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The Driving Test

A Musical Car Ride

Whilst we would love to give every album/EP/single a full indepth review,we are only human and don't have a time turner so we aren't able to give every release the time and attention it deserves.

In the past that would have ment that we either reviewed a release or we didn't, but now we have a third option, a middle way.

The solution here has been a simple one. Rather than review individual artists' CD's at length, we play them one after the other on a long car journey. The simple listening test is: "are they bearable in the car - interesting, enjoyable, not distracting". This may not be how the artists want us to hear their work, but it's how a lot gets listened to for the first time and at least raises awarenes! The rating system is simple and provides a shorthan for reference.:

***** Classic album, standout artist - a joy to listen to anywhere
**** Great album - the perfect soundtrack to a long car journey
*** Good album - pleasant background in the car - but nothing unique
** You have to be a fan of this music/artist. I've spared you a review
* You are either the artist or a close relative. (As I'm not, sorry no review)


THE WINTERLINGS - American Son ***

(www.winterlings.com)
A Washington State duo comprising Wolff Bowden and Amanda Birdsall, this is their second album in as many years, a collection of alt-folk Americana veined with shades of blues, country and rock built around guitars, drums, violin and banjitar. It opens in striking form with the gravelly strains of Bowden singing 'The Ghost of Leonard', a lyrically powerful state of the nation lament inspired by the late Leonard Cohen. Political statements loom large too on the driving 'American Son' and the Prine-like acoustic waltzer 'World To Change'. Birdsall sings lead on two songs, the wistfully romantic 'Gold' with its Civil War song styled, harmonica-accompanied melody, and the optimistic 'Sunspeech', while the pair also duet on the legend tale of 'Owl Mountain'. The lyrics repay listening ('Puget Sound' sports the brilliant image "You were like a novel with the first ten pages burned before we met") while the handclaps percussion of 'That Was Alaska' show their musical invention too. A very definite grower. (MD)

FAELAND - All My Swim ***

(www.faeland.co.uk)
(www.faeland.co.uk) The name a variation on the neighbouring village of Failand with an added hint of the mystical, Bristol-based duo comprising Jacob Morrison and the breathily-voiced Rebecca Nelson draw on both British and American folk traditions for their debut album, Augmented with instrumentation that includes clarinet, cello, Celtic harp and accordion, their music's informed by the likes of Nick Drake, First Aid Kit, Bon Iver and Welch/Rawlings as they explore themes of love, healing, magic and humanity. At times, it's a fairly heady affair, as on the intricate opening cut Too Much, the lead melody played on a Turkish santoor, while, elsewhere, the violin laced rhythmic chug 'We're Just A Love Song', the dreamy title track and the country blues feel of 'Train' show more folk pop sensibilities. The folksy gospel colours of the mid-tempo trauma and support-themed Silent Story sit alongside the British chamber folk echoes of a jauntily jogging 'Chantress' and more violin-shaded gossamer moods of 'The Wheel', while a live recording of the catchy, simple mandolin strummed 'The Green' indicates they can cut it outside the studio too. (MD)

HAYWARD WILLIAMS - Pretenders ***

(www.haywardwilliams.com)
A singer-songwriter from Milwaukee, this is his seventh album and another foray into soulful Americana that's earned him comparisons to Cohen and Cockburn, to which I might add Mark Kozalek. It's a moody collection, opening with the wearied slow burn 'How You Been' and continuing through the likes of 'Easy Coward', the bluesy Marvin Gaye colours of 'Probably Never, Maybe Tonight', the title track and 'Meet Me Halfway'. There's more uptempo moments to be found on the country croon 'Come Undone', the twang guitar led If You Ever Heard Her Name and the chugging walking rhythm 'Only Love' with its hints of The Band's 'The Shape I'm In'. It's not a gamechanger, but it's unquestionably inviting listening. (MD)

ALELA DIANE - Cusp ***

(www.aleladiane.com)
Great word 'cusp' - ranks up there with 'kiosk. Regardless, an album of songs carrying a strong thread on the theme of motherhood as opposed to being sold on sex appeal, emerges from a small cabin deep within snowy woods of Oregon. The extremes of carrying the weight and the beauty of creating life shift from 'Buoyant' to 'So Tired', the haunting 'Émigré' driven by the refugee crisis briefly shifting tack (despite a "mothers hold on tightly to your children"). The lovely 'Song For Sandy' tributes Ms Denny while addressing the ongong theme of the complex relationship with her own mother. An easy piano driven album, one she calls "my version of women's work." (MA)

HEATHER DOWNIE - Nae Sweets For Shy Bairns **

(www.heatherdownie.co.uk)

It's no surprise that a Celtic Connections launch is imminent for harpist and singer Heather Downie's debut album. The notion of a harp based album might cause some to baulk at the idea in the same way that the word 'banjo' has brave men quivering. Having said that, it's a reassuringly calm experience if a little narrow in sonic scope although the presence of Tia Files on guitar and percussion softens the harp blow and there's a trippy atmosphere in 'Under The Stars'. 'Stronger Than You Know' is perhaps the best example of how the songs (as opposed to tunes) work best as Heather's vocal adds a similarly calming tone. (MA)

KAREN ZANES - Calico **

(karenzanes.bandcamp.com/
Karen is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from the Boston/Cambridge area. This EP named "CALICO" contains three songs and one instrumental. As with all road test reviews that I have undertaken, I listened to this on a short journey of 10 miles that I had to make on Saturday morning. First impressions being paramount in this type of review! The first thing to say is that the songs are fairly quiet so a car is not the best environment to listen to a new piece of music in. I really struggled to understand the words although I liked the sound of the guitar which is prevalent in all the four offerings. I am now listening to it on my PC and I am having the same problem with the lyrics. There is no doubt that the music is better suited to a late night listen rather than a car where I usually like my music to be somewhat more dynamic. Ironically, one of the songs is called "Big Music" and it is anything but that. The final track is an instrumental which although being rather pleasant is somewhat akin to a guitar student messing around after a lesson. I kept waiting for it to star or go somewhere but it never really did. I hate being critical of musicians as I realise what a hard industry it is to get recognised in. I am also sure that Karen would sound better live, but this one is not for me. A 2 star rating. Sorry Karen! (RS)

JOHN STRANKS - DreamLine ***

(www.johnstranks.uk)
A long time resident of Birmingham and Sandwell in the UK, Stranks has had a somewhat electric career ranging from delivering furniture and van driver to college lecturer and running an organic box business. Now retired, over the years he's also written and performed his own folk-based material, releasing a debut album back in 2004 and is currently working on a second, 'Star of the West', this 5-track EP offering a taster. Featuring Stranks on guitars and harmonica with producer Chris Wilson playing bass on three numbers, it opens with the gentle folksy 'Snowbird', touches of Ralph McTell and Gordon Lightfoot in evidence before shifting mood and temp for the bluesier urgency of 'Never Cried' that reminds me somewhat of Pete Atkin. The airy, connect with nature-themed acoustic strummed title track, a rework from the debut album with the strings stripped out, stretches past the five-minute mark without ever wearing out its welcome, shifting back to more of a 70s prog folk feel for the driving 'Devil Rides On The Wind' and ending on the lazybones acoustic blues 'No Future In This'. At 67, he's not expecting to be discovered and rise to stardom, but on this evidence, he'll always be welcome at singers night and folk clubs. (MD)

JOHN JOHANNA - I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes ***

(www.carouseluk.com/)
Whether it's his given name or not ('My Name is John Johanna' is an old American folk tune dating back to the minstrel era and the name also has links to Revelations), the Norfolk multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter records to cassette and reel to reel and draws on gospel blues, folk and oriental tonalities, his songs informed by the cosmic mythology of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. So, as you might expect, there's an airy spirituality to the eight devotional tracks on this EP, opening with 'Fold In The Light' where he croons like a choir boy Roy Orbison. In terms of both music and lyrical content, it's eclectic affair, the rhythmically itchy fingerpicked guitar and dripping tap beats of 'Rock My Soul', an adaptation of traditional gospel blues words, the text of the wailing chorus cobwebby death-themed blues 'World Unknown' derived from the writings of 1700s hymn writer and theologian Isaac Watts while the spooked 'Knowledge And Power, Nathaniel' is a rendering of an Indian Raga. There's also a vibrant Eastern flavour to 'Marantha', a wordless chant riding an Indian hand drum rhythm, the title of which is an ancient Aramaic term roughly translated as Our Lord has come, while, influenced by classical Indian dhrupad singers, the title track is a full live band experience and the closing track, 'Bound', a ballad recalling discussions of Prometheus with a late friend, suggests a meeting point between Sufjan Stevens and Leonard Cohen. One for rarefied audiences, perhaps, but worth seeking out. (MD)

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