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Zoe Mulford Zoe Mulford
Album: Small Brown Birds
Label: Azalea City
Tracks: 12

Philadelphia-born and now Manchester-based singer, songwriter and nifty clawhammer banjo and guitar player Zoe Mulford finally releases her fifth album (her first since 2013's Coyote Wings), with the help of Kickstarter and a small bunch of friendly musicians among whom fiddle/mandolin player Tom Kitching figures largest (and whom Zoë crucially credits with "getting the songs airborne").

Zoë's songwriting is noted for its propensity for both seeking and finding joy in the midst of hard times, and that credo has never been clearer than on Small Brown Birds, which focuses on a common theme of rebirth and hope. Zoë's charming brand of compassion, honesty and wit are in evidence throughout this new collection of 10 originals and two covers. The album's bookends are chummy songs of welcome (Answer The Knock At The Door and Won't You Come On In?), both deserving of wider currency; Back Door Key then extends the theme of welcome, this time to a former lover (on whose departure the small brown birds, but evidently not the yellow warbler, also left).

There's a distinct Appalachian feel to the darker - but eventually ripe with promise - February Thunder; here, as on the delicate but bleak Snow On The Junkyard, Zoë's clear, direct vocal style comes into its own. One Damn Thing is a justified (if reluctantly resigned) rant whose mode of expression kinda recalls Peggy Seeger - as in its own way does the gospel-inflected Speak True. Highlight track The Day The President Sang Amazing Grace - recently covered by Joan Baez on her latest album - is a powerful reminiscence of Obama's eulogy for those slain in the 2015 AME church shooting in Charleston. And the album's non-originals - the Red Clay Ramblers' shanty-like Queen Of Skye and Paul McCartney's Blackbird - come off particularly well too, the latter conveniently followed by the chirpy little instrumental title track. The only relative miscalculation (and a minor one at that in my view) might be considered the inclusion of Zoë's vaudeville-styled critique-cum-party-piece Zillionaire, which despite some suitably exuberant supporting playing doesn't quite fit with the tone of the rest of the album, even as an appetiser for the warmly inclusive finale.

The album is really nicely packaged too, by the way, with attractive artwork and design. So if you've not yet come across Zoë, then here and now's a good time and place to start.

David Kidman