Root & Branch are an Anglo-American quintet whose repertoire spans Britain, Ireland and the Appalachians. A Breath Against The Calm is their first full-length album following their 2015 EP, Overground. Their arsenal of instruments is fairly genre-standard although Jess Whelligan’s cello adds different and sometimes unexpected textures.
The album kicks off with ‘Big John’s Daughter’, a set of three tunes, the last of which has been adapted from the Irish original by the band’s two fiddle players, Nathan Bontrager and Ewan Macdonald. That’s followed by a complete contrast, ‘The Road To Germany’ by Stuart Graham. It has the feel of a traditional song but is very modern being about migration, specifically across the Mediterranean. It’s one of those songs that would have quickly entered into the folk repertoire some fifty years ago but that doesn’t seem to happen any more.
The second tune set begins with Bontrager’s ‘Cathar Rag’ with the cello playing a prominent role and some “wrong” notes that prevent your attention from wavering before it segues into the rather more conventional ‘Hunting The Buffalo’ from across the Atlantic. Next is what must be the most recorded song of the year, ‘Hares On The Mountain’. I don’t think I’ve heard so many versions and variants of a song as I have in the past few months. This is another nice one.
‘Shputnik’ includes tunes by John Scott and Martyn Bennett and then we come to the one track I’m having some trouble with. Root & Branch’s reading of ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’ is too long and too slow. At least they did their due diligence with the words which are pretty much as in Tim Hart’s fifty year old take. I do think that many singers miss the point of the song, though, as explained in the last verse. The song should be one of contentment as the hard times are now behind the singer. Or is that just me?
‘The Barndance (Dornoch Links)’ is a splendid tune, featuring Chris Jones’ banjo and leading us to the finale, ‘Young Hunting’. I’m guessing that this is an Appalachian version – the fiddle feels as though it has been lifted from ‘House Carpenter’ – and the words don’t quite match any of the usual versions under any of its titles. It is, however, a very complete telling of the tale seemingly taking elements from here and there.
A Breath Against The Calm is an eclectic mix of music but it does work together. I might have put ‘The Road To Germany’ further down the order but how picky can I be?
Artists’ website: http://randb.org.uk/
Root & Branch live in unusual circumstances: