ALISTAIR BROWN – When Fishes Fly (Prospect Records PC005)

When Fishes FlyWhen, in the post-Brexit dystopia, you can no longer afford a trip to your local folk club When Fishes Fly is one of the records you can play and remember how things were. Alistair Brown is a veteran Scottish singer and concertina player (now living in Cornwall) and he’s supported by Peter Wray on guitar and cittern and George Chippendale on fiddle and guitar. This is a veteran set as well, in the sense that a mixture of traditional songs and covers such as this is what we’ve been singing since the 60s.

Alistair begins with three traditional songs. The first is ‘Rue’, a relative of ‘Oh No Not I’ and tells of the use of the herb as an abortifacient often with fatal results for the mother. ‘The Glasgow Barber’ is an almost comic song concerning an immigrant from County Mayo who doesn’t like the hairstyle imposed on him by the titular hairdresser and ‘Braw Sailing On The Sea’ is a classic bothy ballad, much recorded in recent years.

Next come two real comic songs. ‘The Ballad Of Lidl And Aldi’ is written by Mickey McConnell and if you haven’t yet heard it see if you can guess the chorus before you do. ‘The Glens’ is something of a favourite of mine, loaded with punning rhymes, on the subject of whisky. Alistair moves then to ‘Shining Down On Sennen’ by Mike O’Connor which is a sort of cousin to Steve Knightley’s ‘Cousin Jack’ and a lovely song but then switches back to two more humorous songs which, I feel, overload the album a little  His version of ‘Get Up And Bar The Door’ is different as is ‘The Working Chap’, sometimes known as ‘Work Life Out To Keep Life In’ and songs by Dave Evardson, Gordon Bok and Karine Polwart do much to balance to humour.

Yes, When Fishes Fly is a good old-fashioned folk-club set and none the worse for that.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.alistairbrown.com

‘The Lass Of Patie’s Mill’ – live:

BALDRICK’S PLAN – Counting The Tides (Grandplan Records GPR1902)

Counting The TidesThough Baldrick’s Plan is a well-known name around my part of Cornwall, until recently my acquaintance with them was restricted to hearing isolated tracks on local radio. However, when I saw the list of tracks and songwriters, I was pretty sure I was going to have to buy and perhaps review their latest CD Counting The Tides. Well, I’ve heard it, I like it a lot, and here’s the review.

The CD consists mostly of the beautifully-harmonizing voices of Jinks Jenkin, Steve Lavington, and Peter Wray, though Peter also plays guitar on a very few tracks. This gives a very traditional feel to songs that are for the most part contemporary, though even with more modern ‘singer-songwriter’ arrangements, none of these songs would sound out of place in any but the most diehard traditional folk sessions. And while younger readers (and my wife!) may consider this approach rather old-school, there are no grounds for complaint when the harmonies and counterpoints are as good as this. Are there really only three members of the group???

Here’s the track listing.

  1. The haunting ‘The Scarecrow’ is taken from the ground-breaking and sadly neglected Bright Phoebus Largely the product of Lal Waterson’s extraordinary imagination, with a final verse from Mike Waterson that ties the themes together with notes of ritual and sacrifice, it’s a song that expresses a modern(-ish) take on a very old tradition. This is a very different version from the Bright Phoebus version, with close harmonies replacing Mike’s distinctive vocals and the guitars of Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson. While this interpretation misses some on some of the subtle modality of the original arrangement, it’s an extraordinary song and beautifully harmonized.
  2. G. K. Chesterton’s poem of overindulgence ‘The Rolling English Road’ was first published in New Witness as ‘A Song Of Temperance Reform’, but as its subsequent inclusion in the novel The Flying Inn suggests, there’s considerably more to the lyric than an anti-alcohol rant.
  3. Jess Arrowsmith’s ‘All The Salt’ is described as a “humanist hymn, secular prayer or areligious spiritual“: not unlike Chris Wood’s Come Down, Jehovah, perhaps, but to me has a more positive feel.
  4. ‘Cape Farewell’ is a song by Linda Kelly, of the Yorkshire-based duo Hissyfit. It’s a typically evocative song about the hardships of fishing off Greenland, with a fine tune and harmonies to match.
  5. ‘The Green Man’ comes from the pen of John Thompson, half of the Australian band Cloudstreet. This fascinating and mysterious figure is well-represented with a tune reminiscent of traditional songs of seasonal ritual, supported by some artful counterpoint.
  6. It’s curious how many of us dislike whaling but are fascinated by whaling songs. Canadian singer/songwriter James Gordon’s song ‘Frobisher Bay’, about the hardships of whaling in the Canadian Arctic, is a classic example. The track benefits from some carefully understated guitar from Peter Wray.
  7. ‘Privateering’ is the first of two songs from Mark Knopfler’s album of the same name from 2012. I’m reminded of John Jerome Rooney’s ‘The Men Behind The Guns’, as set to a similarly stirring tune by Phil Ochs, but in this instance the song pays sly tribute to seamen fighting under letters of marque whose activities were often closer to piracy than to ‘legitimate’ warfare. It’s extraordinary how well Knopfler’s folk/rock hybrid songs are translated to unaccompanied polyphony.
  8. ‘Song Of The Lower Classes’ was written by Ernest Jones, a barrister, writer, and Chartist, for the magazine Notes To The People that he founded after serving two years in prison for “seditious behaviour and unlawful assembly“. The bitter lyric – “We are so low – our place we know / ’T is down at the landlord’s feet / We ’re not too low the grain to grow / But too low the bread to eat” remains all too relevant today, to the point where the additional verse by Ian Robb seems almost too optimistic. This acapella version invites comparison with the version recorded (to another tune) by Martin Carthy et al. In fact, I find this more straightforward arrangement more effective, but your mileage may vary. Either way, it’s a very powerful song.
  9. ‘Counting The Tides’ was written by Baldrick’s Plan member Peter Wray: it’s an attractive tribute to those left behind by those who must work away from home.
  10. ‘Haul Away’ is the other song from Mark Knopfler’s Privateering. It sounds like a classic harmonized forebitter (a sea-song intended for entertainment rather than as a shanty/worksong), but it reflects a belief that the luck of a becalmed ship might be changed by putting a scapegoated sailor overboard, or persuading him to jump.
  11. Roger Bryant’s ‘Hard Rock Miner’ is a harsh reminder of Cornwall’s tin-mining history. An extraordinarily powerful song, effectively performed.
  12. ‘Queen Of Waters’ is Nancy Kerr’s “farewell to the Kennet and Avon Canal“. A fascinating lyric and a super tune.
  13. ‘Pull Down, Lads’, by John Tams, recorded by Muckram Wakes so long ago that it’s practically a folk song, reflects on the departure of workers at a travelling fairground.
  14. ‘Home, Lads, Home’ is a setting by the late Sarah Morgan of a poem by Cicely Fox-Smith, first published as ‘Homeward’ in Fighting Men in 1916.

This is a fine album, with a choice of material that bridges the gap between traditional and contemporary with songs that fit with absolute, appropriate ease into the context of (mostly) unaccompanied three-part harmonization. I haven’t seen Baldrick’s Plan live yet, but on the strength of this CD, I’m very much looking forward to seeing them in the near future.

David Harley

Artists’ website: www.baldricksplan.co.uk

‘Cold Coast Of Iceland’ – live: