For the latest music review we’re going to go all the way back to 2019 – remember then? December is usually the month of reflection, end of year lists, “best of” selections and SWH! did not shy away from those, as you may have noticed. However, there was still loads of great new music being released last month (for further evidence check out the New Music Monday playlists), and this, the first post of 2020, celebrates that showcasing the best examples to have reached our ears.
And what a fine selection it is, one which unashamedly features mostly musicians and bands who have featured on these pages before (but not all). What you are about to hear is quality and class from start to finish, or at least we like to think so. See for yourself…
2019 was the 10th anniversary of Scots Whay Hae!, so it is timely that we can celebrate the return of a singer/songwriter who was one of the first we featured on the site. He is Luke Joyce, once of the legendary The Gothenburg Address, but back in 2009/10 he was making music as I Build Collapsible Mountains and it was very, very good indeed. The welcome news is that he is back in the form of Harsh Winters and we are all the better for it.
The new album is The Marriage Of A Killer And A Bird Song and it makes the wait more than worth it. These are timeless songs from a musician to treasure, moving seamlessly from intimate to epic and back again with ease, and with Joyce’s unmistakable vocals at once both brittle and sure. All life is here, and, as with all the best art, these songs will have you reflecting on your own life and times. There is an emotional heart which can catch you unaware, and it stays with you. While we were all talking about the best albums of the year one of them arrived right at the very end and we nearly missed it. Make sure you don’t.
Talking of musicians who it’s great to have back, last month saw a new single release from Xan Tyler on Fox Star Records. If you haven’t heard her before, Tyler is a fabulous singer/songwriter whose music crosses many genres, including folk/ambient/pop/dub/ska, and she has collaborated with some of the very best in all of those and more. ‘Vicky’ the A-side is the name Tyler gives to that voice we all try to suppress – the one which tells us that we are just no good and, worse than that, everyone knows it. It’s a lesson in facing your demons and owning them which will strike a chord with us all if we care to admit it. And we should.
The B-side, ‘Mantra’, is literally the flip side of ‘Vicky’ as Tyler tries to accentuate the positive after hopefully eliminating the negative, urging us to accept the praise and compliments which others pay us, and taken together these songs are a perfect pair. These are clearly intensely personal, but that’s what great music often is – certainly when it makes such a connection and makes you realise that you’re not alone. There’s not much more can you ask from a songwriter than that. This is ‘Vicky’.
Next up we give you ‘Sweet Downfall‘ from Nicol & Elliot, released on the excellent Electric Honey Music (which actually came out before December but which is too good not to include here). There’s something about Americana/country music which seems to suit a duo. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Mandolin Orange, The Handsome Family, Shovels & Rope, our very own Paterson/Myles, and Nicol & Elliott are yet further proof of this.
‘Sweet Downfall’ is a reminder that often less is more, with a subtle production used to showcase the song rather than overpower it. There is a purity in the harmonies of these two voices which can’t fail to move even the hardest of hearts, and Andrew Nicol’s guitar marries to Rachel Elliott’s fiddle equally well. With new music coming very soon, the future looks bright for Nicol & Elliott.
There are certain musicians who release great music on such a regular basis that it can be easy to take them for granted. Exhibit A (for this month) – Malcolm Middleton who has never made a record I didn’t want to own. Just in the last few years he has given us Electric Blue (as Human Don’t Be Angry), Summer of ’13, the essential Bananas, Scaffolding/Have Fun Mister and now the latest Human Don’t Be Angry release, Guitar Variations which, as the title suggests, is all about the guitar.
However, it’s a very Middleton take which touches on different styles and approaches to the instrument, too many to mention here (although I will say fans of Vini Reilly will not be disappointed). It sounds like the soundtrack to the best road trip you’ve yet to take. “What does that even mean?”, I can imagine you cry. Let me give you a big hint – from it this is ‘Bum A Ride’:
One of SWH!’s live highlights of last year was Fat-Suit in Braemar. This is a band who defy easy definition which is one of the reasons to love them. I could try, (I have tried – see last November’s review) and if I did I would be bound once again to use terms such as jazz/folk/ fusion but also virtuoso/instrumental/exceptional as they are all of those things and more.
The highest level of musicianship is married to a sheer joy of playing, and playing together, a feeling which is palpable and rather moving. When Celtic Connections released tickets for this year’s festival theirs was the first ticket bought, and if you get the chance to see them live I urge you to take it. This is just a small but beautiful example of what they do – one which I had to share with you as it’s among the best things I have heard in many years, never mind the last. From their stunning current album Waifs & Strays this is ‘Countryside Quiet’.
Lavinia Blackwall‘s music seems to come from a different time and place, and at this time and place that makes it all the better. Her previous singles, ‘Waiting For Tomorrow’ and ‘Troublemakers’ suggested that in terms of songwriting and singing Blackwall is at the top of her game, and the latest, ‘Keep Warm‘ (once again backed by the always excellent Stilton), only strengthens that feeling.
More laid back and reflective than the previous solo releases, the music and the melodies draw you in, but it is Blackwall’s voice, one which is both soulful and doleful, which keeps you coming back again and again. Her album promises to be something rather special. In the meantime, this is ‘Keep Warm’.
A sign of a great song is that it offers up more with each play, and those are the songs which St Martiins make. ‘My Girl‘ and ‘Saw The Moon‘ were two of the best songs of the year, but you could argue that ‘Melvin‘ is even better. The great thing is we don’t have to choose. To quote Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo, “Nobody got a gun to your head”!
St Martiins are one of those bands whose each new release is eagerly anticipated and grows their reputation. There is an emotional honesty, and a perfect balance of strength and vulnerability, that is incredibly human and which few manage to put into song as they do. I adore St Martiins, and so do you – you just may not know it yet. If you don’t, ‘Melvin’ is the perfect place to begin.
In terms of music, if admittedly little else, last year was quite a year – let’s hope 2020 manages to keep up. We’ll keep you posted…