Thursday, 1 November 2012

REVIEW - Blair Dunlop CD

Blight & Blossom

(Rooksmere Records via Proper Distribution)
Out Now

Review by Carys, for

I was looking forward to hearing this album. I've heard a lot about Blair Dunlop over the past couple of years (not all positive!) and have seen him perform twice; firstly with The Albion Band at Cromer's Folk on the Pier festival and most recently at the Cropredy festival in August. As a result, I was in no doubt about his musical skills, but I was unsure whether he had either a strong or distinctive enough voice to carry a whole album. Nor was I sure that I'd be able to listen objectively without making the obvious comparison to Ashley Hutchings. 

I'm glad to report that “Blight & Blossom” has me totally convinced, and that was the only reference to “Dad” you're going to see, despite the fact that Ashley does play on one of the tracks (Billy In The Lowground). 

The album begins with “Secret Theatre” — blues-tinged guitar and driving rhythms — and already it's obvious how much Blair's voice has matured even in the last year, though once or twice I couldn't help feeling there's still a little something that's not quite there yet. The guitar playing makes up for that and more though – it's of the kind that makes me think “wish I could do that” - and he manages to make it sounds effortless. Indeed, there's a lazy feel to his playing, as if he's so relaxed with it he doesn't need to try (he has been playing since the age of six, after all). More than that, he knows it sounds good. Not only that, this is wonderfully modern folk; something I could well imagine blasting out of a sixth form common room on a warm summer lunchtime. 

Next up is the interestingly-titled “Less The Pawn” which is one of my favourites. The up tempo slide-guitar (without sleeve notes I cannot be certain, but I think I sense Larkin Poe's presence here (Correct - also on Black Is The Colour and Billy In The Lowground. Ed)) drags you into this song and the lyrics, berating the lack of originality in the current mainstream talent-show culture, still feel fresh and new even if everything has been said elsewhere a hundred times before. My only irritation on a purely personal level is the prominent use of the word "crap", which seems to grate on me far more than it should do. Therefore I'd like to hear this song on a huge festival field, just to see if it still bothers me – or preferably several fields, because Blair certainly deserves it. 

Blair Dunlop: matured
My personal favourite has got to be “Billy In The Lowground”, based on a traditional bluegrass tune. Right from the beginning it leaps up and screams at the listeners to get up and dance; and if you're not feeling deliciously happy, well, you will be by the end of this! Apparently Blair wanted to write a story based on the title of this tune, and he did it proud. I really feel for Billy and his desire to just play, not caring about fame. Who wouldn't admire “the kid that never sold out” and want him to have a song of his own? 

Another stand-out is “Black Is The Colour” (as featured in FolkCast 079), a brilliant example of how to make a trad song sound new and fresh. This duet with Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe felt like I was hearing this for the first time, and Blair's voice is at it's best here. 

Blair's sensitive guitar playing enhances his music, which at times seems to lean more towards Americana than British folk, and the lyrics are far more mature than I'd expect from a twenty year old. Often I find myself struggling to relate to younger songwriters but there's no danger of that here. If I could write lyrics half as well as Blair Dunlop I would die happy! It says a lot that the unreleased Richard Thompson track “Seven Brothers” doesn't stand out as a masterpiece here, despite being an excellent song in it's own right – there simply are no weak tracks on this album.  

The digital version of this album reached the top 10 of the iTunes singer/songwriter chart. I can see why. I urge you to listen to “Blight & Blossom”, because it's surely just the first album in a long and exciting recording career. I'm proud that in future years I'll be able to say I was a fan right from the start. 

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