After making his substantial talent on melodeon felt while performing with the likes of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Dé Danann, and as an essential ingredient in Cara Dillon’s band; Luke Daniels‘ 2014 solo debut, What’s Here What’s Gone, was keenly anticipated as much for his solo debut as a songwriter, as an instrumentalist. That anticipation was well founded. As the Folk Radio UK review of the album noted, there was a lot to impress on a debut album that was as bold and explorative as it was rich and colourful. Not least was the wide range of instruments Luke played himself for the recording, in addition to the emergence of a talent remarkable for writing songs that reflect traditional repertoires with sincerity and authenticity. All this was becoming increasingly clear in Luke’s collaborative projects, harking as far back as Above The Bellow in 2002 and right up to 2012’s Sleeping Giants.
Luke’s pioneering approach next manifested itself in his 2016 album, as he created computer software that could help transcribe his music onto the steel disks of a 19th Century Polyphone. Revolve and Rotate was an enthralling combination of the aural tradition with the digital and mechanical ages.
As well as that irrepressible innovative spirit, the partner to Luke’s ability with traditional song is, of course, his capacity for developing equally authentic melodies, and it’s this particular talent that provides the groundwork for his latest solo album, Making Waves. On the album, Luke’s joined by a collection of first-class musicians for twelve instrumental gems. John Doyle and Innes White provide guitars, bouzouki and mandolin, flutes and whistle come courtesy of Mike McGoldrick and Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke, himself a master of innovation, joins on fiddle.
In addition to his studio guests Luke has also made use of what would be, if they weren’t so expertly corralled into one beautifully flowing sound, a bewildering array of samples and field recordings; sourced from BCC, RTE, Alan Lomax and hundreds of public domain samples.
The other voice on the album and the one that opens the proceedings is Luke’s lovingly restored Polyphone. The melody for Jolly Tinker emerges slowly from a blend of Polyphone, chants and beats. First strings, then whistles and finally the reeds of Luke’s accordion create a lively, inviting opening. Whistle, happy with the progress, allows itself some tasty harmonies, and the percussion is there the whole time, keeping perfect time. The accordion’s in charge, but all the others let it know it wouldn’t have such a gorgeous melody if it weren’t for them. And the melody really is gorgeous, a stunning start to the album that progresses almost seamlessly to The Larks, and its opening Puirt à beul sample. The sampled Gaelic vocal is layered over a backing with quiet, Moorish undertones that fade but never truly disappear. Accordion and whistle carry on with providing the drum and bass beats, while the rhythm guitar is often tempted away to its Iberian roots. The Larks is no gently ascending avian metaphor; it’s a dynamic wind that picks you up and carries you away on a fantastic journey.
Although there’s no mention in the credits for the perfectly executed rhythms, they’re an ever-present aspect of an album that rarely drops the pace. Jigs and Fixtures lays the samples aside, but the edgy sound remains, as does the inexhaustible rhythm of the perfect dance-floor pace. The same could be said of the McCrone Jigs, where John Doyle provides quiet strings that just can’t seem to resist joining the intoxicating dance.
Field recordings aren’t the only samples in Luke’s armoury, as thrashed out 8-bit tones provide a dead-on-target opening to Retro Reel. The heady mix of strings and reeds almost seem locked in a contest to see who can succeed in leading the melody furthest astray, oblivious to the fact that the samples are winning that particular contest. It’s another burst of boundless energy that almost lends itself to a resounding Yeuch! to close. But that would be silly, wouldn’t it? That playful approach is mirrored in the unsuppressed joy of Banjo Breakdown and its emphatic attention to exciting detail.
There are wider influences than the aural tradition at play, though. Bullying Well brings a guitar from the deep south and percussion that almost sounds breathless, as accordion and fiddle share the melody’s honours, and the guitar occasionally gets away with opening the door to the jazz club next door. Aberdeen Blues is uncharacteristically happy (for blues) as Luke’s accordion leads Michael McGoldrick‘s flute on a cheerful dance.
Although an almost constant background presence, Luke’s polyphone makes one of its more conspicuous contributions among the occasional shuffles of percussion and Innes White‘s rhythmic strings in Wester Kittochside, which approaches a waltz in places before evolving into an accordion-led dream sequence. This serves as confirmation, though, that a more gentle pace can be adopted, and Vinyl Vinnie opens in an even more mellow mood. The piece emerges, however into another delight that will keep you on your toes, whether you’re dancing or picking your way through the abstract strings, flute and samples. The album’s playful side comes to the fore as, just when the melody begins to settle into something akin to a standard approach, a wayward fiddle reminds everyone this is a Luke Daniels album, and that’s no way to behave.
For the closing two tracks, Luke’s collaborators take their leave of the studio, and The Wounded Huzzar takes the tempo down once more with a layered lament on accordion. This, as you’d expect, is no ordinary accordion solo, though. Textured with soft atmospheres, quietly shivering vibrato and a mysterious intensity; it ebbs and flows like an inconstant, inconsistent spirit. In Cumberland Reel, the album closes as it opened, with polyphone providing a curtain-opener to Luke’s accordion. The polyphone is far more carefully detailed, though, and the piece emerges as very much a duet between the two, with accordion following the lead provided by the programmed performer.
Rather modestly describing Making Waves as ‘an album of original tunes inspired by traditional music’, Luke Daniels leaves it to the listener to discover the album has far more to offer than a collection of fine melodies. Luke’s tunes find their place in the world by referencing their own lineage in the form of sound samples, which emerge through the lively, adventurous studio sessions sometimes as ghosts of the past, but more often as family traits, genetic fingerprints. Having emphatically made his mark as a singer songwriter on What’s Here What’s Gone, and combined that remarkable talent with the innovative approach to mechanical music last year in Revolve and Rotate; for 2017 Luke has immersed himself in the instrument for which he’s best known – the button accordion. Luke has emerged with his reputation as an instrumentalist, a composer, an innovator considerably enhanced, as Making Waves takes an important step in bridging the gap between traditional music and its contemporary descendants; it’s an outstanding album.
Luke Daniels’ Making Waves is Out Now via Gael Music