Reviews by Eilís Boland

Billy Strings Turmoil & Tinfoil Self Release

This debut solo release from 24 year old Michigan native Billy Strings (real name Billy Apostol) completely blew my mind on first listen and I have hardly stopped playing it since! Not only can Billy flat pick his acoustic guitar as well as anyone (and better and faster than most) he is also blessed with a rich tenor voice (think of a young Doc Watson, who happens to be one of his musical influences) AND a songwriting ability that belies his youth. 

Brought up in a home with bluegrass playing parents, Billy has been playing guitar since he was four, emulating his beloved father Terry Barber. As well as the frequent picking parties at home, Billy was exposed to lots of classic rock music and played in metal bands. As a result, though steeped in traditional bluegrass, his other influences shine through in this exhilarating recording.

All the songs here, except the traditional Salty Sheep are written by Billy. He’s backed up by his road band, who are all also virtuoso exponents of their respective traditional instruments.

It’s difficult to pick out outstanding tracks here because there are no fillers. The album kicks off with the dynamic uplifting On The Line in which Billy explores the age old conundrum of the youth not being understood by their elders. It then kicks into an incredible almost 10 minute long Meet Me At The Creek - with its break neck speed extended jam in the middle of the song, featuring Billy’s guitar and Billy Failing’s banjo.

All Of Tomorrow sounds like a bluegrass standard ballad, but it was written by Billy in the style of Mac Wiseman. Likewise These Memories Of You, on which Billy shares vocals with his father - I could have sworn that I’d heard this song before.

Unusually for the bluegrass genre, Billy is driven to let his strong social conscience show through in his lyrics - many of the problems of small town America (where he grew up) affect him deeply - he lost many friends to drugs, for example. The title track and Dealer Despair reference these issues unapologetically. A surprise track right in the middle of the album, Spinning, is a spoken word track detailing a dreamlike account of an encounter with Mother Earth, complete with spacey bleeps and synth knob twiddling. The bonus/hidden track involves more of the same - you have been warned.

Billy’s friend, Bryan Sutton guests on the instrumental Salty Sheep, where the two guitar geniuses trade lightning fast licks and you can tell from the whoops of joy how much they enjoyed this.

Living Like An Animal evolved in the studio from a half finished song into an extended jam, where Billy plays driving clawhammer banjo, along with some demon harmonica and jews harp. (Unfortunately my advance copy is very short on detail and my research hasn’t turned up the names of the musicians for most of the tracks).

A word of caution - don’t play this album while driving, or I predict you will unknowingly stray well above the speed limit!

Erik Lundgren Door Dwellers Kebe/Misty

New to me, but Erik Lundgren has been creating music for quite a few years, and this is his 15th album. Swedish, but living in Denmark, Erik is a multi-instrumentalist and he wrote, performed, recorded and mixed this album all by himself.

The result is a mellow, dreamy, mainly acoustic, indie-folk affair, which shows off his superb songwriting skills and his ear for writing a catchy melody. Surprisingly also, his lyrical acumen belies the fact that English is not his first language.

The big question of mortality - ‘what’s it all about, Ted?’ - is explored on two of the standout tracks - In Your Eyes and on the title track Door Dweller. Layers of acoustic guitar are complemented by synths and keyboards, with minimal percussion. Erik’s voice is reminiscent of Conor Oberst, and there are shades of Simon & Garfunkel in his backing vocals.

It’s a well known fact that relationship breakups spawn many a good song, and Erik has a few of these here. In Your Eyes explores the guilt but also the resilience in the face of such adversity. Dark themes are explored in the gothic My Demise where the soundscape evokes the brooding and menacing of a physical and perhaps psychological breakdown, and in the blur of Taken By The Fog. What Follows is a beautiful paean to the innocence and heady excitement of childhood. 

The album cover is adorned with nine miniature watercolours of tall pines by Henrik Hansen - a nice touch to a highly recommended album.

Lena Ullman & Anna Falkenau I Can Hear You Calling Scroll 

How lucky we are that these two noted musicians have, by different routes, ended up making their homes in Ireland and producing this wonderful collaborative album.

Lena Ullman is Swedish by birth, but has spent most of her adult life to date in the West of Ireland, where she has been immersed in, and influential in the Old Time and Irish traditional scene there, especially in Galway and Kinvara. She is a clawhammer banjo player with her own distinctive playing style.  

Fiddler Anna Falkenau hails from Germany, by way of Scotland and the US. Classically trained, she has ‘converted’ to traditional playing and studied Irish fiddling in UCC and then American Old Time and South Indian music in the US. Regarded as a superb fiddler in the Irish tradition, here she brings many of her other influences to the fore.

The twelve tracks here, self produced (along with Ivan Murray) and recorded as live in the studio, consist of songs and instrumentals, both original and ‘traditional’.

Lena shows her songwriting skills on two tracks: Homeless highlights the plight of the many unfortunates currently sleeping on the streets of the country, while Blueberry is an equally plaintive lament of longing. Her delicate falsetto vocals and her playing recall Peggy Seeger - in fact the similarities are striking.

Anna’s cat, Apatchy, was the inspiration for her one original composition here - Apatchy Hunting In The Garden is a lively old timey tune that effectively immortalises the feline antics.

Lena’s slow tune Waiting For Anna leads me to suspect that Anna might have a reputation for tardiness somewhat akin to my own! More interestingly, this two part tune allows Anna to indulge her knowledge and love of South Indian music, and the result is beautiful, leaving this listener  wanting more.

Lena sings and plays her unhurried version of the traditional Red Rocking Chair, and also gives us her own take on the oft covered Black Jack DavidOn the set of hornpipes City of Savannah/ Ladies Choice/The Factory Smoke Anna’s fiddle playing sounds at its most ‘Irish’. On the remainder of the album, these (untutored) ears detect a Scandinavian feel to much of her playing.

Overall this is a superb album, that only improves with listening. Let’s hope it goes a little way towards raising the profile and popularity of this niche musical genre.

Nolan McKelvey & Dave Desmelik  Where It Takes Us Self Release

This is a nice slice of americana from two friends who have reunited musically after a long hiatus. Dave and Nolan both played together in Arizona-based newgrass/jam band, Onus B. Johnson, during the 90s.

On this self produced recording, they each contribute songs and play all the instruments. There’s a curious but successful mixture of musical styles here, at times recalling Son Volt, early Neil Young, acoustic folk and country music.

Dave’s opener, Imagination, is a touching encouragement to a child embarking on the journey of life - “keep it steady but rock the boat” - sentiments of which I thoroughly approve!

Nolan’s songwriting is a strong feature of the album. The Hanging is a stark piece told from the viewpoint of a man who’s facing the gallows, but without regrets. Dave contributes appropriately moody broody electric guitar to great effect here.

We Made Time and Pick Your Path are two more well crafted songs from Nolan McKelvey, and these are given a more acoustic folky treatment.There are a couple of filler instrumentals, but overall this is a strong collection from two people who seem to have reached a good place in their lives. That sentiment is summarised in the lovely closing song from Dave Desmelek, his appealing plaintive vocals over a stripped back piano assuring us that All Shall Be Well.

Intriguingly, the album cover is a photo of the Dark Hedges, just down the road from me in County Antrim, which has been recently made famous by Game Of Thrones.

Jono Manson  The Slight Variations Self Release

Native New Yorker Manson has been playing in bands in the NY blues/rock/funk scene since the 70s. In the 80s he became a music producer, working both in the US and in Italy, as well as contributing songs to movie sound tracks and tv. Now based in New Mexico, he continues to play in various bands and produces music for other artists in his recording studio there.

Most of the songs here are co-writes, many with his wife, Caline Welles. Perhaps Jono Manson should have more aptly called this solo record The “Major” Variations, because it jumps with impunity from style to style and back again! All the tracks are well produced, certainly, and feature his rich resonant voice and excellent guitar playing. 

The opening song Trees is given a folk rock treatment, and then we’re straight into a Stones-esque sound on Rough and Tumble. The production strays into soul blues, then easy listening pop treatments for subsequent songs, and the title track is out and out funk. Themes range from nature - particularly songs about birds - to love songs.

Manson is supported by a reliable band of studio musicians, but the stand out instrumentation comes from Jason Crosby on keys. His piano and Hammond organ playing lifts the songs to a higher plain

Born 53 A Talent Unrecognised Self Release 

Folk-rock is alive and well in Sweden, if this release from Born 53 is anything to go by. This is a collection of original songs mainly written by band member Anders Lindh, with a few cover songs thrown in. All songs are competently performed by the four multi-instrumental band members, and the recording is coproduced by Lindh. 

Forgive is a haunting memorable song, with nice electric guitar playing, and backing vocals from Anders’ wife Asa. Percussionist Jorgen Larrson’s djembe playing makes it a standout track. It contains a memorable line about “passing the grey haired Madonna’s door”! Asa takes the lead vocals on a lovely version of Dylan’s Forgetful Heart. There’s also an interesting cover of Paddy McAloon’s Devil Came a’ Callin’- the gothic theme and humour fits in well with the general feel of this album.

Anders’ lyrical style can pull one up short - perhaps there’s something lost in translation? Take for example the opening track Looking For Marie Jones, where Anders tells the story of a visit to London, in the search of the seemingly elusive Ms Jones (if this is the Belfast playwright of the same name, we are not told!). “Tom and I drank gallons of beer, and pissed it out at Trafalgar Square”. Err …

Hans Birkholz (who also co-produced) is a gifted string player and shows his skills particularly on his two instrumental tracks, where he plays all manners of guitars from Weissenborn to lap steel.