I love the music that is being produced in Scotland these days. I love its adventurousness and its imagination. I love the way that musical partnerships come together and split apart as though there is too much music for anyone to stand still long enough to make two albums together. But behind all this is the wealth of traditional music that stretches back over the centuries and underpins all the innovation.
Which is where Malinky come in. They are dedicated to Scots song and uncompromising in their commitment to the Scots language, which is a little surprising when you remember that their early years helped to propel Karen Polwart to solo songwriter stardom. Malinky are not averse to borrowing a song when it’s appropriate, however, so the version of ‘The Twa Sisters’ is translated from the original Swedish by Steve Byrne. ‘Long Cookstown’ is an Irish song, presumably brought in by Mark Dunlop who sings it; ‘The Wild Geese’ is a poem by Violet Jacob set to music by Jim Reid and Mike Vass gets to include one of his own tunes.
The rest is pure Scots traditional and my favourite is a song I’ve known for years but is rarely heard this far south. ‘The Bonnie Hoose O Airlie’ is a story of 17th century warfare between the royalist Earl Of Airlie and the anti-monarchist Earl Of Argyll although you can’t help but feel that there was something more opportunistic behind the attack given that Airlie wasn’t even there. The story has been embellished over the years but it’s still a superb song and beautifully sung by Fiona Hunter. Second to it but only by a whisker is ‘Son David’, another beautiful song telling a grim story. This version comes from Jeannie Robertson and features producer Donald Shaw on Ivor Cutler’s old harmonium and rich harmony singing from all four band members.
It’s not all gloom and bloodshed. ‘The Brisk Young Lad’ is a tale of failed courtship and ‘The Moss O Burreldale’ is apparently about a fight between Traveller families although it sounds far too jolly for that – just how does one plait one’s knees?
As I remarked, Malinky are somewhat uncompromising in their use of language and a crash course in Scots dialect would be advantageous but most of it makes perfect sense with the odd word or phrase to be deciphered. Oddly, Violet Jacob’s words are the most difficult.
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I had a clever introduction about another young singer falling into good company to make her debut but, of course, as lead vocalist with Malinky for ten years, Fiona Hunter has put in the miles already.
However this is her solo debut and the company is indeed good. There’s former band-mate Mike Vass who also produced the record and wrote a couple of the tunes that are woven into the songs; Matheu Watson who is everyone’s favourite Scottish guitarist at the moment; Euan Watson on double bass and Gillian Frame as second vocalist. Fiona’s source material is the wider Scots tradition, including Roberts Tannahill and Burns, which we can extend to Ewan McVicar’s ‘Shift And Spin’, which sounds more traditional than some traditional songs, and Andy Hunter’s ‘Ye Hielan Chiels’. Hey, it’s forty years old now!
Fiona’s skill is that she is equally convincing when singing a piece of nonsense like ‘The Weary Pund O’ Tow’ as when delivering a big ballad such as ‘The Cruel Mother’ or ‘Young Emsley’ – a variant of the young sailor murdered by his girl-friend’s parents story. There’s a favourite of mine here, ‘The Bleacher Lass O’ Kelvinhaugh’, and another piece of silliness to finish with in the shape of ‘Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow’ complete with the most tuneful chorus of drunks you’ll ever hear bashing out ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. The band is restrained in accompaniment and provides Fiona a platform for her cello while having free rein to stretch out in the instrumental passages. This is destined to be another of my albums of the year.
*** Although Fiona Hunter is officially released on March 3rd you can buy an advance copy from her website now. ***
An album that beguiles from the moment go with “Rose Song” utilising Chris Wright’s finger-picked twelve-string guitar tuned to open C acting as a perfect balance under the delicately beautiful vocals of Lucy Pringle. Although the strength of the song lies in the telling, producer Steve Byrne (of Malinky) should in many ways be held responsible for discovering this gem from Norway which would stand proudly side by side anything written by Burns or Tannahill.
If an album was ever hinged on one song then for me this would be it but of course there are plenty to choose from by this excellent duo. Without wishing to appear rude the second track (a version of the 22 verse “Lady Maisry”) is also striking for its opening bars with a banjo intro reminiscent of that used on the “Bagpuss” theme before it cleverly turns into double-time driving this dramatic account of love, honour-killing and revenge to its bloody conclusion. However, of all the things I’m most impressed about is how it somehow manages to capture a sense of isolation (listen to “Bramblethorn”) via the inclusion of the reed drone Shruti-Box (I didn’t know what it was either before I checked it up on the web) providing a true feeling of unease. This recording may be stark in its presentation but if you are looking for ways to indulge around an hour of your precious time I couldn’t recommend an album more highly. PETE FYFE
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