HANNAH JAMES AND THE JIGDOLL ENSEMBLE – The Woman And Her Words (BMC JDR002)

The Woman And Her WordsWhat with Hannah Elizabeth and Hannah Martin, Hannah seems to be a favourite name among the contemporary English folk circle at present, this particular Hannah being a third of Lady Maisery and acclaimed as one of the scene’s best accordionists. Recorded in Budapest with backing musicians Scottish fiddler Katy Young, Estonian bassist and co-producer Marti Tärn, Hungarian percussionist András Dés and guest French cellist Toby Kuhn, it’s a collection of self-penned songs and instrumentals that, for the most, address contemporary concerns through the musical lens of traditional folk. Fiddle to the fore, The Woman And Her Words opens with ‘Canal Song’, a portrait of inner-city life where long lines of concrete are designed to keep everyone on the move contrasted with the calm of nature at the end of “a corridor of green”, where the heron and the cormorant dwell while, somewhere,a faceless planner rolls out a map and asks why we need such empty spaces.

Gradually building rippling hand percussion and drone provide the introduction to ‘Dayspring’, a five minute metaphor of spring as renewal that, dedicated to the groundwell among the young generation protesting climate change and gun control, sees the young shoots of tomorrow as the hope to rise up against the old man of winter, which in turn, gives way to ‘Dancing Out of Sight’ with the jazzy arrangement of bass and percussion backdropping James as she sings a lyric overcast with images of an encroaching darkness and the withering light of the evening” as “one day we will follow the twilight back to the place where we tangled our feet”, again hinting at renewal through a return to the source.

Taking its title from a post gig exclamation by the late promotor Alan James, ‘What The Hell Was That?’ is the first of the instrumentals, surging accordion, drone and drums intercut with a percussive interlude from James before Young’s fiddle picks the momentum back up.

The theme of dance returns with the lengthy ‘Will We Dance?’, beginning with wordless tune singing and opening out to embrace a circling watery percussive pattern and fiddle as, in a reflection on the act of creation, she contemplates whether we should not attempt to fly for fear of falling or insecurity, the musical dynamic shifting as the track progresses.

‘Hush Now’, meanwhile, comes from a very specific impetus, that of the recent spate of mass shootings in America, particularly those in Florida last year, its commentary in the country’s gun laws couched as an accordion-led lullaby, an indictment of how “the banners are hanging at half mast today/While men in high towers do nothing but pray”, concluding with the bitter irony that “He entered your body with fire and with lead/So we’ll fight for his freedom as we lay your head”.

A portrait of a modern family man buckling under the strain, torn between juggling job, wife, parents and children and eventually having a breakdown, guided back to the light by the apparition of a wise old woman, unfolding more as short story the ten-minute epic title track, sparsely arranged but building in urgency, is perhaps a tad overwritten and overlong as a song given the simplicity of its message about not repressing your emotions, or as the woman puts it “you don’t need to keep your sadness inaprison and you on;t need to lose yourself to show you’re strong”. It does, however, come with a bitter sting in the tail.

The last of the songs is the musically stripped back ‘Meet With Me’, a final musing on relationships with love bathing us in a transformative shimmering light and a reminder of renal with the dawn rising out of the darkness as we drink from new streams and rise again.

The album ends with two instrumentals. First up is the five minute plus revisiting of ‘Tuulikki’s Tune’, originally written for the Estonian accordionist Tuulikki Bartosik for the album they made together in 2015, here unfolding as a dance between her and Young, and concluding with the dervish-like fiddle, tune singing and clattering step dance polyrhythms of ‘Shields Time’, written for a clog dancing friend and her husband.

An inventive, thoughtful, ambitious and hugely accomplished work, it places James at the forefront of today’s pioneering folk generation.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.jigdoll.co.uk

‘Tuulikki’s Tune’ – live: