[Artist Spotlight]: The Rails

The-Rails-photo-1050x700“I’m a fool, no more you’ll rule my fragile, fucked up heart.”

Rising folk duo The Rails may have only been making music together for two years (initially as Dead Flamingoes) and only just released their debut album, Fair Warning, but they have a strong pedigree. Kami Thompson is the youngest scion of folk-rock royalty Richard and Linda Thompson and sister of singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson (Richard has previously joked ‘It’s a battle with the Wainwright-McGarrigles who can produce the most musical offspring!’). She has made appearances at the Wainwright Family’s Christmas shows as well as on tours with Bonnie Prince Billy and Sean Lennon before she released her solo album, Love Lies, in 2011. Meanwhile, James Walbourne’s impressively long CV as a hire guitarist touts such diverse names as Ray Davies, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Pogues, Son Volt and The Pretenders, while making his debut as a solo musician on 2011’s The Hill. In each other, though, they found the perfect musical foil, with Walbourne’s earthy bark playing off Thompson’s sweetly soaring vocals on tales of rootless vagabonds and fatal trysts.

This partnership has been a long time in the making though. The pair first met when author and music fanatic Nick Hornby gave Walbourne a call out of the blue to assist in the recording of Linda Thompson’s 2007 album Versatile Heart, on which Kami was assisting her mother. Both admit they were too wrapped up in their own projects to pay much attention to the other, and so years went by with chance meetings at odd gigs and events. It was only during the early sessions for Linda Thompson’s following album, 2013’s stunning Won’t Be Long Now, that the two started writing music together and found that they could effortlessly harmonise and trade vocals.

Recording sessions for an album naturally followed, which took place at the home studio of Edwyn Collins (who also co-produced the album) with their direct, pared down arrangements occasionally filled out by fiddle duties from Eliza Carthy and deft drumming from Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars). It was also during this period that Thompson and Walbourne forged a relationship and decided to get married. Although this means there is little to no separation between their personal and work life, in an interview with Secret Sounds Thompson said she does not see this as a problem: “You feel that you have a shared goal, I think, which maybe you wouldn’t have if you didn’t work together as much.”

Focusing on a direct and authentic English folk sound, they headed up to legendary folk archive Cecil Sharp House for inspiration and gleaned two songs which appear on Fair Warning, ‘William Taylor’ and ‘Bonnie Portmore‘. The latter was released as a lead single, for which their label, Island Records, saw it appropriate to resurrect the iconic ‘pink’ label which adorned releases from such folk luminaries as John Martyn, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson’s own Fairport Convention. While this stamp of quality might ostensibly serve to draw further comparisons to the work of Thompson’s parents, Richard and Linda (a married couple with harmonising vocals releasing folk-rock on the Island pink label), ultimately they carve out their own distinctive brand of contemporary folk with one eye cast back to traditional English lyricism, as they do on ‘Breakneck Speed’.

An upbeat modern ballad of extricating yourself from a relationship turned sour, ‘Breakneck Speed’ rolls along with the energy of Thompson’s driving acoustic rhythm and Carthy’s fiery fiddling. Thompson takes lead vocal duties while Walbourne’s electric noodling buoys the song up before joining in for those effortless harmonies in the chorus. With effusive and gloriously catchy tunes as this, The Rails are sure to be a highlight of the folk club and festival circuits they tour this summer and prove that Thompson and Walbourne make a handsome pair.

Fair Warning is available now through Island Records. If you enjoyed this article, why not check out my review of Richard Thompson’s Electric?



[Cover Me]: Richard Thompson, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Tim Buckley

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Richard Thompson – ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’ (Originally by Britney Spears)
That right there was the sound of you double-taking. As part of his ambitious 2003 project 1,000 Years of Popular Music, which traced a common thread through music from 1068 all the way up to 2001, folk-rock luminary Richard Thompson closed with this Britney Spears mega-hit (though not without taking a slight detour to the 16th century towards the end). It’s clever, tongue-in-cheek and damn if it isn’t catchy!

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘Tower of Song’ (Originally by Leonard Cohen)
It was a toss up between posting this and The Bad Seeds’ haunting cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Singer‘ from Kicking Against The Pricks, but for sheer full-tilt energy and originality I had to plump for this. Leonard Cohen has been Nick Cave’s mentor in many ways (the first Bad Seeds album even opens with a cover of Cohen’s ‘Avalanche‘), so it is not surprising for Cave to pay tribute to the man “gifted with a golden voice”. Rather than sticking to the blueprint though The Bad Seeds rip it up with a frantic race through almost every conceivable genre of the 20th century. The result is as if you were plummeting between the floors of the eponymous Tower of Song and hearing the noises made on different floors on the way down.

Tim Buckley – ‘Martha’ (Originally by Tom Waits)
This track is taken from Tim Buckley’s penultimate album Sefronia, and while much of the album is a mixed bag there is no doubting the grandness of his version of one of Tom Waits’s earliest heartbreakers. In fact, Waits’s Closing Time (the album the original appeared on) had only surfaced two months before Sefronia was released, and this says something for the immediate connection Buckley must have felt with ‘Martha’ to record it and really get where Waits was coming from. While musically Waits’s original is soused in the dissatisfactions of the present, Buckley’s sweet, string laden version brims with the optimism of a young love which the song’s Tom Frost hopes to rekindle with Martha. By being the first prominent artist to cover songs by the then largely unknown Waits, Buckley drew public attention to him and thereby helped him on his way to becoming one of the truly defining artists of the last fifty years. For that alone, this version of ‘Martha’ deserves attention and appreciation.

[Album Review]: Richard Thompson – Electric

Electric‘There was some part of me knew, darling / To save the good stuff for you’

While many of his major label contemporaries have either faded into obscurity or ceased to put out anything of interest, Richard Thompson has been tirelessly mining his own rich seam of quality songwriting for over forty-five years. The eleven tracks that make up Electric show that he has absolutely no sign of slowing down, and further cement his status as a veteran songwriter.

For Electric, Thompson decided to take the core of his live band, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and percussionist Michael Jerome, and experiment by writing in a trio band format. The result is a concentrated and hard-hitting sound that Thompson describes as ‘a more folky slant on Cream or Jimi Hendrix Experience’. This set-up accentuates and complements Thompson’s style perfectly. Prodaniuk and Jerome lay out solid, muscular grooves throughout which offer a platform for Thompson to launch off from and show off his formidable guitar-work, while also enabling him to play off their presence. The album is a lot funkier than Thompson expected it to be, creating a form of folk-funk which Thompson says lies ‘somewhere between Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins’.

Never one to rest on his not-inconsiderable laurels, Thompson has toured relentlessly and Electric (along with 2010’s live recording Dream Attic) shows that Thompson is at the top of his game – his guitar-work is as twitchy and dynamic as ever. He is capable of spitting out searing solos that could singe your eyebrows one minute, then picking out a gentle melody the next. Album opener ‘Stony Ground’ is a foot stomping jig, while ‘Another Small Thing In Her Favour’ is a classic Thompson ballad, full of sage and melancholic sentiments. The album also sees Thompson pushing his boundaries and flirting with genres he wouldn’t normally be associated with, given his folk-rock reputation. ‘Good Things Happen to Bad People’ is a down-tempo rocker with tinges of psychedelia, featuring one of Thompson’s most demented guitar solos to date. Meanwhile, ‘Straight and Narrow’ is a ska-influenced jaunt which has been given a classic Thompson twist.

Although the focus is definitely on the electric pyrotechnics on display throughout the album, it is definitely acoustic meditation ‘The Snow Goose’ that takes the prize for me. It stands out as one of Thompson’s most haunting and poignant songs, based around a brooding acoustic melody and Thompson’s captivating voice. Beautiful harmonising vocals are provided courtesy of Alison Krauss, who admirably complements Thompson’s rough and bruised baritone. The bonus CD featured in the deluxe edition also houses some extra goodies. All are a joy, but the best of them is the traditional celtic reel ‘So Ben Mi Ch’a Bon Tempo’, which originally featured on Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music.

The album title, Electric, is appropriate. Not so much that the majority of the album showcases Thompson’s intimidating electric guitar-work (in fact the latter end features some touching acoustic ballads), but because the album proves that Richard Thompson’s songwriting continues to be as exciting and vital as ever. His reputation as an elder statesman of impeccable songwriting remains undiminished, and I choose my words carefully when I say that he is a national treasure.