Whilst the emergence of Luke Daniels as a singer songwriter may have caught some flat footed, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a total surprise. He may well have staked a claim to fame as a melodeon player of considerable repute, with the likes of Ian Anderson, De Dannan, as part of the Riverdance band and as a mainstay in Cara Dillon’s combo, but along the way he has recorded several albums under his own name and in tandem with others. It all points towards a wellspring of creativity that you could argue was always heading towards What’s Here What’s Gone. While the clues are there, however, the really pleasant surprise is what a bold and accomplished album this is, great songs, a sumptuous sound, containing at its heart a burgeoning philosophy and credo, which adds a whole other level at which this record works.
Whilst clearly making the most of his new record and the belief that has gone into it, the biography on Luke’s site is fairly modest in its claims for his musical upbringing, suggesting simply, “Both Daniels’ parents were folk musicians and he started playing the bodhrán at seven or eight.” It then continues, quoting directly from Luke as he reveals, “Then I started on the melodeon when I was about nine or ten. I’ve picked up other instruments along the way, but I’m known firstly as a melodeon player.” True enough as it goes, but then What’s Here What’s Gone features Luke on an impressive array of those instruments he’s ‘picked up,’ piano, guitars and banjo and he is also credited with co-production and samples.
Of course should you want evidence of his mastery of that instrument it’s easy enough to find and in between gigs to promote the new record, you’ll doubtless find Luke on stage with Cara Dillon over the next month or so. There are also the albums, the most obvious of which for diatonic button fan is The Mighty Box from 2011. Over two CDs, the music delves into the Irish tradition, the session scene and blends a few of Luke’s originals into the mix. It’s quickly recorded with a small combo of Luke and Junior Davey, with contributions of Seamie O’Dowd and Dennis Cahill, over two days in Co Sligo with the emphasis on energy and feel put first, and corrals an impressive 71 tunes into 24 sets. Luke’s amusing description of it is, “The gospel accordion to Luke,” but it’s none the less a very serious bit of work.
Perhaps it’s a sign of a man who once he gets into a project really throws himself into the fray. But Luke also seems to be a restless creative spirit and energy could well be a watchword. More recently he’s worked with an astonishing collection of musicians in his adopted Glasgow home for Mother Glasgow, a homage to the continuing vitality of the city. But there’s a thread running through and as he says, “Over the course of 20 years I’ve run the gamut of folk music and witnessed the trajectory of this unique genre.” He covers more new ground continuing, “As part of the Commonwealth Games Culture 2014 festival I’ve been learning music for Aidan’s O’Rourke’s cutting edge Year X project whilst transcribing melodeon music for a separate project from early wax cylinder recordings by William Hannah. The language of music is alive within folk musicians as with no other genre and playing it that keeps me going, almost like a form of prayer.”
A move to Glasgow and a growing interest in the Scottish Enlightenment, allied to embracing the thinking of the new progressives, can’t be coincidental, although in deference to the great minds wrapped in that statement, it needs more empirical testing. At very least, an interview with Luke is planned, so it will be interesting to see where that takes us. It’s a fair money bet, however that his new commissioned work entitled Songs Of The Scottish Enlightenment, feeds into a credo that has a more personal expression through What’s Here What’s Gone. These are after all Luke’s own work, as he puts it building from the ground up, coming at the end of a good six years of constant writing amidst all of the other musical cut and thrust.
Two things, however, should be nipped in the bud. If you are thinking Jack of all trades, then that quickly evaporates as the whole CD, right down to the packaging is beautifully realised. Also if you’re fearing some high-minded concept, there is nothing preachy and it’s not polemic. There is however a depth of thought and language that finds a match with the rich tenor of his voice. Sure, it’s poetic and complex, probably standing years of patient scrutiny, but above all the record aims for a positive catch all. The threads of folk music’s commonality, the things that we share and can share in and spirituality in the sense of the human spirit make up the fabric of these songs. That fabric is most attractive too, with any intellectual weight married to a silken melodic weave, with the added sequined sparkle of some great playing.
Luke is certainly well supported by Matheu Watson (guitars), C.J.Hillman (pedal and lap steel, dobro), Rick Standley (bass), James Macintosh (drums) and Signy Jacobsdottir (Precussion). Further embellishments are provided by the Fench horn of Ken Blackwood and strings of Patsy Reid, while Madaleine Pritchard add their voices, although there is also a four part vocal choir on the final track. The co-production is by former Delgadoes drummer Paul Savage and I guess it’s Chemikal Underground’s Chem19 studio that is the venue for the sessions.
The lush instrumentation is in full effect on the opening track, In Our Hearts, which start in a slow and brooding fashion, picking up pace as the rhythms criss-cross through the verses in a somewhat disorienting way. It’s taken several listens and I still can’t quite figure what is discomfiting, although the melody is sweet enough and easy to follow, a beat is slipped. Lyrically too there’s a sense of disquiet as Luke sings, “Between light and a shadow we all see illusions and believe, that a man can be free in a dream he’s unable to leave.” Perhaps it’s the death of idealism or ambition that has become the constraint, but Luke is still seeing an empowering radiance and also carrying an ember, which by implication we should all be trying to locate. Whether this is the half of it, is another guess, but it is yours to find out and the seeds of some big questions are sown.
If the opener is rhythmically slippery, then Don’t Be Afraid quickly slips into a groove, that fits somewhere in between JJ Cale and Mark Lanegan. The words are repeated like a mantra as Luke stares down those who “…dominate and rule us, using all your tricks to fool us.” the mention of a thorny crown may suggest at least one of his targets, but it feels more general than that. The extra voices add to the murmuring defiance and Luke is not alone.
If the first two tracks suggest struggle, albeit with a willingness to stand up to the fight, much of the album deals in various shades of love. There lies a positivity that has been suggested, the bonds between us and the things that we share, even if we don’t always make the most of those blessings. That French horn adds to the riches at the start of the truly lovely What She Means, another track that has a rhythmic complexity, but this time with an easy cascading piano providing the backdrop to a beautiful melody. Once more the extra voices are key, although this time around adding a gentle, graceful lift. The flipside is the slightly more desperate For Your Love, with a bluesy lilt, which has an air of some of Dylan’s more recent work.
It’s not simply romance that Luke is depicting and A River Runs, with its steel guitar, drum shuffle, countryish feel and rag tag gospel choir pushing the song towards a dramatic soaring climax, is a playful and affectionate portrait of a fellow musician who has captured Luke’s heart. While the little details make it sound personal, with a hint of sadness too, this is more sister, brother than lover. Know You More sounds a bit like the later gentler Talking Heads, with its fluid, almost hi-life guitar line and another great tune. It’s dappled with little pings and patters of percussion and wrestles with the infinite and the infinitesimal, our potential and our in-prick of time. The ache of love is there in the repeated, “I want to see you, I want to see you more.”
The title track starts with the dramatic declaration, “I hate myself because of you my love.” Love’s course does not always run true and when its tune changes bitterness and regret are easy friends to find. It set’s off like a country blues, slow and moody above a bubbling banjo backdrop, but again the rhythmic bed seems to be in flux and the instruments, notable strings, cut across the tune as the emotions boil. All My Dreams is also storm tossed, with what seems like a dialogue about faith, hope, and letting go, albeit set to a deceptively enveloping tune, propelled by a gentle acoustic guitar in classic singer songwriter mode.
Two tracks are directly questioning. Asking Why, which starts with a clever little sample of two children fighting over sweets, hangs on to the word, “Why?” The message is still one of hope, that the more people who ask, the more the momentum will gather to change things. How Will I Know is more oblique, but the steady strum has an epic feel to it, while the lines, “When your head beats harder than your heart, and you can’t keep up, keep along,” are further suggestions of the ties that bind us.
Way Back Home and the closing Healing Stream also take different perspectives on a common theme. The former deals with the darker side of our inevitable mortality, and picks up with a gospel blues call and response. The latter offers the hope of peace, again with the French horn and that aforementioned four piece choir adding to the hymnal quality to guide us down the river as we must go.
This is a bold move for Luke and an equally dauntless record, prepared to play with form, rhythm and melody, slipping genres and aggrandising but not simply grandstanding. It invites us to share a journey of discovery, while suggesting that we think for ourselves and even find our own course. Posing some fundamental questions about what really matters to us, it also asks us to voice those questions of ourselves in turn. Above all it asks us to listen. Music after all can unite us, transcending mere words, melding our hopes and fears into the tapestry of songs. And the more you listen to What’s Here What’s Gone, the more you will know there is to know – now that’s enlightenment.
Review by: Simon Holland
What’s Here What’s Gone is out now via Gael Music
02 – The Bell in Bath
03 – Kitchen Garden Café – Birmingham
12 – The Stables – Milton Keynes
13 – The Hop – Wakefield
15 – Castle Hotel – Manchester
16 – Shipley Arts Gallery – Gateshead
05 – Prema Arts Centre – Gloucester
06 – Arttrix – Bromsgrove
07 – The Centre Fusion Art – Oswestry
08 – Halsway Manor – Somerset
09 – Phoenix – Exeter
10 – The Poly Falmouth
11 – The Acorn – Penzance
12 – Pound Arts – Corsham
For ticket links and full details visit www.lukedanielsmusic.com