THREE CANE WHALE – 303 (Field Notes Records FN3)

303303, released in November 2019 opens with the sound of footsteps on a path and three creaks of a gate opening and closing, presumably as each of the trio walk through it, before moving into a short mandolin track. This is clearly a different world from the music I usually listen to, but it’s rather nice – in the range of that word’s meanings, which include ‘pleasant’, ‘good’ and ‘finely-drawn’.

Three Cane Whale are a multi-instrumental chamber-folk trio who recorded 303 live in a variety of locations, near to the A303 in Somerset. The sounds that recording engineers will try to get rid of – tractors, birdsong, wind etc – are relished and unobtrusively included so the music is interwoven with the sense of place. I wondered how to put into words the sound of instrumental chamber-folk music and decided the choice was between writing a thesis or listing the instruments played by the band. I’ve settled for the latter.

Three Cane Whale are Alex Vann, who plays mandolin, bowed psaltery (no, I didn’t either but once I saw a picture I recognised it), zither, bouzouki, tenor banjo, hammered dulcimer and lute-harp; Pete Judge, who plays trumpet, cornet, tenor horn, harmonium, dulcitone, lyre, chimes, glockenspiels; and Paul Bradley, who plays acoustic guitar and miniature harp. If you have a sense of these instruments, you’ll have a sense of the sound of this album – but also a sense that the multiple combinations of instruments (if you work out the maths there are billions) aligned to the sense of place of the Somerset landscape is unlike most things you’ll listen to this year.

There are no videos from the new album that I can find, but click onto the link below to hear ‘Sprig/Shadows On The Chalk Hills’. You get close-ish to the feel of 303 as the first track on the album is ‘Shadow’s Shadow’ and is described as “an echo, for solo mandolin, of the track ‘Shadows On The Chalk Hills’ from the band’s album Palimpsest”.

303 is a gentle gem and, for me, a great introduction to the band’s wider work – and not just their previous albums; the website also links you to a dozen films that have been made in response to their music. I’ve sat in a silent room and listened intently to the album and I’ve played it in the semi-background (apologies to the band, that’s probably the last thing they want to hear) whilst eating meals with musician and non-musician friends. In all three circumstances and with a mix of people, it works really well.

Three Cane Whale have two handfuls of gigs in the south of England between March and August, details on their website.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website:

‘Sprig/Shadows On The Chalk Hills’ live: