WHITE ROOKS – I See Fairisies (Chalk Horse Music)

I See FairisiesFirst up, some history. Back in 1999, singer Liz Overs and future husband producer Darren Pearson, who first performed together as Eastbourne-based outfit The Hit Troop, were a poppy house music duo who, signed to Atlantic as Pocket Size, released the 100% Human album from which ‘Walking’ became #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart while ‘Human Touch’ was featured in Laura Fraser film Virtual Sexuality.

Fast forward to today and, after a decade in which she did no singing at all, they’re now (along with live rhythm section Richard Walder and Ben Clennell) White Rooks, the music having undergone a sea change to encompass both traditional and self-penned folk, the album specifically drawing on the landscape and legend of Sussex, the area also giving its name to their label.

The debut mini-album title coming from a local dialect variation on fairies, it weaves together the songs with field recordings of Sussex bonfire parades (a particular local tradition predating the Gunpowder plot), sea shanties and woodlands, opening with ‘Tell Me Who’ which, waltzing around strummed acoustic guitar, Clennell’s scratchy drums and a repeated mandolin (?) phrase, takes inspiration from the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head (from where the seagulls at the end were recorded), the dreamily undulating melody at odds with the breathily sung lyrics which draw on the fact that they’re also one of the UK’s best-known suicide spots.

Thirty seconds shorter at five minutes, ‘Nan Tuck’ features bonfire parade and woodland field recordings adding colour and texture to electronic beats and circling guitar that manages to combine both medieval troubadour tropes and tropical breezes, the gauzy vocals unfolding a lyric about fear of outsiders in the community, inspired by the legend of a supposed witch, more likely a living in Buxted in the 1600s who supposedly haunts Tuck Wood. Interestingly, the legend takes more than one form, in one version she’s a young girl with mental problems found hung – most likely lynched – in the wood while, another has Nan as an old woman who poisoned her husband and, fleeing her pursuers, vanished into the wood and disappeared. In both cases, however, her ghost has reportedly been sighted running down Tuck Lane.

Representing the traditional material, a spare guitar and keyboard drone shaped ‘Unquiet Grave’ is a well-known Child ballad dating back to around 1400 in which a dead woman bemoans how her lover’s constant mourning won’t let her find peace. The vocals recorded in Berwick Church, the version here, however, is that collected in Sussex in 1912 by Percy Merrick, also known in the Vaughn Williams arrangement as ‘How The Cold Wind Doth Blow’, in which it’s a young woman sitting lamenting her lover’s death and keeping him from rest.

Built around a circular drum pattern, featuring flute by Oren Gurney and ending on a field recording clip of the RX Shantymen from one of their weekly sessions in Hastings, the upbeat Sunbeam draws lyrically on both the “rain rain go away” children’s nursery rhyme and Nellie Talbot’s kids’ hymn ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’.

At 100 seconds, ‘Tell Me Who You Really Are’ ends things with an instrumental of sorts, a cacophonous treated sample phrase from the bonfire parade crowds that closes with hummed vocals and a military drum beat. An inventive and intoxicating work, it launches both label and band in impressive form and, given the rich folklore history of Sussex, is hopefully just a foretaste of things to come.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: https://www.chalkhorsemusic.com/

‘Nan Tuck’ – official video: