ANGE HARDY – Bring Back Home (Story Records STREC 1701)

Bring Back HomeAnge Hardy’s new album Bring Back Home was released on November 28th. For the past few years, she has had nominations and awards a-plenty, both for her music and most recently her radio programme, Folk Findings.

If you’ve not come across Ange Hardy before (I was surprised recently to find an acoustic music promoter who hadn’t) Bring Back Home is her sixth album and her music is in the English folk tradition. Except, of course, she’s not predominantly a singer of traditional English folk songs. On this album only two of the fourteen songs (‘Claudy Banks’ and a lovely version of ‘Waters of Tyne’) are traditional. The remainder are written by Hardy. Lyrically, musically and through the arrangements, though, they are at the heart of the tradition.

Have a listen to ‘What It Is’ for Hardy’s recognition that in chasing awards, “I’d missed the point of music! Life is far, far too short to chase goals without enjoying the journey”. The track has a beautifully poised vocal on a song that, until I read the sleeve notes, I heard as a generic lyric about life rather than the specific meaning for a writer who has now come to understand that the clubs, singers and audiences, not the awards, are “the beating heart of folk”.

Hardy’s voice absorbs the listener. On ‘Sisters Three’ the different phrasings draw you in to a folk tale about the development of good and evil in the heart of mankind, whereas on ‘Chase The Devil Down’ the vocal dances with the guitar throughout the track. On ‘The Hunter, The Prey’ her voice breathlessly pulls us into the magical world of the song, but on ‘Once I Was A Rose’ it is more acapella and more delicate. I had the CD in the car last week and my passenger, a trained singer, described the voice as “fine”. Her meaning was not, as I would use the word to mean, ‘better than good’ (though it is); she meant it in the way a maker would use the word in describing fine needlework, fine silverwork et al – deft, delicate, precise (as well as rather good).

Ange Hardy arranged and produced the album and the arrangements bring in musicians (Peter Knight, Lukas Drinkwater, Evan Carson, Alex Cumming, Jon Dyer and Lee Cuff) who enrich the songs and centre them in folk music. Similarly, the lyrics generally deal with universal themes, set in the “fictional landscape that seems to permeate many of my songs. Willow trees and streams…dense woodlands….A sense of magic and mystery surrounding complex characters; each on their own journey” [sleeve notes]. This, too, is very much a traditional folk landscape.

I’m writing this in the first week of December. As a result, I’m particularly struck by ‘What May You Do For The JAM’. When the Prime Minister expressed her concern for those who were just managing, civil servants acronymed them into the JAM. The song knows people in this world and, as well as knowing the fear of failing, has detail, “The turkey alone would be more than our savings” humanity, “And so I play Mum…..I carry on making a home full of Christmassy cheer”, and positivity, “My point is the only rock left here to build on is that of a world which has hope”. It’s as far as you can get from an acronym. Watch the video below and you’ll hear that it’s a good song as well as one which makes a human and political point. It might be too late, but if you fancy the idea, there are under three weeks to get a folk song to Number One for Christmas.

In the next couple of months there are gigs and radio shows that will help take Bring Back Home to a wider audience. That’s good, it’s a fine album.

Mike Wistow

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 below 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.

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

‘What May You Do For The JAM?”:

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: www.facebook.com/TheCompanyofPlayers

‘Method In The Madness’ – live:

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:

Saskia Griffiths-Moore announces new album

Saskia

Having left school with not much more than a GCSE in Astronomy, Saskia went into alternative therapy and established a practice on Harley Street, London.

She then quit it all to travel and write music; to learn her craft on the streets while busking, gigging, crowdfunding and touring, gaining regular BBC radio play, festival performances, and arts council supported national tours.

Night And Day, featuring multi award winning musicians, Ciaran Algar, Lukas Drinkwater, Jack Cookson and Evan Carson, is Saskia’s third studio album, which she describes as Anglicana – a roots inspired alt-folk fusion of acoustic meets pop. It was produced by Gareth Young at Cube Recordings in Cornwall.

The whole album explores themes of light and dark, love and loss, and joy in defeat, and revolves around her title track, ‘Night And Day’, which expresses Saskia’s vision of unity between people through love.

This album was crowdfunded by Saskia’s fans, raising £8000 in total and achieving her goal of £3000 within 10 hours of launching. She has also teamed up with Word Forest to make this album carbon neutral by offsetting through planting trees.

Artist’s website: www.saskiagm.com

‘Write Me A Song’:

EDGELARKS – Edgelarks (Dragonfly DRCD004)

EdgelarksHaving previously traded under their own names, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin have decided to save space on the album sleeves (well, after this one anyway) by reinventing themselves as Edgelarks. Fans will be pleased to know, however, that, musically, the duo haven’t rung too many changes.

Featuring contributions from Lukas Drinkwater on bass, John Elliott on drums and keyboards and table player Niall Robinson, inspired by last year’s tour of Australia, the album deals with themes of margins and marginalisation, of boundaries, transition and hope, opening in ‘Landlocked’, a moody, banjo-pinioned song about Nancy Perriam, a woman from Exmouth, who, in the early part of the 19th century, went to sea and travelled the world with the navy.

The slouching rhythm of ‘No Victory’ introduces a new instrument to their musical repertoire with Martin playing a pedal powered shruti box while the track also features Henry’s beatbox harmonica technique. Indeed, the instrumentation throughout is as eclectic as it is extensive, featuring Dobro, fiddle, banjo, a variety of guitars and the return of the Chaturangui, an Indian classical slide guitar played by Henry. On ‘Undelivered’, a song inspired by the discovery of a trunkload of undelivered 17th century letters, specifically one from a woman to the father of her unborn child, he even plays his lap slide Weissenborn with a paintbrush to create a buzzing drone.

Of a more recent origin, three intersecting true stories make up the sparse, drone-backed ‘Caravans’, pivoting around the 2010 sub-prime mortgages crash documented in the film The Big Short and exploring themes of ensuing loss and lives lived outside the financial vortex where dreams can kill.

Elsewhere, the Celtic-tinged ‘Signposts’, the most traditional folk sounding number, and the minimalist and appropriately glacial arrangement of ‘Iceberg’ offer fairly straightforward metaphors about making connections and people having hidden depths, respectively.

A suitably discordant affair, ‘Yarl’s Wood’ strikes a political note, being titled after and written about the Bedfordshire immigrant removal centre and the allegations of the abusive treatment of the women detainees, the theme of refugees resurfacing on ‘Borders’, which, set to drone and clacking percussion, is based around the true story of Afghan refugees who, seeking to ensure her future, send their five-year-old daughter on a journey, on foot, with two cousins to northern Europe in search of asylum.

Thematically connected, the tabla-dappled ‘Song Of The Jay’, ostensibly about how the Californian Bush Jay apparently sings a special song for the ‘funerals’ of other birds, of different species, serves as a metaphor for universal kinship. The drone is also created from a sample of a Jay singing.

Although also going by the title ‘The Emigrants Song’, sung in Cornish by Martin, the rhythmically pulsing traditional ‘Estren’ takes a different tack in the tale of an American traveller in Cornwall, leaving it open to question whether he intends to be true to the woman he meets and declares he’ll take back home or that she’s the latest in the list of those to whom he’s pledged s his loves.

There’s another traditional number to be found with the mortality-themed ‘What’s The Life of Man?’ given a suitably simple and reflective tone before the instrumentation swells in the final stretch. As well as them both featuring the Chaturangui, it also serves to set the scene for the upbeat final track, the self-penned, acoustic accompanied ‘The Good Earth’ which treats on nature’s life cycle of death and renewal and, by extension, the connections we share with one another, both those around us and those who have gone before as she sings how “we grow on old wood, we are links in the chain.”

The couple say they chose their new name as it captures the concept of liminality or transition explored in their songs and the idea of their music being on the periphery. Given the quality here, that may be a status that will also prove to be in a state of transition.

Mike Davies

Phil Henry and Hannah Martin 24/9/17a

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 Edgelarks 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]

Artists’ website: www.edgelarks.co.uk

‘Song Of The Jay’:

EMILY MAE WINTERS – Siren Serenade (own label EMW 02)

Siren SerenadeCo-produced by Josienne Clarke’s musical other half, Ben Walker, and Laura Marling knob-twiddler Lauren Deakin-Davies, following on from her Foreign Waters EP (which Walker also produced and which earned her a Folking Awards Rising Star nomination), Siren Serenade is the debut album from Cambridge-based singer-songwriter, poetry enthusiast and sometime theatre critic Emily Mae Winters.

Featuring musical contributions from, among others, Lukas Drinkwater on double bass, Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage as well as both producers, the twelve tracks highlight both her slightly vibrato vocals and the influences in her music, Gillian Welch, Kate Rusby, The Unthanks, Alison Krauss and Sarah Jarosz among them.

There’s a couple of folk chestnuts here, Jenny Lee Ridley’s flute introing a crowd swayalong version of John Connolly’s fisherman’s farewell shanty ‘Fiddler’s Green’ featuring Jack Pout on bodhran, a strummed guitar and fiddle providing the instrumental playout. The second nods to her love of poetry with a haunting drone setting of WB Yeats’ ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’.

The album opens with the ripplingly lovely self-penned reflective ballad ‘Blackberry Lane’ featuring Savage on dobro and nodding to the rootsy Americana in her musical DNA. Maya McCourt who played cello on the EP reprises duties on the gently circling acoustic guitar melody of Anchor, while Winters takes to the piano for ‘As If You Read My Mind’, a soaring vocal pop tinged ballad that, coloured by strings, draws on the classic 60s sound of Carole King but also suggests hints of Joan Baez.

If all these have been relatively sedate, ‘Hook, Line And Sinker’ ups the tempo for, with Savage again on dobro, a catchy slice of strummed rootsy pop, an equally live paced being set on the scurrying Irish-tinted, whistle backed story-song ‘The Ghost Of The Pirate Queen’ showing a more muscular side to her voice.

Mostly though, the mood is quietly bucolic, beautifully rendered on the lullaby-like ‘Miles To Go’ (which, like ‘Anchor’, appeared on the EP) and moody piano and cello ballad ‘The Star’, the former a nod to the poet Robert Frost, the latter to John Keats.

Although her vocals are mesmerising throughout, the remaining two numbers really see them come into the glory. ‘Reprise’, the album closer, is a piano accompanied almost chorale-like stentorian duet with Sanders. And, accompanied only by clicking fingers and hummed vocals, she sings a capella, the title track itself, for me the album stand out, which echoes the Appalachian revivalist feel of ‘Down To The River To Pray’ and ‘Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby’ from Oh Brother Where Art Thou. In Greek mythology, sirens lured sailors on to the rocks with their singing; Winters can wreck me any time.

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 EMILY MAE WINTERS – Siren Serenade 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.emilymaewinters.com

‘Blackberry Lane’ – the Oak Sessions video: