Jan 08, 2012
Pennyblack Music (UK)
Canadian Farrell Spence caused quite a stir with her debut album, ‘A Town Called Hell’, a few years ago. There were comparisons to Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris which were not only expected but accurate for the most part, but it was obvious that Farrell also had a voice of her own and that one day those associations would cease as more people heard her music.
While there are still traces of early Emmylou spread through ‘Song for the Sea’, this is the album where Farrell really does display what a stunning vocalist she is and that she really is in a class of her own. Farrell’s vocals, often double-tracked, make you stop whatever you are doing to take in that beautiful sound that is floating out of the speakers. As if that was not enough, the sparse arrangements and instrumentation of the songs all add to the atmosphere created to make ‘Song for the Sea’ an even stronger collection of songs than ‘A Town Called Hell’.
Largely written during Farrell’s time in Ireland the album was actually recorded in a hotel room in Rome, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a collection of lo-fi and badly recorded songs. The absence of drums is not something that the listener immediately notices and, while retaining the sparse, organic sound of her debut album for this latest collection, it is a remarkably full sound that eventually emerges. Of course when the main instrument is Farrell’s voice, double-tracked or not, full of warmth and emotion, one can’t helped but be drawn into these songs.
Of the nine songs (the opening ‘Intro’ is just that, a distant fog horn and waves lapping) five are Farrell Spence originals, and it is telling that even though one of the covers here is Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast in Me’ it is those originals that impress the most.
The two traditional songs, ‘I Never Will Marry’ and ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, have, let’s face it, been covered so many times by so many artists that I, for one, wasn’t particularly bothered if I had never heard another version of either song for as long as I live. So it is with more than a little surprise that Farrell actually manages to add something new to ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ after all these years and all those versions. It is not only Farrell’s vocals which add to the eerie atmosphere created here. The guitar work courtesy of Francesco Forni (who adds so much to the textures and images created on ‘Song for the Sea’), is simply stunning and makes this age-old song interesting once more.
Farrell’s version of ‘I Never Will Marry’ is also worthy of a special mention. After reigniting interest in ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, I felt it unlikely that Farrell could add anything new to another traditional tune. While it’s extremely unlikely that Farrell is the only artist to ever approach the song a cappella, in doing so she showcases once again what an exceptional singer she is. Farrell’s performance here is breathtaking. That she has taken two traditional songs and made them not just essential listening but interesting once more just reinforces the fact that here is not just a singer of exceptional talent, but an artist who can inject her own identity into almost any song.
In keeping with ‘A Town Called Hell’ Farrell’s mother, Barbara Spence, wrote one of the songs on this latest collection. ‘Good Morning Bird’ lends a more laid-back feel to the album than those composed by Farrell. It is the perfect lazy Sunday morning song we would all like to slowly rise to.
But for all that it’s those five originals that are worth the price of the album alone. The title song is a stark yet beautiful piece of music which flows effortlessly, and, like all of Farrell’s work, here floats on a melody that is inviting and instantly likeable.
But just now it’s ‘Tian Put the Tay On’ and ‘You Can Sleep on My Floor’ which are fighting it out to be played over and over. At a push, due to opening lines and Farrell’s emotive vocals, it is the latter that’s winning but it’s likely to change again soon. It can’t be stressed enough just how talented Farrell is vocally. She really does deserve to be heard.
So despite all the praise lavished on ‘A Town Called Hell’, Farrell Spence has produced, in a hotel room in Rome, a more than worthy follow-up that, truthfully, is even better than her debut.
Nov 22, 2011
Follow ups to well received debuts are always a testing time for artists, but we reviewers often approach them with trepidation too, hoping they live up to the praise initially bestowed but nervous that the promise might have been short-lived and you find yourself having to confess disappointment.
Three years ago, I was rather taken by the now Vancouver-based Canadian’s debut album, A Town Called Hell. And I’m pleased to be able to say her sophomore release doesn’t let either of us down. The core recordings were done on a portable studio in a hotel room in Rome by just herself and guitarist Francesco Forni, fleshing things out in Vancouver with piano, ukulele, bass and clavinet but still retaining the sparse, organic quality.
Reviewing her debut, I variously likened her voice to Emmylou, Gillian Welch and Buffy Sainte Marie, but this time round, while often double-tracked, it’s only the Harris hints that are in evidence, Spence’s slightly breathy, occasionally tremulous tones now very much her own.
As before, she includes one of her mother Barbara’s songs, the jazzily languorous, dreamy – and if I’m being honest slightly twee – Good Morning Bird with Simon Kendall on piano and tasteful acoustic guitar break from Johannes Grames. Two of the other non-originals are her arrangements of traditional tunes, a brooding Wayfaring Stranger (the most Emmylou like of all) with Forni weaving dark electric and acoustic guitar patterns, and an aching a capella lament reading of I Never Will Marry with Spence multi-tracking the chorus.
The fourth cover is Nick Lowe’s The Beast In Me which, while not quite as soul-scouring as Johnny Cash’s version, is impressive nonetheless. The remaining five numbers are self-penned, all, to some extent, revolving round a melancholic theme of life in transit or transition. The title track opener’s the prize bloom of the collection, its slow dancing front porch melody swaying along to piano backing with accordion and guitar accompaniment as she sings about sailors and sirens, ramblers and dreamers, all looking for something but blind to what’s in front of them.
The simple pleasure of dropping by on a friend and sharing concerns is at the heart of the fingerpicked Tian Put The Tay On with its evocative line ‘we’ve been spending too much time watching pantomimes we didn’t buy a ticket for’ and there’s an equal feeling of warmth and yearning to end of the party You Can Sleep On My Floor where she recalls the loneliness of vintage Janis Ian while beautiful lullaby Safe And Warm uses images of turbulent weather to acknowledge the inevitability of mortality but steadfastly adds ‘in the meantime we’ll weather the storm’.
Going Down The Riverside closes the album on a different musical note with the jaunty wash my blues away old school Oh Brother era folk swing, complete with whistling solo, spoons and, in the album’s only nod to percussion, a final crash of cymbals. It’s the sort of upbeat confidence that assures you that album number three is nothing to worry about at all.
Oct 31, 2011
Whisperin’ and Hollerin’ (Ireland)
Vancouver singer/ songwriter FARRELL SPENCE’S debut LP ‘A Town Called Hell’ was a beguiling affair. Full of sparse, haunting melancholia and occasionally redolent of her Canadian compatriots The Cowboy Junkies, its’ most memorable songs (‘A Murder of Crows’, the nomadic title track) were often steeped in restlessness and a yearning to jump on a boxcar and see where her muse took her.
In the aftermath of the album’s release, Farrell’s muse took her to Europe or, more specifically, Ireland and Italy. Good for this writer on the first count as he got to see her play on his home patch of West Cork and good for the artist on the second as Italy provided the backdrop for recording the songs on this long-awaited sophomore LP ‘Song for the Sea.’
When I tell you the songs peopling this album were mostly recorded in a hotel room in Rome, you might think of a tense, Robert Johnson-style scenario, with the artist facing the wall and singing songs of impending doom while unable to face the engineer. However, the graceful ‘Song for the Sea’ had anything but such a nightmarish birth. Recorded primarily on a portable recording console and built up around Spence and collaborator Francesco Forni’s inter-weaving acoustic guitars and Spence’s close-miked vocals, it’s a record full of warmth, grace and intimacy.
While ‘Song for the Sea’ may have been recorded in Rome, Farrell’s Irish sojourn also heavily informs some of the album’s most notable outings. Following on from the scene setting ‘Intro’ with its’ rippling waves and distant foghorn, the delicate title track follows on and suggests her wanderlust (“this is a song for the rambler who chases the sun…a song for the dreamer who shoots at the moon”) remains an intrinsic part of her DNA. ‘Tian Put the Tay On’ and ‘You Can Sleep on My Floor’ I remember from her live set and they’re both infused with warmth, reflection and just a little temptation. The brittle finger-picking on the former is especially attractive, while ‘You Can Sleep…’ has some lovely sonic touches (pedal steel, trembling piano) and even a whistling solo.
As with ‘A Town Called Hell’, the originals are interspersed with some choice covers. Her debut took in Mary Gauthier and Bukka White, but ‘Song for the Sea’ finds Farrell bringing an intriguing sexual role reversal to Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast In Me’ and a nonchalant stroll through a tune called ‘Good Morning Bird’, originally penned and recorded by Farrell’s mom, Barbara Spence, herself a renowned Canadian folk singer.
Good though these are, they’re arguably bettered by Farrell’s version of the old trad.arr tune ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ which she casts in a suitably mournful light with Simon Kendall’s droning accordion providing an eerie, persistent threat. As the album heads for the finish line, she also treats us to a striking, acapella reading of ‘I Will Never Marry’ (which reminds me of Sandy Denny’s ‘Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’) and finishes up with – what else – a ukelele-driven country-blues called ‘Going Down the Riverside’. It’s an absolute charmer and just possibly this writer’s favourite track here.
So, while I’ve no doubt that ‘Song for the Sea’ took a whole lotta blood, sweat and toil to write and piece together, it swings by in a life-affirming breeze. It is an absolute credit to its’ author’s restless heart, so we can only hope she continues to roam. Or head back to Rome, if it brings us another album this glorious.
Oct 31, 2011
Lonesome Highway (Ireland)
This is the singer/songwriter’s second outing for her delicately crafted songs. The album was partly recorded in a hotel room, on a portable studio, in Rome. This was to avoid over-thinking and over producing the songs. She wanted them to develop in an organic style that was based around her and her musical foil guitarist Francesco Forni. Three additional musicians where later added to bring keyboards, guitar and ukelele to blend with the overall sound. It is otherwise a very sparse sound built around the bottom line of voice and guitar.
The theme, as evidenced by the title, though tangential, is the tides of life. Songs include effective readings of the traditional Wayfaring Stranger and I Never Will Marry, the latter delivered unaccompanied but with a multi-tracked vocal chorus. There’s an impressive take on Nick Lowe’s The Beast In Me which maintains the same sense of inner pain that Johnny Cash’s version had though, understandably, at the other end of the sonic scale than Cash, but still capturing the song’s essence. The remainder of the songs other than Good Morning Bird (written by Barbara Spence) are from Farrell and have an intimacy and life outlook that fits with Spence’s view of her life and times.
The album closes with Going Down The Riverside where she goes to wash her blues away and she adds a percussion element on spoons. Spence offers a serious take on not taking yourself too seriously and while she won’t be troubling the X Factor generation is making music that those who came across her A Town Called Hell debut will be glad to be re-acquainted with her muse and music.
Sep 13, 2011
XTM.it (Roma, Italia)
Seconda prova in studio per Farrell Spence, raffinata cantautrice canadese che ritorna sulle scene musicali a quattro anni di distanza dall’ottimo esordio discografico avvenuto con A Town Called Hell.
Song For The Sea, titolo che riprende quello della traccia d’apertura, è una collezione di nove splendidi episodi che risentono in maniera tangibile delle sonorità country-folk tipiche delle zone in cui la giovane musicista è cresciuta. Tra questi vi sono due rivisitazioni di altrettanti brani tradizionali ovvero: Wayfaring Stranger (da brividi) e I Never Will Marry, eseguita impeccabilmente a cappella. Da segnalare anche la cover di The Beast In Me, brano firmato da Nick Lowe (portato poi al successo anche da Johnny Cash che nel 1994 lo incluse nel suo LP American Recordings), e, infine, quella di Good Morning Bird. Quest’ultima, una splendida ballad capace di rapire – come del resto tutte le altre – al primo ascolto, è una canzone incisa nel 1968 dalla madre Barbara, songwriter del Manitoba e molto popolare in Canada. Il disco, principalmente scritto e concepito durante un lungo soggiorno in Irlanda, è stato poi registrato tra Roma e Vancouver. Nella metropoli nordamericana le incisioni sono avvenute presso l’Hammond Ave e gli Ashnola Studios; nella Capitale, invece, le recording sessions sono state effettuate presso la stanza 501 dell’Hotel Ripa di Trastevere, che per quattro giorni ha ospitato Farrell e la sua band. A prendervi parte c’era anche il talentuoso chitarrista – nonché elegante cantautore – Francesco Forni. E’ stato lui a curare la maggior parte delle chitarre acustiche e la totalità di quelle elettriche, contribuendo ad accentuare l’atmosfera avvolgente delle canzoni grazie al calore del suo splendido tocco. Il risultato è quello di un suono naturale, morbido ed equilibrato che fa di Song For The Sea un lavoro prezioso, imperdibile per tutti coloro che non possono fare a meno di certe sfaccettature.
Un album essenziale e delicato, ma non per questo ridotto all’osso. Questo perché a dare colore ci sono anche fisarmoniche, clavinet e pianoforti. Il tutto dosato alla perfezione in modo da mantenere costante l’attitudine minimalista degli arrangiamenti. Non in ultimo, sempre a proposito di strumenti, l’ukulele, magistralmente suonato dal musicista Ewan Clark in Going Down The Riverside, brano che va a chiudere questa affascinante raccolta d’inediti in cui perdersi, a quanto pare, è facile.
Mar 26, 2009
Suite 101 (Ireland)
Farrell Spence: Live at De Barra’s 26 March 2009
Country-tinged Canadian Troubadour Plays Memorable Irish Gigs
Located in the heart of West Cork, De Barra’s pub (www.debarra.ie) is an important stopping off point on the Irish small venue circuit. Late Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding lived in the vicinity and played shows to delighted audiences during the ’80s and ’90s.
The homely atmosphere remains to this day, with the venue keen to nurture singer/ songwriters at a grass roots level. The splendid Sitting Room sessions take place every Wednesday night and the usual audio paraphernalia such as mike stands, amps and monitors share the low stage with a book case, standard lamps and a comfy two-seater settee.
DeBarra’s Sitting Room Sessions Nurture Great New Talent.
Wembley Stadium it ain’t, but that’s the point. It’s a great little venue, offering crystal clear sound and easy interaction between band and audience. It’s an ideal setting for a performer like Farrell Spence. Her folk and country-influenced confessionals have a sparse, ghostly grace which is merely accentuated by the intimacy of the room.
Since arriving from Vancouver, Spence has hooked up with two talented local musicians. Lead guitarist Eoin O’Regan’s Gibson Les Paul adds subtle, fluid colour to Farrell’s sparse acoustic guitar. David Murphy’s spectral pedal steel, meanwhile, is truly evocative, bringing the lonesome trains and remote plains of Spence’s songs vividly to life.
Farrell Spence’s A Town Called Hell Debut Album is an Undiscovered Gem.
Two songs from A Town Called Hell (www.farrellspence.com) lead off. Tell It To Someone Else is a shivering song of love and betrayal. I Drink, meanwhile, sounds stately enough on the surface, but its’ subject matter (domestic violence) lends it a much darker hue.
Spence sings with an eerie dignity reminiscent of both The Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins and Emmy Lou Harris, yet she never sounds derivative. She even turns in a poised cover of Harris’s Evangeline complete with spot-on three-way harmonies which is more than capable of standing on its’ own two feet.
Covers of Wayfaring Stranger and Emmy Lou Harris’ Evangeline.
The relaxed setting and attentive audience take the less-familiar songs to their hearts too. Finely-crafted new tunes like Song To The Sea and You Can Sleep On My Floor happily rub shoulders with the Town Called Hell selections and well-placed traditional songs like Wayfaring Stranger. All sound otherworldly and special and are received warmly.
Farrell Spence’s profile is still relatively small in Europe, but her Irish sojourn is winning her long-term fans. She has a haunting quality all her own which hints at longevity and suggests shows of this nature will become a thing of the past as her popularity grows. Discover her before she moves to the next level.
Dec 15, 2008
Lonesome Highway (Ireland)
Recorded, the sleeve tells us, in Spence’s apartment in East Vancouver this Canadian singer/songwriter has an experimental edge but one that has a grounded roots quality too.
The songs are, in the main, written by Spence but she also includes a couple of covers most notably, and the one most listeners may be more familiar with is Mary Gauthier’s I Drink which is given a sparse rendering, with some atmospheric electric slide guitar, but captures the song’s resigned acceptance. Though Spence’s voice is quite different to Gauthier’s, it has a quality that makes it work for Spence also.
The second cover is Bukka White’s High Fever Blues, a song she makes very much her own in the overall sparse and atmospheric settings. The music is full of nuances. Subtle sounds feature between tracks, ambient scene settings that enhance the unquiet mood that prevails through this largely understated set of songs. Spence has a voice well suited to this and the songs set the tone, they are long pieces, rarely less than four minutes and, in a couple of occasions, over six. Therefore you will either fall into Spence’s world and be entranced or you will dismiss it as unfocused.
It has to be said that it is not the most upbeat record that you’ll hear and the title should give you some indication of that, but for all that it is compelling and captures a quality that makes this album work within the context that it is delivered. That it was produced and mixed by Spence means that this album sounds exactly as she intended it to, which is something I would applaud and the end result is special enough to warrant wider attention.
The closing song Here’s To You And Me, features vocal accompaniment with Rob Bracken, who offers a perfect counterpoint to Spence, and closes the album on a more upbeat if still regretful note. It’s that kind of album, one to check out.
Oct 28, 2008
mARTeliveItalia (Roma, Italia)
Farrell Spence ritorna in Italia
MUSICA- Incontro di voci, stili e culture quello che lo scorso mercoledì si è tenuto a Roma al Circolo Sociale Il Cantiere , nel cuore di Trastevere. Lo spettacolo, organizzato dall’Associazione Culturale I Controversi , ha proposto una scaletta fitta di esibizioni: ben sette gli artisti, nostrani e non, che si sono susseguiti in una serata ricca di emozioni. Guest star dell’evento la cantautrice canadese Farrell Spence , per la seconda volta in Italia.
Capelli biondi, vestito verde prateria, stivali marroni in tinta con la chitarra, l’artista d’oltreoceano ha fatto rivivere con la sua espressività e la sua voce quell’atmosfera tipica della miglior tradizione country americana. Il suo stile, imbevuto anche di folk e bluegrass, richiama le sconfinate pianure canadesi e si riallaccia al sound tipico di Neil Young, The Cowboy Junkies, Emmy-Lou Harris e Ricky Lee Jones.
Ad accompagnarla la violinista Linda Bull di origine australiana che ha dato un tocco singolare al botta e risposta tra voce e violino.
La folk singer canadese, attualmente residente in Irlanda, ha proposto alcuni brani tratti dal suo disco d’esordio A town called Hell inciso lo scorso anno insieme alla band The Widwmakers .
Ogni brano proposto portava con sé una piccola storia autobiografica che la cantautrice ha voluto illustrare rendendo ancora più confidenziale un ambiente già di per sé carico di empatia. Merito anche degli altri artisti che con le loro esibizioni hanno subito creato la complicità pubblico-musicisti che è stato poi filo conduttore di tutta la serata.
A fare gli onori di casa il trio Le romane che ha dato il benvenuto alla Spence attingendo dal repertorio tipico della canzone romana: la profonda e accattivante voce di Raffaella Misiti accompagnata da Anna Baldi alla chitarra e Ludovica Valori alla fisarmonica, si è confrontata con la lunga tradizione delle intramontabili serenate romane, piccoli bijou dall’immensurabile valore artistico.
Dalla musica trasteverina si è poi passati a quella della feconda Puglia con la coinvolgente performance del cantautore Luca De Nuzzo che, accompagnato da Federico Fernandino , ha regalato alla platea un profondo momento di incontro tra culture diverse, ma entrambe ricche di tradizione.
E sempre sotto il segno del folclore si è svolta l’esibizione della cantautrice francese Sylvie Genovese che si è cimentata nell’esecuzione di un’originalissima tarantella. Un vero e proprio virtuosismo musicale intriso di magia: « Nel medioevo la tarantella veniva utilizzata per le sue proprietà soprannaturali – ha detto la stessa chanteuse – e sono convinta che ancora oggi la musica, grazie al suo potere miracoloso, possa guarirci dal mal de vivre ».
A seguire la voce profonda e seducente di Awa Ly che, nata e cresciuta in Francia, ha deciso di trasferirsi in Italia dove da anni riscuote grande successo cantando nei locali più famosi della Capitale.
Infine due componenti del Collettivo Angelo Mai , entrambi autori di colonne sonore per il teatro: Massimo Gian Grande , al suo debutto discografico con l’album Apnea e Francesco Forni attualmente in tournée con Gomorra . E proprio Forni ha accompagnato con la sua chitarra l’esibizione di Farrell Spence nella sua seconda tappa romana: sabato 11 ottobre al Punto G di Pigneto, prima che la vocalist, pronta a riprendere il tour in Irlanda, lasciasse il nostro Paese con la promessa di tornarvi presto.
Oct 23, 2008
Whisperin’ and Hollerin’
LIVE SHOW REVIEW (Ireland)
First established in the late Victorian era, Crane Lane is surely Cork’s loveliest venue in contemporary times. It proudly displays fixtures and fittings from the 1930s and ’40s and – as their website says – there ain’t no tacky mirror balls to be found within its’ comfortable, relaxed surroundings.
What Crane Lane does offer, though, is a fine, expansive main room for its’ performances and an across-the-board diary of events that does it proud in these pay-to-play times. Many of its’ shows are free entrance affairs and even when they do charge admission, the fees are impressively reasonable when stacked up against most of the competition.
So it’s the perfect place to become acquainted with FARRELL SPENCE’S emotionally-charged music in a live setting. A Winnipeg native, but until recent times a Vancouver-based performer, she’s currently adopted Cork as her home base and is making regular forays into the city and its’ satellite venues to spread the gospel about her excellent debut album ‘A Town Called Hell’.
Tonight’s a little bit special, too, because Farrell’s augmented by several special guests, including her Canadian friends Donna Partridge (vocals) and fiddler Linda Bull, along with talented Corkonians Eoin O’Regan (guitar) and pedal steel meister David, whose surname I shamefully miss.
Linda, Donna and Farrell are among the friendliest folk you’re ever liable to meet and before the show, Linda reveals that another highly-recommended, W&H-endorsed musician(Kevin House) is one of her neighbours back home. Wow, it sure is a small world these days.
A similar intimacy prevails when they take the stage together. Yes, Farrell’s own past is colourful enough to have bequeathed her material aplenty, but her ghostly, Americana-tinged music has a resonance and depth all its’ own which transfers beautifully to the live arena.
It’s reflective, introverted music with the many highlights seeping out furtively and creeping up on you rather than grabbing you by the scruff of the neck. ‘A Town Called Hell’ itself finds Farrell singing of “heading down to the water, take a walk on the tracks/ jump on a boxcar and never come back”, but there’s a tangibly homesick longing in there too, regardless of the restlessness of the lyric and is particularly haunting, rippling and resplendent courtesy of the added ache of David’s evocative pedal steel tonight.
A string of hard-bitten, experience-soused songs linger long after they’ve wound down. In feel at least, the chiming sparseness of ‘Boys Like You & Girls Like Me’ still recalls the Red House Painters for this reviewer, and Farrell chokes back the lyric (“you think your love is gonna change me, but it’s gonna make me break your heart”) from the point of view of someone whose heart hasn’t stopped aching for a long, long time. The way it segues so magnificently into a fiddle-led, bluegrass-inspired snatch of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ at the end is both memorable and wonderfully ironic.
Spence is capable of re-inventing songs in her own sorrowful and spirited image too. Mary Gauthier is a hard act to follow at the best of times, yet Farrell’s version of her ‘I Drink’ – with its’ theme of TV dinners, domestic violence and alcoholic defeat – is hugely successful on its’ own terms, especially with the added impetus of David’s pedal steel sighing evocatively over the top of it. It’s even more effective when followed by a charged version of ‘Losing You Again’ where Farrell and Donna hit the yearning harmonies to perfection and Linda’s descriptive violin adroitly colours in the spaces.
But really it’s all great. Indeed, while Farrell Spence’s Myspace page may introduce her music as being capable of “making grown men weep in their beer since 2005”, her sparse, melancholic muse is a dead cert seduction for anyone who’s ever fallen in love with someone they probably shouldn’t have, regardless of time, place or sex.
Oct 14, 2008
Maverick Magazine (UK)
Life experienced tales of loss and heartache…
A TOWN CALLED HELL is the debut album from Canadian singer-songwriter Farrell Spence. it is an autobiographical collection of Americana folk ballads which draw a range of experiences from Spence’s life. It should be pointed out that the album is not for those looking for a lively and uplifting listen. If tales of tragedy, heartache and lost loves is more up your street then Spence’s album is definitely worth a listen. Throughout each song you can hear Farrell’s pain and sorrow as she opens up her heart to the listener by delving into past memories. Spence has a very soft and mournful voice which at times creates a haunting sensation that lingers until the very end. Notable tracks on the album include Killing Time, Losing You Again, which Spence write with her mother and Boys Like You and Girls Like Me, which exhibits a more playful side to Farrell’s lyrics. Here’s To You and Me is a poignant duet with Rob Bracken of Vancouver’s Brickhouse, whilst Spence also offers her interpretation of 2005 Americana Award winner Mary Gauthier’s I Drink which has been beautifully executed.
Nowadays it is common for songs to be over produced, so it is comforting to hear the simplicity that can be found in Farrell’s honest and exposed vocals and lyrics as well as guitar playing, yet still get a very confident delivery of an album.
Sept 9, 2008
Whisperin’ and Hollerin’ (Ireland)
Songs of sadness and experience, of course, can rarely be beaten if they are done well, and believe me, Farrell Spence is very much at home in this enigmatic, melancholy-soused landscape. Yes, both her emotive delivery and the haunting sparseness of most of the songs will inevitably recall her Canadian countryfolk such as The Cowboy Junkies, but Farrell is very much her own woman and these songs resonate beautifully within their own time and space.
With its’ lyrical imagery of “jumping on a boxcar and never looking back”, the album’s title song leads off, opening and closing with the sound of a lonesome train. It’s a classic drifter’s anthem of being stuck in a no-horse town and regretting the chances you’ve missed and therefore wholly convincing from the off. The sparseness and space in the arrangement is immediately apparent and while a band do make their ghostly presence felt in a few strategic places, it’s always Spence’s keening guitar and smokily effective vocals that take centre stage and effortlessly cast their spells.
A slew of hard-bitten delights follow in the title track’s wake. Songs like ‘Tell It To Someone Else’ and ‘A Murder Of Crows’ seem bleak on the surface, but there’s always a little warmth to be found, whether it’s in the subtlety of the cello that features in the end coda of the former or the sultry horn that rides shotgun on the high lonesome latter. Country and folk-blues are broadly the bedrock, but the brooding presence of songs such as ‘Killing Time’ and ‘Boys Like You & Girls Like Me’ (which is thrown into sharp relief by the ironic blast of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ it segues into) have as much in common with the wracked likes of the Red House Painters as more traditional touchstones as Emmy Lou Harris and are all the better for it.
Besides, Spence clearly has an ear for covers to accompany her original songs. Her re-invention of Mary Gauthier’s already heartbroken ‘I Drink’ (“fish swim, birds fly/ Daddies yell, Mommas cry”) takes the song to another level entirely, while her opiated, dreamlike and stricken version of Bukka White’s ‘High Fever Blues’ is one of the major highlights of the album’s second half. Indeed it’s a testament to Farrell’s songwriting skills that she can follow it up and bring the album to a climax with ‘Here’s To You & Me’: an enormously poignant due with a gravelly tearful Rob Bracken from Vancouver band Brickhouse. It’s one of those songs that’s riven by painful emotion yet somehow sounds life-affirming at the same time and is just about the perfect way for this album stuffed with spectral beauty to wind down.
‘A Town Called Hell’, then, may well be off the tourist map and anything but the kind of place the average tourist may want to hang around. The discerning, though, could easily discover an apparently innocent first stay in the local seedy motel becoming an important annual event.
July 10, 2008
Born in Winnipeg and currently living in Ireland, Spence began singing at an early age but after studying theatre she moved to Vancouver and took up acting. Eight years later, in 2003, she’d become disillusioned and, encouraged by Chris Isaak’s band after regularly working on his TV show, decided to return to her first love. Acting’s loss is music’s gain.
With a colourful background that includes a folk singer mother, a grifter father, fiddler grandfather, she’s not short of inspiration for her downbeat autobiographical folksy songs for the lost and the lonely and their tales of lovers, drunks, rogues and losers.
The sound of a lonesome train whistle that precedes Town Called Hell sets the melancholic tone that seeps through her reflections on the past, her voice variously summoning thoughts of Gillian Welch, the early Emmylou and Buffy Sainte Marie. There’s two covers here, chirping crickets framing a tremendous world-wearied old school country version of Mary Gauthier’s I Drink, and Bukka White’s High Fever Blues stripped down to the grain of a front porch rocking chair.
Her own material, though, is a match for anyone’s. The title track with its dusty harmonica is a marvellous invitation to defy a dead end existence with a transistor radio, a bottle of wine, and a riverbank park bench while Those Were The Days is a reverie of childhood, Boys Like You And Girls Like Me a bittersweet brush off of a guy who’s just not bad boy enough for a girl who never thinks she’s good enough to be loved. Its instrumental fiddle and harmonica playout of You Are My Sunshine is steeped in a heartbreaking irony.
Elsewhere, you’ll be seduced by the chill in the late summer air moods of A Murder Of Crows with its distant trumpet ache and the thunderstorm introed, moss hung Losing You Again, co-written with mother Barbara. But she perhaps saves the best to last, Here’s To You And Me a plaintive duet with Rob Bracken, a pledge of apology and devotion spoken by cheating lovers who know the words only hold true until they’re found out again. Discover her today, tell someone else about her tomorrow.
June 2, 2008
The Line of the Best Fit (UK)
“Farrell Spence delivers an album of sweet backwoods ballads charting the claustrophobic relationships and stunted dreams of isolated prairie town life: “Nothing ever happens in a town called hell”. She’s no Judith Chalmers that’s for sure.”
Canadian Farrell Spence previously had a career as an actress, comedienne and writer (she has an entertaining blog too) before returning to her first love after appearing regularly on the Chris Isaak Show and receiving encouragement from him and his band. This debut album emerged from her home recording studio a year ago. Its UK release now comes a few months before a follow up should be available. She may be based in cosmopolitan Vancouver now, but it is the country sound of middle Canada where she spent her youth that inhabits this CD. A freight train whistle and rail clatter are its very first sounds, and it’s the claustrophobic relationships and stunted dreams of isolated prairie town life that fuel many of the songs – “Nothing ever happens in a town called hell” and “These things were never meant to be / For boys like you and girls like me” indeed.
It has a dusty wind blown lonesome flavour with clear and crisp playing of acoustic and steel guitar and occasional fiddle; sweet sounding but at the same time an indie album that steers clear of schmaltz and over production. Spence learnt to record and engineer herself as part of financing the album and has done a fine job. A comparison could be drawn with someone like Nanci Griffith perhaps – it’s never alt-country raw, but definitely not a product as routinely pumped out by the Nashville candy production line either. A series of poetic ballads paint backwoods portraits and flow like a good whiskey – smooth but with a bite. Her voice is beautiful – smokily reserved and soulfully mournful, and again, seems to make just the right contribution to the overall sound.
To say there is no immediate stand out track is more a compliment to the overall quality and unity of sound rather than to decry something missing. One of the couple that are not her own, the Mary Gauthier song ‘I Drink’ is a classic old school ‘cheesy’ country heartbreaker. One for the big dress and big hair at the CMA award show. ‘A Murder Of Crows’ is hauntingly atmospheric with nice unexpected use of distant trumpet and, as the name implies ‘High Fever Blues’ strays to the blues with some delicate picking that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings would be proud of.
This should be the sort of record that is a commercial success and helps give straight-ahead country a good name, but in the US that arena is seemingly still full of crossover music geared to black-hatted urban cowboys. Let’s hope there’s enough room around the margins for this to get some love there and also here. It won’t blow your cowboy boots off, but will have the front porch swing swaying gently at dusk, with the liquor bottle rustling in its brown paper bag and the growing darkness hiding the odd tear.
May 10, 2008
Penny Black Music (UK)
There was a buzz around this album for me even before I heard it. I’d like to pride myself on not being taken in by over enthusiastic press sheets and it’s rare that I visit a MySpace page or, if I do, I seldom revisit it very often. But there was something about the information I received for this debut from Canadian singer / songwriter Farrell Spence that made me check out her web site and something about that which kept drawing me back.
I had the feeling that her album, if and when it came my way, was going to be just that little bit different, that little bit special. So it came to be that the first album that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this year was the debut from a singer out of Vancouver that I hadn’t even heard of two months previously. It was either down to someone on her team doing something right, or the clips of the sound she was making that I heard on her web site which took my breath away that impelled me to uncharacteristically visit her site again and again, listening to clips, just waiting for the day when I had the full album in my hands.
We all know the feeling when an album we have been eagerly awaiting hasn’t lived up to expectations. But this collection of ten mainly original songs is exactly what I had been expecting; what I had been hoping for. I needed this album and if your life hasn’t been an absolute breeze from the day you entered this world until the present then so will you. Farrell is one of those singers who will touch you with her tales of life in a non-perfect world. You will curl up in the warmth and comfort of her vocals in those lost early mornings, and the music which accompanies her tales will both soothe and disturb you.
But to start from the beginning, the album opens with the sound of a train whistle and as the sound of the passing train fades into the title song the first thing that strikes you is that even without Farrell opening her mouth you are lost in the atmospheric sounds that, as time shows, are all over this album and are one of the reasons that make this debut stand tall over the competition. Nearly one and a half minutes pass before we hear Farrell’s vocals on the album, but the sound of a train pulling out coupled with guitar and harmonica fits perfectly for what is to come, there’s a feeling of loneliness ; an overwhelming sense of sadness in those opening 90 seconds that no words can convey. Then those vocals glide in over that soundscape and you’re lost in the beauty of Farrell’s comforting vocals.
While this Canadian is adept at expressing sadness in her vocals better than a lot of her contemporaries there’s a calmness in her voice that suggests that things are maybe not as bleak as they look, if it’s possible that a singing voice can give you hope that life is not always going to be such a bitch then Farrell Spence is the possessor of such a thing. Farrell’s vocals are a thing of beauty ; the first words she sings are “ I got a transistor radio, bottle of wine, what say you we go and waste some time…” and suddenly the feeling of loneliness, that feeling of desperation brought on by those opening sounds are diminished just ever so slightly by the light and hope Farrell’s vocals bring. And yep, the only thing you want to do right then is go and ‘waste’ some time with her.
Of the couple of non-originals on the album, Mary Gauthier’s ‘I Drink’ was an obvious choice for Farrell to cover. Gauthier covers much the same ground lyrically as Farrell and the highlight of the composer’s ‘Mercy Now’ album from three years back is given a new lease of life with Farrell’s breathier vocals which make the lyrics hit home even harder. The fact that any one of Farrell’s originals matches the brilliance of ‘I Drink’ should make any member of Gauthier’s ever increasing fan base rush out and buy ‘A Town Called Hell’.
Farrell’s original ‘Boys Like You And Girls Like Me’ which follows ‘I Drink’ segues into a short instrumental reading of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and again shows just how talented Farrell is ; tagging on a snippet of a song so totally unexpected at the end of one of her songs so seamlessly is a brilliant touch.
All these ten songs need to be heard, Farrell has obviously lived every line in her songs and as the collection is self- mixed and produced she has also no doubt deliberated over every last instrument and sound on these songs which make songs like ‘Tell It To Someone Else’ and ‘A Murder Of Crows’ instant classics.
Real songs, real feelings / raw songs, raw feelings…this is an album for those of us who know the world around us is not and is never going to be perfect, but for as long as we have the Farrell Spences of this world giving us just that flicker of hope in their vocals that maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance it might just get better, we should support and cherish the music they make that gets the rest of us through. A stunning debut and a collection of songs that deserved to be heard.
Nov 1, 2007
Rock n’ Reel Magazine (England)
FARRELL SPENCE is a Canadian songwriter who produces occasional moments of majestic beauty on her debut album, A Town Called Hell. Ghostly and atmospheric soundscapes serve as an almost perfect foil to her delicate delivery and chiming, overlayered guitar tracks. Weaving autobiographical tales over her musical canvasses bringing to mind the earlier work of The Cowboy Junkies, Spence demonstrates real imagination and musical vision.
Oct 28, 2007
Farrell Spence’s debut record ‘A Town Called Hell’ is a collection of songs for the ‘lost and the lonely’ delivered in sparse surroundings and the haunting sound will either have you searching for the skip button or immersing yourself in the rather bleak landscape Farrell paints.
Most of the songs are self penned except for a cover of Mary Gauthier’s ‘I Drink’ and the song written with her ole mum ‘Losing You Again’. Spence sounds like Buffy Saint Marie and whilst there is a full band support the sound never drowns out the vocals. On the closing and best track ‘Here’s To & You Me’ he is joined by Rob Bracken on lead vocals and harmonica and the record just needed a few more of these types of collaborations to break up the 50 odd minutes.
For me it’s all a little too hushed but Farrell’s voice and song writing will attract many Americana fans.
Oct 14, 2007
(Translated from Polish)
We have to agree that the title “A Town Called Hell” doesn’t sound optimistic. Neither do the titles “Murder of Crows”, “Killing Time”, or even “Losing You Again”, rather pessimistic sounding. So how is the music? Light country sounds, folk violin with a touch of blues is the foundation of “A Town Called Hell”.
Farrell Spence is a fresh face to the musical scene, and so is her music. The songs are mostly calm with laid back arrangements. Many singers would be jealous of her voice. You can hear that she’s a confident young woman.
Almost all the music was written by Farrell . A cover by famous bluesman, Bukka White, did appeal to this young artist and is also on the album.
The many titles don’t lack jollier sounds. Folk-like lullabies, country ballads, all topped with a delicate touch of blues hiding somewhere deep… It’s an exceptional record for its own style, because it seems that Farrell is an exceptional artist.
Aug 16, 2007
The Evening Echo (Ireland)
A Town Called Hell conjures up the perfect soundtrack to this world. It’s melancholy ambience goes far deeper as it explores landscapes both real and within the psyche. A Town Called Hell can’t be found on any map, but Spence has been there. If there is a silver lining to be found from her experiences there then it’s in her unearthly and beautiful songs.
Aug 14, 2007
Musical News Magazine (Italy)
Farrell Spence is a Canadian singer-songwriter from Vancouver dalla bellezza mozzafiato who has recently started her career as a musician after having participated and worked for six years with the group “30 Helens” from Vancouver.
Together with Paul O’Callaghan (guitar and piano), Johannes Grames (electric guitar) and Donna Partridge (back-up vocals), which form the group with which she recorded her first solo album entitled “A Town Called Hell” released in North America last spring, which will be performed live in Europe in late August first in Cork (Ireland) passing by Roma (2 September, Al Cantiere), and then in London on 4 September.
The CD opens with the whistle of the train that brings (and closes) the title track “A Town Called Hell”, a ballad in the classic North American style written by the same Farrell who sings and plays acoustic guitar, the harmonica by Rob Bracken (bluesman of Vancouver) in the background, which brings us back immediately to the boundless plains. It then goes on to “Those Were The Days”, a bit more rhythmic and syncopated written by Seth Timothy and Farrell , with interesting effects of echoes and voice delay, which recounts the days passed away to sing and listen to records, autobiographical as the rest of the disc.
“I Drink” is a country song written by Mary Gauthier with Crit Harmon, which recounts the return home of an old man who drinks and smokes, with the contribution of electric guitar played by Johannes Grames (veteran musician of “The Grames Brothers”).
“Tell It To Someone Else” is another ballad disconsolate pretty sad when you call on your partner to sit down and close the mouth, in other words Farrell does not want to hear excuses…
“A Murder of Crows” is a song musically more structured with the use of other instruments, it was also remixed in Great Britain by DJ Lume.
“Killing Time” is a piece “cursed” with psychedelic atmospheres that depart from the rest of the disc, suspended between dream and reality as a piece of Pink Floyd.
“Losing You Again” was written by Farrell with her mother Barbara Spence , a melancholic song that tells of loss with fiddle by Ewan Clark, the sound of which is typical of bluegrass and country American and Irish sounds.
The album closes with dignity with “Here’s To You and Me”, a consuming duet between the voices of Farrell and Rob Bracken, to seal a song of love this time less pessimistic even if no less troubled (“This cowboy is only in my bed just to get you out of my head”).
The arrangements were done by Farrell , who also mixed and produced all 10 tracks of the disc, which was recently made available on i-Tunes.
Ultimately, the disc Farrell Spence is the best you can listen to the new country-folk American scene, especially in view of the cold winter evenings spent in front of the fireplace.
A Town Called Hell is the first release for Canadian singer, Farrell Spence . It is a CD that sounds like country and bluegrass atmospheres typical of Folk/Americana/Roots sound, but marked by the angelical and unique voice of Farrell , beautiful and damned.
Jun 30, 2006
Glynis Burke (Live show review)
Next on stage was the final/feature act of the night, Farrell Spence and The Widowmakers. Where to begin with this particular review??? How’s about with this: BEAUTIFUL. Farrell Spence and The Widowmakers make beautiful music together.
This five piece band (Farrell Spence – Vocals and Guitar, Chris Cassilan – Guitar, Evan Stewart – Drums, Owen Hurly – Bass, Ewan Clark – Fiddle and Ukelele) have a totally professional, tight, sweet sound. Heavily laden with talent and clearly in a comfortable groove together, they put on a Heavenly Show. No way the term “hell” could possibly be used to describe their act, I almost went there: One Hell of a show, but it instantly struck me as all wrong. “Farrell and The Widowmakers” make you feel as though you’ve somehow made it through the Pearly Gates alive, and you’re listening to songs about that other life you use to live, in that other world you use to live in. I kept looking for the angel with the cream cheese and crackers, but she was nowhere to be found.
Their songs are so sweetly and beautifully done that even the Tasmanian Devil on Speed would drop on the spot, and sink down into a passive heap before the stage, mesmerized and at total peace. Watch how much wine, or how many cocktails/spirits you consume at “Farrell and The Widowmakers” shows. Remember the scene in “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?” when the sirens start to sing??? Well, you’ll be every bit as defenseless as those boys found themselves. I love the Fiddle/Ukelele in the mix, Mr. Clark plays beautifully.
My favourite song would have to be: “Tell it To OPsm”, it just stays with you. You find yourself singing it throughout the day. But really, every song they performed on Friday night was thoroughly enjoyed and loudly applauded by all in the audience. They were definitely the perfect act and note to end the night on, we all went home with sweet sweet bitter sweet lullabies in our heads.