Island Stories - SLIP 010
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I am biased, but any album that features mandolins, fiddles, harmonicas and tenor banjos is going to be a winner with me. And Island stories has real instruments played mind-bogglingly well in spades.
A sort of folk concept album, all 15 tracks are based on the tales, incidents and geography of the Channel Islands (even Jersey gets two songs) and it does help to know where these tunes are from (rather than from some pit disaster in Northumberland or a train crash in Dorset).
All are written or traditionally arranged by Tom Bliss and performed by him and his partner Tom Napper and their quartet The Pipers Sons, plus a host of guest musicians and singers. The album starts with the haunting whistle and menacing accordion of Boat to Burhou, charges through the seven-odd minutes of the epic, touching and ultimately rousing ballad Homecoming Day (about the return of the Alderney people to their island home), manages a touch of bluesy harmonica on the Silverlode of Sark, the jaunty Jersey Polka J'ai Perdu Ma Femme/La Gas de la Marine (which sounds a tad Cajun) and ends with the Wreck of the Steamship Stella, which, as the title suggests, is exactly what folk music should be about; true stories expertly played and beautifully sung.
In fact this is exactly how I'd describe the whole album. Shaun Shackleton
'‘Virtuoso’ is the word that comes readily to mind to describe this album. Of the fifteen tracks Tom Bliss wrote eleven, sings on eight, and plays twelve different instruments. A variety of other musicians appear on the album including folk scene veterans Chris Parkinson and Tom Napper.
The Channel Islands are marketed these days as an idyllic holiday destination but Tom Bliss, who lived on Alderney for many years, uncovers a darker history – the Nazi occupation, shipwrecks, floods, battles between England and France and, most intriguingly, in the song Turn and Face the Wind, the story of a Chinese girl, saved from certain death in her homeland and given a new life on Alderney.
But this is by no means a gloomy album. Tom Bliss shows a lightness of touch in even his darkest songs and there is great instrumental variety and a sprinkling of dance tunes as well as a jaunty traditional song J’ai perdu ma femme sung in French. Howard Baker
Though still retaining a base in mainland UK, singer/songwriter and multi-multi-instrumentalist Tom still considers Alderney his home, and this CD is his tribute to the immense long-lasting (and continuing) inspiration he derives from the Channel Islands, their history and landscapes. It collects together from Tom's five CDs to date (one solo, two with Tom Napper and two with his "old combo" Slide) all of his original songs and instrumental pieces which have Channel Islands connections; these demonstrate a striking consistency of approach and vision, each one a nugget of true quality (you could say mined from the very silverlode of Sark!).
Amongst these we find such key works in the Bliss canon as the reflective The Race, the haunting story-songs The Merry Bells Of Helier and The Grey Lady, and the touching anthem Turn And Face The Wind. But although this CD is termed (and marketed as) a compilation, just under half of its contents consists of brand new recordings, which in turn fall into two specific categories: three of the songs have been vitally reinterpreted by Tom's recently-constituted three-piece band The Pipers Sons (in which he's joined by Tony Taffinder and Chris Parkinson)*, while four of the items embrace previously unreleased material. The latter category contains one of the CD's highpoints: Homecoming Day, the story of the Alderney islanders' return after World War II and their welcome-ashore by the cornet-playing of John McCarthy (here replicated by Charlie Greenslade, additionally backed by a brass ensemble). There's also Tom's lively take on the catchy traditional song J'ai Perdu Ma Femme, which provides an emotional counterweight to Where Strangers Stare, a powerful Bliss composition that postulates on the mystery of Alderney's Elizabethan wreck, and features the beautiful singing voice of Alex Birch.
Finally, I shouldn't need to mention – given Tom's track record – that not only is the songwriting unerringly craftsmanlike, strong and characterful, but the playing and singing throughout the whole CD is first-class (Tom plays a dozen instruments, all of them brilliantly!), as is the sound quality, allied to the excellent, informative and attractive packaging and presentation (all in the now-familiar Bliss house-style). Dave Kidman
*Actually the Pipers Sons are a quartet, Bliss Taffinder Parkinson and Tom Napper
Having recently seen Tom do an astonishingly moving and inspirational set at Wath Festival I was delighted to see his new release glistening temptingly in the darkness of the reviewers’ cauldron. I was already aware that much of the CD was a collection of material from earlier albums with Tom Napper, The Pipers’ Sons and Slide but I also knew that two of Tom’s finest songs were also currently only available here.
The first of these, ‘Homecoming Day’ tells of the complex emotions of islanders returning to Guernsey following the Second World War to the welcome of a lone cornetist playing ‘Home Sweet Home’. If you don’t have a lump in the back of your throat as the Tom tells of the boat entering the harbour I’m afraid you cannot be human. As with many of Tom’s songs this is compelling – demanding you stop and listen rather than just have as background to other activity. This is even truer of ‘Where Strangers Stare’ which I had heard only once previously. This is a departure for Tom – a spoken verse with instrumental accompaniment paired with a truly haunting refrain. This latter is sung with indescribable beauty by Alderney singer Alex Birch, from whom I dearly want to hear more. The melody which is heard throughout the song is simple but thoroughly beguiling and somehow so right.
I was less enthusiastic about the third new song ‘Jai Perdu Ma Femme’ as Tom’s self-confessed middle class English does not translate too well into French. However, it is paired with a very fine tune and the final piece of new material is the tune ‘Herm’, which is again most enjoyable.
As for the rest of the songs and tunes there are some classics here including a wonderful arrangement of ‘Boat to Burhou’ (I have said before that I believe that this is one the best fusions of lyric and melody in the folk canon), the stirring ‘Silverlode of Sark’ and ‘The Wreck of the Steamship Stella’ all from Tom’s current band, The Pipers’ Sons. But it was listening to ‘Turn and Face the Wind’ which made me realise what it is about Tom’s singing that entrances me – it is a fragility at certain registers that imbues the stories with such emotion. There are undoubtedly singers who are technically better than Tom but very few have the ability to tell you a story that you feel you will never forget.
There is only one tiny quandary here that makes me hesitate slightly in fully recommending this CD. If, like me, you already have the most of the rest of the songs on different CDs you will have to decide if the mostly excellent new material is essential. However, there are a couple of further factors that may sway you towards purchase. Firstly, the songs have been remastered (though I think it is fair to say that this only adds a little to the quality as the earlier recordings were generally good) and bass and percussion have been added to the ‘Merry Bells of Helier’ which gives a more solid grounding to the song. Secondly, and more importantly, supplies of the Pipers’ Sons CD, which was originally intended as a promo, are running short and so if you want their version of ‘Boat to Burhou’ (and you do, believe me) and the other two songs featuring the band then this will soon be your only option.
For those who do not have the earlier CDs, then, this is a no - brainer. The only danger is that you may then feel compelled to acquire Tom’s back catalogue and spend valuable time reading the stories behind the songs on his web site. And that would be no bad thing. Joe Grint