As Winter drags on, while the cost of living crises bites deeper and the news seems to be continually tragic, suggestions for anything that might lift the spirits are surely welcome. Well, here’s a suggestion from me – have a listen to Volume 1, the debut album (as a duo) from Will Pound and Jenn Butterworth. Harmonica and melodeon maestro Will and Leading folk guitarist (amongst other things) Jenn, have already lifted our spirits once, with their remote video sessions during lockdown. Since venues reopened they’ve toured together, and now two days of live recording in a Glasgow studio, has given us Volume 1. It is, quite simply, a delightful album.
The first track sets the pattern for much of the album, with dazzling harmonica from Will and flawless, driving guitar accompaniment from Jenn. Like six of the nine tracks, it consists of a set of tunes with a one word title. ‘The Reckoning’ has three tunes – ‘The Reckoning’, composed by Will, ‘The Borrowburn Reel’, by Addie Harper, and Ralph Stanley’s ‘Clinch Mountain Backstep’. It’s a storming opener, led by high tempo harmonica playing, and with distinctly jazzy and bluesy inflections.
Throughout history, tunes have travelled, often with waves of immigrants, and established themselves in more than one tradition. An example is the many Irish tunes that became part of the Rapper dance tradition, thanks to Nineteenth Century Irish immigration to North East England. This is what happened to the two Irish jigs that make up ‘Blackthorn’, ‘The Blackthorn Stick’, is a delicate and gentle tune. The tempo picks up with ‘The Irish Washerwoman’, where bluesy touches reappear. A gorgeous track.
‘Bourrées’ takes its name from a lively, French traditional dance, and has some appropriately continental touches. Both tunes on this track are written by Will. ‘All Roads Lead to Caernarfon’ recalls his lockdown trips, to and from the town that is now his home. ‘Bb Bourree’ is a fast, step dance tune.
This takes us to the one vocal track on the album. ‘Better Things’ was written by Peggy Seager for Aldermaston marchers in 1958. It sounds surprisingly jolly for a protest song, dealing with the risk of global obliteration, but the lyrics use irony to convey their message. The better things of the title refers to better things we can do, instead of blowing the Earth apart. That should be blindingly obvious, but apparently still needs to be said. Will’s harmonica playing gives this track a nice bluesy, old timey feel, while Jenn sings it so well that I’d have been happy to hear more of her vocals.
A few years ago, Will set himself the challenge of working out every single scale on the D/G diatonic accordion. The result is his three compositions that make up ‘The Workout Suite’ – ‘The Scoops Reel’, ‘The Frenetic’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’. The first tune has a gentle feel, before the second lives up to its name by quickening the tempo. ‘The Last Hurrah’ is another quick and danceable tune, with a bit of a Celtic twist. Three good tunes and a bravura performance from both musicians.
Now if the previous track sounded ambitious, how about some Baroque classical music, played on melodeon and guitar, with a Quebecois inspired setting. ‘Sheba’ is Will and Jenn’s take on Handel’s classic ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’. It’s become a favourite in their live shows and it’s easy to understand why. It’s another real workout for the melodeon, sometimes delivering a sharp Quebecois sound, and at other times sounding like a church organ.
‘Sheba’ is great fun. By contrast the following track, ‘Somme’, is the most melancholy on the album. Composed by Pipe Major William Lawrie, died aged 35 in 1916, probably due to contracting pneumonia while serving in the World War 1 trenches. A gifted composer of pipe music, this track is a beautiful melodeon and guitar version of his solemn retreat, ‘The Battle of the Somme’. A slow, soulful and beautiful tune that gives an extra dimension to an otherwise very upbeat album.
The lively rhythms and harmonica fireworks return on ‘Beggarman’, a track consisting of two more tunes that have travelled to become part of various traditions. ‘Soldier’s Joy’ is a popular American dance tune, but its origins are in Scotland, where Robbie Burns is believed to have used it for a song in his cantata ‘The Jolly Beggars’. That conveniently links it to ‘The Jolly Beggar’, a much-recorded tune, collected in several countries. It’s another infectious track, with jazzy and bluesy touches blending effortlessly with traditional dance rhythms.
Volume 1 concludes with ‘Speedy’, consisting of two English tunes. The familiar ‘Speed the Plough’ is a gentle and lovely tune, collected by Cecil Sharp from the Gypsy fiddler John Locke, in 1909. The track then lives up to its name with the fiery dance ‘The Hesleyside Reel’, learned by Will from the late harmonica player Will Atkinson.
If you enjoy folk music, then you’ll probably like Volume 1. And if you’re a music lover, but not specifically into folk, the sheer infectiousness of it should still pull you in. Put simply, Volume 1 is a great selection of tunes and one song, beautifully performed by two of the brightest stars of the folk scene of these islands. With their arrangements, Will and Jenn have been imaginative and happy to bring in some wider influences. The touches of jazz, blues, and yes, a bit of Baroque-Quebecois fusion, all add to the fun and accessibility of the album.
So far, I’ve probably not said enough about Jenn. Her contribution is less immediately noticeable, but her perfectly pitched guitar playing provides a flawless accompaniment to Will’s musical dexterity and is the solid base for the album. As for Will, he’s a fine melodeon player and a terrific harmonica player. If I didn’t know it was recorded live, I’d be wondering if some tracks had two harmonicas playing on them. When this is coupled with Jenn’s sensitive guitar work, we’ve got great combination.
So, a fine album, with nothing negative that I can say about it. Perhaps I could say that the title isn’t very interesting, but then Volume 1 suggests that there is more to come. I’d say that’s good news.
Artist website: https://willandjenn.bandcamp.com
‘My Darling Asleep/Jimmy Wards/Stenson’s No 2’ – live: