Ken Nicol’s Historical Events and Other Subjects:
A Review By Mark Edward Askren. November 2012.
The more I get to know Ken Nicol, the more he amazes me. There is no denying the skill with which he crafts his music, and his musical history is testament to this. Not only as a solo artist, but as a member of great English bands, the Albion band and the magnificent Steeleye Span.
His newest album shows Ken at his all-time best; in fact, I think it is probably his best album ever. I’ve always loved Ken’s clawhammer style of picking guitar, and on this album, he not only delivers, but surpasses his skills on previous albums, while still maintaining a link to his past.
I also find in Ken a darker side, not visible to the public, perhaps, but evident in the tone of some of the tunes on Historical Events, which may be surprising to some but not all, I suspect, to those who know him. While his songs move through many genres, there is a silent bitterness that echoes in many of the songs.
The album opens with “A Woman’s Work is Never Done.” This song, which could well be a Steeleye “reject,” is nonetheless a wonderful opening to an album that ostensibly is about historical subjects. In this case, the issue is the role of women and the traditional, sadly sexist view that men have sole say over their relationships. Ken acts as an apologist, while the wonderful Becky Mills adds soaring vocals to the middle section. The tune becomes a moral lesson on how to treat one’s spouse, with an obvious slam at the way men have treated women for many years.
This tune is followed by “10 Pound Poms,” a lovely song with some fantastic key changes and guitar playing by Ken with a melodic and somewhat melancholy lyric about anticipation at meeting a new world (Australia) only to find a harsh world. This was the first song Ken previewed to those familiar with electronic media, and what was striking to me was not only the excellent guitar playing on which he excels, but the notably historical note of the song. History is a big thing to Ken Nicol. It permeates in lesser or greater degree nearly all the songs I have heard him perform since I met him in 2002.
“She’s Walking” follows, a fantastic bluesy, American-style song with a seductive introduction before bringing out a raucous bass and adolescent-tinged lyric about sexual attraction. Ken does some wonderful slide guitar on this song, and despite its racy tone, he keeps it remarkably chaste. The song is an interesting follow-up to the opening tune; having chastised men for their abuse of their wives, the question is now what a man might be allowed to do when faced with a sexual attraction.
Next is “A Waltz for Alice.” Written for Ken’s mother, with whom I believe he was very close, the tune is an instrumental played on guitar. The song is a lovely ballad, all acoustic, with some beautiful picking that shows off Ken’s skill as a balladeer.
“Demon of the Well” is already a Steeleye Span classic from the Bloody Men album. The song, I think, is a favorite of Ken’s, and it certainly gives a nod to his previous band mates. While not substantively changed, the song is crisper, a bit slower in tempo, and the sparseness in orchestration makes the song a bit more threatening in its story.
“Let The Wind Blow My Prayers” follows, the most optimistic song on the album, one that echoes modern concerns (the war in Syria?). I don’t presume to know Ken’s religious views, as I suspect they are complicated; his Glass Chronicles album was evidence of this, but the prayer inherent in the song is not to be ignored.
“Old School Days” boasts a very modern arrangement, with a slightly Scottish melody. Ken’s voice is driven through a filter, but he plays a very hard, driving guitar. One hears great cynicism in his tone about school. His experience is true for many, perhaps, but is also a very sad comment on the state of education.
“The Beautiful Truth” is another instrumental, again an acoustic ballad-style tune. One wonders if there might be a lyric put to this tune one day. There is excellent guitar picking as well as some drum work, performed by Paul Burgess. There are some bluesy changes, which pick up speed up before slowing down. A nice orchestral backing adds to the tune.
“The Shot that Killed Three” is something of an in-joke, the lyric being written by Phil Widdows, the narrator/disc jockey of the Folkcast podcast in the United Kingdom. The story itself is about young Patrick McCafferty, who allegedly shot three men in 1862. The song is very much in the folk tradition, and Ken’s playing on mandolin is the best part of the tune.
“The Complete Banker” is an unlisted tune, a bonus track, I suppose, though there is a reference to it in the lyric book that accompanies the compact disc. The picture in the lyric book is a scene out of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. The song itself echoes “That Could Have Been Me” from Thirteen Reasons. The lyric is quite a cynical remark on the banking and business markets, with the idea that banks are all for robbing people of their money, but the upbeat ukulele calls all this into question.
As a whole, the album is one of the finest Ken has done and shows nods to his past while forging into new territory. There is also a slightly cynical tone to some of the tunes, suggesting a somewhat darker side to his musical approaches of late. If there is any criticism that I might make, it is that that lyric book could list in more detail the credits of those who perform on each individual song. However, the album is very accessible, and it will be a welcome addition to any collection of Ken’s music. In this album, he continues to pursue his musical inclinations wherever they may lead him.
UK Folk Music Magazine. November 2012.
For those that thought Ken Nicol was just the (ex) guitarist with Steeleye Span, think again. On his latest solo recording Nicol’s writing skills both lyrically and instrumentally come into play on an album that amply displays his musical talent.
On the opening track “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done” he conveys the title pretty succinctly by starting with the man’s point of view (ever disparaging and condescending) before letting the woman (guest Becky Mills) put across her point in verses three and four.
This particular track sounds as if it could have been lifted straight from a Steeleye album (I’m thinking Storm Force Ten Brecht here) with its jaunty mandolin and crashing guitar chords and should be checked out by singers looking for a topical and amusing tale that is usually left to the likes of daytime TV’s Jeremy Kyle.
Ken has an enviable reputation for being a consummate acoustic guitarist and this can be heard on the tale of the “Ten Pound Poms” in its short but cleverly worded tale of whinging (and some not so whinging) ex-pats. This emotive and dextrous rippling finger-picked exercise should be required listening by anyone trying to master that particular guitar technique.
The words ‘traditional idiom’ regularly spring to mind but, ever the professional he manages to cross genres by including blues (“She’s Walking”) and Pogues/Lindisfarne style Northern charm in a tale “The Shot That Killed Three” that relates the true life and death story of Patrick McCafferty. With a veritable arsenal of weapons including resonator, bass and slide guitars, mandolin, keyboards and ukulele and with Paul Burgess on drums this really should prove a ‘folk’ crowd pleaser in every respect.