Just Great Songs and Voices
It is always good to hear those great songs that you've always liked given new leases of life especially when the voices that are reviving them are so strong and distinctive.
One of my favourite cds of 2001 featured such a voice and came right out of the blue. Hem's debut 'Rabbit Songs' was a flawless blend of American traditional musics and contemporary songwriting perfectly realised by all concerned. And then there was the voice of Sally Ellyson, a woman who didn't even consider herself a 'singer'. Everyone I've played the cd to has fallen under the spell of this voice.
Now there is a tantalising e.p. of cover versions to whet the appetite before the second album. I approached it with some trepidation, wondering if it could match the material on their debut. But I needn't have worried. They display an unerring knack of choosing other people's songs and making them their own. So we have songs by Springsteen, Costello, Johnny Cash and Randy Newman alongside an interpretation of a song from a Disney movie. And don't be put off by that last choice. It works.
All songs are given the trademark Hem sound of understated guitar, mandolin, pedal steel and strings, among other things. My recollection of Cash's 'Jackson' is that of a brash, country number, a duet between him and June Carter. Hem offer an understated take that lulls the listener rather than assaults them, Ellyson's voice gliding along with the steel guitar and strings. Springsteen's 'Valentine's Day' reminds me more than anything of Rickie Lee Jones' 'Last Chance Texaco', with its slowly rolling tempo that rises and falls. Of course, the vocal is pure Ellyson, clear and strong.
The one non-American song is Costello's gem, 'Red Shoes' which has a 'live in the studio' feel. I've heard this song so many times and couldn't really imagine it being done by anyone else but, once again, it could be a Hem original. An effortless reading of a fine lyric and melody. The same could be said of 'Living Without You', a song I first heard covered by Manfred Mann's Earthband. It is probably the most emotionally direct of all the tracks and when she delivers the chorus it sounds like she means it. And that leaves the Disney song, 'A Dream Is A Wish That Your Heart Makes'. If you associate such songs with schmaltz and sugary sentiment you will be pleasantly surprised by this. It is pared down to guitar, mandolin and a wonderfully expressive double bass that gets in a little solo between verses. Sally Ellyson sings it in the completely unaffected way that is the hallmark of everything she does.
I find it hard to talk about this band and their sound without superlatives but if this taster is anything to go by their next album will be one of the best of the year and I can't wait to hear it.
Kate Rusby has been feted by all and sundry for her voice and approach to revisiting traditional songs. This cd celebrates her tenth year in 'the business' and offers some new and re-mastered versions of songs from her previous releases, some 'live' takes and a couple of new songs. Her voice is probably one of the most instantly recognisable, as she effortlessly delivers favourites like 'Drowned Lovers', 'The Recruited Collier' and 'The Fairest Of All Yarrow'. She continues to mix traditional words and tunes with her own and sometimes it's hard to decide which is which without resorting to the cd notes.
She is also writing songs that are purely her own. In this case there are two which are to be featured in a movie, 'Heartlands'. They have trademark Rusby vocals and insidiously beautiful melodies. Also from her own pen is 'Sweet Bride', re-mastered from the version on 'Sleepless'. Written, she says, when she was just 16, it is a great example of her ability to draw on traditional narratives and make something so obviously her own.
Her revival of 'The Maid Of Llanwellyn', a song she recorded with The Poozies, reveals another facet of her development. Mixing the words of Joanna Baillie (1762) with her own tune she also blends some subtle brass colourings to underscore her melancholy delivery. Another 'borrowing' is 'Night Visiting Song' taken from John McCusker's 'Yella Hoose' cd and, once again, mixes the traditional and contemporary with ease. So there may not be many surprises here for Rusby fans in particular but I doubt if anyone will be complaining at a collection of songs that showcase such a unique voice.
Unique may be a word used to describe Scotland's finest, Dick Gaughan. The voice is certainly distinctive though it couldn't be further from those of Ellyson and Rusby. In a recent radio broadcast he paid tribute to Nic Jones stating that his voice was 'given by the angels' and his guitar technique was one to kill for. He could have been talking about himself. But his humility would never allow. This retrospective, its title equally humble, was compiled by the man himself and spans a long career of singing and playing alone and with company, laying down an exemplary legacy for those who will follow. How much of a thirty year span can you squeeze into two cds ? Enough to give a newcomer a flavour of the man's passion and lyrical intensity and, hopefully, enough to satisfy fans who may not have all his recordings from these years. Nothing for Five Hand Reel fans though.
His reading of 'Willy o'Winsbury' reveals the mesmerising tenderness his voice, accompanied only by his own guitar, can bring to the ballad form. More romantic, in another sense, is his own song and title of his most recent album, 'Outlaws and Dreamers'. This offers an insight into his view of life on the road, 'laughing at tyrants and spitting at despots' keeping the faith and remaining true to ideals long after the 'flash-fire of youth' should have cooled. It is a personal and emotive statement of sincerely held beliefs. You listen to him and his conviction is undeniable.
Equally moving is 'Why Old Men Cry' which brings together his grandfather's death in the trenches of the First World War with his own father's 'life of bitter hardship' mining the 'coal that lay neath Lothian soil'. But it is also a song about Scotland, one of hope despite his walking through 'desolate communities' with their 'bleak abandoned pitheads'. It is typical of his powerful humanity and concern that injustices must be overcome. I'm surprised he didn't include Si Khan's 'What You Do With What You've Got', since it is a 'live' favourite of his.
Interpreting the songs of others is something he is particularly adept at. Ewan MaColl's 'The Father's Song' is a realist's lullaby tendering hard advice and familial security in fairly equal measures. Less bleak than Richard Thompson's 'End Of The Rainbow' it informs the near-sleeping child that 'your mam and dad are near' but to be aware of the dark 'in the depths of some men's minds'. Gaughan even makes a fine job of reviving the old Joe South hit 'Games People Play'. His political voice is never far away and finds outlet in 'The Pound A Week Rise', a song of controlled indignation at the lies of politicians and their scant regard for those whose lives they shape. A reading of Robin Williamson's 'October Song' is a rare delight, his voice swooping and gliding as the composer's own does, over the barest of drones. It is eerie and moving.
And by lucky coincidence I've just witnessed Gaughan 'live' where his performance confirmed that this cd is an honest representation of all that he has achieved so far. Whatever he sings or plays - and there are also a couple of dazzling instrumental pieces here - it is conveyed with honest passion and humanity. He is a towering presence and ought to be treasured by anyone who is interested in the power of songs that matter, whether old or new, which move and inspire.
© 2002 Paul Donnelly