Tag Archives: Folk Noir

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.

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CD Review – Signe Tollefsen

1 Dec

Signe Tollefsen sings You, Me & The Brewers. Folk at its noirest

I’ve just been reading Richard Metzger’s fascinating analysis of torch singing on the exciting and eclectic Dangerous Minds blog, in which he gives a generous assessment of the Art of the Torch Singer. Thank you, Richard. Metzger draws particular attention to male artists who have specialised in the genre and his post is well worth a visit. It’s already attracted some interesting comments about singers who should be included in the genre. You’ll find plenty of other connected, music-related material on the site as well. And now, here’s some folk noir for these dark winter days…

Signe Tollefsen's eponymous album. Think dark, then darker still.

You know how the idea of a crisp, snowy December twilight will occasionally work its way into your mind on a steamy summer day, shocking you with a pang of longing to sip whisky in the halo of a flickering log fire while everything hibernates in the shadows beyond?

That’s the effect Signe Tollefsen had on me as I spun her eponymous offering for the first time just a few months ago: perverse, edgy, hankering for the kind of emotional workout that only comes with alcohol-soaked, troubled and troubling relationships. Yikes.

This is folk noir, apparently. And it’s as dark and compelling as anything you’ll find this side of Brel. Tollefsen spins brilliant, diamond-hard images against a gently loping undercurrent of guitar – lots and lots of guitar (some of it of the steel-pedal variety, which in the right hands is always good for conjuring a sense of knives twisting in wounded souls) – banjo, accordion, wailing fiddles and dulcimer. Misery has rarely sounded this inviting.

Dutch-American and an Amsterdam resident, Tollefsen is a born troubadour with a sound as capable of evoking solitary journeys across interminable plains as it is of hypnotic story-telling in the intimacy of a cellar bar.

A cool musicality is revealed in this work (she studied classical singing at the Royal Northern College of Music in her teens) as she plays with rhythms that showcase her bleakly sensual lyrics. “Mama tell me why can’t I sing… Mama let me wallow in my pain,” she sings with uncompromising purity. “I am an art, deprived of a king,” she laments at the receding figure of a dead lover. Vulnerability is exposed. Characters spring to life, doomed unions are played out in a voice of considerable range and, despite the essential gloom of the material, sweetness. ‘The other woman’ is regularly referenced, and themes of duplicity and infidelity creep insidiously into the picture.

And Tollefsen has created a sound that’s very much her own, too. Occasionally, I found myself reminded of Joni Mitchell or the steel-eyed clarity of June Tabor. More prosaically, there is a rather shouty outburst in “History Class” that will certainly appeal to lovers of the full-throated Florence Welch approach to singing. But for the most part, vocally, she keeps her own counsel.

As for the songs, each one is a complete story, told by turns viscerally, through a sequence of potent sensual images, or through a more conventional narrative. I love the opening track, “It Smells of You”, about how the essence of a departed lover hangs around long after the physical presence is gone; the ominous sense of entrapment in “Hooked (You Spit in my Whiskey)”; and the gritty emotional bargaining at the heart of “Up to No Good”. And any lyric that contains the line “I wake up to the smell of gin and regret” (the song has the rather unpromising title, “It Was Ooo”) will always get my undivided attention. Tollefsen sounds like she’s been there. I’ve certainly been there. Haven’t we all? And wouldn’t we all go back for more?

Now those December nights have closed in, the fire is flickering and I’m ready for a bit of heavy catharsis, and Signe Tollefsen is at the top of my playlist. Just thinking about it gives me a chill. Oh go on, then. Pass the bottle, dammit.