KARINE POLWART – A Pocket of Wind Resistance (Hudson HUDOO5)

Wind ResistanceOriginally conceived as the musical accompaniment to her theatrical debut production of the same name in collaboration with sound designer Pippa Murphy, this now takes on independent life as an album in its own right. Inspired by watching the migration of some two thousand geese to Fara Flow, a peat bog near her Edinburgh home, and the way they took turns to create pockets of wind resistance to assist each other’s flight, Polwart embarked on a project concerning how we depend upon and help one another, not a little reinforced by having become a mother. It also serves as a warning of the dangers of isolating ourselves from others.

It opens with ‘All On A Summer’s Evening’, a sparse rendering of the traditional ‘Skippin’ Barfit Through the Heather’ accompanied by minimal glacial glockenspiel and thumb piano notes giving a drone effect that gives way to a spoken word passage describing the area around Fara Flow and introducing the narrative’s central characters, farmer and ex-soldier Will Sime and his wife, Roberta.

It flows seamlessly into the atmospheric ‘The Moor Speaks’ which, arranged for harp, drums, bass and a dense skein of backing vocals, offers a list of the many different mosses that grow here and, an indication of Roberta’s pregnancy, a refrain about “my little one” interwoven into a web of Gaelic hymn and field recordings.

Next up comes a carefree, buoyant treatment of ‘The Lark In The Clear Air’ framed with harp and rippling marimba that underscores the notion of open spaces and, from thence, to the drone-backed ‘Labouring And Resting’ with Murphy’s ambient score and Polwart’s description of the geese migration from whence comes the album title, the accompaniment capturing the sense of the wind and the sound of wings.

Backed by bass and a circling acoustic guitar psattern, the seven-minute ‘Tyrannic Man’s Dominion’ is a slight melodic reworking of ‘Now Westlin’ Winds’, Robert Burns’ ecological tract about bird shoots with their “slaughtering guns”. Whispering the introduction, backdropped by sanusula chimes, the spoken ‘Place To Rest And Mend’ builds to a military tattoo march beat and wordless chant as she pays tribute to Soutra Hospital, a charitable medieval Augustinian hospital that once stood on the edge of moor and, providing sanctuary and protection, served as a prototype of today’s NHS.

Opening with a sung lyric about motherhood against a single repeated piano note, ‘A Benediction’ gives way to a spoken narrative that describes Roberta watching Will who, in transpires, is carpeting a crib for the impending baby, Another spoken introduction about Roberta discovering a smashed swallow’s nest and the dead or dying fledglings sets the scene for the six-minute plus ‘Small Consolation’, focuses her thoughts on her own upcoming birthing, a meditation on the fragility of life giving way to the revisiting from her 2004’s Faultlines album with its echoes of Sandy Denny.

The sound of a barn owl both gives rise to the title and heralds the musically dramatic, dissonantly percussive ‘White Old Woman Of The Night’ as the contractions begin with lyrics that intermingle with Polwart’s recollections of her own troubled childbirth as it flows in the wheezing drone of medieval ballad ‘Sphagnum Mass For A Dead Queen’ (itself previously on 2007’s Fairest Floo’er as ‘The Death of Queen Jane’) about Jane Seymour’s tragic childbirth with its disorienting Latin chants and list of cures

The glacial 90-second foreshadowing of ‘Lullaby For A Lost Mother’ picks up the medieval notes with harp and birdsong counterpointing the tragedy in the voice of a child recounting the scene around Fara Flow to her departed mother, but then ‘Remember The Geese’ strikes an optimistic, uplifting not as she returns to the opening setting, drawing together and linking the threads of the metaphor and imagery as, in the spoken mid-section she warns of the weather growing darker daily and a fierce wind, reminding that we are “a human skein and we’re not going to make it on our own.”

In ‘Molly Sime’s Welcome To Salter’s Road’ the spoken narrative brings the pregnancy to a bittersweet end with Roberta’s daughter, Molly, born and the image of Will tending his wife only for her to bleed to death, she taken away by her family for burial, he taking an axe to their bed and the back room floor and throwing the wood and bloody linen on a pyre to “let the world burn.” Midway through, the final chapter of the story is interrupted with a revisiting of ‘Salter’s Road’ from 2012’s Traces, its line about the horseman’s only daughter suddenly bringing home that, for those unaware of the background, this isn’t some fiction, but the true story of one of Polwart’s former neighbours as she relates visiting the elderly Molly in hospital, on the last day of her life, with her own son. At once the project’s theme of thread that connects us is brought into heartbreaking focus and the album ends as it began, at dusk, with the moor cock calling and the sound of a heartbeat, its final words the song’s title and the album’s overarching message, ‘We Are All Bog Born’. Quite magnificent.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the KARINE POLWART – A Pocket of Wind Resistance link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: www.karinepolwart.com

‘Labouring And Resting’:

SAOIRSE MHÓR – Ghosts Of Tomorrow (own label)

Ghosts Of TomorrowSaoirse Mhór is an Irish singer-songwriter living and working in Germany. British and Irish folk is big there but Saoirse is barely known in England except as the frontman of Fleadh. Ghosts Of Tomorrow is his third solo studio album and he is supported by, among others, Andy Horn and Andrew Cadie of Germany’s top British folk-rock band Broom Bezzums and their regular guest vocalist Katie Doherty.

There is a vein of melancholy running through Saoirse’s songs together with a feeling for lyrics that it typically Celtic. The opener, ‘Tree Of Oak’ is a simple song laden with the despair of a man fully aware of his own failure but it’s offset in part by ‘Fanore’, a village in County Clare where our man finds refuge from his life but leaves a part of himself there. ‘The Thief’ and ‘White Birds’ make for an interesting pairing. In the first, the writer is escaping from a damaged relationship but in the second he waits for the end of winter to be reunited with his love – two very fine songs.

The author of ‘Sleeping And Working’ is at rock bottom and the song ends bitterly with “Remember…if you work harder then love and good fortune will soon come your way”. Yeah, right. The bankers figure in that song and also in ‘Hill Of Plenty’ which begins optimistically until reality intrudes on what seems to be an ideal life.

Ghosts Of Tomorrow is big on sweeping strings and backing vocals with the fiddles of Andrew Cadie and Marcus Eichenlaub often taking the lead in melodic decoration with Michael Busch’s guitar sitting alongside Saoirse’s. He may live in Germany but Saoirse hasn’t really left Ireland far behind and there is a thread of a simple rural life running through the songs. ‘The Cleggan Bay Disaster’ takes us right back there and the final track, ‘Good Friday’, is an account of that day – a reflection of Saoirse’s Catholicism, perhaps.

His albums are available as downloads from the usual sources but for a physical copy you’ll need to visit his website. It’s worth going to the trouble.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the SAOIRSE MHÓR – Ghosts Of Tomorrow link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

DOWNLOAD – [CD]

Artist’s website: https://www.saoirsemhor.com/

Promo video:

MELROSE QUARTET – Dominion (own label MQCD03)

DominionDominion is the long-awaited second album from Melrose Quartet: Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, Jess and Richard Arrowsmith. If you haven’t heard them you should remedy that oversight as soon as possible: four voices and four instrumentalists, equally gifted with unaccompanied harmony and instrumental dexterity. And that’s before we begin to discuss songwriting.

The album is a delightfully eclectic mix of material, you know, the way people used to make albums back in the 70s. It begins, unexpectedly, with a southern Appalachian song, ‘Mariah’s Gone’ originally from Jean Ritchie. Unaccompanied, it makes an arresting statement from the outset – you are going to listen to this record. It is followed by the title track, ‘Dominion Of The Sword’, further adapted from Martin Carthy’s version with a new verse by James. You must expect some politics from the quartet but this is as heavy handed as it gets and the tunes that follow, ‘A Generous Man/Carthy’s March’ are as bright and joyful as you could wish for.

The ebb and flow continues throughout the record. Nancy Kerr’s ‘Hand Me Down’ is about the unifying effect of music and ‘’Ware Out Mother’ is a huge joke. It started out in the tradition but was probably written in its present form by Charley Yarwood and Tom Brown. Jess Arrowsmith’s ‘Anthem Of A Working Mum’ is a song that should be adopted by the tradition. Like the best writing it says a lot in a few words and leaves you to colour in the picture while Nancy’s ‘Rise No More’ is a lament for the lost steel industry told in complex metaphor. Around these we have ‘The Seeds Of Love’, Paul Davenport’s ‘Davy Cross’ and Paul Metser’s lovely ‘Good Intentions’.

Melrose Quartet could play Dominion from start to finish in a folk club and you’d go home knowing that you’d had a good night out. I don’t think that you could ask for much more than that.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the MELROSE QUARTET – Dominion link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: www.melrosequartet.co.uk

Melrose Quartet live at Chester Folk Festival:

Ross Ainslie announces a remarkable third album

Ross Ainslie

Ross Ainslie is one of Scotland’s finest traditional musicians and composers, playing pipes, whistles and cittern. He is renowned for his highly acclaimed solo material, and as a skilled performer and prolific collaborator who performs regularly with bands Treacherous Orchestra (of which he is a founding member), Salsa Celtica, Dougie Maclean, Ali Hutton, Charlie Mckerron, Jarlath Henderson and India Alba.

This third album from Ross brings together a lot of his influences over the years playing in such bands as Salsa Celtica and India Alba. Ross has always been a fan of Mike Oldfield’s album Tubular Bells and this album is based on the same idea and designed to be listened to like a journey. The album plays continuously from start to finish and as a bonus extra for pre-release copies you will receive the album in one track (digital format) the way it should be.

Sanctuary is a term Ross likes to use when describing what music is for him, coming up to five years sober!! Ross has been through some big changes and found ways of coping with certain situations without alcohol.

“I’ve found that I’m spending a lot of time on my own these days, being a travelling musician a lot of the social time is centred around drinking so I found it hard to be around so I would retreat to my room a lot, at first it took some time to get used to my own company but as the years have gone on I’ve found it to be a very productive and creative space, if I’m having a particularly bad day music is always the thing that will pick me up so that’s why this album is called Sanctuary”.

‘Inner Sanctuary’ is a track heavily influenced by his travels to India, it features a debut performance on Bansuri from Ross. The musicians on this album were selected very carefully and are all very comfortable in many genres, this track shows Greg Lawson playing with an Indian style.

‘Home In Another Dimension’ features one of Ross’s favourite musicians in the world, the one and only Zakir Hussain on tabla and also British/Indian Sarod maestro Soumik Datta. This track demonstrates a different style in writing for Ross with a definite Eastern flavour. ‘Let The Wild Ones Roam’ is a straight ahead rocking set of reels with the guys in their natural habitat. Damien O’Kane adds some amazing banjo to this track.

All the music on the album is composed by Ross apart from ‘Surroundings’ which was composed by Ross and Jamie Maclean.

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the Ross Ainslie link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

DOWNLOAD – [CD]

Artist’s website: http://rossainslie.com/holding/

Here’s the album sampler:

SAID THE MAIDEN – Here’s A Health (own label)

HealthFollowing on from last years EP, ‘Of Maids And Mariners’, Hertfordshire folk trio Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkinton return with their much anticipated second album, Here’s A Health, another fine collection of traditional, self-penned and cover material that again spotlights their immaculate harmonies.

Variously playing violin, piano accordion, mandolin, flute, clarinet, whistles, electric bass and Appalachian mountain dulcimer, they’re also joined on a couple of tracks by Lukas Drinkwater and Chris Cleverley.

Following the brief a capella ‘Preamble’, an invitation to “come lift up your voices”, things get under way proper with the traditional ‘The Bird’s Courting Song’, a three-part seventeenth-century children’s nursery rhyme from the Appalachians that features Jess on flute and comes with a “towdy, owdy, di-do dum” chorus. Hannah provides the violin-driven tune for the waltzing ‘The Maid Of The Mill’, a traditional eighteenth-century ballad, supposedly about Mary Leonard, a Hertfordshire lass who spurned any number of admirers before finally marrying, the words penned by the local curate, one of the unsuccessful suitors, with Drinkwater on double bass.

The traditional seam continues to be mined with their arrangement of ‘Sweet William’s Ghost’, Jess providing the tune for this cut up lyric tale of a woman being visited by her lover’s ghost and being invited to share his grave, the vocals given a simple dulcimer backing.

Another nod to the trio’s playful nature, next up is an unaccompanied cover of Tom Paxton’s quirky children’s song, ‘Jennifer’s Rabbit’, then, again featuring Drinkwater, it’s back to the traditional meadow with another three-part harmony showcase in ‘The Bonnie Earl O’Moray’, a traditional Scottish ballad about the murder of James Stewart, the titular earl, by his arch rival, the Earl of Huntly, in 1592, supposedly because the former was accused of plotting against King James VI. Interestingly, the line about him being laid upon the green gave rise to the term Mondegreen, meaning a misheard song lyric that changes the meaning, on account of the American writer Sylvia Wright hearing it as ‘Lady Mondgreen’ and assuming it to be his lover.

The first of the original material comes with ‘Polly Can You Swim?’, co penned by Distill and Pilkington and featuring Andrew Simmons Elliott as the sailors chorus, a sprightly sea shanty rather at odds with its words about accounts of women being thrown overboard for fear of them placing curses on ships. Of course, testing by sink or swim was also applied to witches and, sure enough, it’s followed by Distill’s particularly grisly ‘Black Annis’ based on the Leicestershire legend of a child-eating witch told by parents to keep their kids in after dark, Jess taking lead against the harmonies and accompanied by a vocal drone.

Keeping things dark, piano accordion introduces the traditional American murder ballad, its drone complemented by dulcimer in an otherwise a capella reading of ‘In The Pines’ inspired by recordings by both Lead Belly and Nirvana before Hannah’s spare mandolin makes its appearance in the final stretch.

Spirits are suitably raised with a return to native soil and an unaccompanied version of the erotic euphemistic Norfolk reel ‘The Bird In The Bush’, otherwise known as ‘Three Maids A-Milking’, ahem, from whence comes the album title. Pilkington’s contribution to proceedings is ‘Take The Night’, a sprightly strummed acoustic and violin-coloured tale based on the legend of a Hertfordshire highwaywoman, Cleverley joining them on banjo, the album then closing with a fine unaccompanied take on Richard Farina’s ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’, learned at the request of the late Dave Swarbrick when they supported him in 2015.

Maybe it’s just the time of the year, but there’s a crispness and ambience to the album that conjures bracing winter mornings and nights around the fire, but really, this is an album for all seasons.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.saidthemaiden.co.uk

‘Jennifer’s Rabbit’ – live and just for fun:

THE WINTERLINGS – American Son (own label)

American SonAmerican Son is the fourth album release from Washington -based duo, The Winterlings, alias Wolff Bowden and Amanda Birdsall. A meeting of minds at a Buddhist fire ritual (where else?) led to the formation of this tightly self-contained musical unit. Videos show that they occasionally perform with an additional vocalist/guitarist, but this album has the duo performing, recording and producing the entire thing themselves.

Bowden has said he wasn’t involved in music until he met Birdsall, so he clearly has a natural talent, keeping a loping bass drum beat behind his vocals and guitar. Birdsall, perhaps the more accomplished musician, also sings and plays guitar, banjitar, piano and violin. Both play the harmonica, too, although since neither are specifically credited on individual tracks, it’s impossible to tell the players apart – and perhaps that’s the point.

Lyrically, the songs create strong visual impressions, often rooted in natural imagery and a connectedness with environment with “places as wild as your inside” on ‘That Was Alaska’, or the Joni Mitchell-ish ‘Sunspeech’. This latter also lets Birdsall’s vocal range fly, one of only two songs to feature her lead vocal, the other being ‘Gold’. With its laid-back porch-song vibe set to a lazy drum beat, ‘Gold’ views time as “like an earthquake, always shaking something loose”.

‘The Ghost Of Leonard’, an homage to Leonard Cohen, features a deeply rumbling “oh, ah, amen” chorus that might be influenced by Native American chanting, or The Crash Test Dummies “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” song. In trying to honour Cohen’s style there’s a tendency to veer towards the portentous, with lines like “the bible burning in the hobo’s stove” but it’s a song that packs a powerful punch, nonetheless.

If the title song itself appears to function as a kind of “State Of The Nation” address, it’s not an entirely positive picture. This is continued in the anti-greed message of ‘World To Change’, reminiscent of Ghandi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” mantra, it contains a gently menacing call to action: “we won’t wait for the world to change”.

Bowden and Birdsall can occasionally tend to over-rely on some rather mannered vibrato singing, that threatens to overwhelm the songs. It’s an unfortunate distraction from what is at its core a fine selection of songs, well-arranged, played and performed.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the THE WINTERLINGS – American Son link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

DOWNLOAD – [CD]

Artist website: www.winterlings.com

‘All Of The Good Things’ – official video: