Ye Vagabonds, Varo, Landless and the new Irish trad bands

Ye Vagabonds.

The current wave of new Irish trad bands can be traced back to the forming of The Gloaming in 2011. Five musicians of different ages and from different musical backgrounds, The Gloaming were determined to look out and around in as many, all encompassing directions as possible. 

They looked back not just to traditional Irish music, but to classical music, both contemporary modernism and the classical canon. And out, to Irish music in America, but also to jazz and the blues, and to all manner of world music, to Africa, the Americas, Asia and beyond. And they did (and do) so with an unabashed and unapologetic seriousness. 

Paving the way, The Gloaming.

To everyone’s slight surprise, The Gloaming’s three album and various residencies proved a huge commercial success. Which has opened the door to a number of bands made up of similarly serious if somewhat younger musicians, almost all of whom are in their 20s. And each of whom is as keen to broaden and stretch the scope of ‘trad’ as those 5 stalwarts in The Gloaming.

Lankum were the next to enjoy that sort of relatively high profile success. Their second album, Between the Earth and the Sky won the RTE Folk Album of the Year in 2018, and last year’s The Livelong Day was, if anything, even more lauded.

Landless’ Bleaching Bones.

And they’re now signed to the mighty Rough Trade, who’ve set up River Lea, an imprint aimed specifically at these shores. And the latest addition to that rostrum is Ye Vagabonds.

The Carlow duo who make up Ye Vagabonds had been resident at Walshe’s in Stoneybatter, before the youknowwhat, where they were often joined by Landless. Landless’ debut album, Bleaching Bones, was recorded at Guerrilla Studios, in Dublin, which was set up by John ‘spud’ Murphy. 

And Murphy was also the producer on those Lankum albums, having previously worked with Katie Kim (reviewed by me earlier here and here), who is also on River Lea. And more recently, he worked with Varo on their debut album there. 

So to varying degrees, they all move in similar orbits but their take on trad is very much their own. Lankum for instance, are invariably compared to the Pogues. They provide a similarly punk-infused, in your face assault on the traditional ballads and songs they dive into. While Ye Vagabonds produce a much more measured, studious approach, very much in step with that of The Gloaming. 

Varo.

And all three are hugely invested in drone music, which looks on the one hand to indigenous music from all over the world. And on the other, to the avant-garde of La Monte Young and the Velvet Underground

And both Landless and Varo are, if anything, even more distinctive. Landless are four female singers who perform traditional ballads from the all around the British Isles unaccompanied by any instruments, sculpting their melodies with extraordinary four-part harmonies. While Varo are a female duo, one from France and one from Italy, who filter traditional ballads through the prism of European Baroque music.

You can, and should, listen (for free) and then download their albums from Bandcamp; Varo’s eponymous Varo here,

https://varodublin.bandcamp.com

 Ye Vagabond’s The Hare’s Lament here

https://yevagabonds.bandcamp.com

and Landless’ Bleaching Bones here

https://landless.bandcamp.com

And you can see Landless on Blue of the Night

this Varo video

and Ye Vagabonds below.

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“American Epic” watch, listen and marvel

American Epic

American Epic is an extraordinary window on to the roots from which American music sprang. And it provides therefore the key to understanding all subsequent genres that popular music went on to spawn throughout the course of the 20thcentury. Essentially, it’s in two parts.

The first, American Epic, is the three part documentary series produced by BBC4’s Arena, and the 5 cd box set that that produced. The second is The American Epic Sessions, which is a documentary feature (effectively episode 4 of the series), and the two cd box set that that generated.

Jack White and The American Epic Sessions.

The whole project revolves around the technological revolutions that were going on in sound at the beginning of the 20thcentury, and the cultural waves that those ripples produced. For the first couple of decades, the music industry had been an exclusively middle class enterprise. Phonograph recordings were manufactured so that opera arias, classical music and Broadway show tunes could be played in well to do homes.

But the invention of radio in the 1920s seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to that nascent industry. Anybody with electricity could listen to any amount of music, all day long. So, in desperation, the recording industry sent scouts out into rural America to record the sorts of music that people without electricity – and therefore a radio – would be interested in listening to on their hand-cranked phonographs. 

Charley Patton.

They then went back to headquarters with these stacks of discoveries to fuel the most powerful medium of the day, radio, with the same thing that all media are always in search of; content.

What this did, crucially, was to connect the urban radio listeners and the industry that served them, with an entire country of rural communities that had, up until then, existed in effective isolation. 

In many ways, it was the field recordings that came out of the 1920s that moulded and created a United States of America. And it was these recordings that laid the foundation for what would become the blues, country, bluegrass, soul, RnB, gospel, rock n roll, hip hop and each and every conceivable kind of pop.

The second part, The American Epic Sessions, focuses on the technology that made all of this possible. In 1925, Western Electric made a portable recording apparatus that could be powered by battery. Scouts were quickly sent out to scour the country to record anyone who had a song to sing and wanted to have it memorialised on wax. 

Lead Belly.

Overnight, a host of nationwide stars were born. The Carter family, the Memphis Jug Band (because they used jugs in place of the instruments they couldn’t afford), Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson to name but a paltry few.

Depressingly, the US government melted down the vast majority of these 78s in the course of their second WW effort. The shellac that records were made from before the advent of vinyl was needed for the production of camouflage paint. So by the time the folk revival kicked in in the 60s with its celebration of all things Americana, incredibly few 78s were left in existence. And none of Western Electric’s recording pieces had been preserved for posterity.

The Cater sisters.

Until now. Because over the last couple of decades, sound engineer Nick Bergh has managed to get his hands on the individual bits and pieces that the apparatus was made of, to painstakingly reconstruct a single, functioning recording piece. 

And he and programme maker Bernard McMahon decided that the best way to re-master all the original recordings that go to make up American Epic, was to invite current performers to record a song on wax, using the original, recreated Western Electric recording apparatus. That way, they would all gain an unrivalled understanding of exactly how it had functioned. 

So Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos and Ashley Monroe got together with producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record an album, which they documented on film. 

Monroe by the way penned one of my favourite lyrics, with her autobiographical Like A Rose, which she wrote with none other than Guy Clark.Ran off with whatshisname when I turned eighteen…” which is quite simply the perfect kiss-off.

Rhiannon Giddens.

Documentary wise, the 3 episode American Epic is the one to watch. The Sessions is basically an added bonus. Conversely, musically speaking, unless you’re an aficionado, you should go for the 2 disc American Epic Sessions, rather than the 5 disc American Epic box set. As the former is that bit more expansive, made up as it is of original as well as traditional songs. Obviously though, if you can, watch and get both.

Taken together, the whole enterprise is nothing short of monumental.

Watch Los Lobos here

And Alabama Shakes here

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Titanic Rising, bewitching new album from Weyes Blood.

Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising.


From the moment those piano chords serenely chime as the opening track on Titanic Rising gently departs, you’re instantaneously transported to those arrangements Richard Carpenter used to craft for his sister Karen. And the album that follows comfortably delivers on that promise, and then some.

This is the sort of sophisticated, grown-up and unashamedly romantic pop music that the Brill Building churned out with such apparent effortlessness. The melodies of Burt Bacharach and the lyrics of Hal David were the perfect fit for Richard’s lush orchestration and Karen’s transcendent vocals. 

Carole King’s Tapestry.

Carole King became the Brill Building’s most successful graduate when she moved out to pursue a solo career. Her 1971 album, Tapestry, sold over 25 million copies, as she merged those perfectly crafted, classic pop songs with the introspection and doubts of the newly emergent singer songwriter.

And Natalie Mering, whose forth album this is in the guise of Weyse Blood, is very much continuing here where King left off. If anything, Mering cuts even more of an impressive figure. Carole King, after all, was aided in her endeavours by some wonderful lyricists. Mering is doing all of this on her own. 

Caren and Richard Carpenter

The result is a collection of personal, questioning songs that recall Hunky Dory era Bowie, but which are given the sort of orchestral, soaring majesty that only a Brian Wilson or a Phil Spector would have attempted to produce.

The album gets a suitably impressed 8.5 from the boys from Pitchfork, here. And you can see the official video to Everyday, here, and you can hear that beguiling opening track A lot’s gonna change, here.

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Dionysus, the new album from Dead Can Dance


Dionysus, Dean Can Danse.

Dead Can Dance established themselves in the 80s as one of the archetypal indie bands, and were part of a triumvirate that included the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. Each offered up a heady mix of ethereal female vocals over an intoxicating cauldron of industrial goth, post punk and world music. And it was the corner stone upon which the era-defining 4AD records was founded.

Though always based in London, 4AD came increasingly to be associated with underground American acts such as the Pixies, Throwing Muses and the Red House Painters, who they signed in the 90s, and, more recently Bon Iver, St Vincent, Iron and Wine (see my earlier review here) and the National, who all form part of the current rostra.

It’ll End in Tears, This Mortal Coil.

But it was that core trio, and more specifically their three totemic sirens that gave 4AD its distinctive hue. Liz Fraser with the Cocteau Twins, Alison Limerick with This Mortal Coil and Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance.

Gerrard and Brendan Perry are the musical duo around which dead Can Dance revolve, and the pair have been joined by an assortment of musicians over the course of their nine albums. The best known of which is probably the Serpent’s Egg, with the soaring and gloriously cinematic the Host of Seraphim, which you can hear here

The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron and Wine.

Dionysus is their latest offering, and their first since their comeback album, Anastasis, in 2012. Ostensibly in two acts, the 7 tracks come in at a curt 36 minutes but there’s a heft and a genuine sense of substance that belie its brevity. 

As ever with a Dead Can Dance project, there’s an intellectual seriousness to the album that sets it apart in a world obsessed with merely getting noticed. There’s something pleasingly refreshing about a band who are unapologetic about taking what they do seriously. 

Bluebell Knoll, the Cocteau Twins.

The result is a rich and complex soundscape formed from propulsive north African rhythms and densely layered Arabic vocal lines, brought to life thanks to an assortment of exotic, esoteric near eastern and central European instruments such as the zorna, the gadulka and the gaida (see Ben Cardew’s review on Pitchfork here).

You can see the video for the Mountain here

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Marissa Nadler’s new album, For My Crimes.

Marissa Nadler’s For My Crimes.

For My Crimes is Marissa Nadler’s eighth album, and it has the distinct air of being the culmination of everything she’s being circling around for the last decade or so. As such, it feels as much like a greatest hits album as it does a new record. Which makes it the perfect entry point for anyone yet to sample her very distinctive and ample charms.

Marissa Nadler.

Dream folk is the somewhat reductive label sometimes applied to her sound. What you get here on this album is that combination of lush, Gothic-pop, anchored by plaintive, indie country, buoyed by the sound of melodic metal, each of which she’d previously toyed with, individually, on previous albums. But all of which she melds so that they cohere here, on one rounded album.

Or, to put it another way, it’s Sharon Van Etten meets Lana Del Rey via Roy Orbison. Van Etten actually provides guest backing vocals on one of the tracks here, as does Angel Olsen. The title track, which very much sets the tone for the rest of the album, began as a test that her husband set her, to write a lyric in the voice of someone on death row, as Olivia Horn writes in her review on Pitchfork here, where she gives it a respectful 7.2.

Sharon Van Etten in Twin Peaks season 3.

Though clearly autobiographic in the feelings they describe, Nadler’s are songs filtered through the prism of the craft of story telling, in much the same way that those of Nick Cave and Bob Dylan are. As such, they are expressionistic rather than confessional. The result is duskily atmospheric and gloriously cinematic.

You can see the video for Blue Vapor here.

 

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