Devon-based via Bristol Suthering’s If We Turn Away is an intricate tapestry of English folk music that, for want of a better phrase, simply toys with the buffeting winds of musical gravity. Julu Irving and Heg Brignall (formally known as Julu & Heg) sing with a weird harmonic disquietude, like the voice of a Greek Chorus promising a momentary glint in the midst of a Thomas Hardy tragic novel. This music sings with a pathos that is always tucked into the nuances of any sublime melody.
By the way, I really like this album. And it will certainly appeal to ears that have been lent to The Silly Sisters (aka June Tabor and Maddy Prior), The Rankin Family (huge compliment!), those Mediaeval Baebes, and (stretching the comparison a bit) the 70’s Irish band, Mellow Candle, with the twined vocals of Clodagh Simmons and Alison Williams.
The self-penned songs by both Julu and Heg embrace tradition. ‘Black Bull of Norroway’ floats with aged wisdom and the innocent dance of Julu’s flute and Heg’s piano, while their vocals weave a gossamer passage through a labyrinth of (sort of) madrigal magic. ‘This Land’ is an acoustic guitar plucked quiet lake melody that, with wonderous harmony vocals (and more pulsing flute!), continues to toy with the limitations of beauty’s boundaries. It’s a lovely tune. Then, the piano graced ‘Kingfisher’ urges rebirth – which is a central theme to this album. Truly, the song softly punches at tough darkness.
‘Mary’ is blunt with an unfaithful “young prince” and a swirling fiddle. Not to worry, though, as (in their own words) they say, “Our songs tell stories and champion female characters, creating narratives for women and unearthing the female heroines of folk”.
‘Downfalling’ is introspective and gorgeous. It’s a sad tale of a soldier who leaves a mother with “jet back hair”, and sails “to France on the Duke of Argyll” and relates the horror of “the bombs are falling”, and a dying friend who “never spoke again”. Oh my – Aaron Catlow’s violin shears through the absolute blood red passion of Julu and Heg’s battlefield voices that are rife with (almost) photographic terror. And, with a nice touch of literary merit, the mother’s hair, upon the speaker’s return is “lily white”. It’s a stunning song which runs with parallel pathos to the tunes ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’ and ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.
As my friend, Kilda Defnut, often says, “Great songwriting expands perceptive tear ducts”.
And this is great songwriting filled with great big tears.
Ahh – there’s more to love. ‘Gather’ is a welcome reprieve with more heavenly harmonies that weave the moon’s pull into the touch of the tide with an ancient yin-yang piano-balanced grace. Then, the traditional ‘Sovay’ becomes, with tumbling piano and flute fortitude, quite classical and urgent. Fans of Steeleye Span, circa Below The Salt should take note. Ditto for (the also traditional and a cappella voiced) ‘Blood And Gold’.
Betwixt the traditional tunes is ‘Home’, a song that stretches with “all of the above” (aka piano, flute, and voices) that, once again, simply toys with those ever buffeting winds of musical gravity.
But the best, perhaps, is the final song, ‘Boatman’, which sings with perfect denouement solace into acoustic folk music havens. The songs worries; it loves; it teaches – with an almost mythical melody and gentle guitar – and sings with a featherbed oaken ease that manages to comfort, with ancient folk wisdom, all the troubles of this covid consumed world. Indeed, as the words of the song sing, “May your heart always carry you home”.
If We Turn Away laments gravestones; it chants old incantations; it flutes joyous melodies; and it plays an acoustic folk music that, like some sublime Greek chorus, sings with hopeful promise of ancient melodic truth and beauty in our very modern world.
Artists’ website: www.suthering.com
‘Kingfisher’ – official video: