THE LOST WORDS – Spell Songs (Folk By The Oak QRCD004)

Having held the unofficial job title “wordsmith” in various contexts for several decades, I was not going to miss the opportunity of hearing and reviewing an album with the title The Lost Words: Spell Songs. Especially as one of the highly-talented musicians involved in the project is Karine Polwart, whose Laws Of Motion CD I reviewed with some enthusiasm here.

It turns out that this is a multi-faceted project with a complicated backstory. Some years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began to replace some of the words it defined with words that were considered to be more in keeping with the lives led by children today, so that words relating to religion and to the natural world – like bird and flower names – were replaced by words related to various aspects of information technology (for example). Robert MacFarlane was one of 28 authors – among the others were Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo, and Andrew Motion – who wrote to Oxford University Press asking them to reconsider, specifically with reference to words “associated with nature and the countryside“. (I don’t intend to get into that argument here, but the OUP’s argument is that while the number of words included in the OJD is a limiting factor, the kind of words that critics want restored do feature in their much-expanded range of dictionaries for children.)

MacFarlane then went on to write a poetry book called The Lost Words: A Spell Book, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, with watercolour illustrations by Jackie Morris. As it says on the web site, the poems in the book “are called ‘spells’ rather than poems as they are designed to be spoken (or sung!) out loud in order to summon back these words and creatures into our hearts.” The book has inspired a number of musical and multi-media projects, but Spell Songs is the result of a collaborative project commissioned by Folk By The Oak. The CD is available in a hardback book format (a limited-edition double vinyl album box set is also available and includes the CD book).

Sadly, the review CD is a promo copy without the book, but it looks from the web site as if the book would be worth the money for the illustrations alone. But while I haven’t seen the ‘spells’ in isolation, the music certainly sets them off beautifully. Here’s the track list.

  1. ‘Heartwood’
  2. ‘Selkie-Boy’
  3. ‘Kingfisher’
  4. ‘Heron’
  5. ‘Little Astronaut’
  6. ‘Acorn’
  7. ‘Ghost Owl’
  8. ‘The Snow Hare’
  9. ‘Conker (Magic Casket)’
  10. ‘Papa Kéba’
  11. ‘Charm on, Goldfinch’
  12. ‘Willow’
  13. ‘Scatterseed’
  14. ‘The Lost Words Blessing’

The eight musicians all contribute vocals, but also contribute individual instruments as follows:

  • Karine Polwart: tenor guitar, Indian harmonium
  • Julie Fowlis: shruti box and whistles
  • Seckou Keita: kora
  • Kris Drever: acoustic, electric & bass guitars
  • Kerry Andrew: melodica
  • Rachel Newton: electroharp, fiddle, viola
  • Beth Porter: whistling, cello, ukulele
  • Jim Molyneux: piano, Rhodes, synth, accordion, drums, percussion

With this range of singers and instrumentalists, there is much more variation in the material presented here than you might have expected, given their common source, though that unifying theme gives each piece an emotional impact that goes far beyond the introspection of run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter fare. The arrangements, singing and playing are all excellent. And I think I know what one of my wife’s birthday presents is going to be this year. That way I get to read the book as well as hearing some very beautiful music.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: https://www.thelostwords.org/

[Book ISBN13: 9780241253588]

‘The Lost Words Blessing’ – official video:

YOU ARE WOLF – Keld (Firecrest Records, FC001P)

KeldDiving down from the avian themes of You Are Wolf’s first album, Hawk To The Hunting Gone, Keld is a set of songs of water, specifically the mysticism of freshwater inland waterways. The word “keld” means “the deep, still, smooth part of a river” – somewhere to swim, to chant spells, to drown, to murder.

You Are Wolf is one among Kerry Andrew’s many projects as a prolific writer and musician. Here, she partners with multi-instrumentalist Sam Hall (whose cello playing is gorgeous) and percussionist Peter Ashwell to bring an alt-folk take on some traditional songs and to push the boundaries with their original material. The songs focus on building up complex rhythmic sequences from multiple layers of instruments and voice.

The traditional songs are delivered fairly straight in Andrew’s clean, clear vocal. Arrangements are rhythmically rich and suitably sympathetic, with the running water and hand percussion beneath the a cappella vocal of ‘The Baffled Knight’, followed by the metallic clinking and sultry cello of ‘As Sylvie Was Walking’ making for a very enticing start.

At track three, there was a sudden parting of the ways. ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ is a bafflingly over-stuffed incantation, a mantra-fuelled distillation of urban yoga workshop. Perhaps there’s just a bit too much sonic distraction going on in this one. ‘George Collins’ and ‘Down In The Willow Garden’ which follow, are sweet and simple relief, by contrast.

Generally, though, it’s on the original songs that the band members really get a chance to stretch themselves. ‘Dragonfly’ moves from a sinister rattlesnake shake to African Pygmy singing in a rather Kate Bush-like way. There’s a fine coda to ‘If Boys Could Swim’ where, over a darkly scraping cello, the central phrase is chopped up, eventually reduced to a mere two words “girls, boys” which, despite suddenly calling a well-known Blur song to mind, is highly accomplished and considered in terms of how it’s achieved.

In another take, ‘Drowndown’ plays around with the phrase “Do not go down to the water’s edge”, until it becomes a stumbling, aphasic repetition, any sense of the words subsumed into the rhythm. As well as a strong influence of minimalism, there’s more than an echo of P J Harvey’s “Down By The Water” hereabouts. Except that where Harvey is visceral, You Are Wolf are cerebral. What this means – for this listener at least, please do listen and form your own view – is that it’s entirely possible to appreciate the composition and musical skill on a coolly intellectual level, without ever being troubled by the hot, primal tug of emotional connection.

Su O’Brien

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‘As Sylvie Was Walking’ – official video:

You Are Wolf announces her second album

You Are Wolf
Photograph by Dannie Price

You Are Wolf is the alt-folk project of award-winning composer and vocalist Kerry Andrew. Releasing her second album Keld in March, it is the follow-up to her 2014 debut Hawk To The Hunting Gone, a record that explored British birds and folklore. Now working as a trio with multi-instrumentalist Sam Hall and percussionist Peter Ashwell, Keld – an old Northern English word meaning “the deep, still, smooth part of a river” – is an album that explores and develops the theme of freshwater. Wild swimming is a key passion and inspiration of hers, and she can often be found dipping into lochs, lakes, rivers and the sea in all weathers. Though there are countless traditional songs about the sea, there are less about our inland waterways, and Kerry decided to use this as a challenge: to source traditional material and write originals all inspired by freshwater folklore.

It was an aim of Kerry’s to find songs that featured an array of strong female characters, and Keld includes traditional songs about waterfall banshees, killer female water sprites, drowning boys and powerful witches. Original songs are inspired by wild swimming, vengeful rivers, nymphs and naiads, and even an Anglo-Saxon charm. You Are Wolf brings these ancient songs and stories into the present, with bold arrangements inspired by leftfield pop, new classical music and electronica.

The album is produced by MaJiker, best known for his work on French alt-pop queen Camille’s Victoire-winning albums. He has also remixed / worked with Fever Ray, Nitin Sahwney and Gaggle, and brings an experimental pop sensibility to the album. Where Hawk To The Hunting Gone was heavily vocal, with lots of vocal looping – inspired by the likes of Camille, Bobby Mcferrin, Meredith Monk and tUnE-yArDs – Keld is more expansive. With a wider palate of sounds including drums, ‘cello, vibraphone, trumpet, found sounds and field recordings, it’s an album that not only draws from innovative contemporary folk artists including Lisa Knapp (who features here on “The Weeper”), Sam Lee and The Unthanks, but also by music outside the folk sphere: everything from minimalist composer Steve Reich to PJ Harvey, traditional Central African Pygmy music and Julia Holter. The brilliant poet Robin Robertson also appears.

You Are Wolf is a regular on Radio 3’s The Verb and performed her debut short story with music on BBC Radio 4’s Stories From Songwriters series. Elsewhere, as Kerry Andrew, she is a composer of experimental vocal music and choral music, has a PhD in Composition and is the winner of four British Composer Awards. Kerry has written for The Guardian and is an occasional presenter on BBC Radio 3. Her debut novel, Swansong, based on a folk ballad, is published by Jonathan Cape on January 25th 2018. The novel has been praised by Robert Macfarlane as “spiky, strange and contemporary, but always with a dark undertow of myth and folklore tugging at its telling” and by folk legend Shirley Collins as “a subtle, supernatural tale told in a present-day voice.”

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Artist’s website: http://www.youarewolf.com/

‘All Things Are Quite Silent’ – live: