ESBE – Blow The Wind Southerly (New Cat Music)

Blow The Wind SoutherlyA London-based graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, Esbe follows in the footsteps of Katy Rose Bennett with Blow The Wind Southerly, a wholly a cappella classical folk album featuring her voice treated to layered harmonies, multi-tracked as choral groupings or used as a sampled instrument. Not just vocally ambitious and experimental the choice of material is also adventurous being a collection of often unexpected reinterpretations from the folk canon.

Her voice pitched high, it opens with field recordings of a bees, sheep, cuckoo and other birds introducing and percolating jaunty take on ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ in which, towards the end, she sneaks in a line from Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’. That’s followed by the title track, the Northumbrian traditional famously sung by Kathleen Ferrier, here departing from her solo vocal arrangement to feature background harmonies drawing inspiration from French composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc, and Eastern European all-female choirs like Voix Bulgares,  her reading based on imagining young woman, standing on a cliff in the moonlight, wishing her lover would return safely from his ocean voyage, each bridge gaining in speed to capture the urgency of her feelings.

It’s a surprise to find a couple of children’s nursery rhymes in the mix, first up being ‘Oranges And Lemons’, though not the familiar version that features only six churches and follows the title line with “when will you pay me” but, instead, a full fifteen, taking in “‘Bull’s eyes and targets’ say the bells of St Margaret’s” and “‘Brickbats and tiles’ say the bells of St Giles”, though still ending with the here comes the chopper game coda. The other, and again ending with a severing of appendage,  is an equally eccentric ‘Three Blind Mice’ in which the title in intoned as a loop and hiccupping squeak behind the scampering verse creating a quite nightmarish effect.

Striking a note of relative normalcy, coloured by a sample of ocean waves and again multi-tracked vocals, there’s the yearning Scottish ballad ‘My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean’ while, opening with a horse whinnying  and hooves clopping throughout,  traditional English balladry is captured in ‘Scarborough Fair’ given an almost Gregorian chant arrangement. On similar medieval note, the harmonies changing with each verse, comes a suitably  courtly ‘Greensleeves’.

Switching continents, although the tune originated as a folk dance in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1752 opera Le Devin Du Village, ‘Go Tell Aunt Nancy’ is of African American provenance, rooted in the slave lullabies tradition (it’s tempting think of slave nannies wryly serenading their white charges with a song about a goose dying) and is also known as ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhodie’.  Of similar origin, and the least arranged and arguably most effective track, is ‘Kumbaya’, a spiritual  appeal to God to help those in need that found popular success during the folk revival of the 50s and 60s through artists such as Joan Baez and The Sandpipers, becoming a campfire staple for scouting groups.

Bells tolling at the start and close, she ends back home with her reworking of the 16th century ‘Coventry Carol’, lamenting Herod’s massacre of the newborn, her voice soaring and at times ululating to a backing of newly composed tightly fashioned harmonies, conjuring an image  of her singing amid the stones of some medieval cathedral.

Esoteric, atmospheric and hypnotic, Blow The Wind Southerly is a beguiling, intoxicating piece of work.

Mike Davies

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