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.
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One of the bonus tracks, ‘King Orfeo’: