Discovering new music is an incredible journey that has become an important part of my life. There is a massive seam of untapped material out there and I can mine just a little so when I get a message from a PR company I’ve never dealt with before, asking if I’d be interested in their releases, my curiosity is mightily piqued.
That message came from Loudon Temple of Bloody Great PR and, true to his word, a week later a large envelope arrived with a selection of new releases. The first one that I picked from the pile was from Northern Irish artist The 4 Of Us and their new release ‘Sugar Island’.
This is music I’ve never heard or heard of before so I am embarking an a real musical voyage of discovery. Formed by Newry-born brothers Brendan and Declan Murphy, they have developed a strong musical identity which has produced original and award winning recordings, as well as a large and loyal fan base.
The 4 Of Us shot to fame with their 1989 debut ‘Songs For The Tempted’ and, to date, the Murphy brothers have notched up an enviable catalogue of timeless songs, including 6 Top 20 Irish charting albums.
‘Sugar Island’ is their seventh studio release and explores the brothers’ early years growing up in Northern Ireland and includes tracks reflecting on their childhood, in and around a border town during the height of the troubles.
Mainly focusing on the trademark interplay of their acoustic guitars, the brothers have also worked with a few gifted musicians to fulfil their vision. Enda Walsh, Sharon Vaughn, Peter McKinney and Yvonee Fahy all helped to bring this recording to life.
(Picture by Will Rolls)
I have to admit to being blown away from the very first song, pop/folk roots music which is played with consummate skill. Bird’s Eye View opens the autobiographical release with aplomb. There’s a wistful and nostalgic feel that runs throughout the album, the lyrics are incredibly perceptive as you would expect from two musicians who lived through the worst of the Northern Irish troubles. The pared back acoustic simplicity of the Murphy’s two guitars borders on genius.
The vocal harmonies are note perfect and add even more of polished sheen to the superb music. There’s something incredibly compelling about the simplicity of the arrangements and their melodic accomplishment which often verges on American roots music. I was a big fan of Chris Stills (son of legend Steven) first solo album and these guys really remind me of the flair and intimacy of that release.
There seems to be rose-tinted memories of those early days as the whole album has a reel feelgood and sentimental aura to it. Highlights for this reviewer (as well as the opener) are the incredibly emotive Going South, the title track Sugar Island, the raw, sparse and touching Argenta and refined closer Hometown On The Border but there are no bad tracks on this elegant release.
‘Sugar Island’ is a collection of beautifully refined songs that tell the story of Declan and Brendan’s formative years where they grew up among adversity and a nation divided and at war and it feels like a privilege to be invited to relive it with them once again. Music full of longing, regret and yet an album that leaves you with hope in your heart.
“Some journeys don’t have endings, they lead to new beginnings. These are the journeys that lead to great adventures!”
― Alex Haditaghi
The quote above perfectly sums up the way that music has affected my life. From a young age it has always been a journey with no ending. There have always been new avenues to explore, new adventures to undertake and the more your mind is open to new and differing experiences, the more fulfilling that journey will be.
Starting with the pop-punk of The Police and graduating to the new romantics of Ultravox, Simple Minds, Duran Duran and the like, my formative years were based more on the acts in the charts. As I grew older, my musical tastes changed and I went through the hair metal of the 80’s and early 90’s and even dipped a toe in the water of jazz and blues.
Eventually my heart found its home in the world of progressive rock, alternative rock and the ilk but I always had a penchant for something different, I was never one to pigeon-hole my musical tastes, if I like it, I listened to it. This mantra led to me hearing the first, self-titled, Maddison’s Thread album last year.
I was utterly impressed by the music and musician behind the project, Lee Maddison and it prompted these words from my review:
“Folk is rooted at the core of Maddison’s Thread but this album is all about the music and the way Lee can diversify with aplomb is very impressive. A contender for album of the year for me and one that will stay with me for a very long time.”
I became friends with Lee and that led to me being one of the first to hear the follow up to this little gem and I am proud to present the first review of ’60 Minutes An Hour’.
The span of a human life, the rising and setting of the sun, the changing of the seasons, the rhythm of the ocean’s tide, the ticking of a clock. ’60 Minutes an Hour’ is an album inspired by the passage of time and the different ways we experience it.
Each song deals with a different facet of the swirling prism of time. From the racing heartbeat of contemporary urban life in the title track through to the romantic glimpse of immortality in the dream like A Thomas Hardy Evening the album captures moments on our collective journey towards the Elysian
Lee Maddison is Maddison’s Thread. He released his début eponymous recording back in 2015 and this ishis second album. He works full-time as a Mental Health Nurse but has still found time to perform at various folk festivals and gigs, opening for the likes of Michael Chapman and Gren Bartley.
In the past year, Lee was commissioned to write a song for the award winning Terry Abrahams ‘Life of a Mountain: Blencathra’ and performed the song at the premiere. This was the second film in a trilogy about iconic lakeland mountains.
The musicians appearing on the album are:
Lee Maddison (acoustic guitar & vocals), Nigel Spaven (bass), Darren Moore (drums), Stewart Hardy (violin & viola), Brendan Murphy (percussion), Paul Donnelly (electric Guitar & nylon String Guitar on tracks 3 & 12), Sue Ferris (flute), Fiona Beyer (cello), Tony Davies (piano & hammond) and Angus Lyon (accordion).
Edwina Hayes (described by Nanci Griffiths as the prettiest voice in England) duets with me on track 8 and sings backing vocals on tracks 11 & 13.
Produced by Stewart Hardy who also wrote all string arrangements.
The opening title track 60 Minutes An Hour is a salutary lesson in why we should take life at a slower pace before it passes us by and we’ve missed the wonder of what is right in front of our eyes. Lee’s apprehensive vocal admonishes us for taking things for granted, his delivery is as excellent as ever and the wonderful music just adds to the garded atmosphere. The delicate acoustic guitar soulful bass and elegant percussion add sophisticated emphasis while the incredibly expressive violin of Stewart Hardy provides angst among the graceful strings and the talented Angus Lyon’s accordion gives the finishing touches as it does all over the album. It might only be the first track but I’m already hearing an added maturity to Lee’s music and songwriting, the music gently insinuates itself into your conscious as if it has belonged there all your life.
More and more people suffer from anxiety attacks, a feeling that something or someone is chasing you through your life and the jazzy vibe of Chasing The White Dove expresses that perfectly through music. A slightly frenetic tempo and Lee’s insistent vocal only increases the feeling and Stewart once again adds his staccato violin to the heady mix of restlessness and disquiet. There’s an effortless feel to the musical delivery, a wonderful freedom to the way these excellent musicians deliver the message in a profound manner. A highlight has to be the infectious and captivating guitar that leaves its mark all over this high energy urban thrill ride.
I first heard the wonderfully scathing Parasiteful at a cellar gig that Lee did earlier this year (funnily enough at the house of Lee’s long time friend and photographer Howy White and his wife Amanda, who also happen to have done the pictures that litter this review (Howy) and the album art (Amanda), it’s a small world!) and really enjoyed the biting satire that lee injects into his songwriting. His vocal is hard and unforgiving as befits the subject matter of this mild mannered protest song. The laid back music plays second fiddle to the intelligent and acerbic lyrics this time as Lee delivers his most vehement piece of music yet.
A pared back folk tale of ne’er do wrongs, Charlatans & Blaggers puts you in mind of a local’s bar in a small fishing village in the wilds of the north. Tales told through the medium of music about local legends while the weather does everything it can to crash the party. The gentle guitar, easy going rhythm and percussion lay the foundations for Lee’s searching vocal and Stewart’s skill on the strings. An easygoing and unhurried ditty that leaves its mark with the catchy chorus that has me singing along, the bittersweet violin leaving a wistful note as the song comes to a close.
Another stinging rebuke to modern day, small town society, Tumbleweed has a laconic tone to it, enhanced by the slightly acerbic violin. A slightly ironic tune that, to me, seems to be about a younger generation stuck in a society with no opportunities. Lee’s distinctive vocal delivers the tale perfectly, there aren’t many folk singers out there to day who can stand comparison, and the edgy drums really add to the atmosphere while the super smooth bass keeps things ticking along nicely.
The Flycatcher(a cover of a Roy Harper song from his album ‘Unknown Soldier’) takes a winsome turn to sepia tinged nostalgia and the days of the past. The solemn, almost hushed vocals speak of looking back on days long gone, of things lost and yet never forgotten and the dynamic rhythm section and percussion deliver in a determined manner. The guitar almost has a voice of its own and marries with the dignified and reflective strings perfectly to give a really powerfully reflective edge. There is a melancholy feeling running throughout the song, the saddened voice keening for the past, of sorrow and not of hope.
I really feel that Lee has taken on a much more traditional folk direction with this new release and his version of Lines On A Fisherman’s Wife,a 19th century poem that has it’s roots in Hartlepool’s headland and that he wrote the music and chorus for, is a perfect example of this. Somber, downcast and yet sweetly earnest, it wears its heart on its sleeve. Telling the tale of the Fisherman’s wife, the worry and the drudgery of daily life, waiting for her husband to return but not knowing if disaster may have befallen him at sea. There is an ageless grace to the this song, a respect for those that deal with the wild nature of the sea on a daily basis and those who support them. The pared back delivery is sublime and you find yourself listening to it in hushed appreciation and deference as Lee’s reverential tone and the simple elegance of the music combine flawlessly.
There’s a timeless grace to Love Like Autumn where Lee and Edwina Hayes deliver a beautiful vocal performance full of sentimentality and wistfulness. A hint of country seeps into the music and it adds a carefree and untroubled note to the song. Stewart’s delightful violin is the coup de grace, at its most exquisite on this delectable elegant track, lay back with your loved one in your arms and just enjoy the simple wonder of the music.
Weightless feels just like that, ethereal and unsubstantial, the breathless charm of Lee’s vocal and the simple artistry of the piano and violin leave you feeling like your soul has left your body and is flying above you, the whole world in view below. A really short but lovely song that seems to leave a sense of loss behind as it comes to a close.
A heartfelt plea, Don’t Say Goodbye is a love letter to one who you don’t want to lose. Sincere and fervent, there is a mournful tone to Lee’s vocal as he makes his impassioned overture. The music is humble and modest leaving nothing to be misunderstood. The cello and violin are pillars of virtue and the guitar is a refined chaperone giving Lee’s entreaty validation. You are left hanging on a thread, wondering what the answer would be.
Another track rich in its folk heritage, Jessica is a perfect open letter to a loved one, it’s more simplistic lyrics Having even more meaning and power coming straight from the heart as they do. The playful, childlike music has a wide eyed wonder to it, Stewart once again excelling with his captivating violin playing. Lee and Edwina harmonise superbly on the chorus and you just find yourself caught up the overwhelming love and affection that this wonderful father has for his daughter.
A Thomas Hardy Evening is a romantic glimpse of immortality in a dream and is Lee’s take on the pure essence of life – reconnecting with the natural world. As the song fades in, you find yourself totally caught up in its whimsical, dreamlike delivery, every instrument seems to be played in a reverent fashion. The vocals just wash over you with their subtle elegance and I almost find myself rooted to the spot in a trance-like fashion. This song exhorts you to take a step back from the real world, forget the hustle and bustle and give your soul a chance to heal and your body to recharge. The subtle splendour of the strings and the delicate grace of the guitar appear to cleanse the stress and worries from deep within and you come to the end of the song a much happier and more relaxed person than when you started it.
A poignant memoir of family life and a coming of age tale, Fledglingleaves you caught in the last moments of a golden autumn. The fledgling of the title an allegorical creature that must go through the same trial and tribulations as every person who comes into adulthood. The flute taking on the role of the flying bird and giving it life through music. Lee tells us that the innocence of childhood is the same a s a bird flying free in the blue sky, it is a bittersweet tale of the loss of that innocence but then the hope of the future that is yet to come. Listen to the lyrics and let the pure guileless artistry of the music capture the moment for perpetuity, I was left with a lump in my throat as this brilliant song and album came to a close.
My lifelong musical journey has taught me that there will always be something of wonder around the next corner, a musical discovery that will enrich not just my life but many others also. The first time I heard Maddison’s Thread I was hooked and Lee has distilled the essence of everything that made the first album so good and injected it into his latest piece of musical brilliance. ’60 Minutes An Hour’ is an utter musical triumph and should be one of the highlights of 2017 for any lover of great music, I cannot praise it enough.