LUKE DANIELS – Old Friends & Exhausted Enemies (Wren Wren019)

Old Friends & Exhausted EnemiesLet me own up and say I blow somewhat hot and cold regarding Daniels’ music. I wasn’t a fan of Revolve & Rotate, for which he composed new music on a 19th century polyphon, and I found Singing Ways To Be More Junior a bit of a hit and miss affair. However, subtitled Seven Centuries of Poetry from Chaucer to Auden, Old Friends & Exhausted Enemies gets the thumbs up. Not a setting of poems by an anthology of English poets as such, rather he speaks of them as ‘collaborators’, borrowing snippets and lines, or even a single word, here and there to create his own songs, deepening his appreciation of his inspirations along the way.

Working with double bassist Jenny Hill and percussionist Signy Jacobsdottir as his core backing alongside contributions from the likes of Zi Lan Lao on Chinese harp, Rihab Azar on Syrian oud, Swedish cittern player Ale Carr and the Arco String Quartet,his first port of call takes in Thomas Campion, William Barnes, Robert Herrick , James Joyce, John Masefield and Alfred Lord Tennyson for ‘Girl With The Nut-Browne Hair’, a traditional folk styled love song which also evinces the fingerpicking influence of Nic Jones.

The warmly sung reconciliation and parting title track is slightly less wide-ranging in its cherrypicking, taking in Ben Jonson, John Dryden and even Isaac Watts’ hymn ‘Our Help In Ages Past’, followed by the equally measured pacing of ‘Officer Of My Career’ which, coloured by Abel Selacoe’s cello, calls upon John Donne, Robert Bridges, Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Herrick and the rather more obscure Korby Lenker for a song about seeking direction which, with its line about “door splits and the CDs sold by hand” clearly directs thoughts to the struggles of the itinerant musician.

The waltztime fingerpicked ‘Who’s Going To Stop?’, a call for help and support in troubled times when you feel lost and alone is all his own work, then it’s back to the bards with Sir Walter Scott, Robert Browning, Wordsworth and Marlowe among those lending their words to the strings and piano-accompanied ‘Father’s Cradle Song’, a tender lullaby from a parent to their child as they grow and take their leave, the track transforming into jazzier keyboard shapes.

Another solo flight, ‘I See The Good In You’ has a bluesy ragtime swing (not to mention the line about being a “a grumpy bastard”) before, given a husky vocal reading and an American folk blues feel, ‘The Weed The Wood And The Wagg’ is, with just a couple of minor tweaks, a setting of Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem of encouragement to his son.

An Irish traditional, built around piano and strings with a drone-like vocal delivery, ‘The May Morning Dew’ concerns the passing of time and the memory of those that have gone before, the mood and tempo shifting to more upbeat, notions of mortality also percolating through the even deeper vocals of ‘Where We All Must Go’ with its dark Appalachian gospel resonances, the forlorn cello stains giving way to slightly brighter bluegrass notes. These are picked up and given their head on ‘Jim Beam & Brown Sugar’, another musicians inspired number, that calls to mind Martin Simpson’s work in the genre.

He returns to his literary sources from the last two numbers, first up being the sparse hymnal piano melancholia of ‘Soldiers And Sailors’, a cocktail of Browning, Masefield, Burns and Ciaran Carson that again reflects on changing seasons, unknown futures and the need to have both anchors and the freedom to set sail. Finally, the father of English literature himself, Geoffrey Chaucer provides a fitting sign off with ‘Prologue To The Canterbury Tales’ as, the language slightly tweaked, Daniels sets the entire opening stanza to music, primarily arranged for piano with other instruments feathering the path.

It’s an outstanding collection of work that not only advances Daniels’ growing reputation but which will hopefully send listeners back, like him, to discover the richness of the country’s literary heritage.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Prologue To The Canterbury Tales’: