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Songs Of The Week 2021: Take 3

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

Neil Morton


The Nameless: Jacob and Drinkwater

Alt-folk duo Tobias ben Jacob and Lukas Drinkwater have captured our constant feeling of unease chillingly with a song written a decade before the pandemic struck: The Nameless. Our Song Of The Week at is a tantalising first glimpse of their second album, More Notes From The Field.

Singer-songwriter Jacob was reminded by a friend who sent him a video of a performance of the song. ‘I’d only played it once for that video and had forgotten about it. I think ultimately it carries a message of hope in a troubled world.’ The friend wondered whether he could get hold of a copy – he can soon.

The sequel to their 2019 debut This Old River, described by the Guardian as ‘a beautiful masterpiece’, was written remotely during lockdown from the duo’s respective locations in Poland and Stroud (they were previously both based in Devon). The new album, due for release on October 29, explores themes of friendship and human connection.

Jacob and Drinkwater, who played their first gig together at Glastonbury in 2014, have peppered their current UK tour with album teasers. If you haven’t heard Lancashire-born Jacob’s singing before, The Nameless is a stunning introduction. His arresting tenor could be called highly soulful – or soulfully high. Drinkwater’s tongue and groove harmonies are a perfect fit. Mood and exquisite musicianship.

When Jacob sings ‘This one’s for the nameless/ This one’s for the ninety-nine’, he is referring to wealth and power in the hands of the one per cent, the great social divide. That divide seems wider 10 years later. He was living in London at the time and there were grim reports of suicides, hence the ‘ghosts of the underground’.

Save us from the devils

From the fury and the sound

Save us from the faceless

The ghosts of the underground

There’s a flame burning in the blackness

There’s a light shining in the dark

The chorus offers solace and hope and in the final verse Jacob promises his loved one: ‘I’ll give you shelter from the madness... I will carry your sadness.’ Life’s trials can be confronted and surmounted together, he concludes.

Drinkwater’s upright bass is highly impressive but so is his versatility. The multi-instrumentalist and in-demand producer gives the strings to his bow full rein: guitar, piano, wurlitzer, synth and drums. His wife, the wonderful Emily Barker, plays harmonica on the cleverly titled Nowhere On Sea (about those coastal towns suffering from neglect – the last resorts?) and provides back-up vocal on To Call You Friend.

One of the standout tracks on This Old River was Jacob’s There’s A Shadow On The Sun, inspired by the survivors of war-ravaged Syria: ‘I don’t believe in oblivion/

But there’s a darkness in my heart.’ The singer expanded the global theme of lives torn apart on last year’s solo offering, Refuge, with emotional, electronica-tinged story-songs such as The Caravan, Reconciled, Roya and the achingly poignant I Never Wanted To Leave My Home.

It is a thread Jacob keeps returning to. He is a voice for lost souls, the marginalised, the disenfranchised. This one’s for the blameless.

The Sun Goes On Rising: Sarah McQuaid

When singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid decided to record a live album, she wasn’t to know the world would shut down. She did it anyway, performing in her local church in Cornwall, minus audience. The result is divine. Our Song Of The Week at is the beautiful The Sun Goes On Rising.

The song, co-written with Gerry O’Beirne in 2011, will appear on her sixth solo album, The St Buryan Sessions, due for release on October 15. ‘It’s one I keep coming back to for glimmers of hope in dark times,’ she says. ‘The song was – and is – a kind of lecture to myself to keep the big picture in mind, to remember that the sun goes on rising no matter what else is going on in our lives, and that everything is cyclical and things will get better.

‘And there’s the metaphor of the wolf at the door, that feeling of utter desperation and hopelessness that so many struggling musicians – and struggling people generally – know all too well. I wrote the song to give myself hope – and to give hope to others too.’ The project was financed by a crowd-funding campaign, and in the liner notes McQuaid thanks the 184 donors who came to her aid.

Born in Madrid in 1966 to an American art critic and a Spanish artist, McQuaid was raised in Chicago and lived for 13 years in Ireland before settling in West Cornwall. She knows the medieval St Buryan Church intimately, as a member of the Pipers Choir. ‘I feel so lucky to have made my home in a place with such as incredible musical and historical legacy, and to have been able to record this album in such an inspiring setting.’

Now the congregation can enjoy her rich, beguiling voice in splendid, vocally distanced isolation. Her work has been likened to Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, and there are echoes of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn in her inventive guitar style. In 2017 she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ards International Guitar Festival, previously won by Renbourn, Davey Graham, John Martyn, Martin Simpson and Martin Carthy.

I hear the wolf at the door

I've seen his face before

He’s hungry and I’m tired

Can’t keep him out much more…

Spring follows winter

Sun follows shower

Things will get better

If only I can hold that wolf at bay

Drive him away

Cos the sun goes on rising every day

Her long-time sound engineer and manager Martin Stansbury explains the recording process: ‘We set up as if it were a regular gig: no flash studio mics, just the same touring PA and monitors she’d walked onstage to a thousand times. There were a few concessions, such as toilet breaks and pauses between songs to move and reset cameras. I also placed ambient mics around the space to capture the natural acoustic of a very special building – one that possessed and informed the sound and feel of the entire album. Listen carefully and you can hear the squabbling swallows in the church porch, lorries passing by and even at one point somebody’s mobile phone.’

Fittingly, St Buryan Church will stage an album launch benefit concert on October 15, followed by a tour of the UK before next year’s shows in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and the US. The village of St Buryan takes its name from St Buriana, an Irish princess who established a hermitage there in the sixth century. The community choir, like the now defunct folk club, is named after The Pipers, a pair of standing stones which, according to local legend, were musicians punished for playing on the Sabbath.

The Sun Goes On Rising first appeared on 2012’s The Plum Tree And The Rose as did the catchy What Are We Going To Do?, also penned with O’Beirne. McQuaid switches to the church’s grand piano for The Silence Above Us, another haunting song that chimes with the anxiety of the pandemic. It was the first of the videos, directed by Mawgan Lewis, to be released. ‘It seems to capture the sense of isolation, reflection and mingled hope that we were all feeling at the time,’ she says. Other standouts are If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, a reworking of the title track of her 2018 album produced by the late Michael Chapman, and a cover of the Chapman composition Rabbit Hills.

The latter track was commissioned by the virtuoso guitarist’s wife Andru as a gift for his 80th birthday, a tribute album to his songs recorded by various artists he had worked with down the decades. ‘I was absolutely devastated that Michael has left this world,’ says McQuaid. ‘He was a real musical mentor to me. I wouldn’t have ever started playing electric guitar if he hadn’t handed me his Ibanez Artist and said: Play this.’ Chapman’s evocative lyrics are honoured by a poignant performance. Heavenly.

Photograph by Mawgan Lewis

Little Blue Lies: Raphael Callaghan

You could be excused for thinking that a song entitled Little Blue Lies referred to certain ministers’ nodding acquaintance with truth. But Raphael Callaghan’s moving track grapples with emotions rather than politics. It’s our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song.

The Liverpool-born songwriter specialises in blues with a twist; unusual tunings, always seeking new textures while eschewing the straight 12-bar. After the longest interval in music history, the gig economy is cautiously reawakening. Our first live show is at the Green Note in Camden, still intimate despite the restrictions, on Thursday (September 16) when my old friend and bandmate will at last celebrate the London launch of his 2020 CD, Blue Lies.

Callaghan’s alluring vocal, which swoops and soars, and distinctive bottleneck guitar are at their finest on Little Blue Lies. The lyric is disarmingly honest: Callaghan sings of the pretences invented to make friends or avoid the scorn of others. ‘When I started writing songs, I felt I was speaking not just for myself but for other unfortunates too,’ he says. Blue lies appear to be more disturbing than white ones:

Those little blue lies, I keep a good supply

I watch them multiply

Oh how they mesmerise, how they tantalise

Oh how I do despise, those little blue lies

Elsewhere, his superb harmonica, which has backed Bonnie Raitt, Eric Bibb, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Alexis Korner, Geoff Muldaur, Jo Ann Kelly, Bryn Haworth and many more, reminds me of what first attracted me to his music in the Liverpool folk clubs of the 1970s. There once was a band called Breakdown...

The gospel-infused Time To Leave, Untitled Blues, Tell Me A Lie and the waltz-time Cake And A Candle are impressive originals but Little Blue Lies is a personal favourite. Only two tracks are covers, Special Rider and Poor Me, where he does the memory of Skip James and Charley Patton proud.

Special Rider, in particular, is beautifully sung and played. That falsetto, enhanced by deeper, haunting harmonies, is another of his gifts. Callaghan tells us those blues legends of the 20s and 30s must be heard. So should he.

Latter Days: Big Red Machine (featuring Anaïs Mitchell)

For the second album of their innovative side project Big Red Machine, Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner take collaboration to a new level. Our Song Of The Week at is the opening track, sung and co-written by Anaïs Mitchell of Bonny Light Horseman, the poignant Latter Days.

The frontmen of Bon Iver and The National called their album, which quickly reached No1 in the Americana UK charts, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? The answer is just over an hour and 15 tracks. There are many highlights and numerous other alliances but Mitchell’s contributions reside longest in the memory.

The Vermont songwriter is returning a favour, Vernon having played on the album of her award-winning musical Hadestown. Dessner, whose upright piano frills are a melancholic delight, says: ‘It was clear to Anaïs that the early sketch Justin and I made was about childhood, a loss of innocence and nostalgia for a time before adulthood – before you’ve hurt people or lost people and made mistakes. She defined the whole record when she sang that, as these same themes keep appearing.’

Dessner told Apple Music about the whistling that takes you by surprise in the intro: ‘I'd recorded the instrumental and when Justin heard it, the first thing he did was whistle. There was a mic that picked him up, and we kept it as a sort of improvised vocal melody that I wrote words to. I've always liked that about records where there are things that you don’t clean up. If you listen closely, you'll hear crickets and frogs on certain songs because the doors were open.’

Mitchell closes the album with the lovely ballad New Auburn, having sung harmonies behind Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold on the joyous Phoenix. Other indie performers include Taylor Swift (Dessner produced her two lockdown albums), Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Ben Howard and Kate Stables, aka This Is The Kit. Another standout is Brycie, Dessner’s heartfelt tribute to his twin brother Bryce and cohort in The National who helped him fight depression during high school.

Take me high, lay me low

You know my thoughts before I know

Lift me up when I’m down

You watched my back when we were young

Big Red Machine is the nickname of the Cincinatti Reds baseball team in Ohio. Cincinatti-born Dessner wrote a piano tune in their honour. He wrote to Vernon in Eaux Claires, Wisconsin, asking him to contribute to a collaborative charity record called Dark Was The Night. Vernon obliged with Bracket, WI, but also wrote a lyric to Big Red Machine. ‘We’d never met,’ Dessner told Hot Press, ‘but we had this beautiful song.’ The beginning of a fruitful alliance with collaboration as a cornerstone.

‘I’ve tried to create an environment that feels like you can try things without judgement,’ Dessner said. ‘The idea is to value the process as much as the product. I think giving people time and space to experiment, share ideas, reach out to people you've not worked with or hope to work with, is a way to push music forward and bring people closer together.’

Mitchell and Vernon dovetail beautifully on Latter Days, which resonates with these harrowing times viewed from a distance: ‘I recall it all forever/ How we sheltered in our place/ And we called each other lovers/ In the latter days.’ Vernon told Uncut Magazine: ‘I can’t think of another record like this, where it’s not really a band but tons of lead singers.’ Anaïs, take a bow.

Can’t Let Go: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

At last the sequel. Fourteen years after their magical collaboration for Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss have reunited for a second album, Raise The Roof. Our Song Of The Week at is their first taster, the bluesy rocker Can’t Let Go.

They were no doubt swayed by the swampy Lucinda Williams version of this Randy Weeks song which appeared on her breakthrough album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, in 1998. Like Raising Sand, November’s release has been produced by T Bone Burnett.

A tale of desperate hope and love gone wrong, Can’t Let Go perfectly suits a duet, especially the heavenly harmonies created by the Led Zeppelin frontman and bluegrass fiddle legend. ‘I got a big chain around my neck/ And I’m broken down like a train wreck/ Well it’s over and I know it but I can’t let go.’

Krauss said: ‘We wanted it to move. We brought other people in, personalities within the band, and coming back together again in the studio gave a new intimacy to the harmonies.’ Plant added: ‘You hear something and you go, Man, listen to that song, we got to sing that song! It’s a vacation, really – the perfect place to go that you least expected to find.’

Bill Frisell provides the electric twang above David Hidalgo’s acoustic guitar as drummer Jay Bellerose lays down an irresistible shuffle. Other stellar recruits on the album are guitarists Marc Ribot and Buddy Miller, bassists Dennis Crouch and Alison’s brother Viktor Krauss and pedal steel ace Russ Pahl.

Raise The Roof is largely a covers album, reimagining songs by The Everly Brothers, Merle Haggard, Allen Toussaint, Anne Briggs, Bert Jansch and 1930s jazz-blues singer Geeslie Wiley (how will they interpret the heart-rending Last Kind Words Blues?).

There’s an exciting Plant-Burnett original, the brooding High And Lonesome, to savour. Krauss reveals that as soon as she heard the wonderful Calexico track Quattro (World Drifts In) she knew a second album was on the way. It could be another Grammy gimme. She and Plant are planning a tour in 2022. Roofs will be raised. We are so grateful they couldn’t let go.

The Collector: Josienne Clarke

Josienne Clarke’s long journey towards respect and recognition has left many scars but her latest album, A Small Unknowable Thing, confirms she has won the battle. Our Song Of The Week at is The Collector, an intoxicating track which provides her record’s title.

Clarke, whose anguish over a lack of credit for her talents left her musical partner Ben Walker stranded mid-gig in Belgium in 2018, is flying high and solo. Her own label, her own arrangements, her own production. Self-doubt has given way to a reclaiming of the narrative from the misogyny of past partners and an industry which has a history of keeping women in their place.

You’re the collector

You’ll keep me forever

A small unknowable thing

With you as preceptor

’Cause you’re the collector

Who owns unownable things

By pinning their wings

The track is inspired by John Fowles’ 1963 novel of the same name in which a psychotic young man, a butterfly collector, kidnaps a female art student in London and holds her captive in the cellar of his farmhouse. It opens with distorted, grungy guitar to reflect the horror of the woman’s treatment. Sussex-born, Scotland-based Clarke, 39, explains: ‘He doesn’t see her as a human being. She has all this power and then none at all. Her’s was a power she’s unable to use for anything; the man’s was always greater. It’s a power that makes you feel very vulnerable.’

Clarke, who plays guitar, saxophone and harmonium, tells Elizabeth Aubrey in an insightful interview on her website: ‘When young women go into the music industry they face a lot of negatives, every single day. You’ll be told you need help with things, that you won’t possibly know how to work this pedal or produce that track. You very quickly end up losing control and you start to doubt the idea that you are able to do those things yourself – or at all.

‘I feel like as women, we have to be experts in something before we’ll push ourselves forward… It was a conscious decision to walk away from my career as it was and there’s a positive message on this record. I do know how to produce my own album, I do know how to play a guitar, I do know what I’m doing, I do know who I am and I’m not interested in listening to what anyone else thinks they know about it. No one knows better than you what you think and feel. That’s the theme that runs all the way through this.’

Some might describe her music as introspective indie folk or ‘poetic melancholy‘, but I prefer highly literate, multi-genre songwriting. A Letter On A Page (‘I wasn't sure if I’d ever play music again when I wrote this’), Chains, Deep Cut, Repaid, Sit Out, Unbound. There’s defiance and courage in these finely observed, pithy, never self-pitying songs. Memorable couplets abound, as in the beautiful Unbound: ‘Time is a great healer/ And I’d wager space can do that too/ As I look out at all the water/ I feel the damage beginning to undo.’

Deep Cut could be her Positively 4th Street for its brilliant put-downs. ‘I’m half as bitter as you’d be/ If you were me,’ she concludes. Her musician-photographer-film-maker husband Alec Bowman-Clarke, who directed the video, said: ‘It’s a perfect evisceration of a lyric and when Josienne said she imagined it as an answering machine message to someone she didn’t want to talk to, I knew what I had to do.’

The raw rage of 2019’s In All Weather, before which she sought sanctuary from personal turbulence on the Isle of Bute and ‘broke up with everything except songwriting’, has turned to hope. Music as catharsis. As she says: ‘On all my album journeys I take you to the depths of despair and then give you a reason why it’s all going to be OK in the end.’ With Clarke in control and singing so passionately, it is better than OK. The gaslighting has been extinguished.

Better Way: Watchhouse

We’ve long been admirers of Mandolin Orange – except for that rather twee moniker. Now the North Carolina couple have taken the bold step of changing it. Welcome, Watchhouse. They’ve found a better way, and Better Way is our Song Of The Week at Alluring roots music.

The mandolin and those exquisite harmonies are still fundamental but Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz are taking more chances melodically. The dovetailing of instruments with Emily’s fiddle on Better Way, especially on the dissonant chords, is delightful, with drummer Joe Westerlund laying down an attractive shuffle backbeat, co-producer Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman) adding fine electric guitar and keyboards, Josh Oliver on acoustic guitar and Clint Mullican on upright bass.

The dreamy track, which Marlin wrote for Watchhouse’s self-titled debut album, deals with the perils of anti-social media and craves a kinder world...

Well, you found you had a voice, and the world stopped to listen

But you had nothing good to say

Now you’re alone, digging for bones, buried in your phone for hours

What a waste of a day

Marlin explains the reincarnation: ‘Mandolin Orange was born out of my 21-year-old mind. The name isn’t what I strive for when I write because it doesn’t match what I picture when I invite people into my songs, new or old. We have long been burdened by the dichotomy between our band name and the music we strive to create.’

The pandemic created the space to make the change. The new name has history, says Marlin, a place where he spent ‘memorable, secluded and meditative time’ in a hunting cabin in Chesapeake Bay, accessible only by boat, during his difficult teenage years. ‘I learned how music wasn’t just something that happened. It’s a place, it’s gravity (Strawberry Fields was the song that did it). It was an escape. I wrote song after song, and found someone to share it with when I met Emily…

‘We are lucky that Mandolin Orange means something to many people, and we’ve no intention of leaving behind our older material. It’s as important to us as ever. If you’ve heard the songs you know they’re personal. Now that we can see a future where music is a shared experience again, we’re defining the space we share. We’re different people than when we started this band. We’re setting new intentions, taking control of this thing again.’

The duo launched their project in 2009, releasing six albums, the last of which, 2019’s Tides Of A Teardrop, topped four Billboard charts. They have always been associated with bluegrass and lyrical Appalachian folk but their expanded Watchhouse sound, sometimes otherworldly, makes them more difficult to categorise. Outstanding songs such as the gorgeous Lonely Love Affair, written after the birth of their daughter, and New Star provide a more hopeful view of life than Tides Of A Teardrop.

On the excellent Upside Down and Beautiful Flowers, a simple but compelling track about climate change, Frantz attractively takes the lead. Politics as well as the personal: Watchhouse have a lot to say and have found an even better way to play it. They’ve reinvented the feel.

Starlight: Yola

Bristol-born Yola’s journey from fragility to acceptance is joyously celebrated on her second album Stand For Myself. Our Song Of The Week at is the smouldering Starlight, the perfect showcase for a soaring, soulful voice that knows no boundaries.

The 38-year-old Yola has mastered the diverse styles of her parents’ record collection from Dolly Parton and Shania Twain to Minnie Ripperton and Tina Turner, from rock and R&B to retro soul and Britpop. She is devouring the genres and the generations, from the Fifties onwards. Written with Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach and pianist Bobby Wood, Starlight is Yola’s attempt to present a positive representation of black female sexuality. ‘I've been trying to hide it/ Trying hard to deny it.’

The Nashville-based singer-songwriter says: ‘In a world that seems to attach a negative trope of cold heartedness to the concept of any sexual connection that isn't marriage, the song looks through a lens of warmth specifically when it comes to sex positivity. Temporary or transitory doesn’t have to be meaningless or miserable. In the right situations every connection can teach us something valuable about who we are, what we want and what is healthy.’

The album was produced by Auerbach, who was at the helm for her outstanding debut LP Walk Through Fire which earned four Grammy nominations. Yola, born Yolanda Quartey, appears as her guitar hero Sister Rosetta Tharpe in a forthcoming Elvis biopic directed by Baz Luhrmann. She should be playing herself in a drama about her own experiences: racist abuse, a frightening house fire, a brief spell of homelessness and a long fight for recognition by a gifted woman singer of colour.

It is a moving back story in which her mother’s funeral in 2013 was a pivotal moment, inspiring the incongruously upbeat song Break The Bough. ‘I remember thinking about the size of my mother’s casket and how, for all the drama and difficulty it was in dealing with this woman, it all boils down to such a pitifully sized box,’ she told Variety. ‘I thought, if this is it I’m going to do me from this point… When I get out of this grief situation, I’ll learn guitar.’ Learn she did. Mum understandably preferred Yola to find ‘a proper job’ but she underestimated her daughter’s resolve.

Auerbach has played a major role in her development and her burgeoning confidence. So much so she is a flagship artist on his Easy Eye Sound record label. ‘Oh, man, from the very first time I heard her sing I was like: Why isn’t she a star? Why doesn’t everyone know her?’ he told Variety. ‘Maybe the girl on the cover of the last album was the person in her bedroom listening to the records, but the girl on the cover of this record is headlining the stadium.’ Yola calls the shots now, choosing her own writing partners, backing musicians and video visuals and themes.

Other album highlights are the stirring, anthemic title track, the delicious disco gem Dancing Away In Tears and the funky, foot-stomping Diamond Studded Shoes. The latter, with its Motown groove, is a protest song inspired by the sight of a certain prime minister’s expensive footwear while announcing austerity cuts (‘We know it isn’t, we know it isn’t/ We know it isn’t, it ain’t gonna turn out right… We know it isn’t, and that’s why we got to fight’).

Dancing Away In Tears was penned with Auerbach and Natalie Hemby, Yola’s fellow member of country supergroup The Highwomen. ‘Apparently in the womb, disco would come on and I’d be pushing the belly out,’ she says. The country influence holds less sway here amid the symphonic strains of Burt Bacharach and Barry White as she creates from a broader palette. It is no surprise to learn she is one of only a handful of performers to appear at both the Newport Jazz Festival and its folk equivalent.

Brandi Carlile, who provides harmonies on Be My Friend, is another Highwomen champion, calling her ‘a revolutionary Americana artist’. She adds: ‘There’s an abstract ruggedness and a grit about her music, her stage persona, the way she performs.’ Yola told Channel 4 how insidious racism hampered her advancement, unspeakably advised to remain a backing singer, well away from forefront, the starlight. ‘Jousting with entitlement has been a mainstay of my life.’

Album closer Stand For Myself is a defiant response to such hardship, stereotyping and music industry put-downs. ‘Now I’m alive, it’s hard to explain/ It took this much time, it took this much pain/ You can get here if you’re willing/ Let go of yourself for a new beginning.’ A powerful expression of self-worth and the right to autonomy.

Minutes To Downtown: Jackson Browne

Even when he is persuading us otherwise, all seems well with the world when a new Jackson Browne album arrives. Our Song Of The Week at is the reflective Minutes To Downtown. ‘Forever on this freeway dreaming of my getaway,’ the beloved songwriter sings.

The Californian troubadour, now 72, his voice weathered but still warm and mellow, confronts mortality as he tells of an unexpected romance with a younger partner in a brooding yet hopeful track on his 15th studio album, Downhill From Everywhere, his first since 2014’s Standing In The Breach.

Minutes To Downtown contains memorable lines that, if not quite matching the classic observations of These Days, Fountain Of Sorrow, For A Dancer, Sleep's Dark And Silent Gate and The Fuse, come close...

The years I’ve seen that fell between my date of birth and yours

Fade before the altered shore of a river changing course...

I didn’t think I would ever feel this way again

No, not with a story this long and close to the end

Ever the restless spirit, Browne told the Guardian: ‘I think desire is the last domino to fall. Desire is eternal, like hope. It’s just your capacity to act on it that changes.’ The theme echoes album opener Still Looking For Something: ‘I’m way out over my due date.’ All 10 tracks were written pre-pandemic but a sense of living on borrowed time pervades, for the songwriter and the planet. On the title track, he sings: ‘Do you think of the ocean as yours?/ Do you think about it at all?’

Browne leans on his long-time LA sidemen, including guitarists Greg Leisz (evoking the wizardry of David Lindley) and Val McCallum, bassist Bob Glaub and drummers Mauricio Lewak and Russ Kunkel. Laurel Canyon’s poet laureate has always been a generous collaborator, a notable example here being his gorgeous duet with Brooklyn-based singer Leslie Mendelson on A Human Touch, used in the documentary 5B, a powerful film about the nurses and doctors who revolutionised AIDS care during the 1980s.

Some critics regard his lyrics as too preachy or even hectoring though we can empathise with his darker world view during the Trump era. ‘I know there’s only so much time left in my life,’ he says. ‘But I now have an amazing, beautiful grandson, and I feel more acutely than ever the responsibility to leave him a world that’s inhabitable.’

From climate change to social and racial intolerance, Browne the activist continues to tackle his pet global concerns – on Downhill From Everywhere, Until Justice Is Real and The Dreamer, a lament for Mexican immigrants facing deportation written with Eugene Rodriguez and recorded with Los Cenzontles back in 2017. But it is the personal as much as the political which engages this listener. Those songs in the shape of a heart.

Eurydice: Katherine Priddy

Producers of Scandi noir crime dramas need look no further for their next theme tune. Katherine Priddy’s dark-edged Eurydice from her stellar debut album The Eternal Rocks Beneath is our Song Of The Week at Brooding and breathtaking.

Eurydice is one of two songs using Greek legend to inform modern relationships with erudite lyrics (the other is the equally resplendent Icarus). The eerie soundscape, with its reversed electric guitar and crackling static effects in the intro and swirling orchestration, owes a debt to Radiohead. It has an epic, otherworldly feel.

The quiet strength and grace of her pure vocal over her deftly picked guitar is intoxicating. The 26-year-old Birmingham-based Priddy grew up in the village of Alvechurch, near the Tanworth-in-Arden resting place of Nick Drake, a deep influence alongside John Renbourn, John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson, with whom she has toured. Priddy took part in a well-received online tribute to Drake’s music during lockdown with Jon Wilks, Lukas Drinkwater and Jon Nice. She was delighted when Guy Garvey praised the song on his BBC 6 Music show; one can just imagine an Elbow cover.

Eurydice is a song about trust, the English literature graduate’s love of language and keen observer’s eye revisiting the tale of Orpheus rescuing his lover from the underworld to be told he can only have her if he does not look back to check she is following him...

I wish there was something to let me know you’re still there

A kiss on my neck child to know you’re still living

The sound of your voice be it cruel or forgiving

A touch of your skin or a scratch down my spine

Anything, anything, to let me know you’re still mine

And first light of morning, a moment of still

A comma, a dash, a loaded ellipsis ’til

You sink under slowly, I knew you were only

A shadow behind me... I loved you blindly

Priddy told Folk Radio when she listens to music, she hears the words first before the melody and believes her lyrics should be strong enough to stand alone. She has a gift for storytelling, true to the tradition but recast in a contemporary setting. On Icarus Mikey Kenny’s wondrous fiddle traces the ascent and descent of the central mythical character, an allegory for a lost lover always doomed to self-destruct, bent on flying too high and burning too bright (‘You’re holding the match to your own funeral pyre’).

For the beguiling opening track, Indigo, and the closing The Summer Has Flown she evokes the soundtrack of her youth, a blackbird’s good morning and goodnight. Wolf, the Emily Brontë-inspired title track of her 2018 EP, is refreshed while the haunting Ring O’ Roses reveals a remarkable maturity of writing despite it being one of her oldest compositions.

Priddy has wisely taken her time to build a repertoire and a following before delivering her first full album. With its classical allusions and modern parallels, its delicate balancing act between the tender and the troubling, The Eternal Rocks Beneath, sensitively produced by Simon Weaver, already sounds like a contender for folk album of the year.

Carry It Alone: Amy Helm

Living up to your heritage can be fraught but Amy Helm has honoured her late father Levon’s musical canon with her most accomplished work yet. Our Song Of The Week at is the engaging ballad Carry It Alone from her third solo album, What The Flood Leaves Behind.

The album, produced by fellow multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, was recorded at The Barn, Levon Helm’s studios in Woodstock and scene of his Midnight Ramble live shows from 2004 until his death in 2012. She calls it a ‘temple of music which has its own muse’. Her soprano vocal, echoing the soulfulness of dad’s heyday as a singer and drummer with The Band and beyond, attests to that description.

Helm used to play in Levon’s band during those legendary Ramble nights and returning there could have been daunting, especially performing in studio conditions without an audience. But the warmth and resonance of all that wood made it the perfect setting and ensured there was no stage fright. Kaufman, a member of Bonny Light Horseman, said it was the ‘tuning fork’ for the whole album.

‘It has an acoustic design and feel that makes music easy to play and easy to listen to,' says Helm. ‘Going back to the place where I learned so much about how to express music, how to hold myself in music, how to listen to music, it was humbling in a funny way. I could see clearly where I came from and where I am now in life. I was singing from a different place now and for a different reason.’

Helm collaborated with Zach Djanikian and Erin Rae for Carry It Alone, one of seven co-writes among the 10 tracks. Here she plays mandolin, reminiscent of dad (she also plays piano, guitar and drums) as she ponders a past relationship and her future. The opening lines have a poetic quality:

The Seneca flowed and fed the Finger Lakes

And all the life beneath

But the river is slowed

Waves don’t break they just hang on in

Hang on in the heat

Helm can burn The Barn as well as serenade it. The horns-powered Breathing is a stirring Memphis soul standout. But the gentler, more reflective tracks move you as much: Verse 23, inspired by a psalm and penned for her by MC Taylor, aka Hiss Golden Messenger, which supplies the album title; Cotton And The Cane, a painfully honest song written with Mary Gauthier about growing up around the wreckage of addiction; Calling Home (‘Dad, if you could take my hand/ You could lead me on/ You could help me to stand’); a passionate version of Swedish songwriter Daniel Norgren’s Are We Running Out Of Love?; and the gorgeous, gospel-flecked Renegade Heart.

This album is about reconnection and renewal, exuding a strong sense of optimism. ‘Because of the nature of the material, I entered into the performances with a different intention because the stories were mine. And also I think that the experience I’ve had as a touring musician working my ass off, frankly, raising two kids as a single mom, has been incredibly triumphant and also sometimes really challenging.’

If you like Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi and Allison Russell, Helm’s range and rich, emotional tone will reel you in. The gifts handed down are in loving care. She has a legacy of her own to finesse. What the flood leaves behind is what we’ve got to make.

Rodriguez For A Night: David Crosby

When two of your favourite songwriters join forces, you know you’re in for a treat. David Crosby asked an old hero Donald Fagen for a lyric and the CSNY veteran and former Byrd turned it into a track Steely Dan might have been proud of. Our Song Of The Week at is the funky Rodriguez For A Night from his latest album For Free.

‘I’m so honoured he gave us a set of words,’ the Californian told Rolling Stone. ‘I’d been asking him for a couple of years. We Steely Danned them right into the fucking ground. They are wonderful. It’s a story song and it’s really fun.’ The ‘us’ includes Crosby’s keyboardist son James Raymond, who helped him write and produce the album, Crosby’s fifth record since 2014, his eighth solo offering in all.

Aja and The Royal Scam are among Crosby’s pet albums and Rodriguez For A Night would have sat comfortably in Steely Dan’s back catalogue. Fagen’s typically mischievous tale tells of an insecure ‘drugstore cowboy’ who loses a girlfriend to the charms of a charismatic rival, ‘the outlaw Rodriguez’. Crosby sings: ‘It was then that her heart took flight/ Well, now I'd sell my soul if I could only be/ Rodriguez for just one night’.

Father and son wrote the melody to Fagen’s words. Being derivative is acceptable when it’s your own work you are revisiting. A case of Déjà Vu, to recall an early Crosby song. Those jazz chord progressions so familiar to Dan fans were employed by Crosby too and the addition of tenor sax, fluegelhorn and trumpet is a delight. The legendary session guitarist Dean Parks, who played with Steely Dan and Crosby & Nash, crafts a slick break on Rodriguez.

On working with Raymond, Croz says: ‘Can you imagine what it’s like to connect with your son and find out that he’s incredibly talented – a great composer, a great poet, and a really fine songwriter and musician all around? We’re such good friends and we work so well together, and we’ll each go to any length to create the highest-quality songs we can.’

Raymond, who penned River Rise with his father and Michael McDonald, has the sole writing credit for the haunting I Won’t Stay For Long. ‘It’s my favourite song on the record. I’ve listened to it 100 times now and it still reaches out and grabs me, it’s so painfully beautiful,’ says Crosby.

The title track, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s classic, is another collaboration, a duet with the gifted Sarah Jarosz, who is nearly 50 years his junior. ‘Joni’s the greatest living singer-songwriter, and For Free is one of her simplest,’ Crosby says. ‘I love what it says about the spirit of music and what compels you to play.’

Crosby turns 80 in August, and although tendinitis in his hands cramps his playing, that voice remains in remarkably good order. Joni, an old flame, will no doubt approve. Golden. Stardust.

Wild Turkey: Amythyst Kiah

Tennessee songwriter Amythyst Kiah specialises in the potency of tenderness. Her heart-rending track Wild Turkey is our Song Of The Week at It is one of several standouts from her ground-breaking roots album Wary + Strange.

Wild Turkey, which refers to a brand of bourbon, mourns the loss of her mother who took her own life in the Tennessee River when Kiah was just a teenager. Wary and strange was how she felt. The Chattanooga-raised guitarist, now 34, has carried the burden of that trauma ever since.

The effect of being submerged is subtly simulated by producer Tony Berg’s haunting arrangement...

Tried so hard to be an automaton

Body of steel and wire circuits for my backbone

‘Cause she’s never coming back

No, never coming back

Wild Turkey in the car seat

The bottle’s empty, I hope it gave her some relief

‘Cause she’s never coming back

No, never coming back

When I was seventeen

I pretended not to care

Stayed numb for years to escape despair

Kiah told NPR: ‘There was a good chunk of my life where I had my guard up. I developed very strong rejection and abandonment issues, and I put a wall around myself too. I didn’t go to therapy to talk about any of this stuff until about five years ago. I know I’m not the only person who’s had a loved one die from suicide. Knowing that, my song is something that maybe people can heal from. I know what it’s like to be othered and alienated and feel in-between, I wanted to write songs in a way where anybody can put themselves within the song.’

She studied music at East Tennessee State University, concentrating on bluegrass and old-time tunes but this album is as much southern rock and blues as folk. It’s a profoundly personal, visceral statement that explores and celebrates her standing as a black, gay woman with story-telling songs of defiance, regret and redemption. Thankfully, grief and alienation are absorbed by self-acceptance.

Other exceptional tracks are the pulsating Hangover Blues and the plaintive Firewater (each revisiting her own former dependency on alcohol – ‘How many spirits does it take to lift a spirit I don’t know’), the gospel-driven cri de coeur Tender Organs and the Grammy-nominated Black Myself, a raunchier, swaggering version of the song she introduced to roots supergroup Our Native Daughters in 2019 and the defining moment of her transformation. It was Berg who convinced her it was such an important rallying cry against systemic racism that she had to record an even more powerful rendition.

Berg’s influence as a multi-instrumentalist and creative force at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles made such an impact on Kiah with his treatment of the first completed track, Fancy Drones (Fracture Me), featuring Mellotron, flute and bass harmonica instead of bass guitar, she was persuaded to forsake her earlier versions of songs that had been written over a period of five years. Stellar guitarist Blake Mills was a valued recruit too. ‘To travel back and forth between these different sounds and ideas feels normal to me. I don’t see dividing lines between these genres. They all blur together. If you listen to early or mid-’90s grunge, a lot of those songs use big fat blues-rock riffs.’

‘The project has proved to be a rebirth,’ she wrote for No Depression. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by stories about the battle between light and dark – the naive youth faced with a path, a destiny, that is a departure from familiar people and places and into a world of unbelievable possibility. It is difficult to navigate that decision because the dark is doubt, uncertainty, and even cruel words we say to ourselves that stifle our growth. It’s a shroud that tells us that we are not worthy, even if it is clear to the people around us that we are.’

Kiah and Our Native Daughters soul sister Allison Russell, whose album Outside Child is discussed here, share the distinction of producing the most compelling records of 2021 so far. Their artistry and the courage it took to tell their stories was recognised with debut performances at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. To these ears they are already sounding like Americana artists of the year.


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