Album Review – Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance – ‘Dionysus’ (Dead Can Dance/PIAS)

There are certain phrases guaranteed to make even the most seasoned music reviewer clammy with sweat and dread: ‘our music is actually really hard to categorize’ is pretty near the top of the list. Yet the duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry’s music is genuinely hard to pin down.

That’s not to say it’s unlistenable. Far from it. The reality is that over the course of nearly forty years they have drawn from a truly global pool of inspiration, whilst managing to avoid to either a) repeat themselves or b) produce something that sounds like worthy-but dull ‘world’ music.

Even the fact that this is a concept album (though not, as Brendan Perry was at pains to point out to me, in the style of a seventies progressive rock concept album) cannot destroy what is a very special album.

Dionysus – also known as Bacchus – was the ancient Greek God of wine. This album consists of seven pieces (they don’t really seem like songs) over the course of two acts which tell the story of the legend. Whilst both Perry and Gerrard have very striking voices, this is one where their own voices are used comparatively little, at least in the first Act. Instead of which, they use field recordings and chants, along with a vast array of folk instrumentation, which reaches right across the world, bringing in bird calls and European traditions along the way. Dead Can Dance probably weren’t what Mike Scott was talking about when he coined the term ‘The Big Music’ but even by their pretty high standards, this is music that is more than just widescreen.

Reportedly, this album took two years to research and record. That’s looking into the story, and researching the legend, and putting together something of gigantic scale, rather than getting sidetracked and not focusing on the matter at hand. In the process they have pulled off something with grandeur that feels spiritual rather than a folly of excess.

With Dionysus, Dead Can Dance have shown that not only are they one of the most original acts ever, but also that they are continuing to break new ground and reinventing the rule book. It’s been six years since the last album, Anastasis, over thirty since their self-titled debut, and they are still continuing to evolve as an act. A number of the instruments on this record are probably unfamiliar even to those who teach music, yet somehow it doesn’t matter.

A triumph.




Album Review – Trials Of Cato

Trials Of Cato -‘ Hide & Hair’ (Water Records)

As ever, there’s a huge amount of records arriving and begging to be listened to. As those end of year lists have to be made any day now, there are two British-made folk records that are due for inclusion on those lists. One is Stick In The Wheel’s Follow Them True. The other is the debut by Trials Of Cato, Hide & Hair. What these records both hold in common is the way that they incorporate centuries old British traditions with something more contemporary.

Having honed their skills playing in Beirut, the middle east joins with English and Welsh heritage here. The album’s opening track ‘Difyrrwch’ is a case in point: it is their own arrangement of two Welsh tunes and one English -‘Hen Ferchetan’, ‘Difyrrwch Gwyr y Gogledd,’ and ‘The Parson’s Farewell.’ There’s an honesty and sincereity within, and it’s something that has nothing whatsoever to indie kids trying to align themselves to something vaguely rootsy (thank God). There’s a mixture of original and traditional material within. In lesser hands a song like ‘Gawain’ with its inspiration of the medieval tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight really could have ended up a complete pig’s ear.  In the hands of this acclaimed folk trio it’s something special, evoking the way that say, Led Zeppelin would draw on traditional music (without, obviously, sounding anything like Zep whatsoever). It’s genuinely spine-tingling.

There are other highlights here – their cover of Graham Moore’s song ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’ is infectious, and evoking the man who stated that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people. Somehow, with the political situation in both Britain and America, this seems right on the money. This is in contrast to their version of a seventeeth century widow’s lament ‘My Love’s In Germany.’ It’s affecting and a display of their skill at harmonising as well as on their instruments. While it would be great to hope that the song would have a happy conclusion (think Laura Cantrell’s version of New Order’s ‘Love Vigilantes’)…umm, it doesn’t. Yet, it never descends into a dirge.

This is a wonderfully warm album, which it is easy to surrender to. It reminds us that folk isn’t just about preserving old traditions but applying them to the present day and combining those two strands well. Sure there’s a lot of music coming into the inbox, but this is an example of something that I keep making the time to listen to again and again.


Hide & Hair is released on November 9 on Water Records

Album Review – Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch – Just A Simple Soul (BMG)

Just a simple soul, perhaps, but what a guitarist.

Whilst there have been a number of Bert Jansch compilations over the years, Just A Simple Soul is significant for covering Jansch’s career over five decades. (It focuses on the solo years, rather than the Pentangle releases.) It has been assembled by Jansch’s estate and Bernard Butler, one-time Suede guitarist and David McAlmont collaborator. Butler knew Jansch well and he contributes the liner notes here.

There’s no doubt that the legendary Scot had a good voice – but it was his spectacular skill as a guitarist that he will be most remembered for. This compilation brings together 39 tracks, presented here in chronological order. His debut self-titled album (sometimes referred to as the  ‘Blue Album’) has three tracks here, including the instrumental ‘Angie’ and the harrowing ‘Needle Of Death.’ No prizes for guessing that the latter is about heroin – it concerns a folk singer friend of his called Buck Polly who died of an overdose. It’s one of his best-known songs – the darkness within is echoed in tracks like Nick Drake (one of many who claimed Jansch as an influence) and Drake’s song ‘Black Eyed Dog.’

The 1960s were a prolific period for Jansch, producing six albums between his debut and 1969, by which time he had formed the legendary Pentangle. There’s a number of highlights from this period, but amongst them are the instrumentals ‘Angie’ and ‘The Waggoner’s Lad’ as well as the eco-warning ‘Poison.’

The seventies and eighties were a more difficult time for Jansch, but not without their musical highlights. The first part of this set finishes with a stunning duet with Mary Hopkin (one of the great, lost voices) on a cover of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.’ Sure, it’s been covered by everyone from Roberta Flack to Johnny Cash to George Michael, but it’s a testament to Jansch and Hopkin’s skill that their version holds its own. 1974’s L.A. Turnaround was his first album after the Pentangle split, featuring another stunning instrumental ‘Chambertin’ and that album’s opener ‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’ which truly earns (and owns) the title. Towards the end of the decade, with punk having swept away much of what had been held sacred, a concept album about birds may have been the most out of time release possible for 1979, but Avocet is brilliant. It’s represented here by ‘Kittiwake.’ (I might personally have substituted it for the title track but a seventeen minute composition is something you should make the time to investigate.)

Jansch’s influence cannot be underestimated, even if it took until the 1990s for the respect he was so clearly due to truly arrive. He had a run of highly regarded albums in his last decade of making music, among them 2000’s Crimson Moon, 2002’s Edge Of A Dream and 2006’s The Black Swan, all represented here. His collaborators included – in addition to Butler – the likes of Hope Sandoval, Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton, and he even found time to play with Pete Doherty.

Given that licensing restrictions can often make albums such as these difficult (as many artists are signed to different labels over the course of their careers), it’s great that this exists, as a fantastic introduction to Jansch and also showing just how consistently brilliant he was. When he died in 2011 he had influenced a whole range of musicians, including the likes of Jimmy Page, Fleet Foxes and Roy Harper. Listening to this compilation reminds me just how brilliant many of those studio albums are. His work remains compelling and vital.


Just A Simple Soul is out now on BMG


Low’s ‘spooky’ new video

OK, so this arrived in my inbox on Hallowe’en, but this seemed to be so much more than just an opportunistic video, so I’m posting it today.

Low’s Double Negative record is fantastic, and will hopefully be doing well in the end of year lists, which will be swamping anyone with even a slight interest in music any day now. ‘Always Trying To Work It Out’ is one of the best tracks on the album, and whilst the electronica approach on this new record is yet another new(ish) thing for them, the song itself is classic Low. And the video is so very good it deserves to be shared.

Directed by Phil Harder, in the words of Alan Sparhawk from the band: ‘We present our slightly Halloween-themed video for “Always Trying to Work It Out.” In which… friends and family star in a stroll through the grocery store; familiar fragments from memory appear; masks are filtering light. Thank you National Sawdust, light tech Shane Donohue, and the Food Co-op in Duluth. It’s dedicated to our city of Duluth.”