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Songs Of The Week 2023: Take 1

Updated: 3 days ago

Neil Morton


Dreaming In Another Language: Arborist

Belfast-based musician Mark McCambridge, aka Arborist, explores the sacrifices and pain of the songwriter’s art in Dreaming In Another Language, our Song Of The Week at Psych folk-rock at its most melodious and mysterious. Hypnotic, in a John Cale-Weather Station kind of way.

The single is an early taster for Arborist’s third album, the intriguingly titled An Endless Sequence Of Dead Zeros, due out on April 21. The accompanying blurb describes it as ‘a spiralling, looping trip of a song, an experimental slice of kaleidoscopic, psychedelic Americana which meditates on dreams and our submission to a dreamlike state’. We couldn’t have put it better.

The lyric is perceptive and melancholic, revealing a frustration descending into exasperation…

I’m drowning in the clutches of a crippling debt

Yet in some ways I hold it as a mark of success

I’m producing my best

They just don’t pay me for it yet

That last line will resonate for many of the struggling musicians I follow. The Wilco-esque tale echoes philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, his theory of endless repeating cycles. The Ballymena-born McCambridge says it taps into the song’s guitar loop. ‘There are three different versions of myself seemingly condemned to repeat the same actions over and over; from birth to death to rebirth, colliding with each other along the way.’

And if you’re searching for the revelation that your songs don’t bleed

Well there are worse ways to find out than to hear it from me

They’re not human you see

They won’t set you free

Sam O’Mahony, director of the stunning video, says: ‘The visual reflects the lyric without representing it literally. It invites the listener to disappear into their imagination and crosses the boundary between fantasy and reality.’ It will be fascinating to find out how O’Mahony reimagines two other standout tracks: the poignantly personal O, Margaret about McCambridge’s mother (‘For all the songs I’ve sung/ I’ve never dedicated one/ To a love I had already won’) and the beautiful Dewdrop, Cherry Oak, from which the album title is borrowed.

We’re propping up dead bodies to sing to them

For we folk have no meaning without an audience

The nine-track album, which follows 2020’s acclaimed A Northern View and Arborist’s 2016 debut Home Burial, was produced by Matthew E White at his Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia, during eight March days last year. McCambridge, who had been wistful of the classic American studios such as Motown in Detroit and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, managed to attract assistance for his latest project from the PPL Momentum Music Fund to finance his trip to the US.

The accomplished Spacebomb house band includes guitarist Alan Parker, Daniel Clarke on keys, Cameron Ralston (bass) and Pinion Chanselle (drums) and draws on Trey Pollard’s rich scores for strings, brass and woodwind. ‘Trey’s work was one of the main appeals of taking these songs to Spacebomb,’ says McCambridge. Pollard’s orchestration is lovingly lush throughout.

McCambridge was euphoric when he heard the tracks played back on the final day of recording with Pollard’s supplementary players embellishing the sound. ‘Because you’re working so fast, you don’t get to hear much. You’re making decisions fairly quickly as you go. So that was the day when I got to sit back in the control room,’ he told the Belfast Telegraph. ‘An element of self-doubt creeps in but I was delighted with what we had done. Then you get the luxury of having these supreme arrangements, played by supreme musicians, over the top of it. A 10-piece orchestra. It was pretty surreal but incredibly fulfilling. It made it all worthwhile.’

The mesmerising closing track, Alabaster Skin, is tattooed by the Irishman’s piercing observations. It tells of the 2021 Belfast riots and ‘the older, bitter generation stoking hatred in the young, only to realise that they are not of the same mentality, their minds not as poisoned’. The final line brings us back to our Song Of The Week: ‘Honey, I’ve been dreaming of an awful rage/ In another body/ In another language.’ Like life’s cycle, these songs will be on repeat.

I Think I: David Crosby

The extraordinary twilight surge of creativity enjoyed by David Crosby over the last decade of his life matched the quality of his earlier output before rock ‘n’ roll excess took its toll. For Free in 2021 was his fifth solo album since 2014’s return to the studio after a 20-year absence. Our Song Of The Week at is I Think I as we honour a man who provided the soundtrack to millions of lives. RIP, Croz.

A wiser Crosby is looking back on his younger, self-destructive self: ‘There’s no instructions/ And no map/ No secret way past the trap/ It’s so confusing, we keep losing our way.’ But a new beginning beckons: ‘I think I, I think I found a way.’

I hear people singin’ in the rain

And I start walkin’ towards that sound again

I keep using this path

It’s really only simple math

The former Byrd and CSNY veteran, who has died at 81 after a long illness, had told his fans that year: ‘However much time I’ve got isn’t really the significant thing – it’s what I do with that time. And it looks to me that the only contribution I can make, the place where I can help, is to make more music, do it well and make it even better.’ He was true to his word.

Crosby’s longevity seems miraculous when you consider the liver transplant, the heart attacks and diabetes, the years spent battling drug and alcohol abuse. For his renaissance he had the guiding hand of a long-lost son, James Raymond, a multi-instrumentalist and producer. The boy had been given up for adoption by his mother; Crosby wasn’t aware he had a son until James was 30. Raymond had been a musician for 20 years before he discovered who his father was, and decided to track him down.

‘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? I wear it like a garland of flowers on my head. 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.’ The pair also recorded with The Lighthouse Band; a track from their Live At The Capitol Theatre album, 1974, appeared in my Here Comes The Song colleague Phil Shaw’s 30 favourite songs of 2022.

Raymond co-wrote songs on Crosby’s For Free album, which he helped produce. It is a showcase for a high tenor of majestic delicacy that remained remarkably youthful. He told The Guardian after the album’s release: ‘That really mystifies me. I did everything wrong. Well, no, I didn’t smoke cigarettes. Maybe that’s the key.’ The jazz phrasing also adopted by his favourite band Steely Dan (Donald Fagen wrote the words with him in mind for one of the tracks, Rodriguez For A Night) and his love of unorthodox tunings and subtle melodic twists remained undimmed.

For Free bears comparison with the finest songs of his Sixties and Seventies heyday – Everybody’s Been Burned, I See You and Draft Morning with The Byrds, Guinnevere, Long Time Gone and Wooden Ships with Crosby Stills & Nash and Déjà Vu, Lee Shore and Triad with CSNY, Laughing and Traction In The Rain on his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. Now it’s déjà vu all over again.

The Californian produced Joni Mitchell’s first offering, Song To A Seagull, having discovered her playing in a Florida nightclub in 1967 and helping her secure a recording deal. Romance briefly flourished. Crosby regarded her as the greatest songwriter (‘I don’t think anybody comes close’), covering Amelia on his Sky Trails album and the title track on For Free, a duet with Sarah Jarosz. His live cover of Joni’s Woodstock with The Lighthouse Band is spine-tingling. Anything CSNY can do…

Neil Young and Graham Nash were two of many old buddies to feel the sharp end of the cantankerous Crosby’s tongue. But many found him warm and generous. At least there was a rapprochement with Stephen Stills. ‘David and I butted heads a lot over time, but they were mostly glancing blows, yet still left us with numb skulls. I was happy to be at peace with him. He was without question a giant of a musician, and his harmonic sensibilities were nothing short of genius. He was the glue that held us together as our vocals soared, like Icarus, towards the sun.’

We can forget the schisms and the volatility now. Just replay those otherworldly harmonies. Young described Crosby as ‘the soul of CSNY’, his voice and energy at their heart, while Nash was indebted to ‘the pure joy of the music we created together, the sound we discovered with one another, and the deep friendship we shared over many long years. David was fearless in life and in music’. And relevant to the end.

The achingly poignant I Won’t Stay For Long is an appropriate final track of a long studio career. Crosby confronts his mortality, staring down the decades:

I’m standing on the porch

Like it’s the edge of a cliff

Beyond the grass and gravel

Lies a certain abyss

And I don’t think I will try it today

I’m facing a squall line of a thousand-year storm

I don’t know if I’m dying or about to be born

Written by the son, sung by the father who was the intended narrator. ‘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,’ said Crosby. Even more haunting now. The baton has been passed.

She Speaks In Colours: Thea Gilmore

Thea Gilmore described it as her scariest ever gig: presenting a song she had written about the loss of a beloved teenager to her still grieving family. She Speaks In Colours, our Song Of The Week at, is a moving tribute to the memory of Ellen Raffell.

The Oxfordshire songwriter met Delyth Raffell from Blyth to hear about her extraordinary daughter who died after an acute allergic reaction to a food additive at the age of 16 in 2019. Delyth and her family set up a charity in her honour, Ellen’s Gift Of Hope, to support other children who face challenges in life due to health issues, special needs and disabilities.

Gilmore’s commission was to write a song about Delyth and Ellen and perform it to the Raffell family, including Ellen’s twin sister Abbey, and friends as part of BBC Radio 2’s 21st Century Folk project, in which singers write new compositions capturing the essence of life in the North-east, a modern take on the classic BBC Radio Ballads created by Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger during the late 1950s that weaved the voices of working communities with traditional music.

Dry eyes were an impossibility at Woodhorn Museum in Ashington, Northumberland, when Gilmore played it acoustically. ‘I was shaking, you can hear it in my voice,’ Gilmore told Folk Show host Mark Radcliffe. ‘I couldn’t look the family in the eye because I knew how much it meant to them. It was such a responsibility to make sure every line counted in representing both Delyth and Ellen. They are a family full of grace. I wanted to put Ellen’s hope in there and bring in all of Delyth’s care and warmth.’ The recorded version, with its subtle effects, loses none of the intimacy or tenderness of that first showing.

She speaks in colours to me

Even through the pain

She speaks in colours to me

She’s holding up the rain

She speaks in colours again

Heartbreak comes quickly as an earthquake

Quiet as a snowflake, heavy as the sky

‘It was such an honour to be a part of this project. I don’t think I have ever felt such a heavy weight of responsibility as a songwriter to capture a person and a mood as I did with this song. It has been a privilege to listen to Delyth and her family remember Ellen. It has been a privilege to try to do justice to Ellen’s life in song. They’ll all be with me forever.’

Ellen, full of hope, life and compassion, had dreams of becoming a space scientist. She had visited the Life Science Centre in Newcastle and had organised work experience there; she met astronauts and was due to start a space engineering course at Loughborough National Space Academy the following year. Delyth told Gilmore of her love of rainbows and colours, which informed the title of her poignant song. Eva Cassidy’s version of Over The Rainbow had been Ellen’s favourite growing up; she played guitar too.

The four other songs in this memorable BBC folk series offer great variety in subjects and song styles. Cardiff songwriter Martyn Joseph delivers an exquisitely observed homage to Andrea Bell and the soup kitchen and food bank she runs in Sunderland, made even more essential during the cost of living crisis. Andrea was overcome by the song’s humanity: ‘Albert’s Place has seen it all/ The meat and coal when the big ships called/ But maybe now its greatest day of all/ Brings tea, in a cup of love.’ Andrea’s team of helpers do so much more than provide food to the voiceless, homeless and disadvantaged. Politicians should be made to watch the video of Albert’s Place; that such a service is so vital shames the nation.

The inspiring story of Katie Toner, who has autism and ADHD, was skilfully picked up by multi-instrumentalist Angeline Morrison whose song A Dream For You was arranged and performed by Northumberland ensemble The Unthanks. Toner, who found it hard to enjoy typical children’s parties, runs an events business, organising accessible parties and sleepovers for neurodiverse youngsters and tailoring each celebration specifically to the needs of each child. ‘The heart of this project was bringing the community together,’ she says, ‘so for Radio 2 to bring me and Angeline from opposite ends of the country, and then me and the Unthanks, from literally a 12-minute drive away… it’s just brilliant.’ The song was written for two voices so was perfect for Rachel and Becky Unthank; pianist Adrian McNally made it three.

The wonderful Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford teamed up with composer and singer Kathryn Williams for Foyboatmen, a song about Michael Dodds, a fifth-generation foyboatman in the port of Sunderland. Since moving to the UK from Pakistan, Dr Ifti Lone has served the same Teesside community, administering thousands of Covid vaccines during the pandemic; after contracting the virus himself, he ended up in intensive care. Sean Cooney and The Young’uns dedicate their song Doctor Boro to Dr Lone’s selfless work and devotion to Middlesbrough FC.

The last word should go to Delyth Raffell who described Gilmore’s voice as ‘beautiful, almost haunting’ when she dipped into her back catalogue to discover more about her family’s champion. She hoped the song would reach people’s hearts in the same way as her daughter did. It has. ‘Thea does sad well.’ Sad and yet so uplifting. Gilmore sings during a celestial middle eight of the place in their home where a young life was snatched away: ‘There’s a star on the stairs/ It will always be there/ There’s a star on the stairs/ She will always be there.’

To The Edge: Nigel Wearne (featuring Lauren Housley)

Here’s to another year of inspired collaborations. Our Song Of The Week at is a delicious slice of Americana noir, To The Edge, from Australian singer-guitarist Nigel Wearne and South Yorkshire native Lauren Housley. Edgy indeed.

The blues-smoked duet is described as ‘a potent lament to fate gone wrong, two lovers by the riverside grappling with truth’. Wearne’s song about a relationship unravelling and his strong vocal fit tongue and groove with Housley’s rousing, soulful style.

Imagine Nick Cave had teamed up with Marc Ribot and late film composer Ennio Morricone of spaghetti western fame and you get close to the vibe of this brooding minor-key triumph. Wearne hails from Gunditjmara country in south-west Victoria, a luthier, a craftsman of songs and multi-instrumentalist who contributes Hammond organ as well as gorgeous, reverb-bathed Gretsch electric guitar. By the end of the song you feel as if you’ve been sitting in one of those high-ceilinged Cuban cafés.

Listen up honey

Listen up real

We needed truth

But now there ain’t time to heal

We had each other

We had our song

Never mind that

The timing was wrong

Wearne and Housley first crossed paths in early 2019 at the Arts Café in Montreal when they were both in town for the Folk Alliance International, the world’s biggest talking shop for musicians. Discussing the future of folk music and their mutual admiration of John Prine, they became instant friends. After reconnecting in New Orleans in early 2020, they began working together remotely during the pandemic; To The Edge was the resplendent outcome.

‘I’m honoured to have Lauren sing this duet with me,’ Wearne told his Facebook audience. ‘We met at Folk Alliance International in 2019... but little did I know how she could sing. I caught her phenomenal live show in New Orleans the following year and we’ve been scheming to do something ever since. I’ve no doubt you’ll be a fan once you hear her magnificent voice.’

We have been singing the praises of that voice for some time. Two memorable tracks from Housley’s Girl From The North album in 2021 – Stay Awake To Dream and Why Are We Making This So Hard? – were Songs Of The Week on this website.

The Morricone-style horn section lifts the music higher still with Aurélien Tomasi’s alto sax, Blaise Margail’s trombone and the trumpet of Jérôme Dupuis-Cloutier driven by Isaac Gunnoo’s swampy double bass and drummer Danny McKenna. Wearne profited from another chance meeting while on tour in Canada when he heard Tomasi’s clarinet pierce the night air while waiting to board a plane. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that airport jamming session. A French composer living in Quebec, Tomasi later hooked up with Wearne in New Orleans and another magical alliance took flight.

Wearne has never concealed his admiration for Cave and Tom Waits and you can hear the connection on his previous single, the blues shuffle Black Behind The Blue, inspired by the swagger of New Orleans jazz. He acknowledged to the Melbourne-based roots music blog Unpaved that his guitar playing had been influenced by Ribot. ‘Since Rain Dogs, he’s been integral to Tom Waits’ sound. There’s a jagged mystique and rustic dexterity to his playing that adds so much theatre to his work. It’s certainly rubbed off.’

He expanded: ‘Artists that I like most take musical traditions and work well within them or Frankenstein them into something new. I dig Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and Ry Cooder to name a few. I find myself naturally diving into roots genres and writing songs with different flavours. This isn’t so much planned as it is musical osmosis. What I’ve explored in my writing of late is something I’ve coined Americana noir. There doesn’t appear to be an existing genre that captures it succinctly. I guess at the end of the day, storytelling is at the core of my songwriting.’

Wearne, a champion of Aboriginal rights, joined forces with Luke Watt last year to form Above The Bit, a duo project that ‘shines a light on true tales of mutiny and civil disobedience in Australian history’. Their eponymous album, featuring painstakingly researched tracks such as Exile and Wind Of Realisation, was released to coincide with Australia’s National Reconciliation Week. ‘There’s hardship and sadness in a lot of these stories, but I find it really inspiring,’ Wearne told Unpaved. ‘From the ashes of these stories has come what is, and should continue to be, an amazing country. But it’s a country with contradictions, inconsistencies and ongoing confusion about how we reconcile our chequered history.’

The dark tales continue to chill and thrill. ‘Western Victoria is good at keeping its secrets, but the more time you spend here, the more the land reveals itself,’ said Wearne about the accompanying video for his latest song. ‘It’s this river, the Merri near Woodford, that inspired To The Edge.’

The Australian is touring here with Housley this month, including an appearance at UK Americana Music Week in Hackney, London. Each will perform separately before teaming up for a joint set. Housley and her guitarist partner Thomas Dibb took time out for the birth of their second child; now with a new album or EP on the horizon, they are back on the road with The Northern Cowboys. We’re on the edge of our seats.


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