The fifth album by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, but Feather is only the second under their new name, this had the formidable task of following upon their eponymous ‘debut’. As you would expect, it does so effortlessly, expanding their musical palette as it goes and showcasing Martin’s ever maturing voice. The discovery of a single feather in the middle of a Dartmoor stone provided the impetus for the opening banjo-driven title track, the inability to identify its origin serving to underscore the notion that there remains mystery in the world and the album’s proclaimed mission to bring hope and positivity in dark times.
Ancient stones also lie behind ‘Where I Stand’, specifically the Roborough Down stone, one of the many Ogham stones which bear writing in the Irish runic alphabet, the lyrics reflecting the fact that this particular stone carries the inscription of two names, a father and his son who, as second generation no longer considered Irish as his native tongue. It’s not hard to see the wider resonance of embracing new cultures while honouring the old.
With Hannah on fiddle and Phillip augmenting guitar with stomp box, ‘Back From Hope’ is a breezy duet about a husband and wife who spent their Sundays walking the Peak District (Hope being a Derbyshire village), although the song has its origins in the true tragedy of John Axon, a Stockport railwayman killed while trying to stop a runaway freight train his story recounted in MacColl and Seeger’s Radio Ballads where his wife recalls their hikes.
Featuring dobro and banjo, ‘Wanting Nothing’ addresses a theme of contentment with just a home away from the bustle and a fire to warm, while National and tenor guitar lay down a slow-paced melody for ‘What We Save From The Tide’ where the beachcombing the flotsam and jetsam serves as a metaphor for the creative process.
The duo switch instruments with Phillip on banjo and Hannah on guitar for ‘Oyster’, another song of promise and hope that draws on nature (the poem referencing Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is The Thing With Feathers) in the idea of the mollusc spinning beauty out of pain., the six-minute track building to a frenetic mantra-like climax.
Fiddle shares space with stomp and shruti box for ‘Time Away’, a lazing, slowly loping celebration of the rejuvenating power of taking time off for a holiday, the pair delving into real life with ‘Growing’, dobro and banjo creating the dreamy atmosphere as, based on a true story from Sweden, the clearly metaphorical lyrics recount the loss and, sixteen years later, the recovery of a wedding ring, here wrapped around an unearthed carrot.
They head into the final stretch with the rhythmically itchy and melodically shape-shifting ‘Wander’, Henry’s buzzing beatbox harmonica putting in its only appearance alongside pizzicato five-string fiddle, shruti and stomp box for a song that (with a hint of Celtic folk to its swaying chorus) is essentially about migration and the definition of home as the place where you put down roots not where you come from.
The album’s sole traditional number comes with a six-minute rendition of Spencer The Rover, stripped back to the bare bones of harmonica, shruti drone and Martin’s exposed vocals, the final number being ‘The Longest Day’, plucked fiddle and National steel solo colouring a song of change and renewal inspired by the turning of the year, solstices, equinoxes and, the song building from calm to a swelling anthemic feel on Martin’s soaring fiddle, traditions like the May Day dancing the sun up on Dartmoor and a reminder that “the day is long and full of hope/And the circle turns forever”.
They describe their intention as to create an album of “bright songs for dark days”. Let it light up your life.
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‘Feather’ – live: