Their third album in as many years, after the two-handed format of The Hum and the limited hand-signed micro-release Summat’s Brewin’, the duo’s fifth studio outing, Shadows, sees them return to the fuller sound of their first two albums with a post-Bellowhead Pete Flood on drums, Andy Seward on double bass, frequent collaborator Jude Abbott providing brass and Rowan Rheingans on fiddle and viola. There’s also a, perhaps surprise, appearance from Michele Stodart of The Magic Numbers contributing electric bass guitars and Ebow.
With songs about home, the environment, nature, inspirational women and social issues, it’s familiar territory, comprising a couple of covers alongside the self-penned material, the latter including two instrumentals. But familiarity doesn’t breed complacency, and the writing and performances here as every much as impassioned as any fledgling act looking to make an impressive debut.
It opens with a love letter to their home, ‘Colne Valley Hearts’, and the strength and fortitude it instils, the songs itself beginning with birth (“smacked me head coming out, made me rugged, shoulders broad. Ready to carry, ready to work”) as Belinda provides jittery piano accompaniment to Heidi’s vocals, the chorus refrain “cold hands, warm hearts lighting up the cut tonight” as much a defiant anthem of Northern pride as “the fog on the Tyne is all mine”.
From Huddersfield, the album expands to take in the bigger picture with the first of the socio-political numbers, the trumpet-streaked ‘Made In England’. Written in response to the worrying rise of UKIP a few years back, it draws as much on music hall as it does traditional folk it’s a ‘Ballad of Britain’ for “you everyone that inhabit dear old Albion”, a rejection of the UKIP view (and that of “Mosely’s henchmen” before them) that “foreigners are thieves and perves” who just “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap”, and a celebration of multiculturalism “with me ruby murray, kebab in a hurry, fags and Becks from the corner shop, head to toe in Pradamark.”
Equally pointed, based on an old Sunday School hymn titled ‘Little Reapers’ and sung with starkly interwoven voices, sombre piano ballad ‘Reapers’ is in the voice of a child and initially appears to about innocents, leading lost souls to God, but, in the second verse takes on a darker hue that explains why it is dedicated to all children abused at the hands of the Church.
The abuse of children, in this case their forced migration to Commonwealth countries between 1869 and 1970, is at the heart of ‘The Dark Rolling Sea’. It’s actually a short piano instrumental that grew out of Tidow’s obsession with an instrumental passage in ‘Why Did I Leave Thee?’, a setting of a poem by child migrant Frederick Henderson, the duo set to music for last year’s Ballads Of Child Migration album. The other instrumental, a solo O’Hooley composition, is the simple but no less resonant title track, which, played on the Machynlleth Tabernacle Trust’s Steinway, she says reflects how playing piano helps express emotions she finds hard to verbalise.
It’s not all gloom. ‘Blankets’ may concern baby elephants orphaned by poachers or human-wildlife conflict (it’s inspired by the David Sheldrick Widlife Trust in Kenya), but its tremulously crooned, brass and piano slow waltz focuses on the brightly coloured blankets that give them comfort, safety and warmth. Likewise, turning to inspiring women, the uptempo ‘Beryl’ is a tribute to Beryl Burton, a Leeds cyclist who, despite chronic health problems, became a champion racing cyclist, the track taking an appropriately jaunty approach with the sort of breezy chorus Gracie Fields who have loved. This is followed by its companion piece, the piano tinkling ‘The Pixie’, another tribute (commissioned for the WWI commemoration event at 2014 Glastonbury), this time to Oxenham’s Daisy “Pixie” Daking, a dance teacher and member of the Cecil Sharp’s EFDS, who, in 1917, went to France as part of the YMCA to boost the war-weary troops’ morale by teaching them morris, sword, and country dancing, something she continued until 1919.
Of the album’s two covers, one is the strings-adorned ‘River’, Joni Mitchell’s Christmas-set bluesy regretful rumination on a lost relationship, a song they featured in last year’s winter shows in Marsden, while the other, the dreamy and rather lovely piano ballad ‘Small, Big Love’ was actually penned for them by Kathryn Williams and Graham Hardy to celebrate their wedding.
Which leaves ‘The Needle and the Hand’, a key track yet also the only number that doesn’t have an annotation in the lyric booklet. However, gradually swelling on drums and swirling strings, rhyming pewter and fuchsia and with lyrics that concern changing seasons, regeneration, tattooing – or rather beautilation – (it actually features the sound of a tattoo needle) and memory, it draws on Tidow’s own troubled childhood as seen through now adult eyes and concerns guilt, love, self-worth, self-discovery and embracing the fullness of life. These are shadows you really do want to lose and find yourself in.
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‘Beryl’ – live at Grewelthorpe Village Hall: