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‘Postcards Home' by Maz Corry

Review

Good morning to you all: I'd like to tell you today about the new album from Stratford based Maz Corry,  ‘Postcards Home' which was released a couple of weeks ago.

Another example of how people have adapted to the constraints, Maz has managed to create this with the help of collaborator Simon Kemp (albeit via remote recording) during the past year.

Inevitably the results have therefore been influenced by the circumstances in which the songs were  conceived: firstly by the themes of our current situation shaping the lyrical ideas & secondly by the open & sparse arrangements due to the recording constraints. Regular readers will already be aware of my preference for the "less is more" route anyway (I think it showcase strong writing better & allows the elements of each song to linger & take root in our perceptions) so it won me over, but it's worth considering that Maz probably would have gone down such a route anyway (albeit probably with different songs), An essentially solo performer, it would have been somewhat curious had she decided to overdub too many instruments which were unlikely to feature in her gigs (when these resume) and the result I think holds her truthful & sincere ideas up with clarity. However, that said, the interplay between Maz & Simon (who does play live with her too) is extremely effectively.

Before looking at the seven songs on ‘Postcards Home', I think one more key item of context worth considering is that Maz has only been writing & performing in this way for two years and in that respect reminds me of Chloë Boehm in how quickly each has hit such high levels of creativity & respect: Maz's previous musical activity being theatre based. Look out too for her debut EP ‘The Distance Between Us' (which came out just over a year ago) and her April 2020 charity single "Then There's You" (which raised funds for Mind).

The latter offers something of a clue towards the compassionate & humane ideas Maz puts across in her songs: she sees the current human condition, understands it, has empathy for it & offers hope & support.

"In This Living" which opens the album  is a beautiful & melodic song with gorgeous guitar figures & sets the tone with her voice high in the mix, sounding pure & cool & asking  very essential questions which I am sure many of us are currently posing too.

"Once" is a much bluesier number in terms of the musical setting (keening steel picking & slide parts meshing together) with a folk melody laid over it: an interesting combination.

"The Last Thing I Ever Do" offers a more traditional blues vocal take: an ethereal pastoral take on the genre with a traditional "take me to river" theme, gentle with plenty of space to let the lament marinade effectively.

"She" takes us to a different musical setting, with a flamenco approach: much space again in the telling of a rather dark tale: certainly one of my favourites in the collection.

"Pirate's Lament", despite the title isn't a sort of sea shanty but probably the most contemporary sound on the album: an acoustic ballad again, but without any obvious debt to folk or blues genres & possibly the most accomplished lyrics on the album.

"The Waiting" brings us back to more familiar folk orientated territory though again the sound is modern (I liked the harmonised vocals which offer a different sound to other tracks and the harmonica added distinction to the arrangement) while album closer "When The World Was Ours" is a really powerful way to take our leave. Haunting dynamics enhance a timeless (though surprisingly short) tale which while not speaking directly of our own times, nevertheless has potential metaphoric potential to do so, offering a nostalgic hindsight to better days as it does.

All in all, this is a very strong & commendable (I certainly do commend it to you) album & yet another performer whom I look forward to catching live at some preferably relatively imminent date.

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"Love Again (Show You Care)" & 'Retrospective' by Rosetta Fire

Review

Not surprisingly, it is a while since I've been able to report to you on Rosetta Fire. Thankfully though they have hit back by offering us not one but two new releases for me to tell you about today.

Taking a similar route to several other local multi-member bands such as Satsangi, Rosetta Fire have cut their cloth according to the circumstances and so we have today a re-worked song by just James Lapworth and Anthony Gliddon & (each working remotely from his own home) and a Rosetta Fire compilation.

Let's start with the former shall we? It's in aid of charity (Warwickshire's ‘Show You Care' campaign) so it's something I'd urge you to check out. They have had a fresh take on their song "Love Again" and appropriately titled it "Love Again (Show You Care)" with  their long time collaborator & producer George Shilling assisting by mastering it for them.

As a two person recording, not surprisingly the sound is considerably more stripped back in comparison to the considerable power of a full lineup which normally characterises their recordings. However not only does it work well (indicating the quality of the writing in that the song works across a range of arrangements) but it suits the compassionate nature of the song: Ant's emotional delivery (remarkably raw throughout) elevates the words & emphasises how much they care about the cause & those it touches.

There is an uplifting video for the song which can be enjoyed via this link:

https://www.facebook.com/rosettafire/videos/228419582275344

and it has already had airplay on BBC Introducing for Coventry & Warwickshire.

Their new album, again appropriately named as ‘Retrospective', is interesting as it is not really a "Rosetta Fire's Greatest Hits" but a dozen "..‘fan favourite' tracks that band followers will have enjoyed hearing at Rosetta Fire's popular live gigs"

Thus we are able to enjoy "Stop & Stare", "Hummingbird", "I Can't Look You in the Eye", "Paper Heart Beats", "I Don't Know What It Is", "Eighteen", "Miss Educated", "She", "Make This Work", "Love Again", "Confusion" and "The Centurion", but interestingly, the singles are avoided. Hats off to the band for such an impressive compilation. The lure of putting all one's best known tracks together or for the very lucky, the best selling ones, is clear, though I've never quite grasped what criteria could be applied to a "best of.." since tastes of individual fans can be so different. However this for once actually does something fresh & innovative: it complements their single & EP releases by offering us completely different tracks that we won't have copies of at home (which will please fans & keep the band's abilities high in their consciousness while they can't catch them live) and also is a commendable gesture towards their audience by focusing on what they, rather than the band favour. It's also a powerful reminder of just what we are currently missing as Rosetta Fire are renowned for their live performances.

All in all, well worth the wait.

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'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' by Luke Concannon

Review

One of the most anticipated albums to be issued by a Coventry & Warwickshire artist has to be 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' which Luke Concannon is sharing with the world on February 5th.  The tunes have long been assembled & I've long wished to share my thoughts with you. Now the moment is here.

Thankfully, Luke has already released three of the songs as singles "Doing Nothing" which we reviewed in October, "Your Heart is in My Chest" the following month & most recently "Absolument" which has been out a couple of weeks. Three entirely different tracks & each quite stunning in its own fashion and hopefully you will recollect my thoughts on these, or if not refer back to the reviews.

You'll be pleased to hear that the seven tracks on the album which you won't have yet heard fit right in with the themes of individuality & excellence.  Produced by Nashville's James Prendergast at the Vermont farm of singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell (Luke now lives with his wife Stephanie Hollenberg, on Abenaki land in that state), the ten songs feature a most impressive array of musicians (including Stephanie whose voice in the harmonies is prominent).

I'd say that despite the wonderful eclecticism of the collection as a whole, there are several unifying factors. The first, and possibly most apparent, is Luke's abiding enthusiasm which elides into optimism despite whatever issues concern him. This has been so evident in the boundless joy of  "Your Heart is in My Chest" and "Absolument" where the chief problem seems to have been containing it & even "Doing Nothing" had a self deprecating wit which neutralised any possible negativity in his circumstances. The same, as you'll discover shortly, applies to the "new" pieces.

The other common thread, which I keep on returning to in my reviews of Luke's work, is how he has now completely transcended genres in his work: yes the songs as a set are eclectic as many excellent artists' are, but they are internally eclectic too: each individual one contains melded aspects of a variety of styles which he has achieved the art of getting to work together holistically: I think one can definitely hear the acquisitions of all his explorations of musics of the world.

So what are the other songs? A key one, the mighty "Join The Liberation" (which he originally released in 2017) is what you might call trademark Luke: a passionate exhortation for us to unite in meaningful action: plaintive in its description of the current horrors yet getting angry in response to them: at this point his vocals nearly burst out of the melody so great is his emotion.

"Coventry" is a nice touch, reconnecting him with the area covered by this magazine, but of course Luke is no parochialist & it is no token tip of the hat his homeland, but poetic use of the dreadful events of the November 14th 1940 "Moonlight Sonata" blitz to evoke parallels with the cynical & materialistic society he sees around him: strong imagery for sure but he seems unwilling to mince his words on this subject. To add to the sense of moral outrage, the arrangement is very unsettling: odd fragments of disparate cultural tones drift in and out: vaguely "Eastern" strings, sudden horn stabs, wailing harmonies. Like "Join The Liberation", "Coventry" uses the symbolism of civilisation on fire to make its point about impending apocalypse (and he's not the only songwriter from our area doing this currently: I think of Ellie Gowers' as yet unreleased "The Sky Is On Fire").

"The Hummingbird (Kieron's)" (I imagine the title is a nod to his Dad) is probably the most single minded of the album, being the nearest to a pure folk song & featuring absolutely gorgeous guitar playing of a stately reel picturing a pastoral idyll.

"Feel You In My Arms" has as its focus the plight of those without homes & those isolated from their families, the victims of alienation & rejection by society while pleading for compassion towards them & genuine connection.

"It Won't Wait" is a lament set appropriately over an arrangement built around a drone heart, though in characteristic Luke form, after a while his exuberance causes him to break away from this restraint & not only does the track increasingly swing, but we even get a rap section.

"Denial" is another stunner as you might say: sung a cappella, the absence of instrumentation leaves Luke nowhere to hide: but then why would he want to do that? He has the voice to pull it off (though the delivery is totally sincere: there is no showboating here) and above all with Luke it's about the message of the words: and you certainly can't escape them here.

Finally we have "Grow Wild", which certainly seems to be a highly personal one: possibly directed at Stephanie & it consists of a series of themes & metaphors which  twist around each other so organically it is sometimes difficult to disentangle them: which almost certainly is what you are not meant to do. We get layers relating to gardening, creating music, personal relationships & nurturing whole communities: both literal in every case (I think) and mutual metaphors: all delivered over one of the most "genre defying" arrangements on the record: another seamless concoction crafted from many elements with which Luke feels comfortable as a writer.

As I say, there is so much going on on 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning', yet despite the delights in all the many details, the core messages of hope, love, the need to engage etc remain crystal clear. He asks much of us, whether it's to respond to the challenges in his lyrics or get around his often very idiosyncratic song structures and arrangements, but that is not in my book a bad thing.  Luke's discography is extremely impressive, yet this is arguably his best work to date: many things are coming together & maturing & this is the album of a man confident in his own creative skin: clear on what he wants to sing about & clear on how to say it. An artist with a bulging portfolio of musical ideas to pull out in service of his songs & the skills to combine them into coherence.

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'The Righteous Jazz' by The Mechanicals Band

Review

We cover some excellent artists in the magazine who produce some great material. One extra special profile of an artist (to me) is one who works or collaborates across artforms, and another is a sort of restless one, who is ceaselessly seeking to develop ideas & who keeps a reviewer on their toes.

A really good example of both would be The Mechanicals Band. Inasmuch as you can pin down what they do, they set poems to new music (though that is far from all they do) and their music links hands intimately with not only poetry & drama too.

Their 2017 debut ‘Exit, Pursued by Bear‘ (when they were Rude Mechanicals) had a strong, yet not exclusive focus on Shakespeare & ideally was appreciated in performances they gave with the collaboration of actors. Then came 2019's ‘Miscellany #1' EP which set more recent poems by a range of writers.

However for the past few years, their main focus has been ‘The Righteous Jazz' project: a wholly Philip Larkin orientated one which went public in 2019 in a short form at Coventry's Shoot Festival & after Arts Council Funding was secured, a longer theatrical performance was given at both the Tin Arts in Coventry & Hull Truck Theatre, with the dramatic aspects directed by Connor Alexander & performed by Lisa Franklin & Steve Brown. Hopefully you read our review of the evening at the Tin from November 2019.

You might reasonably suppose then that their release of  ‘The Righteous Jazz' album will serve to capture the musical aspects of the show. This however, being the Mechanicals, is only part of the answer as no fewer than three of the eight songs have been created since those performances & hence we'll need to look forwards to hearing them live during the delayed tour of the project.

Wes Finch (guitar & lead vocals), Jools Street (violin), Ben Haines (drums and percussion), Katrin Gilbert (viola) and John Parker (double bass) have created another mesmerising collection which in very broad terms musically acknowledges Larkin's profound love of jazz but equally brings in a fair range of other styles, subtly woven into the tapestry.

Although Wes is the principle setter of existing lyrics to new tunes, as with earlier work, Jools has composed two tracks "Mr Bleaney" and "High Windows" & these raise the intriguing question of "can you capture the work of a writer without actually using their or any other words?". It's not as paradoxical as it might sound, for though "High Windows" is indeed an instrumental , though named for Larkin's poem, the band eschew actually setting the words as they have with all their previous word & just let Jools' stately & dignified tune evoke the absent lyrics. A bold move but hardly the first of their career.

"Mr Bleaney" is a little more conventional in that Wes does recite the poem of that name over Jools' ragtime tinged composition: but again this breaks new ground in that hitherto, the poems have tended to be sung rather than delivered in this manner.

"This Be The Verse" is probably the one text in the project whose use was unavoidable (I believe Wes & the band  selected all the poems to use themselves) given that this is the one poem by Larkin everyone knows (if they know of his work at all) & whose opening is presumably his most quoted lines. The band however do not tiptoe around this cultural icon with deference but approach it, as with everything else, with confidence & love and manage to bring fresh life to the meaning of the words.

On the other hand, "Long Lion Days" is one of the least known of the poet's work: composed in late July 1982 and unpublished during his lifetime, Wes  discovered it, rescued it from obscurity & now it is among the most loved not only of the band's live repertoire but also in Wes' solo sets (when these are possible): an excellent example of the deep power of the project & one which lends Larkin a service by revealing another side to his personality, often ignored. Were there to be a single released from this album, I should have thought that this was the outstanding candidate. Personally, having heard it live so many times, having a recorded version at last is delightful.

"Horns of the Morning" is I think the song I've heard second most often in concert to date (I assume it thus to be one of the earlier ones to be created) and is another tune inspired by the earlier jazz forms in terms of the arrangement, yet the vocal melody swings back towards a more folk tone, appropriate maybe given that this is another of the poet's more pastoral & optimistic pieces.

Of the newer songs, it's not too surprising that given the idea of setting the poems of a man who was jazz critic of the Times for a decade that the band should plump for one of his more overtly musically themed ones (from  1954): hence "For Sidney Bechet". The tune tips its hat to the New Orleans sound alluded to in the lyrics rather than the older stylings of "Horns of the Morning" in a most compelling and authentic manner. It's good to hear horns on this song, though ironically not the saxophone associated with the subject of the poem…. It's the groovy cut on the album.

"Days" shares a title with the famous Kinks song and some of that track's reflective tone: a timeless meditation on our lives & the human condition: it particularly resonates with the relentless passage of days during the pandemic & conceivably that is why this poem has been selected. The sound is much more classic Mechanicals with prominent violin & viola, echoing the sound of the first two albums.

"Trees", which closes the latest collection is rightly placed there & I think a very good decision: another of Larkin's best known works, this equation of seasonal changes to those of life & death is a profound one & the band rise to the challenge of a tune & performance to match it. Elegiac & melancholic at turns, this should, in my opinion, be a significant live addition to their repertoire & I look forward to hearing them perform this & the other tracks at the earliest opportunity.

As with all their earlier work, there is boldness in what the Mechanicals present us with: yes the tunes are highly melodic & burrow into our heads easily, but the apparent ease with which they perform the songs should not blind us from the challenges before them initially, to capture the essence of a complex individual, often using very well known texts & say something new about them.

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