A transatlantic quartet comprising Orkney-born fiddler Louise Bichan and Americans Ethan Setiawan on mandolin, cellist and banjo player Casey Murray and frontman guitarist Ethan Hawkins who formed while studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, they draw on traditional Irish, Scottish, Appalachian and bluegrass influences. How Beautiful It’s Been is their full length debut and comprises five songs and four instrumentals getting underway with the former, a swirl of fiddle introducing the mandolin coloured ‘Momma’, the lyrics (apparently inspired by Hawkins’ father threatening to commit suicide) finding the narrator is in bad way,
(“Momma forgive me but I’ve lost my hair/I let it get away over the past five years/They’ve been stressing me out over here…Dad’s been fooling with me/He’s been locked in his house/He’s got two pet snakes/He’s got two of them/He’s trying to cast his spell on me”). The first thing you note about Hawkins’ voice is that he sounds a lot like Paul Simon, a comparison all the more striking on musically whimsical, fiddle-waltzing, shuffling strummed bluegrass-tinged break-up number ‘South Of The City’ (“Well I’m sorry my pumpkin/But we ain’t good for nothing/And you ain’t into lovin’/What a foolish ideal”).
The first instrumental is ‘Mag’s 21st’, a scratchy pizzicato fiddle tune that dates back to their formative years, the others being the second Bichan-penned near six-minute guitar, Celtic-infused cello and fiddle number ‘Two Rights Make A Chicken’ (apparently about buying two halves at a farmer’s market hoping they make up a whole bird) that opens up into an improvised jig in the final stretch, followed by Setiawan’s fluttering ‘Mayfly’ (the inspiration fairly obvious) the last being the final track, Murray’s spare banjo and fiddle arranged ‘Wilbur’s First Trip’ a tribute to the harrowing journey taken by her spider plant from Boston to Oberlin in Ohio.
Returning to the songs, the jazz-tinged, dreamy ‘Angel Falls’, titled after the town in her native New England, is a particular standout, the result of a conversation between Hawkins and Murray about her experiences with religion growing up queer (“Raised to think them less than human”) as he sings “I am human/I have choices/To love who I want to love”.
The human heart is also the subject of the reflective, fiddle-hued ballad ‘Young Brother’, described by Hawkins as “about unconditional love and clinging to the moments that were most heart-warming at the time”, the Simonesque vocal readily apparent again as he sings “We hit our stride across the hallway/Corner house second floor/And we drove ‘cross the country well why not lovely/When all we do is walk out the door” and “we’re still friends young brother/Love you until the end”.
Opening with fluttering harp courtesy of Maeve Gilchrist, the remaining number, ‘Rollin’ Home’, is a cover, a bluegrass-inspired road song (“driving to the radio/And dancing with the rabbits”) written by Hawkins’ songwriting mentor Nathan Moore.
The album title might be about looking back, but on the evidence of How Beautiful It’s Been there’s a lot more beautiful music to come.
Artists’ website: www.cornerhouseband.com
‘Mag’s 21st’ – live: