Here’s the second Scottish band celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. While some might go for a big statement Malinky, who concentrate on song more than instrumentals, are rather more subtle. They boast two of the finest interpreters of Scottish song in Steve Byrne and Fiona Hunter with Mark Dunlop bringing songs from Ireland and the guitar and fiddle of Mike Vass completing the line-up. Handsel is a double CD: one of new material and a bonus disc of archive recordings. The band has recruited Euan Burton to join them on double bass and some celebrated singers to bring songs to the party. With nine lead vocalists there is plenty of variety.
Although the songs are distinctively Scots or Irish, some of the stories they tell are familiar. Most are old, either labelled as traditional or holding on their authorship from the 19th century. There is one new tune by Mark Dunlop and one new song by Steve Byrne, who has done the most work in amalgamating texts to improve the narratives. The opener, ‘Begone Bonnie Laddie’ borrows a line or two from ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ and ‘The Forester’ is well known to Steeleye Span fans. Dunlop played a major part in rebuilding ‘The Maid Of Doneysheil’ and its Irish origins can be discerned from the first notes.
The bothy ballad, ‘Sleepytoon’ with Ellie Beaton is as broad Scots as you might wish to hear and then come variants on stories concerning a grey cock and a ploughman laddie. There is old poetry from Allan Ramsey and Robert Burns and a more modern bothy ballad in the shape of ‘The Hash O Bennagoak’. Steve’s new song, ‘The Lads O The Lindsay’ concerns a lifeboat disaster off Arbroath in 1953. Steve is a native of Arbroath and his late grandmother remembered the event. Although it’s an emotional story the song is remarkably unsentimental in the manner of many old ballads.
The bonus disc is a splendid collection of favourite album tracks, live cuts and demos. Several are previously unreleased as far as I can tell – ‘Alison Cross’, a mighty and slightly atypical ‘The Trawlin Trade’ and ‘Clerk Saunders’ stand out as does the final track. This is a live performance of ‘The Bonnie Lass O Fyvie/The Silver Spear’ recorded for Malinky’s tenth anniversary concert featuring ten members of the band past and present including, of course, Karine Polwart.
Handsel – the name refers to a traditional New Year gift – is a really splendid album. Both the old and the new music resonate with the feeling of timelessness that makes folk music special. Please buy and enjoy.
I love the music that is being produced in Scotland these days. I love its adventurousness and its imagination. I love the way that musical partnerships come together and split apart as though there is too much music for anyone to stand still long enough to make two albums together. But behind all this is the wealth of traditional music that stretches back over the centuries and underpins all the innovation.
Which is where Malinky come in. They are dedicated to Scots song and uncompromising in their commitment to the Scots language, which is a little surprising when you remember that their early years helped to propel Karen Polwart to solo songwriter stardom. Malinky are not averse to borrowing a song when it’s appropriate, however, so the version of ‘The Twa Sisters’ is translated from the original Swedish by Steve Byrne. ‘Long Cookstown’ is an Irish song, presumably brought in by Mark Dunlop who sings it; ‘The Wild Geese’ is a poem by Violet Jacob set to music by Jim Reid and Mike Vass gets to include one of his own tunes.
The rest is pure Scots traditional and my favourite is a song I’ve known for years but is rarely heard this far south. ‘The Bonnie Hoose O Airlie’ is a story of 17th century warfare between the royalist Earl Of Airlie and the anti-monarchist Earl Of Argyll although you can’t help but feel that there was something more opportunistic behind the attack given that Airlie wasn’t even there. The story has been embellished over the years but it’s still a superb song and beautifully sung by Fiona Hunter. Second to it but only by a whisker is ‘Son David’, another beautiful song telling a grim story. This version comes from Jeannie Robertson and features producer Donald Shaw on Ivor Cutler’s old harmonium and rich harmony singing from all four band members.
It’s not all gloom and bloodshed. ‘The Brisk Young Lad’ is a tale of failed courtship and ‘The Moss O Burreldale’ is apparently about a fight between Traveller families although it sounds far too jolly for that – just how does one plait one’s knees?
As I remarked, Malinky are somewhat uncompromising in their use of language and a crash course in Scots dialect would be advantageous but most of it makes perfect sense with the odd word or phrase to be deciphered. Oddly, Violet Jacob’s words are the most difficult.
I had a clever introduction about another young singer falling into good company to make her debut but, of course, as lead vocalist with Malinky for ten years, Fiona Hunter has put in the miles already.
However this is her solo debut and the company is indeed good. There’s former band-mate Mike Vass who also produced the record and wrote a couple of the tunes that are woven into the songs; Matheu Watson who is everyone’s favourite Scottish guitarist at the moment; Euan Watson on double bass and Gillian Frame as second vocalist. Fiona’s source material is the wider Scots tradition, including Roberts Tannahill and Burns, which we can extend to Ewan McVicar’s ‘Shift And Spin’, which sounds more traditional than some traditional songs, and Andy Hunter’s ‘Ye Hielan Chiels’. Hey, it’s forty years old now!
Fiona’s skill is that she is equally convincing when singing a piece of nonsense like ‘The Weary Pund O’ Tow’ as when delivering a big ballad such as ‘The Cruel Mother’ or ‘Young Emsley’ – a variant of the young sailor murdered by his girl-friend’s parents story. There’s a favourite of mine here, ‘The Bleacher Lass O’ Kelvinhaugh’, and another piece of silliness to finish with in the shape of ‘Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow’ complete with the most tuneful chorus of drunks you’ll ever hear bashing out ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. The band is restrained in accompaniment and provides Fiona a platform for her cello while having free rein to stretch out in the instrumental passages. This is destined to be another of my albums of the year.
*** Although Fiona Hunter is officially released on March 3rd you can buy an advance copy from her website now. ***