Inarguable top billing this column to Fairport Convention, as the mightiest of roots institutions return with Myths & Heroes (Matty Grooves).
Their first since 2012’s By Popular Request and first of new material since Festival Bell the year before, it’s an utter delight from start to finish. Messrs Nicol, Pegg, Sanders, Leslie and Conway conjure many elements from the group’s exemplary history but this is miles from a band reliving former glories. They’re on shining form throughout, sometimes as traditional as they ever were, as on the instrumental medley of Chris Leslie’s The Fylde Mountain Time and Peggy’s Roger Bucknall’s Polka; sometimes in distinctly catchy and instant pop-rock territory, as with Leslie’s title track. Elsewhere there’s Ralph McTell’s Clear Water, Ric Sanders’ impish The Gallivant and far too many other treasures to mention. Two years off the golden 50th, they’re as refreshing as a pint of the real stuff at Cropredy.
Down at the other end of the acoustic corridor, we find something equally outstanding. Abstract Heart (Zerodeo) is the third album by Welsh duo Zervas & Pepper. Their superb harmonies and their “futurising” of the classic 1970s sound of harmonic American album rock has made them a particular passion for your columnist, and this new set is every bit as distinguished as their superb 2013 release Lifebringer. Opening song Miller and Foolish Heart are among several with a rockier approach, which suits Paul Zervas’ voice to a tee, but Kathryn Pepper’s gorgeous tones light up the more unplugged Reach Out, These Blurred Lines and others. Seize any opportunity to see them live.
The Unthanks return with their eighth album, a call to Mount The Air (Rabble Rouser). Rachel and her collaborators set forth with an opening, 10-minute title tune to stop you in your tracks. Adorned with plaintive trumpet and, later, almost a jazz shuffle, it’s all woodsmoke and bracing winter sun. Everything that follows it is as unpredictably elegant as ever, sometimes mournful, sometimes celebratory and always a glorious law unto itself.
The refined indie-folk of The Decemberists’ seventh album What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (Rough Trade) has already adorned our mainstream Top 20 in the UK. It’s great to see the Portland, Oregon outfit’s superior, pensive approach enjoying such recognition, with Colin Meloy’s songs and thought-provoking lyrics certain to lift their live crowd to new heights of devotion, especially on the anthemic The Singer Addresses His Audience.
Lastly, there’s the exotic tableau of Bird Under Water, the debut of feted, Berklee-educated Pakistani notable Arooj Aftab. Released on her own label, its collage of Sufi sounds, acoustic guitar, flutes, accordions and Aftab’s crisp, cleansing vocals is measured, haunting and beguiling.