CLAIRE HASTINGS – Those Who Roam (Luckenbooth Records LUCKEN002CD)

Those Who RoamFollowing a somewhat unexpected and adventurous debut album, Claire Hastings became a Top Floor Taiver – still adventurous – and now reappears with her second solo album. Those Who Roam leans more heavily on the tradition which made her reputation as a Young Traditional Musician Of The Year but is by no means a retrograde step. In fact, it’s my second contender for album of the year from the three I’ve heard so far. Claire has slimmed down her band to four players and has engaged go-to producer Inge Thomson who is, no doubt, responsible for the sometimes ethereal feel of the album. Abandoning the ukulele was probably a good move, too.

As you probably guessed, not least from Claire’s sprauncy attire, the theme of the album is travellers; those who journey willingly and those forced to travel; those who journey heroically and those for whom it is just a way of life. The opening track, ‘The Lothian Hairst’, concerns the latter, gangs who worked the harvests in the 19th century, beginning in the Lothians and moving northwards as they followed the ripening grain. Told from the point of view of a female worker it sounds like a great life and benefits from a modern arrangement featuring Jenn Butterworth’s guitar and Tom Gibbs’ piano plus the sound of scythes: another of Thomson’s touches.

‘Jack The Sailor’, a variation on the female midshipman theme, is completely different, racing along on Laura Wilkie’s fiddle and driven by Andrew Waite’s accordion while ‘Seven Gypsies’ and  ‘Sailin’s A Weary Life’, with its doom-laden arrangement,  both concern loss but for very different reasons. Next comes ‘Fair Weather Beggar’, the first of Claire’s own songs, about an Edinburgh busker who doesn’t like the rain, followed by a rather pretty written song from the 18th century. ‘Logie O’ Buchan’ is the age-old story of the lecherous landlord and the poor couple forcibly separated.

Claire’s second original song, ‘Noble Helen Of Cluden’, is based on a possibly true story borrowed by Sir Walter Scott for The Heart Of Midlothian and is a sort of twist on ‘Geordie’. ‘Jamie Raeburn’ is a fairly familiar transportation ballad and in complete contrast it’s followed by Dave Alvin’s ‘King Of California’ which tells another age-old story set this time in gold-rush America. Finally we have ‘Ten Thousand Miles which closes with the same sound that begins ‘The Lothian Hairst’; soft strings that are probably Wilkie’s fiddle treated by Thomson.

Those Who Roam really is an excellent album and, much as I enjoyed Between River And Railway, it’s a big step forward.

Dai Jeffries

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‘King Of California’ – live at Costa del Folk:

KARINE POLWART – Laws Of Motion (Hudson Records HUD014)

Laws Of MotionKarine Polwart’s latest CD – Laws Of Motion, released on 19th October 2018 – is her seventh release. It is co-produced by Karine with Inge Thomson (who, along with Karine’s brother Steven Polwart, seems to have provided most of the additional instrumentation for the album) and Stuart Hamilton, and it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.

The CD came as a promo copy without a lyric sheet and composer credits, but from the publicity sheet I received I gather that some of the songs were co-written with Lau’s Martin Green, while there’s one I know to be a cover version. I guess the others are Karine’s own. She says “I didn’t set out to write songs on a unified theme – they’ve just landed that way. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the times we’re in.” And in fact the themes of migration and war seem to predominate here.

  1. ‘Ophelia’ is an atmospheric song with a setting far removed from Hamlet’s Denmark. Australia, I guess, with its references to desert wind and eucalyptus? Perhaps it’s just that other songs here reflect the fear of nuclear apocalypse, but for some reason it suddenly reminded me of Neville Shute’s On The Beach.
  2. ‘Laws of Motion’, co-written with Martin Green, movingly observes the plight of the migrant.
  3. ‘I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’ is an epic mixture of spoken and sung lyric that addresses the 45th President of the US with the voice of “the ancient rock beneath the Isle of Lewis, birthplace of Trump’s mother, Mary Ann Macleod.” My guess is that Mr T. will not appreciate its pitiless analysis and reminder of his immigrant roots, if he ever hears it. But I do, very much.
  4. ‘Suitcase’ further develops the theme of migration, being about the Kindertransport, the rescue initiative that brought so many (mostly Jewish) children to the UK between Kristallnacht and 1940. The shadow of the death camps lies heavy on this intense lyric.
  5. ‘Cornerstone’ instructs us to “Tread lightly as you pass on by, and listen” – and yes, I think you should.
  6. Shinzaburo Matsuo sailed to Scotland after losing his family in Japan’s 1923 earthquake, and tended Isabella Christie’s celebrated Japanese garden until his death in 1937. The story is told in the beautiful ‘Matsuo’s Welcome To Muckhart’.
  7. I’m not sure what story lies behind the landscapes of ‘Young Man On A Mountain’ but it doesn’t seem to matter: the evocative lyric is carried perfectly by the melody and arrangement.
  8. ‘Crow On The Cradle’ will be familiar to old folkies: it’s Sidney Carter’s anti-war song, and well worth revisiting. Especially when it’s as beautifully performed as this, with some twists of melody and lyric that would somehow make it uniquely Karine’s own, even without the startling harmonies of the final bars.
  9. ‘The Robin’ takes a deceptively gentle melodic approach to a thoughtful lyric.
  10. The stunning ‘Cassiopeia’ takes much of its power from the contrast of spoken extracts from the 1979 leaflet Protect And Surviveissued by the Home Office during the Cold War with the fearful, unanswerable questions of a 9-year old“. One reviewer has dismissed the track as “perhaps fighting yesterday’s battles“, but I’m not sure we should be assuming now that “we are going to be survivors” any more than we should have done then. Strangely, the juxtaposition of speech and synth reminded me a little of Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, but that doesn’t in any way reduce its impact.

Though Karine’s vocals and the instrumental work here are never less than perfect, this isn’t, perhaps, easy listening. Not, at any rate, if you pay attention to the words (as you should), though there are some fine melodies here. But Laws Of Motion is a CD that will repay close attention and repeated plays.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.karinepolwart.com/

‘Ophelia’ – official video:

NORTHERN FLYWAY – Northern Flyway (Hudson Records, HUD013)

Northern FlywayThis eponymous album from Northern Flyway is a beautiful addition to a rapidly growing body of music prominently featuring birdsong. Northern Flyway is Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thomson’s new audio-visual project, featuring Magnus Robb’s bird recordings. Subtly drawing parallels with human migration and diversity, it’s also an alarm cry of disconnection from our natural world.

The rhythms and patterns of birdsong create audible landscapes of seasonal change, starting with the honking geese of opener, ‘Flyway’, which suggests the drone of an invisible aerial motorway of migration. The dawn chorus’s bubbling crescendo is transformed into a delirious, giddy fairground ride in ‘We Are The Morning’.

‘Rosefinch’ is the first of many songs dedicated to particular species. It’s a warm, bright song, with Jason Singh’s churring beatboxing and an accordion motif to mirror the bird’s phrasing. ‘The Gannets’ is a perfect example of how the album intertwines interview snippets and birdsong, often digitally manipulated to form beats and punctuations. The birds’ eerie, scratchy cry cuts through the airy, chant-like vocal, as a gently curling flute breaks free, soaring over a dully metallic percussion.

‘Lost Lapwing’ with its rather brusque, mantra-like vocal takes the bird’s eye view; the manipulated birdsong at times adding a whale-song-like melancholy before eliding into Robbie Burns’ delicate ‘Sweet Afton’. The richly-layered ‘Curlew’ evokes the bird’s wide-open-skies call (like a bleaker, saltier skylark), and the wisdom attributed to ‘The Owls’ (inaccurately, say some who work with them) is contemplated over a delicious curvy, sinuous beat.

The powerful ‘fragment of the past’ that is ‘The Eagle’ sees mediaeval touches added to Tennyson’s poem fragment. More early music influences, plus Singh’s menacing animalistic beatboxing, feature in closing track, ‘Huginn And Muninn’ (the names of Odin’s ravens), in celebration of the darkly intelligent corvid.

‘No Barriers, No Borders’ makes a pointed comment on migration, its breathy atmosphere faintly calling to mind The Unthanks’ Mount The Air (no bad thing). Sarah Hayes’s lovely, plangent piano lead on this and the rather more autumnal ‘Nomad’.

As a high, shimmering wave of sound moves across ‘Loch Carron Flame’, the listener’s viewpoint plunges from migrating geese down into the flame shell reef of the murky Scottish waters. Videos of the reef are available to watch online: it gives the song’s repeated ‘goodbye’ an added pathos that is almost unbearable.

Northern Flyway portrays the beauty of these birds and their often precarious environments without preachiness. Original and multi-layered, this is an enigmatic, gorgeous piece of work.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: https://en-gb.facebook.com/northernflyway/

‘Curlews’ – official video: