THE COMPANY OF PLAYERS – Shakespeare Songs (own label)

Shakespeare SongsThe Company of Players is an assemblage of young musicians brought together at the behest of Jess Distill of Said The Maiden, in order to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 by putting together some songs related to his life and work. And one of the fruits of that collaboration is the CD Shakespeare Songs. Participants are Jess Distill (vocals, flute, Shruti box – a drone instrument somewhat like a harmonium), Hannah Elizabeth (vocals, violin), Kathy Pilkinton (vocals, clarinet, spoons, mandolin), Sam Kelly (vocals, acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion), Kelly Oliver (vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica), Lukas Drinkwater (vocals, electric guitar, double bass), Chris Cleverley (vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo), Kim Lowings (vocals, dulcimer, piano), Minnie Birch (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Daria Kulesh (vocals).

And a very interesting set it is, too. Knowing nothing of the project, I was, I suppose, expecting performances of songs that actually feature in Shakespeare plays (‘The Willow Song’, for example) or settings of his words, possibly accompanied by instruments from the period – which would have been fine by me! – but there are no lutes or viols here, and the range of material is both wider and in many cases more modern than I expected.

Track listing:

  1. ‘Black Spirits’, by Kathy Pilkinton, takes its title and lyrical content from Macbeth: specifically, Act I Scene I, and Act IV Scene I, taken verbatim from speeches by the Three Witches. It starts with minor-key, dirge-like close harmonies from Said The Maiden over an instrumental drone, then picks up the pace with percussion from Sam Kelly, while the harmonies of Jess, Hannah and Kathy are augmented by the voices of Sam, Chris, Kelly and Minnie.
  2. Minnie Birch’s ‘Up And Down’ borrows ideas and imagery from Midsummer’s Night Dream, and even the chorus is based (though not verbatim) on the words of Puck:
    Up and down, up and down,
    I will lead them up and down
    The sound, however, is very ‘modern folk’. In fact, it reminded me a little of Megan Henwood, which is certainly not a complaint. A very pretty tune.
  3. ‘Gather Round’, by Kim Lowings, draws on ideas and imagery from The Tempest. However, the expression is unashamedly modern, and would not sound out of place on Radio 2. (Hey, that’s not a criticism: I often listen to Radio 2!)
  4. While the title of Chris Cleverley’s ‘But Thinking Makes It So’ comes from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark – “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” the song seems to be a more general musing on the human condition and psychological frailty, no doubt influenced by the well-known soliloquy. Very attractive.
  5. In contrast, ‘Method In The Madness’, by Jess Distill and Kim Lowings, is clearly based on Hamlet (perhaps somewhat influenced by the Icelandic Amlóði or the Amleth of Saxo Grammaticus, somewhat less conflicted precursors of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark). It’s curious that such a dark, corpse-strewn play should attract such light music. While this doesn’t have the levity of Adam McNaughtan’s ‘Oor Hamlet’ (chanted or sung to ‘The Mason’s Apron’), its sprightly tune, married to instrumentation that would not be out of place at a bluegrass festival, could certainly be described as toe-tapping. In fact, the tune would fit nicely into that group of American songs including ‘The Roving Gambler’, ‘Poor Ellen Smith’, and ‘Going Across The Mountain’. I’m almost tempted to describe it as fun.
  6. ‘Song Of The Philomel’ is a gentle song by Kim Lowings: the slightly archaic expression in the lyrics recalls Titania’s lullaby in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Philomel is both an old name for the nightingale and a 19th-century instrument somewhat related to the violin, though Hannah’s fiddle here doesn’t have the philomel’s shrill tone.) I particularly like this track.
  7. ‘Interval’ is a brief instrumental track, not listed in the sleeve notes or lyric booklet, but its mournful, slightly dissonant tone serves very appropriately as an introduction to the next track, ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk’. Amusingly, the press release ascribes its inclusion to Midsummer’s Eve mischief-making by the Fairy Queen and her followers. However, there’s nothing light-hearted about either track.
  8. Daria Kulesh’s ‘Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk’ draws its story, as the title suggests, from the novella Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (and the source of an opera by Shostakovich), rather than directly from Shakespeare. Darla’s dramatic delivery of a melody fittingly reminiscent of Russian folk music is almost operatic in its intensity.
    By the way, the Russian word прощай, which appears several times in the lyric, generally means something like ‘farewell’ or ‘goodbye forever’, but can also mean something like ‘forgive’, which perhaps echoes the more sympathetic portrayal of Katerina in Shostakovich’s opera. Just a thought.
  9. ‘You Needs Must Be Strangers’ takes verses from Sir Thomas More. The authorship of this play is, to say the least, complicated. But it is generally accepted that 147 lines added to the play in 1603 were contributed by Shakespeare in his own handwriting. Its meditation on the plight of the exile has an all-too-apposite resonance in the 21st century, reminding me a little of Martin Thomas’s ‘The Exile’.
  10. ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’, by Hannah Elizabeth, sets the song from As You Like It described by Touchstone as “untuneable”, though Hannah’s setting (like Thomas Morley’s long before it) disproves that description. A great tune, though the extended playout is a little overlong for my taste.
  11. The lyric to ‘Jessica’s Sonnet’ is actually not quite a sonnet, but then it isn’t by Shakespeare either, being credited to Kelly Davis, Kim Lowings and Sam Kelly. It does, however, represent the thoughts of Jessica, the daughter of The Merchant Of Venice, just before she elopes with Lorenzo. The vocals are credited to Sam and Chris, but there’s a strong female vocal there, too, plus other harmonies that seem to be from the whole Company.

This certainly isn’t the sort of music I was expecting, but I certainly can’t say I was in the least disappointed by what I heard. Good solo and harmony vocals, excellent instrumental work where technique serves the interests of the songs but never overshadow them, and some very attractive tunes. If you’re among the many people who were completely put off The Bard by unimaginative English lessons, don’t let that put you off this take on his life and work. And if you love Shakespeare but are open to alternative ‘takes’ like West Side Story you may well like this.

It’s certainly staying on my iPod.

David Harley

Artist’s website:

‘Method In The Madness’ – live:

HICKS AND GOULBOURN – Immortal (Striatum Records 140716)

ImmortalA first glance at the track listing here and you might wonder how Immortal is going to work but it all fits together quite smoothly. Steve Hicks is guitar maker and player and Lynn Goulbourn is a singer and songwriter, who also plays guitar, and their talents mesh together well. Even so, there are some surprises.

They start with ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ but not the dirge it can sometimes turn out to be. This is a high energy reading of the song based on Doc Watson’s version although even Watson didn’t rock it quite like this. It does give Steve to showcase his guitar playing from the outset. They immediately change the mood with Jim McLean’s ‘Hush Hush’ – a song about the Highland Clearances and set to the tune ‘The Mist Covered Mountain’ that has done the rounds including a notable version by Dick Gaughan. Lynn’s warm tones suit it well and it doesn’t sound too English. The mood is maintained in the title track, written by Lynn, in which Steve speaks the lyrics over a Latin vocal line by Lynn and Kim Lowings who appears on other tracks on mountain dulcimer and keyboards.

Steve’s guitar comes to the fore again with a couple of 14th century Italian tunes with Kim playing the harpsichord continuo. Then come two more of Lynn’s songs. I’m not taken with ‘This Is The Friend’ which combines reggae and ragtime but ‘The Secret Tree Of Gotham’ is pure folk-rock and Steve works snatches of traditional tunes into his breaks. For me it gets a bit weird now. Pentangle’s ‘So Clear’ is gorgeous but I wouldn’t want ‘Cry Me A River’ on an album even if does show off Lynn’s voice and range to best effect. Next, ‘The Reincarnation Of Ratboy’ is a jazz guitar solo and that’s followed by a soulful version of ‘Jesus Was A Bootlegger’. I mean, what is going on?

Finally we have Lynn’s humorous ‘The Forst Geordie’ blended with a guitar version of ‘Blaze Away’. If this were a live set it would be a perfect ending and everyone would go home feeling that they had a good night out but for a studio album there is a suspicion that Steve and Lynn have tried too hard for variety. I can understand that – a homogeneous set of songs can get boring very quickly and Immortal is never boring.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘This Is The Friend’ live:

Kim Lowings, Drifting Point (EP)

Hailing from the West Midlands, Kim Lowings evokes the bohemian spirit reminiscent of the singer-songwriter movement that flourished so colourfully during the late 60s and early 70s. Lowings is however anything but a pastiche, resolutely stamping her own identity on her work. Singing with a voice that boasts a warm femininity, and avoiding the weary, self-indulgent cliches worn by many songwriters, it’s a hard heart who wouldn’t be smitten with Lowings’ engaging and often breezy disposition.

Lowings’ dulcimer features heavily throughout this EP, lending a distinct sound, and adding much to the carefree spirit that blossoms so radiantly. Opening track, “Did You Ever,” transports the listener to a sanguine dreamscape, contrasting the playful innocence of childhood with the more troubled aspects of adult life. Lowings demonstrates a restless character and possibly a good deal of ambition on “Sapphire,” where she seems to eschew the familiarity of her hometown in search of fresh life experiences that carry her to distant shores.

On occasion Lowings’ writing borrows subtly from the language of traditional ballads, instilling her contemporary freshness with an unmistakeable essence of the tradition, particularly noticeable in the poetic grace with which she weaves the natural world in to her lyrics. Closing track, “The Flounder,” portrays this aspect most prominently, sounding to all intents and purposes as if it might well be an age-old traditional ballad.

This five-track EP serves as a lovely introduction to Kim Lowings, and is packed with promise aplenty that will all but ensure she commands a prominent future amongst the folk scene.

Oh, and… I think I’ve just fallen in love with the dulcimer.

Mike Wilson