Here & Now must be the first album to open with a song collected from that bastion of the tradition, Facebook™. ‘Dust If You Must’ is an anonymous poem set to music, and while there is nothing wrong with it, per se, I’d rather have it as an encore than an overture.
Moirai are Jo Freya, Melanie Biggs and Sarah Matthews, multi-instrumentalists, composers and vocalists, and this is their second album. They have settled into their groove now; mixing original compositions with traditional pieces and a title track borrowed from Daz Barker. The ratio of songs to instrumentals is higher this time with Jo and Sarah handling the majority of the vocals. Jo’s history with Blowzabella and her penchant for reed instruments frequently give their music a continental feel and bourrees are often intertwined with songs. There’s a pair of mazurkas, written by Jo and Melanie, and Jo’s clarinet combined with Melanie’s rhythmic melodeon playing give ‘The Black And The Grey/The Green Ship’ a European vibe although I suspect that both tunes are British.
The first of two traditional songs is ‘Doffin Mistress’, learned by Sarah from Corinne Male and not quite like any other version I’ve encountered. I suspect that it’s closer to its Irish roots than some more popular variants. The second is ‘The Bedmaking’, combining tunes from Gloucestershire and Wales into a particularly fine version. Sarah’s ‘The Bellamont Sisters’ is an old Derbyshire tale of the building of the 13th century Swarkestone bridge that probably should have been a song but wasn’t and Jo’s ‘The Hare’ is a rather odd song about the origins of Easter eggs and bunnies. Best of all is ‘Rolanda’s Grandmother’. There is a back-story that I’ve been unable to track down but essentially it’s about the way the horrors of war never leave those who witness them.
Here & Now sees Moirai in a more serious mood that did Sideways and gives the impression of material gathered with the trio specifically in mind. There is some lovely playing from all three and everything just feels right.
Cupola:Ward is a co-operative venture between Cupola – Doug Euson, Sarah Matthews and Oli Matthews – and Lucy Ward. All four come from Derbyshire, a county that’s on the rise in breeding singers and musicians, but only three of the songs originate there. The template for their debut album, Bluebell, comes from what some of us still think of as a golden age: some traditional songs and a couple of covers, nothing too outré but variations on the familiar.
The set opens with a high energy take on Julie Matthews’ ‘Crane Driver’, originally written for the 2006 Radio Ballads. It’s a great song and Cupola:Ward do it full justice. They follow that with Tucker Zimmerman’s ‘Taoist Tale’ paired with ‘Blew Bell Hornpipe’; a philosophical song enlivened with a sparkling tune . The first native song is ‘Jacob’s Well’ a version specifically from a Derbyshire collection and now we’ve had a touch of rock, a bit of thoughtfulness and unaccompanied four-part harmony. If you want to draw comparisons with Muckram Wakes I won’t stand in your way.
The band does odd things with the timing of ‘Sprig Of Thyme’ and mix it with ‘Playing For Thyme’, a tune of Doug’s. The song, like so many venerable compositions, can suffer from over-familiarity and Cupola:Ward’s changes draw you back to the text with new ears. The second Derbyshire song is ‘Damped In His Groove’ written, coincidentally, by an old school friend and musical cohort of mine, Geoff Convery. It’s about lead mining, a subject that Geoff has researched extensively, specifically the death of a miner who died where he worked – damped in his groove, as the saying went. The third local song is ‘Squire Of Tamworth’ a song which, while never actually falling out of fashion, is definitely back in again.
The medley of The Beatles’ ‘Nowhere Man’ with an 18th century dance tune is a pleasant diversion and there are three more contrasting traditional songs: ‘Willie’s Lady’, ‘Heather Down The Moor’ and ‘Gower Wassail’ before the set ends with ‘Normandy Orchards’ by the late and much lamented Keith Marsden. Keith (and Cockersdale) gave us a lot of fun over the years but perhaps this is a good moment in time to look again at his more serious work and for someone to revisit those songs.
Bluebell is one of the unexpected delights that comes with this job. It’s my sort of record so thank you, Cupola:Ward.
Sometimes simple is best and Song And Laughter bears that out. Two voices, melodeons, fiddle and viola and a repertoire you could imagine hearing in any folk club. There is no need for deep textual analysis here, the title says it all.
The set opens with ‘In Praise Of Alcohol’, a poem by Robert Service with the sort of rhymes that signal themselves so you can wince at them well in advance. The music was written by the late Canadian singer David Parry who made a speciality of Service’s work. The same theme is taken up again in ‘Good Ale For My Money’ although in this case the singer is more particular about his choice of tipple.
Doug and Sarah cast their song gathering net far and wide. There is John Tams’ ‘Lily Gilders’ from one of the later Radio Ballads; ‘The Dutch In The Medway’ from the brilliant songwriting partnership of Rudyard Kipling and Peter Bellamy and Leon Rosselson’s ‘The Ant And The Grasshopper’. Doug adds some new verses to ‘The Grey Goose And The Gander’ which make as much sense as the originals do and Sarah provides the music for the jolly ‘Windmill At Heague’, a poem by Shelley Posen. It’s not all fun and games – ‘The Ordeal Of Andrew Rose’ is the true and horrific tale of the cruel fate of a sailor at the hands of his captain and mate. It’s not sung very often mostly, I suspect, for reasons of delicacy but Doug does the only thing possible and sings it straight without an excess of emotion.
There are two instrumental sets to round out the album and the record finishes with a wassail which complements the Rosselson song which precedes it but I can’t help but think that the take-home message that now comes from the latter song is not the one that Leon intended when he wrote it. In these days of austerity the ant should help the grasshopper. No deep textual analysis? Maybe not.
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It couldn’t really happen in any other sphere of musical life. I mean, you don’t get orchestras gathering at the pub after a festival for a session, do you? In the folk world it happens all the time and that’s how Jo Freya, Melanie Biggs and Sarah Matthews met and decided to form a group.
It feels natural. Their chosen instruments are sax and clarinet, melodeon and flute and violin and guitar – all basically smooth and melodic with nothing too jangly. Their repertoire came together in the same way – songs and tunes written or acquired over the years and dusted down anew. Without the sort of cross-fertilization that the folk scene encourages Melanie’s ‘Ufton Court Schottische’ wouldn’t have found a partner in Sarah’s ‘All Saints’.
Seven of the thirteen tracks are instrumentals beginning with a pair of bourrées written by Gilles Chabenat and moving through a mazurka, a waltz, a hornpipe and a reel as well as tunes written from a variety of inspirations. The songs tend to be light-hearted, the exceptions being ‘Garden Of Love’, a setting of William Blake’s poem by Dave Walters and Sarah’s ‘Candlelight’, brought out of retirement for the late Maggie Boyle.
The title track refers to a story that most of us would try to forget if it had happened to us but Jo has no such inhibitions and it has a hook that is guaranteed to have an audience singing along. I won’t tell you any more. ‘Twiddles’, by Janie Meneely, is a feminist variant on the sailor’s girl in every port story – think of Chumbawamba’s ‘Learning To Love’ – and ‘Bed And Breakfast’: well, if you’re a working musician you’ll know exactly what it’s about.
Sideways is a delightful, relaxing album. The instruments blend easily as do the voices – in fact, I’d like to hear more of their harmonies applied to something a bit weightier. But we mustn’t be greedy.
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