One question: Where have you gone Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel?
More about them later, but Isobel Campbell’s Milkwhite Sheets has been re-issued by Cooking Vinyl and is a soft, gentle, and nicely weird acoustic record that is dedicated to Shirley Collins, Jean Ritchie, and Anne Briggs. And it carves its own notch into the bark of the deeply wooded and quite magical Scottish folk forest. This is melodically whispered stuff that evaporates into a soft autumnal air.
But other names come to mind: Vashti Bunyan, Bridget St John, Joanna Newsome, Sibyle Baier, Judee Sill, Marissa Nadler, and perhaps, (said with some caution), Nick Drake. That’s a nice neighborhood.
Of course, some history: Isobel Campbell is the Belle of Belle and Sebastian—and then the collaborator with Screaming Tree’s tough guy, Mark Lanegan, for a few country-soaked albums. But just so you know, Milkwhite Sheets exists in a parallel universe that wanders through cosey Scottish traditional tunes, a few covers, and several original songs that touch a hazy dark night bonfire that warms all the good thoughts that glanced into a cold and always distant constellated sky.
This is ritualistic stuff: ‘O Love Is Teasin’’ is bewitching with tender acoustics and Isobel’s soft and eerie voice. The tune evaporates into dark night air. ‘Willow’s Song’ is more complex with molasses percussion, bass, a banjo, viola, and more melodic yet spectral vocals. The song throbs with wonderous Comus-like menace that floats over any ancient graveyard. This is acid folk brewed with the unforgiving words of a Thomas Hardy novel.
Then, ‘Yearning’ engages a viola to pulse with the slow sawdust psych dance of the Harvest label’s disheveled but oddly melodic band Forest. And lest we forget—the Harvest label released several of (the before-mentioned) Shirley Collins’ albums (including the brilliant Anthems Of Eden!)—so big folk cred all around.
Milkwhite Sheets may well be for the faint of quiet heart, who with caution, bend an ear to the spooky nuances of this music. ‘James’ is an acoustic guitar and strings instrumental, and it conjures a slight Nick Drake (and thank you, Robert Kirby!) Five Leaves Left vibe. The same is true for the short title tune (written by Jim McCulloch), which stretches the drama of the record. After that, the traditional ‘Hori Horo’ is up-tempo and rekindles the really soft side of The Pentangle. Then tradition rings true with ‘Reynadine’, during which ghosts are given the chance to slow dance with the memory of a very content (yet still very Victorian!) Cecil Sharp. There’s more: ‘Cachel Wood’ is melodic and lightly urgent with harmonica puffs—without any magical dragon in sight. And ‘Beggar, Wiseman or Thief’ is simple acoustic folk that rests on a featherbed in any of Scotland’s very best River Tweeded inns.
Just a comment: This is a very different from (the also very great) Cooking Vinyl re-issue of Isobel’s Amorino, which is a big production album with flutes, trumpets, trombones, harpsichords, an orchestra(!), and sundry sounds that touch (at times) the very French chanteuse sound; yet it avoids the cliches and crosses the finish line punctuated with just a lot of cool and sometimes weird jazzy sounds that glance with a more ocular dimension at Nick Drake’s brilliant Bryter Layter–in folk overdrive.
Now, a necessary flashback: A long time ago, when I was ten years old, Simon and Garfunkel were the names of our two baby chicks, which were given as a promotional gimmick at our local A & P grocery store. I think we had to buy some eggs. They chirped with such harmony together—hence the names. But they also escaped any attempted cage and pretty much ran (and did whatever!) all over our house. We gifted them to friends—the Hall family—who owned a farm. One time, I had to play a game of croquet with the youngest daughter, Theresa.
Now, a necessary flash forward (smack dab in the middle of that necessary flashback because, as Einstein proposed, and Peter Gabriel sang, “time is a curve”): We Wisconsin seniors often gathered in the Baird Creek wood to drink and “groove with nature”, and there was always a guitar and there was always a singer. Someone played that Deliverance bit, and someone else played John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. But then a quiet tousled-hair woman took the guitar and sang an internal universe voiced version of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pass (If I Could)’. Then she sang Paul’s solo ‘Duncan’—the one about “Just thanking the Lord for my fingers”. And our bonfire dripped its embers. The stars bent a bit. Then I realized the singer was none other than Theresa (now Tessy!) Hall– who wore her tousled-hair Carol King denim casual indifference at society’s expected camera lens with faded Levi autumnal folky pride. Oh my! Let’s just say, given the moon and stars and all of that, I felt “the Earth move under my feet”.
Truly, Milkwhite Sheets catches the spooky forest flavour of that night—a moment when fires drip, stars bend, and childhood sings itself into a sleepy memory. The traditional ‘Loving Hannah’ is a brief acapella glimpse at the country maid with “a roving eye” who waves sadly from a nice idealized past. ‘Are You Going To Leave Me’ is a distant acoustic beauty that rumbles with a percolating guitar, thumping percussion, and a really great Eastern vibe, which oddly enough, is the stuff that Led Zeppelin tried to create in its folky moments. Then, ‘Over The Wheat And The Barley’ is an instrumental drama with heavy viola that sings with the pathos of the Highland Clearances.
The final song, ‘Thursday’s Child’ just stretches with near whispered vocals and a guitar that melts into a world where spectres dance during a seven-minute acid folk ride and then (with sudden charm) it ends with the brief ‘Bird In The Wood’.
One answer: Fellow Scot and Idlewild front man Roddy Woomble sang, “My secret is my silence”. The oft-mentioned Paul Simon wrote about ‘the sounds of silence’. Indeed, the musical compass points Milkwhite Sheets toward the land of all things eclectic. And, unless some car company pries a tune from the album to soundtrack its latest commercial, well, this is probably cult album stuff. That’s all right. Isobel Campbell has created a record that contemplates fires that drip and stars that bend into a quiet glen, which is always present, and thankfully, gives each of us, just like Lincoln Duncan, a tranquil pause and cause—a space in which it’s a really nice thought to always be “just thanking the Lord for my fingers”.
Artist’s website: https://www.isobelcampbell.com/
‘Willow’s Song’ – live:
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