MICHELL, PFEIFFER & KULESH – Flowers (own label)

FlowersThe first full-length album by the multi-national triumvirate of Odette Michell (English), Karen Pfeiffer (German) and Dara Kulesh (Russian), several of these tracks have been available as digital singles or on a gigs-only EP, but are now brought together under one roof as Flowers. They’re mostly traditional, some better known than others, with several featuring the trio singing verses in their native languages to compelling effect, the collection opening with ‘My Love’s In Germany’, the lament of a Scottish woman for her lover written by Scottish poet Hector Macneill, sung in English with a military drum beat, shruti and bouzouki, the three voices coming together on the refrain.

Again sung in English, Katrina Davies’s violin introduces the Michell/Kulesh composition ‘Song Of The Free’, a lilting mid-tempo waltzer with an unaccompanied finale with an opening lyrical nod to ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme’, is a call to end wars and violence (“Go tell him to find me a parcel of land/Rosemary, daisy and lily so fine/Where never a gun was held in a hand/Maybe that land could be yours and mine?”). Interestingly, Rose(mary) Daisy and Lily make a return appearance later in the album.

Given a stirring rendition, the first multi-lingual number, opening with acoustic guitar and muted drum beat with Pfeiffer singing in German, followed by Michell and Kulesh, the refrain in English, is ‘Peatbog Soldiers’, a well-known protest song written by political prisoners a Nazi concentration camp and later adopted as a Republican anthem during the Spanish Civil War.

The title track, anchored by producer Jason Pemberton’s steady drum beat with Pfeiffer breaking out the woodwind, and sung in English, is a Michell/Kulesh traditional styled ballad in which three young women, the flowers of the forest so to speak, meet an outlaw in the greenwood with “A lust in his heart, and a knife in his hand” who declares he’ll take them as his bride, the first two, Rose and Daisy, telling him their sister would be a better match, and the third, that’ll be Lily, shooting him dead.

Opening with spoken word in German, riding a shruti drone and military percussive beat with woodwind trills, verses sung in the three languages, ‘Lady Margaret’ is a hybrid of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig that entwines ‘Sweet William’s Ghost’ with Tam Lin, set on Halloween with the woman rescuing her lover and their child from the clutches of the Elven King and Elven Queen, who kidnapped him as a child and at one point turn him into a lion, a dog and a white-hot bar of iron to try and scare her off.

A massive 60s relationship end of the road hit for The Seekers as ‘The Carnival Is Over’, the songs actually had its origins as Stenka Razin, a Russian murder ballad, here as ‘The Cossack’s Bride’ with Phil Beer on fiddle, about how drunken rebel Cossack leader Stepan (Stenka) Razin threw a captive Persian princess into the Volga River to show his men he’d not gone soft. Kulesh appropriately starts it off in Russian before the others add their parts, nostalgia fans being catered for with a final appearance of The Seekers’ refrain.

Featuring Jonny Dyer on guitar, sung in English, the rousing ‘May Colven’ is a variant on ‘The Outlandish Knight’, the story of a young woman who elopes with the false Sir John who has promised to marry her but then tries to murder her (as he did seven before) to get money, clothes and horses, she managing to drown him instead, though sadly their version not involving a resourceful parrot.

Another in the three languages, beginning with woodwind and accompanied on piano and violin, the lustily performed ‘Bella Ciao’ is a late 19th century Italian protest folk song originally sung by the mondina (rice paddy) workers in protest against the harsh working conditions in the paddy fields of Northern Italy and adopted as an anthem by resistance righters against the Nazis. Coincidentally, not a number that generally looms large in recent recordings, it also appear on the new album by Jason McNiff.

As per the album title, flowers bloom throughout and perhaps the best known floral-related folk song is Pete Seeger’s much recorded anti-war protest ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ the trio’s multi-language treatment arranged for woodwind, violin and guitar is up there with the finest.

Flowers ends with a final multi-language excursion (the chorus in English), another 60s pop classic (a No 1 for Mary Hopkin) that has its origins in Russian folk, ‘Those Were The Days’, a reminiscence of youthful romantic idealism, drinking, singing and dancing, being written by Boris Fomin as ‘Dorogoi Ddlinnoyu’ (Along The Long Road), with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevsky and turned into English by Gene Raskin. With gipsy violin swirling and Marina Osman on piano, it sees things out in lively carousing form that really should end with the sound of glasses clinking together. Individually, all three are outstanding performers, together they are unrivalled.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.michellpfeifferkulesh.com