Rapsquillion is a harmony group known to “stalk the Welsh Marches with their eclectic mix of songs” though these days they seem to be stalking well beyond the border country. However, their CD Earthly Joys certainly lives up to the eclectic label, covering a wider range of material than I’d expected with panache.
The line-up for this album consists of Trevor Hedges (vocals, guitar), Kay Hedges (vocals, flute), Jenny Wright (vocals, recorder), Dave Wright (vocals, harmonica), Andy Ketchen (vocals, guitar, concertina), Sue Lawrence (vocals, flute, violin), and Nancy Ketchen (vocals, bodhrán), while Jon Bell contributes concertina to ‘Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmates’ and Sue Stockton-Link takes lead vocals on ‘Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore’.
Here’s my track-by-track reaction:
- The CD kicks off in fine style with ‘Asikhatali’ (sometimes known with a variant spelling, or as ‘The ANC Song’ or ‘Children Of Africa’). Sophisticated harmonies that play well to the individual qualities of the singers.
- The second track revisits ‘The Broadside Man’, by John Connolly and Bill Meek of The Broadside. To be honest, I always want to take a red pencil to the line about the pirate hanged on Tyburn Tree, but I suppose the likelier ‘hanged on Execution Dock’ would have presented rhyming problems. Nevertheless, this version has a nice balance between the harmonies on the chorus and the individual voices on the verses, all suitably propelled by the underlying bodhrán.
- ‘Street Calls/Sea Coal’ combines a medley of street calls with a haunting arrangement of the Graeme Miles song ‘Sea Coal’. .
- Andy Ketchen’s ‘Raffa’ is based on a story of a boy and his raven heard on the Welsh Borders. Unusually for this CD, it has a (very suitable) prominent guitar backing, and the attractive lyric is augmented by lovely high harmonies on the chorus from ‘the gorgeous Rapsquillettes‘.
- I always preferred Mike Harding in serious mode, and his song ‘King Cotton’ is about as serious as it gets, with its images of hard living among the dark satanic mills of the industrial North. The tune here isn’t quite as Harding sang it, but the harmonies are very effective.
- ‘Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore’ is a plygain (‘cockcrow’, being sung characteristically at an uncivilized hour on Christmas morning) carol with words generally credited to David Hughes (1794-1862). Harmonies worth getting up for.
- ‘John Barleycorn’ is pretty much the ‘Hey, John Barleycorn’ version collected in the ’50s from George Attrill of Sussex. A stirring tune with ace harmonies.
- ‘An Dros’ takes a break from vocalization with an instrumental track, an attractive pair of Breton dance tunes – an An Dro being a circle dance in 4/4. Much as I like their singing, I wouldn’t hate it if they did more things like this. J
- There have been many excellent close harmony versions of ‘The Lyke Wake Dirge’ since the Young Tradition recorded it in the 1960s, making full use of its scope for eerie harmony. This version has more dynamic and harmonic variation than some other versions. I like it a lot, but I’d have preferred it if the main melody had been a bit further forward in the mix.
- ‘Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmates’ is a sea song that has increased in popularity since it was featured in Master And Commander (apparently – somehow I missed that bit!). It’s a jaunty tune (slightly reminiscent of ‘Come Landlord Fill The Flowing Bowl’) underpinned by Jon Bell’s concertina.
- ‘Quand Je Bois’ is an ambitious polyphonic arrangement of a French drinking song, going into Gilles Chabenat’s bourrée ‘La Poule Huppée’. I’ll drink to that.
- The tune of Chumbawumba’s ‘Singing Out The Days’ in part resembles ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’, but the words are more reminiscent of the plight of the Poor Bloody Infantry in the Great War. A great song, well sung.
- ‘Time Ashore Is Over’ is Bill Meek’s forebitter-flavoured song, written for the Fishing Heritage Centre production Here’s To The Grimsby Lads, adapted to present the voices of both the trawlerman and his wife, with restrained concertina and flute.
- Finally, some rafters get raised with the Jim Boyes song ‘Unison In Harmony’, long associated with Coope Boyes & Simpson. An entirely satisfying end to the set.
Before I heard Earthly Joys, I wasn’t sure how well Rapsquillion’s irresistible charm in a live session or workshop would transfer to CD. But it works very well: what’s lost in spontaneity and humour is regained in vocal depth and dynamic subtlety. The group’s many fans will certainly not be disappointed, and I suspect that the CD will make them more than a few more fans.
Artist’s website: https://rapsquillion.co.uk/
‘Street Calls/Sea Coal’ – official video: