism is as much the heartbeat of London now as it’s always been: “I’m the Union Flag, I’m the red, green and gold… I’m the dome of St Paul’s and the Regent’s Park mosque.” Now, as ever, the financially rich and poor are thrown together daily: “I’m the sharp suited broker who steals like a fox, to the stock exchange floor to sell coffee and corn… I’m the bundle of rags in the Oxford Street doorway”. New as it is this song already has the feel of a classic to it and sits very comfortably alongside its great predecessors.
Reg Meuross is known for writing songs that trace the social history of England, both modern and olde. Dick Turpin, one of history’s favourite outlaws, had his reputation as a dashing hero shredded tonight in the revisionist tale Lizzie Loved A Highwayman, in which the infamous Essex man was revealed to be a brute and a murderer. The story was told through the eyes of the woman who loved him, who he let down and left behind, and in this song we heard the essence of why Meuross is so admired as a songwriter. What stays with you  is not so much what happens in the stories as how his characters are affected.
My own highlight tonight was the new, as yet unrecorded, Sweet Marie. This incredibly tender and poignant song based on the story behind a violin recovered from the wreckage of the Titanic is rooted in historical fact but again this is merely a means by which Meuross puts the listener in touch with the universal emotions of love, grief, joy and sorrow.
My Name Is London Town is taken from the album Leaves and Feathers
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