BEN WALKER – Echo (Folk Room FRR1902)

EchoBen Walker is known as a guitarist, composer, arranger and producer but he is neither a lyricist nor a singer. For his debut solo album it would have been easy to re-run his first EP by recording a set of instrumentals and, to judge from the examples included here, it would have been very good. But it would not have been the statement that Echo is. Ben has gathered lyrics from a number of sources and recruited musicians and singers to perform with him and the result is stunning from start to finish.

The opening track is a sparkling instrumental, ‘Afon’, and if you didn’t look at the sleeve you’d be expecting more of the same. The piece ends with an almost triumphal chord and everything changes. Next is a song from William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience sung by Thom Ashworth and the tune that Ben has given to ‘The Ecchoing Green’ sounds perfectly traditional. ‘Ha’nacker Mill’, sung by Laura Hockenhull, was written by Hilaire Belloc and comes from Bob Copper’s archives. I’d never heard it before. ‘Rings’ is essentially an instrumental led by Basia Bartz and Anna Jenkins but it starts with a snippet of an archive recording of George ‘Pop’ Maynard. It’s not quite what Chumbawamba did on Readymades but it tips its hat in that direction.

Hazel Askew sings ‘Let Me In At The Door’, in fact a mysterious poem called ‘The Witch’ by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge. I can’t help but think that it’s an example of no good deed going unpunished but I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves. The song is enhanced by a moody, unsettling accompaniment which continues via Jo Silverston’s cello into ‘Cross Fell’. ‘On Humber Bank’ comes from a broadside ballad. Sung by Laura Ward, its accompaniment seems to reflect the sound of a heavy engine although that may be anachronistic. Jinnwoo sings another broadside, ‘How Stands The Glass Around’, which has an interesting history beyond the scope of this review and Bella Hardy takes the lead on ‘The Island’ from a poem by Dorothy Wordsworth. I’m sorry but I’m afraid that you must look this one up, too – it’s rather too metaphysical for me to explain. Then we return to Blake in the company of Kitty Macfarlane for ‘Nurses’ Songs’ before Echo closes with a final instrumental, ‘Eostre’ for which Ben is joined by Katherine Price’s oboe and Laura Ward’s flute.

The recording is immaculate, as you expect, with Ben mixing field recordings with his music to produce haunting, atmospheric tracks. There is more to Echo than that, though. The songs and poetry are deeply thought-provoking and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a good deal of time reading about them.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Rings’ – official video:

HICKORY SIGNALS – Turn To Fray (GF*M GFM10)

Turn To FrayIn a week in which we lost two great stalwarts of the folk scene it’s comforting to hear a young duo making such fine music as this. Hickory Signals are husband and wife duo Adam Ronchetti and Laura Ward from Brighton, assisted by Tom Pryor, who produced Turn To Fray, Scott Smith, Phil Ward, Deborah Stacey and Amy Squirrell.

Following two EPs, this is Hickory Signals’ debut full length recording. It’s an extraordinarily powerful work, sometimes painful, sometimes rather surreal and always absorbing but which, despite its depth, flashes by before you have really got to grips with it. It opens with an original song, ‘Rosemary’, based on the words of poet Rosemary Tonks. Actually most of the material is original but they follow on with the traditional ‘Who Put The Blood’, the familiar tale of fratricide. ‘Rosemary’ is the story of “a grieving widow’s only child” and, even though it’s not made explicit, you know that the interrogator of the murdering son is his mother. With Ward taking all the lead vocals Turn To Fray has a very feminine, not to say feminist, viewpoint.

‘Kana’ is about a Kurdish refugee and it’s a very angry song – “you’ve shown no light” is the concluding line but whether it is addressed to the people who destroyed Kana’s home or those who “welcomed” him to Britain is hard to say. ‘Two Girls’ is the oddly surreal story of a chance meeting on the road; not ‘Outlandish Knight’ but definitely outlandish and quite spooky as Ward’s flute weaves ‘The Cutty Wren’ through the song.

Frankie Armstrong’s ‘Doors To My Mind’ is a song whose time has come again and I’m convinced that I’ve heard someone else singing it recently. Originally recorded by Frankie in 1973, during what might be considered the first wave of feminism, we are every day being reminded that some attitudes haven’t changed much. Laura sings it simply and unaccompanied but it remains a rallying cry. There’s a setting of a verse by James Joyce, a song about Zelda Fitzgerald and the record closes with ‘Through Bushes And Through Briars’. Have you ever thought about the words of this song, particularly the third verse? You should.

Adam’s contributions, apart from his songwriting, include guitars, banjo, drums and shruti and the band’s guests include piano, slide guitar, violin, bass and cello. There’s a huge range of sounds from simple acoustic guitar to an almost orchestral band sound – sometimes within a single song – and that’s a part of what makes Turn To Fray so good.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Two Girls’ – official video: