Himmerland’s The Spider in the Fiddle

Cover of Himmerland's album the Spider in the FiddleWhy was I taken by surprise by Himmerland’s The Spider in the Fiddle? Firstly, Denmark is full of good music, and Danish groups are constantly producing lovely music. Secondly, I have twice before discovered new favourite groups with Ditte Fromseier in. First there was Flax in Bloom, a group that never recorded but in concert turned out smooth Irish music, then Habbadam, a trio playing traditional music from Fromseier’s native Danish island of Bornholm. Habbadam’s albums still get played in my stereo.

Still, the opening of Himmerland’s first album smacked me right between the eyes, one of the strongest album openings I have heard from a new group, evoking the same reaction in me as the openings of the debut albums by King Crimson and Moving Hearts.

“Sacred Fire” by bass player Andrzej Krejnuik is the first track. Just a rhythm guitar at first, but the whole band joins in, with Fromseier’s violin and Eskil Romme’s soprano saxophone playing fast melodious runs over a firm backing by Morten Alfred Höirup’s guitar, Krejniuk’s bass and Ayi Solomon’s percussion. A fine mixture of strange time signatures, interesting bass playing, hummable tune segments and even a short percussion solo. Four minutes and 48 seconds of pure delight.

Then the mood turns to subdued half-funky bass with discreet claves and Fromseier singing “Kaereste min Moder” about a girl telling her mother she wants a husband. The rest of the band creeps in behind her on this traditional Danish song, interrupted twice by a nice melodic tune with an oriental touch, written by Höirup.

And so it carries on with each new track being different from the one before, but still you feel it is part of a greater whole. Traditional sounding tunes, jazz, songs, waltzes, whatever they play you still hear that this is Himmerland.

The musicianship throughout is impeccable. The first thing you will notice is the interplay between Fromseier and Romme and how well a violin and a soprano saxophone travel together. Then after a few listenings you will notice Krejniuk’s bass playing, often providing delicate runs in the background, and of course even getting to play a few solos. I am no fan of bass solos, but I like his contributions to the album. Solomon’s percussion work suits the group perfectly and Höirup has the good sense to realize his main task is to provide the foundation for the others to shine, an important role misused by so many guitarists, falsely thinking it is their show.

But a real surprise is the singing. Out of twelve tracks, four are songs. Höirup sings “De Hvide Sejl” (The White Sails), another traditional song. Fromseier sings the rest. Apart from the mentioned “NÂr Solen saenker sine strÂler” (When the Sun Lowers its Rays), a pre-WW2-song as one of my favourites. A song about still loving the man who has left you. Soft and gentle and gripping.
Well, I could rave about each track on this album. It has been running constantly in the car stereo for more than a week and each time I find something new. My only question is: How will they be able to follow this without disappointing us? Very highly recommended.

[Editor’s note: You can find Himmerland’s Web site here.]

(Tutle Records, 2014)

A Pig Roast


Come visit us in August on the night of the Full Moon and come hungry. We’ll have German style potato salad, and oodles of cole slaw, again German style. And yeast rolls with butter.

And strawberry shortcake with vanilla ice cream. Oh of course ale and cider. The summer ale was a German style wheat that Bjorn, our Brewmaster of long standing, had brewed in consultation with Gus, our Estate Head Gardener and pig roast planner extraordinaire.

Robert Heinlein, Friday audiobook

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

I have never liked riding the Beanstalk. My distaste was full blown even before the disaster to the Quito Skyhook. A cable that goes up into the sky with nothing to hold it up smells too much of magic. But the only other way to reach Ell-Five takes too long and costs too much; my orders and expense account did not cover it.

imageSo begins the first person narration of Robert Heinlein’s Friday,a novel that deeply divided critics when it was published. Part of that was the gender and race politics of a male author writing a female character that got raped, part of it was the usual kvetching about every novel Heinlein wrote from Stranger in a Strange Land to the end of his writing career.

Friday is an Artificial Person (a clone) who works as a courier for a company or agency that she knows next nothing about; the Head of this really shadowy organization’s simply The Boss. It’s one of her two families, the other being an apparently Maori family in New Zealand.

The best part of this novel is the travelogue of Earth probably a century or so in the future which means you get a political map that includes the Alaska Free State, the Illinois Province of the Chicago Imperium, ‘the first territorial nation, the California Confederacy’ and a Vegas Free State. If you’ve any of the later novels by Heinlein, you already know this is a recurring theme he uses.

Setting aside the fascinating politics, we have the novel-long obsession as Friday figures out what family means and if there’s a meaningful difference between her as an AP and naturally created people. It’s actually well-worth discovering how Heinlein reconciles the various story threads involving Friday and her quest which he does well.

Hilary Huber who narrates the audiobook does a pretty spot on the difficulties of bringing life to Friday. The only thing that’s slightly disconcerting is Huber either has the BBC British accent, or she or someone at Blackstone Audio felt that Friday should have one. Maybe they figured since she had a family of sorts in New Zealand that meant she had their sort of British accent.

(Blackstone Audio, 2008)

Todd Grebe & Cold Country: Citizen

cover of Todd Grebe and Cold Country's CitizenIt’s pretty common for a classic or even alternative country musician to make an occasional (or even permanent) foray into bluegrass. Think of Dolly Parton on the one hand and Robert Earl Keen on the other. But it’s a little more unusual for a musician to go the other way, from the ranks of bluegrass into a classic country sound. That’s what Todd Grebe has done with Citizen. For the past few years he and his wife and musical partner Angela Oudean, have been making bluegrass music in Alaska. But this time they rolled into Nashville with their band Cold Country and put together an electrified country band for a hard-hitting honky-tonk record, and a fine one it is.

Grebe has a perfect voice for this kind of music, a warm and supple twangy tenor with a little bit of sandpaper to it, and it’s complemented by Oudean’s harmonies. She’s no slouch on the fiddle either, and Nathan May, who usually plays mandolin with them, pulls lots of twangy licks out of his Telecaster, while guest Steve Hinson hits all the right notes on pedal steel. Put them all together (plus Mike Bub on bass and Larry Atamanuik on drums) and you’ve got one hot honky-tonk combo.

Citizen has a dozen tracks, all but a couple written by Grebe. He comes out of the gate at a gallop with “Criminal Style,” a plonking two-step with lots of tongue-in-cheek lyrics about how he loves this woman enough to break the law for her: “Like Adam and Eve, Thelma and Louise, we’re livin’ in a criminal style,” he drawls. If that one reminds me a bit of Todd Snider, the follow-up “Box of Wine” has a bit of a Robert Earl Keen vibe; it’s a fast shuffle about a lover who’s maybe a little fond of wine, and not the real fancy stuff, either. Hinson’s pedal steel fills nicely complement Oudean’s fiddle work on this one, giving it a kind of a countrypolitan feel.

At times you can hear the ghost of bluegrass in these tunes, including the upbeat shuffle “Luckiest Man Here On Earth,” whose melody bears a passing resemblance to the old Beverly Hillbillies theme. See if you don’t hear it too, on the instrumental breaks especially.

Every honky-tonk record needs a couple of tear-in-your-beer ballads, and this one has a slow sad one called “More Than A Love Song” that’s more than a little self-referential, and a lovely weepy waltz called (what else) “Living A Lie.” The title track is a satiric look at the conflation of consumerism and patriotism, with the refrain of “all I need is what I want, and I want it all for free.”

The cover songs are “Brown Hair” (by Travis Zuber), a poignant song of love found and then lost out on the road; and “Ain’t That Fine” by the great first-generation rockabilly Dorsey Burnette. I had to look twice to make sure “Nothing Left To Lose” wasn’t a Roger Miller cover, with its fast patter and clever (but not too clever) lyrics. Oh, and “Let’s Make Love For Christmas,” which is basically a fast bluegrass song in a honky-tonk arrangement, would’ve fit right in with Buck Owens’s repertoire. Finally, Grebe and Co. go out with guns blazing on “You’ll Never Find Me” a folksy country song with some bluegrass-style picking and fiddling but also with a little bit of “Ring Of Fire”-style mariachi trumpets on the intro and some uptown B-3 organ from Nashville session player Jimmy Wallace.

So there you have it. I’d say Todd Grebe & Cold Country have successfully made the transition from bluegrass to hardcore country. Citizen has my vote.

(self-released, 2015)

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: The Mote in God’s Eye

Cover of the Mote in God's Eye audio bookThroughout the past thousand years of history it has been traditional to regard the Alderson Drive as an unmixed blessing. Without the faster-than-light travel Alderson’s discoveries made possible, humanity would have been trapped in the tiny prison of the Solar System when the Great Patriotic Wars destroyed the CoDominium on Earth. Instead, we had already settled more than two hundred worlds.

Until the likes of Iain M. Banks with The Culture series and Neal Asher with the Polity series came along, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye was quite possibly the best space opera of all time. This forty-year-old novel that took the space opera novels of the 1930s and 1940s and very, very nicely updated them.

The basic premise is humanity fled Earth after a series of wars rendered most of the planet uninhabitable. One Empire based on a Fleet controlled by USA and Soviet interests has fallen to be replaced (eventually) by a Second Empire of Man. In the process of the Dark Ages between the two Empires, much of the more advanced technology has been lost.

Pournelle, I think, contributed the superb sections on the Empire Fleet as it reminds me of his other space opera fiction and I think (without actually checking it) that it might tie into that fiction. Whether or not this is true, the Fleet scenes here from the descriptions of the battles to the shipboard office of Admiral Lavrenti Kutuzov complete with silver tea service are really well done.

Niven I’m sure got to do the alien race world building which is also superb. The Moties are the Big Bad Aliens here, a race faced with endless wars, scarce resources, and a caste society based on biology that has subspecies from tiny watchmakers (that breed so fast that they can destroy an Imperial warship in a matter of weeks) to hulking soldiers.

One sec . . The essay called ‘Building The Mote in God’s Eye’, included in the Baen Books ebook edition of this novel confirms the division of labour as I stated it above. And you’ve got to love an essay that starts off by saying ‘Collaborations are unnatural. The writer is a jealous god. He builds his universe without interference. He resents the carping of mentally deficient critics and the editor’s capricious demands for revisions. Let two writers try to make one universe, and their defenses get in the way.’

The story centers on the discovery of the first alien race in the history of humanity and the journey to The Motie system to see what this species is like. What they discover is the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced including outright nuclear annihilation. It’s a great story well-crafted with a narrative that moves along nicely and wraps itself up nicely. If you like this novel, I suggest that you do not read the sequel The Gripping Hand as it has a not a tenth of the oomph this novel has.

So does this great story get an equally great narration? in the audio book? Not really. The narrator has an almost strident voice that makes everyone sound like they’re trying to catch their breath. And it’s somewhat hard to distinguish one character from another by the verbal cues of how the character is voiced. Yes I know that this is not a full cast adaptation so it has all the text that identifies who’s saying what.

Oddly enough L. J. Ganser does a much better job of voicing the alien Moties. Each of them does have a distinct voice and it’s easy to tell them apart.

So I’m left with the very strong feeling that this was a book that eluded the narrator no matter how good his intentions were.

(Brilliance Audio, 1982)

Story: Seasonal Workers

As a working estate, we have hundreds of acres at Kinrowan devoted to livestock, truck crops, fruit production from apples to raspberries, and even the makings of beer. Not to mention several hundred beehives. What that means is that we need lots of workers during the growing season starting in April until the end of October. So what do we do?

Review Link Roundup – early June, 2015

We’re undergoing some re-envisioning, here at GMR, so please pardon any construction you may encounter. But in the meantime, here are some recent reviews offered for your entertainment:

Music – Steeleye Span: Wintersmith and Woody Pines

Books – Alastair Reynolds: Slow Bullets

Film – Rise of the Guardians

Literary Matters: Alastair Reynolds: Slow Bullets

War is hell, even in far-future space. But what most space opera neglects is the long, slow, bitter cleanup that happens afterwards, and the places where war rages on even after sone side or another officially declares “victory”. That’s where Alastair Reynolds Slow Bullets starts, but it rapidly spins out into broader questions of civilization, memory, and forgiveness.

And also, what to do when you find out you’re trapped on a damaged spaceship with the man who captured and tortured you. What happens next? It might not be what you think. Read the full review of Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets.

Music matters: Steeleye Span: Wintersmith

imageThis recording is the last one by Steeleye Span before violinist Peter Knight left in November 2013, prior to Jessie May Smart becoming the new violinist. This leaves vocalist Maddy Prior as the only founding member still with the band.

Wintersmith is a novel by the late and much missed Terry Pratchett who passed on earlier this year. He worked closely with the band as they adapted the novel as a song cycle. It is a young adult novel though discerning adults will enjoy it as well. The story centers on a young witch named Tiffany and a character called Wintersmith — who is Winter himself. As to the story, let’s just say the usual comic antics of a story set on Discworld ensue.

For how well Steeleye Span did in adapting this into songs and tunes, go read Michael Hunter’s superb review. I will note that Pratchett was very pleased with the album, and did extensive interviews about it. The recording was, no doubt in large part to being tied to Pratchett, Steeleye Span’s best-selling recording in many years.

Sound Bites — Francophone folk and rock roundup

North America has a sizeable contingent of French speakers, including much of the Canadian province of Quebec, and much of southern Louisiana. The two regions are connected by history, too; the ancestors of the Louisiana Cajuns were driven out of parts of Canada that were originally francophone when the British consolidated their hold there. The folk songs and dance music of these two regions also share certain traits. You can hear it in these four newly released francophone discs: one Quebecois, one from the Maritime provinces, and two from Louisiana.

Le Vent du Nord: Têtu

Cover of le Vent du Nord's TtuFor its eighth studio release in 13 years, the contemporary Québécois folk ensemble Le Vent du Nord (The North Wind) presents a sprawling opus of 15 songs and tunes. Entitled Têtu or Determined, it comprises a variety of topics and styles, from a capella songs to stripped-down arrangements to a few with backing from a string trio.

Le Vent du Nord is Nicolas Boulerice (hurdy-gurdy, piano and voice), Olivier Demers (fiddle, feet and voice), Réjean Brunet (accordion, bass, jaw harp and voice) and Simon Beaudry (bouzouki, guitar and voice). It’s one of the premiere folk groups out of Quebec, so although the album gets off to a bit of an uneven start, it eventually takes off and soars. The second number “Loup-garou,” a parable about a werewolf who seeks revenge on the Catholic church, is a purposely choppy with an upsetting rhythm that skips from five beats per measure to six. It’s a spare arrangement with extra percussion, lovely vocal harmonies and some beautiful fiddle runs. It’s not until the fifth track, though, that the true passion of which this group is capable fully kicks in with “Confédération,” about the unification of Canada, which some francophones still don’t entirely appreciate. Here’s a video about Le Vent du Nord’s Têtu and this song.

After a short and dreamy instrumental, some foot-stomping dance tunes and another impassioned tale of injustice against the French Canadians, the album moves to a highly charged finish, starting with the traditional “L’échafaud,” The Gallows, a suitably portentous arrangement of four-part harmony accompanied only by a droning electric bass guitar. This beautiful and haunting song leads directly into “La marche des Iroquois,” a rousing bit of turlutage (the Quebecois equivalent of Celtic mouth music) in march tempo with call-and-response verses and counterpoint choruses; and that’s followed immediately by “Papineau,” a traditional chanson-style song about what’s known as the Patriots War of 1837.

Though perhaps a bit too long, Têtu in the end earns its place among Le Vent du Nord’s distinguished catalog. Find Le Vent du Nord on their website as well as Facebook and Twitter.

(Borealis, 2015)

Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys – Voyageur

Although it lacks the post-Gulf-oil-spill angst of 2011’s magnificent Grand IsleCover of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys Voyageurs Voyageur the latest release from Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys continues to push Southern Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole music in new directions while remaining respectful of its traditions. Voyageuris their 12th studio album (not counting a live release and a best-of) in more than 25 years of simultaneously pushing at and honoring the boundaries of Louisiana dancehall music. Its title honors the Acadian French ancestors who first pushed into the backwaters and bayous.

Steve Riley remains the driving force of the group on lead tenor vocals and diatonic accordion or fiddle, but Kevin Wimmer, late of the Red Stick Ramblers, adds to the mix another songwriting voice and powerful baritone vocals, in addition to his own fiddle prowess. (Co-founder and fiddler David Greely is playing solo these days.) And Sam Broussard is the Playboys’ secret weapon, his electric and slide guitar playing adding layers of depth on many of these songs.

Chief among the pleasures of Voyageur are the nods to Louisiana Creole culture and music, particularly the covers of Canray Fontenot’s “Bernadette” and Boozoo Chavis’s funky “Boozoo’s Blues,” plus the traditional “Madame Faillelle,” a swampy two-step, and Wimmer’s composition “Bottle It Up,” a zydeco-style rocker that ends the disc. Wimmer’s rough-hewn and passionate vocals enliven all four of those tracks, as does his rustic fiddling on the Cajun rocker “Plus Creux.” Riley and Co. also pay homage to some of the 1960s and ’70s Cajun music pioneers including Dennis McGee — with the fiddle tune pair “Crapaud/Frugé” and Dewey Balfa and Nathan Abshire’ with their “La Danse De Mardi Gras,” whose clopping rhythm depicts the Cajun Mardi Gras tradition of riding horseback from house to house gathering “donations” of food and drink.

Additional highlights include the opener, Riley’s tongue-in-cheek farewell to his hometown “Au Revoir Grand Mamou” with dreamy Beatle-esque backing harmonies, soaring B-3 organ from Eric Adcock, and a wall of rocking guitars and percussion behind Riley’s lead vocals and chanky-chank accordion; the drinking song “Allons Boire Un Coup,” Broussard’s wicked slide guitar setting the swampy mood behind double fiddles; and Abe Manuel’s rocking Cajun country song” ‘Tite Fille De La Campagne,” with Riley on lead vocals.

cite>Voyageur’s deep journey into the bayous is another solid offering from Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have a website. Allons a dancer!

(Self-released, 2015)

The Revelers: Get Ready

Cover of The Revelers Get ReadyI’m always excited when I find a Cajun band that’s new to me, and The Revelers are more exciting than most. I’m sure everybody in Lafayette and all around Cajun country has known about them for a long time, but up here in the cold Pacific Northwest, word travels slow. But The Revelers is a Cajun supergroup, featuring former members of two of the top Louisiana bands of the past decade, the Red Stick Ramblers and The Pine Leaf Boys. In addition to being founding members of those two groups, individual Revelers have played with everybody from Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy, Wayne Toups, Steve Riley, Cedric Watson, T Bone Burnett, Natalie Merchant, The Duhks, Mamadou Diabate, and Tim O’Brien. Among others.

Putting all that aside, though, this is a great band in its own right (featured on HBO’s “Treme,” for instance) and Get Ready is their third release. It has all the makings of a night of revelry on the dance floor in its 11 tracks comprising all new original songs by the band, sung in Cajun French and English. Sung by various members, too. They include former Ramblers Glenn Fields on drums and vocals, guitarist Chas Justus, bassist Eric Frey and fiddler Daniel Coolik; plus founding member of the Pine Leaf Boys Blake Miller on accordion, and on fiery tenor sax is Chris Miller.

Four of the tracks are French Cajun numbers, including the opener “Toi, tu veux pus me voir” (“You Don’t Want Me Anymore”) a rocking Cajun-Creole hybrid; the fast two-stepper “Ayou on Va Danser” (“Where Do You Want To Dance”); the honky-tonk country two-step “Juste Un Tit Brin,” and the country waltz “Pus Whiskey” (“No More Whiskey”). Among the English-language songs there’s some classic swamp pop “Just When I Thought I Was Dreaming” and “Being Your Clown” and some swampy rockers like “Please Baby Please” and “Single Jeans” and some sweet roots rockers like “Play It Straight” and “Outta Sight.”

If you want a glimpse of what a musical night out in Cajun country is like, check out this fabulous debut disc from The Revelers. They’re on Facebook and Twitter, too. Here’s that opening track in an actual dancehall setting.

(Self-released, 2015)

Vishtèn’s Terre Rouge

Cover of Vishtèn's Terra RougeVishtèn has produced four superb albums beginning with their self-titled debut in 2003, introducing the rest of us to the delights of the music of Maritime Canada, Prince Edward Island-style. For their fifth, *Terre Rouge* or “Red Earth,” they spent some time going back to their roots and digging deeper into their musical heritage.

Vishtèn is sisters Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc, who hail from PEI, and Pascal Miousse from the Magdalen Islands, a part of the Province of Quebec in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The music of both places is a heady stew combining Celtic and Acadian influences. In preparation for *Terre Rouge* Miousse, who plays fiddle, mandolin and guitar, spent some time deepening his skills with some top fiddlers from PEI. Likewise Emmanuelle, who plays many instruments and provides percussive Québécois-style footwork, put in some time with the fabulous step-dancer Sandy Silva. And Pastelle, who plays keys and sings, worked closely with historian and archivist Georges Arsenault to deepen her skills in Canadian-style mouth music, which draws on Celtic, French and Micmac (a Northeastern Canada First Nation). You can see Silva’s footwork influence in this demonstration video from the band’s website.

That extra work has paid off in a collection of songs and tunes that have lots of extra sparkle and joie de vivre. The opening title track, which is heavy on guitars and mandolin, is a very Cajun-sounding song, down to the chorus, which starts “allons dancer, ma jolie,” (“let’s dance, my pretty one”) a line you’ll find in about half of the Cajun songs ever written. The next, an instrumental titled “Coq du Sud,” is a reel featuring a lead accordion plus fiddle, piano and foot percussion, on a tune and arrangement that are strongly influenced by Cape Breton music, as are some other tracks including the lovely “Hélène,” an uptempo song with superb fiddle work and impeccable three-part harmony vocals.

You can hear the results of Emmanuelle’s woodshedding with Sandy Silva on tracks like “Trois Blizzards,” her rock-inflected footwork driving the fiddle-piano tune; and, more subtly, on the jaunty mid-tempo French song “Ma Mie Tant Blanche,” which has a very nice bluesy guitar solo and sweet flute lines. Pastelle’s mouth music is matched by the fiddle on the melody of “Je Vous Aime Tant.” This is one of my favorites, because it showcases all three musicians’ skills including some superb rough-edged fiddle, and driving piano and footwork that push the tempo. According to the one-sheet this one was cobbled together from an Upstate New York tune plus verses and a chorus that come from two separate songs. And don’t miss the final track “Sarazin,” which showcases the “crooked” Acadian fiddling style.

Terre Rouge and all of Vishtèn’s albums are worth checking out if you’re a fan of Celtic or Québécois music. They put a spin on these traditions that is all their own. You’ll find lots of information on Vishtèn’s website in English or French.

(self-released, 2015)