'Roots' by KC JonesReview
Many thanks to Lauren South, fresh from being a guest star on the latest Stylusboy release, for the heads-up on another collaboration of hers, with duo KC Jones who have kindly sent me a copy of their new album, ‘Roots'.
The wife & husband based act comprising Karen (who composed all the material) and Colin (which allows for a neat pun in the name they perform under) have created for you the following songs: "Hey!", "My Love", "Stronger", "Dreamer's Lullaby", "The Coming of the Cannon", "Girl With Golden Hair", "Special", "Tommy's War", "Siren's Call", "Cut Throat Jack", "Goodbye Little Girl" and "Time For Us To Leave You".
Both talented & experienced vocalists & multi-instrumentalists with significant careers prior to coming together some fifteen years ago, they have recruited additional input from talented friends Lauren (fiddle & backing vocals on four songs), Mick Bisiker (bass guitar, piano & backing vocals on four tracks), Deb Gomme (whistle & backing vocals on three tunes), Tom Bisiker (drums on "Special" and "The Coming of the Cannon") and Keith Donnelly (12 string guitar on "Dreamer's Lullaby" and backing vocals on "Time For Us To Leave You"). Mick produced the album at Rack & Ruin Studio and Chris Radley mastered it at DMusic Studios.
If you know the work of Lauren, you can probably make an accurate guess as to the type of musicians she'd be working with: and if you do not, then Karen & Colin are not being enigmatic with the title of the album. They are clearly aiming for accessibility here, building on the success of their previous ‘Captive', but swinging back in approach nearer to Karen's folk roots.
Consequently, the new album sounds a little less densely intense than the earlier one: light & air have been let in. Unsurprisingly, with players such as these, talented and experienced as they are, allied with an innate taste, they can say more with economic instrumental touches which not only allow this space (many songs sound like they are performed in the open air rather than a studio).
Not that it's all folk: I appreciated the touches of a variety of cultures & styles, not least jazz or a Caribbean off-beat which enriches the album as well as providing internal diversity.
The problem with roots music, whether folk or otherwise is that be connecting with the past, you have to accept quite a package: traditions, subjects, conventions & styles. These can become very limiting, promoting only slavish adherence to the past & the history of roots music is one of the tension & the struggle between "authenticity" and originality. Some artists chain themselves to the former, others shrug off the shackles but become vulnerable to accusations of treason. Most good musicians (and the ones we write about), have to find their own way to reconcile the opposing pressures & by so doing, find their identity.
KC Jones clearly jumped that hurdle a long time ago: there is a confidence in what they do but also the individual songs are fresh while still using the traditional instrumentation and dipping into the box of traditional subject matter for broad narrative ideas. Hopefully this album will please the whole spectrum of the folk/ roots audience consequently.
When you have songs like these with words carefully wrought & set against an arrangement such as I've outlined, you require a clarity of vocalising. On the other hand, this is roots music & is supposedly indicative of vernacular performance: you can't really have "folk" music so difficult to sing that only a few voices can manage it. Therefore, though as we all know, the folk music tradition we enjoy today is built to a major degree on some astounding singers' abilities, not only should the songs still sound like mere mortals could perform them, but even gifted singers sound better in this genre if they are not sounding virtuoso (even when they are) but more connected to the audience and the space: conversational even. You can tell where this is going can't you, as I'm telling you that Karen sings in this way. It is all very natural, at ease & connects well therefore with us listeners.
This has certain implications for the subject matter when it swings so much from the domestic to the fantastic: in fact it's actually a benefit as it provides a sense of unity amidst the range of songs as well as grounding the collection effectively.
At the heart of the collection though are affecting stories which tug at the heartstrings without falling into that trap of cynically playing with our emotions for effect nor retreading very worn ground. The pity of war never ceases nor diminishes, yet what more is there to be said about it? Well Karen has managed to find an untold story in "Tommy's War" and a vocabulary to tell it with which doesn't feel over-familiar: Lauren's fiddle does its share of the emotional heavy lifting here to Karen need not over-emote, but tell the tale with understanding and calm.
"The Coming of the Cannon" (sung by Colin) steps back into a much earlier conflict which complements the above, not least because although it again seeks to capture the reality of service, not only does it evoke other times in words & tune, but this time it's the drums that you notice: military ones & even they, with the cumulative effect of playing through the song, have emotional impact.
"Cut Throat Jack" is another new story, conjured more out of the imagination than actual history I suspect (I'm not sure that the chances of anyone with his proclivities actually having an address in somewhere called "Cut Throat Lane" are terribly high: I think we need not take that bit of detail as being gospel): almost a "fun" song despite the content & here Lauren puts her instrument to quite different use.
Nevertheless, it's possible that the song which will leave the most indelible emotional impression is the closer "Time For Us To Leave You" (that'll be why they placed it there). Ostensibly about saying god night to each other after an evening down the pub, unless I've over-reacted myself, it's actually also possibly about more sombre farewells, but equally about community, friendship & even a summation of the album itself. Appropriately, most of the musicians appear on this one & they couldn't have followed it with anything else. A sort of "Meet On The Ledge" type song: the bigger meaning being visible beyond the actual words.
The "whistle songs", again like the war pair, complement each other effectively (neither are sequenced consecutively which is subtle). "My Love" is personal & intimate, "Girl With Golden Hair" a more solemn & formal story. I like how with both the fiddle & whistle that the duo have offered the players a chance to show the emotional range of their instruments (Lauren's fiddle also features on "Siren's Call" in which we hear a (contemporary?) siren singing to us, trying to lure us).
"Goodbye Little Girl", while performed in a delightful acoustic manner & a thoroughly attractive melody carrying another thoughtful & empathetic lyric, is perhaps the song most distant from any notion of "roots folk": it's nearer gentle folk rock, but since I liked it & absolutely refuse to judge them on strict adherence to any particular format, I'm certainly not complaining.
"Stronger" is a splendid song of defiance. Although it's possible that other songs previously discussed might attract more attention (especially from other reviewers) and they deserve that, this one is certainly a personal favourite on the album. One I'd play again & again.
Album opener "Hey!" is a surprisingly gentle one to take us in (it doesn't really hint at what's to follow) but it has a brisk tempo, the words (which possibly shaped it being Track One) rather belie the tune and convey mixed & complex feelings: welcome being one, but reproach definitely another.
"Dreamer's Lullaby" is distinguished by Keith's slightly baroque guitar playing and to round off the round-up, "Special" is a sort of manifesto song, in which Karen seeks to articulate their philosophy. I like the expression of annoyance of people telling them that "fame is just for youngsters" and the kicking back against that. Hopefully people will approach ‘Roots' with an open mind and take the very fine & original music within it on its very considerable merits.
You can catch both the duo and most of their collaborators live at Warwick Folk Festival in various venues & combinations.