Before The Sun, Hannah and Ben’s debut album as a duo, caused a few ripples in folk circles. I predict that Awake will cause a real splash; from its remarkable cover design to the mix of songs it takes everything that its predecessor had and doubles it.
Hannah’s background as an anthropologist gives us the source of some of the songs. The opening ‘Selkie Song’ is their own composition and is, of course, a retelling of ‘The Great Silkie’ with a twist and ‘Reynardine’ reminds us that Hannah recorded ‘The Werewolf’ on her solo album, Charms Against Sorrow. The use of Tarot artwork in the booklet emphasises the mystical elements of the album but in one or two cases I really would prefer the words.
Like its predecessor Awake is very much a transatlantic album, again recorded in Toronto by David Travers-Smith. Although ‘Selkie Song’ might be thought of as a very British song, it is Chris Coole’s banjo that is the key sound. ‘I Met A Man’ is very much Hannah’s song – a pop ballad with acoustic guitar and pedal steel decoration – in which she finds her inner Kate Bush. Then comes a surprise. ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’ is Billy Bragg’s setting of Woody Guthrie’s words, not a typical Guthrie lyric at that, and Hannah and Ben treat it so delicately even as the accompaniment swells behind them. It’s partnered here by ‘Santa Fe Trail’, that oh-so-evocative depiction of the American west, and Pete Seeger’s lullaby ‘One Grain Of Sand’.
‘7’ utilises the children’s magpie rhyme as its chorus which brings us back to the mystical but it’s preceded by ‘Every Night When The Sun Goes In’, a guitar instrumental of beautiful simplicity and a definite American feel. ‘Reynardine’ rocks as hard it can with acoustic instruments with Hannah taking most of the lead vocal and Ben singing the part of the nocturnal rambler.
Awake is an album that will take a long time to get to the bottom of. You can easily enjoy it but sooner or later you’ll find yourself asking ‘what’s that?’ or ‘why did they do this?’. That’s what is really great about it, apart from ‘Santa Fe Trail’, of course.
Two years ago, Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage stirred the folk and acoustic world with a stand-out debut album and there’s been little slumbering since. Now they are set to release an arresting second studio album, Awake. The combination of Hannah’s outstandingly pure, clear voice, their perfect fit harmonies and Ben’s exquisite dobro are the rock-solid foundations of this rising duo, first witnessed in the 2016 album, Before The Sun. This quality pairing unarguably has hypnotic effect, painting aural dreamscapes around them in resonant songs that are given room to breathe.
When Hannah’s folk family travels across Europe and sojourn in America ended and she returned to her native East Anglia, a chance meeting at a Cambridge folk club with The Willows band member Ben was the start of something special. Ben went on to produce Hannah’s solo album Charms Against Sorrow before they ventured into duo territory uncorking a beguiling, intricately woven, ethereal sound all their own. Before the Sun saw them named in many Albums of the Year lists including the 2016 fRoots Critics Poll and hinted at a largely untapped song writing talent amongst the expertly executed traditional arrangements and covers. That song writing skill moves more centre stage in Awake – an album that shows them fulfilling all the promise heaped on them.
Once again, they have returned to Toronto, putting Grammy-nominated Canadian producer David Travers-Smith (Madison Violet, The Wailin’ Jennys) at the helm for this album crafted with infinite care. The eleven-track release has six strong originals alongside innovative arrangements of traditional songs and captivating covers from the Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie cannons. The eye-catching album cover by psychedelic artist Alan Forbes depicts the High Priestess and a deer as The Hanged Man from the tarot card deck and tarot icons run through the CD booklet. Says Hannah:
“We used tarot throughout the recording process to help us think and feel more deeply about the music.”
A duo who delve into the mysterious and often like to release music in line with the lunar calendar, their live show sees them huddled around a single microphone, drawing the audience in. And so it is with this magnetic album.
Alongside Hannah’s trademark mountain dulcimer and Ben’s delicious dobro, they both play guitars on the album. Adding their magic are guest musicians from both sides of the Atlantic – from the UK Jon Thorne on double bass, Evan Carson on percussion and Norwich singer songwriter Jess Morgan, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts on additional vocals and from Canada Chris Coole on banjo, David Travers-Smith on horns and organ, Burke Carroll on pedal steel and on vocals, Vancouver-born American-Canadian alt country singer songwriter Suzanne Ungerleider who performs under the name Oh Susanna.
Entwined in the sturdy roots of English and North American music, Awake stirs with two original Sanders/Savage numbers – the mythical sea woman yearns to return to her spiritual sea home in the banjo-laced ‘Selkie Song’ and there is more heartache in ‘I Met A Man’, a modern retelling of the ancient story of love between a woman and a green man, with Burke Carroll weaving in his wonderful pedal steel.
The original material continues in ‘A Thousand New Moons’ – a luminous, gossamer-spun reflection on endings and beginnings, with Ben on lead vocal. The symbolic number 7 is the title of a song Hannah wrote for those who search for omens in the natural world, prompted by a friend desperate for a life change. The haunting instrumentation adds pedal steel and horns to Hannah and Ben’s guitar duet and the popular ‘One For Sorrow’ magpie nursery rhyme provides the chorus. The beautiful title track was originally written by Ben to tempt a talented friend out of a musical hiatus but has taken on a wider meaning and here it enjoys a lush vocal crescendo with the duo joined by Jess Morgan and Oh Susanna. Reaching is an exquisite, mellow, pin-drop perfect love song written by Hannah which closes the album in this duo’s soft tread style, building to a flourish which unusually features Ben on drums.
Awake is an album that stirs the soul and further endorses the empathetic class act that is Sanders and Savage. Released on May 11 on the Sungrazing Records label it will be distributed by Proper Distribution.
Walk Along John is John Reischman’s first solo instrumental album in thirteen years, and it’s a triumphant return to form. It’s also a celebration of his seminal influence in the world of bluegrass and “new acoustic music,” a movement he contributed to with Tony Rice in the 1980s. A new generation of musicians has now grown up playing his tunes at jams and obsessing over his recordings.
Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers joins John on the opening tune “Itzbin Reel,” an early composition of John’s that Chris has been playing since the age of 8. Eli West, from Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, listened endlessly to John’s recordings while studying in college and guests on the album as well. Other next generation star players on the album include Sam Grisman and Mike Barnett from the young grasscore band The Deadly Gentlemen, and Canadian clawhammer banjo king Chris Coole.
Old friends return as well, from renowned old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky to innovative banjo genius Tony Trischka and star bluegrass guitarist Kenny Smith, not to mention members of John’s band The Jaybirds. But the real focus of the album is John’s musicianship, both as an artist and as a composer. His compositions, many of which have become jamming standards, run the gamut from the old-timey “Little Pine Siskin” to the bluesy (in the Dock Boggs sense) “Gold Mountain Blues,” the eerily modal “Ice on the Dogwater,” the blazing Bill Monroe tribute tune “Joe Ahr’s Dream,” and the softly gentle waltzes “Anisa’s Lullaby” and “A Prairie Jewel.” John’s compositions shine here because he has the subtle ability to draw out the true heart of the melody. He does this through his lifelong obsession with obtaining the purest tones from his mandolin playing. It’s the same quest that drove Monroe to the roots of the music looking for “ancient tones,” and it’s a quest shared by other great mandolinists. Coupled with his renowned sense of musical taste, John Reischman is able to redefine the sound of bluegrass mandolin without ever veering away from the traditions at its core.