Originally from Philadelphia, singer, songwriter, guitarist and much-praised clawhammer banjo-player Zoe Mulford now lives (sometimes) in Manchester. She is currently on tour with Tom Kitching whose fiddle plays a major role in the sound of this record. Small Brown Birds is Zoe’s fifth album, mostly original songs with two covers.
The opening track, ‘Answer The Knock At The Door’, is deceptively light but hidden within is a rebuke to those governments who turn their backs on refugees. ‘Back Door Key’ paints a picture of domestic contentment concealing a message to a former lover along the lines of “you’re a bastard but I miss you”. Bob Beach’s harmonica emphases the hidden melancholy. The banjo first appears on ‘February Thunder’, a look forward to the expected spring that may be personified in Jenny, a lonely woman who everyone knows but nobody knows. I like the interplay between Ken Pendergast’s bass and Sam McEvoy’s cajon here as the song morphs into the traditional ‘Frosty Morning’..
You really can’t afford to let your attention wander. ‘One Damn Thing’ hints at a series of personal disasters without ever being explicit. The first cover is The Red Clay Ramblers’ fantasy shanty ‘The Queen Of Skye’, which could perhaps use a bit more welly although Tom’s fiddle drives it along nicely enough. That track marks a change of mood. ‘Snow On The Junkyard’ is bleak, ‘Speak True’ regretful and ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ is a meditation on the Charleston church shooting built on Zoe’s piano chords. Joan Baez has recorded it for her new album.
It’s back to the banjo for ‘Blackbird’ which seems to sit well at this point and leads into the traditional sounding instrumental title track featuring fiddle, banjo and Mark Allen’s whistle. ‘Zillionaire’ is a wry but jolly attack on corporate greed and the record comes full circle with the welcoming ‘Won’t You Come On In?’ to put things back in perspective.
I have to confess that Small Brown Birds is my first contact with Zoe Mulford and now, by happy coincidence, I can look forward to hearing her live in a week or so. It could be destiny.
Artist’s website: http://zoemulford.com/
‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ – live: