Messenger | Vikki Clayton by Rob Beattie
Recognised as a fine interpreter of the late Sandy Denny's work - she was a regular in the so-called 'Sandy spot' at Fairport's Cropredy Convention for years - Vikki Clayton returns with a new studio album.
It's her first since 2001's Looking At The Stars, but the years between have left her clear, distinctive voice untouched, along with her expansive - verging on prog-folk - tendencies; eight of the songs here clock over five minutes long and her take on Reynardine (yes, sly old Reynardine) is an epic seven-and-a-half minutes. With 12 tracks in all, that means you're getting a lot of Vikki Clayton for your money.
The album divides into two halves, either side of Reynardine and a brave cover of John Martyn's Solid Air. The songs in the first half - including the title track and a powerful new original song Here Be Dragons - are full of atmospheric keys, layered vocals and unexpected percussive punctuation; the second half settles down into more familiar territory - there's the sweet Coming Into Land, a delicate song of love accepted called Kapiti, while the loose-limbed Cuba Street recalls early Joni Mitchell.
Clayton is re-united here with long-time collaborator Chris Conway (he produces and plays on seven tracks) and admirers know that the more involvement Conway has in a Clayton project, the more rewarding it usually is - here his standout contribution is the album's opening track The Gardener, where he helps transform a good traditional-style song into a very fine one.
The quality of Messenger and her recent live work with Gilly Darbey suggests that Vikki Clayton is intent on returning to a more regular recording and performing schedule - something fans of sophisticated folk rock should welcome with open arms.
Messenger Review By Robert Jeffries
If your personal taste in music calls for tunes to be melodic and lyrics to be thoughtfully poetic, then you will most certainly warm to the latest album offering by Vikki Clayton, Messenger.
In this, her most recent album Ms. Clayton follows a familiar path, mixing traditional songs with contemporary offerings written by herself and others....It is a formula that has worked well for her in the past and once again it serves her well with Messenger.
Messenger invites us to embark on a mystical journey that will take us to a variety of diverse locations and experience a whole range of emotions.... The journey begins when we view the album cover. Here we can see the singer clothed in white walking or perhaps floating through a circle of light formed by an arch of trees. Also visible are objects and characters that will symbolically feature during the journey. The mystery deepens in track 1 The Gardener. A dramatically atmospheric song written by the singer in a traditional style. It begins with a shimmering of bells as we enter a magical summer garden, during the song we are introduced to a reed instrument (a bombard) that transported me in my imagination to somewhere that might be a souk in North Africa. It reaches its final dramatic climax with the crashing of thunder.
After the violent ending of track 1, tracks 2 and 3 are rather more conventional love ballads. Both If this isn’t Love and The Messenger reveal that Ms. Clayton is as adept when writing and performing modern contemporary songs as she is with more traditional material.
In track 4 we return to a land of myth and legend with the title Here be Dragons. Possibly my own personal favourite on the album it has certainly made the biggest dent in my imagination. The main refrain seems perhaps deceptively simple but the hauntingly poignant lyrics tell a sad tale of an unhappy romance...The words and music of the chorus seem to have become indelibly fixed in my memory.
In the next track The Migrant, we follow the story of birds on a migratory flight and the perils that can frequently befall them. We also see how, with some thought and consideration their captivity can be exchanged for ultimate freedom.... This thinly veiled metaphor is a stark reminder that this summer many human migrants will be making their own bids for freedom and may not be lucky enough to find people prepared to offer them an ultimate freedom.
In track 6 we find ourselves following the tracks of that slyest of foxes, Raynardine. In this modern re-working of a traditional favourite we follow the exploits of the mysterious metamorphic fox lord that prays on and seduces innocent young girls entering his mountain domain...The track begins with discordant sounds of baying hounds and a beating heart pulse under pins the score...In the legends that surround this story, the fate awaiting these poor women is usually left ambiguously open....As the track ends we are left with just the heart beating......Until it stops!
In the second half of the album we will be travelling even further afield but we start with Vikki covering a John Martyn classic, Solid Air. Once again she sings the song in a style that seems to maintain the imagery of mysticism that has been building throughout the work.
In track 8 she covers Chris Conway’s Coming in to Land. And sings of the joys and emotions that a traveller experiences when returning home after spending an extended period of time away, However, she is not home for long because in the next track her restless feet have her heading for the exhilarating enthusiasm of Cuba to experience the Latin vibes in Cuba Street. This is a buoyant up tempo song that reflects joyous nature of the country, its people and their culture.... I have never been to Cuba but after this...I wanna go!
Now we are approaching the end of our journey as our host introduces us to her new home in New Zealand Kapiti. In this eulogy to her adopted home she sings “You’re the one” and having seen some the local photos...I can understand that sentiment.
In the penultimate track Ms Clayton offers us another song about unhappy love in The Waiting before finally bidding us a last goodbye with the final song, her own arrangement of the traditional Maori song Now is the Hour. Here she harmonises with the Thorntons Choir and The Disgusting Old Reprobates....One of whom offers us an interesting final discordant note to the album.....Ms Clayton however is far too much of a lady to reveal the guilty party!
Messenger is an album that will delight not only Ms Clayton’s many supporters but also those listening to her work for the first time. The album itself is beautifully produced and (as always) she delivers her songs in tones of absolute clarity....In Messenger Vikki takes us on a journey and it’s a journey that her many admirers will be very happy to take time and time again.
Vikki Clayton -Messenger by John O’Regan
Messenger is Vikki Clayton’s latest album her first solo effort in a long time Her voice which echoed the style of Sandy Denny has become an individually potent instrument. Musically her return album Messenger has the typical Clayton stamp of finely hewed performances but with an added compositional flair. A mostly self-written record apart from some traditional material, a cover of John Martyn’s Solid Air and one song each by Martin Burch and Chris Conway the album sounds like a return to form and then some. The backings are rich and sumptuous with Chris Conway’s multi-instrumental and arrangement abilities creating sonic envelopes of rich melodicism over which Vikki Clayton’s voice reigns supreme. The Gardener opens the show and typifies the dreamlike soundscapes that Chris Conway creates effortlessly and which form the backdrops for many of the tracks on Messenger. The title track, Here Be Dragons and The Migrant all revel in their cinematic glory while the traditional songs Reynardine and Now is the Hour capture a sense of drama and nostalgia by turn. The shimmering acoustics of Cuba Street and The Waiting add extra lustre to an already beguiling collection. Vocally Vikki has recovered her polished edge and her writing has assumed an added maturity and perception which has benefitted from time out and a period of self – rediscovery. Maturity and perception pervades Messenger is a reassured accomplished return from an artist who has been missing in action too long. Welcome back Vikki Clayton.
© John O’Regan July 2017. All rights reserved.
Vikki Clayton Messenger by Friends of Fairport
It has been a long time since Vikki last visited a studio to record an album. A very long time, and far too long. Her voice is as beguiling as it ever was, her writing and choice of songs to cover are still both sharply in focus. Throughout the recording Vikki was accompanied by Chris Conway, an many different instruments, and probably several things that aren’t, Martin Burch on guitars and Neil Segrott on guitar, bass and several other things. Neil produced most of the album with Chris producing two tracks.
Just looking at the impressive fold out digipack, which tells us who played what on each of the twelve tracks, it can be noted that half of them are over six minutes long. Each something to get immersed in, no quick singalong or frivolity. “The Gardener” hooks straight away, just a few seconds in and you know that the album has been worth the wait. “Here Be Dragons” does the same, both being Vikki’s own compositions. You have to add something new and or different to a traditional song that has been covered by almost everyone, which Vikki does on “Reynardine”, with its gentle soundscape behind her vocals. At this point you could think that it was a great album, but we’re not halfway through yet.
One trad arr song down, with another to close the album, it is to John Martyn’s “Solid Air” that we turn next. The original is magnificent, and rarely does a cover match such a piece. Neil, Chris and Martin play superbly on this piece, with a vocal at the top of her form. Vikki toured with John many years ago and had the time of her life (Ask her about the taxi ride in Dublin if you get a chance).
Each of the songs has its own soundscape, or gentle wall of sound, to back up Vikki’s vocal, which is always as clear as a bell. I will use “Coming In To Land” as the prime example where Vikki is multi tracked, adding her own harmony vocals to great effect. Eventually we reach track twelve, the traditional “Now Is The Hour”, Vikki plays acoustic guitar and Chris the whistle. Halfway through the piece the instruments give way to the Thorntons Choir – Vikki, Tonia Sorrell, Kate Easton Lyn Goulbourn and Lauren Bird. Just when you think it is finished, safe to eject the disc, or play it again, the reprise comes in, from the Disgusting Old Reprobates – Chris, Neil, Martin, Paddy Hodgkinson, Dave Anderson and Daryl Kirkland. It’s not as beautiful as the ladies.
Not so long next time though Vikki? Please.
Vikki Clayton “Messenger” - review by Andy Nagy
Vikki Clayton first came to my attention as the young singer with a voice remarkably akin to that of the late Sandy Denny. This was close to 30 years ago, and her appearances at multiple Cropredy Festivals singing Sandy's parts reinforced this further. “It Suits Me Well” (1994),the beautiful tribute album of all Sandy-associated songs showed her ability to shape and reinterpret Denny's music, the gorgeous a capella “Rising For The Moon” a stand out, while still staying true to her muse. But Vikki Clayton was never a simple acolyte, showing a depth and creativity in her solo work that went beyond imitation. “Carried Away...” (1995) had her singing traditional songs, Thompson and Dylan, but also a moving cover of Bill Withers' “Granma's Hands” and “Toccata and Blues,” a tour de force that took in jazz and beyond and even Dave Brubeck's classic “Take Five!” “Midsummer Cushion” (1991) was a heartfelt collection of mostly John Clare poems that she set to music, and “Looking At Stars” (2001), a collection of all originals that had roots in folk music, yet also touched on world and other musical styles.
But nothing from her career prepared me for the extraordinary depth and beauty of “Messenger.”
Seven of the twelve songs are self-penned, two are traditional, two from within her band and one from John Martyn, the album is magnificently produced by bass player Neil Segrott with multi-instrumentalist Chris Conway handling production on two of the songs.
From the very start you are taken on a journey into a new world, a world of visions, of dark and light, a musical panorama that you can almost touch as well as feel. It would have been easy to say that album opener “The Gardener” is the highlight of the album if it weren't for the fact that there are so many other great songs. But let's start here: strums of electro-harp and sparse electric piano lead right into the achingly beautiful singing of a tale and melody that could have come straight from Child. Progressive layers of flute, chimes, echoed voices and the sounds of tabla transport you into an ancient, swirling world that is given a Breton feel by the primal sound of multi-tracked Bombards, the traditional double reed instrument from Brittany. The whole arrangement, with starts and stops and finally the dramatic use of thunder and pouring rain makes it a masterpiece unto itself.
The mood doesn't end there. Guitarist Martin Burch's “If This Isn't Love” sets the stage for more wistful beauty, his acoustic guitar leads duet with Vikki's own picking. “The Messenger” and “Here Be Dragons” not only draw you in, but contain choruses that will haunt you for days after.
One of the darkest and most powerful songs on the album is the reworking of the traditional “Reynardine.” It is the only overt reference to Sandy Denny, who sang it on the seminal Fairport Convention album “Liege and Lief” (1969). Considerably different in tone, the melody remains, but the story of the shape shifting and dangerous seducer of the fair maiden becomes almost cinematic with ominous guitar chords and other droning sounds. As the tale reaches its end, with the fate of the girl never revealed, the drones continue and a bowed sarangi takes over a new but ancient melody and Vikki's multi tracked wordless singing brings the song to a close.
Reflective of the album cover art, the music takes you on a journey through a deep, lush and mysterious forest, where shadows moving in the depths could be birds, beasts or the stirring of a breeze. And then come the clearings, where the sun suddenly shines: bright and warm. Two songs playfully dance in this light. “Cuba Street” in particular savors happy memories of old folkie days, name dropping people and places that bring happiness to the heart over a sprightly Carribean-styled beat. Amongst others,the late John Martyn is mentioned, appropriate since his 1973 song “Solid Air” is another highlight of the album, fitting right in with the tone of the other songs.
“The Waiting” is a not so simple, straightforward narrative of longing that could very well sum up the unspoken overall tone of the album, as if the narrator stepped out of the woods for a moment and decided to bare her heart to her listeners. Waiting for a lover that never returns? Facing mortality as we grow older? Missing the ones who have taken the journey beyond before us?
Confirming this is the closing song, “Now Is The Hour," an English translation of a Maori song of farewell. Gloriously sung by Vikki accompanied by low whistle and a heavenly choir, it is then reprised with a more earthy and rather inebriated chorus from the delightfully christened Disgusting Old Reprobates.
Absolute, utter brilliance.