A quick catch up part 2- Helen, Helen, Barbara, Gemma and others

Another dip into the music I’ve come across in the last few months that I (criminally) haven’t written about yet… 

Starting with someone who is a big fan of The Fall and writes most of her songs on a baritone ukulele. EllY Tree is the musical nom de plume of Helen Woodbridge and her trusty backing band and their thoroughly entertaining debut EP, Wallflower was released at the beginning of September. Having caught solo EllY live last year, I’ve been looking forward to the full band treatment of her quirky, humorous songs, all of which have delightful explanations of what they’re about when played live.  

All in, there are seven tracks which feature her trademark ukulele or banjo, fleshed out with guitar, bass, and percussion. This straightforward band set up matches EllY’s joie de vivre and enthusiasm, unexpectedly weaving elements of reggae, soul, sea shanties and dreamy pop into what EllY herself describes as art-indy-folk. There is plenty to delight lyrically, including nods to David Bowie and Debbie Harry in ‘Einstein in the Patent Office,’ while the title track finds EllY questioning why the Wallflower insists on hiding itself against the wall, making its home in broken masonry, noticed only by the Bees. In ‘Walk on Water’ she reminisces about ‘when plankton lived on midnight waves, our feet made constellations in the sand.’ 

It’s a disarming and varied batch of songs which reveal hidden charms on repeated listening. 


Sticking with Helen and nom de plumes, there’s a new album from Helen McCookerybook called ‘Drawing on My Dreams’ available through her Bandcamp page. For those that aren’t familiar with the name, Helen has a musical history that goes back to the early 80s, with releases as singer/songwriter with The Chefs and Helen & the Horns. In addition to these, there are numerous solo releases and collaborations with the likes of Vic Godard and Robert Rotifer, not to mention several books and a hand in a documentary film about females in the music industry called ‘Stories from the She Punks’. A very busy lady. Two of my favourite sessions when hosting The Smelly Flowerpot on Cambridge 105 featured Helen and her guitar. Similar to the EllY Tree release, this is an album with plenty of seemingly innocent charm and wit, though below the surface there’s knowledge and experience informing these songs about relationships in all their many forms, not to mention the odd nod towards the less satisfactory aspects of life. 

Most of the songs are based around Helen’s unfussy but very effective plucked or strummed guitar (similar in sound to The Marine Girls, if you’re looking for a reference point) and her voice, whether it be a lead vocal or multi-tracked backing vocals, augmented by bass, strings and politely intrusive but complimentary ‘electronics.’ There’s also a guest appearance by the wonderful Lindy Morrison (The Go Betweens) on drums. Helen’s voice has a clear, untainted quality that Helen herself once told me had been likened to Doris Day, something I hadn’t thought of at the time, but made perfect sense as soon as she mentioned it. Listening to an album like this, in all its understated, deceptively simple and stripped back glory, makes you recognize the beauty of classic songwriting and engaging lyrics where every note is allowed its own space to flourish and every word can be heard, each sentence comprehended and the whole song embraced. Blooming wonderful. 


Though I’d love to talk more about people called Helen, I think it’s only fair we mention Barbara. Barbara Stretch that is, former member of The Vernons and now the go-to singer for The Tribes of Europe, a vehicle for the songs of Martin Elsey. They’ve released some excellent singles over the last few years, and I believe there will be an album in the future. But, for now, they have a new single out called ‘Fight Fire with Fire?’ which will be, perhaps appropriately, released on the eve of Guy Fawkes night. It’s another bright and breezy slice of 60s influenced pop like they just don’t make anymore (or at least, very rarely). How Martin, with the help of producer/bassist, manages to squeeze so many of the traits that make a classic pop song into one tune will never cease to impress me. The song opens with four chords which lead you to think you’re in prime Who territory before the Northern Soul styled horn sound kicks in. There’s a hint of Gospel with the Ely Fallen Angels Choir, a burst of psychedelic pop mid song (repeated on the outro), a relentless Motown beat and, to top it all, Barbara’s voice, which is reminiscent of Dusty Springfield. It’s smart, catchy, infectious and has an edgy ambiguity about the lyrics. 


I was going to finish writing this blog several days ago but, on the spur of the moment, decided to travel to Cambridge to catch Gemma Rogers at the Six Six Bar in Cambridge. I’m pleased I did. I arrived mid-way through a set by a young, local singer songwriter called Grace Calver. I always feel for solo artists at the foot of a bill where all the following acts are full bands, but she performed her acoustic songs about the ups and downs of relationships very confidently. Having since checked her single releases, which have the full band treatment, there’s definitely substance to her burgeoning talent, which is backed up by her recent win at the NMG Awards, the local music awards ceremony run by Tim Willett, a former colleague of mine at Cambridge 105 Radio.


Second up were Vigilantes, a five piece from Lincolnshire. I was impressed by the scope of their repertoire which explored the many strands of indie pop in managing to rise above the generic form of that genre. They have pace changes, good utilization of keyboards, plenty of harmonies, different guitar textures and a sound that veers from grungy to epic seamlessly. Again, checking their recent EP ‘The Neighbourhood’ after the gig, backed up the feeling that here was a band forging an identity and sound that’s worth following.



As for Gemma Rogers… 

She’s released one of the best albums of the year, ‘No Place Like Home’. It’s one of those rare records that my kids like as much as me, which just goes to show how hip my kids are. With a band as enthusiastic as she is, it was only a matter of time before her infectious songs found their way under the skin of the audience. Encouraged by Gemma’s pleas to step closer to the stage, things really took off with the audience participation on ‘Rabbit Hole’. Not even my flat vowels and dropped aitches could hinder the enthusiasm with which the crowd joined in. The heady joy of the finale, ‘My Idea of Fun’ had me wondering if the garage on the way home might sell me a bottle of Rum. If you get the chance, catch her live. If not, buy the album – it’s full of the sort of observational humour and danceable funk/soul/pop/dub that Ian Dury used to excel at.  


A quick word on the Six Six Bar, a venue I hadn’t visited before. They obviously have a passion for and understanding of quality music, judging by the number of framed NME covers on the walls and the rather magnificent canvas on the wall above the bar. It must be 12 foot long, with lots of painted words and squiggles randomly placed, the paint sometimes running down the canvas. There’re also some cut outs of various musical heroes pasted over the paint ie Bowie, Lemmy, Amy Winehouse etc. Good sound as well. Apparently, the canvas was painted by an artist called Ryan Moore – you can follow his art work through his facebook page below.  



Author: Smelly Flowerpot

Just a bloke that finds life far more bearable with music. And macadmias. And laughter.

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