Archive | Modern Folk RSS feed for this section

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

Advertisements

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.