It’s been nine years since Rachael McShane realised her solo debut, the time since then keeping her busy as cellist, fiddler, viola player and singer with the now defunct Bellowhead, of which she was a founding member back in 2004, and, more recently, her role in the reworking of Peter Bellamy’s folk opera The Transports.
However, she’s now found a window to record a follow-up, again predominantly a collection of traditional material, working with two fellow North East musicians, guitarist Matthew Ord fron Newcastle bluegrass outfit Assembly Lane and Kathryn Tickell’s melodeonist Julian Sutton. She’s also joined on assorted tracks by former Bellowhead colleagues Paul Sartin on oboe and Andy Mellon, Justin Thurgur and Ed Neuhauser on trumpet, trombone and tuba, respectively. The album’s produced by Ian Stephenson who also handles double bass and piano duties.
With a couple of exceptions, her choice of material leans to lesser known of less commonly performed numbers from the folk canon, case in point being the opener, ‘The Molecatcher’, a waltzing ditty about infidelity as the titular cuckold catches his wife in flagrante although McShane’s sanitised the original lyrics so that now, he catches the lad by his coat (rhyming with sport) rather than his bollocks (rhymed with frolics) who declares the fine of ten pounds works about tuppence a time rather than a grind. Revisionist delicacy notwithstanding, it’s a fine and cheekily sung number, the tune of Sutton’s ‘Simpson Street Waltz’ written in honour of the studio where they recorded.
More usually known as ‘The Outlandish Knight’, a number she often played with Bellowhead, spotlighting melodeon, ‘Lady Isabel’ tells of a serial killer of young maids getting his comeuppance when his intended seventh victim tumbles him into the sea. The ballad exists in a wide variety of versions and lyrics, and, in keeping with the album’s mischievous tone, this retains the final verse where the girl bribes her parrot to keep quiet about where she’s been.
Originating from Huddersfield, the melodeon wheezing ‘Cropper Lads’ has been part of her repertoire for a while, a song celebrating the titular weaving industry craftsmen that makes reference to Great Enoch, a hammer used to smash up the jobs-threatening machinery during the Luddite uprising. It’s set to a new tune by McShane titled ‘Full Belly’, apparently inspired, not by anything weaving or industrial, but from playing an online game called Sushi Cat.
Lads from a different, ahem, field make an appearance in ‘Ploughman Lads’, a rousingly straightforward chorus friendly love song featuring percussion from Martin Douglas, followed, in turn, by the first of the two instrumental sets, McShane’s stately fiddle-led ‘Waltzing At Giggleswick’, written for a charity of which she’s patron and providing a platform for Ode’s guitar work, twinned with Sutton’s melodeon romp ‘The Ginger Cat Monster’.
By far the best-known number is ‘Two Sisters’ (you know, the one where one sister downs the other over a romantic rivalry and the body is found and turned into as self-playing fiddle and reveals her murder), except McShane reveals a cynical streak with a grizzly ending that shows justice a clean pair of heels.
Learned from the Peter Bellamy version, the mid-tempo swayalong ‘Barley and Rye’ is another song about bored wives who get up to mischief in the bedroom because they’re neglected by husbands more concerned with their work, here a farmer and his crops.
Sutton contributes the second of the instrumentals, the finely crafted and shape-shifting ‘Road To Tarset/Lake Of Swans’ both nodding to favourite haunts in Northumberland. On a darker note, this is followed by another staple, a suitably sombre and brooding take on euphemistically-titled incest ballad ‘Sheath & Knife’ which, variously recorded by Ewan MacColl, Eliza Carthy, June Tabor, Maddy Prior and Maggie Boyle, from whom McShane learned the song, tells how the king’s daughter becomes pregnant by her brother and goes with him to the greenwood to give birth where she asks him to put an arrow through her and bury her with their baby.
Lighter notes are struck on another well-known number, ‘Sylvie’ being a version of ‘The Female Highwayman’ or ‘Sovay’. One of the first songs the trio put together, it opens with a plucked viola before the instrumentation swells as the tale unfolds of a woman disguising herself to test her lover’s loyalty and bravery by demanding the ring she gave him. Given that, in the final verse, she declares that had he parted with it she’d have shot him dead, it’s perhaps not a match for the long haul.
Set to a new galumphing, melodeon-driven cider-swigging tune by McShane with brass arrangement by Stephenson, it all ends joyously with ‘Green Broom’, a traditional tale of a broom cutter who, fed up of his son lying in bed to noon, sends him off to the woods to cut a bundle , the lad catching the attention of a fine lady on his way home and ending up marrying her. There seems to be a Norman Tebbit-like moral for our social benefits times in there somewhere.
Fresh, sparkling and lively in its arrangements and performance, it’s an album that should consign phrases like ‘former-Bellowhead’ member to footnotes rather than a delineation.
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Artist’s website: www.rachaelmcshane.co.uk
‘Ploughman Lads’ – official video: