Local Music: Sam England at Exeter Cavern

It’s nice to blog about something other than politics once in a while, so today I have for you a (very belated) write-up of a local artist I went to see at the Exeter Cavern on 6 October. I confess a slight bias as the whole thing was organised by my girlfriend, and also that my senses weren’t up to scratch, as I was full of both a cold and ‘Crafty Dan’s’ 13 Guns beer (which is excellent, by the way). There were two other acts on but I left early due to my aforementioned affliction.

To start with, I must urge you to go to Cavern if you are ever in Exeter for a night out. It’s a small venue but very intimate and much more interesting than the city’s other clubs. It is effectively an underground bar with one section for seating and the other for a stage and a dancefloor which can hold about 80-100 people. It specialises in ‘alternative’ nights, whether they be indie, folk, hip-hop or house. It’s a really good night and is definitely worth a visit.

So, to Sam England. Sam is a student at the University and writes folk music which flits between catchy and pensive. On the night he played solo using his acoustic for both the chord progressions and percussion, but on his EP ‘Red Skies’ he is joined by Christie Gardner who provides harmonies as well as various musicians to provide drums and electric guitar on certain tracks. I can’t help but be reminded of Iron and Wine by Sam’s breathy, baritone vocals, particularly when they are combined with Christie’s harmonies – the production and ambience really make me think of ‘The Creek Drank the Cradle’ and ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ in particular. What really stands out with Sam, however, is his aptitude for the guitar. He writes intricate guitar lines in various tunings which are very captivating and give his music an authentic folk style. It is very refreshing to hear in a music scene where ‘folk’ is too often symbolised by a guy with a beard hammering out Am, F and G chords on every track while making vague allusions to South-East Asia, and there are some genuinely interesting progressions which fans of folk music will enjoy.

So, I hope you enjoyed this brief departure from writing about the Labour Party (I did), and I encourage you to listen to Sam England on either the hyperlink I included earlier, Spotify or iTunes. Enjoy!

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MUSIC: Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1

TRIGGER WARNING: Pretentious and bourgeois content

I started listening to classical music in earnest last year, thinking I’d never really given it a fair shot. Since then, I’ve taken the unprecedentedly cultured step of creating three Spotify playlists for it, and been to a concert in Amsterdam – Beethoven, Elgar and Sibelius – and one in Bristol – Dvořák, Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams. I rarely stray outside the Romantic Era, which is also my favourite era in poetry and art, yet I must say that Shostakovich has become my favourite composer.

I plan to write more about the man as time goes on, particularly about his relationship with Soviet oppression, but today I just want to talk about his first cello concerto. Shostakovich was a composer who was capable of immense beauty, but loved to dabble with discordant and challenging music. This concerto demonstrates this very well. The first movement is chaotic and discordant, but slides into a Moderato which is at times beautiful yet also filled with anxiety and sorrow. This is carried over into a pondering and moody Cadenza which has some moving progressions with notes and drum beats falling on and off beat so much it feels like it barely follows any time structure. All of this climaxes in a wonderfully chaotic Allegro, which has the same disconnected feeling of the first movement but with more urgency. It’s a fantastic piece which I urge you to listen through, but if you can’t be bothered, I will leave you with the exquisite second movement.

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REVIEW: ‘Archive Series Vol. 1’ by Iron and Wine

Taking us all by surprise, last week Sam Beam (the artist behind Iron and Wine) announced and released a CD of old demo tapes entitled Archive Series Vol. 1. For those of you familiar with Beam’s work, it started with the stripped back, whisper folk of The Creek Drank the Cradle before building towards a more electric jazz/gospel influenced sound culminating in his most recent offering Ghost on Ghost.

I fell in love with Iron and Wine when I completely by chance stumbled upon a tab for ‘Cinder and Smoke’. Liking both the name of the song and group, I gave the track a listen and was captivating by the softness of the vocals and simple beauty of the melody and harmonies. Since then, I have bought every recording Beam has released. While the most recent albums are still good works, highlights in particular being ‘Walking far from Home’, ‘Godless Brother in Love’ and ‘Winter Prayers’, I cannot pretend to far prefer his early work. There is something wonderfully evocative in both the recording and musicality of it, which particularly speaks to me of rural settings and summers. Having spent nearly all my summers spent between Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and west Wales, it is obvious why this mood connects so well with me.

Therefore, I was delighted to see him release a CD solely consisting of the very genesis of this style. The production on the whole album has the warm feel of a home-recording without being so lo-fi as to take away from the listening experience. Likewise, the instrumentation is limited to acoustic guitars, Sam Beam harmonising with himself and the occasional banjo. The melodies are simple, but captivating, on the whole giving a restful and dreamlike feel to the album.

It opens with ‘Slow Black River’, a moody affair with deep, breathy vocals. For some reason, it reminds me of ‘Beneath the Balcony’, even though there is little similarity between the melody of the two songs. From then on, the album continues in a similar vein, with a fairly even balance of poignant, melancholy songs and and more upbeat, although often still poignant, tracks. A lyrical highlight is ‘Two Hungry Blackbirds’, which is on first listen a deceptively simple love song, but clearly something far deeper on further listening. This track also wins the title of favourite lyric from the album: ‘Heaven’s a distance, not a place’. Another favourite is the fantastic, moody and chugging ‘Halfway to Richmond’, a song with rich harmonies concerning a dying love. ‘Minor Piano Keys’ exhibits some very interesting work with scales which rarely feature in Beam’s later work, and give the song a very unique character. You can definitely hear seeds of Beam’s future work in some tracks, with ‘Loretta’ (sadly not a Townes van Zandt cover) being based on a progression which later became ‘Faded from the Winter’.

All in all, this is a great album, and a welcome return to Iron and Wine’s earlier days. Listeners unfamiliar with Beam’s work may be put off by the lo-fi feel, but in my eyes this is only really an issue on ‘Judgement’. In contrast, loyalists will doubtless be delighted with this release, and I advise anyone with an interest in folk and acoustic music to have a listen to this work, which is rich in harmony, musicality, melody and is an evocative telling of lost and half-grasped rural and youthful dreams.

Summary: 4/5 Stars

HighlightsSlow Black River, Two Hungry Blackbirds, Everyone’s Summer of 95, Minor Piano Keys, Halfway to Richmond.