LUCY WARD – Pretty Warnings (Betty Beetroot BETTY03)

Pretty WarningsHaving been finally converted to Ward with her last album, I Dreamt I Was A Bird, I was unsure whether that was a one-off or if her follow-up would keep me on the path. Well, feathered friends again in evidence, with the opening, ‘Silver Morning’, Helga Ragnarsdottir on electric piano, a spare sketch of walking in the early dawn that treats a sense of wanderlust, any uncertainties were instantly dispelled.

Stu Hanna co-producing with Stewart MacLachlan, who also, respectively, provide guitars/keys and drums, it’s a mostly mellow and meditative affair, the title succinctly summing up its musical and thematic intent, mixing four traditional numbers bookended with self-penned originals. Breathily sung and etched on a repeated guitar pattern with Claire Bostock on cello, ‘Cold Caller’ moves back a few hours to a moon-lit evening of rain and wind and, bolstered by rumbling waves of drums and gathering psychedelic swirls of electric guitar, a witchily-atmospheric song of love (obsessive and possibly delusional) confessed to the night.

Daylight returns with ‘Sunshine Child’, Anna Esslemont on violin, for another delicate acoustic love in rapture number with lyrics scattering images of butterfly kisses, laughter, a dancing soul and sweet smelling blossoms and she sings “for a lifetime and beyond I’ll be singing our song”, though one suspects the golden haired Samson identified here may be more symbolic than actual.

The four traditional numbers are gathered together, opening with a near seven-minute, initially unaccompanied reading of ‘Bill Norrie’, the tragic tale of a jealous man killing the titular lad he suspects is his wife’s lover only to learn he’s actually her son, Ward Derbyshire-accented vowels subsequently joined by Ragnarsdottir’s suitably sparse and forlorn piano notes.

Sticking with murder ballads, ‘Maria Martin’ is her arrangement of the much-covered ‘Murder In The Red Barn’, Ward inspirationally recasting it as a hypnotically slow lurching blues carried on brushed drums, Sam Pegg’s droningly doomy upright bass and, as the horror is unfolded, cold shivers of keys and violin.

Another cautionary tale follows with the equally familiar ‘Fair & Tender Ladies’, again given a sparse, darkling ambience, dressed in atmospheric nocturnal robes with double tracked vocals, the persistent keyboard drone augmented by meditative acoustic guitar. For the last of the four, ‘Mari Fach’, Ward takes the tune of the lilting Welsh ballad ‘Mari Fach Fy Nghariad’, stripping it back and slowing it down considerably, and adds her own words for the tragic tale of a teenage girl made pregnant by a false lover who gives birth, kills the baby and then is hanged, “all alone”, from a willow tree “down by a Greenwoodsidey-o”.

The album closes with two further Ward originals, the gently waltzing ‘Lazy Day’ restores the sun in distracted, strings-washed thoughts of staying in bed to “dream my days away” rather than getting up and facing a day “bursting with intentions that never find their way.” The final number, backed by harmonium drone and minimal piano notes, has Ward showing her vocal flexibility, delicately swooping and soaring through ‘The Sweetest Flowers’ as she ends on an upbeat lullaby note, dusk drawing in, slumber making eyes heavy, sleep’s reveries and fantasies awaiting, a life “rich with possibility” and a “love that can’t be torn asunder” but “will bloom forever.” Take heed.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.lucywardsings.com

‘The Trapper And The Furrier’ – live at the Isle Of Wight Festival:

LUCY WARD – I Dreamt I Was A Bird… (Betty Beetroot BETTY01)

LUCY WARD I Dreamt I Was A BirdBorn and raised in Derby, Ward was a BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award finalist in 2009, won the Horizon award (for best newcomer) in 2012 and her recording of ‘Maids When You’re Young’ nominated as best traditional track and, last year, was nominated for Folk Singer of the Year. So, I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was somewhat ambivalent about her first two albums. However, I’ve no such reservations regarding her third, released on her own label and again produced by Megson’s Stu Hanna (who also provides keys and guitar), with all but one number being self-penned.

I was instantly taken by the haunting violin (courtesy Anna Esslemont) intro to ‘Summers That We Made’, conjuring images of sun kissed dusks over English country fields, Ward’s voice , with its hint of accent, arriving on a ray of light, sounding more assured and tender than before. It’s a gorgeous way to start an album and, potentially, a hard act to follow. However, ‘Ode To Whittaker Brown’ rises to the task, Lukas Drinkwater accompanying on double bass and Hanna providing subtle piano notes on a muted and moody song with clear Nativity imagery inspired by mother’s birth in a Nissen hut after being made homeless following WWII.

The country’s social history also fuels ‘Creatures and Demons’, triggered by a BBC Radio 3 commission to write a song based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South, resulting in a slow march rhythm, fiercely swelling protest number about the great divide between rich and poor, the powerful and the helpless, its crescendo showing just how much her vocals have developed.

Her political conscience is also in evidence on ‘Lion’, a song inspired by the WWI execution of young rifleman Robert Loveless Barker for cowardice, originally commissioned by Billy Bragg for the 14-18Now project and performed at Glastonbury, here revisited and recorded in collaboration with the haunting backing of the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Likewise, the album’s closing track, a densely textured ‘Return To Earth’ with its banjo spine and witchy violin, is an environmental warning that the planet takes back what its spoilt children have wasted, inspired by the bronze age burial ground of Titterstone Clee Hill in Shropshire which is slowly sinking back into the earth.

On a lyrically relatively lighter note, with its moodily spare, siren call instrumentation, ‘Daniel and the Mermaid’, from whence comes the album title, is a musically shimmering slice of family history recalling the story of how her great-great uncle and his crew mates supposedly caught a mermaid off the Isle of Mull. Another true story is at the heart of the poignant, acoustic guitar and keys-based ‘Connie and Bud’ which tells the bittersweet no hope tale of two star-crossed lovers struggling to survive in 1950s Wales, living out of a car. Rather more lyrically upbeat, ‘Song For Lola’ is a dreamy acoustic sexually ambiguous ballad about a day’s chance encounter with a free spirit that again highlights Ward’s developed vocal range.

The only non-original is her version of the much-covered doom-drenched border ballad ‘Lord Randall’, Ward’s East Midlands accent clearly to be heard in an atmospheric arrangement that sets her breathy, sensual delivery against pensive guitar and keyboards backing that gradually swells and builds to a sonic storm climax. I may have been a little slow getting on board, but this album has made me a fully fledged convert.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: http://www.lucywardsings.com/

‘Return To Earth’ – official video:

Patsy Matheson: Domino Girls

For Little Piece of England 05 colour by Craig Oddy June 08‘Domino Girls’, the new album from Patsy Matheson, is her best and most ambitious work yet.

Featuring contributions from Belinda O’Hooley (O’Hooley & Tidow, Rachel Unthank & the Winterset, Nic Jones trio)  – vocals, piano, accordion, Heidi Tidow (O’Hooley & Tidow) – vocals, Anna Esslemont (Uiscedwr, Bad Anna) – violin, Sarah Smout (Rosie Doonan & the Snapdragons, Michael Chapman) – cello,  and her long time collaborator Jon Short (double bass), with Will Reddy (drums) and Richard Ferdinando (Crosscut Saw) drums,  there are nine brand new compositions as well as ‘Chasing Rainbows’ – a song given to her by acclaimed songwriter Boo Hewerdine.

The songs cover a range of subjects – from affairs of the heart to computer web cam hacking – each sensitively delivered and intricately layered up with signature Matheson vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar.

Artist’s website: facebook

O’HOOLEY & TIDOW – The Fragile – NO MASTERS NMCD39

After their stunning debut, Silent June, expectations were high for Belinda and Heidi’s second album and they haven’t let us down. Facebook fans have followed the progress of the record and already heard the single, ‘The Last Polar Bear’, a song that works as a plea for ecological sanity and as a metaphor for unrequited love.

Where their debut opened with the complex ‘Flight Of The Petrel’ which made you pay attention lest the album get away from you, The Fragile delivers a more earthy clip round the ear with ‘The Tallest Tree’ with the bass end of Belinda’s piano embellished by Cormac Byrne’s percussion
and makes you pay attention. For all its beauty this is a much more down to earth album in the stories it tells in the original songs. There’s the sexually ambiguous ‘Gentleman Jack’ who is actually called Anne Lister; ‘Ronnie’s Song’ about a down-and-out who loved musicals and ‘A Daytrip’ in which I see my northern grandparents in fine detail.

Brought in from outside are Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’; ‘Little Boy Blue’ from a poem by Eugene Field and the traditional ‘She Lived Beside The Anner’. There are a small number of guests used with restraint although the string section is given free rein. Elsewhere Anna Esslemont, Sam Pegg and Andy Cutting contribute instrumental textures and Jackie Oates adds vocals to ‘Madgie In The Summerlands’ but The Fragile is really about Belinda and Heidi. The confidence, power and earthiness of their voices both solo and in harmony are what shine through this excellent album.

Dai Jeffries

Artist Web link: www.nomasters.co.uk