Songs Of The Week 2021: Take 2

Neil Morton


Bloomsday: Samantha Crain

Our return to the gym felt like an invitation to relative freedom as the lockdown reins were loosened. What first track to play over the headphones to welcome back hope? Our Song Of The Week at is Samantha Crain’s Bloomsday. You can hear the spring in her step.

The native American of Choctaw heritage is rediscovering her home town Shawnee in Oklahoma where she decided to sit out the pandemic – ‘vacationing in my own backyard’, she called it. Bloomsday is the engaging single from her new EP I Guess We Live Here Now, its earworm chorus echoing that old gospel tune This Little Light Of Mine.

Crain, a compelling voice for the less fortunate and marginalised in society, says: ‘The song is an anthem of sorts about the possibility of each new seemingly meandering and unimportant day. Although it feels like most of the time we are being pulled along in life, we have the instrumentality to find within us light and belief.’

Her last album, 2020’s A Small Death, which featured one track, When We Remain, in her ancestral tongue, marked an extraordinary comeback for the indie folk-rock artist who had been bedridden for 18 months after a series of car crashes. She was left with no feeling in her hands and feared she would never hold a guitar again. Open tunings provided a way back, and the audio diaries she kept inform her storytelling from the achingly beautiful Holding To The Edge Of Night to the vibrancy of Bloomsday.

She told American Songwriter: ‘The EP is an expression of myself increasingly at peace with uncertainties and becoming stronger in the agency of my own decisions. And just like finding undiscovered love in my heart for others, and also sort of beginning the lifelong process of balance between ambition and satisfaction.’ Her aim as a songwriter is to be both intimate and cinematic, a difficult combination which she manages to achieve, and to celebrate the culture of indigenous people who she feels have been robbed of their traditions as well as their lands.

Bloomsday, the title borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses, opens with jingle-jangle chords and handclaps before the vocals of Crain and Penny Pitchlynn sweep us away with piano ripples and Isaac Stalling’s shimmering electric guitar for company. Crain’s Okie is from Okmulgee rather than Merle Haggard’s Muskogee. The lyric is a joy…

Give me something, Bloomsday’s coming, open up the doors and have a goddamn beer

Ring the baker, the butcher, the charioteer, the palm readers in Salem, the engineer

So are you a socialite, do you buy candles too pricey now to light?

Or are you an Okie from Okmulgee just making do with wax and pride?

And everybody’s wondering where their little light is

That little light is burning big and bright. Crain describes the EP as an epilogue or postscript to A Small Death. To these ears, it sounds more like a positive new chapter.

Avalon: Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi

The remarkable roots musician Rhiannon Giddens and her Italian partner Francesco Turrisi have articulated the emotions of the pandemic so creatively and comfortingly with their new offering, They’re Calling Me Home. Our Song Of The Week at is Avalon.

Giddens wrote the song a decade ago but reworked the verses to resonate with these traumatic times. Avalon, which imagines a family reunion beyond the grave, is the mythical island of Arthurian legend, a paradise as solace for the soul. Joy holds hands with melancholy.

She explains: ‘The song represents the two sides of the contemplation of the final transition: the sadness of the ones left behind, and the joy at the idea of being reunited somehow, some day down the road. This contrast of hope and longing fills our every day, and is such a part of us all.’

The track oozes influences from Giddens’ adopted home in Ireland and her birthplace in North Carolina to Africa and the Middle East. Multi-instrumentalist Turrisi’s frame drum and the Irish-based Congolese Niwel Tsumba’s nylon string guitar are joined by Giddens’ viola as her haunting vocal weaves a modern spiritual...

In Avalon, in Avalon

We’ll all be together in Avalon

It was three weeks ago one cold summer day

Mother went on her lonely way

Through the glass, all alone

He followed his lover home

From the couple’s lockdown in Limerick, they explore the concept of home – the belonging, the longing and contemplation of our final resting place – mainly through interpretations of old tunes, from the folk tradition to Italian opera. ‘There are pieces of our birth homes that musically speaking really came out in our comforting ourselves through music,’ Giddens told NPR. ‘There’s the sad part of it, but then there’s this undercurrent of joy that came out in the way it was written and the way we performed it.’

With artists preparing to re-emerge in the limelight, it will be a privilege to see Giddens and Turrisi perform again; likewise the American’s all-female project, Our Native Daughters, who tackled slavery, historic racism and unspeakable abuse on their influential debut album. As Songlines commented, Giddens appears ‘incapable of producing an album that is not simultaneously a fascinating musical education and deeply enjoyable listening experience’.

They’re Calling Me Home is more sparingly produced than 2019’s There Is No Other, a necessity of the pandemic, and no less impressive for its mournful tone and subject matter. We thought we'd heard all we needed to as far as that gospel staple Amazing Grace is concerned, but it is given fresh lustre here. Giddens’ wordless mouthing around the melody speaks eloquently with Turrisi’s drum dexterity and Emer Mayock’s pipes movingly atmospheric. We are even treated to an Italian lullabye, Nenna Nenna, sung by Turrisi as he once did to his baby daughter.

The other standouts are the remodelled Alice Gerrard classic Calling Me Home, that pacifier for homesickness Waterbound and a mesmerising rendition of the hymn-like When I Was In My Prime, recorded by Pentangle in 1970, sung a cappella until Turrisi’s cello banjo and Giddens’ octave viola combine to heighten the solemnity. Fortunately for us, Giddens’ prime has yet to come.

Hurt In Your Heart: Katie Spencer

Katie Spencer’s gorgeous reimagining of John Martyn’s lost-love lament Hurt In Your Heart is our Song Of The Week at, the title track of her new EP and an affecting tribute to her musical guru.

The song first appeared on Martyn’s acclaimed Grace And Danger album in 1980, a moving response to the breakdown of his marriage to fellow songwriter Beverley Kutner. Spencer’s swirling, dream-like arrangement perfectly captures the heartache and sense of loss.

Island Records owner Chris Blackwell, a friend of the couple, delayed release of the record by a year so disturbed was he by its painful emotional intensity. He thought it was just too sad. Martyn later explained: ‘I freaked: Please get it out! I don’t give a damn how sad it makes you feel. It’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion.’

The gifted East Yorkshire-based singer-guitarist Spencer is joined by two members of Martyn’s band in the 90s, Alan Thomson on fretless bass and pianist and synth exponent Spencer Cozens, who produced Katie’s impressive debut album in 2019, Weather Beaten, showcasing the strength of her own songwriting.

All three Martyn-penned tracks – Couldn’t Love You More and Small Hours from his 1977 One World album complete the EP – were recorded live at Steinway Recording in rural Lincolnshire. According to Spencer, they define her musical upbringing (Martyn’s Solid Air is her favourite album). So many artists down the decades have owed a debt to the jazz-rock-blues innovator.

Spencer sang Hurt In Your Heart at the Celtic Connections commemoration of Glasgow’s adopted son in 2019, which also featured Danny Thompson, Eric Bibb, John Smith, Rory Butler, Eddi Reader and Paul Weller. She will also be playing at a Martyn Gathering in Bedale, North Yorkshire, on 27 June. Interpretation is the key here, rather than imitation.

Katie told me: ‘I think John Martyn had that incredible ability to distil his emotions into their purest form, capturing them within his music in such a haunting and mesmerising way. To me, Hurt In Your Heart is an embodiment of his soulful originality. I also think it is particularly poignant because he continued to perform it right until the end of his life, proving how honest the song remained.’

Spencer’s accomplished finger-style acoustic guitar and her soulful, beguiling voice lovingly honour the memory of Martyn who died in 2009 at the age of 60. Hearing his original of the song makes you admire Spencer’s imaginative rendition even more. Despite the absence of some of the original lyric, you can still hear the hurt.

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