If the shoe fits

In October I wrote about Pledge Music and the acts I knew that were funding their albums in this way. At the end of the year one of those projects came to fruition and was released to great critical acclaim, Red Shoes  All The Good Friends.

As I had pledged I received my digital copy back in November and was due to review it at that time, failing on two fronts – one due to workload and the other as I was awaiting the physical copy that I forgot I hadn’t paid for. Doh!

I suspect I was also wary of my lack of impartiality, a point I’ll address in too much detail at the end of the review. Some might say I’d helped fund the project but in reality it’s no different to paying for an album, you’re just doing it in advance. I’ve also hated some of the albums I’ve bought of late so that’s no barrier either.

First and foremost this is a folk album in as much as it is played with a variety of traditional instruments and also that it involves a number of revered musicians who could easily be described as folk legends. The band’s two releases have largely been made possible by their involvement in the wider folk community and whilst it might be a four letter word to some there is no doubt that this is folk in its truest communal sense.  

That it is also an album of stories, of songs with depth and great meaning, means that the appeal is beyond folk into singer-songwriter territory but we could easily get wrapped up in the vagaries of definitions and fail to spot the excellence of the work contained herein.

My instant reaction was that ‘All The Good Friends’ is a work of great maturity. The playing is, without exception, flawless and the song-themes are adult in nature and delivery.

‘Red Coat Ride’ has had a lot of attention with singer Carolyn reflecting on her own experiences and opinions of fox hunting. Whether you share the opinion you cannot argue with her conviction or passion, it can be easy to forget the reality and brutality of what some consider sport. ‘The Well’ feels familiar in tone and sound, the haunting melody is only the first of many on the album and the understated vocal draws you deep for the guitar solo to captivate.

The concept of stories and songs passing through generations is encapsulated in ‘Hidden Name’ but it is with ‘Sunday Afternoon’ that the over-riding theme of mortality really starts to hit home. There is an age we all reach when we come to respect the passing of time and mourn the missed opportunities to spend it with those we’ve lost, one more Sunday afternoon indeed.

Mark and Carolyn have carried the Red Shoes name across the decades, often performing solely as a duo just to keep their love of music alive. Carolyn’s vocal-style and ability is rightfully lauded but, as one familiar with their history, it is always Mark’s recent performances that surprise me most. Where he takes the lead on ‘If This Is Life’ and ‘Every Blade of Grass’ his vocal is accomplished, almost as if he has risen to the challenge of performing with his heroes. I even had to check that it was definitely him singing as he wasn’t instantly recognisable to me.

Without diminishing the writing and performance of their own compositions it has been their version of ‘Blackberry Way’ that has drawn magnificent reactions and airplay recognition. I have always believed that a cover version should add something or it is otherwise pointless, this one does that very rare feat of both improving on the original and being more faithful to the lyrical theme. It is not so much a cover as a masterful re-interpretation.

The darkness of ‘River Rea’ is obvious from the opening notes, a song of the highest order that captures recent events, capitalism, greed, obsession and betrayal. It is almost too difficult to listen to. ‘Swansong’ is stylistically closest to what most would consider folk but its breezy jig is in some ways a respite from the serious tone of other songs – even then it is not without the thought that we are all just passing through.

‘The Last Dance’ is fitting closure, demonstrating as throughout that the quality of the musicianship may often be understated but is never less than excellent. I cannot escape the emotive ennui that is prevalent throughout the album.

‘All The Good Friends’ has many memorable melodies and performances but it’s the lyrics and themes that will sit heavily with middle-aged listeners like me. As noted, traditional (or modern) folk is not the genre of music I listen to with great regularity but if I’m going to pontificate on the value of great songwriting and performance then what’s in front of my face cannot be ignored.

There were probably some other reasons for my failure to review it earlier, they require no explanation but as I’ve already typed them you’re getting them anyway. Sometimes you feel that you’re too close to a project or the people associated with a project to proclaim it without prejudice. The truth is that none of us are without prior prejudice and ingrained opinion and if we can’t support our friends in their ventures then what’s the point?

I’m not that close to it anyway. I may have once managed the band (referred to here) but it was 25 years ago and pretty unsuccessful, similarly whilst I still consider them close friends I embarrassingly haven’t seen them in nearly two decades. It is shameful really.

The problem is more likely that I’ve fallen out of the habit of reviewing music, my analytical processes have rusted away to the extent that I can only tell you what I like or don’t, explaining why is a separate issue altogether. I hope I’ve gone some way to redressing that here but if you want to read more educated, informed reviews of the album here’s a few: