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. 


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,

 Ye Vagabond’s The Hare’s Lament here

and Land­less’ Bleach­ing Bones here

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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