Who We AreAfter 20 years and nine albums, Chris While and Julie Matthews, the undisputed queens of British female folk duos, continue to come up with the goods, delivering songs about human frailty and human endurance that showcase their seemingly inexhaustible creative talents as both writers and performers.

They get the ball rolling in vigorous style with ‘If This Were Your Last Day’, an uptempo, fairly self-explanatory titled don’t put off until tomorrow number from Matthews that blends folk and country with mandolin and accordion, before joint composition ‘Gone Girl Gone’ takes the tempo down slightly for a bittersweet tale of a free spirit always moving on in search of herself. Joined by daughter Kellie, While’s first track is ‘Get Through This Somehow’, a mid-tempo song about having to make a life on your own that conjures a cross between Kathy Mattea and Christine Collister before ‘I Don’t Know’, another shared credit brings in banjo for a bluegrass tinged number that casts them as the UK’s answer to Lady Antebellum and The Indigo Girls in one package.

The album then takes on a more serious mood, beginning with the uplifting ‘Dancing Under The Gallows’, written and sung by Matthews with While on lap steel, that (with a faint musical echo of ‘Born Free’) pays tribute to the fortitude and courage of Alice Hertz Sommer, the oldest survivor of the Holocaust who died this year, aged 111. Then comes While’s history lesson, ‘Heaven Is Changing’, a tender acoustic guitar and piano number which recounts the plague that devastated the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665 as a passer-by rescues an unaffected baby, one family’s sole survivor.

Two songs mark both World War I and II. The first is While’s worksong-like ‘Drop Hammer’, sparse percussion backdropping her lead vocals and a female chorus that features daughter Kellie, Kit Bailey, Mel Ledgard and the ubiquitous O’Hooley & Tidow on a song that celebrates the women of Sheffield that kept the steel mills running during both wars. A rather less upbeat narrative informs ‘White Feather’, which, featuring Bryan Hargreaves’ hand percussion and a fierce electric guitar solo from Howard Lees and penned by Matthews for the BBC’s Radio Ballads, recalls the notorious white feather movement of WWI whereby women would cast a white feather in at men in civvy street, accusing them of being cowards for not enlisting.

Changing focus, ‘Mad Men’ is a bluesy and bluegrass co-written environmental protest about global warming featuring While on bowed psaltery before, for the final two numbers, things return to a lighter more optimistic and intimate note for the hymnal-like piano shimmering ‘That’s Not Who We Are’ about putting aside differences and pride “to recover our senses and heal this scar”. Introducing brass, strings, glockenspiel and ukulele, the carousel-swaying, oompah rhythms of ‘Under A Button Moon’ brings things to a lovely, pick me up romantic conclusion, linking back to the opening number’s seize the day theme and, ever so subtly, recalling the theme music to the 80s children’s programme of similar title.

So, first class songs of female fortitude, the iniquities of the world, history, heart and humanity, delivered with to die for harmonies, immaculate musicianship and melodies that lodge themselves in your brain. Pretty much While & Matthews business as usual then.

Mike Davies

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‘Drop Hammer’ from the album Who We Are live in Bristol: