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Cry Me a Torch Song – the Video Version: December 2016

22 Dec

Welcome to the December 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Katie Melua (In Winter: “Real moments of choral beauty”), Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater (Findings: “Exemplary musicianship”) and Joan Ellison (Symphonic Gershwin: “She doesn’t just blow off the dust – she gets inside the raw material and inhabits it”)

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Album review – The Unthanks: Mount the Air

4 Apr

Mount the Air: the single version of the epic track from the mighty new Unthanks album

Mount the Air: a triumphant progress of elegiac songwriting

Mount the Air: a triumphant progress of elegiac songwriting

From the first note, it is clear that Mount the Air, the long-awaited new album from The Unthanks, is more than a mere collection of songs.

It’s a lot to do with the honest, unfussy vocals of Rachel and Becky Unthank, which are the calm at the centre of each vividly rendered folk tale. It’s partly due to Tom Arthurs’ insistent, mournful trumpet, which is one of the driving forces in this immersive listening experience. And Niopha Keegan’s mesmerising fiddle. And the layers of sound that build beneath elemental lyrics without once overwhelming the compelling stories as they unravel.

In fact, there soon comes a point at which you stop analysing what makes Mount the Air such a quietly majestic piece of art, awash with inspired musical references and nuances, and just let it happen to you.

Not bad for a record that’s taken two years to make, was crafted in a home-spun studio in an old granary, and is released on the band’s own RabbleRouser label – The Unthanks having stoutly resisted overtures from major names  clamouring to represent them.

The extraordinary result is an important album, which shimmers on the cusp between drama and documentary – like a classic Ken Loach film.  It is rooted in the environment of The Unthanks’ Northumbrian heritage but equally, reaches out across a far wider musical landscape to embrace Blue Note jazz accents, lullabies, cinema soundtracks, Balkan beats and world music influences. And it’s a testament to the collaborative song-writing skills of the five-strong band.

From the title track to “Madam”, a bleak tale of faded beauty and betrayal, to the harmonic glories of “Magpie” – a perfect earworm for a long train journey punctuated by sightings of that troublesome bird – and the bittersweet cadences of “Foundling”, navigating the delicate line between hope and despair, the album’s elegiac progress is a triumphant blend of atmosphere and emotion.

Numbers like “Hawthorn”, “Flutter” and “Waiting” combine the ancient feel of classic folk songs with a contemporary resonance that marks The Unthanks as a vital, innovative presence on the British music scene.  Essential listening.

Rachel and Becky Unthank at the London launch of Mount the Air

Album review – Serpentyne: Myths and Muses

19 Mar

Valkyries: Maggie Beth-Sand and Serpentyne take on Wagner and win

Myths & Muses: a glorious whirl of epic tales, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms

Myths and Muses: a glorious whirl of epic tales, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms

Here’s a thought for the dullards in charge of the UK’s annual Eurovision efforts. Why not ask Serpentyne to sing for us next year? I have no idea what the self-styled ‘Medieval-World-Folk-Rock’ band would feel about that. But I do know that the rousing fusion of their beats and the Game of Thrones vibe of their spectacular act is more in tune with broader European musical tastes than anything we’ve entered in the last two decades.

Their new album, Myths and Muses, is a rampaging set of epic tales told through the lead vocals of Maggie Beth-Sand, so evocative of great British female folk singers, from Sandy Denny to Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.

What sets her apart is a robust musicality that allows her voice to hold its own in some pretty fierce arrangements, where it becomes as much an instrument as Mark Powell’s guitar, cittern and hurdy-gurdy, or the mandolin, didgeridoo and tin whistle that contribute to the variety of sounds. In this, she is equally reminiscent of the more esoteric voices of world music – Norwegian Sami throat singer Mari Boine, for example, or Greece’s Mariza Koch (who actually did Eurovision service, accompanied by a bouzouki, back in 1976!)

Back and forth we are swept, from the fiery story of Boudicca and the Iceni uprising against the Roman occupation of ancient Britain, to the legendary library of Alexandria, and on to an account of the Valkyries that elbows Wagner aside. There’s a Breton dance (“Douce Dame Jolie”), and several traditional English folk songs including “A Rosebud in June”, not forgetting Henry VIII’s convivial testament to “Pastyme with Good Company”.

Comparisons with Steeleye Span are inevitable, particularly with the inclusion of the Span staple “Gaudete”. But Sand and Powell have mixed in their own arrangements, introduced new melodies and lyrics, and with the other versatile players of the band they bring a wide-ranging set of new influences and idiosyncrasies to the feast. There is a ferocity in their playing which binds electronics, choral settings and swirling strings into a glorious whirl, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms.

Interview: Sarah McQuaid – a born troubadour comes of age

18 Mar

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face: Sarah McQuaid gives a classic the acoustic treatment

Walking into White: the unforced richness of Sarah McQuaid's voice underpins songs of metaphor and experience

Walking into White: the unforced richness of Sarah McQuaid’s voice underpins songs of metaphor and experience

Sarah McQuaid might live in Cornwall these days, but it’s hardly surprising that her inner troubadour regularly urges her to get out on the road. A quick skim through her formative years reveals the origins of a nomadic streak that will only be satisfied by taking her distinctive, guitar-driven stories directly to a rapidly growing audience – wherever it happens to be.

She was born in Madrid, the child of a Spanish father and an American mother, raised in Chicago (the touring bug struck early – McQuaid was a member of the city’s Children’s Choir, which travelled widely across the North American continent), and made regular visits to her grandmother’s home in Indiana. When Europe called, she spent a year studying philosophy at the University of Strasbourg and eventually arrived in Dublin in 1994, where she lived for 13 years, carving a career as a music journalist and dabbling in songwriting, before moving to England in 2007.

McQuaid says the reasons that she now calls Cornwall ‘home’ were initially purely utilitarian: when her mother died, she took over her house – which then became the natural place for Sarah and her husband Feargal Shiels to settle down and raise their own family . But she also appreciates the county’s significance in her evolution as a musician.

Crucial Cornwall

“Cornwall is wonderful and I don’t know if I’d be doing what I am today if it hadn’t happened that way,” she says. “It was here that I met Zoё [Pollock, the singer/songwriter best known for her 1991 hit ‘Sunshine on a Rainy Day’]. Our kids were at the same school. We got to know each other and she came round and played a few songs for me – with nonsense lyrics. I wrote some words and it was great, just exhilarating, working with her.”

The two women formed a folk duo, Mama, and released an album in 2008. “I’d made records before that [she released her first album in 1997] and if a song came to me I’d write it,  but it was never something I specifically sat down to focus on. But the whole process of working with Zoё filled me with energy and I thought this was something I could actually do, write my own songs for a career. It was the first time I started to think about myself as a songwriter,” she says.

Walking into White

It was also, clearly, the foundation for McQuaid’s status as a rising star in the UK’s eclectic galaxy of notable singer/songwriters. She has just released her fourth solo album, Walking into White, self-penned apart from a fresh, unadorned cover of ‘”The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. It showcases a quiet confidence in her skill as a lyricist, a commitment to her craft that is maturing at an opportune time, and a diversity of influences.ranging from lullabies and Latin beats to traditional folk and ballads of quality.

McQuaid’s voice has an unforced richness which is the perfect foil for the echoing, spacious arrangements of her songs – and for her guitar, which here assumes a dazzling array of guises; one minute it’s as  plangent as a piano, the next, it’s buzzing on a rock-an- roll riff. A unique, multi-textured sound emerges as each song pours out a new narrative. A melancholy trumpet gives an imaginative edge to many of the songs.

When we speak, she has just returned from an extensive visit to the States and is already planning her next set of UK gigs. This will lead into a European leg and eventually to a full-scale spring tour of Britain, and you can sense her eagerness to get out there and recreate the acoustic idiosyncrasies of the album in an endless variety of live settings.

That considerable task weighs on the shoulders of her manager and touring sound engineer Martin Stansbury who helped with creative direction on the album, co-produced by McQuaid’s cousin Adam Pierce and Jeremy Backofen. Her professional hook-up with Stansbury was another key influence on her progress as a fully-fledged singer/songwriter.

“If I hadn’t started working with Martin, I would find it very hard to tour,” she says. “He handles everything. The album has quite a cinematic feel. Recreating that quality, with its musical interludes and shifting sounds is tricky and requires some technical wizardry.  Some of these songs became completely transformed during the recording, and now I have to try and recreate Adam’s feedback loops live…”

The US tour was an exhausting success, which taught McQuaid a few logistical lessons.

Touring tips

“I’ve been touring since 2010 so this is my fourth year and I feel like I’m finally getting it,” she says. “My tip for every travelling musician is to buy nuts and put them in zip-sealed bags! I love it. The way you settle into the rhythm and life actually becomes very easy. You get up, drive, stop for an interview, check in to your hotel, do your sound-check. It’s almost military in its precision.

“However, I planned the US tour very badly. On paper it looked so reasonable – gigs interspersed with rest days. Only I hadn’t factored in the 600-mile drives on those rest days! I mean, Colorado is breath-taking but Kansas doesn’t change at all, mile after mile. But the gigs were great and it gave me the chance to return to places that I know and love. You get novelty on a tour. Every place, audience and venue is different. Even so, by the tail-end of the US tour, I was getting weary and thinking it would be nice to get home.”

Home is also the source of a lot of McQuaid’s inspiration: three of the songs on the new album were inspired by Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, which she discovered through bedtime reading sessions with her husband and their two children, and she would always catch up if a gig meant she missed a chapter.

“Because I grew up in the States I hadn’t been aware of them – my contribution has been Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. I love children’s literature. E. Nesbitt is another favourite,” she says.

These tracks are among the most magical on the album, taking the listener into a world of metaphors and life experiences. The ‘white’ of the title isn’t necessarily innocence – it could be a blizzard full of danger; and there is plenty of shade in McQuaid’s evocative lyrics.

Singing today

“I now consider myself a singer/songwriter,” she says, after a pause to think. “There’s a hell of a lot of talent out there. And because of the technology, everyone can put their music out. Record companies don’t have all the control any more. But there’s tons of bad stuff as well, and it’s daunting that you have to plough through so much of it to get to the good stuff. The upside for an artist is that if you don’t want to perform and tour, you can just make albums and work to get them heard.”

McQuaid, however, intends to carry on doing both, and perhaps it’s a sign of her growing confidence that she included the Ewan MacColl classic on Walking into White.

“I like to do a cover on every album, and I just love this number. It’s one of the most perfect love songs ever written,” she says. “But I’m acutely aware that he wrote it for Peggy Seeger and hated all the other versions. I’ve tried to be true to it. I was aiming to sing it as though I was singing quietly to the person whose head was on the pillow next to me. “

And with that, prompted by her manager, she has to call time on our conversation. The road beckons, and there’s another destination to reach before McQuaid reels in another audience in thrall to her sonic way with a story.

Album review – Ange Hardy: The Lament of the Black Sheep

14 Oct

A natural folk-song writer: Ange Hardy’s album launch gig is full of insights into her craft

The Lament of the Black Sheep: Ange Hardy's rich landscape of song is populated by many ghosts

The Lament of the Black Sheep: Ange Hardy’s rich landscape of song is populated by many ghosts

Many ghosts stalk the rich, fertile landscape evoked with such consummate skill by Ange Hardy on The Lament of the Black Sheep, the follow-up album to last year’s quietly commanding Bare Foot Folk.

If there is nothing to quite match the brooding  Brontё-ness of “The Ghost on the Moor”, the spectres conjured here in songs like “The Foolish Heir” and “The Young Librarian” are testament to Hardy’s imagination as a natural folk-song writer, completely immersed in the gentle evolution of her craft. The album is a carefully integrated collection of moods and lore, constantly shifting and moving on.

Her notable  gift for setting contemporary lyrics to timeless melodies, wreathed in subtle harmonies, means that you are often lulled into a sense of deep, oaky tradition – only to be brought up sharply by 21st-century references; “The Cull”, for example, is a poignant, objective view of the current, highly controversial attempt to stop TB spreading from badgers to cattle.

Like much of Hardy’s material, it is rooted in her West Somerset territory, the very soil of which seems to give rise effortlessly to the characters who populate her tales. Even the black sheep of the title track – a retelling of the nursery rhyme from the pathetic, denuded sheep’s perspective – catches you out with its poignant blend of experience and observation.

While she says The Lament of the Black Sheep is not an overtly autobiographical album, Hardy’s skill is at its most focused in the songs that touch directly on her own life. The title track, for example, was inspired by the innocent bleakness of her son Luke’s interpretation of the rhyme. Family and motherhood loom large as themes.

But the most poignant numbers are “The Daring Lassie” and “The Lost Soul”, both of which reflect on different aspects of her teenage flight from a Somerset care home to a new life in Ireland – each a nod, in its way, to the spirit and survival instincts of a young woman who continues to inform much of Hardy’s work: a ghost of a different kind.

The vision which emerges from this beautifully textured album is that heritage is as much about the soul we carry with us as it is about the physical landscape that we spend our lives roaming across.

Album review – Peggy Seeger: Everything Changes

10 Oct

Everything Changes: a bittersweet mix of memory and loss

Everything Changes: yielding fresh treasure with each new listen

Everything Changes: yielding fresh treasure with each new hearing

Just when you thought that every conceivable nuance and interpretation must have been wrung out of the Titanic long since, along comes Peggy Seeger with “Swim to the Star”, reducing the multifarious myths and facts surrounding the 1912 tragedy to a folk tale of poignant simplicity. And – sorry, Céline – what a breathtakingly intense and human moment it is.

This opening track on Seeger’s new album, Everything Changes, was originally written in response to a BBC commission to mark the disaster’s centenary, and it sets the tone for a remarkable set of contemporary songs, mostly written or co-written by this redoubtable artist and archivist. Fleshed out by her son, producer Calum MacColl, it distills experience into three minutes of near-perfection. Like a subsequent number, the spacious and edgy “Flowers by the Roadside”, it transports the listener into a world of lyrical clarity which is surely the legacy of Seeger’s life’s work in tracing and recording the legacy of 20th century folk music.

Everything Changes is not, as Seeger says, a folk album per se. Yet it reflects the tropes of folk effortlessly, dishing up lore, home truths, tales of death and ageing, and even salutary warnings about drug addiction – “Miss Heroin”, by Rutthy Taubb, is based on a 26-word verse which the writer chanced upon on the back of a toilet door in North Carolina – in thoroughly contemporary settings.

Not that Seeger is a stranger to innovation, as anyone who caught her 2012 collaboration with Broadcaster (Folksploitation) will recall. On that album, her voice had a shaman-like, hypnotic quality. Here, she ranges from girlish delight to seasoned cynicism and gentle wisdom, supported by a band which frames the songs with elegant, spare arrangements.

There is plenty of humour: “Do You Believe in Me?” is a heartfelt antidote to fairy tales and Santa Claus, and “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” a deliciously ironic, sexy take on seduction from the female perspective. But there are also deep veins of darkness: “When Fairy Tales End” considers what really happens in the happily ever after, while “We Watch You Slip Away” is a beautifully expressed observation of a loved-one fading into death. Then there is the quiet acceptance of the title track, with its bittersweet mix of memory and loss. Inspired and inspirational, this is an album which yields fresh treasure with every hearing.

Album review – Emily Smith: Echoes

16 Aug

“My Darling Boy”: Emily Smith explores a new Scottish sound

Echoes: Emily Smith pushes at the boundaries of genre and interpretation

Echoes: Emily Smith pushes at the boundaries of genre and interpretation

Emily Smith has the kind of kind of voice that makes an effortless bridge between traditional folk and the moodier, noir-ish tropes of today’s folk idiom. And she’s in great company. From Ange Hardy and Lucy Ward to Eliza Carthy and Kathryn Williams, we are living in a golden age of young female singers who are constantly pushing at the boundaries of genre and interpretation, creating fresh sounds that are rooted in the ancient craft of telling richly textured stories in song.

Smith’s latest album, Echoes, is a case in point – a collection of 10 traditional and contemporary Scottish songs reinvented with a 21st-century sophistication that honours the heritage they represent while hinting at the growing influence of Americana and the great troubadours of our time.

 For a second, the twanging guitar that heralds the opening track, “Reres Hill”, seems determined to drop you somewhere in the heat of the Deep South before the Celtic harmonies sweep you back to Caledonia. The arrangements are lush and plangent, the pace assured and the emotional connection between the voice and material is insistent and compelling.

Smith describes the album as heralding a “new Scottish sound” – and Echoes has the discrete confidence of a singer who is completely at ease with the organic arc of a career that has come a long way in the decade and more since she was crowned BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year.

There is an aching beauty in her phrasing, underpinned by the playing of a great band of guest musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan and Rory Butler, which frequently tugs at the heartstrings  with a visceral urgency. The range of the material is absorbing, from the intimate tale of “The Sower’s Song” to the epic legend of “King Orfeo”, from the poignant account of “The Final Trawl” to the deceptive jauntiness of “Twa Sisters” – a story that ends in murder.