FEATURED SONG OF THE WEEK
Spit Of You: Sam Fender
Indie rocker Sam Fender’s piercing observations on his North Shields roots tug at the heart of his powerful ballad ‘about boys and their dads’, Spit Of You. It’s our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Fender’s songwriting idol Bruce Springsteen, a surprise guest during Paul McCartney’s headliner set, might approve.
Glastonbury fans were weeping tears of joy at the festival’s return after a three-year hiatus. Fender heightened the emotion with his heartland rocker, a song exploring the complicated relationship with his father, taken from last year’s acclaimed Seventeen Going Under album, a more self-assured upgrade on his swaggering debut Hypersonic Missiles.
Fender wiped away his own tears as his impressive high tenor rang out: ‘I can talk to anyone, I can talk to anyone/ I can’t talk to you.’ The 28-year-old Geordie (naturally, he plays a Fender, and yes, he’s a Newcastle United fan) describes the track as a declaration of love for his father Alan. It is a nuanced love letter.
‘It’s about how we both struggle as blokes to communicate the way we feel without it becoming a stand-off,’ says the multi-instrumentalist. Dad is played by the actor Stephen Graham in the video. ‘It’s about how the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. As I get further into my twenties I see so much of myself in him, especially when it comes to being stubborn.’
Knotted up with the baggage
Neck like a stone
All sounds just like you
Smashing cups off the floor
And kicking walls through
That’s me and you
‘The second half of the song talks about seeing him with my grandma when she passed away, and how I saw him as a son and how that moment reminded me to make the most of my time with him.’ As he poignantly sings: ‘One day that’ll be your forehead I’m kissing/ And I’ll still look exactly like you.’
His lyrical prowess in dealing with the trials of growing up, self-loathing, his mother’s struggles with illness and the authorities and young people’s mental health during the oppressive pandemic is at its most bleak and affecting here and on The Last To Make It Home, Mantra and Jungleland-like The Dying Light, a hopeful sequel to Dead Boys. The Guardian’s Alex Petridis referred to ‘a white twentysomething male singer-songwriter with a mainstream pop audience who is distinct from all the other white twentysomething male singer-songwriters’. This is no ordinary troubadour.
Like Springsteen, Fender knows how to make an arena rock with sax-sprinkled anthems; the wonderful title track was made for the festival stage. But there’s a wisdom behind the propulsive sound and a weight beyond the years.
She said the debt, the debt, the debt
So I thought about shifting gear
And how she wept and wept and wept
Luck came and died around here
I see my mother
The DWP see a number
She cries on the floor encumbered
I’m seventeen going under
May the Tyneside torchbearer enjoy more than a little of the longevity of his gurus as he continues to give voice to social justice, people’s hardship and the wealth divide in his highly articulate, relatable way. ‘I don’t have time for the very few/ They don’t have time for me and you,’ he exclaims John Lydon-style in the angry, punkish Aye. His wider political musings will sharpen in time à la his more personal writing. A working-class hero is something to be.
Bethel Woods: Midlake
Bethel Woods by north Texas indie rockers Midlake, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, can accurately be described as a dream track. Keyboard player and flautist Jesse Chandler wrote the song in honour of his departed father whose apparition visited him during his sleep, urging the band to reunite and make new music.
Chandler’s dad Dave died in 2018, and the band followed his otherworldly advice to begin work on their fifth album a year later. For The Sake Of Bethel Woods arrives nine years after their last work, Antiphon, when Chandler and guitarist Joey McClellan had joined mainstay members McKenzie Smith, Scott Lee and Eric Nichelson. There was a new lead vocalist too, guitarist Eric Pulido taking the frontman’s mic from Tim Smith whose imaginative songwriting made a masterpiece of their second album in 2006, The Trials Of Van Occupanther, and its sublime opening track Roscoe.
Bethel Woods and the thematic album revisit the fabled home of 1969’s Woodstock Festival, the original location of nearby Woodstock having failed to find a suitable site. The cover art is adapted from an image of Chandler Sr, then 16, captured in the Woodstock movie among the crowd with a group of friends.
After an exhilarating intro led by synth, guitar, drums and piano, Pulido’s alluring vocal craves a return to more tranquil Bethel days, presumably before the festival set up camp: ‘I could get rid of it all for the sake of the Bethel Woods/ To a time and a place where peacefulness once stood/ Gather the women and children/ Leave our homes and our buildings.’ The eerie vibe continues…
Gather your courage and pillars
Leave what’s become familiar
I’ve been ready for years now
Planted my seeds in the ground
The desire of the Woodstock generation for a fairer, more communal world is evoked as Midlake explore how that old sense of youthful optimism can be recaptured. Tracks such as Glistening, the glorious Feast Of Carrion (echoes here of CSNY and Steely Dan) and the poignant Noble – inspired by drummer McKenzie Smith’s son who was born with a rare brain disorder – are fine examples of their genre-defying style, blending folk-rock, jazz inflections and ethereal harmonies.
The John Congleton-produced album, with its emphasis on loss, longing, reconnection and hope, is a significant upgrade on the last record which suffered from Smith’s sad departure. The arch perfectionist is still pursuing his own dream, and there were powerful hints of what might be again last year when he collaborated with Lost Horizons for Grey Tower, a towering vocal on their beautiful In Quiet Moments album.
Much to the delight of their cult following, the recalibrated quintet are discovering a new voice and purpose without straying too far from their signature sound. As Pulido told Uncut magazine: ‘A great catalyst for our hiatus was the overall health of the band and the desire to invest ourselves in other endeavours. I didn’t want to [get back together] if it was out of obligation and definitely not by dragging everyone along. It was quite the opposite and, although Jesse’s dream did have a powerful and poetic influence, we all had our respective inspiration that collectively brought us to this renewed place.’
Farewell Midlake crisis, hello fertile future.
Cruel: Kate Rusby with Darlingside
Kate Rusby is celebrating three decades in the vanguard of progressive folk with an album of old songs refreshed and new collaborations. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Cruel, a lament for lost love, elevated by the divine harmonies of Darlingside.
The ballad is one of 15 tracks on 30: Happy Returns, a rich reinterpretation of favourites from Rusby’s considerable back catalogue. The Boston four-piece Darlingside, whose Hold You Head High is a former Song Of The Week here, add a wondrous choral layer to Kate’s celestial lead. Darlingside are about to begin a short UK tour – catch them if you can.
The sea is not the only cruel element in the song plucked from Rusby’s 2003 album Underneath The Stars – parents, ship, crew, press gang and the fair wind earn the forsaken narrator’s rebuke:
Cruel was the captain
The bosun and the men
For they didn’t give a farthing
If I saw my love again
Haul away, boys, haul away
Haul away boys, haul away
The beautiful ballad is one of many to feature the glittering guitar of producer husband Damien O’Kane which can cascade like a waterfall or soar to the heavens. But it is Rusby’s vocal that is the brightest star here. Her 20th solo album is her finest hour and three minutes – add another seven and a half minutes if you include Secret Keeper, recorded with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and only available as a bonus track on the physical album and CD.
Other magical voices the oft-named Barnsley Nightingale recruited include: South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the buoyant We Will Sing; fellow Yorkshire songwriter Richard Hawley’s velvet baritone on No Names; KT Tunstall’s poppy vibrancy on Let Me Be; Sarah Jarosz’s Americana sophistication on High On A Hill; and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s enduring majesty on the anthemic Walk The Road.
Rusby’s third anniversary compendium marks her 30 years as a touring musician following her 10 and 20 milestone albums. The latter’s supporting cast list featured Richard Thompson, Dick Gaughan, Nic Jones, Paul Weller, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Eddie Reader. There will no doubt be more happy returns.
We Will Sing, from 2014’s Ghost, can now be regarded as a defiant response to the pandemic by performers and audiences alike. When Ladysmith Black Mambazo emailed their backing track – it was touch and go between lockdowns that the singers would make it into the studio – Rusby says she cried for two weeks. She calls their unmistakable township ambience ‘sunshine in a bottle’. ‘When I first recorded it, when I was doing that vocal, I could hear them in my head singing along.’ Her unconfined joy is now ours.
Other Side: Wynonna & Waxahatchee
Wynonna Judd’s first recorded work since the loss of her mother and singing partner Naomi is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Other Side is a delectable duet with indie folk torchbearer Waxahatchee, aka Katie Crutchfield.
The song, not to be confused with the title track of her fourth studio album The Other Side in 1997, was recorded at Wynonna’s farm outside Nashville. She was preparing for The Judds’ final tour with mum before her sudden death after a long battle with mental illness. That tour will still go ahead in the company of Brandi Carlile, Faith Hill, Little Big Town, Ashley McBryde, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride. The country music legend was determined to sing through her grief. Judd and Crutchfield trade poetic verses before harmonising seamlessly on a gorgeous, reverb-enhanced chorus bearing a spiritual message: ‘I got a heart, a heart of gold/ Casts a shadow, dark and cold/ If we move our way against the tide/ There’s something on the other side.’ The song, written by the two women and Judd’s drummer husband Cactus Moser, is described as ‘a wistful, topically relevant song, serving as a beacon of light in the midst of tragedy’. Wynonna, 58, said of Crutchfield: ‘I am grateful for the opportunity to sing with the next generation of greatness.’
Naomi Judd’s violent passing wrought huge emotional strain on her daughters Wynonna and actress Ashley, who discovered the body. ‘The pain of losing mom to suicide is so great that I often feel like I’m not ever going to be able to fully accept and surrender to the truth that she left the way she did,’ Wynonna wrote on Instagram.
‘This cannot be how The Judds’ story ends. As corny as it sounds, Love Can Build A Bridge. I find myself humming the song that mom wrote for the fans to myself here on the farm at night.’
The Judds were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame the day after Naomi took her life. Other Side, solace for a troubled soul, is Wynonna’s first recording since her covers EP Recollections two years ago. Kentucky-born Wynonna sings soulfully from the outset and offers hope: ‘Say my peace like an offhand prayer/ I’m living a grain of sand.’ Crutchfield’s verse echoes the quality of her writing on her wonderful 2020 album Saint Cloud: ‘I’m coming in like a renegade/ A redbud in a field of rye.’
Strengthened by the sobriety she embraced four years ago, Crutchfield explores the southern roots she once rebelled against on Saint Cloud. Her recording alias derives from a creek near the family home in Birmingham, Alabama. Former Song Of The Week Arkadelphia, a beautifully dark tale about addiction which takes its name from a road in Birmingham, has a Dylanesque feel although it is the great Lucinda Williams who remains her ultimate role and soul model.
The 33-year-old singer-songwriter regards Wynonna as a major influence too. ‘She is an icon and a fountain of wisdom,’ says Crutchfield. ‘Sharing space with her to create something new was nothing but a joy and an honour.’ Waxahatchee is looking forward to her own North American tour supporting Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit and Sheryl Crow.
We’d love to hear more from that Wynonna collaboration down at the farm. ‘It’s a memory you hold on to/ It’s high noon in the Texas sky.’
When It Comes For You: Maz O'Connor
If indie folk enjoyed the same exposure as pop, London-based songwriter Maz O'Connor would have a string of radio-friendly hits, and tracks such as When It Comes For You would be played over and over again. It’s our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. An enchanting storyteller takes us on a spiritual journey.
The Cumbrian-raised singer’s hypnotic melodies are accompanied by intelligent lyrics and delivered with an emotional delicacy that speaks volumes for her talent. When It Comes For You, released as a single in February, is from O’Connor’s new album What I Wanted, and it leaves us wanting more. She explains: ‘The song tells the story of searching for spiritual fulfilment via relationships, consumerism, drugs, travel and a new set of teeth.’
The musicianship is admirable: from O’Connor’s guitalele and Will Gardner’s keyboards and synths to Neil Milan’s violin and Jim Molyneux’s drums. Soaring above is that crystalline yet vulnerable voice:
Do you every get the feeling
That you want to change everything?
What you gonna do about it
When it comes for you?
Do you ever get the feeling
They put a price on breathing?
The first full track Soho, a former Song Of The Week here, is a lament for the lost soul of O’Connor’s favourite quirky haunts with its nod to Joni (‘Tore the party down/ And put up a burger joint’). The album’s main theme is the adverse effect of gentrification on her adopted home, an expansion of her Vulpes project during lockdown when she wandered the lonely streets for inspiration, like the city foxes of her alter ego. The record opens with the sound of her footsteps.
‘The songs are little stories set at night, longing for times gone by and people lost,’ she says. ‘They explore faith, friendship, love, the hollowness of capitalism and the search for connection in the age of consumerism.’
The influence of co-writer, pianist and arranger Gardner can be heard throughout these dreamy vignettes. The achingly beautiful, sparse title track (‘about looking back at choices you’ve made in your life and wondering if they were the right ones’), Lily And Lemonade Wine, Cable Street and Anything, Once with its shimmering refrain and lovely lap steel courtesy of Jim Moray are further evidence of melody and imagery interlocking powerfully. And we shouldn’t forget Jessica, a joyous journey through adolescence where doubts about her faith took root.
This is a departure for O’Connor, a risk-taker whose excursion away from her traditional Irish roots earned some misplaced online criticism. But the fusion of acoustic instruments and electronica elements has made this an experiment worth pursuing. Forget the pop parallels, we prefer to call it good music. As she sings in Anything, Once: ‘Everyone needs someone to blame.’ Detractors should be given the Dylan response: I don’t believe you.
The Weight: Mavis Staples & Levon Helm
If the 1978 live album The Last Waltz featured the definitive recording of The Band’s stellar song, The Weight, then the version on the newly released Carry Me Home must run it close. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is a gospel-soaked classic.
The common denominators are Mavis Staples and The Band’s late singer-drummer Levon Helm. What gives the track added poignancy is the knowledge that this was the last time Helm and Staples would perform it before the throat cancer he thought he had conquered returned to claim him in April, 2012. The Staple Singers – Pops, Mavis and her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha – had recorded it with The Band at the time of their farewell concert at The Winterland in San Francisco in 1976, minus audience, for inclusion in Martin Scorsese’s rockumentary released two years later. Has there been a finer rock film?
Carry Me Home, another memorial of a live album, was recorded in the summer of 2011 at one of Helm’s famous Midnight Ramble shows in Woodstock, New York. We always wished we could have attended one of those special nights in The Barn, which helped to pay his mounting medical bills, but this is a sweet substitute.
Helm had always sung the first verse of The Weight but here defers to Mavis’ honey-rich delivery before picking up the later ‘Go down Moses’ stanza. You can detect in the husky rasp that there is enough of the old Arkansas tenor left for us to admire. This is his only vocal lead but that unmistakable tight drumming is as authoritative and attractive as ever. ‘The place just went wild when Levon sang,’ said Staples. ‘It was a real full-circle moment to be performing that song together again.’
Mavis wasn’t to know this was the last time she would see her great friend. ‘We hugged and hugged. In my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me. I take him everywhere I go. And some sweet day we’ll be together again.’ The Weight would become Helm’s closing song at his Rambles and, aptly, it is the album’s final track, an unforeseen requiem.
Robbie Robertson’s masterpiece follows wonderful covers of Bob Dylan’s You Got To Serve Somebody, Curtis Mayfield’s civil rights anthem This Is My Country, Buddy and Julie Miller’s Wide River To Cross and Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The Staples’ This May Be The Last Time (turned into a hit by the Rolling Stones) and Larry Campbell’s gorgeous When I Go Away, which Levon covered on his Electric Dirt album, maintain the joyous standard.
There is so much to enjoy beyond the magic of our two hosts, backed by their respective bands – the guitar work of Rick Holstrom and Campbell and those magnificent horns, particularly the unexpected tuba solo on The Weight.
Helm’s final recorded work can finally be heard more than 10 years on. It has been worth the wait. Fortunately, we’ll be seeing Mavis soon in London during the 82-year-old Chicagoan’s European tour. It is a bonus to learn that Helm’s daughter Amy, an impressive blues-soul singer herself, will join her idol and mentor on stage as she did on those Ramble nights. The circle will be unbroken.
Hard Times In Babylon: Rachel Baiman & Kris Drever
Rachel Baiman and Kris Drever are about to embark on a UK tour together, and one song is bound to resonate throughout. Hard Times In Babylon, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, was written by the estimable Eliza Gilkyson who will surely approve of this moving rendition.
The song, a lament to a departed drummer friend of Gilkyson who took his own life, is the title track of her 2020 album, a musical diary devoted to love and loss. Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist Baiman links up with Scottish singer-guitarist Drever, quickening the tempo slightly and combining for an alluring interpretation of the creator’s powerful original.
Chicago-born Baiman, lauded for her fiddle and banjo playing rooted in bluegrass, picks an acoustic here as Drever and Watchhouse’s Josh Oliver add lovely layers of electric guitar to Riley Calcagno’s acoustic lead. Lauren Horbal’s deft brush work and Adam Chaffins on bass complete the line-up. Above all, the voices of our protagonists dovetail serenely.
‘I first heard the song at the beginning of a long solo drive,’ Baiman told Folk Radio UK. ‘I must have listened to it 20 more times before I reached my destination. What grabs me is the sense of community Gilkyson is referencing. The description of musicians and creatives living under one roof, trying to make it through hard times. Seeing the ghost of a lost friend at a venue they used to haunt, and mourning with one another.’
Baiman captures the sense of hopelessness in the erudite lyric. But there is always hope in Gilkyson’s formidable songs:
Woody, you were my hero
A shoulder to cry on when I bottomed out at zero
In the hour of the wolf, just before the dawn
Hard times in Babylon
OK, so you had to go
Take a walk on the wild side
Down to the valley of the shadow
But it just don’t seem like you
You could have called out
There’s not a man or a woman gathered here tonight in the big house
Who wouldn’t run to pull you through
Orkney-born Drever, juggling his time with the trio Lau, his solo shows and numerous fine collaborations, worked with Baiman remotely, the pair trading ideas. ‘I recorded the track with a full band, in a simple, understated folk style that I thought would be the extent of the vibe for the song,’ she says. ‘But Kris came back with these incredible vocal harmony ideas and guitar lines, which brought out an entirely new shape in the arrangement. I know he was watching that Beatles documentary at the time, and I’m sure I can hear that, which I love.’ And so do we.
No wonder Baiman was bowled over by the enhanced arrangement. The swell of vocals and guitars sound glorious during a middle eight which is the crux of Gilkyson’s message:
Got to hang together when the air’s this thin
Hand out the masks for the oxygen
Live for something
We’re coming upon a time in our lives
When the little dreams live but the big dream dies
Not for nothing, not for nothing
Four years on from Baiman’s well-received debut LP Shame, last year’s Cycles album revealed a grittier quality to her writing with a collection of songs about ‘how we destroy and rebuild as families and as a country’. She has matured into a fearless, sometimes political voice for ‘the immense strength of women in the face of adversity’.
On tour Baiman and Drever will perform separate sets but join forces for a number of songs. Hard Times In Babylon will be one of many to savour.
Point Me Toward The Real: Ezra Furman
‘When I look to the future I want to know who has my back,’ says Chicago-born, Oakland-based songwriter Ezra Furman. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is her haunting single, Point Me Toward The Real, a real beauty of a song about recovery and self-discovery. There are nods to Bob Dylan in the melody and echoes of Neil Young and Patti Smith in the vulnerable vocal. The narrator describes a car journey after being released from a psychiatric hospital; Furman hadn’t experienced it herself but was eager to discuss ‘what you do after abuse, imprisonment, a brush with death’. ‘Who do you call when it’s supposedly over?’ she asks. ‘Where do you go? We’ve all been going through something terrifying. We’ve all made friends with death in the last two years. What is real, what and who can I rely on? Point me toward the real; there’s no other direction I want to go.’ Furman, who came out last year as a transgender woman, has released her first music since 2019’s Twelve Nudes album and the soundtrack to the Netflix movie Sex Education. The former punk rocker’s latest tracks, including Book Of Our Names, reveal a more measured, slow-burning approach although the protest singer’s anger within her is never far from the surface. The producer is John Congleton (Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, St Vincent and Future Islands), the sumptuous horns were arranged by Nate Walcott of Bright Eyes and soulful harmonies provided by Shannon Lay and Debbie Neigher. As one fan tweeted: ‘Awesome. Chord progression comes from heaven. Every lyric lands.’ The lyric points to Furman's central theme of love and care: You asked me who I might like to see on my first night back outside
But my friends are few and my lover is through and my family’s horrified…
I’ve been lied to and abused Time to try to heal Cut me loose, cut me loose Let me get hurt, let me feel Cut my bound hands and point me toward the real
The most recent track, Book Of Our Names, was inspired by her Jewish faith; Furman apparently toyed with the idea of training to be a Rabbi. ‘The song is about what it feels like to live together under an empire that doesn’t value your lives. I sing it as a Jew and as a trans woman, knowing well the stakes and consequences of being part of a hated population. But it is a protest song intended for use by any movement for collective survival and freedom.’
The Book of Names is the Hebrew biblical equivalent of Exodus. ‘I started to think that the act of saying names out loud, of seeing individuals in their full irreplaceable uniqueness, holds the seed of true liberation.’
Let any doubters or detractors be pointed toward the real.
Heaven And Light: River Whyless
They could have moved to Nashville but settled for Asheville. Presenting indie folk-rock band River Whyless, named after a line from an e.e. cummings poem. Their latest album Monoflora provides our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, Heaven And Light. A divine sound.
The North Carolina-based quartet – Halli Anderson, Daniel Shearin, Ryan O’Keefe and Alex McWalters – are all songwriters who met at Appalachian State University. They converted drummer McWalters' mountain cabin into a studio, transferring equipment from Shearin’s home in town and spent 30 days recording in 2019 before the pandemic struck. Only now have they been able to promote the fruits of their labour.
The vocal interplay between violinist Anderson, guitarist O’Keefe and bassist and multi-instrumentalist Shearin is a delight, as engaging as Darlingside, Watchhouse and Lula Wiles. Folk, roots and bluegrass blend with early Fleet Foxiness and Beatles-like psychedelia although the synth effects are more sparing than on their previous two albums, Kindness, A Rebel and We All The Light.
The songs were mostly written from scratch or from scraps of undeveloped ideas, an improvised team effort. Their self-produced record explores themes of wanderlust, lost innocence and the marvels of their inspiring surroundings and the natural world.
Heaven And Light examines our capacity to be wonderful and woeful at the same time, captured by the line 'We are parasite, we are divine'. 'The idea had a certain meaning to me in 2019, but after having gone through the pandemic it resonates so much stronger,' McWalters told The Boot. 'To see how people have behaved throughout the past couple of years has been eye-opening. You can turn on the news and hear about amazing acts of kindness followed by stories of selfishness.'
Time and again it's true The quicker the judge, the quicker the fool Longing to leave it all, longing for you As you show me, show me a kinder day In the end now, the end now Don't we fade to the same heaven and light? Heaven and light
The American poet cummings, who used lower-case spelling for his work as well as his name, loved to invent words, such as ‘the whyless sky’. It struck a chord with the band who chose the prefix ‘river’ for its ever-changing, ever-bending qualities that reflected their music.
'The word whyless to us means something inexplicable,' said McWalters. 'Which is how we feel when we're in Asheville making music. Every time we'd come back from the west, we'd get our first glimpse of the Appalachian mountains and we'd go: we’re home. A certain sound comes out of you. Subconsciously we're fed by this place.’
The drummer gave an insight into the creative process on Monoflora: ‘With each of us being songwriters, it’s like having four cooks in the kitchen, which can lead to a lot of creative stalemates. We wanted to obscure the fingerprints of who actually wrote each song. We were deliberate about not writing anything outside of the band because with multiple writers and styles an album often doesn’t feel as cohesive. Even though we still have three vocalists on it, this record feels like it's all coming from one vision.’
For further evidence, listen to Oil Skin, Time Is A Holy Ghost (featuring Anderson’s sizzling violin) and Michigan Cherry. The first line of Oil Skin, ‘When I was a child my mother would bathe me in the sink, pull the oil from my skin’, had been ‘kicking around my head for years’, O’Keefe told The Bluegrass Situation. It might have made earlier albums but only worked when Shearin suggested switching from waltz time to a 4/4 beat.
‘We left the vocal melody resembling the original waltz and that was the key. It has a subtle trippy cadence that I wouldn’t have naturally thought of. It still took some work but we had unlocked the door and stepped inside.’ Where Heaven And Light awaited.
The Bay Of Fundy: The Unthanks
If The Unthanks did not exist, we would have to invent them. Singing sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, at their most majestic, have revitalised a song first recorded in 1967 entitled The Bay Of Fundy, our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song. A glorious preview of their autumn album Sorrows Away.
The album title strikes a note of optimism after the pain of the pandemic though The Bay Of Fundy is a brooding piece, beautifully sung and played with pianist, composer, producer and musical director Adrian McNally at the helm. Its cinematic soundscape makes it an inviting contender for a future Netflix seafaring drama.
The song was written by American folklorist and songwriter Gordon Bok who grew up in Camden, Maine. The bay in Nova Scotia, Canada, which touches the tip of Maine, has the highest tides in the world.
It tells the tale of being aboard a boat, stranded on the tide, waiting for days to be delivered safely to shore. It happened to Bok as he drifted for 11 days on a windless voyage from Maine to Halifax. ‘It was a long and weary trip on a little black schooner that seemed to move only by the slatting of her gear,’ Bok recalled. The sense of isolation, according to The Unthanks, provokes thoughts of the magnitude of nature compared to our tiny selves.
We wonder if, apart from the eerie melody, the Tyneside siblings were lured by Bok’s reference to 'East-North East'.
Fundy's long and Fundy's wide Fundy's fog and rain and tide Never see the sun or sky Just the green wave going by Cape Sable's horn blows all day long I wonder why, I wonder why East-by-North or East-North East Give her what she steers the best I don't want the foggy wave To be my far and lonely grave Give her staysail, give her main In the darkness and the rain I don't mind the wet and cold I just don't like the growing old
Audiences during the current tour are being treated to more gems from the album, their first non-project work since Mount The Air, 2015's Folk Album of the Year. Their 11-piece ensemble includes core members Niopha Keegan (fiddle and vocals) and multi-instrumentalist Chris Price augmented by regulars Lizzie Jones on trumpet, drummer Martin Douglas, Becca Spencer (viola) and Kath Ord (violin).
The Unthanks have always loved a project from their tributes to the songs of Anthony And The Johnson, Robert Wyatt and Molly Drake to wonderful alliances with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Charles Hazelwood’s Army of Generals.
For the latest in their Diversions series of records they returned to their roots with an unaccompanied outing, a nod to the popular singing weekends they regularly organise. They created song cycles from Emily Brontë’s poetry (McNally using the poet’s own tiny piano), collaborated with Maxine Peake to produce ground-breaking theatre and provided the soundtrack for Mackenzie Crook’s BBC adaptation of the Worzel Gummidge books.
Back to the day job. Soon we can savour more original, multi-directional, genre-defying music for the heart and soul. Thankfully, The Unthanks will continue to do their best to drive our sorrows away.
I Will Be Glad: Jess Jocoy
Nashville-based songwriter Jess Jocoy is pursuing silver linings and her golden voice has found an album’s worth. Her new single, I Will Be Glad, is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. A pleasing appetiser for her forthcoming release Let There Be No Despair.
Jocoy counts her blessings with a song rooted in the passing of her father, her close relationship with her mother and the challenge of love with another. She says: ‘While I like to include little hints of my truth within my songs I Will Be Glad has a lot of personal truth. It’s a salute to my parents for raising me to look for the good and always give thanks, for all my faults and misgivings or when the road feels a little too long.’
The accompaniment has a stripped-down, soft-hued beauty: Ethan Ballinger’s hypnotic acoustic guitar hook, Lydia Luce’s melancholic violin, Brian Allen’s fine double bass and Matty Alger’s rim and brush subtlety provide the perfect foil for Jocoy’s aching vocal as she taps into the power of resilience. The lyric reveals an admirable maturity to match the emotional intensity of her singing.
In the end that big old mountain we keep climbing
I pretend that I’m already at the peak
In the end when the sunshine turns to rust
And my body returns to the dust
For all the sweetest days I’ve been given
I will be glad
I can’t say I answer every call
Oh and sometimes I catch fire like the treetops in the fall
But I’m learning that good lessons
Leave their scars like raw confessions
And the ones that hurt the worst make you stand tall
Let There Be No Despair, produced by Brandon Bell with help from Alger and due out on May 20, is billed as ‘a record for the days when life tries to break your heart’. It follows her lauded debut album Such A Long Way (‘aiming for a sweet spot somewhere between Jason Isbell and Emmylou Harris’) and self-produced EP Brighter Eyes, both crafted in Jocoy’s adopted city whose country-folk songwriters had captured her imagination as a youngster who was driven around Washington state to singing competitions and karaoke sessions by her parents.
The album blends the personal with imaginative storytelling songs in which she inhabits disparate characters. The Gardener tells of a Montana woman who, unable to bear children, coaxes new life in the form of flowers from the earth while the haunting Waiting To Exhale deals with abuse and a survivor’s steadfast spirit. ‘Part of me feels like I may not have a right to tell some of these stories, because they aren’t my own,’ she says, ‘but it’s the heartbreaking truth that someone out there has lived through these things. I sing for them, hoping they’ll hear it and know there’s light after darkness.’
Inspired by her mother’s rural hometown along the Arizona-Mexico border, she turns Living In A Dying Town into a powerful portrait of a defiant resident proud of her roots and willing to fight for them. In Jericho Walls she sings disarmingly about the barriers she has built around herself. Readers of this website may recall our Song Of The Week choice featuring Luce (her gorgeous song Occasionally) and we sang the praises of Ballinger for his pulsating electric guitar work on Aubrie Sellers’ Worried Mind which is echoed during the title track of Let There Be No Despair.
When Jocoy lost her father to cancer in 2013, six months after his diagnosis, she decided to thread her grief into the fabric of her songs, acknowledging that pain is a universal feeling. ‘That’s when I really started to learn how to write sad songs,’ she says. There will be hope, there will be joy.
I don’t get to hear my father’s voice
But his hazel eyes reflect within my own
If there ever was a time you’d need clout to turn back time
It’s when you gotta let somebody go
Jocoy moved to Nashville in 2014, and her journey of self-discovery has reached an important landmark. After the pandemic shut down the world and slowed her swift rise to recognition, she is looking forward to promoting her art with her first UK tour in June and July. We will be glad to be there.
Harness The Wind: Calexico
US indie band Calexico are celebrated for their desert noir soundscapes but just when the world needed hope they’ve shone a light in the darkness. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is the buoyant Harness The Wind.
Hope is the theme of their 10th studio album, El Mirador, and you can hear it in the glittering guitar of lead singer Joey Burns, the busy drumming of John Convertino, the urgent bass and synth of Sergio Mendoza and a chorus swelled by the harmonies of regular collaborator Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine.
Do you dream of flying
At the speed of light?
Shooting for the moon
Another lonely night
You get so high
Don’t wanna come back down
To a world of problems
With answers never found
Are we just falling stars
Dancing across the sky?
If our worlds don’t collide
Is there a chance for you and I?
Burns, who founded Calexico with Convertino over 30 years ago, explained the idea behind the song: ‘When we recorded it felt like we tapped into a spark of bright light and positivity. Everything fell together quickly and naturally. It's a song about hope and compassion to fellow travellers who are trying to find their way.’ As the blurb says, welcome to ‘a blast of danceable optimism’.
‘El Mirador stands both as a lookout point and beacon in the dark; an opportunity to search inwards, ponder our connections to the Earth and its people, and hopefully illuminate a path forward,’ Burns added. ‘It is dedicated to family, friends and community. The pandemic highlighted all the ways we need each other, and music happens to be my way of building bridges and encouraging inclusiveness and positivity. That comes along with sadness and melancholy, but music sparks change and movement.’
The band named after a California-Mexico border town, with Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet a haunting presence and multi-instrumentalist Mendoza sprinkling his magic in his Tucson studio, have composed a 12-track love letter to the ghostly landscape of the American South-West, the TexMex and mariachi textures richer than ever. Their cinematic sound is evocative of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti westerns, particularly the exuberant El Burro Song (beyond the brass listen out for the donkey brays) and two foot-tappers named after a Colombian dance, Cumbia Peninsular (featuring Spanish singer-guitarist Jairo Zavala, aka DePedro) and Cumbia Del Polvo.
Constellation is another celestial standout, a sister song to Harness The Wind, and on the title track Calexico are joined by Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno, Tom Hagerman of Devotchka on solo violin and strings, and Alessandro Stefana on electric guitar, banjo and lap steel. El Paso, with Pieta Brown contributing a fine lyric, has a Tom Waits vibe and contains the memorable lines: ‘Fighting for a border/ That’s hard to understand/ And harder to find/ Than the truth in this land.’
The singing is as much in Spanish as English, and the musical accent is distinctly Latin. A vibrant fiesta for the senses.
Weep & Whisper: The Hanging Stars
When all the talk is war, catastrophe and crisis, it can be heart-warming to roll back the rock years to the Summer of Love. Our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song is Weep & Whisper, a shimmering galaxy of guitars from The Hanging Stars that is evocative of the spirit of 1967 when the news agenda was just as bleak.
For those of us weaned on The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Bros and Love’s Forever Changes, this is a throwback to psychedelia written in the here and now from the London-based band’s fourth and finest album, Hollow Heart. The Hanging Stars would only have read about that era or seen the film footage but they immersed themselves in its music. Sample the evidence as the cosmic country sonics of Weep & Whisper send you soaring beyond eight miles high.
The album was recorded between lockdowns in the Highlands, the band having decamped to Edwyn Collins’ studio in Helmsdale with producer Sean Read. ‘The stars aligned,’ lead singer and guitarist Richard Olson told the music blog Say It With Garage Flowers. ‘We grafted and were so focused. It was magical from start to finish.’
The track was a high point for Olson too. ‘When you’re standing in the studio, and the sun’s setting over the bay, and you’re singing Weep & Whisper, you think you’ve made it. The songs had been written, demos had been sent to each other, and we finished them in the studio. We threw the rulebook out the window – we had to.’
Weep & Whisper is a love song to lost dreams, arranged by pedal steel maestro Joe Harvey-Whyte. ‘Patrick [Ralla, the band’s multi-instrumentalist] and Joe did their guitars in one take – it wasn’t edited. Me and Sean sat there and were like: Shit, this is what it’s all about. That was one of the finest moments of my musical career.’ Sam Ferman’s bass is a darting delight and drummer Paulie Cobra impresses with deft brushes and harmonies more Laurel Canyon than Walthamstow.
Olson’s attractive vocal is gaining authority. ‘I think I’m finally entering Swedish Sam Cooke territory,’ he jests.
We used to talk about the times
Future days of beauty, truth and promised lands
Echoes of a stream to cross
Weep and whisper for a time that never was
So please forgive my true despair
At the time that we won’t have or hold or share
Despite the band’s broadly optimistic outlook, Olson admits to having produced his darkest lyrics, a reflection of the times. He is probably referring to the political I Don’t Wanna Feel So Bad Anymore where the glorious 12-string intro signals their jingle-jangle influences – you can hear The Byrds, The Doors (that organ sound), The Beatles, The Who. The effect is uplifting.
The radio-friendly riffs of Radio On (‘Big Star meets the Velvet Underground’), Black Light Night and Ballad Of Whatever May Be contrast thrillingly with the subtle layers of Ava (echoes of Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead) and the disturbing Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart (‘Us trying to be Fairport Convention’).
CSNY, Starry Eyed And Laughing, The Turtles, The Beach Boys, Bread, The Stone Roses… we all love indulging in what-does-this-remind-you-of parlour games. But the time may have arrived when we say The Hanging Stars sound just like, well, The Hanging Stars.