What’s New for the 16th of April: Matty Groves as done by Sandy Denny, Mushroom Hunting, Michael Kaluta, Shane McGowan, some books that touch on the American Pastime, Norwegian folk, a Swiss classical take on American music, The Weavers, Federal Music Project, and more

Conspiracy theories are really attractive. Figuring out patterns is one of the things that gets your brain to give you a nice dose of chemical reward, the little ping of dopamine and whatever else that keeps you smiling. As a result, your brain is pretty good at finding patterns, and at disregarding information that doesn’t fit. Which means it’s also pretty good at finding false patterns, and at confirmation bias, and a bunch of other things that can be fatal. Our brains are also really good at making us the center of a narrative, because it’s what we evolved for.

Elizabeth Bear’s  Ancestral Night

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So you want to know about the Sandy Denny bio that Reynard was alluding to in our Pub? Well I can’t give any specifics about it but I can tell the tale by changing the names of all involved. A writer for an American music magazine, call it Frest, decided to write a biography of Sandy Denny, who died as the result of a fall down the stairs at her home even though her death was some weeks later. The Coroner’s Inquest found mid-brain trauma to be the cause of her death. She was just over thirty years old when she died, a tragedy for a folk musician of high esteem for her work with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, the Strawbs and otherwise.

The writer got an advance from a well-regarded publisher here in Britain and set out doing interviews and such. So far, so good. And then our writer turned in a draft, which was when the shit started piling up. Really deep. It’s been speculated on who was Denny’s pusher, and the writer decided to say who it was, a speculation at best. (I read the draft — the evidence was scant at best. And I no longer remember who it was.) The publisher hit the roof and said that bit had to go (the writer refused), so the publisher got a ban from it being published anywhere and demanded the not-small advance back. And that’s where the story ends.

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David reviewed All of This Music Belongs to the Nation, an interesting academic book about the Federal Music Project, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, which aimed to employee musicians and elevate the public’s musical tastes. ‘The program seemed doomed to failure from the beginning, partly because a Russian classical musician, Nikolai Sokoloff, was put in charge of the project. His taste helped define the type of “cultured music” citizens and musicians were to be taught to appreciate, to the exclusion of more vernacular music. He formed a 25-member advisory committee to help implement the program. This committee included George Gershwin and Leopold Stokowski, among others.’

David also enjoyed another book on a somewhat related theme, Sing Out, Warning! Sing Out, Love! the collected writing of Lee Hays of The Weavers. ‘You all recall Mister Lee Hays: the bass singer from The Weavers. He was last seen in the Weavers reunion film Wasn’t That a Time. He passed away shortly thereafter. Robert S. Koppelman, assistant professor of English at Broward Community College and a banjo player and singer, has gathered together a rich collection of Hays’s writings. With these writings and the Weavers’ albums, Lee Hays will live on. His spirit is tangible on these pages.’

Elizabeth had a mixed reaction to Ben Sherwood’s The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, which is about a fellow who is able to commune with the dead following his own near death in a car crash. ‘In summary, this book is warm, cozy, and predictable, like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week you’ve seen a dozen times. A good choice for a library run, but not re-readable enough to make it a permanent addition to one’s book collection. It’s a nice little novel to curl up with on a rainy day, but not one to necessarily philosophise over.’

Gary has nothing but good words for a recent science fiction book that deals with currently relevent topics like bioengineering and artificial intelligence. ‘With Autonomous, Annalee Newitz has written the most subversive sf novel I’ve ever read. I’ve followed Newitz on Twitter for a couple of years but this is the first book of theirs I’ve read, so maybe all of them are like this. But I kept having to put it down and ponder the gravity of what I’d just read, which doesn’t happen so often with genre fiction.’

Guy covered an unusual collection, Esther Friesner’s Death and the Librarian and Other Stories. ‘All these stories are rather unorthodox – this is by no means classic fantasy. Friesner is usually recognized as a humorous fantasy writer, but most of these stories made me want to cry. My recommendation: If you are looking for a different kind of fantasy story, this book is worth a try.’

Michael had mostly good things to say about Charlaine Harris’s Dead as a Doornail. ‘I’ve been saying it all along: there’s no way that a southern vampire murder mystery/romance with a telepathic cocktail waitress should work, and yet the elements manage to come together rather nicely. Harris has an ear for dialogue and a way with making the storylines flow together, and the world she’s presented certainly has room for all the disparate elements involved.’

Michelle offers up a book themed to the American Pastime: ‘It’s already been established that baseball exists primarily to serve as a metaphor for the meaning of life. If you didn’t get that from Malamud’s The Natural or Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, then surely you got it from Mays’ Say Hey or Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. So it should come as no surprise that Summerland, the most recent novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, reiterates this all-important theme. And should you be a reader who is only happy when the Red Sox are winning or who actually doesn’t like baseball — should you fail to appreciate that “a baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day,” to quote Chabon — then Summerland is even more important for you.’

Warner has a few surprises this time around.

There are some books that fit a lot into a short space. Camelo Jose Celas’s The Hive is one of them. Sporting more characters than its page count, this short book focusing on one town in a nation suffering will leave heads spinning. A fascinating book that got a Nobel Laureate blacklisted.

Loren Estleman is an old name in the mystery genre, well-rounded and respected. His latest book, City Walls, continues a long-running series and is likely to please fans right away. Like many private detective novels, it starts investigating a financial crime and moves into looking at something more life and death.

Amulya Malladis’s A Death in Denmark serves as a well constructed start to a new series. Between a musician PI and a dead politician the opening alone is a startling mix. Featuring a mystery involving the refugee crisis with roots going back to a similar phenomenon during the second World War, this book keeps readers guessing.

Polar Horrors is a wonderful anthology from the British Library Tales of the Weird series. Edited by John Miller, it contains many different examples of horror from the coldest parts of the world. It’s also one of the most varied collections in the series, with far newer works than one might expect.

Karina Moss returns to her Cheese Shop mystery series with Curds of Prey. Opening with a wedding, it’s not long before the story also includes a funeral. With all of the feel and look of a cozy mystery, this one has more depth than you might expect.

Sometimes a book can be sold under more than one genre. Mia Tsai has mastered that with Bitter Medicine. A globetrotting tale of magic and the fair folk, this volume fits equally in urban fantasy and paranormal Romance. Certainly a good look into a global setting with a certain regional influence.

Josh Weiss’s Sunset Empire  is the second in a series of alternate history detective novels. A sequel to an already well received volume, it does a lot to expand the world. Looking into a world very much like our own recent history, the mix of anti-Semitism and anti-asian bias will be chilling to many.

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Our reviewer Richard tackled the Sundance Channel’s documentary, If I Should Fall from Grace: the Shane McGowan Story. ‘The Shane McGowan that emerges from this portrait is as paradoxical as his music; hiding behind a mask of simplicity lies a complex man who wrestles every day with his own private demons.’

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One of my favourite breakfast treats is a bacon, mushroom and cheddar cheese omelet. So. In when Gus reviewed a certain work and led off by saying that  ‘The Mushroom Hunters showed up for review a few years back but it took me a while to get around to reading it. Now keep in mind that these are not the weekend mushroom hunters who go looking for a few pounds of these fungi to use in their own culinary endeavours. These are hardcore individuals who live rough for months on end, searching the forests where the rarest mushrooms grow in anticipation of selling their harvest to high-end restaurants that’ll pay them top price for them.’

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Ian conducted an interview with one of our favorite illustrators, Michael William Kaluta, in which the artist comes across very much as self-deprecating as his art is masterful. ‘Contrary to the way I’d like to be perceived, always questing forward toward uncharted realms of art and accomplishment, I’m much more a slow, stumbling, whimsical worker full of overcautious doubt. Perhaps that zombie approach helps in the long run, but it does get in the way too often for me to be happy about it.’

Robert found a Neil Gaiman offering beyond delightful. ‘With The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, Gaiman fully embraces his inner juvenile surrealist. While the cover promises the books “will delight anyone who is — or has ever been — a kid,” Gaiman goes further than delight. Reading this book, an adult will be plunged back into a child-like frame of mind, a reality, once coloured in Seuss-ian bolds, now vivid and starkly rendered by Gaiman’s long-time friend and frequent illustrator Dave McKean in line drawings, collages and bold washes.’

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Chris thoroughly enjoyed an album by the Michigan-based Americana band Steppin’ In It. ‘Last Winter in the Copper Country feels like a great live gig in some sitcom pub, minus the cigarette smoke and hangover. They do fine, distinctive versions of perennial pickin’ faves “Red Haired Boy,” “Trouble in Mind,” and a conjoined “Over the Waterfall/Mississippi Sawyer.” The originals are more than fine. They cover a range of moods with nicely varied arrangements and dynamics.

David took a tour through, as he puts it, ‘…four CDs that each take the essentials of American roots music and play it their own way. From the founders who are represented on Close Harmony to the close harmony of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. From the Dirt Band’s respectful modelling of traditions to the update provided by Cast Iron Filter. From the fiddle virtuosity of Mike Barnett to master mandolinist Mike Orlando. The circle is not unbroken, it just keeps rolling around. Long may it roll!’

Next up, David reviews two soul anthologies, Solomon Burke’s That’s Heavy Baby and Eddie Hinton’s A Mighty Field of Vision. ‘Solomon Burke is enjoying a renaissance, with two highly acclaimed recent albums and a live DVD. Eddie Hinton (who passed away in 1995) is also being rediscovered; a new CD of unreleased material was just advertised in British rock magazines. But the albums under review today are both from the wonderful antipodean archival label Raven Records, which seeks to re-issue some of the great lost music of our time. They’ve done it again!’

It took Gary a while but eventually he came around to enjoying an album of Norwegian traditional music. ‘At first I was put off by the relative lack of variety in the tempos and arrangements on Buen & Groven’s Kjenslevev, and it’s true that I tend to prefer modern music like Morgonrode’s. But the nearly continual stately pace and grave nature of Buen & Groven’s music is a feature, not a bug, chosen by musicians whose aim is to preserve and bring forward the old folk traditions.’

He liked Brìghde Chaimbeul’s second album Carry Them With Us immediately, noting that it ‘… is a masterful, exhilarating melange of traditional and modern music for the Scottish smallpipes. It’s definitely not for the traditionalists among piping fans, but what Chaimbeul is doing with Scottish smallpipe music is very much like what Nils Øklund and Benedicte Maurseth do with Norwegian Hardanger fiddling – using the tradition as a springboard for a new thing that incorporates minimalism and other modernist ideas.’

Gary also reviewed some jazz-inflected trance music featuring the Moroccan guimbri plus harp, harmonium and horns. ‘I hadn’t experienced Natural Information Society before this release, but Since Time Is Gravity is something like the seventh release by this ensemble that has been the project of composer and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams for 15 years.’

Gary reviews some music in the classical style, Calefax’s An American Rhapsody. ‘Calefax’s vision of both classical and American music is pretty expansive, and the album’s source music ranges from purely classical pieces (by Samuel Barber and Florence Price), through Gershwin’s music which is both classical- and jazz-adjacent, through the jazz of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn to Stevie Wonder’s funky rocking soul and Moondog’s eclecticism. Quite rightly it puts much of its spotlight on music composed by Black Americans and Jewish Americans, whose contributions in many ways dominated American music both popular and serious, for much of the 20th century.’

Gary gave a mixed review to John McCutcheon’s Storied Ground. ‘ …I have to say that John McCutcheon on disc isn’t as interesting as John McCutcheon in concert. At least, that’s the impression I have from listening to Storied Ground and a handful of his others over the years. Mostly, it’s a matter of taste. McCutcheon writes and performs in a very sincere, no-frills style that also, for me, holds few surprises.’

Another week, another Celtic music omni from John O’Regan. This time he covers four CDs of Celtic women vocalists, including the debut recording of Julie Fowlis, whom he correctly pegged as a rising star. ‘She freely borrows much from the Irish tradition for her instrumental tunes as much as her Scottish repertoire highlighting the twined connection. Overall, this is a very pleasing debut and one that marks Julie Fowlis as a very promising talent. I do not think we have heard the last of her.’

John next tells us about Niall Toner Band’s There’s a Better Way, which amounts to the first solo album by this particular Irish country musician. ‘Dublin’s Niall Toner has been called the father of Irish bluegrass music. Certainly, his dedication to playing and preserving American folk and old time music has proven both a vocation and a calling card. Having played for four decades with many leading Irish and American bluegrass musicians including Bill Monroe, and presenting country music shows on RTE radio and Lite FM, Niall Toner’s name immediately commands respect.’

Kim enjoyed Song of the Green Linnet, a “various artists” collection from one of our favorite labels. ‘I’ve enjoyed most of the Green Linnet collections I’ve come across, so I was happy when this one came up for review – and I was not disappointed. It’sdefinitely meant for those who love the songs. There are no instrumentals to vary the pace, although a few of the songs are paired in sets with instrumentals. But there is no shortage of good playing or singing on this two disc set.

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Our usual What Not is a puppet or a tarot deck, but this time Reynard has a review of two action figures that inhabit his office space: ‘Well back in 2003, Stronghold Group released two characters based on the sort of people that inhabited the CBGB club, one being Maxx, a singer, and the other being, Bad Apple, who is less clearly defined though he too could be a musician, a fan, and even perhaps a CGBG bouncer. One site claimed these are ‘extreme look-alikes of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten’ but the manufacturer doesn’t say who they based on.’ Read his full review for a look at two fascinating characters!

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For our musical coda, I’ve got  ‘Matty Groves’ as performed by Fairport Convention at the Nottingham University on the 27th of  November 1974 with Sandy Denny being the vocalist. It’s definitely not soundboard quality but it’s hard to find performances of her that are legal to use.

Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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About Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.
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