FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: A SENSE OF PASSING
Whatever individual feelings might be about the monarchy, there is no doubt that we have all shared a sense of history, past and present in the making, laid out before us following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Earlier today we went up to London to see the flowers and tributes in Green Park and took the slow walk along the Mall to Buckingham Palace and onwards up Constitution Hill to Hyde Park. As a nation we seem to have been divided on so many fronts for a long time. It was surely a positive step to see such unity and camaraderie among the strangers who came together along our route today.
And so, we move from the passing of an era to a highlight in music this week. Appropriately, our start point has a royal connection to it too.
Photo of Sheku Kanneh-Mason by Kevin England Photo of Green Park Flowers by Gill Hardy
To celebrate the release of Song, his new solo album, Sheku Kanneh-Mason played an intimate show at St John's Church in Kingston on Tuesday night. The supremely gifted young cellist became something of an overnight sensation when he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018 when just turned 19. Accompanied on most pieces by the splendid pianist, Harry Baker, Sheku played a richly diverse selection of music from the album spanning Bach through to Bacharach. Each showed off his extraordinary ability to conjure such a wonderfully contrasting range of sounds from his cello.
A packed audience hung on every note and was generous in its applause. I particularly enjoyed “Five Preludes”, a beautiful piece written especially for Sheku by British composer Edmund Finnis, which brought out all the subtlety, richness and variety in his playing technique. His reimagining of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer” was simply joyful while his takes on favourites folk tunes from his childhood “Star of the County Down” and “Myfanwy” were poignant yet oddly uplifting.
I became acquainted with the music of Frankie Morrow in July when I highlighted her first two songs in the lead up to a 6-track EP release due at the end of October. As a brief reminder, Frankie is a Scottish solo singer-songwriter who has reimagined herself as a full band. Her initial recordings in band mode were completed before she recruited bassist James Smith and drummer Duncan Carswell and then expanded the line-up to a five-piece with fellow singer-songwriters Neev and Samuel Nicholson. What struck me a couple of months back was how those opening songs were quite different in feel yet were united by the space given to their delivery and the band’s relaxed, inventive harmonies.
“A Sign of Promise” continues Frankie Morrow’s musical explorations in a mini opus that unravels from tender openings to take in major to minor and time signature shifts, and a rousing orchestral build before a delicate coda heralds the bells of St Paul’s. It is a richly imaginative and passionate piece; a graceful acceptance of the failings that lead to the end of a relationship. In Frankie’s words it asks “the big questions of ourselves that often arise at the end of a romantic partnership: who are we, what do we stand for and who am I with or without this person?” Speaking about the recording process, she explained that vocals, guitar, clarinet and string arrangement were recorded in her flat and houses of friends, lending a real intimacy and directness to the end product. I feel that this sense of intimacy is a defining quality in her music to date.
Having followed his career closely since first coming across his work on MySpace (remember that?) and realising that, unlike many other MS friends of that era scattered across the UK and US, he actually lived down the road to me, I may have devoted more column inches to Andrew Maxwell Morris than any other artiste. His music has an enduring quality that has brought him a standing ticket to Glastonbury for the past 12 years. His third studio album came out earlier this week and appropriately the lead track to the self-titled effort, “I Will Go There", explores the sense that chasing money and dreams might often seem forlorn yet is still worthwhile.
Having had success in getting his Americana-flavoured music featured in TV and film across the continent and in major brand advertising campaigns, Andrew is sadly still something of a fledgling when it comes to shifting tons of records. “I Will Go There" appropriately demonstrates a spirited determination to ply his trade which is ultimately really uplifting. It is instrumentally rich with mandolins, 12-string guitar and the addition of woodwind to elevate the song further while vocally he has stretched himself to great effect. Throughout the new album Andrew stays true to his troubadour spirit but during lockdowns he has used isolation as a spur to advance his songwriting and reach new heights. You can listen to the whole album on Spotify now and I heartily recommend that you do.
Photo of Guise by Ben Morse
From a familiar name to one next that is reasonably new to me. Guise is a London-based quartet led by pop-folk singer-songwriter Jess Guise together with her co-vocalist Laura Hanna, bassist Titas Halder and drummer Keith Barry. Guise released its splendid 13-track debut album, Youngest Daughter, earlier in the year, and has now added vinyl to the ways you can consume it. The band has highlighted this with a video for the spirited at times frenetic opening album track entitled “The Boy & The Thief”.
Jess wrote “The Boy and the Thief” about a friend of hers who was luckless in love and how both of them regularly made terrible choices. “The video is a tongue in cheek tour video aiming to capture the spirit of friendship, adventure and honesty that’s behind the band” she added. The conversational lyricism in this song and harmonic interplay between Jess and Laura reminds me a little of the much-missed Eyes for Gertrude, more of whom later on today. Its breathless closing lines in particular sum up the losing in love game quite admirably: “There goes another one, you think you found it but you find you're wrong / A thief will leave cos they always do, but it's somehow always news to you.” Phew!
And so, to Morton Valence. Not the sleepy Gloucestershire village with an extra ‘e’ in Morton but the union of Robert 'Hacker' Jessett and Anne Gilpin, contrasting musicians whose voices somehow blend impeccably and the two constants in a band line-up that ranges from two to five. They may be leaving it late with a September release with ‘summer’ in the title but Morton Valence has a new single, “Summertime in London” ahead of a new eponymously titled album launch at London’s Moth Club on 15 October.
Like many of the songs in the MV repertoire, “Summertime in London” is deceptively titled. The band has a signature take on the lonesome and nostalgic which is firmly implanted here once again. Its brand of louche urban country lends itself perfectly to a tale of bittersweet reflections of city life frozen in the past. Paradoxically Rob is now based in Madrid while Anne remains in London but you sense his old stomping ground of Sarf London is very much where his heart is. The pedal steel guitar which dresses the song with further pathos is courtesy of legendary player BJ Cole who also produced the new record. One very much to look forward to.
Our final stop is to revisit a duo I once chose as one of my Glastonbury Emerging Talent picks from 2014 no less. As mentioned earlier, Eyes For Gertrude came to mind when I was listening to Guise. This is “Rag and Bone” the debut single from the duo’s fine 2015 album, Residential Bliss, which remains a playlist favourite of mine to this day. The song takes its cue from the routines of daily life and determinedly reaches for higher ground, lit up by delicious vocal flourishes and rousing bluegrass accompaniment. The everyday is cleverly juxtaposed with a desire to escape the bounds of routine: “I’ve had enough / This house is never clean / We should flee like Thelma and Louise / I’ll get my coat / But first I’ll get the washing in / I’ve heard Mexico is lovely in the spring.” The EFG website is still live but hasn’t seen action for over five years. If you happen to read this, Chantelle or Hannah, please get in touch!