Martin Simpson (from the album Home Recordings available on Topic Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
As has been well-publicized, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit various creative industries hard, putting an end to live performances through which most musicians earn their living. The gain, for we fans, lies in the amount of home-recorded offerings which have appeared. Lately, we've had a slew of terrific albums which rely on skill and invention over post-production and studio-wizardry. These albums, moreover, are often laced with a poignancy and pathos which lend an enduring, meaningful quality to the results. Latest to throw his hat into the ring is celebrated English folk singer/songwriter and guitarist Martin Simpson.
Twice winner of the prestigious BBC Folk Awards, Martin Simpson's back-catalogue is distinguished and highly praised, including such diverse offerings as a fascinating collaboration with Chinese pipa (four-stringed lute) player Wu Man and explorations of the music of the American deep south. This latest release, simply titled Home Recordings, out now via Topic Records, is a generous collection of fourteen tracks, a mix of Simpson originals and covers which showcase his enviable skills at finger-style and slide guitar.
The album opens with Lyle Lovett's “Family Reserve”. Simpson's acoustic guitar-playing is faultless. There's nothing flashy here, but he makes the difficult seem easy. The strings sing and dance, graceful in their efficiency. Simpson's voice is smooth with a slightly gruff edge, a curious mix of English Folk and Americana, which is affecting and compelling. Some subtle harmonized backing vocals add a nice touch of colour. When it comes to expressive singing and playing, there aren't many who can match Martin Simpson.
For “Lonesome Valley Geese” Simpson switches to banjo, offering up a short, beguiling and shimmering meditation. A lovely moment comes as we actually hear geese flying over Simpson's Peak-District home with the musician himself expressing his delight. The sadly-missed John Prine's “Angel from Montgomery” simply sparkles. The more you absorb yourself in Martin Simpson's playing, the more wondrous it becomes. This is music which amply rewards repeated listens.
Simpson's lilting take on Dylan's “The Times They Are A Changin'” more than does justice to the original, with embellished runs and arpeggios; a luminescent cloud of ringing notes through which Simpson's voice calls like the hidden sun. The Martin Simpson original, “Plains of Waterloo”, reveals that Simpson is also masterful on slide guitar. Long-cherished by Blues players thanks to its ability to 'moan' and 'sing' like a human voice, in Simpson's hands the instrument conjures incredible width and depth, with elements of Blues, Eastern modes and something altogether new. The sound soars majestically and swoops in breathtaking wonder.
It's back to banjo for “Augmented Unison,” another Simpson original. This is traditional English Folk with the rolling gait of a sea-shanty. I have never heard a musician play banjo in the manner which Simpson does. In his hands, the strings flow and tingle like a harp, almost unbearably fragile and sweet. Album closer “March 22nd” treats us to another brief snippet of back-porch magic, as Simpson serenades the birds with a sparkling river of notes.
Before I conclude this review, let's take a moment to reflect on how fortunate we are to be here and well, reading and listening, when not everyone has pulled through. Fortunate we are, indeed, to be treated to the soulful, spiritual wizardry of Martin Simpson at his best. He remains an enormous talent, rendered ever more likeable thanks to his evident humanity and humble love of his craft. (by Chris Wheatley)
Listen and buy the music of Martin Simpson from AMAZON
For more information head on over to the Martin Simpson website