ANGE HARDY – The Lament Of the Black Sheep (Story Records)

angeHer second album in as many years after returning to the folk scene following time off to raise two kids, Hardy expands the sparse voice and guitar sound of Bare Foot Folk by introducing fiddle, double bass, flute, whistles, accordion and percussion on another 14-strong acoustic set of self-penned numbers that sound as they could have been in some dusty archive of traditional folk ballads.

She says they’re inspired by family (the cover photo is of her great-grandfather on his farm), tradition, personal experience and tales of West Somerset, with songs of heritage and of working the land. That said, she’s all at sea with the opening track, ‘The Bow To The Sailor’, a stirring shanty about the call of the sea and the feelings it invokes in men with salt in their veins. She’s firmly on dry land for the title track retelling of the nursery rhyme from the sheep’s perspective, a bleak reinterpretation about giving way everything you own and being left cold and alone, a metaphor that you could apply equally to King Lear or parenthood.

‘The Gambler’s Lot’ is one of the specifically Somerset songs, a lament for the way the sweat of generations to build a rural foundation could be swept away by one person’s foolish actions, her voice looped to provide close harmony backing on the chorus, but then it’s on to deeply personal territory as ‘The Daring Lassie’ recounts her running away from a Somerset care home to travel to Ireland, living rough in Dublin and Galway under an assumed name, a spirited duet with fiddle player James Findlay with the sort of refrain designed for club singalongs. She returns to the theme for ‘The Lost Soul’ as, to a stark, almost medieval arrangement, she recalls the end of her time in Ireland and the open-heart epiphany of the mistakes made and lessons learned.

‘The Sailor’s Farewell’ is the second of the album’s nautical numbers, a poignant song inspired by a story told her by a man at one of her concerts, about how his mother, Mabel, would hang a picture called The Sailor’s Farewell when her husband went to sea and one called The Sailor’s Return when he came home. Except that, on one fateful voyage, she was never to rehang the second picture.

Being a folk album there are, of course, songs about foolish or unfortunate women. An unaccompanied duet between Hardy and Findlay, ‘The Wanting Wife’ recounts how a woman sends her husband out poaching and thieving to bring back her weight in gold only to realise he was her real treasure while, again using vocal loops and backed solely by rippling guitar, ‘The Foolish Heir’ tells of a girl lured with promises of a new life overseas only to be drowned on her father’s land by her false lover, fated to wander the place she wanted to escape as a ghost. There’s ghosts the haunting ‘The Young Librarian’ too, a multi-tracked vocal, a song supposedly about how people live on through their writing, but very much couched in horror imagery.

Three numbers relate to the farming life, all with very different tones. As you might surmise from the title, accompanied by melancholic flute, ‘The Cull’ isn’t exactly cheery. Inspired by the sight of someone protesting against a badger cull, dressed up as a badger, it tackles the serious problem of culling infected cows to save the herd and how those who do not live by the land often do not understand the demands it makes. On a rather lighter note, The lilting swayalong ‘The Tilling Bird’ uses the image of how chickens (here the rare Marsh Daisy) were used to follow the plough to help turn the soil to serve as a metaphor for love while, in decidedly playful mood, ‘The Woolgatherer’ is a delightful tumble of a song about how daydreaming is probably not recommended when you’re muck spreading. Again, you can imagine this as a club crowd participation number.

The final two songs return to motherhood. With accordion intro and featuring Jo May on spoons (made from the melted debris of bombs dropped in the Vietnam War, apparently), ‘The Raising And The Letting Go’ is a tribute to her own mother who raised her pretty much on her own as well as a recognition that your children with eventually fly the nest while the final number, the short and sweet a capella ‘The Lullaby’, was written for her two-year old son, an encouragement for him to go to sleep with which all parents will sympathise.

If last year’s album marked a triumphant return to the folk world, this firmly consolidates her position as one of the finest contemporary-traditional voices in the field, and were I Eliza Carthy or Cara Dillon I’d be looking over my shoulder very carefully.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website; www.angehardy.com

‘The Bow To The Sailor’ is the first single from The Lament Of The Black Sheep: