Every once in a while, I get the overwhelming urge to write about non-uke playing acts and today I’ve given in. So, if you’re strictly a uke-only type, turn back now.
If, on the other hand, you love independent music and get a buzz from hearing people make music from their heart, opening handmade album covers and songs that haven’t been used to sell mobile phones, then hit ‘more’ and read about my favourite four acts that you’ve (probably) never heard of: Mary Epworth, The Hellbusters, Peggy Sue & the Pirates, and The Smoke Fairies.
I first heard Mary Epworth singing back up with The Broken Family Band. I found some demos she made under the name Lady-O (named after the Judee Sill song rather than the dominatrix) and was completely blown away by them. She has a stunning voice and can write a melody that draws you in and forces you to listen. Sadly, they seemed to have fallen down the back of the internet.
That was about five years ago. Since then, I’ve been patiently waiting for her to release something. And she finally has. Sort of. There are only 70 copies of her Two Deers EP around. But you can download them free on Last.fm.
She’s now backed by a full band and the big songs now have the big treatment they deserve. If you’re a fan of Beirut, you should definitely have a listen to the brass-filled slow march of Saddle Song.
It started with an email about the ukulele tune used in the credits of the game Portal (that Jonathan Coulton gets everywhere). I tell a lie, the email was mostly about grammar and semi-colons, but it was partly about ukes. There was a link to the guy’s band in the sig. I clicked it out of curiosity rather than expectation, but they turned out to be one of the dirtiest, nastiest and, therefore, best blues-rock bands you’re ever likely to hear.
The band’s guitarist/singer Todd ‘Tavo’ Mauldin started out on the ukulele and performed a one man show called “Four Strings of Fury”. He then found the perfect third way between his two childhood dreams of becoming a preacher and becoming a garbage man and started up The Hellbusters with harmonica player The Right Reverend Jack D. “Machine Gun” Doyle III Esq. Jr. (or TRRJDMGDTEJ for short).
He still picks up his uke though. Here’s an mp3 of him doing the old spiritual Morning Train on the uke (and sounding very different):
You don’t get many singing duos any more. They used to be all over the place. Peggy Sue and the Pirates aren’t a singer called Peggy Sue backed by a band of pirates, but a female duo with an acoustic guitar. The term ‘acoustic guitar’ conjures up images of tortured vocalising, oceans of pain and tortured poetry. Luckily, Peggy Sue and the Pirates (or PSaP as precisely no-one is calling them) are nothing like that.
I’ve been trying to think of someone to compare them to so you can get an idea of how they sound. The nearest I could come was Regina Spektor. And they sound nothing like Regina Spektor. Their vocals are soulful and playful (with plenty of shooby-doops, dooby doos and the like) and the guitar goes from pumping out basslines to delicate folk-picking. Their lyrics are always fun. Superman seems to be a parody of the whining singer-songwriter types, “I keep being played by all these different actors/Some of them are great and some of them are wankers.”
I think originality is overrated. If your music is completely original, that’s usually because every else who came up with the idea before thought it sounded atrocious. But some people pull it off by force of personality and a healthy batch of talent.
What the hell are a couple of fey English girls doing playing Delta blues? And how the hell did they get so good at it? But it certainly wouldn’t be fair to characterise them as blues copyists. Their style of singing is distinctively English.
The real highlight of the duo is their guitar playing. There’s no more irritating sight to me than a line of acoustic guitar players strumming out exactly the same chords in exactly the same way. The only alternative to that seems to be a rhythm guitarist and a lead guitarist. Both are insanely boring. The Smoke Fairies’ guitars, on the other hand, rub up against each other, tease each other, jostle and finish each other’s sentences. They’re the most interesting guitar duo since John Renbourn and Bert Jansch.
Support independent music, y’all.