Sweeney’s Men ‘Sweeney’s Men’ / ‘The Tracks of Sweeney’ 2CD (BGO) 5/5

One of the finest and most influential of all Irish folk groups and arguably where progressive Irish folk music begins, this wonderful pairing of albums, with bonus cuts to boot, is an indispensable re-issue, all the more so because even the re-issued vinyl by Demon in the 1980’s now fetches exorbitant sums. Sweeney’s Men were at the core a trio of individuals (though supplemented by other musicians as and when required) comprising Johnny Moynihan (lead vocalist and the other half of Anne Briggs), Andy Irvine (later of super group Planxty) and Terry Woods (later of Horslips, another groundbreaking group that fused prog rock and Irish folk). Collectively they were influenced by and performed music in the style of: (a) US country-folk, with bluegrass not forsaken; (b) the English folk revival; (c) the Irish folk tradition. Sometimes under recognised in England, groups such as Sweeney’s Men and later Planxty were inextricably linked to the sounds and innovations of Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch, Davy Graham and Anne Briggs and were very much their equal. Moreover, the connection deepens further when one learns that their first two and only albums here were produced by folk legend Bill Leader, and in his own words, Sweeney’s Men represented what he believed was, ‘(…) A timeline between the Clancy Brothers and the Pogues’.

The very name of the group seems to have been taken from a literary inspiration, namely a character from a Flann O’Brien novel. The sublime songs on the first album could hardly be better and include the gorgeous plaintive song that is, ‘Willy of Wisbury’, with their trusted combination of flute, guitar and vocals, with Andy irvine invariably doubling up on mandolin and terry Woods on six and twelve string guitars. Another gem of a tune is the fast-paced, ‘Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willy’, with Moynihan this time on bouzouki and vocals, while Andy Irvine operates on both mandolin and harmonica, and Woods on guitar. If anything, the second album with passage of time now comes across as a prototype of the singer-songwriter folk-rock tradition, and quite possibly, the trio were taking in the influences of Simon and Garfunkel. That impression is most certainly conveyed on a song such as, ‘When you don’t care for me’, which has hints of the Tim Buckley sound of the era, or, ‘Hiram Hubbard’, that has a strong songwriting narrative.

The reality is that Sweeney’s Men were inspired by disparate influences and it was their ability to bring these together into a cohesive group sound that resulted in them creating a new voice in folk music and one that departed from the past while still remaining rooted to the folk tradition. Of the four bonus cuts, ‘Old woman in cotton’, and,’Old maid in a garret’, impress. Arguably, Sweeney’s Men are at the very heart of the roots of modern Irish folk music, and anyone who has yet to sample their music is in for a wonderful treat.

Tim Stenhouse

Wadada Leo Smith ‘Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk’ (Tum) 3/5

Better known for his more avant-garde musings, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith offers up one of the more personalised tributes to celebrate the centenary of Thelonius Monk. A solo trumpet album can make for a difficult listening experience all in one go and is probably best sampled in smaller doses. That said, the recording is mellower than you might expect and highly melodic in places. A haunting rendition of ‘Ruby My Dear’ is a highlight and works well as a solo piece. Likewise, there is a whimsical self-composition of ‘Adagio: Monkishness – A cinematic vision of Monk plating solo piano’, where Smith succeeds in creating what can only be described as a plaintive sound on the trumpet.

Stylistically, Wadada Leo Smith is a far more introverted trumpeter than say Lester Bowie and is not an obvious candidate to interpret the music of Monk. That said, he has a thorough grounding in the history of jazz having been a student of ethnomusicology and having recorded with a variety of musicians from Derek Bailey to Anthony Braxton, and has recorded for labels ranging from Black Saint and ECM to Freedom. If one had to make a criticism of this tribute recording, then it might be that some form of other musical accompaniment to break the formula would have been welcome and, secondly, by no means all the interpretations necessarily hint at the music of Monk, which may be a positive sign for some, but ultimately it is the music of Monk that is being re-evaluated and revered.

Tim Stenhouse

Noya Rao ‘Icarus’ LP/CD/DIG (Gondwana) 3/5

Electronica and soul music can be complimentary bedfellows and this intriguing album from Leeds based outfit Noya Rao proves why. With vocalist Olivia Bhattacharjee and produced by Tom Henry, this has a lovely 1980’s retro feel that, in parts at least, recalls the backbeat of Soft Cell in one of their more soulful moods, yet there are additional jazz-inflected vibes which make this group stand out from the rest. This writer was impressed by the bass line and 1970’s feel to the song, ‘Same sun will rise’, and an inventive change of tempo in the drum beat half way through. Sounding somewhat like a modern update on the mid-1980’s Loose Ends production, ‘This time’, is a moody number with the most soulful of vocal interpretations. Elsewhere, there is a vocoder-style vocal on ‘Fly’, with the subtle use of synthesizers, while a quality beat ballad can be found in ‘Azimuth’. Keyboards feature prominently throughout and have an endearing quality to them, as on a pair of songs, ‘Midas’, and ‘I feel’. A two-part vignette, ‘Dreaming Pts.1 & 2’, effectively bookends the album, with the second deploying keyboards to a greater extent and with a distinctive slower pace to it. Very much a work in progress, it will be interesting to monitor the progress and future direction of Noya Rao in the years to come. A promising debut recording nonetheless.

Tim Stenhouse

Etta James ‘Five Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid R&B) 4/5

If ever there was a singer whose back catalogue has been endlessly trawled for ‘best of’ packages, then Etta James is surely a major contender and it is a welcome relief to see these early original albums now paired together in this bargain basement format. Indeed, the pairing of albums captures the early Etta James on Chess, beginning with her debut recording for the label, ‘Miss Etta James’, that dates from 1960. In fact, she began with her debut for the Chess offshoot label Argo. It was indeed Leonard Chess who spotted her crossover potential, and he was keen to embellish her natural blues-inflected vocal sound with lush pop orchestrations in order to market her beyond the traditional R & B market to a wider (read whiter) audience with a more palatable and less raw sound.

An early hit was scored in 1961 with the immortal, ‘At last’, which is definitive James and her 1961 album, ‘Etta James at last’, serves as a de facto greatest hits package, though she would certainly add to the list of immortal songs. Another major hit was, ‘A Sunday kind of love’, while the singer broke barriers with her no holds barred exclamation of carnal desire in, ‘I just want to make love to you’, and it should be stated that in 1961 both the risqué delivery and sassy content broke the era mould.

A second album for Chess from 1961, ‘Second time around’, repeated the winning formula and here Etta James was being marketed as a singer with definite pop potential, even if in reality the album contained re-packaged standards from the 1940’s such as, ‘Don’t cry for me baby’. The album is notable also for a prototype Motown song in, ‘Seventh day fool’, which was actually co-written by Berry Gordy, and in a not dissimilar vein,comes, ‘Fool that I am’. A further couple of albums date from 1962, and the simply titled, ‘Etta James’, was produced by Harvey Fuqua and includes a lovely gospel-infected, ‘Something’s got a hold on me’. In a slightly more classic vein, the second album from 1962, ‘Sings for lovers’, includes songbook standards of the calibre of, ‘These foolish things’, and, ‘Someone to watch over me’, which seem to be clear pitch by Leonard Chess at showcasing James to a wider market beyond the traditional African-American audience, and it proved to be a winning formula. Definitely worth acquiring and, hopefully, more of her Chess back catalogue will be re-issued in this handy format.

Tim Stenhouse

Errol Brown ‘Dubb Everlasting’ / ‘Dub Expression’ CD (Doctor Bird) 4/5

Not nearly as prolific as either King Tubby, or even Joe Gibbs, engineer Errol Brown occupies a small, yet nonetheless special place in the history of reggae dub music. The band featured here represent the cream of the crop of Kingston session musicians and that inevitably means the inclusion of Sly and Robbie, with other regular Treasure Isle musicians including keyboardists Willie Lindo and Ansel Collins, saxophonist Cedric “Im” Brooks and percussionist ‘Sticky’ Thompson. Of interest here is that a number of classic Studio One riddims are reworked and that makes for some melodious instrumental music. Some pieces are easier to work out than others and thus, ‘Melodious Dub’, is none other than a revisiting of the vocal performance by Marcia Griffiths’ ‘Melody of Life’.

From a historical perspective, Treasure Isle owner Duke Reid employed Errol Brown as his engineer, but it was Sonia Pottinger who gradually took over the label as Duke’s health declined from 1975 onwards. By the time, these two albums were recorded, in 1977 and 1978 respectively, Pottinger was now firmly in control. The albums from a stylistic viewpoint are somewhat more restrained for those who may like their dub on the more experimental side, yet that is more than compensated for by the strength of the melodies. External musical influences are clearly audible on these recordings, with for example, ‘Living Strings’, taking a leaf out of the harmonica playing of Stevie Wonder, and the very best of the dub engineers were constantly searching for inspiration outside their usual musical habitat. A personal favourite among the plethora of sounds is ‘Eva a Dub’, which is a slower, echo-driven piece and what characterizes the Errol Brown dub sound is the earthiness and sparseness of the overall sound. Errol Brown eventually left Treasure Isle studios and thereafter became an integral part of the Tuff Gong set up, where he would end up engineering two seminal albums by Bob Marley, namely ‘Survival’ and ‘Uprising’. Extremely hard to find in their original vinyl format, these two dub albums stand the test of time and are highly creative examples of how the dub format could be tailored to the individual tastes of the engineer at the controls.

Tim Stenhouse

Hermeto Pascoal & Grupo Vice Versa ‘Viajando Com O Som: The Lost ’76 Vice-Versa Studio Session’ LP/CD/DIG (Far Out Recordings) 4/5

Cult figure and general all-round musical iconoclast, multi-instrumentalist and leader Hermeto Pascoal sounds and looks like no other and so it proves on this long discarded session that was recorded in just two days in São Paulo with a locally based rhythm section, remaining in the vaults until a London Brazilian specialist label saw fit to issue it for the very first time. Four varied numbers, one of which lasts over twenty-six minutes, and the music of the forest where albino Hermeto loves to reside and escape the sunshine are conveyed beautifully. The epic ‘Casinha Pequenina’ undergoes myriad moods and tempi. It starts as a brass ensemble piece that is melodic and taken at a moderate tempo. From three minutes onwards, the number then morphs into a percussive uptempo groove with moody keyboards from the leader. Quite simply, this is Brazilian Latin-fusion of the highest calibre with shuffling drum patterns, solo saxophones that grow increasingly wild, and just the faintest hint of the influence of Charles Mingus. In stark contrast, ‘Natal (tema das flautas)’ has a Romantic western classical feel with both flute and brass evoking the music of Debussy and Ravel. An assortment of flutes create a forest-like atmosphere and the beautifully restrained performances and wordless vocals make this one of the most enjoyable pieces. Compare this with the manic brilliance of the genially titled, ‘Mavumvavumpefoco’, which has a cacophony of chicken noises in the intro with the voices of children in the background. Organised chaos might be an apt description, but organised within Hermeto’s admittedly weird and wonderful parameters nonetheless with big band, keyboards and wordless vocals operating over a largely staccato rhythm. The opening composition, ‘Dança do Pajé’, has something of a 1970’s jam session feel to it and the use of drums and percussion seemingly conjures up the Amazon jungle, and five and a half minutes in, bass finally enters with the tempo reaching a crescendo on drums and keyboards. Nothing is ever predictable about the music of Hermeto Pascoal and that is precisely why he is so loved. Among members of this incarnation of the group, guitarist Toninho Horta features on guitar, with Zeca Assunpção on bass and Raul Mascarenhas on various saxophones.

Tim Stenhouse

Johnny Hallyday ‘Tête à Tête plus Retiens la Nuit’ (Hoo-Doo) 4/5

The King is dead. Long live the King! The king in question is none other than Johnny Hallyday, the undisputed king of French rock ‘n’ roll who sadly passed away with the news filtering through this morning. Some likened Hallyday to a French equivalent of Cliff Richard, but that would be misleading other than in terms of longevity, both stood the test of time remarkably well. In fact, Johnny Hallyday is more akin to a composite of the macho side to Tom Jones coupled with the bad boy image that Rod Stewart liked to cultivate in the 1970’s and of course the predilection that both these singers have/had for ladies of the blond haired variety. Johnny’s numerous physical stylistic changes were only matched by the number of young women by his side, and this became something of a pastiche from the early 1980’s onwards with younger generations unkindly likening him to a piece of engineering that had been totally reconstructed from the inside. No matter, Hallyday had the last laugh on them, selling over one hundred million records, and in the francophone world at least rightly achieved legendary status. His supposed fan was a forty something farmer from Auxerre who worshiped the singer and it has to be stated that in his naturalised French home (he was born in Paris, but raised in Belgium, as Jean-Philippe Léo Smet), his status rivaled that of Elvis.

Hallyday built his reputation on carefully monitoring and, to begin with at least, mimicking the early English speaking rock and roll/pop songs of the 1960’s, which he then (with careful help from other songwriters) crafted into French language versions before he found his own distinctive throaty voice and this is where this pairing of two albums from 1961 and 1962 sets the scene. A first album, ‘Hello Johnny’, was recorded in 1960, but the albums contained within are in fact his second and third albums. One of the songs, ‘Salut les copains!'(‘Hi chums!’) was turned into a smash teenager magazine and his romance with fellow singer (and originally a native of Bulgaria who similarly became naturalised and the first of his blonde acquaintances), Sylvie Vartan, was the stuff of legend and ideal ammunition on which to sell the magazine. Hallyday fell in love with Vartan after seeing her live at the Olympia venue in Paris in December, 1961. Interestingly, his marriage to wife Laeticia in 1996 was arguably his longest relationship of all and lasted all the way up to his passing on 6 December.

Long-time devotees of rock n’ roll will spot the melodies to several originals from the English language world. Thus, ‘New Orleans’, becomes, ‘A la Nouvelle Orléans’, while others are less easy to distinguish, with ‘Baby I don’t care’, being transformed into, ‘Sentimental’. One of Johnny’s early big hits, and now a favourite in a remixed version by DJ’s, is ‘Hey Pony’, a cover of a gritty soul number b y Don Covay. A second album, ‘Retiens la nuit’, had a title track song written by no less than Charles Aznavour, and when it was released as a 45 in spring, 1962, it went to the top of the French pop charts. An extremely generous selection of twenty-seven songs includes some interesting bonus cuts, with ‘La faute au twist’, a nod to the twist dance craze, and a more gentle rendition of, ‘Ya Ya twist’. Petula Clark recorded what is generally regarded as the definitive French version of that particular song. As Johnny Hallyday progressed in his career, he mellowed slightly , with arguably one of his finest albums being a mid-1980’s Nashville recorded album of country songs, and even found his way to become a modest actor, of somewhat limited range, in films by directors such as Claude Chabrol and Patrice Leconte. Vive le roi! VIve Johnny! Long live Johnny! A French national musical institution.

Tim Stenhouse

Laurent de Wilde ‘New Monk Trio’ (Gazebo) 4/5

In this year of tributes to Thelonius Monk, the name of French pianist Laurent de Wilde occupies a special place because not only is he a long-term devotee of Monk, but he has also written a highly innovative book on him. What impresses here is that de Wilde knows the music of Monk inside out and uses that knowledge base as the stepping stone to revisiting some of the classic compositions and infusing them with his own mark, and that makes for some highly entertaining re-workings of the standards. This is most certainly the case of ‘Round Midnight’, which is performed here at an entirely different tempo. First of all, the bass line operates in modal mode and there is a build up of tension on drums and the leader deploying the inside of the piano to create a unique sound. Then, the music suddenly gains in intensity and the trio collectively go up several gears. This is a lovely departure from the usual interpretations, and is both well thought and executed. Elsewhere, de Wilde similarly recreates on well known pieces such as, ‘Monk’s Mood’, ‘Pannonica’, and ‘Four In One’. In places, there is a sparseness to the approach that is appealing, with an apparent simplicity and repetition of the piano, with bass and drums working in tandem, before the pianist eventually opens up and adds his own personal touch. Best of all, is a lovely, flowing interpretation of ‘Coming On The Hudson’, which is a fast-paced waltz, with de Wilde at his most refined. A fine individual tribute and one that Monk would surely have approved of. Monk à la française? Mais si.

Tim Stenhouse

Crack Of Dawn ‘Spotlight’ (G-THREE) 5/5

This year has been one of the most traumatic of my adult life, my wife being diagnosed with Cancer twice and undergoing two horrendous operations, as I write this I’m in the midst of an extended period of compassionate leave in an effort to care for her. All appears to be going well but the hunt for the music has been put on the back burner, likewise I’m only snatching twenty minutes here and there in my sanctuary at the top of the stairs, I simply don’t appear to have any time. But when albums like this one arrive I simply had to make some time and get to know it. From the off, it sounds like an old friend, musically modern but with a carbon footprint firmly in 1976, the year of the fabulous Epic Records 45 “It’s Alright” backed with a superb version of “Move Any Mountains”. Throughout, the sound is that of the better end of mid 70s disco with huge doses of soul. The original group had lead vocals J W McGhee and today we have the fabulous voice of one Michael Dunston, and doesn’t he sound at home with this lot.

As with all downloads there is no information as to who’s doing what but the good news is a physical CD is on the way, in fact mine is on order already from Simply Soul Records (plug plug). I have managed to source the musicians from that site; Guitarist and producer Carl Harvey has been lead guitarist with Toots & the Maytals since their 1980 “Live at Hammersmith” album, sharing in their Grammy win in 2004. His work with Toots & the Maytals included world tour support slots with the likes of Rolling Stones and Santana. Also aboard is Rupert Harvey, founder of Canada’s most successful reggae band, Messenjah, not to mention sax player Alvin Jones; trombonist Trevor Daley who has played with reggae behemoths, Third World; the Latin tones of trumpeter Alexis Baro; keyboardist Bela Hayman; drummer Carl Otway, bassist Charles Sinclair who has played with Al Green. Soul radio have been all over “Season’s For Love” and “Your Love”, two very charismatic dancers which could easily make a quality 45.

They have revisited “It’s Alright” and it’s a cracking version too, superb choppy dancer, of course the music is real, with fat slapping percussion, thumping bass and those horns. The only slowie on the album is the title track and it’s a slow grower but when it get’s there you just have to revisit it time and time again. “Ol SKool” is just that ‘chacking’ guitar, sweeping strings, thumping percussion, it has that back in the day feel and the vocals give us a history lesson of this great music, the rare groove sound of “Keep the Faith” is another grower which showcases the groups harmonies, there are no duff tracks on here, you need this, you really do.

Brian Goucher

Ruth Brown ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid R&B) 4/5

Singer Ruth Brown was an R & B/jump blues singer who reached her zenith in the late 1950’s and then suddenly faded into obscurity in the 1960’s when her style of singing became regarded somewhat passé with the advent of modern soul music, yet without her efforts and those of like minded singers, soul music would probably have never come into being.

This four album re-issue serves partly as a de facto ‘Greatest hits’ package for neophytes, with the odd early omission excepted, and serves as a showcase of her original album content for Atlantic records, including the wonderful 1959 outing, ‘Last date with Ruth Brown’, which was recorded when the singer was arguably at her zenith. This album captures Brown at her very best and is an atmospheric blues and R & B recording when urban black music was still at a crossroads with Ray Charles leading the way. In some ways, Ruth Brown can be seen as pre-dating Aretha Franklin as the ‘Queen of soul’ and it was the former wore the moniker of, ‘Miss Rhythm’.

It is important to stress from the outset that rhythm and blues is not simply an urban offshoot of the country blues, but rather a new emerging style that encapsulated and took on board the faster paced rhythms of life in the city, and indeed this reflected the mass migration of African-Americans from the southern states to the north. Black audiences referred to such singers as ‘jump’ or ‘jive’, the original master being Louis Jordan in the 1940’s and Ruth Brown very much fits into that mould. Indeed Ruth Brown continued that pioneering sound and scored major hits up until the 1960’s when urban black music was in transition with the advent of Motown and other like-minded independent labels.

Of interest to jazz fans will be ‘Late date with Ruth Brown’, which features may well loved jazz standards and these include memorable renditions of, ‘You and the night and the music’, ‘You’d be so nice to come home to’, and a Gershwin classic in, ‘I loves you Porgy’. However, most satisfying to these ears are the albums that are more of a cohesive individual package than a mere collection of 45s and add on’s. This is the case of ‘Ruth Brown Rock and roll’, which is a collection of both 45’s and E.P.’s from the early period of her career on Atlantic. These include the memorable ‘Daddy, daddy’, ‘Mama, he treats your daughter mean’, ‘So long’, and a gentle nod to the emerging then mambo craze with ‘Mambo baby’. Of historical note to readers is that Ruth Brown was the first major artist to be championed when the then fledgling Atlantic label was launched in 1949. In fact, she came with the personal recommendation of no less than Duke Ellington.

Tim Stenhouse