It’s been nine years since Devon twin sisters duo Charlotte and Laura released their last studio album. And, with its mix of American bluegrass and English folk influences and featuring only the siblings, Illustrated Short Stories is a fine reminder of what we’ve been missing in the interim.
Released with an illustrated booklet, many of the tracks are based around West Country legends. Case in point is the jaunty backwoods-folk styled opener, ‘In The Odstock Churchyard’ which, Charlotte’s banjo emulating a horse clopping along, is about how, in 1801, a son framed his father-in-law, Joshua Scamp, a patriarch of the gypsies, after stealing a shire horse in Salisbury. Legend has it that, a year later, gathered for a party in his honour, the gypsies planted a yew tree which rapidly grew so fast and tall it tore up the churchyard ground, a curse being cast upon the place that, after his mother was barred from the church, anyone who locked the door would die.
Charlotte again on lead with Laura on dobro and fiddle, the album’s only non-duet, ‘Colours’, is a simple love song, in contrast moving on to the twin guitars accompanied ‘The Gorge’, in which a woman unloved and mistreated by her husband falls for knight, who rather unadvisedly tells her husband, sparking a jealous rage that ends up with the former clinging to the tail of the latter’s horse but falling to his death as it leaps across the titular Gorges du Fier in the French Alps.
A brace of war-themed songs follows, the first, Laura again on dobro, being ‘1912 House’, which recounts an invented history of its occupants, the husband staying at home to care for his wife and new baby when war breaks out until later being conscripted and killed, the place now standing empty. It’s followed by the bluegrassy banjo-led ‘War Games’, Laura on fiddle solo and lead vocals for a mother’s message to her son, watching him play at fighting as a child, then seeing him going off to do it for real never to return. Again featuring fiddle with Charlotte on tenor guitar singing lead with her sister harmonising, ‘Crying To The Moon’ is more inclined to traditional English folk, so, naturally, all rather downbeat with a love triangle that ends in murder and suicide, but, for a different spin, sung from the perspective of the dog who tries to save his master’s life.
Taking a similar approach, inspired by an instrument bought at an auction, while not actually featuring one, ‘Violin Song’ is sung (channelled by Charlotte) by one such, now well-worn with age (“now just a thing/Cobwebs settle on”) and creaky, recalling being rescued and given new life and purpose. You don’t need to be a genius to follow the analogy.
Coloured with lovely Americana folksiness, sung by Laura the melodically tumbling ‘Ever Really Know’, a nature-inspired love song, is the only number to feature Charlotte’s electric guitar, while, returning to darker, old timey Appalachian roots, arranged for banjo and fiddle with Laura again on lead, ‘Sally In The Woods’ is inspired by another local legend, that of a mother who lost her baby and now haunts a stretch of road just outside Bath, searching for her missing child.
A solo composition by Laura who sings lead while her sister accompanies on mandolin, the bittersweet waltzing ‘Amsterdam’, another number with an old time feel, was written about an ageing former ballerina she met in an Amsterdam bar, the twins striking a protest note with the penultimate dobro-accompanied, strummed ‘Already Gone’, a song in mourning for the countless species that have become extinct of the past century, again sung in the voice of one of those lost to time.
Illustrated Short Stories ends with Charlotte’s lively self-penned mandolin and fiddle duet instrumental, written in lockdown and the title, ‘Diggin’ Up The Rosebush’ inspired by her son’s exploits on that particular day, a delightful conclusion to an unfussy but wonderfully engaging long overdue to reclaim their place in the spotlight.
Artists’ website: www.thecarrivicksisters.co.uk
‘Amsterdam/Digging Up The Rosebush’ – live: