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Band of the month – 2017 archive

JULY 2017

The first thing that’s got to be said is what a cracking album cover. And a very suitable one too, because subversive humour has a big part to play in Madonnatron’s music.

Unless you frequent the Windmill in Brixton, chances are that you never even knew about Madonnatron until I mentioned them just now. But things could start getting interesting for them from here. Two years ago, when Charlotte, Beth and Stefania formed the band, they could barely play an instrument between them. But they’ve worked hard, played a lot of gigs around south London, and had some valuable support from Trashmouth records. Most importantly, they’ve been writing some seriously good tunes. Earlier this year the band became a foursome with the addition of former flatmate Joannie.

Their debut album, also called Madonnatron, has just been released on iTunes and will be getting its proper launch on 29th July. It’s apparent right away that these girls know their music. I don’t know who their influences are, but I detect a bit of PJ Harvey in there, and an affinity for the gothic. They were probably laughing as they wrote these songs : it’s like they’re gently poking fun at a certain type of male rock artist who takes himself too seriously. But while some of the lyrics are a bit of a send-up, the music never descends into pastiche. Creating music that is genuinely unsettling is a difficult thing, but whether it’s a slow noirish number like Glenn Closer or the fast and fearsome garage of Mother’s Funeral Madonnatron do a good job of creating a certain mood, and that reflects the amount of different ideas that have gone into each song.

“We are playing a modest handful of festivals this summer,” they told the Indie-pendent, “and are very much looking forwards to Green Man festival in August.” They’ve also begun writing material for a second album; however “we are not one of those garage or punk bands that spend the whole time doing the same 3 chords and play for people who have listened to the same few bands all their lives, so I cannot tell you what the next album will sound like at this point. 

Madonnatron – Tron

 

Madonnatron – Sangue Neuf

and the obligatory creepy video :

Madonnatron – Headless Children

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JUNE 2017

I came across the work of the Sierra Leone musician Sorie Kondi three years ago, and I was so intrigued by his story that I got in touch with the man who first brought him to America, Boima Tucker (aka Chief Boima), and Boima gave me an interview at the time. There could hardly be a greater contrast between the musical backgrounds of the two men who form the Kondi Band. Sorie is a traditional musician from an impoverished corner of western Africa while Boima, an American born DJ with a Sierra Leone heritage, is a pioneer of “global bass” music. They’ve made an album together though – Salone, which is released today, and it’s like they’ve been working together all their lives.

Born blind, Sorie couldn’t do farming work like the other boys. Someone gave him a kondi (the instrument after which he later named himself, a thumb piano), and he taught himself to play. The war forced him to leave his home and seek refuge in Freetown where he recorded an album in 1998. But then the war came to Freetown, and the master tapes of the album were lost amid the destruction. So he found himself busking for coins on the streets of a city where almost everyone was suffering due to poverty and war.

Slowly he got back on his feet and made a few albums. It was in 2007 that an American produced video of one of his songs, Without Money, No Family, appeared on Boima’s facebook feed. Boima was immediately inspired to remix the track. And for a time, that was that. “And then I got a phone call one day from Luke Wasserman [Sorie’s producer], who asked if I would be willing to do a whole remix album of Sorie’s new material …”

Once crowdfunding had been organised and visa problems conquered, Sorie arrived in the US in 2012 to play a few shows. It was then that Boima  began to see the potential of a collaboration. Living in Freetown, Sorie was no stranger to electronic music. Since the war’s end traditional instruments were in short supply, but there was a proliferation of synthesizers and digital studios (Boima credits hip hop artist Jimmy B for leading the way in new technology). Sorie had clear ideas in his head of how he’d like his music to sound. For Boima the challenge was how to achieve a synthesis which preserved the unique qualities of the original – the rippling sound of the kondi, and Sorie’s laidback voice.

The result is a success, an album that has a mood and a beauty all of its own.  Rolling Stone describe it as “deeply hypnotic electro-acoustic trance music, warped by echo and multi-tracked vocals, spiked with live brass touches that conjure vintage dub reggae.” The lyrics are incisive too, unfortunately no translations have been provided on the Bandcamp site. Projects like this, insisted Boima speaking to me in 2014, do not represent an abandonment or a turning away from traditional music. “People like Sorie Kondi … provide us with a pathway to take traditional instruments to a higher level, skill wise and creatively. He is combining the digital recording culture of Freetown with traditional playing styles … I’m hoping to help him take this ability global. He is a true visionary artist, and I feel privileged to be able to collaborate with him !”

Sorie and Boima are in Europe now touring to promote the album. On July 16th you can see them in Brockwell Park in south London. I’d also encourage you to check out some of Sorie’s acoustic work.

Kondi Band – Titi Dem Too Service

Kondi Band – Thogolingo Dembi Na

Kondi Band – Belle Wahalla

Kondi Band – Without Money, No Family (Chief Boima Remix)

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MAY 2017

Why should you bother listening to an album of instrumental trad music by an Irish concertina player ? The answer is not something that can be put into words. But if you don’t – then you’re denying yourself a thrilling experience.

Cormac Begley is the son of a demon of an accordionist called Brendan Begley. Brendan was the youngest of nine children, all of them fine singers and musicians, who grew up together in Kerry’s Dingle peninsula, carrying on a musical tradition in the family going back several generations.

The new album – simply called Cormac Begley – is Cormac’s first solo outing, but he’s no novice : he’s always out playing and recording with other artists, and a glance at his list of collaborations tells you that he’s someone for whom other musicians have huge respect. Here’s what Cormac has to say about how the album was made, and what it means to him :

“All of the pieces of music that feature on this album instantly struck a chord with me the first time I heard them. My approach here has been simply to connect as honestly as possible with them. I wanted to produce a solo concertina album using the full range of concertinas from bass, baritone, treble to piccolo, and to highlight some of the instrument’s possibilities spanning across seven octaves. Each track is one take, featuring one concertina and are all free from studio manipulation. I have sourced previously unrecorded music, new compositions and other tunes within the tradition that have been my companions and my internal sound track during my life to date. “

The four concertinas make the album rock. Each has its own range of expression, its own personality. But it still takes a Cormac Begley to bring out that personality and breathe life into the tunes, which he does so skilfully that you’re hardly aware of the labour involved.

It goes without saying that these are wonderful dance tunes. It doesn’t stop there though. These are tunes you have to really listen to and let them wash through your body. It’s a mark of the very special relationship that Cormac has with his instruments, that he’s able to reach these places deep inside of us.

Cormac Begley – Jig: An Cat Is a Máthair 

Cormac Begley – Polka: Frenzy Polka 

Cormac Begley – Reels: Paddy Canny’s Pigeon on the Gate / The Dairy Maid

Cormac Begley – Schottisches: An Síog / Bonnie Scotland / Bill O Malley’s 

Cormac Begley – Air: Beauty Deas an Oileain  

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APRIL 2017

This is probably the most intimate, personal album that you’ll ever hear. It’s desolate, heartwrenching, unputdownable, and beautiful. I’m talking about A Crow Looked At Me by Mount Eerie.  The album’s getting five star reviews all over the place, and is likely to feature strongly in peoples best of year lists, but unlike some of the albums in those lists this is one that you’ll want to keep with you for a very long time.

On 25th October 2014 my wonderful cousin Josie Camus died of cancer at the age of 35. On 9th July 2016 Phil Elverum’s wife Geneviève died of cancer too, and she was also just 35. Phil, who is Mount Eerie (Geneviève had a separate musical career), and also now a single parent to his young daughter, began writing in the weeks following her death what would become the eleven songs on A Crow Looked At Me. The songs read like his own personal diary, and that’s pretty much how they were composed. Phil confides that they were written and recorded “in the same room where Geneviève died, using mostly her instruments, her guitar, her bass, her pick, her amp, her old family accordion, writing the words on her paper, looking out the same window.” They’re full of little vignettes of his life, questions that he asks himself, his reflections, his feelings. They’re not a tribute in any conventional sense. They’re about him rather than her as he goes through his own form of self-therapy.  Somehow though in ruminating on her absence and his own sense of loss Phil has created the most heartfelt of tributes.

The album begins memorably with the words Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art. Critics have puzzled over this. What’s he trying to say to us ? Phil, who’s been recording music for 20 years, has written elsewhere that the goal of all his music is to explore his own mind. So this album, perhaps more than any other, is like a personal testament, and by implication artistic judgements are irrelevant.  Certainly this is not an album with any of the usual artistic flourishes. It has its own place : a quietness, stillness, solitude, which doesn’t vary from track to track. It’s one man telling his story in a hushed voice somewhere between speaking and singing, set to music.

The standard of writing is so high throughout, and the quality of music so consistent, that my selection of tracks feels more arbitrary than usual. There is so much to discover, to admire, to weep about, and to reflect on in every song. Those seeking answers and closure in their own grieving won’t find this here, but for anyone seeking to understand and come to terms with their own feelings about losing a loved one, I can’t recommend this album highly enough.

Mount Eerie – Real Death

Mount Eerie – Swims

Mount Eerie – Toothbrush / Trash

Mount Eerie – Soria Moria

Mount Eerie – Crow

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MARCH 2017

I’ll Make The Most Of My Sins is only his second album, but it feels as though Crosby born songwriter Robert Vincent has more than earned his stripes already.

Robert VincentFact is, he’d already been round the block before going solo : left school at 16, became a father, juggled family life with playing in bands while holding down a series of jobs. Music though was his driving passion. To some, going from being in a band to one man and his guitar may seem like a retrograde step, but for Robert this was all about finding his own musical direction – “I’ve done the whole thing of trying to be what people want me to be.”

So he reached back to his musical roots, to the Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings songs that he listened to as a kid from his father’s vinyl collection. His style’s been described as folk country; many of his songs have a classic, timeless feel; but they are also imprinted with his own individual stamp. The focus is on the words and on Robert’s soulful voice : these are mature songs, often drawing from personal experience.

That emotional maturity is already there is his debut album, 2013’s Life In Easy Steps, which led to a series of accolades. James Blunt invited him to play support in a show at the Liverpool Echo Arena; Bob Harris awarded him an Emerging Artist Award for Americana music. I’ll Make The Most Of My Sins seems set to further albumconsolidate the Liverpool songwriter’s growing reputation. There’s a danger with country-tinged ballads of falling into a false sentimentality, but Robert is far too precise and reflective a lyricist to fall into this trap. Listen for example to the slow burning closing track, the seven minute Hand to Hold, which is addressed to his own children.

Robert Vincent – Hand To Hold 

Robert Vincent – Dancing with Devils 

Robert Vincent – Denial 

Robert Vincent – You Wouldn’t Let It

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FEBRUARY 2017

This guy knows how to make a guitar sing … and how to write a song that sounds so timeless it could have been written 50 or 100 years ago.

cary-morinCary Morin is from the Crow Nation. He grew up in Montana, taking up firstly piano, and then guitar. “We lived out in the country, and there were no other kids around, so I had lots of time to mess around with the guitar.” Life then took him south to Colorado, where he’s been playing in bands now for the best part of 30 years. He’s still got a couple of bands that he plays in today, but he now also has a blossoming career as a solo artist. Often when an artist goes solo I feel they’re being slightly self-indulgent, they’ve lost their edge, what it was that attracted me to them in the first place. You could not say this of Cary Morin. It’s like he’s taken a hard look at himself, thought about what inspires him and how he can improve, and has pushed himself to get there.

” I started concentrating on fingerstyle blues guitar. When an old friend of mine was visiting for a few days and heard what I was doing, he suggested this style could be my new show. Another friend showed me open D tuning and that also became a big part of what I do. It was like learning to play guitar all over again and I continue to discover new chords and techniques constantly.”

These are my favourite songs from the new album Cradle to the Grave. His acoustic blues guitar playing is dazzlingly good, but bear in mind too that eight of the eleven tracks here are self-written : gentle, reflective songs about everything from fishing to the situation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It’s Delta blues, but Delta blues that may wander off at times towards folk or country, and that is alive to modern day issues. Altogether, a very tasty slice of American tradition.

Cary Morin – Cradle to the Grave

Cary Morin – Ghost Dog

Cary Morin – Back on the Train

Cary Morin – Mishawaka

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JANUARY 2017

Findings is an album that requires a little extra effort and persistence to unlock its magic. It doesn’t grab you by the throat : Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater make gentle acoustic music without hooks or big musical moments. You have to unfold the lyrics, in some cases unfold the history of the song, to get your ‘finding’, your reward, and what you see there may not be the same as what other people may see.

Ange & LukasAnge Hardy had a tumultuous childhood, moving from one home to another, being placed in a children’s home, then fleeing that life and hitchhiking from England to Ireland. “For four months at the age of 14 I lived homeless on the streets of Ireland. Firstly in Dublin, on the doorstep of a shop called Envy in Grafton Street, and then later in Galway. This was where I found the love of music. I was given a guitar as a chance to busk for a living instead of begging. The only problem was I had no repertoire … and no idea how to play a guitar. So, with all the time in the world, I taught myself and made up the songs as I went along, drawing from the one thing I did know plenty about : life … After returning from Ireland I lived in Exeter where I scrambled through my teenage years finding numbness in drugs, clubs and alcohol and completely forgetting the freedom I’d once found in music. I found myself pregnant at 18.”

She’s now 33, Findings is her 5th album. The process of writing songs, creating music, is vital to her : it allows her to heal, to explore, to grow as a person. This is a song from 2013 :

Ange Hardy – Mother Willow Tree

And on this page she tells the story behind the song – “ I dug deep to discover it and am very very proud of it. It is magical.”

Findings is her first album as part of a duo, with double bass player Lukas. It’s also the first time she’s used traditional songs. “The album contains three traditional songs, three songs based around traditional lines and eight new songs.” It’s an album of rare quality, and I recommend that you give yourself time to really listen to and reflect on the lyrics.

Ange Hardy – True Are The Mothers

Another song reflecting on the nurturing power of trees.
Ange Hardy – The Pleading Sister
A dark reimagining of a nursery rhyme from the point of the view of the sister of Little Boy Blue who falls victim of his neglect.
Ange Hardy – Invisible Child
A song which opens the lid on the hidden world of child carers.
Ange Hardy – The Widow
A song about bereavement, and an attempt to heal another childhood trauma (her brother died of meningitis when Ange was 11).
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