It may be just a coincidence that Frankie Armstrong celebrates her 80th birthday with this new album but I don’t believe in coincidences. The friends supporting Frankie on Cats Of Coven Lawn are guitarists Martin Simpson, Adam Ronchetti and Tom Pryor (who also plays violin and engineered the project); flautists Laura Bradshaw and Laura Ward; Pauline Down on percussion and pianist Flowers Tannenbaum but it’s Frankie’s voice that is front and centre. So what’s it about? Pretty much everything, really. It’s a bit political, it’s a bit feminist; it’s about inequality, it’s about standing up for what’s right, it’s traditional and contemporary. In short, it’s about life and, in one or two instances, death.
Frankie begins with ‘Bread And Roses’. These days it is usually sung sweetly as a polite request but with Frankie and her friends it is once again more of a demand. The title track comes from a broadside which had a tragic ending but Ben Webb’s adaptation doesn’t see any feline harmed and Frankie’s meow chorus is suitably kitch. ‘Something Sings’ is a delight – a tribute to music and singing with a little sting in the tail.
Back in the day, Frankie was noted for her festival voice workshops, the beginnings of the natural voice movement. Many singers benefited from her advice and it isn’t too unkind to suggest that one or two young singers could benefit these days. As an illustration of the effectiveness of the technique, Frankie delivers a powerful take on ‘Lizzie Wan’. ‘Four Seasons’ is the first of two songs reworked from the Tam Lin album, recorded almost forty years ago. The second is ‘Earth, Air, Fire And Water’ and both were written by Frankie and Brian Pearson. Tom Pryor sings the male part. To confuse and delight you further, Frankie follows that with a short set of ‘Yoiks’.
‘Where I Live On The Map’ is a clever and pointed song that highlights the difference in attitudes to a clean water supply in the affluent west and rain-starved Africa where it is the women and children who suffer. It’s not all doom and gloom as Ben Webb’s darkly humorous ‘Marcy’s Guesthouse’ proves but don’t get too comfortable – ‘Story Of Strength’ recounts the story of Malala Yousafzai and ‘Encouragement’ reinforces the underlying message. The closing ‘A Life Lived Well’ is a reminiscence written by a retired NHS worker. It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad and Lindsey Williams expresses her gratitude for having lived her life.
Cats Of Coven Lawn isn’t smooth and sophisticated but you wouldn’t expect that from Frankie Armstrong. It is heartfelt and passionate which is what you would hope for and every play reveals new delights.
Artist’s website: http://frankiearmstrong.com/
‘A Life Lived Well’ – live: