Album Reviews: British Blues, Rowan Morrison, Mark McDowell & Friends, Sairie

New releases from Rowan: Morrison, Mark McDowell, Sairie, and a 3-CD anthology of British Blues
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by Dave Thompson

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Crawling Up a Hill - A Journey Through the British Blues Boom, 1966-1971

(Grapefruit)

The “British Blues Boom” is one of those tags that has never set comfortably in a strict chronological timeframe.

To some, the purists among us, it denotes that initial period at the very dawn of the sixties, when the likes of Alexis Korner, John Mayall and Cyril Davies spearheaded a domestic UK-wide insurgence that culminated with the breakthrough of the Stones and the Yardbirds, and petered out as they grew more courageous.

To others, however, it revolves around the subsequent doings ignited by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack, before being absorbed into what became the hard rock underground of the very early 1970s - what were Black Sabbath, after all, but a blues band who played their songs so late into the night that they never woke up in the morning in time to go to church?

That latter is the era that comes under the microscope here, sensibly kicking off with a cut by the man whose loyalty to the blues would be the impermeable link between the two ages (John Mayall, of course), and leading us thereafter on a winding course that will, three CDs later, wash up on the shores of Status Quo.

It’s a rocky ride. The most crucial British outlet for local blues releases, the Blue Horizon label, is barely mentioned here… we get Mac and Shack alone (plus a Duster Bennett demo), and some might regard that as a shortcoming. But it isn’t - rather, it clears the decks for a host of others who might not otherwise have been considered (Mike Cooper, Bakerloo, Medicine Head, Siren),and other still whose role in the proceedings was never firmly defined, but who certainly deserve a mention - the Deviants, the Broughtons, Stack Waddy and Mungo Jerry.

We are offered glimpses into possibilities that would be crystallized elsewhere… the pre-Free Black Cat Bones, the proto-Faces Quiet Melon; some lesser-known Mac Shack spin-offs, a couple of thoroughly enjoyable novelty numbers from the Bonzos and the Liverpool Scene… and then the unassailable giants of the genre; Jeff Beck, Free, Taste, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, Blodwyn Pig. For Zeppelin watchers (for they are part of this story, of course) Robert Plant turns up alongside Alexis Korner, and Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds; Cream fans will get their fix from Graham Bond and John Mayall’s inclusions.

More important than who is actually included here, though, is the sheer diversity of the music that we categorize as British blues; the fact that there’s nary a dull moment across all three discs… barely a single band that doesn’t make its own individual mark on your ears. In fact, you don’t even have to like the blues to enjoy this collection;. A hearty love of excellent music will suffice.

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Lost in Seaburgh

(Miller Sounds)

Anyone who grew up on British Christmas television fare during the 1970s will need no introduction to the ghost stories of Montague Rhodes James, and nobody with even a passing interest in genuinely unnerving literature doubtless has a volume or two of his writings on the shelf. Simply put, James authored what remain among the most believable, and chilling, supernatural yarns ever written, and this is the soundtrack they’ve been waiting for,.

Brief spoken word extracts from the stories themselves introduce several of the tracks, an effective device whether you re familiar with the tales themselves or not. But of course it’s the instrumentation and the uncanny twining of vista-shifting voices, heavenly harmonies and wordless melody, largely courtesy of Angelique Morrison, that truly give Lost in Seaburgh the atmosphere that steps effortlessly out of the pages of a book, to fill your room with shivers and shakes.

Occasional flashes from elsewhere in the supernatural canon do alight - “The Ash Tree” has the same kind of icy lullaby-feel as the theme to Rosemary’s Baby. But it’s James’s show from start to finish, and his vision that flavors words and music alike.

It’s odd, though. Having mourned the demise of Rowan Amber Mill just a column back, a second collaborative album in almost as many moons makes us wonder whether, like so many of the characters that haunt the pages of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary et al, they are going to rest very easily. We hope not.

Breakthrough

Mark McDowell and Friends

Breakthrough

(Fruits de Mer/Friends of the Fish)

It’s been three years since McDowell’s last album, Dark Wave, but the wait for this - his sixth - was worthwhile. From the instant the opening “People Like Us” bursts in on a glammy stomp and an eighties wash (oh, and don’t forget the surf guitar), you know you’re still in the presence of an unabashed pop master, even as “Wedlock” takes everything back to acoustic introspection… only for “Give the Gods” to start turning everything up again.

Musically, Breakthrough is all over the shop - the acid-drenched folk of the instrumental title track, which only incrementally transforms into the propulsion unit from a forgotten space rock epic; the synthi sci-fi burblings that underpin “Starstreamer”… and there’s “De Facto (Ode to Arthur Lee)” that will make you fall in love with Love all over again.

It’s this seemingly unhinged diversity that gives Breakthrough its cohesion… that and the McDowell vocal, which hangs poised somewhere around the early-nineties, post-Stone Roses, baggy rave scene, and lends everything a sense of wide-eyed wonder. Vinyl, CD and a Bandcamp download all await your curiosity and, whatever it may hold in these most peculiar days, your summer will sound better for fulfilling it.

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Sairie

Scarlet and Blue EP

(Bandcamp)

A Brighton-based trio rooted in spectral folk and sweetly lilting melody, Sairie are just a year old. But the timelessness that is such an integral part of their sound makes mockeries of that.

Certainly Emma Morton’s delightfully traditional, unexpectedly emotive, vocal leads the listener down any number of paths, from the knowing innocence of the title track, to an a capella “Rich for All My Sorrow” that will leave you breathless. 

The so-pretty “Flowers of the Spring” completes the EP’s opening triptych, and it says much for the sheer strength and beauty of these three songs that the remainder of the package - “Wight Hill” and “Winds of Sirocco” - comes as something of a let-down. Not because the songs and performances are at all lacking, but because, by the time you reach them, you’re expecting further miracles, and you merely get marvels instead.

Sairie are still way ahead of the curve, though, especially if you’ve already picked up the group’s 2019 debut single. “The Gairdner” and “The Clinging Vine” follow the first half of Scarlet to perfection, and the hope that there’s a full length album in their not-too-distant future grows stronger every day.