O’HOOLEY & TIDOW – Cloudheads (No Masters NMCD57)

CloudheadsThe past few years have been eventful ones for Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow with the ballyhoo surrounding Gentleman Jack and then the arrival of a curly-haired sprog who is just about entering the “interesting” stage, I reckon. In fact, young Flynn is responsible, although mostly indirectly, for much of Cloudheads, O’Hooley & Tidow’s new album.

There is no doubt that Cloudheads is a portrait of Belinda and Heidi today. It is something of a collage akin to the musical equivalent of leafing through someone else’s photograph album and it’s rather different from their earlier work. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it draws in elements of their previous work and puts them together in a different way.

The opening track, ‘Worn Out And Full Of Wonder’ describes the first days of motherhood with the poetic description of being in a hijacked canoe with “Niagara just around the corner”. The song features most of the supporting musicians: Jack McNeill’s clarinets, Miriam Skinner on cello, Michele Stodart on bass and Anna Esslemont’s strings. I’m a bit worried about the solitary magpie, though. Isn’t that one for sorrow? ‘Little Crumb’ is a brief lullaby sung before Flynn was born and ‘The Song Thrush’ is the first song Belinda wrote after the event.

The title track, ‘Cloudheads’ is troubling. Belinda and Heidi were diagnosed as autistic at about the time Flynn was born. Where they are on the spectrum isn’t clear but they seem to be fully functional, at least in public, and the song tries to set out where things are different for them. There are three piano instrumentals on the album and there is none of the Sturm und Drang of Belinda’s earlier style, these are pastoral improvisations suggesting an underlying contentment.

‘Matthew And Ted’ contrasts Flynn’s first ventures out with the last day of a neighbour’s old dog – a touching song conjured out of a tiny incident in the way that the best songwriters can. As the story moves on we come to the first of two commissioned songs. ‘Chimneys, Moors And Me’ was written for the South Pennines Park Trust. “I found myself in a wood because I could” they sing and if you follow O’H&T on social media you’ll know that they spend a lot of time on the hills around their Yorkshire home and then you’ll realise that this song comes from the heart. I fancy there is an echo of MacColl’s ‘Joy Of Living’ here.

Hannah James joins the band for ‘Woman In Space’, a feminist piece originally written for their group, Coven. It contrasts with the second commissioned song, ‘Polly’, about the first of Jack the Ripper’s victims and separated from it by ‘The Road To Monalea’, again featuring Jack McNeill. The final song is ‘The Ballad Of Anne And Ann’, a companion piece to ‘Gentleman Jack’ featuring vocals by Suranne Jones. Who else? The closing instrumental, ‘Finacre Ryan’, refers again to autism – Finacre was non-verbal so Belinda lets the music do the talking.

Cloudheads may not be an album that will grab you immediately. In fact, it took several plays before I felt it settling in and found myself able to make sense of its story arc – if indeed I have.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.ohooleyandtidow.com