Hannah James and the JigDoll Ensemble – The Woman And Her Words
I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed folk music until this delight came my way. Fêted as one of the best accordionists of the British Folk scene, Hannah James has created an album of great beauty.
The music, with its stripped back grace, creates swells of captivating sound on a large yet calm sea of traditional folk strings. Her ensemble wasrecorded in Budapest and it is an international group gathered from Hungary, Estonia, Scotland and France – Kate Young (fiddle and vocals), Marti Tärn (bass and production), Andras Dés (percussion) and Toby Kuhn (cello).
So after over three weeks away on my cycle to Vienna (see Posts elsewhere on the site) I was quickly into what my Favourite Eldest Daughter calls ‘life admin” or what I’d call outstanding paperwork. However before I started on this a trip to the supermarket was in order.
My bride had switched off the fridge and freezer before flying out to join me in Austria. This is something that I could have done. It’s worrying to know she has acquired my gift. The fragrance was not attractive on opening the front door. Despite the cleaning up and emptying the putrid freezer it does offer an opportunity to stock up on items that you want to eat. I expect you all experience the same swerve on various frozen foods that have lain dormant in your freezer for months when you check what there is to eat.
Texas, America’s biggest state, is the main theme in either the montage of tales he compiles and the origin of his collaborators. Crowell, a Texan, had the idea for several years of pulling together a Texas concept album; now he’s delivered.
I approach elderly icons’ modern releases with low expectations as I usually discover the music is weary or sub-optimal compared to the dizzying heights they once scaled. However, Crowell’s creativity and relevance is still peaking judging by his last three releases. It helps to be an exceptional lyricist who can paint a vivid picture with few words. Add a selection of contemporary sounds that drip with new melodies, diverse arrangements and you are approaching legendary status.
Crowell wrote most of the songs and the other artists’ contributions are more of an invitation to enjoy a splendid outing rather than bringing significant influences. This is especially true of “Flatland Hillbillies” where Country fixtures Lee Ann Womack and Randy Rogers join this easy rolling mid tempo song to paint a picture of the lifestyle of blue collar folk. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons brings his unmistakable chugging rhythm, guitar licks and gruff vocals to a couple of tracks. One of these is “56 Fury” and it is a homage to a chromium-drenched Detroit gas guzzler. Crowell enjoys himself and it’s nice to see him step away from some of his more earnest compositions.
When Anna suggested a European jaunt to Vienna in August she thought about amazing cake, enormous history, wide vistas of a beautiful city etc. and I immediately thought I could ride my bike there! In fairness one of my favourite films is The Third Man set in post war Vienna with Orson Welles and I note there is a walking tour of the famous images in the city from that 1949 classic. From Vienna we’re planning to get the train to Bratislava for a day trip. This will be my first visit to Slovakia. (They must be excited, I know).
Johnny Marr, who wrote the music for The Smiths (whilst Stephen Morrissey wrote the words), was across the media this summer either talking about his new album or playing Glastonbury. The importance of The Smiths still endures. They split in 1987. For all Marr’s dazzling arrangements and tunes, that accompanied Morrissey’s lyrics, then he is only revered as an historic figure. I doubt his commercial success since adds up to much.
Morrissey still has a large and enthusiastic following and each release is eagerly awaited. However, his latest album received some bemused and ignorant reviews. The ‘youfs’ who were instructed to write about his latest release of covers were irritated about being instructed to write about a 60 year old man’s record. Not least all the covers were a mystery to them; no doubt had them scrabbling around on Spotify to hear the originals. These songs mainly originate from the 1960s and 70s. They also had disdain for Morrissey’s politics. Having politics is not a handicap for today’s musicians providing it is to the Left and sneering.
Morrissey is still coveted by the record industry with a recording contract with BMG and a large worldwide fan base who adore this irascible, complicated, self obsessed one off. His regular recorded output is always important. He’s found good collaborators to work with and his lyrical content still has touches of genius.
For me The Smiths without Morrissey’s image and lyrics would be nothing: sorry Johnny.
Morrissey’s literary and readable but completely unreliable autobiography, Morrissey, spends some time dwelling on his escape into popular music and his conflicting emotions with his awakening homosexuality. I knew many of the records he grew up obsessing about. The imagery that inspired him meant a lot less to me but I can well remember the impact and excitement of much of it.
It’s an obscure artist called Jobriath, the first openly gay artist signed to a major record label, where he starts. It is a bright pop tune called “Morning Starship”. I liked this but his foray into the world of Joni Mitchell had me anxious. He was potentially dabbling with alchemy. However “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” is a magnificent version. He captures the dynamics of the song which are little to do with the lyric or tune. It’s more to do with Joni’s jazz sensibilities and arrangement.
Having despatched that with aplomb he turns his attention to Dylan and renders a striking and marching take on “Only A Pawn In Their Game”. This was written about the assassination of a Black American Civil Rights Activist. Whether Morrissey is acknowledging his thoughts on this, his own marginalisation as a gay man or simply genuflecting to the most important American popular music artist of his age you can only speculate.
Further songs are by several 70s female singer songwriters – Carly Simon, Melanie, Laura Nyro and Buffy Saint-Marie. You can well imagine a teenage boy sat in his Manchester bedroom absorbing the open and honest heartfelt emotions of these ladies.
However, he does pick some former ‘singles’ and Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” and Gary Puckett’s “Lady Willpower” require a good voice to carry off. In that department he has everything you need.
The production remains crisp, pacy and somehow has an attractive hard brittle surface that makes it more contemporary and compelling. This is important in order to elevate a covers album from being a weary muse or a cop out by an established but uninspired artist.
Whatever your thoughts then you can’t ignore him (and neither should you).
After a 16 day bike ride, mainly camping, to Vienna I met Anna at Vienna Airport to spend seven days exploring the Austrian capital with a brief day trip to Slovakia. My bike ride is covered under a separate post, please seek it out.
There really is a lot to like about Vienna and, as I thought, it is one of the most delightful capitals in the world. I’ve been here twice before – once as a teenager with my parents and then in the early 80s I drove here with two pals in a Morris Marina Estate. On the second trip we also took in the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix. Holidays with friends live long in the memory even when, with no little heartbreak, one of them recently died at 59 years old.