Fronted by the Russian-born (but quintessentially English-sounding) Daria Kulesh who also plays guitar and bodhran, alongside Kate Rouse on hammered dulcimer, guitarist Ben Honey and latest recruit Phil Underwood on melodeon, the Hertfordshire quartet’s latest fusion of traditional English and Russian folk also features one-off contributions from fiddle player James Delarre and Lukas Drinkwater on double bass with producer Jason Emberton providing any undefined extra bibs and bobs.
For those unfamiliar with the band, such as myself, the first thing that strikes is the crystalline purity of Kulesh’s often soaring vocals, clearly a voice born to sing traditional folk, to be followed by the heady marriage of diverse cultural stylings, characterised by the musical interplay between Rouse and Underwood. This time round, the majority of the songs and tunes are self-penned, opening with the five minute, fiddle-featured ‘Tamara’s Wedding’, Kulesh’s lyric about a woman seduced to hell by a duplicitously consoling demon after the death of the bridegroom inspired by ‘The Demon’, a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, itself drawing upon Georgian folk legend. Next up is the first of Honey’s five contributions, the far more English folk influences of ‘Seaview’ which, in talking about how certain places hold collective memories, may well be about the Edwardian resort on the Isle of Wight.
A similar wistful and whimsical quality informs his second song, ‘Adrienne’, which the notes describe as being about a song fairy, but is essentially about those magical singers who sometimes pop up at folk clubs, dazzle everyone, and are then gone. On a somewhat darker note, the melodeon-led, Drinkwater-featuring ‘Carousel Waltz’ addresses the cycle of addiction with slang references to cocaine and heroin before giving way to the frisky urgency of ‘Stormteller’ with its “pitter-patter” chorus which is all about those dark rain clouds that sometimes seem to hover over only you, although here Honey seems to suggest that such folk warrant having the soul sodden. His final number, ‘Devilry Dance’, is a clarinet-coloured jazzy folk swirl tale of Faustian pacts and metaphorical femme fatales that lead you on, promising to lift you on high only to see you fall.
Underwood makes his mark with two tracks, ‘Leigh Fishermen’, a traditional-flavoured tribute to those who risk their lives trawling the seas on which he harmonises behind Kulesh on the chorus, and the two sprightly- and, as you would expect, melodeon-led – English folk tunes ‘Hollingbourne/Broadhurst Gardens’, the titles referencing the village in Kent and his London suburb home.
Not to be left out, Rouse (who also appears on Ange Hardy’s Esteesee album) is featured, provides harmonies and arranged the six-and-a-half minute ‘Lovers’ Tasks/Black Tea Waltz’ which pairs a gently waltzing Appalachian version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ with her self-penned coda.
Of the three remaining tracks, Kulesh is wholly responsible for the haunting ‘Goodbye and Forgive Me’, its spooked musical box intro introducing a dark murder ballad, inspired by “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District”, about a woman trapped in an imprisoning marriage who conspires with her lover to have the husband killed, only for the crime to be exposed and her lover to take up with another woman, the end echoing the novel’s finale where both women drown.
Things are no cheerier on the dulcimer-based ‘Misery and Vodka’, her translation of a lugubrious Russian drinking song, sung in both English and the original, set to a Russian Gypsy tune (known as ‘Two Guitars’) by Ivan Vasiliev, though not the ballet dancer of the same name. The final track is also a traditional Russian tune and lyric, again translated by Kulesh, the title, ‘Ataman’, being the name given to Cossack military leaders, Rouse’s dulcimer solo precluding a mournful Russian and English sung story of a group of soldiers contemplating their fate (“rain will fall upon my bones…crows will feast upon my eyes”) in the coming battle. Not, perhaps, something to send you off into the evening full of the joys of life, but a terrific conclusion to a fine album but a band that deserve much wider recognition.
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Artists’ website: www.karafolkband.com
The Kara showreel video (with Gary Holbrook on accordion):