Jim and Susie Malcolm’s The Berries is an exquisite album of Scottish folk music. This is a record of harmony, in which Jim’s Scottish porridge-pure vocals blend effortlessly with Susie’s ability (much like the great Linda Thompson) to touch the pathos in the minor moments of any tune.
Just a comment: Jim’s first album, Sconeward, is brilliant singer-songwriter stuff that conjures the beauty and sensitivity of (fellow Scot) John Martyn. Many more albums followed, with traditional songs nestled next to his own tunes. Live In Glenfarg is a wonderful human being of a record. The First Cold Day included ‘Money Making Money’, which matches Bruce Cockburn’s very modern folk protest conscience. And he spent a few years with (the very great) Old Blind Dogs. ‘Nuff said!
But now he sings in simpatico unity with his wife Susie. My friend, Kilda Defnut, always says, “Great harmony just stops time”. And this record just stops time.
Odd: Jim’s harmonica (almost) sounds like a concertina. No matter, this has been part of his signature sound from the start. ‘The Berry Fields o’ Blair’ is a tune from 1947, but pulses with any current working person’s dignity. Ewan MacCall’s ‘Come A’ Ye Fisher Lassies’ details the song of everyday working life that has “gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornoway and Shields”. This is magical music that sings of the common man.
Forgive the hyperbole, but the tragic dual-voiced ‘Lady Dysie’ stretches into a sublime obit that also contains personal favorites like Capercaille’s ‘Fisherman’s Dream’, Silly Wizard’s ‘The Valley Of Strathmore’, Ossian’s ‘The Road To Drumleman’, Malinky’s ‘Billy Taylor’, Roddy Woomble’s ‘My Secret Is My Silence’, and Runrig’s (blessed) ‘Loch Lomond’. That’s rarified air. Not only that, but a mid-song trumpet (played by Jim!) throws a really nice spanner (aka wrench) into traditional expectations.
The Berries continues to portray humanity’s common threads. ‘Lonely In The Bothy’ is Susie’s tour-de-force, as she sings her father’s tune about “unmarried men’ who sadly admit, “It’s lonely at nicht in the bothy”. Then the up-tempo ‘John Maclean’s March’, details the story of a socialist’s defiance of war, imprisonment, and his return home to Clyde. As Robert Burns sang, ‘The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor/ Is king o’men for a’ that’. Once again, ‘nuff said!
Now, just an idea: I once stood on the shore of Loch Ness, and its dark frigid waters were stern ballast that, with peculiar harmony, welcomed the warm July breeze; Nessie’s mystery swam in contentment with the waves of doubt; and old Castle Urquhart stood strong and sagely smiled at the tour busses and visitors donned with tee shirts embossed with a cartooned plesiosaur, sporting a goofy grin.
This record does something like that.
Now, just another idea: My wife Amy, an avid knitter, and I once walked down the Royal Mile in Auld Reekie. We stumbled upon The Ragamuffin, a collective depository of knitwear from private Scottish artisans. And it was the real deal. She asked for my patience so as to indulge her passion. So, I spent the next hour or so in a pub graced with countless local brews while reading, of all things, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner. I just knew my wife was having the time of her life, and, quite frankly, my own several half pints existence wasn’t too shabby at all.
This record does something like that.
Odd (again): Karine Polwart’s song ‘John C Clark’ drops the stylus into the grooves of very modern Scottish folk music vinyl. Suffice it to say, with all the other traditional stuff, it’s the only song to include the words “pizza parlour”. That said, it’s a great tune with a catchy melody and a happy lyric.
Richard Thompson’s Liege & Lief character ‘Crazy Man Michael’ “whistles the simplest of tunes”. The same can be said of ‘Lassie Lie Near Me’, a Robert Burns’ song of aged passion that somehow survives all the years. It drips strong minutes. Ditto for Robert Tannahill’s ‘Gloomy Winter’, a violin led prayer of a song that contemplates the gray thoughts of any battered day. And then ‘The Banks of Inverurie’ simply sings, as Susie’s note says, “a folk song miracle”. These tunes find Jim and Susie’s voices slow dancing under the stars in the ‘corn rigs and barley rigs’ of Scottish lore.
The quick pulse of ‘Guise o’ Tough’ proves humanity needs a really great chorus to survive. And ‘The Twa Gadgies’ just jumps with a jaunty tune that somehow manages to gather bannock, Scottish ale, haggis, stovies and a really nice Peebles meat pie into a listen that begs for yet another play.
To be fair, Jim Malcolm has recorded countless records of Scottish beauty. But the added voice of his wife, Susie, simply drips more colour (and sincere talent) into the canvas of any pallet. Truly, The Berries sings with Caledonian soul. And, as (the great) Dick Gaughan once sang, “Let friendship and honour unite/And flourish on both sides of the Tweed’.
Yeah, this lovely album does something like that.
Artists’ website: www.jimmalcolm.com
‘The Berry Fields O’ Blair’: