Declaring his guitar style as influenced by such 60s folk legends as Nic Jones, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, John Martyn and Martin Simpson as well as contemporary torch bearers like Martha Tilston, young Birmingham folkie and winner of the Isambard Folk Award at last year’s Bristol Folk Festival, CHRIS CLEVERLEY makes his debut with the self-released, self-produced Apparitions. Underscoring his guitar work, it opens with Transience, a brief instrumental with a subtle wash of strings that calls to mind Mark Kopfler’s Celtic mist score for Local Hero, before heading into the similarly atmospheric, easy-rolling love song The Dawn Before The Day, on which he’s again accompanied by Marion Morgan’s violin, tapping out percussion on his guitar box.
His father was heavily into the Birmingham blues scene and apparently still plays the odd gig, and that influence seeps in too on Lesson on which Amit Dattani from Mellow Peaches provides slide guitar, but then it gets a little dreamier with the waltzing Missing Persons, a song about restlessness and the call of the sea that draws on his love of the West Country with references to Bristol and Bocastle, and which features harmony vocals from Stourbridge’s Kim Lowings.
Her vocal contributions can also be heard on the watery melody of Acetylene and a slap-guitar, finger-picked reading of the evergreen O Shenandoah, his affection for American folk music and the sounds of Appalachia also evident on I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground where he plays banjo and shares verses with Steph Gabb, who provides harmonies on most of the numbers. Indeed, although self-penned, the almost hymnal, closing banjo accompanied I’m Not Long For This World could easily pass for another nugget from the traditional American songbook.
Reflecting its minimal lyric, the title track is a beautifully simple and sparse affair of just violin, finger-picked acoustic and some backwards guitar effects, while Morgan is prominent again on Life Is Elsewhere, another song of a restless spirit on which he evokes thoughts of Paul Simon, while, featuring Dan Whitehouse on backing vocals, the penultimate, five minute The Rafters rides a rippling melody and seems to call on the legend of the Flying Dutchman for another tale of a soul cursed to wander. An absolute vision of delight.
Remaining on a folk note, now based in the Isle of Wight, Birmingham-born (from the same Kingstanding street as Steve Winwood) singer-songwriter PAUL ARMFIELD recently returned for his first hometown show in over a decade to promote new album, Found (PSA), his sixth, a collection of 15 songs inspired by photographs found over the years by his friend, Elinor, in the flea-markets of Berlin.
Bigged up by the likes of Guy Garvey and Chris Difford, Armfield’s very much old school, a workmanlike craftsman and storyteller in the manner of McTell, Scott Walker, Harvey Andrews, his voice smoky and warm (Caitlan Moran calls it toasty), his delivery relaxed, his guitar playing deft but unshowy.
Opening with Elinor’s Eyes, a fingerpicked acoustic nod to the album’s inspiration, it first shifts into uptempo jazzy mode with the double-bass driven Of Sky And Sea And Sand and then to the swirling strings, harp, brass and woodwind arrangement of The Dubious Trinity which, inspired by a snap of three women on the parapet of a church makes reference to Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy.
Like Walker, Armfield has been a Jacques Brel interpreter, and you can hear the influence on the likes of the gossamer Happy Birthday and Wind-Up Gramophone, while, elsewhere, the brief woodwind-streaked The Secateur Sisters conjures Jake Thakray and Reflected In My Heart is a yearning, Gaelic-tinted piano and military drum beat slow march.
As they say, every picture tells a story, and, featuring Karen Tweed on accordion, Round The Tree, a rousing, brass-burnished Christmas family and friends gathering song, offers a striking contrast to the poignant, sadness soaked melancholy of Beneath The War Memorial while, with a flamenco-coloured guitar melody and mournful violin, The Boy In The Picture muses on the fate of a child taken in 1942. Available as a 1000 signed and numbered limited edition www.paularmfield.com), it’s well worth the exposure.
They may no longer command the sort of following as when their debut album, We’ll Live And Die In These Towns, crashed to the top of the charts in 2007 and they may no longer have a major label deal (they’re now with fledgling indie Vam Records) or even a proper website, but Coventry trio THE ENEMY are arguably on their strongest form to date with fourth album It's Automatic. Fed up with repeating the same old Enemy sound, Tom Clarke and Andy Hopkins decided to go for something different, something obvious from the defiant statement of intent opening track, Don’t Let Nothing Get In The Way, a leviathan heavy drums stadium swagger that conjures U2 at their bombastic peak. The drums are amped up again on the synths swirling title track which eschews past social protest for a massive love song, while To The Waterfall is another air-punching, echoing, big sound that makes your heart want to burst out of your chest
After this opening volley, they take it down a notch for Everybody Needs Somebody which, along with Superhero, are probably the closest the album get to low key balladry, though even these could rattle windows a dozen miles away. In going bigger, louder, they’ve not lost their old raw passion, merely boosted it, just as their intrinsic ability to create an infection, nagging melody seems to be operating on steroids, certainly if the likes of So Much Love, the flag-waving Our Time and, well, Melody, are any indication.
Built around a single stabbing piano note and slow drum beat that hints at Queen, the anthemic six minute What’s A Boy To Do closes the album with the equivalent of a scarfwaving football terrace and fireworks display combined, climaxing with a sample of Charlie Chaplin’s call for universal brotherhood from The Great Dictator, leaving you exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure. Some have written this off as a last gasp swansong, but it sound more like a phoenix rising.
Reared in Harborne on a diet of Green Day, BOBBY SHOEBOTHAM trod a familiar route of teenage punk before heading to university and an afterlife of serving time in anything from hardcore to mariachi bands, he’s come out the other end in the same busker folk field as Beans On Toast, etc. He makes his recording debut now via the Koreema Music Group with a free download of the catchy uke-strummed Somebody’ Else’s Girl (www.soundcloud.com/king-shoey/somebody-elses-girl) while the other Soundcloud tracks (like the trumpet-accompanied Valentino and the Ramonesy Katrina) promise a bright, if possibly brief, future.
Erstwhile frontman for Bromsgrove indie outfit Our Mutual Friend, Birmingham-based Jack Goodall now heads up GOODALL, an eponymous project that features OMF bassist Thom Hollick, powerhouse drummer Jack Smith and new live addition Kate Wilkins from Abie’s Miracle Tonic who takes over the keys when Goodall plays guitar.
Smith, however, features on only three tracks from self-released debut album Canada, the title down to the fact Goodall was a student there and it was where some, if not all, of the songs were written. One, Border Police, is actually a playful riposte to the titular grim-faced US-Canada patrol officers who “look like they haven't smiled in a week.”
The other members of OMF, drummer Sarah Workman, pianist Joe Priest and guitarist Steve Ashford also feature (Priest on all but four) and it seems likely that several of the tracks were intended for release by Goodall’s former outfit. Indeed, Spare Me was originally the B side of their Truly Gone single while Saskatoon (a struggling muso song that parallels the flatness of the city with his flatlining bank account) appeared under the band’s name (though Goodall was the only member featured) on Hinterland, a 2012 Canadian compilation album produced by Mark Planke, who also mixed this album in Ontario.
Whatever the hybrid genesis, however, it’s a fascinating, inventive and ambitious collection of material that variously throws up such influences as Talking Heads, Hendrix, Bowie, Zappa, Wire and Zappa. The lyrically scathing Liberal, which features just Goodall and Hollick on violin, suggests Ray Davies is in there too. Stylistically embracing rock, funk, blues, jazz, funk, pop, psychedelia and Afrobeat, it’s an incredibly musically variegated affair that constantly takes off at different tangents, often within the same number.
Opening number Phenomenal Joe is a meld of stuttering Byrne-esque funk and cosmic Bowie, immediately followed by just Goodall’s voice and electric piano on Yorkville’s 109 second ballad about going hungry in Toronto that reminds me of Vinnie Peculiar before the vocal intro to the urban conformity-bashing Cities Burn (“does anyone know the way out of this middle class hell”) gives way to angular, jagged snarl of Bowie-esque krautrock synth.
You never know what to expect from one number to the next, sliding from the jazzy cellar blues of Saskatoon to A Letter To You, where lush balladry meets distorted guitar, and the slow waltz Exotic Names, with its soaringly anthemic, piano and drums crashing chorus, to the itchy dance rhythms of Talk Like Me and another clear nod to Bowie.
It ends on a haunting note with Way Home, the sparse guitar conjuring a similar intoxicating mescal dream feel as The End by The Doors and featuring a spoken passage by David Freja framing just one impassioned cry of dislocation (“I've lived in towns and cities feeling wrong I'm never in one place too long”) from Goodall. Raw round the edges at times, but this is a remarkable piece of work.
It’s been two years since VICTORIES AT SEA released their Static Caravan debut, the four track In Memory Of EP. Since when they’ve had a fairly low profile, holed up in an abandonded Digbeth steelworks working away on debut album, Everything Forever. Recorded in the equally industrial environment of an old whistle factory’s basement, the time spent has not been in vain. Featuring 10 new tracks built around post-punk guitar, brutalist electronics and driving drums, aptly titled opener Bloom finds the trio’s 80s synth pop sound (or dark disco as JP calls it) in glorious fettle with a big swirling melody festooned with catchy hooks that stirs together the euphoric best of New Order and Flock of Seagulls.
Their dance sensibilities are to the fore on the falsetto sung Florentine with its steady drum beat, pulsing keyboards and “take a look at yourself” chorus, a mood that also informs the very Duran-like Up and the scurrying urgency and cascading sonic rush of Into The Fire with its Bunnymen echoes.
Influences in past releases have included Mogwai and The Chameleons, and the former is evident here too on the muggy neurotic edge of the (save for some the distorted and unclear spoken background words) instrumental DMC and the latter on Swim, the echoey distant vocals swept along on an surging tidal wave of electronic sound. Meanwhile, showing their more ‘restrained’ side, the poppily mid-tempo On Your Own (the lyrics tend to revolve around themes of love, loss and isolation, one track entitled Poles Apart) which recalls New Order at their most accessible.
There’s nothing quite as ambitious as Low, the EP’s six-minute darkly apocalyptic number epic, but both the glorious Future Gold (the free download that preceded the EP and, along with DMC, a 200 limited edition single given away at gigs) and serenely slow building five minute album closer Sirens, another instrumental with a scattering of indistinct vocal, are solid examples of how they craft layered, atmospheric and cinematic urban soundscapes that are both the product and celebration of the city from which they have emerged.