Tag Archives: Witchseason

REVIEW – Toby Hay: ‘Guitar I (The Stairwell Sessions)’ EP, 2012 (“a sense of placement and location”)

12 Jan
Toby Hay: 'Guitar I (The Stairwell Sessions)' EP

Toby Hay: ‘Guitar I (The Stairwell Sessions)’ EP

In a faithless world (in my own faithless world, anyway) one of the few things that can substitute for a religious experience is finding a place where sound can be transfigured. This could be as simple as a random encounter with a naturally-shaped space that has a whisper, or as calculated as deliberately finding somewhere in a newer concrete structure where the right note in a scale suddenly booms like amplified doo-wop. It might explain why there’s a primal pleasure about singing in the shower – that embrace of the feeling that you’re in the right location for the ritual of sound to run its course.

Toby Hay (the brother of Tomorrow We Sail’s Tim Hay) made full use of this feeling when recording this debut EP of acoustic guitar. It helped that Tim’s own stairwell, at home in Leeds, provided the ideal sound. One evening – while Tim, all ears, manned the console – Toby sat down on the stairs and recorded then and there. Still only 21, his guitar technique is already fully formed and his playing strikingly visual (it’s hardly surprising to find that he also works as a filmmaker). That sense of placement and location stretches further than his choice of where to sit down and hear the natural reverb, and into the fabric of his music.

The inspirations are immediately recognisable. A fingerstyle player, Toby’s music is firmly in the ornate British folk-baroque approach, continuing a line begun by Davy Graham, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy in the ’60s and continued, over the years, by players including Michael Hedges and Martin Simpson. The EP aligns Toby’s own compositions alongside his variations on and extrapolations of standards, to the point where only the familiarity of a tune separates them.

For Variations On O’Carolans’ Dream, Toby immerses himself in the world of Irish baroque harp music, reworked through the guitar. While here he’s following in the footsteps of the likes of Duck Baker, his performance is confident, revelling in the guitar sonorities which add spice to the transposition. His thumbwork in the bass is strong – especially in the second section, where he chops toothily into the bassline – and the riffling harp-like flourishes which he brings to his fingerwork offer something back to the original. By the third section, the baroque structures have melded seamlessly with an Indian-inflected pulsealong.

As you might have guessed from the title, And We’ll Take A Cup Of Kindness Yet is Toby’s extrapolation of Auld Lang Syne. In some respects it’s the most straightforward piece on the EP, travelling from a sleepy, breezy statement of the original melody before running away into double-time. From its start as a song of sitting down, drinking and remembering, it’s transmuted into a fast-flowing travelling piece, heavy on the double-stopping and the thumbing of bass notes, before slowing again into a classical inspired study which doesn’t so much recapitulate the original tune as revive it.

Of the three Hay originals, Platform 16 is another travelling song. Its intro bounces and rings out on high harmonics: as the music wheels onwards, Toby’s sliding, percussive attack on the notes as they’re made out is so sharp that it sounds like pickwork. Night Terror Blues is another demonstration of quiet excellence. Winding up out of hushed beginnings, it becomes a strong-stepping baroque blues. Stabbing in the treble, there’s a slithering in the bass range – like a slipping foot on the run.

The remaining original – Where The River’s All Rain And Roses – takes its title from Jack Kerouac. More explicitly, it comes from a dusktime description of swishing across the Mississippi river on the bridge at Port Allen, Louisiana in “a misty pinpoint darkness.” Kerouac’s original passage is an undulant swirl of description – a journey through foglight and dropping evening captured in smudged yellows and purples, in the swings of a sharply curving drive. Yet Toby’s own piece has none of the arresting jazz stimulus which one might expect from a Kerouac tribute. Nor does it try to recapture that American freeway motion; of driving through the astonishing scenery and through the liberty of the rolling roads into revelation.

Instead, Toby seems to be taking his cue not from the motion or the self-absorption, but from Kerouac’s descriptions of what he passes through en route – the textures of the mists, the way he hails the Mississippi as “a washed clod in the rainy night… a dissolving, a riding of the tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution to brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees…” For once, the music hovers rather than drives. Over a billowing airblown shruti box drone (the EP’s lone overdub), Toby picks out an elegant Gymnopedie-via-Ralph Towner progression, its melody carried in the bass and midrange. Stepping back and forth, it maintains its chords via high, clipped double-stopping. When a new sequence emerges midway and, chord by chord, rides up to a sparse and ecstatic point of grace, it does so with the same pointillistic pacing. Droplets in the fog, light snagged in vapour, or moments of eternity seen through movement – whatever this brings to the mind, it captures a position in time and in space that’s mystifying. For a moment, just like that moment when the sound in the stairwell deepens to a subtle boom.

Toby Hay: ‘Guitar I (the stairwell sessions)’
Toby Hay (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download EP
Released: 13th December 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Toby Hay online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp YouTube

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Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: “Waiting For The Storm”

REVIEW – Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’ album, 2012 (“tin roofs, heat and restlessness”)

9 Oct

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: 'Waiting For The Storm'

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’


Two guitars, two hushed voices, a looming double bass and a room that moves. That’s all that’s needed.

Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward go way back. In the 1980s, both were ungrizzled Scottish freshmen; teenaged guitarists coming up through roots music gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their paths have intersected many a time since then, while both clocked up the years and the experience – Mark with a brace of projects including the Berlin Americana band Two Dollar Bash, Craig most famously with dEUS (and spinoffs like The Love Substitutes), While this fuller collaboration was mooted in 2007, it wasn’t recorded until 2010 and 2011, and then went unreleased for a further year. In the meantime the intent hasn’t gone stale. If anything, it’s aged like a good whisky. This album might have been a while in coming, but it’s happily unstuck from the demands of time – just like any long friendship of the kind where a phone call and a kept date in a bar wipes away the years of separation.

Mark and Craig are upfront about their intentions. They’re reviving that strand of British “folk baroque” as played solo in the ’60s by Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, developed by John Renbourn and Danny Thompson in Pentangle, and performed in a shroud of mystique and withdrawal by Nick Drake. ‘Waiting For The Storm’ utterly recaptures that Witchseason glimmer – timeless, intimate and immediate, with the air listening in and the feeling that the songs are at the forefront of a push of story and message.

As guitarists and as singers, Craig and Mark are perfectly matched. Acoustic fingerpicking styles knit together in a generous skein of give-and-take, with each man providing varied electric textures as and where needed. Their quiet, rough-finished voices blur and separate in sighed harmonies, tinged with weariness, a little foreboding and some scarred-knuckle gentleness. Between them, Hannes d’Hoine plays double bass as if it were a straining mast, conjuring up deep thrums, solid gutsy plucking and ghostly bowed atmospherics. It’s very much a three-cornered exchange – almost telepathic in the players’ instinct to play just what is needed and no more.

As for the roots of the record, they drift – and no wonder. Though Mark and Craig are Scottish by origin, they’re wanderers by nature. The stoic discomfort blues of A Strange Place traces lightly over the angst of this lifestyle; the menacing weightlessness of its temporary, torn-up settlings. “Anyone entering this place they might say, / a strange place in which we belong…/ It’s a strange place we do run to, / a strange place to which we do run.” The slithering folk riffs and Simon & Garfunkel harmonies of Something On The Breeze raise up something more of home, via a Lowlands song of roaming and departure. (“Blowing through the open door that I have just walked through, / blowing me along to something new… / Looking forward to looking back on the things I’ve left behind, / somewhere a little further down the line.”)

Under even the dreamier-sounding songs, there’s a Scottish feel of hard lines: an undercurrent of poverty and menace dealt with stoically (“I see the cops on every corner, / people waiting ready to run. / Blue lights flashing out a warning – / someone’ll get hurt before the morning comes.”) Yet most of the underpinnings of the record come from one particular location: Mark’s current home of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti. Throughout ‘Waiting For The Storm’, Haiti breathes itself steamily into the mood and the music – mountains and stagnant creeks; tin roofs, heat and restlessness. There’s an occult foreboding here too, perhaps brought in by the business of living under the threat of capricious flooding, of drumming rain, or of violent passions swelling out of control. The answers flicker through the songs, half-seen, or viewed full in the face for an uneasy moment.

Some of it’s more relaxed; simply sketches and shadings of place and time. The winding sea currents of All The Doors Are Open (with Hannes’ grasping bass anchoring the surges of meter) invoke summer-struck stupor and an urge for motion. “All the doors are open, cars go past outside. / Won’t you take me with you, take me for a ride?… / I gulp down the icy water, drowning in the heat. / Hills lean over the hazy sea, wheels turning to the beat.” The instrumental Black Sail travels in a wave-roll and a dark minor key, telling a wordless story: moods shift weather-wise like bands of sunset and lowering clouds, the accelerations and slowings of the guitars tracked point-by-point by Hanne’s bowed bass.

With the title track, however, more threatening moods gather. “See the vinyl spinning its strange pattern in my head / and I can’t help thinking about something somebody said…” Like a brooding canvas, Waiting For The Storm uses the old expressionist motif of threatening weather to illustrate roils in the spirit, but leaves us hanging and expectant. “The sky is getting darker and the glass begins to fall. / The flicker of the candle’s throwing shadows on the wall… / Siren in the distance, the evening air is cool. / The bottle’s almost empty and the ashtray’s nearly full. / Waiting for a moment when it all begins to spin – / voices in the darkness, waiting for the storm to begin.”

Although the Haitian setting offers ravaged scenery and wild elements aplenty, Mark and Craig are ultimately too subtle just to use it as an exotic stage. In their lean words, they imply that most of the trouble a nomad might find in places like these might actually have been brought along in his own baggage. Secret Places, certainly, is caught up in its own space – one of obsessive passion, affirming “there’s no after, no before, /each time we pass through this door. / Nothing matters anymore – / each moment burns more fiercely than the last.”

Haiti gets to speak for itself as well. Amid arco bass rumbles and a stew of electric guitar atmospherics and acoustic webbing, Les Belles Promesses sees Mark, Craig and Hanne take a step back so that Haitian laureate Frankétienne can take centre stage. Working in smouldering wreathes of text from his own ‘Voix Marassa’, the old man recites and declaims in an impassioned, mesmeric French Creole like a voudoun Baudelaire, calling out razors and toadstones, sickness and fire, rocks and struck matches. “L’acidite de l’ombre… l’obsession des long voyage impermanences au bout du sexe, la passion du danger dans le sang, la fascination de riske… au-dessus du desastre.” Even at its height it remains honest, clear about the swings of raw fraught instinct.

So it is that the remaining two songs are left to their own devices. Icy Shivers comes from the armpit of a bad night – a circling lick; scribbling, edgy double bass harmonics; and moonlight-drop electric guitar, both ominous and omen-ous. “Things that crawl and things that bite / my thoughts as black as the sky tonight – / oh, it’s a long, long time until the dawn… / Dead of night the city sleeps – / waters still, a bargain deep.” Elsewhere, in Watching You Sleep, the devils are scratching away at a hard-won peace. Mark sings, as soft as anything, the pillow talk of a devoted lover – “you, your head lying on my shoulder, hear you breathing soft and clear. / I don’t care about tomorrow just as long as you are here,” – but hints at darker things abandoned in order to find and keep this haven. Even if they’re not stalking after him, there’s still a haunting. “I put the key in my pocket / and walked away from what came before. / A tune was running through my head / a song I can’t remember anymore. / I heard the sounds that go round the valley / hints of something far behind. / Something I wasn’t aware of losing / now I keep on trying to find.”

As other people’s violence stirs in the street, Mark’s narrator feels the pull of it and with a quiet, heartbreaking determination he asserts his love over rage. “I don’t want to go and get in a fight / I just want to stay with you tonight… / Don’t want to make nobody cry, / I just want to watch you where you lie.” The words are simple or even banal on the surface. The sentiments behind them, as sung, are subtly devastating. A reedy fuzz of electric guitar solo, one of the only ones on the record, seals the deal with hulking, sweating fingers.

There is an eventual respite from this darkness. Full of chuckling mandolins, The Six O’Clock Whistle is a jaunty folk instrumental with a hint of a reel (plus a nod and a wink to the childhood innocence of ‘Chigley‘). Sitting at the end of the record, it lifts the pressing atmosphere of the rest of the songs, drawing you away from the mesmeric night of memories, fancies, booze and shadows. Still, it’s the latter that remains with you: a baroque spell of sketchy lines, disquiet and stirred emotions, with some lines flapping free and others coiled too tight. A magical listen.

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’
Cannery Row Records, CRR 1217(826863121627)
Jezus Factory Records JF034 (826863121627)
CD/download album
Released: 3rd September 2012

Buy it from:
Cannery Row Records (CD only), Jezus Factory Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download only).

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Mark Mulholland online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp

Craig Ward online:
MySpace Last FM

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